It’s one of the most iconic action-adventure setups of all time: the heroes must overcome incredible odds to defeat the Big Bad. Everyone loves an underdog story, so what gives the villain their big advantage over the good guys? Why, an enormous army of identical shock troops, of course.
Darth Vader had the Stormtroopers. Sauron had his army of orcs. Even that guy from Despicable Me had a horde of walking Twinkies™ very literally called “Minions.”
So how did these guys earn their place as Monsters of the Week? Why are they scary?
Here’s the thing… they’re not.
Okay, sure. Maybe the very first time you watched Star Wars, the Stormtroopers were scary for the first twenty minutes or so. Maaaaybe. But after that? You know they’re not going to do any serious damage to our heroes. The rare protagonist death or injury is almost exclusively reserved for named villains. The legion of minions becomes set dressing, just an accessory to remind the audience that the villain is powerful or cruel. The individual minions aren’t really characters any more than that giant boulder from Indiana Jones is. They become obstacles rather than people.
What’s more, they’re not very dangerous obstacles. Henchmen of this type are so notorious for their bad aim that they’ve become a running joke. They exist solely to lose fights with our heroes. Most genre-savvy audiences know this: it’s how they can happily munch away at their popcorn through the action sequences without choking on a kernel when the main character suddenly drops dead in Act I. That just doesn’t happen. And for good reason—it would be pretty difficult to pull a stunt like that and stick the landing.
So, the legion of minions isn’t scary after all. Then what’s the point?
Well, that’s a matter of tone. In a feel-good action flick where we all know that Indiana Jones or James Bond is going to make it to the end of the movie, the henchmen don’t necessarily have to scare the audience. Bear in mind that there’s a difference between scaring the audience and scaring the characters—we might know Indy’s going to be okay in the end, but if he never once fears for his life then the story’s not going to be very suspenseful. Outnumbering the hero is a good way to make the characters afraid and force them to be resourceful: the henchman as obstacle. Go ahead, own it—as long as you know what you’re doing.
In a story with a more realistic tone, though, you want to sell them as a serious threat. These are your gritty war stories, the kind where the audience is on the edge of their seats because no character is truly safe. How do you turn a ridiculed set decoration into something that’s really frightening?
The genuinely menacing legion of minions is scary for two reasons: numbers and sameness. Even the strongest hero can be outnumbered. An audience will rarely blame the protagonist for backing down when they’re surrounded. But in a situation where surrender is not an option, being outnumbered carries the implicit threat of being killed. That’s how the minion army can change from obstacle to threat.
Sameness is an interesting one from a psychological perspective. Anti-communist sentiment has colored the last seventy or so years of Western media, and uniformity was a common metaphor for communism in film and literature. That taps into nationalist fears cultivated by years of Cold War propaganda. Seventy years is a long time—it could certainly explain the popularity and longevity of this trope in modern American media.
But turn back the clock just a little bit more and you’ll find an awful lot of archival footage that features Nazi troops marching in unison, a sea of Aryan faces and identical uniforms moving with robotic precision. The Stormtroopers of Star Wars fame even take their linguistic roots from a Nazi military rank. You’d be hard pressed to find a more universally feared and hated group in the last century than the Nazis. On an even broader scope, the uniformed legion feeds into our fear of war or invasion in general.
But whether your tone is gritty or goofy, it never hurts to keep the stakes high, and it’s hard to do that if the audience doesn’t take your bad guys seriously. The single biggest way to keep your henchmen from turning into joke is to actually let them hit something every once in a while. Make them effective. So they injure the hero, making their escape tougher, or maybe they manage to kill off one of the secondary characters.
Another, more meta, way to make them stand out is to give a few of them names and dialogue wherever possible. As every genre-savvy audience knows, a named enemy has 65% higher accuracy than Masked Soldier #5. Don’t let this trick become a gimmick, though—if you don’t follow through by actually letting them do some real damage or affect the plot, it’s going to feel like a cheat. No one likes wasting their time learning names for characters that don’t matter. This technique also comes at the expense of the mob’s off-putting homogeneity, and done poorly, can even create unintentional sympathy for the antagonists. Too much character development and you could argue that they don’t even fit the “Legion of Minions” role anymore.
Prompt: Put yourself into the role of a commander overseeing a regiment of minions. They’ve become a laughingstock, ridiculed by their enemies for their terrible aim and general ineffectiveness. How will you get them to shape up? Write a story about how this commander turns them into a force to be reckoned with, or insert the triumphant squadron into a tabletop adventure. Then head down to the comments and tell us about what you wrote, or better yet, post a link!
So, what do you think? Any examples of a genuinely scary legion of minions, or examples when you think letting henchmen become obstacles either worked or didn’t? Leave a comment!