#LearnTheMovies: What makes a great antagonist? 

Adam here, if you’re an avid reader of my articles you’ll know I have very little time for a poorly written movieOr lazy character development. Which is why I dole out serious arse-licking praise to films that can unravel a character with aplomb and create amazing and believable experiences through the medium of storytelling.

Getting nice and meta lately in my reading; I’ve realized that often, the best-made characters come from details so well thought out, subtle and internalized into the screenplay that it shines at a level beyond the acting. It raises a bit of a meta-critical question of, ‘what is it that makes this film so good? How come they didn’t screw it up and other films with the same premise do?‘. I’m not saying acting doesn’t have a part here, but let’s analyze where actors have to take their cue from. The writing.

So I did some research and poured through sections of “Story” by Robert McKee, and “The Anatomy of Story” by John Truby and learned about creating an antagonist.

Understanding what makes an antagonist good or bad can show you why overwritten antagonists like Zodd get boring and require a city to be leveled to create a challenge, and also why Frank Underwood can change an entire country with a typewriter (House of Cards Season 2 Spoiler, don’t moan, catch up). Both of them essentially make a pass to take over the world, but only one of them gives you a feeling of futility in the face of a terrifying opponent- Underwood.

Some key takeaways from my research can be summarized by saying: If you make a hero too powerful, it will become unrealistic to expect tension. Also, creating realistic challenges for a character of any scale is what makes a story move along. Challenges are best when they’re driven by an antagonist. So if those concepts can be married, in my mind, you have something compelling.

Keep that in your mind now and really think about this scene from the first Avengers. The more power you add to the group, the more over the top their capabilities are. So how do you create a challenge for a super group? Is it aliens? No, it’s them.

The ‘battle’ had behemoth alien motherships…that although it did define the genre at the time, got quite tired. BUT, when Loki was able to create doubt and turn the group against themselves we had a realistic challenge, and real tension that was compelling rather than fun in a HULK SMASH sense. Suddenly, it wasn’t a pissing contest on the battlefield like Man of Steel became.

Sure the team batin’ some aliens and servicing the fans makes for great screen time and brilliant visuals, but without that break in the action and deeper storytelling going on, you may as well be watching wrestling. It also creates more emotional investment for the audience when they come together to crack some alien skulls.

So lesson one is: An antagonist must be exceptionally good at attacking a hero’s greatest weakness. That’s a trait that can work at any scale in any movie. That’s how the mouse scares the elephant, that’s how an underdog wins. The Avengers, for all their power, are captained by people who don’t trust each other. Loki is able to manipulate them, their strength is useless. The easy win isn’t here for them because of this ability granted to the antagonist in a realistic way by the writers.

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According to McKee: ‘A protagonists’ story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them’. Leading me to my second point: An antagonist must be powerful. The more powerful, the harder the struggle for the hero, and the harder the struggle, the more compelling the story. So let us lend context to power in this case. The argument in the Avengers is more compelling because turning them against each other is the smarter option for Loki. These guys took down an alien army, but when pitted against themselves they were doomed. Loki not only recognizes this but, true to Norse Mythology as the master of pranks/manipulation, was powerful enough to get this done.

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In a movie with the Hulk and Thor, an intellectual tactic is what won the antagonist the upper hand and allowed the plot to progress. Compare that to Age of Ultron where the antagonist is a giant robot. Who robots way harder than the other robots can robot and you have a terrifyingly sloppy antagonist. How does Ultron attack a weakness? He literally attacks, out of anger and poorly written motivation. Which progressed the plot to a floating city.

Next time something isn’t sitting right with you in a film, ask yourself if the antagonist is doing those things, or if it’s being forced along. If you enjoyed this piece let us know over @ReelTimeFlicks and we’ll work on some more analysis of a film’s component parts. It’s a lot of fun!

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