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A Villain Will Rise

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It’s a very good time to be a very bad person, at least at the movies. Villains, tyrants, and troublemakers have become so critical to big-budget films that they’re beginning to upstage the heroes.

The subtitle of the Thor sequel, out Nov. 8, is The Dark World, but it could just as easily be Loki Strikes Back. Tom Hiddleston’s devilishly charming (and bitterly angry) god of mischief dominated the early trailers and steals the movie out from under his hammer-wielding brother (Chris Hemsworth). Next year, Sleeping Beauty will have to settle for second billing to Angelina Jolie in Disney’s live-action reboot of the fairy tale, Maleficent, and a quick glance at Marvel Studios’ future slate demonstrates how fearsome figures are snagging the spotlight. The evildoers are right there in the film titles — Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Avengers: Age of Ultron.

“There is this old phrase that ‘the devil plays all the best tunes,'” says Hiddleston, 32, who began antagonizing the god of thunder in 2011, and a year later led an alien invasion of Earth in The Avengers. “There is a kind of freedom to being bad. Order and chaos exist inside every human being and mostly, rightly, we behave ourselves. When you play a bad guy, you cut loose from that sense of propriety.”

At Comic-Con this summer, Hiddleston put on Loki’s gold and emerald costume — along with his best sneer — and appeared on stage in character, deriding and insulting a crowd of 6,000 fans. They adored it.

So what gives? Part of the answer may be that villain roles are attracting top-tier actors: Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort (Harry Potter franchise), Donald Sutherland as President Snow (The Hunger Games), and Javier Bardem as Silva (Skyfall), to name just a few. For that, you can probably blame the Joker, and his Oscar for The Dark Knight. “Heath Ledger’s performance changed the game,” Hiddleston says. “I’ve never seen such an electrifying performance before or since.” And something may be going on with the audience, too. Money is tight in a stagnant economy, and our political divide can be summed up as one-for-all versus dog-eat-dog. Everyone feels overworked and undervalued. When people stop believing in the system, they start looking for a way to beat it. If the meek cannot inherit the earth, why not scorch it?

The strongest villains are often motivated by that misguided sense of justice. “Loki got a raw deal,” notes Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios. “He was told he was born to be a king and be a ruler, and learned, in fact, he was not. He wasn’t even a true son. Everything he knew about himself had been a lie. People appreciate and respond to a character who takes it into his own hands to change what is written for him. Loki just does it in a way that makes him a villain.”

Studios underplay those villains at their peril. Benedict Cumberbatch’s twisted, calculating terrorist in Star Trek Into Darkness was one of the high points of that sequel, but the character’s true identity, Khan, was kept so hush-hush that box office analysts thought it depressed ticket sales. When you’ve got the best of the worst, it pays to put that front and center. “The better you make your villain, the better your hero has to be,” says Sean Bailey, president of production at Walt Disney Studios. “We call it the Hans Gruber theory. One reason Die Hard is a great action movie is Gruber never makes a mistake, but he’s still defeated by John McClane. McClane is a great hero because he’s up against such a formidable adversary.”

This new dark age of adversaries shows no signs of slowing. DC Comics has produced a home-video documentary, Necessary Evil, chronicling its gallery of rogues, and Disney is tripling down on its female baddies. Cruella De Vil (101 Dalmatians) is getting her own movie, à la Maleficent; Cate Blanchett will star as the Wicked Stepmother in a live-action Cinderella; and Meryl Streep will play the central role of the Witch in the musical Into the Woods. “These are big, big, delicious personalities,” Bailey says. “It speaks to what enjoyable roles they are to play.”

They can even turn into the roles of a lifetime. “I had a fascinating conversation with Anthony Hopkins about this,” Hiddleston says of his Thor costar. “He’s been doing this job for 50 years and he said he’s ‘played heroes and villains and kings and butlers and warriors. And when people ask me to talk about something, they want to talk about one man.'” You should have no trouble guessing his name.

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