A good story must have conflict and one way to drive that dramatic tension is having an antagonist play “the villain.” My personal favorites run the gamut from Nurse Ratched to Chernabog to Hannibal Lecter to Brazil’s Information Retrieval. But the true villain in most stories is … time.
It takes time to properly introduce, develop, and unfold the nuances of character, motivation, and consequence for a villain to take hold within a story. Consider Joss Whedon’s Firefly series in which, over its scant 15 episodes, it builds a terrifying reputation and palpable fear of Reavers, a band of cannibalistic pirates famous for disfiguring themselves, yet outside of the ending of one episode, we never see them! It’s not until the cast returns in the movie, Serenity, that Reavers make their dramatic and horrifying screen debut with phenomenal effect. That’s a lot of screen time to wait to finally meet these atrocious villains that have otherwise lived only in the show’s darkest intimations. (Note: “villain” is way too polite a term to describe them). Similarly, when many of us first met Darth Vader in Star Wars (now known to others as Episode IV: A New Hope), we immediately wanted to know more about this imposing and immediately infamous villain. It took 2 more movies to learn of his fate, and another 3 films to understand his origin story. It is certainly debatable how well his backstory was actually delivered on screen, but his status as Uber Super Villain demanded that amount of character development over so many film titles to fully complete his villainous story arc. The same can be said for one of our oldest and well-known villains, Lucifer, and the extent that we encounter him and his minions repeatedly throughout the Bible, folktales, and more modern interpretations such as The Omen series, Constantine, and Stephen King’s The Stand.
For some popular canons, simply identifying the villain followed shortly thereafter by revealing their master plan follows a familiar format of enjoying the twists and turns that result in the hero’s ultimate victory. We never get to know the villain beyond this thin caricature – with apologies to Dr. Evil’s famous backstory monologue … shorn to be sure! Most villains are memorable for their visual appearance, fanciful flair, or scale of depravity … not for their depth of character, or worse, how we might actually begin to identify with them. One of the greatest culprits of this thin villainous ilk were the James Bond movies. It’s not until Daniel Craig took over the reigns as 007 that the reboot of Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s SPECTRE spanned several films to give us the pangs of the enemy we knew and loved from the past only to be reborn with contemporary conspiracy and contempt. Perhaps the most successful “one note” villain was Hans Gruber in the first Die Hard who’s thinly veiled sympatico for other revolutionaries that he had read about in Time magazine belied simple greed to propel the movie to its memorable heights (and drops). But, alas, for every Yippie Ki Yay, there are hundreds of paper pariahs that just take us through the motions of being the bad guy doing bad things (i.e. any Charles Bronson movie) and mislead us on the false high of the hero riding off into the sunset instead of forcing us to wrestle with the existential threat of becoming that what we would normally despise or loathe (e.g. Walter White in Breaking Bad).
Time is the great equalizer. It creates space for us to understand, appreciate, and react to villains beyond the mere fear of violence or harm. Think of Regina George from Mean Girls, so convincing and familiar as the A-list clique queen/High School Villainess, because even though we don’t learn much about her throughout the movie beyond what’s necessary to move the plot along, we all know someone from our own exaggerated school yard recollections that her character viscerally rekindles and ignites our own painful teenage pasts. Her villainy is powered by our own memories from years ago yet brought to bear with immediate effect.
So, for me, time is the greatest villain of all, as it grants us the ones we truly cherish and remember, while hindering all the others who tried to be worthy and failed.