If you’ve seen pretty much any movie ever, you may have noticed the film industry’s weird tendency to drop British-accented bad guys into settings where, mysteriously, no one else seems to be British. It’s a convention that cuts across genre: the evil king from Disney’s Robin Hood, Liam Neeson in Batman Begins, Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, Darth Vader — all sounded vaguely British, if not outrightly so. Elizabeth Hurley was the only one with a British accent in that movie Bedazzled, and she played the literal devil.
The reason, as linguist Chi Luu recently explained in JSTOR Daily, is that the accent lends itself well to the particular qualities that make for a compelling movie villain, a cocktail of traits more nuanced than just “pure evil.” Research has shown that speaking in the received pronunciation accent — the “posh” iteration of the British accent, also known as the Queen’s English — makes people appear “more educated, intelligent, competent, physically attractive, and generally of a higher socioeconomic class.” In one study, for example, a researcher delivered the exact same lecture in two different accents, receiving more positive reviews when he did it in received pronunciation. On the other hand, though, RP speakers are also generally considered “less trustworthy, kind, sincere, and friendly than speakers of non-RP accents.” And when you put the two together, you get someone with a fierce intellect and low morals — the perfect combo for a fictional bad guy.
But there’s something else at play, too, Chuu noted: There’s a concept called “standard language ideology,” the belief that there’s one ideal form of a language and then various accented offshoots:
Speakers of the standard form are considered the ones that “have no accent” and any dialect that strays from from that is stigmatized in one way or another. Believing in this concept legitimizes the institutional discrimination of those who don’t use or didn’t grow up with the standard language. The reality is of course that everyone has an accent.
But plenty of people in the U.S. think of the American accent as no accent at all. Giving a movie villain the inflection of another place, then, helps to cast them as some standard deviation away from the norm — an outsider, and a threatening one at that. In other words, we give our villains accents because we don’t want them to sound like us; for proof, look no further than the “Evil Brit” entry on TV tropes.