Villains and why we love them

Darth Vader regularly tops the list, but for a new generation of small screen and big screen villains you’re more likely to consider Dexter of the TV series of the same name or even The Joker, not the 60’s Joker mind, the character bought to chaotic crazed life by Heath Ledger in the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy.

It’s often been said the hero is nothing without a good villain – but when you think of some films, the villain defines the film.

Look at Alien in the Alien films. Evolving over the course of the movie into three distinct creatures, this landmark beast is, first and foremost, a brilliantly dark conception. Arnie in The Terminator – He became something of a softie in the sequels, so we’ll always prefer Arnold Schwarzenegger’s relentless cyborg in James Cameron’s lean, mean ’80s action flick. He stalks his prey so mercilessly  that you long to pull the plug yourself. Even Gordon Gecko in that 80’s classic Wall Street – equal parts seductive charm and cutthroat corporate, Michael Douglas’s iconic role turned a stock-market Master of the Universe into Satan in suspenders. Gekko’s philosophy—“Greed…is good”—summed up the get-rich ’80s to a tee; his idolization by a generation of white-collar alpha males suggests Douglas may have played this villain a little too well.

But enough of the 80s, more recently villains have even won Oscars. As was the case with Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. The bowl haircut was scary enough but Bardem also had implacable cool. “What business is it of yours where I’m from…friendo?” Ultimately, this bounty hunter wins on sheer unstoppability, blowing holes in doorways and pursuing his prey with unswerving drive.

From his serpentine face (the missing nose is a perfect touch) to the bone-chilling way he hisses his arch-nemesis’s name—”Haaa-ryyy Pahhh-ter!”—Ralph Fiennes turned J.K. Rowling’s fallen wizard into the personification of that old black magic. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named doesn’t really need a moniker; he simply answers to evil.

The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is built on the shoulders of the anti-hero, scoundrel and all round self absorbed Jack Sparrow – but audiences love that despite his agenda redemption is always part of the equation.

More recently Hollywood has decided to mine or create origin stories of its classic villains. First up Charlize Theron gave the evil Queen in Snow White a put-upon childhood and Theron easily was the most interesting character in that movie. Coming to a cinema next year is Maleficent. You remember her? The villain of the classic Disney animated film Sleeping Beauty. Angelina Jolie will bring the classic evil fairy villainess to life in all her live-action glory next year.

Scary, but why do we watch. What is so seductive about the villain?

On some level we relate to the villain more than the hero. Why? Because flawless is not something us humans do well. That is not to say that we agree with what a villain does on screen and we always strive to do the right thing…

Now, obviously, I know Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight was an incredible feat of acting that pulled the story and attentions of the audience so that they were centreed on him. I just found it funny because that movie will forever be epitomised by the Joker. It’s like, when you think of The Dark Knight, the first thing you think of is the Joker. Amazing.

In my mind if I had to classify film villains there seems to be three archetypes: the evil, the misguided and the chaotic.

The evil villain is your classic antagonist. It was the most common form of antagonist a few decades ago and was characterised by a lack of motive and/or simply being evil for the sake of evil – think Alan Rickman/Hans Gruber from the original Die Hard. Being evil for money and power are included in this – what we have here is a character that is evil to the core with no evidence of a wider range of emotions because the character’s sole purpose for being created was to be the villain. Other examples include most Disney villains, most villains of movies with aliens in them, and most serial killers or action movie villains where the motive is personal gain, so in short most 80s films –let’s be fair. You can tell that a more diverse opinion was never shown for these characters because they only wanted you to think of them as the bad guy that needed to be extinguished.

The misguided villain is the one who starts doing evil things out of the belief that they are acting in a “greater good”, are mislead or corrupted by a greater evil, or even just to avenge a horrible tragedy they experienced in their past. These are the villain that you mourn for when they die, and the ones that you wish could be converted back to the right path. Darth Vader is the best example of this type of villain and most other villains of any movie that tries to show an antagonist that repents at the end and delivers some sort of moral message. These villains are humanised more, and have more depth in character because they seem more real. To err is to be human, and it makes us wonder, how far would we go for the greater good and how far would we fall without even realising it? These villains are becoming more popular in contemporary media. More examples.

Finally, we have the chaotic villain. It would be easier to describe this villain with an example than to explain it first, so I’ll just say the Joker (in The Dark Knight) is a chaotic villain. Alfred sums it up nicely with his famous quote “Because some men can’t be understood through logic, such as money. They can’t be bullied, controlled or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” The Joker doesn’t want money. As he says himself “I don’t have plans. I just go with the flow”. He’s such a deliciously evil character because he cannot be predicted, and thus cannot easily be stopped. He’s not powerful because he’s super wealthy or is the leader of a powerful group, he’s powerful because he cannot be understood and because he seems to enjoy going to extremes that a normal human would shudder to think of. A chaotic villain is not necessarily evil – evil is predictable, you can always expect them to do the wrong thing. A chaotic villain simply does things. Sometimes they have unintended consequences – such as the Joker essentially putting the mob out of the picture as a crime force, uniting Gotham and solidifying Batman’s power – which may even be considered good, but in the end you know that something is going to be destroyed because that’s what chaos is. It’s not rational, not logical, follows no process and is not predictable. It just destroys.

Now for the Joker. Let’s be clear, I’m talking about the Joker from The Dark Knight – I don’t want comic book fans attacking me, I admit I don’t know much about the original Joker. I’ve actually touched on some of this above in the chaotic villain explanation, but I just wanted to go a little bit deeper into the Joker’s character. I think he’s deliciously evil (or chaotic, if you go by my definitions) because if nothing else, he is an excellent study of the human pysche.

Why do we love villains?

Because I think, deep down, humans have a penchant for evil. Objectively speaking, we do it every day without realising. Some evils have even become a social norm (such as discrimination) and others have even been endorsed by law (legal loopholes and other evils depending on the country you live in). Given the opportunity, many humans exhibit a strong desire to commit evil. These can be as lowly as stealing when nobody is looking to the abuse of power on a corporate scale.

I’m sure some people will be too shocked at this accusation to give it any serious thought. Some will proclaim infallible ethical behaviour, or point to the statistically tiny amount of good people in the world. Truth is, most people are never in a situation where they can commit evil and get away with it. But if you look at humanity’s history of crimes, the destruction we’ve caused on both each other and everything around us, as well as our self-righteous thinking, as well as the way we treat fellow human beings, let alone other living creatures, I think you might come to realise that of all the living things we have discovered, humans are the most evil.

How does this relate to a good villain? Well a good hero can only act within certain bounds. Being “good” restricts you in how you act, and humans are already very used to the idea of a hero. It’s not realistic and it’s not mind bending. But a villain?

I want to add that I am not declaring all humans evil. I say we have a penchant for evil, but that does not mean we act (or should act) in this way. Choosing not to listen to it is what makes you human.

We love to hate the villain in films because there is truth, no matter how painful, in the natural and just consequences to a slippery slope of bad choices.

What is it about the villain that is so interesting. Whether it’s to see them make better choices, slowly improve over time, or lay down their lives so that someone else might live, redemption is a powerful and resonating piece of storytelling.

Brokenness is a part of humanity, and we can more easily relate to the choices that a character makes in a film or TV show if they are broken too. After all, a believable and relatable character is one of the single-most important elements of an enjoyable story.

Redemption or consequence? One way or the other, I don’t think we really want to see evil succeed. Why? Because we see ourselves in the anti-hero. And we don’t want to be spectators to our own downward spiral of demise. We want to see truth prevail and love conquer hate. Seeing this affirms the deep sense of justice that all of us have in our hearts. Evil will not go unpunished, and no one is too far gone out of redemption’s reach.

Perhaps it’s the darkness that reels us in, because we relate to the darkness. But even so, we yearn for the light.

This reflection was part of a series of talks done in 2013 called Secret Hollywood, you can watch the video of the talk given at City Bible Forum here