In science fiction and fantasy we love our villains almost as much as our heroes. Luke Skywalker was (and is!) a personal hero of mine since kindergarten, but Darth Vader remained a close second-favorite. At the time I had no idea about the Skywalker family tree. It would be years until I saw Return of the Jedi so I saw him as nothing short of villainous. The guy killed Obi-Wan and Luke’s daddy and walked around in a scary monster mask, but I still loved him. Oddly, one of the things that I liked most about him wasn’t about him: It was his retinue of mooks – the Stormtroopers.
What is a mook? When I say “mooks”, I don’t mean henchmen or BigBads. Villainy comes in degrees.
Your BigBad is someone like Darth Vader. He or she is the equal of the heroes. A bad guy who has almost complete autonomy to do whatever he wants. He’s the star, or at least co-star.
A henchman answers to the BigBad. He or she is somewhat competent, and an encounter with a henchman is still going to be the start of a pretty bad day. He’ll get a few lines and maybe even have his own subplot.
A mook isn’t either: He or she (or it) is a faceless bullet-catcher or axe-holder. Occasionally one will get a few minutes of stardom on-screen, but it’s usually because the mook is about to get killed in a memorable fashion. Mooks come in groups. Usually hordes. They’re the screaming barbarian hordes, anonymous soldiers and alien monsters.
Sometimes a henchman can end up being a mook. Think of Darth Vader. He’s originally portrayed as a BigBad, and then the Emperor enters the picture. Vader is his henchman. Sometimes henchmen can be revealed as BigBads, too. If a mook becomes a henchman, he’s no longer a mook, but that rarely happens. If it does, then it’s usually because he or she became a fan favorite or inside joke. Using Star Wars as an example, we’ve got Boba Fett. The Fett man was originally just a mook: One of a handful of bounty hunters. People latched on to him, and in the movies, he has obtained pseudo-henchman status. In the Expanded Universe, he’s (usually) a BigBad.
Fiction needs mooks to make drama work. Especially drama involving war or other acts of mass violence. Killing another human being is one of the most taboo things in human society, and depictions of violence on-screen can be pretty darn traumatic depending on how it is portrayed. Mooks make murder palatable for viewers. It’s harder to stomach even fictional killings if we know too much about the bad guys. Learning their names, whether they have kids and what their favorite food is humanizes them. As long as we don’t see them as individuals with thoughts and feelings of their own then they’re easier to dispatch. Mooks come in hordes and most of them look almost exactly alike, so what’s the big deal?
The mooks can also serve as walking demonstrations of the good guy’s skill. Think of when fifteen ninjas jump out of the shadows to attack the hero in an action flick. They circle up around him in the tactically ridiculous but prescribed combat procedure dictated by the Ninja Union and the good guy dispatches them one by one, usually in a horrific and dismissive manner.
They’re also frightening. Dealing with Vader or Saruman might be something you can handle in your mind, but dealing with their armies? Forget about it. There are just too many of them. At least you can entertain the illusion that you might be able to get the jump on Saruman or maybe run from Vader for a while. Batman villain Bane is a bad, bad guy, but if we all grab shotguns and surround him then even he’s going to have a tough time getting out of that. However, all of these guys have about a zillion mooks. Kill a few and they keep coming. More and more of them. Eventually, you’ll be overwhelmed, even if you’re handy with a blaster or sword.
Even though they’re the little guys of the epic stories we love, they play an integral role in supporting the villains we love to hate. Without the mooks, we don’t have the sweeping battle scenes and menace factor of the BigBad. So next time you watch The Lord of the Rings, maybe take a second to pay a little extra attention to Orc #13452A. He died for you.