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A Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy

‘Star Wars’ has what so many other franchises lack: a deep, dark, dependable bench of very bad men. Here are the five best non-Vader villains.

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

Welcome to Rogue One Week! With the release of Rogue One, set in the years before A New Hope, we finally get our first stand-alone Star Wars movie. This week we’ll be analyzing the greater Star Wars universe from every conceivable angle — the storytelling, the merchandising, the mythology, and the fandom. May the Force be with you (while you read).

Good guys are cool and noble and possessed of great moral clarity, and, aside from very extreme cases — like caper films or any slasher movie in which eventual victims pass up running cars and loaded guns and safe or well-lit areas for dank crawl spaces or shark-infested waters — oftentimes, they deserve to win. But let’s be honest: The villains are far and away the most interesting thing about any and all movies that revolve around reductive and neatly packaged representations of “good” and “evil.” They wear the flyest clothes, they say the coolest lines, and they have the most immediately recognizable entrance music. Quoth the Raven, “A hero flick is only as good as its villain.”

The villain has to be somewhat pantomime-y, but not too corny. They should be memorable, but not so sympathetic that they spark misaimed fandom (like mine), or audible awwwwwws from the crowd when they eventually get dismembered or vaporized or jettisoned out of an airlock into deep space or whatever. They should also be a little complex, and their motivations should probably delve a length or two past “Rule the world, and if not, destroy it.” Almost nobody does this well anymore, except for Star Wars.

Marvel is historically terrible about the villains that run amok in its cinematic universe. I mean, box-office-wise, it’s spinning a rag sitting atop the gold-plated tank at center court while most everyone else is in the stands looking on. The company has rounded out eight heroes and linked them together across 13 box-office smashes, with plans for plenty more stretching all the way to 2019. Marvel’s great at heroes. But aside from Loki — with his own delusions about divine right, coming from a place of deep-seated insecurity over never having known his real parents — every Marvel villain has been bad, stupid, flat, or otherwise forgettable. Their stories are ill-conceived; their actors are buried beneath makeup and CGI. Remember Mickey Rourke’s dominatrix gear, convenient backstory, and hinky Russian accent? Did you even know that both Lee Pace and Josh Brolin were in Guardians of the Galaxy? DC is even worse, and, post–Tom “… Do you feel in charge?” Hardy, has settled for “giant, species-threatening energy spire” as the big malefactor in just about every movie since The Dark Knight Rises.

Star Wars, on the other hand, has never had a villain problem. Why? Because it had Darth Vader choking people with his mind from 15 floors up and promising not to damage Han Solo … “permanently.” And after Vader carried the franchise through the original trilogy of movies, the franchise launched an entirely new trilogy about his origin story. And once that had run its course, J.J. Abrams was like, OK, so, what if we made Darth Vader younger … and super into Hawthorne Heights?

(Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
(Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Give him a broadsword lightsaber and a perfervid, cultish need to fill his dead grandfather’s massive, black, leather riding boots, cast the dude from Girls, and voilà! You’ve got a brand-new, properly angsty Darth Vader named Kylo Ren that’s perfect for 2016.

The point is: Star Wars has so many villains. So many villains, Star Wars has, that choosing five of them above all the others — excluding Darth Vader entirely that is, since everyone already knows he’s the GOAT, as well as his emo grandson Kylo — is both foolhardy and irresponsible. But I’ll power through it.

For simplicity’s sake, we’ll judge these villains on two metrics: how compelling their origin stories are and how interesting they are. We’ll score each on a scale of 1 to 5. Obviously, scoring a 1 on either scale is bad, and scoring 1 on both is god-awful. To put this in perspective, were I grading Jar Jar Binks as a character for whatever reason, he would receive a 1 on both his origin story and his interest, but only because minus-1,000,000 isn’t an option. There is no actual basis for the manner in which these numbers are ascribed, so don’t think about it too hard. This is to say, no scientific method will follow; plenty of spurious posturing will.

1. Darth Maul

Darth Maul, with his face tats and dual-blade lightsaber, was the biggest hook in the promos leading up to The Phantom Menace, and then he was in the movie for 17 whole minutes and said about 20 words total before being cleaved in half and tossed down a ventilation shaft. But he did more with what little screen time he had than everyone else, and had the absolute coldest entrance of any other character in Star Wars — possibly the coldest entrance of any character in any movie, ever.

Origin Story: ???

Interest: 5

WHY DOESN’T EVERYONE HAVE A DUAL-BLADE LIGHTSABER?

2. Boba Fett

Boba Fett was the original nihilistic, cold-blooded mercenary-slash-bounty-hunter from whence all others came. He was in Return of the Jedi for all of 10 minutes and went out like a punk (Read: fell down the Sarlacc’s gullet to be slowly digested over 1,000 years, allegedly). Like, for real, how can you see well enough to shoot the sand flies off of a bantha’s back with a Kamino saberdart at 600 yards and not be able to notice Han Solo and a 9-foot-12 bear-person standing right behind you?

But George Lucas did right by Boba and gave his character some depth in Attack of the Clones. We were introduced to his father, Jango, whom Boba watched best Obi-Wan Kenobi and shoot a rampaging dinosaur-rhino between the eyes, before watching him get decapitated by Samuel L. Jackson.

(20th Century Fox)
(20th Century Fox)

Origin Story: 3

As defining elements of tragedy go, there have been less-heartbreaking ones.

Interest: 2.5

He should get a 1 for a dumb, swift, natural-selection death but I still want that worn-in Mandalorian armor.

3. Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus

Dooku is wrinkly old Jedi turned bureaucrat turned Sith Lord turned separatist-leader. His backstory is longer and more complicated than most, but in the simplest terms: He didn’t like the way the Republic was running things, so he quit the Jedi Order to start his own grassroots movement with Darth Sidious, who eventually turned on him. He was also once Master Yoda’s apprentice and frequently bites his lines (“I sense much fear in you”), like Jay did Biggie.

Think Joe Walsh. But with the ability to shoot lightning out of his hands.

(20th Century Fox)
(20th Century Fox)

Origin Story: 4

Interest: 2.5

More like Count Dookie, amirite? (I am so sorry.)

4. Cartoon General Grievous

Back in 2003, there was this series of animated shorts set in the post–Attack of the Clones Star Wars universe called Star Wars: Clone Wars, created by Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack). In it, there was a character named General Grievous who could use as many as four lightsabers — four! — at the same damn time.

He was a humanoid robot with massive talons, dead-yellow eyes, the menacing posture of a gargoyle, a face like a shovel trowel, and a breakdance-y fighting style that his master, Count Dooku, refers to simply as “the unorthodox.” I actually docked Dooku points for this, because how the hell do you miss the opportunity to label this EDDY GORDO STYLE?

(Disney-ABC Domestic Television)
(Disney-ABC Domestic Television)

Grievous was a cunning strategist who relied mainly on the elements of surprise and intimidation. He couldn’t use the Force, but what he could do was wield lightsabers with his feet, which your fave could never.

At least, he could and did do all those things before he stepped to Mace Windu and got his whole chest cavity caved in while fake-kidnapping Chancellor Palpatine.

(Disney-ABC Domestic Television)
(Disney-ABC Domestic Television)

There was a General Grievous in Revenge of the Sith. But this was a lesser, emphysemic General Grievous who was killed by Obi-Wan Kenobi, and we don’t talk about him. The only General Grievous we recognize is Cartoon General Grievous.

Origin Story: 1.5

Interest: 5

Though honestly, he deserves a 6.

5. Darth Sidious

Originally a cheesing politician from Naboo, “Senator Palpatine” finessed himself all the way to “Undisputed Ruler of the Galaxy, Emperor Palpatine,” and treated the most powerful Force-wielders in the universe like Pokémon cards, bending them to his will and discarding them when he’d grown tired of them or wrung out their last drop of usefulness. He is a figurative black hole of fear-mongering, power-grabbing carelessness.

He also created Darth Vader — as well as every other Sith Lord — and zapped Mace Windu into oblivion in a scene that, the further we get away from it, seems funnier and funnier.

“POWERRRRR … UNLIMITED POWERRRRRRR!”

(20th Century Fox)
(20th Century Fox)

Origin Story: 4.5

Interest: 4