I’m going to go ahead and start this series covering some different antagonist character types, which matchup with characters in MLP. Here I hope to cover what makes the antagonist, likeable or hated, evil or hostile, redeemable vs unredeemable, and their purpose, both within universe, and from a writing standpoint. Most of this is going to be fairly quick and more of an overview.
Evil or Hostile
Nightmare Moon is likely the epitome of a classic villain in FIM. Her creation was essentially an evil transformation by Princess Luna, into NMM. Nightmare Moon is easy to classify as evil, her actions are clearly malicious, and she intentionally causes harm, not as a side-effect, but as a goal. For example, she intentionally causes harm during her first appearance by shooting guards with lightning, even though she could have just disappeared with a similar result, as she does moments later. Her appearance also indicates such a thing, from her blue black color scheme, to her standard evil laugh, to her cat eye pupils, to her magic style. Taken as a whole, everything she is represents some perversion of pony society. Her harsher voice and laugh are a perversion of voice, as contrasted against all other characters so far. Her color scheme and armor is far more saturated, using vibrant coats of black and purple, as opposed to the schemes used by other characters, which are lighter and softer. Furthermore her detail lines are purple as opposed to black, something that separates her from the entire rest of the cast, leading to a very different color scheme. Her size furthers the difference, as there are several shots, where she directly compares her height to others. Even her magic style is irregular, as her horn need not glow to manifest magic. Her depiction is designed to invoke a sense of complete wrongness.
NMM’s purpose is easy to define; she exists to serve as a test to bring the mane 6 together, her appearance causes the conflict, and her defeat immediately ends it. Her characterization is sufficiently “typically” evil that an argument could be made that she doesn’t actually do anything. All of the harm she causes the mane 6 is indirect, serving instead to act as a force of evil, of invisible malicious intent, rather than a single character. She is an obstacle more than a character, and how ponies behave around Princess Luna indicates such a thing. Their responses refer to Luna, either as a completely different pony than NMM, or as NMM, and not Luna. There is no one in the universe that sees Luna and NMM as the same character, besides Luna. Arguably after Luna forgives herself in season 5, they are entirely different characters from the perspective of the cast. This furthers the idea that NMM is not Luna and instead is something else. They are separate entities even though they have the “same” body. From a writing perspective it makes Luna easy to bring back to her former status, while also setting the groundwork for the series, as a one shot villain gives a lot of room to work with early on.
Redeemable or Unredeemable
NMM is clearly unredeemable. “But wait didn’t they redeem Luna?“ Not quite, as the elements of harmony removed the influence of NMM on Luna and arguably destroyed NMM. After the destruction of NMM, Luna can now freely act, and didn’t need any more redemption, assuming we ignore her own guilt, furthering the idea that NMM and Luna are different characters. This leads me to why NMM is unredeemable. Since NMM is not a character and is more a force of plot, for lack of a better term, it would follow that the force cannot change without being something different. Therefore NMM cannot be redeemable. Classic villains in general are often like this, being evil is part of their character. Redeeming them removes a crucial piece of their identity. If NMM wasn’t evil, what would she be? She would be Luna, an entirely different character. If Maleficent or the Evil Witch weren’t evil, who would they be? The audience has no idea, and such a portrayal can be jarring, as them being evil is such an essential piece of their character, which ties back into their purpose of being forces of evil.
Classical Villain characters I find do not create much of an emotional response, either positive or negative, to their character. While their actions may invoke great feeling, such as when they kick the dog, they are just as likely to pet the kitty. They are judged by their actions and less then by their character. For a character such as NMM, she is an active agent, but there is nothing she does that would truly make her despicable, the closest thing might be when she smashes the elements of harmony or states her aims of bringing eternal darkness to the world. In terms of villain standards, this is rather tame, impersonal, it is just business, the nature of a good and evil struggle. It is much in the same line as Star Wars episode III, with the duel between Yoda and Sidious, they are fighting because of who they are and what they represent, it just isn’t personal; she doesn’t go out of her way to inflict harm where it does nothing. Her lightning bolts at the beginning invoke fear, and at the very least inspire enough respect to let her speak. Classical Villains are like forces of nature; sure they cause great harm where they go, but they fail to invoke feelings, positive or negative towards them. It is hard to personally hate a classical villain, much in the same way it is hard to hate a natural disaster, they cause harm because of who and what they are, it just isn’t personal.
Nightmare Moon is clearly evil, but she lacks the personal touch that makes characters easy to hate or love. She is likely designed as such, to make bringing Luna back into the fold much easier. Since NMM’s actions do not outlive her defeat, Luna does not have to face the consequences of such a thing as Gilda will, even so, she must make some effort to come together with everyone else, as her episodes demonstrate.