Compare the the original Avengers movie with the latest “Age of Ultron” sequel. In the first Avengers movie, the villain was Loki, who’s a fascinating character in his own right. Because Loki is so interesting, he helps define the entire story framed within his goal of ruling the world.
In “Age of Ultron,” the villain is a computer-generated android that talks like a human, but makes far less of a presence onscreen as Loki. As a result, “Age of Ultron” doesn’t quite pack the emotional wallop that the original Avengers movie did because Loki is a far more interesting villain than Ultron.
As an example of a horrible villain, look at “The Green Lantern” movie. Villains are fascinating when we can relate to them. That’s why a human character like Loki is far more appealing emotionally than an android like Ultron. In “The Green Lantern,” the villain is a giant amorphous blob. That’s not that scary.
Look at horror movies. You might think a giant, fire breathing monster like Godzilla would be a more terrifying threat, but Godzilla is far less terrifying than a guy in a hockey mask, chasing someone around with a chainsaw. That’s because the more you can relate to a villain, the more terrifying the villain can get.
Even in “Alien,” the alien may be a monster, but it’s about the same size as a human, not the size of Godzilla. Villains are best when they appear like humans, even if they aren’t humans.
Horror movies work because the villain can attack humans who have to fight them off by hand. It’s impossible for a human to fight Godzilla, so the threat is less immediate. Given a choice between being attacked by Godzilla or being attacked by serial killer with a knife, the serial killer is more threatening because he represents a threat we can understand and relate to. Trying to defend yourself from a knife-wielding attacker is far more terrifying than trying to defend yourself from Godzilla.
Look at “Cloverfield” where a giant monster is running around New York. What makes the monster terrifying isn’t its massive size, but its fleas that are about human size and can easily attack humans as they run in terror. The more your villain resembles a human, the more threatening that villain will be.
Think of the best movies and the villains help makes movies great. In “Die Hard” the villain is smart, clever, and intelligent so we’re fascinated by him. In “Star Wars,” Darth Vader is the real threat despite controlling the Death Star. The Death Star is scary, but it’s really the threat of Darth Vader that makes the Death Star more sinister.
When you have a villain who’s as human as possible, that’s the most frightening villain of all. We aren’t afraid of monsters so much as we’re afraid of humans who act like monsters. Godzilla is never as terrifying as Jason from Friday the 13th. Make your villain human and make your villain fascinating. Then you’ll likely create a more interesting story in the process.