Everyone loves tricksters. Even if they happen to be the guys trying to trip up our heroes we can’t help but find them entertaining. Here’s a list of ten of the greatest pulled primarily from science fiction, fantasy, and comics:
In Norse mythology Loki’s trickster habits range from heroic to villainous, but in the filmed Marvelverse, Loki is just plain bad. Branagh’s Thor and Whedon’s Avengers make this obvious, what with Loki’s family betrayals, murderous tendencies, and maddening mind games. Yet somehow despite all his evils, he’s still intriguing (just ask one of the many Loki fangirls). Must be that sad adoption backstory and the sense that Thor would totally take him back as a prodigal brother if he showed some actual remorse.
Mr. Gold/Rumpelstiltskin is a backstabbing, power-hungry pawn-broker/evil wizard who will trick you into trusting him just so he can benefit himself. Just like the Rumpelstiltskin of fairy lore, he will give you your heart’s desire, but at a terrible price. Nevertheless, he’s probably the most fun character on the show. His unofficial motto is, “Magic Has Consequences,” and although you can bet the consequences are never good, they usually make for pretty entertaining TV. What makes him so likable is that he clearly has the capacity for love and other good-guy emotions, he just doesn’t act on them because he thinks they’re pretty lame.
Gollum tries to be a trickster so hard and fails so miserably that he deserves a shout out. He wants to take part in a game of riddles, but he gets out-riddled by Bilbo and loses his precious forever. Later he tricks Frodo and Sam into Shelob’s lair in order to get the ring, but they manage to get out alive. And remember his sneaky “crumbs on his jacketses” routine from Peter Jackson’s adaptation? He’s definitely a slippery villain. But likable, because he’s more of an amoral pet than a truly evil mastermind. And considering that the poor guy’s brains are addled from years of being exposed to the Ring, it’s hard not to be a little sympathetic.
At the beginning of The Next Generation, Q (the omnipotent godlike entity of the Q Continuum) is a real antagonist. He pops in to test humanity, invent deadly games, and generally annoy Jean-Luc. But he’s so quirky, comically pesky, and damn well likable that it isn’t too long until he becomes an anti-hero in the later episodes and eventually more of a benevolent trickster. He may not have been a villain for very long, but the fact that he couldn’t possibly remain a villain because his character was so much fun goes to show how precarious the villain-status is for most of the people on this list. For the most part, they’re just one good deed or noble motive away from redemption (with the serious exceptions of #6 and #10)
David Bowie’s character, Jareth, is behind all the heroine’s trials in the cult film Labyrinth. He’s the villain who kidnaps her baby brother, he’s the one who forces her to travel through the Labyrinth to win him back, and he’s the one who tries to seduce her into leaving reality forever. His obsession with forcing Sarah into taking part in an arbitrary game that determines her brother’s fate designates him as a true trickster. But there’s just something so unthreatening about his attire, musical numbers, and general demeanor that it’s hard not to remember him fondly. He may not have successfully seduced Sarah, but I think it’s safe to say he seduced most of the youth of the ’80s. If part of being a trickster villain is tricking people into liking you even though you’re rotten, Jareth is worth studying. Just try not to burn your eyes out staring at his studly mullet and creepy eyebrows.
The Joker is a truly evil trickster. He’s not just irritating like Q or pathetic like Gollum. He is a gun-toting career criminal. But I don’t think I’m alone in thinking he’s strangely lovable, especially in the cartoon version. Most often his malice is born out of a desire to trick and defeat Batman, which is understandable since Batman’s such an unflappable hard ass. You’ve got to admire The Joker’s attempts to break that persona. Plus, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s just plain cute how much The Joker appreciates his symbiotic relationship with Batman. See here for a clip of him bemoaning Batman’s alleged death.
Puck is the primary antagonist of Shakespeare’s comedy, but whether he’s technically a villain depends on if you believe the tricks he pulled on the innocent lovers in the woods were malicious or merely playful. He’s definitely a little scamp: he ruins milk, scares maidens, and makes old ladies spill their drinks. But he’s also the source of most of the comedy in the play, so we have to love him for that.
Mister Mxyzptlk (Mix-Yez-Pittle-Ick) is one of the villains in the original Superman comics. Although he originally planned to destroy earth, he ends up spending most of his time pranking humans and upsetting Superman. The only way to “defeat” Mxyzptlk is to get him to say or spell his name backwards. Granted, this only sends him to his home dimension for 90 days, but if you’re up against someone as annoying as this guy, 90 days is pretty desirable. The fact that the only way to neuter this trickster is to effectively trick him yourself makes him a lovably flawed supervillain. And it’s hard not to like someone who annoys Superman as much as he does.
As a chaos-loving, chaos-feeding, and chaos-creating extraterrestrial who makes bargains to alter history and create as much chaos as possible, The Trickster is the poster child of trickster villains. His constant messing around with time in The Sarah Jane Adventures is the impetus for several amusing plots, including Sarah Jane’s wedding. Though he hasn’t appeared in Doctor Who proper yet, he’s already got a fan base eager to see him and the Doctor face off.
Many underworld gods and demons are tricksters. Hades of Greek mythology tricks Persephone into staying in the underworld; the Disney version of Hades in Hercules tries to trick Hercules into ruining his chances of being a hero; the Biblical Satan repeatedly tries to trick people into sinning. Despite their trickster ways, none of these guys are particularly likable. But Milton’s version of Satan in Paradise Lost turn this on its head. Milton makes Satan charismatic, brave, and independent, even while he’s tricking Eve into eating the fruit. And although Satan’s definitely a villain, there are times he is so likable and his motives so sympathetic that he verges on being an anti-hero. Plenty of readers come away from the poem thinking he ends up more likable than Milton’s version of God himself. That’s pretty remarkable in a retelling of a story in which good and evil are as black and white as can possibly be.
Who are your favorite trickster villains?