Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight.
Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight. Warner Bros.
We know the trouble with the good guy: He's always so, well — good. It's boring. It's the bad guy we want to figure out. NPR film critic Bob Mondello says he knows the dark secrets of good movie villains and why we love them.
"If you think about this the same way Shakespeare did," Mondello tells All Things Considered host Guy Raz, "a villain is someone who's just like the hero.
"He has all kinds of reasons for what he believes — and they're good reasons. They're good to him; they may not be good to the rest of society," Mondello says. "Therefore, he becomes kind of empathetic — you actually care about him."
Despite his ruthlessness, Heath Ledger's Joker struck a sympathetic chord with the audience. "Why so serious?" he asks, referencing the drunken, abusive father that gave the Joker his sliced-up smile.
"See how you were feeling sorry for him as he was telling that story?" Mondello asks. "That's the point: The villain needs to have a real reason for what he's doing."
Ledger's Joker also characterized a darker trend in movie villains this decade. "Look back at Jack Nicholson playing the Joker from a previous decade," says Mondello. "Jack Nicholson was a cartoon character, and Heath Ledger is not. Heath Ledger is much more real."
Sometimes even more chilling are the real-life villains. Charlize Theron played the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the 2003 film Monster. "I'm not a bad person," she says. "I'm a real good person. Right?"
The genius of Theron's character is the actor's transformation into someone ugly both inside and out, Mondello says. Yet she still creates a character you care about deeply. "She's a fascinating, fascinating villain."
Then there are the bad guys, who we don't understand at all — cold-blooded killers who never lose their cool and have no moral compass. "You can't figure out what they're thinking, so the empathy isn't flowing naturally," Mondello says.
"It takes a really neat actor to pull those off well," he adds. Like Tom Cruise's contract killer in Collateral.
"Villains also are wonderfully articulate," Mondello says. In movies, at least, they're usually some kind of brilliant — and there's just something irresistible about twisted genius. "You try to figure out why," Mondello says. "Why is he doing this?"