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Any story where you have good guys versus bad guys can only be as smart as the intelligence of your baddest guy.

Let's face it: A big part of why Evil Is Cool is because the villain is the plot of the story (it's about Conflict, after all). Without them, we have a Cowboy Cop and his Plucky Comic Relief Sidekick running the beat and quietly hating each other since they never had that heart-warming bonding session over gunfire. The great hero settles down in his un-Doomed Hometown, having never picked up the sword. Stories about contented people with happy, secure lives are just not very interesting. This is why villains act, and heroes react in fiction.

The villain is the conflict; ergo, the intelligence of the villain directly corresponds to how unique/interesting/smart that conflict is. To use the page quote's example, the Die Hard series features smarter and smarter crooks with each installment in order to make the plot more interesting.

Part of the reason why stories with a Strawman Political villain are so awful is that the author has to make them stupid. Also why a competently done Gambit Pileup tale can be very interesting, even when not all the players are villains. A poorly done one, on the other hand...

Extremely common in series that involve Black and White Morality. Especially common in a Villain Protagonist story, where the villain is the main focus of the story. Stories that rely on this trope often have a Villain Opening Scene.

See also Evil Plan for the titular plot and see Magnificent Bastard and Diabolical Mastermind for the ones likely to concoct it. All of which invoke this trope. Also, The Chessmaster, because Smart People Play Chess.

Examples of The Villain Makes the Plot include:


Anime and Manga

  • In Death Note, both the protagonist and the antagonist are geniuses. Xanatos Speed Chess ensues. This is rather successful, in part because the protagonist is a Well-Intentioned Extremist and the audience is given opportunities to sympathize with both sides. Word of God has it that L, who stands in opposition to the main character and can be considered the antagonist, is the smartest character in-story, because the plot requires it. Near and Mello, L's successors, when together, can surpass L and Light, as shown when Near takes advantage of the opportunity Mello created to ensure his victory.
  • Code Geass - Lead characters Lelouch and Schneizel are bona fide strategic geniuses. Lelouch is actually a rare subversion.[1]
  • Naoki Urasawa's villains are usually very smart, and generally the smartest person in that work.
    • Then again, Monster possesses a plethora of interesting characters beyond just Johan. You get Tenma, Nina, Grimmer, Lunge, Eva, Roberto...the list goes on and on.
  • Most of the Gundam series have had a Big Bad with an incredibly complex plan be behind whichever war the heroes are currently involved in. Notable examples include Magnificent Bastard Treize Khushranada, who essentially conned the heroes and won, Omnicidal Maniac Rau Le Creuset who manipulated more or less every politician in the series into trying to set off the apocalypse, Chairman Durandal, a Dark Messiah who screws with everyone's heads in order to Take Over the World, and Ribbons Almark who does take over the world. In most cases, not only a military, but a coherent political and social response is needed to stop the Big Bad's plan from succeeding (or at least persuade his henchmen to Heel Face Turn), and each series continues to try to outdo the previous one's in the scale of the villain's success, and the length of time it takes the heroes to figure out just what he or she is after.
  • If it weren't for Aizen's use of the Hogyoku, Bleach would never happen. Aizen actually lampshades this, stating that Ichigo would have no reason to fight him if it wasn't for him messing with Ichigo.
  • In most Shonen fighting series, the main villains are usually portrayed as being far more intelligent than the heroes. Not that this is hard, since those series often star an Idiot Hero.
  • In Pokémon, Cilan, being cast as a villain for a movie, explains this trope to Iris as to why he doesn't mind the role. Once the camera is rolling, he hams it up more than he does normally.
  • There would be no Puella Magi Madoka Magica without Kyuubey. It creates the villains, the heroes, and according to it; even our culture.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist as we know it does not EXIST without Homunculus Father, responsible for reaping the live souls of an entire country, then creating another one just so he can have a chance to do the same on a larger scale, because the power of the resulting Philosopher's Stone will allow him to contain God. It's because of him that Slave Number 23 became Van Hohenheim, host to an immortal body he never asked for and father of Edward and Alphonse Elric.


Comicbooks


Films -- Live-Action

  • Die Hard series added this trope into the action movie genre. Each film tries to up the ante by supplying a more ingenious villain with a more complicated Evil Plan.
    • In the first film, Hans Gruber is a sly and sophisticated crook with a very clever plan, to the point that hostages are surprised to learn that he's "just a thief." The benefits of a classical education.
    • The plan in Die Hard With A Vengeance was so good, the FBI questioned the writer as to how he got the information involved in the scheme, because they were worried it would actually work.
  • One of the reasons The Dark Knight Saga was so widely hailed as brilliant is that the Joker feels smart; his plans are very much plausible, if relying a bit too much on luck (though that also fits the character). Arguably, the whole reason that the Joker is so incredibly difficult to defeat is the unpredictability in his plans. If his plans relied on logic or concrete goals or desires they would be relatively decipherable. Instead his genuine desire of merely causing as much chaos as possible and driving everyone including Batman to be as insane as he is generates pure unpredictability, which is difficult to beat. Why? Because it's unpredictable. Hard to break a pattern when there is no pattern. Thus setting up his constant defeats to Batman, and verifying this law to the fullest.

    It's also possible that the reason the Joker is so effective against Batman is because Batman's main source of Awesomeness By Analysis is very dependent on there being a detectable form of logic to break and exploit.
    • The Joker may be terrifying, but his plans are anything but plausible. How exactly did he kill the police commisioner and the judge?
    • You forget, at that point in the movie the Joker had access to the mob's resources. The poison and car bomb were probably snuck in by cops on Maroni's payroll.
  • Se7en, Spacey's character is pretty wicked smart, and his Xanatos Gambit made him one of the more memorable cinema villains.
  • Actor Wesley Snipes role as drug Kingpin Nino Brown in New Jack City. Without his role, the film wouldn't have been nearly as interesting. And the only reason Nino Brown doesn't get the last laugh in the end, is because he's murdered by the one man he allowed to live - an old war veteran, he didn't take seriously.
  • Big aversion in Fargo, in which the criminals are dangerous precisely because they're incredibly dumb.
    • Not an aversion per se; you don't watch Fargo because it's a smart caper film, you watch it to be amused by ordinary people bumbling along.
  • Why do think James Bond has been chugging along for 40-plus years? He is constantly pitted against Diabolical Masterminds of the highest caliber (even if they have a few nasty habits). This trope is highlighted in Dr. No, the very first movie, with this little exchange:

 Dr No: "SPECTRE. Special Executive for Counter Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, Extortion. The four great cornerstones of power headed by the greatest brains in the world."

Bond: "Correction- criminal brains."

No: "The successful criminal brain is always superior. It has to be!"

  • Inglourious Basterds provides a subversion: The villain Hans Landa hijacks the heroes plan to assassinate Hitler, which is what makes it work.
    • Hitler and the other Nazis were killed by La Résistance, with the Basterds not doing much other than shooting them to death and blowing them up, which only stopped them being burned alive in a fiery inferno by a Jewish girl. If anything it was not Landa's treachery that got the Nazi leadership killed, but his sheer incompetence; not only was that girl the same one he let go years before after massacring her family (he thought it was funny), it was he who was in charge of security for that night and he never even suspected, let alone found out, that the owner of the cinema was that same girl, never mind a vengeful killer. And his plan to trust the Basterds in the first place backfired spectacularly, and predictably.
  • Darth Sidious of Star Wars. He is by far the most intelligent, and possibly the most powerful character throughout the films. Without him, there would be no Clone Wars, Darth Vader or evil Empire.
    • "I am the plot."
  • The Usual Suspects takes this to an extreme since the entire movie is basically a story told by the Big Bad to escape police custody.


Literature

  • Once Artemis Fowl became a good guy, it became necessary to introduce Opal Koboi. Before that, it was just fine for him to be the greatest genius on the face of the earth or under it. Although he remains the greatest genius in the series anyway.
  • Anything involving Hannibal Lecter immediately falls into this trope.
  • Not strictly a contextual example, but anyone who has read a novel by Charles Dickens can attest to the "good guys" being complete and utter bores. All the interest lies with the fascinating villains, who provide the drama that the heroes and heroines participate in.
  • In all the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Lord Foul is the reason there is a plot. In addition, his plans keep getting more sophisticated as the series goes on. He can't be beaten the same way twice since he learns from his mistakes.
  • Mitth'raw'nuruodo (AKA Grand Admiral Thrawn) from the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Any Magnificent Bastard running an Evil Plan usually lends this to a story.
  • Baron Vladimir Harkonnen and Emperor Shaddam IV Corrino from Dune. Also God Emperor Leto II of Dune -- "They will know my way for thousands of years."
  • This appears as a form of Sequel Escalation in the Posleen War Series. In the first two books the main commanders of the Posleen forces are of average or below average intelligence. In the next two books the Manipulative Bastard Tulo'Stenaloor becomes the new Big Bad and nearly streamrolls the humans with his brilliant tactics. In addition to his individual brilliance, Tulo'Stenaloor explicitly tries to recruit as many intelligent Posleen as possible to increase the pool of ideas he can draw from.
  • Far and away the most popular character in Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels is the Deaf Man, a Manipulative Bastard Diabolical Mastermind who only ever lost through sheer dumb luck. The late author once admitted that the reason he didn't write more stories for the character was that the Deaf Man was, in fact, smarter than he was, which made it difficult to come up with his plots.
  • The Seanchan are said to be this in The Wheel of Time series. At one point, one of the characters remarks to another that the reason the Seanchan army is called "The Ever-Victorious Army" is that the generals are trained specifically to be intelligent and learn from defeats- so while the army has lost battles, it has not yet lost a war.
  • Voldemort is responsible, at least indirectly, for the main plot of each Harry Potter book. Additionally, the whole premise of the series relies on a Death By Origin Story Backstory in which most of the events are caused by Voldemort. Without Voldemort, Harry would have grown up with his real parents and been just another wizarding kid.
    • Prisoner of Azkaban is a particularly interesting example. Voldemort not only fails to appear, but has no active role in the storyline (i.e. no one is taking orders from him or anything of that sort). Voldemort's spirit probably spent that year floating around in Albania, completely unaware that anything interesting was happening at Hogwarts. And yet he still causes the plot, albeit distantly and through actions he committed in the backstory.
  • The most definitive literary example is perhaps The Lord of the Rings, Sauron, who is powerful and influential enough to drive the plot despite appearing only ONCE in the story.
    • To be more specific, it's the presence and existence of the One Ring that moves the plot and allowed Sauron to still be a threat in the first place. If not for the One Ring surviving the Last Alliance, Sauron would have died an age ago. And before Tolkien wrote the LOTR, the Second Age DID end with Sauron's Defeat until Tolkien decided to write the Hobbit and the Third Age by merging it with his original work.
  • This is part of why Atlas Shrugged is a bit dull, with a heavily foreshadowed, predestined ending. Ayn Rand genuinely believed that her bad guys couldn't be too smart, because smart people would agree with her. Ergo, they never really seem like a threat to our heroes (only to the masses).


Live-Action TV

  • 24 also makes good use of this concept.
  • Babylon 5 features a number of very intelligent villains, such as Mr. Morden.
  • The Wire asserts the Truth in Television nature of this trope: "Stupid criminals make stupid cops." With one exception) all the truly smart villain characters who are killed or otherwise taken out -- Stringer Bell, Proposition Joe, Omar and Brother Mouzone -- meet their fates at the hands of other (and usually, dumber) criminals. The few very smart villains are more or less untouchable.
  • The Thick of It showed us that an Anti-Hero is also only as good as his enemies. In the first series spin doctor Malcolm Tucker only had to contend with hapless cabinet ministers and ineffectual civil servants. In series 2 he came perilously close to losing his job to a rival, and from then on the writers began to introduce more interesting conflicts. The Movie, In the Loop, saw him pitted him against genuinely powerful US politicians. Series 3 then gave him an Arch Enemy, rival spin doctor and Smug Snake Steve Fleming.
  • Flash Forward 2009: Not only are the bad guys very, very smart (having a scheme that revolves around advanced quantum physics will do that...), they also have the benefit of knowing quite a bit about the future, not only "the future that will happen," but about all sorts of possible futures that might happen if certain events go certain ways.
  • On Lost, Ben Linus was originally supposed to be a temporary character, but he was written so smart that he elevated the conflict with the Others to such a degree that he became the primary antagonist for a while.
  • Doctor Who: Because if we didn't have bad guys for the Doctor to constantly evade/kill/over-throw, its doubtful the show could have lasted fifty years.

 Seventh Doctor: You can always judge a man by the quality of his enemies.

  • Inverted in the original Mission Impossible series. The villains are usually passive known qualities; it's the ingenious plans of the heroes that make the show interesting.
  • During an interview with a fansite, Latham Gaines from Power Rangers Dino Thunder almost said this verbatim. Originally, his character Mesogog, was supposed to be more overstated and hammy (to counteract his creepy appearance.) However, Gaines pushed back and said that he should go in the other direction, and said, "Good drama needs good villains; it makes it more satisfying when they're defeated." Dino Thunder is one of the few Disney-era seasons of Rangers that's remembered fondly, so he might have been on to something.


Tabletop Games

  • Warhammer 40000. One of the top-level antagonists is the god of fate. Although it's kind of hard to tell whether he's winning, given that he's in many ways the Joker with tentacles.
  • Averted in Unknown Armies. While there are Manipulative Bastard Big Bads to spare, many of the street-level campaigns pit the player characters against losers, witless fools, or poor moronic average Joes. Eccentric and crazy PCs combined with a hostile universe can cover a lot of ills. In most universes the Knight Templar trying to bring about their perfect universe through less than savory means is the bad guy. In Unknown Armies, you are that guy.


Theater


Toys


Videogames

  • Heavily, heavily averted in the Fallout series. The Enclave has had access to the best pre-End of the World tech out there and the last reliable source of oil, and still hasn't managed much in the way of technological advancement even after 200 years. The Big Bad is always incompetent, crazy, or just plain stupid, to the point where a sufficiently intelligent or charismatic Vault Dweller can actually cause the Big Bads of Fallout and Fallout 3 to give up their evil plans simply by pointing out the flaws. Several lesser enemies face the same fate.
    • The Dragons of the Fallout Series are SOMETIMES more dangerous, but they're usually not exactly the brighest eggs in the bunch either. Though at least they usually have to be actually FOUGHT, though they're usually just Damage Sponges with heavy weaponry. Not exactly Dragon in Chief material, to be honest.
  • One major complaint about Bioshock was the replacement of a Manipulative Bastard with a two-bit mobster.
    • A good analogy would be if the Emperor kicked Vader off a cliff early in episode VI, and the prequel trilogy was never made. Palpatine may be a bastard, but if we didn't get to see it, we'd be pretty pissed off. Same with Fontaine, the mobster.
      • It could be argued that Fontaine was a Magnificent Bastard in his own way, outplaying Ryan through cunning and a keener understanding of supply and demand than the uber-capitalist himself. The plot just falls down when everything is revealed in Ryan's quarters, and there's nowhere to go but to turn Fontaine into just another boss fight.
  • Most of Deus Ex is spent sprinting up the various sorting orders of villainy.
  • Averted entertainingly in Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines. Technically the Big Bad of the game would be The Smug Snake Camarilla Prince Lacroix, who tries to pull off an Evil Plan to acquire the sarcophagus and actually gets pretty close. However even in the endings where he does succeed, he's revealed to be a mere Unwitting Pawn; instead of the rumored antediluvian he had planned to drain to take a level in badass, powerful explosives are inside the sarcophagus, which kill him a few seconds into his Villainous Breakdown. The real Manipulative Bastards making the plot interesting are your tutorial buddy Jack and the guy who drives you around everywhere (who is strongly implied to be Caine, the single most powerful vampire in the world).
    • Played straight, however, with Ming Xiao, albeit on a smaller scale.
  • Final Fantasy VII: Without Hojo, there would be no Sephiroth.
    • Although Sephiroth can be quite diabolical in his own right, seeing as he used the severed body parts of a god to pose as him for much the game, only revealing himself towards the end.
      • Not really a God so much as his alien spirit parasite mother. Most of his ideas actually came from her cells, but he converted it into a more Humanoid Abomination style then an Eldritch Alien Plot.
  • Without villains who want the Chaos Emeralds and Master Emerald around or ones who convert his friends into robots, Sonic the Hedgehog would just be drifting around.
  • The iPhone game Chaos Rings has a pretty complex and intricate plot. Besides the Big Bad, the antagonist is a freaking genius. The bonus(and hardest) boss of the game invented Time Travel and Immortality, to say the least.
  • No matter how smart Kenichi is in Sharin no Kuni, no matter how well he plans, no matter how much he thinks he's in control of the situation, Houzuki is always one step ahead. And he's always critical about how long it took him to reach a resolution. Without Houzuki, there is no story.
  • Kreia pretty much makes Knights of the Old Republic 2.
  • Sun Li the Glorious Tactian's briliance also pretty much makes up the entirety of the story in Jade Empire.
  • Sarevok, Jon Irenicus, Amelissan. What would the Baldur's Gate series be without villains like these?
  • The convoluted and yet simple, dangerous, vast, and extremely good plot of Batman: Arkham Asylum couldn't have happened if The Joker and Harley didn't plan it all beforehand. The Joker was all over the Island, always a step ahead of Batman (and Batman always proving himself in all the tests), manipulating, associating, or using almost all the encarcelated supervillians and inmates. The Riddler, too, in his own way, proved himself that, among the obvious and the puns, he can leave really complicated riddles and puzzles all over the island.
  • Touhou: Without some crazy folks to shake things up every other week, Reimu and Marisa will only spend their time goofing around.
  • The Crash Bandicoot series would be nowhere without Big Bad Dr Cortex. He even makes the hero for crying out loud.
  • Mega Man X, his partner Zero, hell, the Maverick Hunters in general wouldn't be in action so much if Zero hadn't been originally Made of Evil by Dr. Wily.
  • Skyward Sword: Ghirahim demonstrates this trope perfectly. His black tornado spell that snatched Zelda started up the plot in the first place. He shows a Faux Affably Evil personality that is creepy, distinctive, and memorable. He creeped out Link, and no one else has been able to do that. He proves to be quite deadly in combat, especially because he can take your mighty sword and use it against you. He turns out to be a sword spirit, or more specifically, the Evil Counterpart of the Master Sword Link uses. He turns back into the sword the Final Boss Demise uses against you. Unfortunately, Ghirahim demonstrated this trope so well that the Final Boss, due to little screen time, came off his less interesting than his own Dragon and sword!
  • The Pokémon series initially averted this, making the villains' plots secondary to the protagonist's goal of capturing and training Pokemon. Then the villains got smarter and more ambitious/crazy, playing this trope straight.
  • Portal: Hello tropers. My name is GLaDOS. We are going to do so much science together.


Webcomics

  • Interestingly, Xykon of The Order of the Stick inverts the idea. When he smacks down Roy, he offers to let him run away and train a while, saying "Great heroes make great villains."
    • Elan's Dangerously Genre Savvy father relies on the same idea in a different way, choosing to be the master of an evil empire until such time as a worthy hero deposes him. If he wins, he runs an empire for his entire life. If he loses, he runs an empire for his entire life and becomes a legend in the process.


Western Animation

  • One of the reasons that Beast Wars and Transformers Animated are considered two of the best Transformers series is that in these two Big Bad Megatron is a charismatic Manipulative Bastard who only seems to lose by the skin of the protagonists' teeth rather than someone who seemed to be carrying the Idiot Ball all the time. In the case of the latter, his losses really only seem to be setbacks.
  • This was the reason Warner Bros introduced the likes of Yosemite Sam. Although the antagonism between Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd remains one of the most iconic conflicts in the media, the fact is that Elmer isn't all that bright, and outwitting him is like beating a three-toed sloth in a knife fight. Sam came along because Bugs needed a foe who was smart enough that winning seemed like an accomplishment. Later, Chuck Jones felt that Sam himself was too much of a sucker, just louder than Elmer, and created Marvin The Martian, a softspoken alien whose actions are incredibly destructive and legitimately dangerous.
  • David Xanatos in Gargoyles. Being the definition of the Xanatos Gambit, he rarely had a plan that didn't have some positive outcome even when he was handed a defeat. The writers couldn't always keep up with how smart he was supposed to be, and whenever there's a flaw in his plans, it's visibly and automatically a corresponding flaw in the episode's plot.
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the second season, which was generally considered the best, also features the two smartest villains, Chessmaster Evil Chancellor Long Feng and Magnificent Bastard Dark Action Girl Azula. Admittedly, Azula was still around in the third season, but was somewhat less active.
  • One of the cited reasons that the writers gave for the fact that the Riddler appeared in Batman the Animated Series comparatively fewer times than most other villains was that it was very difficult to construct a scheme worthy of such a brain-teasing chessmaster villain like him in single half-hour episodes.
  • A lot of Disney Animated Canon villains trigger the plots of their respective films, and the company's more popular films often have its more popular villains.
    • One Hundred and One Dalmatians: Without Cruella de Vil, the movie would be over as soon as Roger and Anita marry.
    • Aladdin: Pretty much nothing would happen without Jafar. Aladdin would spend the rest of his life on the streets and the Genie would never leave the Cave of Wonders.
    • The Lion King: Scar killed Mufasa, making the film's Slice of Life story much more complex.
    • Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs: The Queen tries to kill Snow White, forcing her into exile. Her life with the Dwarfs (while humorous) is pretty tranquil until the Queen reattempts this.
    • The Jungle Book: Mowgli is forced to move out the jungle in fear of Shere Khan coming after him.
    • Hercules: If Hades hadn't decided to overthrow Zeus and heard the prophecy that he would fail if Hercules fought, he wouldn't have tried to make Hercules mortal and kill him in the beginning, so Hercules would have grown up as an ordinary god (as oxymoronic as that is) and not a human with supernormal strength trying to become a hero.
      • Behind the scenes, Hades is an especially interesting case of this trope. The crew of the movie said that Hades was going to be dark, scary, and menacing, but James Woods took a different route than the other auditions and the original plan, and they loved it so much they rewrote the character and, by extension, the script.
    • Princess And The Frog: If it weren't for Dr. Facilier turning Naveen into a frog, he wouldn't have tried to kiss Tiana, and turn her into a frog.
  • The Dreamstone often falls into this, as the residents of The Land Of Dreams were usually docile and innocent beings that rarely caused their own personal conflicts or problems, thus events were usually extremely laid back until the Urpneys caused problems by trying to steal the titular stone.
  • Phineas and Ferb give us this example.

  Ferb: A hero's a hero, but everyone loves a good villain.

    • Perry and Doof's B-plot is almost always "Agent P, Doofensmirtz is up to something. Go and stop him."
  • Animaniacs: Slappy Squirrell was about to receive an award and some of her enemies planted a bomb at the podium. She invoked the trope to say the villains deserved the award more than her so they'd be lured into their own trap.


Real Life

  • In real life too, Villains Act, Heroes React. Like the characters on a cop show, a real cop does not get to enjoy a challenge without criminals creating one. (Of course, it's always controversial and generally a bad habit to designate anyone a villain in real life, but we'll just assume here that most cops at least see themselves as the good guys.)

Notes

  1. Oddly, the protagonist Lelouch behaves like a stereotypical villain. He's a faceless leader with armies of masked mooks under his command.
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