The Rise of the Thirst Trap Villain

11 minute read

In the fifth episode of The Acolyte, the latest Star Wars series on Disney+, the villain known as simply "The Stranger" finally reveals himself. While wearing a mask to hide his identity, the mysterious Sith Lord goes on a Jedi murdering spree. At first, he takes out only minor characters whose names we don't know, though in particularly brutal fashion: He impales one with a lightsaber and then Force-pulls a second Jedi toward him, impaling that Jedi too. And then with three quick jabs of a double saber, he takes out a fan-favorite character. The Jedi eventually disarm him, but he still manages to break the neck of another main character.

At some point during the battle, the mask falls. Finally, after all of this carnage, the audience sees that this powerful Force user is actually Qimir, who previously disguised himself as an apothecary working for the bad guy. Actor Manny Jacinto successfully sells the transformation from hapless henchman to glowering evildoer.

But the reveal of his face almost didn't matter because the audience had already been distracted by Jacinto's impossibly chiseled arms. Creator Leslye Headland—or her costume designer—clothed Jacinto in the Sith version of a muscle shirt—muscle cloak?—so that he could bare his veiny biceps during the fight. The impressive choreography of the lightsaber duel also allowed Jacinto to flex those arms...a lot.

The scene went viral—and not just because of the character's swordsmanship. Entertainment Weekly quickly posted a cover featuring Jacinto's arms. "Qimir, you're despicable (omg arms). I hate you (ARMS). I don't even want to look at you (how did you get those—). Get AWAY from me (oh no I tripped into your biceps," tweeted a fan account. "I need him biblically. I need him in a way that is concerning to feminism. Ok?" tweeted another.

Manny Jacinto in The Acolyte on Disney+
The Stranger (Manny Jacinto) in The AcolyteChristian Black—LucasFilm

"Manny Jacinto's arms are tying people in knots today," observed film writer Drew McWeeny. "Manny Jacinto's arms are going to bring people to the acolyte the way Jeremy Allen White's arms brought people to the bear it's all connected we live in a beautiful world," echoed culture writer Leah Marilla Thomas.

Jacinto isn't the only bad guy in genre TV who has audiences hot and bothered. House of the Dragon is littered with morally reprehensible hotties like Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) and Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel). For some reason, Sauron (Charlie Vickers), a character who appears primarily as a large flaming eye in the movies, is a hot human in the Lord of the Rings prequel series The Rings of Power. And on Stranger Things, Jamie Campbell Bower—who also played a smokin' young version of Harry Potter baddie Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts movies—is definitely bringing thirst trap energy to his portrayal of young Vecna.

The trend isn't relegated to the small screen. In Dune: Part Two, Austin Butler's Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen may have no eyebrows and black teeth, but it's hard to cover up his sexual magnetism. Heck, Léa Seydoux's character didn't seem all that upset about being assigned a mission to seduce the snake-like masochist. And though the prosthetic nose that Chris Hemsworth donned to play Dementus in Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is certainly distracting, it's difficult to draw too much attention away from that fact that Hemsworth is one of the most charming—and jacked—actors working in Hollywood today.

The sexy bad guy isn't new, particularly in genre fare. Look at Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger in Black Panther, Tom Hiddleston's Loki in the original Avengers, and—though they tried to disguise his handsomeness—Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight. And Star Wars has been filled with evil seducers, from Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). But now thirst trap villains are everywhere, and they are sending the Internet into a frenzy.

Read More: Breaking Down the Complex Targaryen Family Tree on House of the Dragon

Why, exactly, are so many smoke shows showing up as villains, particularly in fantasy and sci-fi? One simple explanation is the ever-growing pressure on men in Hollywood to bulk up, whether they're playing a superhero, a hot dog vendor, or, yes, the antagonist of a film. And perhaps the traditional handsome hero has gotten boring—or unrealistic. Game of Thrones and its many copycats upended fantasy and sci-fi tropes and pushed genre storytelling into the realm of realism and cynicism. There reside the morally complicated men, if not outright dirtbags.

But, if we're being generous, there may also be specific plot reasons that casting directors are turning to enticing men, in particular, for these roles.

Sexual tension with a scumbag

Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen and Emma D'Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen in 'House of the Dragon' Season 2
Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen and Emma D'Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen in House of the Dragon Season 2.Ollie Upton—HBO

Historically, villains have been repulsive in some way. They had traits that were deemed socially or physically undesirable to cue the audience to hate them from the jump. They might have been physically grotesque, at least in the eyes of a child: The resurrected Voldemort had no nose; Darth Vader was scarred all over his body; the Wicked Witch was green. They might have been megalomaniacs. Often—and problematically—they were queer-coded (looking at you, Disney!).

And yet the bad boy has long been a trope of popular culture, particularly in a genre when the differences between bad and good are heightened to life-and-death stakes. In fantasy, the bad boy doesn't just cut class and smoke cigarettes: He cuts off people's appendages and burns them to death with dragon fire.

Sometimes the villain's sexiness exists to create tension between the hero and the antagonist: Remember the charged Force Chat scene between a shirtless Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, post-chest-day at the gym) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) in Star Wars: The Last Jedi? Or the palpable vibes shared by Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock and Andrew Scott's Moriarty in Sherlock? Between Spike (James Marsters) and Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) in Buffy? And, for a time, Angel (David Boreanaz) and Buffy in Buffy?

In these overwhelmingly heteronormative stories, creators explore the eternal question of why, exactly, (some) women are attracted to scumbags. It's a dumb cliche, but it exists for a reason. Social media allows us to embrace the most basic versions of ourselves (see: girl dinner, treat culture, etc.) and, when it comes to fandom, swoon over these men in a way that feels fun and unencumbered even if the reality is far more complicated.

In The Rings of Power, Charlie Vickers, when he's disguised as the mysterious human Halbrand, is styled like Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, wet mop top and all. Halbrand is even channeling his noble-yet-scruffy vibes. Aragorn is the platonic ideal of an honorable warrior, so humble that he masquerades as a mere journeyman rather than the king he's destined to become. And, as any Lord of the Rings fan with a pulse can tell you, Aragorn is the original genre thirst trap. The gif of him opening the doors at Helm's Deep was a sexual awakening for many a nerdy millennial.

Halbrand and the hero Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) definitely vibe, even if they don't develop full-blown romantic feelings for one another. The creators have described it as sharing a "connection." That's why it's particularly devastating for Galadriel (and shocking for the audience) when Halbrand reveals himself to be Sauron, the most evil being of all time.

Read More: Who Is Sauron on The Rings of Power? All the Clues You Missed

A disproportionate number of the male characters in House of the Dragon are utterly despicable and yet irresistible. Daemon is the original: In the very first episode, he both charms his niece and future wife Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock, and later Emma D'Arcy) with a rare necklace and doles out punishments as the head of the City Guard by chopping off criminals' penises. (You take the bad with the good.) King Aegon II is petulant, crude, and vengeful—among his many crimes, he kills dozens of innocent rat catchers for the sake of hanging one guilty one. But he has a certain charm and swagger that, say, King Joffrey never had in Game of Thrones.

Lately, the Internet has been up-in-arms about Ser Criston Cole, one of the most loathsome characters in the history of the Game of Thrones franchise (and that's saying something!). His transgressions include beating a man to death at a wedding because he was feeling insecure about a girl; killing another man by slamming his head into a marble because he was feeling weak; and sending a third man on a suicide mission because he was feeling guilty about sullying his purity. Yes, Criston is in desperate need of therapy.

And yet both of the main characters, Rhaenyra and Alicent (Olivia Cooke) have had dalliances with this man. Why? Well, just look at him. Are we to really think any less of Rhaenyra or Alicent or Galadriel for crushing on terrible dudes? A little. But it's relatable to fall for the charming jerk. It happens in rom-coms all too often. Maybe the women think that they can reform the bad boys. We all make mistakes—including badass ladies who sit atop dragons and wield swords.

The villain's "big reveal"

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power - 105
Charlie Vickers and Morfydd Clark in The Rings of PowerCourtesy of Prime Video

A major trope of genre television is the villain twist: Suddenly a friendly interloper reveals that they have been evil all along. See: the "It Was Agatha All Along" song from WandaVision, a young Tom Riddle ghost revealing that he's actually Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Chris Evans' Ransom admitting to his plot in Knives Out—hotties, all of them.

Theoretically the revelation will prove more surprising if the good-guy-turned-bad-guy is attractive. Audiences trust attractive people more. There's actually a study to prove it. And writers love to play on our expectations of a particular actor. Chris Evans was best known for playing the ultimate do-gooder Captain America, so his turn as a villain surprised Marvel fans.

The Acolyte attempts something similar with Jacinto, who is best known for playing cute dummy Jason Mendoza on The Good Place. Jason was slow but harmless and utterly adorable. The character that Jacinto's Sith initially pretends to be, a drunken apothecary named Qimir, channels Jason Mendoza's pothead spaciness. Qimir's personality radically changes when he reveals himself to be a Sith Lord.

Stranger Things didn't try to hide Jamie Campbell Bower's evil look. After all, he was already known in the fantasy world for playing a villain. But the show worked hard to build empathy for his character, someone who at least initially seemed to be an innocent victim of experimentation, just like the main character, Eleven (Mille Bobby Brown). His handsomeness helped to mask the scope of his evil ambitions. So while fans theorized he might be a bad guy, many didn't believe him to be the bad guy, Vecna, particularly because Vecna looks like a spidery zombie. At least some of us were fooled.

Pushing the bounds of hotness onscreen

Chris Hemsworth in Furiosa
Chris Hemsworth as Dementus in Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga Jasin Boland—Warner Bros.

Sometimes, I think directors are trolling us. They decide to cast a particularly handsome A-list celebrity in a villain role. But then they ask the heads of the makeup department, "What if this bad guy were super hot except for one weird thing?"

Take Chris Hemsworth, best known for playing Thor, a literal god. He's still sporting the build of a superhero and those flowing locks in Furiosa. But in his eternal wisdom, director George Miller decided to give Hemsworth a big schnoz. Perhaps Miller thought the prosthetic made Hemsworth read less like Thor. Hemsworth has said the nose helped him "get out of the way" of himself while acting the part. I also believe it's there to confuse the audience further about their feelings about this character. We can often easily forgive a handsome man for terrible things. But what about a man who challenges our notions of handsomeness?

It can be really hard to hide certain actors' attractiveness. A hairless Austin Butler in Dune: Part Two is still more handsome than just about anyone else in the galaxy. Though in this case, that's the point. Butler's Feyd-Rautha is a creep, to be sure. But he's also the potential future leader of the Harkonnen clan, looked upon by his uncle and a cult of witches called the Bene Gesserit as a possible great leader. He is the warped reflection of our hero, Paul Atreides (Timothy Chalamet), equally as handsome, equally as skilled, equally as royal, but twisted. (Feyd-Rautha's uncle Baron Harkonnen, by contrast, is one of the more disgusting villains we've seen onscreen in a minute: He looks like a literal slug. Our feelings for him are pure and simple loathing.)

In a way, I appreciate that The Acolyte didn't even try to pretend that Manny Jacinto wasn't a babe. They embraced it. And random people on the Internet are already posting fitness videos to help fans bulk up like Qimir. (Yes, seriously.)

Whatever the thought process behind recruiting ridiculously good-looking men for these roles, the practice allows the type of actor usually relegated to playing the goodie two-shoes, plenty of range. After all, it's way more fun to play the villain than the hero.

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