About forty or so years ago, Lin Carter wrote a book called Imaginary Worlds which, as the title suggests, is a short history of (non-scifi) fantasy stories which take place on worlds which are not our own. I read it as a teenager and was happily introduced to the work of Clark Ashton Smith and E.R. Eddison as a result (and, by the way, Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros may well be the greatest fantasy novel ever).

I recently reread Imaginary Worlds and, although it’s generally a pretty dreadful book, one of Carter’s topics strongly resonated with me. Carter, while acknowledging the status of J.R.R. Tolkein’s work to the history of the fantasy genre, is pretty critical of The Lord of the Rings in general and the character of Sauron in particular. Carter points out that Sauron isn’t a particularly well-developed character, and I’m afraid I have to agree with him on this point. We don’t learn much about Sauron or what drives him; all we know is that he’s evil and that if Sauron finds the One Ring some undefined Very Bad Things are going to happen.

Now one might argue that the book’s not about Sauron, but is instead about the heroism of Middle Earth’s “regular folk” in opposing him, and I guess that’s correct as far as it goes. But I would counter that as far as telling a story goes, the more interesting the villain, the better the story.

In Carter’s book, he mentions the Sax Rohmer character Fu Manchu as an interesting villain. In fact, that villain is the only thing that halfway saves those awful Rohmer potboilers. It sure isn’t the hero, good ol’ Nayland “A Day Late and a Shilling Short” Smith, who seems always to be about two and a half steps behind Fu Manchu; Smith has this awful tendency to know who’s going to be killed next, but always arrives about three minutes too late to prevent the murder. He’s like a Sherlock Holmes from the Remedial Academic class in night school.

Ah, but Fu Manchu is another story. We seldom see him, only occasional glimpses, but we learn pretty quickly that he’s not screwing around – he wants nothing short of world domination and he’ll stop at nothing to see his plan through. He has a network of several hundred spies, lackeys, and confederates. He holds not one, not two, but three doctorates from major universities. He’s brilliant and ruthless – and I forgot to mention that he also has a red-hot firecracker of a daughter. Fu Manchu is interesting, and enough so that he (not the hero) carries the entire series of thirteen novels.

It’s a fine line for a writer, though, between providing just enough detail to make a villain interesting and providing too much. Darth Vader was the greatest villain in cinema history – when the Star Wars series was still a trilogy. After you throw in the latter three movies though, Vader becomes just another schweeny high school whiner who can’t handle his disappointment at losing a Student Council election, and “Now the whole galaxy is going to pay!” George Lucas, through his inept writing and production micro-management, transformed Vader from a really cool villain to an analogy of just another kid who grew up bitter, got some middle management gig at a nowhere company, and took out his frustrations on the workers he supervises. It’s sad, pathetic, and (worst of all from a cinema perspective) dull.

Now that Vader has fallen from his perch as greatest movie villain, the crown returns to its rightful place: the head of Ming the Merciless as portrayed by the always awesome actor Charles Middleton:

Chales Middleton as Ming the Merciless

Middleton was a tremendous character actor, appearing in an insane number of films from 1920 up until his death in 1949; he was the Strother Martin or Dick Miller of his day, combined into one package. His specialty was playing the heavy in westerns, but Middleton appeared in all kinds of films, including an uncredited role in the (awful) 1943 Batman serial and as the prosecutor in the famous “trial scene” in The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. We’re huge fans of old movies at our house, and it’s become something of a game to be the first to spot Middleton in the myriad movies in which he appeared.

But it’s the role of Ming the Merciless in the three Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials for which Charles Middleton is best remembered. Middleton was perfect for the role – he had a marvelous baritone voice with an awesome stage delivery, plus a tremendous presence. Best of all, he took his work as a serious craft and didn’t play the part for camp value (as, unfortunately, Karloff did in his sole appearance as Fu Manchu) – Middleton sold it. He made the viewer believe that he took the role seriously, and that made the viewer believe in the role.

You need to understand that Ming is a self-serving tyrant. With Ming, it’s not about just cruelty, avarice, lust, or power – it’s about ALL of those vices, and more. Ming is a guy who will steal your girl, watch you die in an arena battle, and casually blow up your planet, all before lunch, then by dinnertime he’ll have forgotten all three events because something else has caught his eye. Ming is the ultimate badass villain, because all he cares about is himself. He even sentences his own daughter to death when she crosses him. The guy is pretty hardcore, and Charles Middleton plays the part with great aplomb and relish. Middleton owns the screen in every scene in which he appears.

I could spend a solid week writing two posts a day on the subject of why some villains work well and why others don’t. I could write about John Lone’s excellent portrayal of Shiwan Khan in 1994’s The Shadow, making you believe that he could actually beat the title character. On the other end of the scale is Treat Williams, whose weird, campy over-the-top performance in 1996’s The Phantom reminds one of an Animaniacs parody of Ted Turner. I could write an entire post on villain “monologuing”, that horrible tendency to spill their master plan to the hero when the villain thinks he has the upper hand, based around Samuel L. Jackson’s hilarious appearance in The Spirit – the “S.S. uniform scene” is the best villain monologue ever.

Instead I’m going to stick to the realm of Golden Age comics and present several villain appearances; some are classics, others…not so much. Along the way we’ll try to figure out why some villains work well while others come off as lame. We’ll start next time around with a memorable villain created by the genius who brought us Plastic Man…

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2012, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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