How Our Villains Have Changed — The Subtle Charms of Nihilism

Abhishek Paul
3 min readApr 25, 2019

Have you noticed how the villains have changed in our movies? Having grown up with over the top bad guys from Sean Connery’s/Roger Moore’s James Bond movies — where they all seemed to have unusual weapons, long speeches (rather than kill the hero), pretty women and a simple aim of taking over the world. They were part businessman, part henchman and part comedian. You could laugh at them but they didn’t intrigue you.

Enter the Joker in the Dark Knight. He brought a completely different take on what it means to be a big screen baddie. These 2 quotes are a sample of what drives him and more interestingly, his own awareness (he’s at peace with his ultimately self destructive value system), “See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.” and “Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just… *do* things.

Maybe Michael Cain (as Alfred) captures his motivation better, “…some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

This is a completely new breed of villains. Money, power, sex is all incidental to them — their goal is to create chaos and deeper still to show that everyone else is also as bad as them. Don’t take my word for it, the Joker puts it much more eloquently and forcefully, “Their morals, their code; it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. You’ll see- I’ll show you. When the chips are down these, uh, civilized people? They’ll eat each other.”

I thought this was just a hollywood thing, but was pleasantly(?) surprised to see something similar in a couple of recent Tamil movies. Maybe it’s the philosopher inside me who picked it, but Nana Patekar’s character in Kaala, clearly lays out his justification at the end, he says, “I know I’m going to die, that my body is going to dust and that whatever I have will be left behind, but I still want it all now and I will do whatever is necessary to get it!” I’m paraphrasing, but here is a villain with a clear existential point of view, he’s not with any doubt about what his (or that of his achievements) ultimately destiny is. Closely came another movie “Chekka Chivantha Vanam” by Mani Ratnam, where Arvind Swamy’s dialogue gives a slightly different but similarly nihilistic view of life. When his own life is threatened, he responds by stating that everyone’s life ultimately amounts to nothing but a big zero with no significance. This is true of generations past as well as the generations to come.

This evolution in the drives of today’s villains is possibly a reflection of how our culture has changed. Whatever the reason, it is equal parts refreshing and scary — that’s how I like my villains!