We all love a great villain. Plenty of stories offer us Big Bads who are much more interesting than the mealy hero we’re supposed to care about. But what’s remarkable is how often our favorite baddies aren’t even all that big—they’re actually highly competent lackeys, or what’s sometimes known as “The Dragon” character: powerful, evil beings who are often really cool in their own right, but are technically just lieutenants in a larger empire of evil. The Dragon is often used to do the Big Bad’s bidding—taking out the enemy, slaughtering innocents, even fighting the hero to the death. The Dragon is often the best part of the story, as exemplified by these five SF/F universes.
Best Dragon Ever: Darth Vader, Star Wars
Yo, Kylo Ren, I’ma let you finish, but Darth Vader was one of the best Dragons of all time. (You too, Hux… Nice hat though.) In fact, Vader is so popular, powerful, and iconic some people actually forget that The Emperor was the real Big Bad of the first six Star Wars films, and Vader was merely his Sith apprentice. But while the Emperor was a scheming politician who transformed into a wizened old man whose main Force power seemed to be withering sarcasm, Vader was—is—awesome, up to and including his heel turn in Return of the Jedi, redeeming himself after decades of truly evil activities.
Best Backstory for an Evil Lieutenant: The Witch King of Angmar in The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings gets name-checked a lot when discussing just about anything in fantasy, so it’s no surprise it offers up one of the most coolest Dragons ever (one that is, yes, an actual dragon), the Witch King of Angmar, a.k.a. the Lord of the Nazgûl. Simply being the Black Captain of Mordor is cool enough, but the Witch King’s history—some of which is only detailed in Tolkien’s notes—makes him a tragic figure, too. Likely a Númenórean (and thus possibly Aragorn’s distant cousin), he was a powerful and noble man fooled into accepting one of Sauron’s Rings of power thousands of years before the events of the novels. Immortal, and with his already badass powers enhanced, the Witch King became the second-most feared entity in the world by the time a Hobbit and a young woman managed to kill him, fulfilling the prophecy that no man could harm him.
Most Satisfying Downfall for a Dragon: Lucius Malfoy, The Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling
The story of Lucius Malfoy is easily one of the most satisfying in Dragon history. He begins the series as Voldemort’s most trusted and active lieutenant, leader of the Death Eaters, and father of the despicable Draco. Add in his immense wealth and raging bigotry, and you have a Dragon that’s easy to hate—so watching his systematic downfall over the course of the books is a lot of fun, even if he does escape ultimate punishment due to a convenient last-minute change of heart stemming from belated concern over the fate of his family (weak sauce, blondie!).
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Most Complex Nest of Dragons: The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan
Usually the Big Bad/Dragon system is a relatively simple binary that persists through the story until the heroes finally win. Sometimes, though, the Dragons have Dragons of their own, resulting in a complex nesting doll situation. In The Wheel of Time, the Dark One is unquestionably in charge of the forces of evil, but there are many in his merry band of evil loyalists known as The Forsaken who think they’re number two. While the brilliant, insane Ishamael (later known as Moridin) is clearly the most powerful of the lot, he himself disdains the hard work of being evil and so leaves much of the hard work to Demandred, who in turn leans heavily on Mazrim Taim, creating a chain of Dragons—all of whom assume they are the only one smart enough to eventually emerge victorious. Ishamael, however, gets credit for at least realizing the Dark One will never actually keep his promises to the Useful Idiots who wage his eternal war against the Light.
Most Relentless Dragon: Sark in Tron
Tron is a classic of science fiction, and one of the few special effects-heavy films that has only gotten cooler with age. While the Big Bad is, of course, Master Control Program, the MCP’s Dragon is the command program that is tasked with not only enforcing a brutal digital regime, but hunting down the hero, Kevin Flynn, and the titular security program that assists him. What distinguishes Sark is his relentlessness, despite misgivings about going up against a “user,” to the point that Sark is reincarnated by the MCP after being destroyed by Tron in a disc battle for the ages, only to continue the dogged pursuit of his master’s enemies.
Who’s your favorite evil lieutenant?