The Tyrant of Universe 7 stands in one corner. A genetically modified organism stands in the other, the terror of heroes old and new – complete with the tyrant’s genes. Ever since the early days of Dragon Ball, fans have argued over who deserves the title of “better villain” – Frieza or Cell? With our knowledge of storytelling craft, let’s try to determine the more despicable of the two. In examining Frieza vs. Cell, we’ll ask: Who more effectively plays the villain by making the audience crave the hero’s triumph?
When we first meet Frieza, he has already established his credibility as a villain. Vegeta, who menaced Goku more than any villain he’d ever faced, and nearly destroyed Earth, is a mere soldier in Frieza’s army. In fact, Frieza scares Vegeta to death. Such is the gap in their power.
We first see Frieza himself on the planet Namek, looking for the original Dragon Balls so that he can wish for immortality. Frieza in turn is surrounded by goons like Zarbon and Dodoria, who, we discover, are already stronger than Vegeta was during his battle with Goku. Even they stand no chance against their master. His cruelty is on display as he terrorizes and tortures the residents of Namek, asking them about the Dragon Balls.
Immediately, Dragon Ball makes its stakes clear as far as Frieza goes. He is a formidable villain. He presents a serious obstacle to Goku and the other heroes. If he were to get his wish for immortality, there is no telling what he would do. Dragon Ball viewers get the sense that this better be stopped at all costs. There is urgency involved in the story. And Frieza is such a despicable character (a trait enhanced by the close up and personal scenes of his cruelty) that we are invested in making sure he does not succeed.
Cell enters with a far different balance of power. When he first arrives on the scene, he is weaker than some of the “Z Fighters” and what we think are the primary antagonists in the story arc to that point – the Androids. He is alone. He has no army to assist him. Therefore, Cell has to survive by his wits. Frieza never truly got a chance to demonstrate his cunning, because he never needed to. At this point in Dragon Ball, though, Cell has to adopt Sun-Tzu-style strategies.
When he does try to confront one of the Z Fighters head-on, Piccolo, he gets a nasty surprise. He’s also sloppy, as Piccolo tricks him into revealing his background and objectives. Namely, that he needed to absorb Androids 17 and 18 to reach his perfect form.
This could have been a fatal mistake. Now his enemies knew what his objectives were. He was also weaker than some of them, not to mention the Androids he needed to absorb. So he needed to take the quiet route, suppressing his energy and absorbing people to increase his power level.
The chase in the ensuing parts of Dragon Ball show us that Cell has learned from his mistake, at least at this stage of the game. He is not a super villain yet, so he needs to bide his time and know his limits. This makes for an intriguing angle, but to this point, the Frieza arc was still better. The scenes where we see Cell absorbing people are brutal, but nothing compared to the emotions that Frieza evokes early on in his arc. In the early story, the Dragon Ball audience is more invested in seeing Frieza defeated than Cell, who almost seems like the underdog. Even after he absorbs Android 17, Cell is still vulnerable because he gets clobbered by Vegeta immediately after this success. With Frieza, we get the feeling that he is the better man in each of his fights prior to Goku. Indeed, he is, because when it appears that deliverance has finally come, it turns out he’s just hiding a different, better form.
Until Cell reaches his own perfect form, he instead carries an underdog quality, almost like he’s a hero rather than a villain.
Frieza vs. Cell at Their Peak
Frieza reaches his peak after he reveals his true form and battles against Goku in an epic first round that the latter loses. This fight is the one where we get Vegeta exhorting Goku to avenge the Saiyan race. It was a fantastic moment that added to the stakes.
In comparison, Cell reaches his peak after achieving his perfect form, having outsmarted Vegeta. Now he begins to act more like Frieza, exhibiting hubris and tyrannical behavior after easily defeating Vegeta and Trunks. He expects an encounter against Goku, but Akirya Toriyama pulls a swerve. Surprisingly, Goku forfeits his match with Cell and admits that he cannot defeat him, but insists that his son, Gohan, can.
This puts Gohan and the Dragon Ball audience on the spot. We had seen Gohan’s fights against villains before. He always exhibited a tremendous latent ability, but it never proved decisive against any villain stronger than Raditz.
This matchup necessitates Gohan to awaken his latent abilities again. Back during the Frieza saga, we somewhat expected Goku to reach Super Saiyan and triumph in the end. Vegeta mentioned the form and Frieza poo-pooed it. Predictable does not necessarily mean bad in storytelling. Mystery is effective, but if you’ve invested your audience in wanting to see the villain fall, they will happily stay until the end. Such was the case here. It was predictable, but highly satisfying.
With Gohan, we do not have this kind of background or stakes. Although we know that the world will be destroyed if he fails, it is still necessary for Dragon Ball to provide a satisfying device that will give him the necessary strength to save it. Akira Toryiama sets this up by Cell creating the lethal Cell Jr.s, which are almost as strong as he is. This applies pressure, but it is still not enough, so Android 16, the peaceful artificial human, Gives Gohan a pep talk. Cell quickly quashes it, literally, by crushing 16’s head. It is a brutal scene, evoking what we saw on Namek, and it makes Gohan snap. He goes Super Saiyan 2 and annihilates Cell with much greater ease than his father defeated his own villain. However, now Gohan’s own arrogance costs him dearly. Goku is killed as a result of his son’s malevolent intent to want to “make Cell suffer.” This is a sly turning of the tables, almost casting the villain as the sympathetic figure at the same time we relish justice being delivered to him. This makes the fight more memorable.
Yet, the overall story arc is disappointing compared to the better story on Namek, because Gohan never truly had a special connection with Android 16. He never even encountered him before his fight. Dragon Ball attempts an emotional moment to catalyze the hero into action, but it is not as effective as its predecessor, which had far more backstory and a far more personal connection. The villain had destroyed the hero’s race. A former antagonist now exhorted him to avenge the Saiyans, conceding his own inability to do so in the process. Gohan’s experience pales in comparison to his father’s.
The Better Villain?
When we look at the key metric between the two – the one which invests us more in wanting his downfall, I would have to go with Frieza. Cell was my favorite Dragon Ball villain growing up, but I must acknowledge the former’s being better as an adult, and having some experience writing fiction myself. The story arc on Namek was far more personal, with an added feeling of high stakes. Obviously, Gohan’s rise to greatness was good, but it felt more haphazard. There was a reason many fans think that Dragon Ball peaked as a series during Goku’s epic battle on Namek against the exterminator of the Saiyans.
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