What is the incentive structure for the henchmen of Bond villains?
June 22, 2022 4:04 AM   Subscribe

Not sure if people have noticed, but many aspects of Bond stories are implausible. I wondering if in the original books or any of the movies the issue of why anyone would become the henchmen of a villain is addressed? They're treated as disposable and couldn't have much of a personal life living in the evil lair. Are they essentially slaves? Cultishly committed to the cause? Promised some big pay-off after the diabolical plans reach fruition?
posted by Jon44 to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I read most of the Bond novels in my youth, and I recall that these issues were elided entirely in the service of the simplistic good-vs-evil narrative.
I urge you to watch the Venture Bros tv show which explored your exact question in some depth.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 4:25 AM on June 22 [10 favorites]

Psychopaths like to be violent and have a very poor self-control / future time orientation. Perfect doomed henchman material without any necessary commitment to cause or being under constraint of the boss.
posted by MattD at 4:41 AM on June 22

I mean, obviously it doesn't really work, just like the economics of building a volcano lair or a moon base don't work either. Most of the Bond villains don't even really have any ideology for their henchmen to latch onto, which would make cult-like devotion difficult to achieve. If they're enslaved, it seems like a bad idea to go around giving them weapons (which are generally an important part of the Bond henchman experience). The "future payoff" idea seems most plausible but given that it's transparently obvious that the supervillain will screw you over at the first possible opportunity, it would be difficult to attract quality employees (only desperate people and complete idiots would take these contracts).

I do love the Venture Bros explorations of the difficulties of managing lazy and unstable henchmen! Another good one is Natalie Zina Walschots' book Hench - both of these take place in a superpowered context rather than a Bond villain context, but I feel like the same employment and economic issues would apply.

Also if you want to get really confused, spend 30 seconds thinking about the economics of the John Wick universe (who is paying for all this infrastructure?!).
posted by mskyle at 5:12 AM on June 22 [7 favorites]

posted by amtho at 6:12 AM on June 22 [5 favorites]

They're shippers on deck for Bond and the villain?
posted by humbug at 6:33 AM on June 22 [1 favorite]

I was thinking about this same subject recently when I was watching some other movie with henchmen. The only thing that made sense is the they work like Mexican drug cartels. The henchmen are forced (either physically, or by circumstance) into service and are basically slaves.
posted by jonathanhughes at 6:47 AM on June 22

Perhaps a similar dynamic to whatever keeps organized crime goons in the family -- poor life skills, good money, women. None of which explain Minions, but I guess they have good movie residuals.
posted by lhauser at 6:56 AM on June 22 [2 favorites]

Not Bond-related, but I found this novel (Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots) about henchmen for hire a fun premise. They’re mostly super-humans with powers that aren’t very strong or kind of specific (e.g., super smelling). In the book they’re hired on through a temp agency and the characters have different reasons for doing it… some for money, others to be close to greatness. The lead character ends up with a super villain and her sense of morality and what’s right is tested.
posted by Bunglegirl at 7:03 AM on June 22

There are a lot of people who work (or even volunteer!) for companies and organisations that you and I would probably think of as "evil".

And there are a lot of people who live at their workplace for long periods of time (with Proper Jobs, not virtual slavery), places you and I would probably think of as not very desirable (e.g. oil rigs).

So it doesn't seem inconceivable to me that there would be people willing to work in security, engineering, science, or any of the presumably many supporting roles, for good money.

And, we think of these "villains" as completely evil, but we're probably seeing a very biased version from Bond's point of view! In that world, maybe the villains have good PR, and their employees don't always realise how totally evil their big boss is?

I bet many of these "villains", in the real world, would be good at Twitter and have loads of fanbois...
posted by fabius at 7:08 AM on June 22 [2 favorites]

As a side note, that was something that made Casino Royale so good. There were high stakes, but it wasn’t “save the world from impending doom” stakes like most of the movies tend to be written around. Le Chiffre isn’t surrounded by an army of henchmen that seem to conveniently pop up at every corner.

For an ideal candidate of the job of henchman, you need someone with poor economic prospects, a willingness to discard morals for money, and someone who will buy in to the company culture. The first two work well in tandem, and the latter two do as well. You’re giving people jobs, people that typically can’t find quality employment, and you’re giving them a pretty good standard of living. Oh and they get to play with guns and look down on other people. That’s all the incentive a lot of people need - good pay, security, and perks like those just mentioned. There’s a lot of people who will ignore the possibility of getting screwed over later for a better life now. And sure, they’re disposable in the eyes of the boss, but none of them think they’re going to lose a fight. These aren’t forward thinking people.
posted by azpenguin at 7:26 AM on June 22 [4 favorites]

This is also explored in the famous Hank Scorpio episode of the Simpsons - pensions, stock options, generous vacation allowance and an excellent cafeteria in the lair are all a part of the compensation package.
posted by chuke at 7:41 AM on June 22 [8 favorites]

In Moonraker, the villain's plan is to destroy all human life on Earth and start fresh. It seems likely that Drax has convinced all his underlings that they going to get to live in the new world.

At the climax of the movie while Drax monologues his plan, Bond gets him to reveal to his underling "Jaws" that he and his new girlfriend probably won't be saved and they end up switching sides.
posted by justkevin at 7:44 AM on June 22 [2 favorites]

I assume that many Bond fights are against small countries, so the economics works out fine, and the local army is training, arming, and supplying the henchman. The local army also goes on excursions either overtly or covertly, which explains why they are present in other countries to hassle Bond.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:25 AM on June 22

Only sort of related (and WOW, talk about something that has totally departed the zeitgeist) but the first two deleted scenes in this reel from Austin Powers are about the family/friends of henchmen who were killed in the film getting the news and being distraught.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:59 AM on June 22 [1 favorite]

IMO henchpersoning probably works out through high pay and low risk — most of the time they're just hanging around, posing with their guns and trying to not fall into the piranha tank. It's important to recognize that what we see in Bond movies is the exception; Bond isn't everywhere all the time harassing villains and their henchppl. What we see in the movies is the climax of a life of villany and henchpersoning, likely pretty cushy overall. Does it fall apart once the hero arrives? Sure, but that's not the daily state and people in general are great at ignoring the likely end-state of their bad plans.

Bond villains are also clearly extremely wealthy, so the henchppl's needs can be taken care of easily in that way that organized crime takes care of their ppl — not direct cash, but apartments, foods, and luxuries that you end up getting hooked on.

There's also always people who would love to get paid to hold guns and cosplay as cop/soldier, unfortunately. Add in a healthy dose of charismatic leadership and you've got a successful hench recipe.
posted by wemayfreeze at 10:31 AM on June 22 [2 favorites]

"Henchman" has interesting etymology: in English it originally meant a groom - somebody principally concerned with horses. In Scots "Hanchman" has a similar root - but (still today) means the trusty follower or bodyguard of a clan chief - not a pejorative term but an actual position. To me, both terms give a clue as to why a character might be motivated to take on such a job: to the groom it is an attraction to working with the pricey toys belonging to the villain: the horses. The owner and the henchman share an attraction to the horses (shark tanks, giant lasers, etc) and that can be perceived incorrectly, as direct loyalty.

Or perhaps we are talking about the role in its Scottish context: you are the right hand man of the chief because you are blood relatives and because the chief protects you. I would recommend ChrisO's great Twitter thread on corruption in the Russian military for his mention of the idea of "krysha" or protection: as a junior aspiring evil genius, you employ goons to give you physical protection - and in turn they are protected by your evil strategic foresight. In time, this rather isolates you both from the world of people who are not part of this network and bonds you together. Perhaps the goons would rather be serving somebody less psychotic and irritating - and perhaps you would like to be a little further away from the not-great smelling goons - but tough luck: economics aside, you are in the same clan and it would be very dangerous for either of you to get too independent.
posted by rongorongo at 10:46 AM on June 22

Extortion -- blackmail (villain keeps LEO in pocket, would sacrifice Flunkie #4 with no hesitation), threats to loved ones.
The "Death Star Contractors" scene in Clerks.
spend 30 seconds thinking about the economics of the John Wick universe (who is paying for all this infrastructure?!)

Assassins are taxpayers, too? 2017's Understanding The John Wick Economy (Forbes; an ungated wiki entry) riffs off Gold coins, million-dollar contracts and the John Wick economy (Washington Post; archived); "the Continental it is “one coin for a drink, a coin for a gun, a coin for a favor, etc.” Why would all of these things be priced equally? Perhaps most of what you’re purchasing isn’t the good or service, but the good or service plus the security of working within the criminal economy." Counterpoint: Per the film's directors, the coins are akin to business cards.
posted by Iris Gambol at 11:13 AM on June 22

The presenters of the Kill James Bond podcast theorize they're all hired through the Hench app.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 1:28 PM on June 22 [2 favorites]

Just because they're evil bad guys, it doesn't mean they're operating in the shadows or being publicly evil. Some of them just buried their evil plots under the guise of regular big-business capitalism or government contracting. The number of gun-toting henchmen is much lower than the number of regular workers/scientists/etc. who are in the dark about the boss' true endgame. And even the gun-toting henchmark could very well believe they are offering vital security services to protest their employer's interests and prevent sabotage.

Not to give the plot away, but here's the copy from the back cover of my copy of Moonraker.

"When Bond is asked to settle a dispute over 'ungentlemanly behaviour' at an exclusive gambling club, the affair is embarrassing in the extreme. For the accused is the unimpeachable Sir Hugo Drax, business tycoon, popular hero, patriot extraordinary--and head of the multi-million pound Moonraker missile programme on which Britain's future defence depends."
posted by sardonyx at 2:25 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]

According to Mitchell and Webb, in some cases the henchmen probably stick around for the... light refreshments.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:21 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]

I'm just saying that a lot of us who work in tech made some really bad life/work balance and economic decisions in our 20s, and anyone who thinks that henchmen destroying themselves for a demonstrably evil and yet somehow charismatic leader are unrealistic didn't work in optimistic tech companies in the late '80s and '90s...
posted by straw at 3:38 PM on June 22 [4 favorites]

Are they essentially slaves?

No, they're contractors. These evil masterminds are rich, and pay well. Or promise to pay well.
posted by Rash at 4:01 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]

The "future payoff" idea seems most plausible but given that it's transparently obvious that the supervillain will screw you over at the first possible opportunity, it would be difficult to attract quality employees (only desperate people and complete idiots would take these contracts).

I used to think "Why would anyone become a henchman to an evil boss when the boss will dispose of you at the first bump in the road?" "That's just totally unrealistic, no one would take that job". And then Trump happened and for whatever reason he inspires loyalty in people he will throw under a bus (and often not pay them too). And not just desperately poor people. Lawyers (some of them successful by any measure), career politicians, family members, and business people. So I still don't know what motivates people to sidle up to and be loyal to evil when evil isn't loyal to it.
posted by Mitheral at 5:58 PM on June 22 [4 favorites]

The Godfather actually is pretty good about delving into the motivations of henchmen. Spoiler alert: loyalty is often squishy and transient.
posted by credulous at 10:10 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]

That was always why this scene from Iron Man 3 is one of my favorites: "Honestly, I hate working here, they are so weird."
posted by kitten kaboodle at 10:25 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]

So I still don't know what motivates people to sidle up to and be loyal to evil when evil isn't loyal to it.

I heard something the other day, it may have well been on Metafilter, to the effect that most fascists don't actually get into it because they feel lost and they want to follow some big mean daddy. They become fascists because they're full of hate and they want to hurt people, some designated "other," and joining the big mean daddy's gang suits their aims and makes them feel like they're part of something powerful.

That might explain what's going on with a lot of Trump's followers, but I'm not sure how well it applies to Bond movie henchmen. They generally strike me as sadistic mercenary types, guys who may enjoy murdering and maiming but are mainly in it for the cash. They'll turn on the boss in an instant if they sense he means them harm or a better deal comes along. In other words, they may be evil but they're not as dumb as Trumpists.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 11:21 PM on June 22

I sort of assume some of the logic behind this can be summed up by the immortal line from Pretty Woman: "It's the kill you love, not me!" Working for a bad guy enables you to do bad things and doing bad things makes you happy.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:36 AM on June 23 [1 favorite]

I genuinely don't know how anyone can ask this question with a straight face after watching what T-Rump has been able to do to the Republicans in the last 5 years... It's incredible the effect sociopathic narcissist con-men bullies can have over some people. More people than we feel comfortable admitting, IMO. People are just slightly more thinky primates. Power is a helluva drug.
posted by SinAesthetic at 7:59 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]

This is why I avoid power. I'm afraid that I'd turn into a complete asshole with one tiny taste of yummy, yummy power, like so many others. Also, "power corrupts" was hammered into my head for years in honors classes in high school.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:16 PM on June 24

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