Sci-fi and fantasy move audiences because it shows reality in touch with something beyond their normal view. Worlds of these genres inspire wonder or even horror because many things are possible outside our usual experience. That’s true of sci-fi and fantasy heroes, too — be it superpowers, magic, or secret knowledge, something sets them apart from us in a fantastical way.
But the dark side is the same way: Just as mysterious, wondrous, or awesome as the worlds and heroes we see in sci-fi and fantasy, the villains can possess such wonder or command such awe. In fact, the biggest of these are the ones that make fantasy or sci-fi stories truly worth telling. They are the biggest obstacles to overcome. They are the “big bads.”
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What is a Sci-Fi & Fantasy “Big Bad”?
It’s important to break down what a “big bad” really is: the villain of a serial arc in binge-worthy television, or the ultimate obstacle in a movie franchise. The “big bad” is a term meant to signal the dark opponent that looms on the horizon for the hero. As it so happens, this is a common trope that’s hard to escape. Often, it’s best used in sci-fi and fantasy stories — or narratives inspired by those genres. So, whether you’re watching or writing a superhero flick or a fantasy epic, you should recognize the pattern.
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In some of the biggest sci-fi and fantasy stories known to us, there’s an even bigger pattern. Namely, as the story progresses, you begin to see a driving force — the main antagonist behind the curtain. These are “bigger and badder” than all the other “big bads” in the story so far. It’s only by taking the fight to this level that the story finds its resolution.
Look below for some of the most iconic franchises in sci-fi and fantasy today, and learn all about the villains that made these stories possible.
[Editor’s Note: Spoilers ahead for things you may or may not have already seen. Be warned!]
Sauron, The Lord of the Rings
It all began with One Ring to rule them all. The story itself is told in mere minutes at the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring, baring the bad guy as clear as day. And yet, Sauron feels so far away at the start of it all.
The Dark Lord of Mordor definitely has some agency, even as far as the Shire, where he first sends his Nazgûl. Still, it’s Frodo and Sam’s trek into his domain that makes him feel ever closer; the Ring makes him more dangerous than anyone can have guessed. His influence is felt far and wide, and it even pervades the most innocent of souls through the Ring’s power over others, even turning some into shadows of their former selves.
The First Evil, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a trendsetter when it comes to the “big bad.” With each new season sporting a different archnemesis for the young titular hero, it’s hard to tell who’s really the “biggest bad” of them all. Luckily, the show tells you exactly who the worst of the worst is when the time comes.
The First Evil, the one that preceded all other demons and monsters and bumps in the night, comes to Angel to announce its presence and taunt him into suicide. Yet, it still takes a good few seasons to make its real appearance, becoming the final “big bad” of the final season.
Its ancient power and overwhelming reach make this entity a truly chilling one. But its alien ways of behaving and its puppeteering are the main reasons that the First feels like such an omnipotent threat after all the Scoobies have been through.
Darth Sidious, Star Wars
The start of any empire requires finesse and determination, which Chancellor (soon-to-be Emperor) Palpatine had in spades. If you watched the original Star Wars trilogy from start to finish and then moved into the prequels, you’ll have a strong idea of what we mean. From the beginning, the devious Darth Sidious hid in plain sight, using politics as one tenet of his conspiracy to rule over the galaxy.
He succeeded and solidified his reign through subterfuge, influence, and even force as he gained the most obedient army ever seen. The real depths of Emperor Palpatine’s reach as he became insidiously (aha!) entrenched in the Force can’t really be known, but one thing is irrevocably true: His lieutenant, the feared Darth Vader, definitely resisted and killed him for good. Definitely. No rewriting history on that one. Don’t even try it.
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C-Man, The X-Files
The Cigarette Smoking Man, Cancer Man, or even just “C-Man” — the primary antagonist of The X-Files had many nicknames throughout the series. While many “big bads” came and went in the show, C-Man stayed an omnipresent part of the system that Mulder and Scully tried so hard to dismantle, unveil, or otherwise impede. He’s an informed enigma, a representative of something much larger — and in Fox Mulder’s eyes, much more sinister.
His stalwart protection of the secrets of the Syndicate and his sustained coverup of alien life make him the symbol of everything that Agents Mulder and Scully opposed. That said, it’s his ongoing legacy of sustained secrecy and misinformation that makes him so formidable — and such a prevalent, unbeatable foe in the eyes of the series, even when he breathes his last.
Thanos, Marvel Cinematic Universe’s The Infinity Saga
No secrets were kept from the audience if they stayed behind after the credits of each movie in The Infinity Saga. Hints of an unsteady shift into utter madness start there: Thanos’s first appearances happen in such small snippets, like at the end of The Avengers, and begin to unveil his master plan to a degree before he pulls out all the stops. Still, it’s his resolution that becomes the most daunting thing about Thanos.
He believes his solution to annihilate half the universe is a just cause, and to that end, he alters reality. He schemes to gain ultimate power not for power’s sake, but for a cause he believes will offer something better — and everyone knows that someone calling for a “New World Order” is the most dangerous of all.
Vecna, Stranger Things
Many strange happenings surround a town called Hawkins, Indiana. Whether it’s the introduction of a dangerous interdimensional creature, a hivemind monster, or an army of mind-controlled citizens, there’s always something new, big, and bad waiting around the corner here. Still, this all had to come from somewhere, right? Your culprit is none other than a psychic entity named Vecna, whose origins are actually very nearby.
Starting as a boy named Henry with profound abilities using ESP, he soon developed into a psychotic weapon of mass destruction, banished by Eleven into a separate dimension. It’s here that he honed his abilities even more and began sneaking his tendrils into the town, biding his time. And now, that time has come. Vecna is the biggest bad of the show so far, and this time, he might be inescapable.
The Deus Ex Machina, The Matrix
Throughout The Matrix and its franchise, one name is as ubiquitous as Neo’s own: Agent Smith. You’d think that means he’s the most persistent “villain” in the series — but you’d be wrong. Smith is a product of the Matrix’s existence, but he’s not the reason for it. Instead, you can blame an entity known as the Deus Ex Machina — rightly named, because this machine waged war on humans long enough to hate them and decide on a new world order of its own.
By creating the Architect, another primary antagonist of The Matrix movies, the Deus Ex Machina is the one actually responsible for that new world order — the Matrix itself. When Agent Smith becomes detrimental to the Matrix’s existence, however, Neo must come to terms with this entity. No matter how high you climb the ladder inside the Matrix, you’ll always find logic bending to the will of something above it. When the ladder extends beyond the Matrix, you find the Deus Ex Machina — leader of the machines and the biggest threat to humankind.
Make Your Sci-Fi & Fantasy Big Bads Bigger and Badder
From sci-fi action flicks to magical realism in TV, there’s always a Big Bad Evil Guy, a BBEG, to deal with. The “big bad” might bring portents of the apocalypse, or they may just stand in the way of the truth. But whatever it is, they stand for the exact opposite of the hero we are rooting for. They are the archvillain of villains, the greatest nemesis, and they are everywhere — especially in fantasy and science fiction stories.
It’s these foes that make a hero show off what they’re really made of — so when your hero needs to stand out, elevate your evil and make a “big bad” that’s “bigger and badder” than ever!
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Author: David Young