Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Great Fictional Villains: Ashur

The seedy, greedy world of Spartacus: Blood and Sand has produced many memorably heinous yet compelling characters. We’ve had ruthless social-climbing Batiatus with his all-consuming ambition and monstrous temper; his cold-hearted, viciously conniving bride Lucretia; and haughty, brutal Glaber. Yet by the final gore-spattered frames of Spartacus: Vengeance, one member of the show’s pantheon of evil stands out. Ashur, the slave who became a gladiator, the gladiator who became an odd-job boy and sometime assassin, who became the slyest, most cruelly manipulative fiend ever to walk the mean streets of Roman Capua.

If he wasn’t so steeped in blood and treachery, you could muster sympathy for Ashur. After all, he begins the series as much a slave as all the other gladiators, damned to an inhumanly savage existence of relentless training and sadistic blood-sport. He has no choice but to hone his body to heights of chiselled perfection, only to offer it up for mutilation at the hands of fellow slaves, for the amusement of a baying crowd. Yet unlike Crixus or Barca, Ashur does not even have the hollow consolation of glory and celebrity as a God of the Arena, as he is the least of the Brotherhood, his victories of little note or tainted by underhanded ploys. Then he is crippled by Crixus and even his forlorn dream of becoming a true gladiator is snatched from him. Truly he is a victim of slavery, brutalised into a foul echo of the prosperous and respected man he might have become through his natural talents had he not found himself in Roman shackles.

Yet his catalogue of misdeeds is so creatively vile that by the time the first season has drawn to a close, any potential sympathy for him has evaporated like morning dew. A faithless betrayer, a gleeful rapist and a smirking torturer, not even the actor’s hammy charms or his plucky campaign to carve out a private empire under the noses of the snotty, arrogant Romans can make him remotely redeemable.

In the moral world of Spartacus, violence and mayhem are a necessary way of life and means of self-expression, even for our relatively sympathetic rebel-heroes. There is a certain coarse honour in their open, doomed defiance of the tyrannical Roman Republic that oppresses them. Ashur’s self-serving deviousness, his desire to co-opt his oppressors in enabling his own rise to power rather than fighting back against them, undermines and mocks the bravery of Spartacus and his followers. If Ashur had been successful in his plan to supplant the fallen House of Batiatus, who could possibly believe that he would have become a callous, abusive slave-master even worse than Batiatus himself, massing wealth and influence through the exploitation of the slaves who were once his fellows?

A monster obviously shaped and moulded by the despotic society that captured him, Ashur may have been. But he was still a monster, nonetheless. Though his agency was limited, he still had to make choices. By the hour of his final confrontation with the rebels, he had long since left choices of grim necessity behind, and was walking a path of brutal, bloodthirsty hubris. 

Monday, 18 February 2013

Great Fictional Villains: Morgoth

We've previously touched on Sauron, Morgoth's understudy-turned-successor in cosmic-level unpleasantness, but the original Lucifer-figure of Tolkien's fictional mythology is vivid enough as a study in morbid fantasy totalitarianism to earn his own spot in the pantheon of Great Bastards. While Sauron's story is the tale of his rise from rebel spirit and manipulative shape-shifter to all-powerful god-king, Morgoth's is of a long and miserable descent, through boundless humiliation and destructive rage, from a god-like being with pretensions to trademark the very matter of creation down to a mere despot who sacks civilizations out of frustrated spite; mighty yet wretched in the hollowness of his glory.

The consistency and attention to detail with which Tolkien handled the guiding themes of his invented universe really helps to keep Morgoth and his followers in Evil a compelling a threatening presence, hovering grimly over the long and glorious history of Middle Earth. Morgoth is the original model for the basic nature of evil as imagined by Tolkien; arrogant rebellion against a natural order in the name of jealousy and ego. From before the very beginning of time, according to the Silmarillion, Morgoth, formerly known as Melkor, nursed an insane, impossible ambition to nab the credit for the creation of the cosmos from Iluvatar, Tolkien's actual creator-God figure. Instead of collaborating with the other Valar (an order of archangel stand-ins sent by Iluvatar to mould the young Earth according to his intent) Morgoth tries to wrestle the divine plan into a new shape, turning the world into his personal empire and temple to his sole glory. This rampant megalomania only ends of perverting and corrupting the world, supposedly causing everything harsh and dangerous in the environment; Melkor's evil is so primal that he's ultimately responsible for natural disasters!

All the malevolent forces that confront chirpy Hobbits, even thousands of years after Morgoth's defeat, are the sad, twisted end-results of his attempts to imitate Iluvatar's ineffable ability to create life; trying to breed new species that exist to serve him as slaves and soliders, the would-be world-shaper only ends up fashioning violent monsters. In every single mention of him in Tolkien's writings, he seems to be poisoning or wrecking something, so given over to vengeful hostility and an almost mindless power-lust that he ends up earning his suitably sinister name for acts of murder and treachery; Morgoth, "Dark Foe of the World", a being so violent and cruel that it's effectively locked in battle with the entire planet at once, apart from pawns that follow him out of fear and shared hatred of anything beautiful.

The most noteworthy thing about Morgoth is how his immense power relative to his Elven enemies in the Silmarillion never stops him from seeming contemptible and somehow pathetic, because his motives are so crude and his egotistical obsession with talking himself up as the Supreme Master of Everything so clearly desperate and forced. He might eventually overrun most of the continent and end up victorious everywhere, but the Elves, lesser creatures supposedly beneath his notice, undeniably give him a run for his money before their kingdoms are smashed, and he even demonstrates the very un-godlike emotion of fear when the Elf King Fingolfin actually dares to challenge him to a duel and comes close to winning (directly inspiring an awesome power metal song by Blind Guardian countless ages later).

Morgoth is ultimately flattened by his former colleagues the Valar, when they are persuaded into a one-time-only intervention that reduces the Dark Lord's vaunted empire to flaming rubble. They find a ranting, hideous shell of a being, whose military power and sinister trappings managed to disguise the fact that he had literally wasted away on a diet of Evil, pouring his essence into the world to try and control it but only succeeding in tainting it with his bottomless hatred.

In fairness, if a Dark Lord is going to exit the scene in style, being wrapped in an unbreakable chain and shoved through a door in the edge of the universe to fall through empty space forever is a suitably epic fate that any self-respecting Dark Lord would be happy with. Still, perhaps the transformation of Morgoth's infamous "look" into the most easily-mocked cliche of popular fantasy is the suitable final humiliation for the overgrown thug?    

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Great Fictional Villains: Obadiah Hakeswill

Richard Sharpe has had to tangle with many unpleasant foes over the course of his long and bloody career, but none have lingered in the memory of his fans as much as the grotesque and bullying Obadiah Hakeswill. A larger-than-life fiend who is just flagrantly evil enough to be fascinating, Hakeswill’s TV incarnation never quite struck home as well as the swaggering, scummy original book version did; I theorised that Pete Postlethwaite was just too classy an actor to go overboard with the gruesome mannerisms and become the evil cartoon character that Hakeswill really is.

A nemesis to Sharpe from his earliest days in the army, Hakeswill is defined by his utter sadism and sociopathy (balanced only by his reverent devotion to his long-dead mother) and a quasi-supernatural ability to cheat death. By a bizarre fluke, Hakeswill survived being hanged and escaped his native England for a life in the army, mirroring Sharpe’s own flight from his criminal past. Like Sharpe, Hakeswill demonstrates an uncanny ability to make it through outrageously dangerous situations (he believes that his apparent immunity to the noose has made him destined to be unkillable). Like Sharpe, he discovers that the British Army is an environment he can thrive in; but while Sharpe eventually takes the opportunity to prove himself a brave, dedicated and gifted soldier, for Hakeswill the army is a playground where he can indulge his appetites for petty tyranny, rape, deceit and general cruelty to the upmost, playing the system of army discipline to his advantage and sucking up to the gullible officer class to secure his position.

He’s just hissable to the extreme, a skulking fiend plotting the most spiteful acts of vengeance against our wronged anti-hero. While Sharpe is no saint, he at least confronts his foes with upright, bluff courage; making the unmanly, brutal yet cowardly Hakeswill the perfect anti-Sharpe.  

Great Fictional Heroes: Wallace and Gromit

If you don't love Wallace and Gromit...well, I just don't know what to say to you. The sheer concentrated charm and ingenuity of the madcap duo is the perfect echo of the charm and ingenuity that goes into making the show itself, a labour of excruciatingly-detailed and protracted love that takes years at a stretch. For this reason, the arrival of a new Wallace and Gromit special (barring the twee little Expanded Universe of audio dramas and adventure games) is a rare event, guaranteed to be fixed in the imagination forever. The fact that a full-length movie (2005’s Curse of the Were-Rabbit) even exists is actually kind of mind-quivering.

Wallace is a bumbling Lancastrian inventor, faintly oblivious but basically loveable, whose eccentric mechanical prowess tends to land him in the glaring headlights of trouble at every opportunity. Gromit is his mute, yet plucky, pet dog/lab assistant/business partner/best friend, whose mix of good sense and heroic resourcefulness tends to land him in the thick of the action trying to rescue his misguided master from whatever rampaging space robot/penguin supervillain/Were-Rabbit is menacing Merry England this time around. The neatly-calibrated mix of light-hearted adventure, inventive animation and the simple brotherly comradeship between the two quirky leads ensures that W and G become national treasures with a permanent place in the nostalgia pantheon. 

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Great Fictional Anti-Heroes: Richard Sharpe

Everyone’s favourite Georgian hero-thug started life as the put-upon protagonist of Bernard Cornwell’s blood-and-thunder historical action novels, before a certain gruff-voiced heart-throb made him a small-screen icon of British TV in the 90s. While Sean Bean’s portrayal is a sympathetic soul with some endearing rough edges, Sharpe as originally envisioned is a damaged, brutal man, whose difficult military career and troubled private life are as likely to provoke him to sullen bitterness or berserk rage as to plucky defiance. 

The lowest of the low in his class-stratified society, the Army life was the only hope for young Richard Sharpe, and he soon found himself in strife-torn India during a turbulent period that would make his name. Bumped up to the officer class for conspicuous derring-do and transferred to Spain as the Peninsular languishes in the grip of Napoleon’s legions, he found himself sneered at by blue-blooded peers who resented him for his origins and (at first, at least) despised by his own men for much the same reason. Yet through stubborn ferocity and an undeniable talent for competent soldiering, Sharpe survived and thrived, winning over a loyal circle of friends and comrades and coming alive through countless large-scale battles and other violent scrapes, while bedding an unseemly number of well-born ladies along the way.

Sharpe is neither idealistic nor likeable by nature, being often boorish, sometimes bloodthirsty and useless at anything that doesn’t involve war and killing. He freely admits his dearth of patriotism, having the self-awareness to know that he would have fought just as fiercely for Bonaparte had he been born French. However, his harshness is softened by redeeming virtues, like intense loyalty, endless physical bravery and a Solomon-like affection for the women in his life. Enough, in short, to make him a tailor-made protagonist for this sort of work; a daredevil barbarian hero as likely to take savage revenge on one of his innumerable foes as he is to charge headlong into the powder-smoke of battle for the sake of a friend.

Great Fictional Villains: Sister Miriam Godwinson

Rargh Rargh Rargh

I’m aware that the good Sister isn’t supposed to be an out and out villain, but play Alpha Centauri (the cult favourite successor to Sid Meier’s world-conquering Civilization games) enough times and you’ll inevitably come across Miriam and her faction, The Lord’s Believers, playing that role. Miriam’s here to represent every mindlessly hostile, pig-headedly stubborn AI opponent in Sid Meier’s sprawling oeuvre; from the despot who refuses to surrender and insists on bleeding your armies even when past all hope of survival, to the superpower that mechanically spits on endless treaties and steamrollers your peaceful civilization with marauding elites.

While related games have their share of unwavering aggression (the Multiplayer Gold edition of Civilization 2 somehow turbo-charged AI hostility and made diplomacy a near-pointless endeavour in a world of endless bloodshed and backstabbing) and Miriam’s peers among the Great and Good of Alpha Centauri are all capable of tormenting the player in their own way, there’s something about Sister Godwinson’s particular brand of raving zealotry that really gets on the nerves.

Of course, being the self-appointed preserver of humanity’s yearning for religion on their adopted planet doesn’t automatically put Miriam in the wrong, though she can come across as self-righteous in some of the flavour text. Nor is her personal nemesis, ultimate nerd Prokhor Zakharov (the cold-blooded lovechild of Nikola Tesla and Richard Dawkins) immune to lapsing into his own brand of villainy, depending on how your game unfolds. Miriam’s fervent, even noble belief in the importance of maintaining spiritual traditions, even light-years from Earth and centuries into the future, is more than understandable in a world of murderous fauna, frighteningly advanced technology and ruthless utilitarianism. However, the Believer’s inbuilt intolerance for neighbouring civilizations, combined with their distrust of scientific progress, means that games in which they play a significant role often lapse into a grim cycle of holy wars, as Miriam lashes out at any unbelievers within range with endless legions of poorly-equipped and hopelessly indoctrinated plasma-fodder. Her penchant for impulsive offensives means that she is the faction leader most likely to spur Planet’s descent into a repeat of the bloody tragedies that have blighted Earth’s history, and for that, war-savvy players can take great pleasure in routing this ranting would-be prophet off a continent or two.    

Great Fictional Villains: Yuri

    No Comrade Premier, it has only begun.

OK, so we’ve now entered blogging silly season. While nuanced villains with complex and engaging motives are all very well, there are times in the life of every seasoned armchair hero when he wants to gaze at his computer screen and find pure, calculating, cartoonish evil staring back at him, stubbornly, creepily refusing to blink.

The true mastermind behind the Soviet invasion of America in Red Alert 2, Yuri is the power-obsessed spawn of a Communist plot to create mind-enslaving psychics, booted up by none other than Stalin himself (my biggest disappointment with the Red Alert sequels was the lack of a snarling, zombie Stalin, so Yuri has to step in as the deceased despot’s successor). Thanks to his knack for snapping the wills of Allied spies, the Soviets are able to able to storm the mainland United States and sweep through their major cities with total surprise.

In the Allied campaign, Yuri is an unnervingly focussed and competent antagonist, an island of soft-voiced and understated malice amongst the pompous preening and hammy hostility of the other Soviet villains (outrageously larger-than-life characters are a franchise staple, which makes Yuri stand out even more). His strategic ploys have a markedly sinister edge, even for the atrocity-prone Soviets; as early as the vanilla game he’s mind-controlling the ordinary people of Washington D.C. and sending them swarming into the teeth of their countryman’s guns like zombies. His contributions to the Bolshevik war machine include bubbling cloning vats and throbbing psychic beacons, helping to push the Red Alert franchise away from any tenuous realism and into the realm of full-blown pulp-science, where brightly-coloured livery, thunderous firepower and sizzling ultra-tech swirl and collide in an endless, glorious ballet of mass death.

The giddy excess continues in the expansion pack, where Yuri defects from the Soviet cause and unveils his private army of leather-masked cultists, corrupt mutants and the single most evil feature of any Command and Conquer game ever; the sadistic Grinder, a towering device that mashes its occupants to a pulp and breaks them down into raw materials to fuel Yuri’s egomaniacal cause. By this point, with his tattooed skull, twisted arsenal and creatively deviant followers, Yuri has basically graduated into a Warhammer 40,000 villain.

But he’s at his most unsettling in the original Soviet campaign, where it soon becomes obvious that’s he’s just as dangerous to his own side as to the enemy, thanks to his single-minded fixation with power at any cost. Steering the Premier like a puppet, invading the mind of any Soviet bigwig who outlives his usefulness, overseeing Stalin-flavoured purges and infighting, before finally unleashing packs of his psychic clones on any homeland forces opposed to his takeover; Yuri is truly the foremost bloodthirsty supervillain of the C and C universe. There’s one exception to that, of course, but I don’t play the Tiberium games. Not enough cartoon Communism.