“He’s the most dangerous man alive. Not so much because he believes in his actions, but because he believes his actions are all which life allows him.” – The X-Files
We love villains.
This is not to say we always necessarily like the villain, but time and again the Big Bad’s and lackey antagonists from our favorite series manage to capture our hearts in so many ways. It has become such a common trend, we’ve taken psychological and cultural approaches on the matter to help explain our fascination. But we don’t love them all the same way, do we? Of course not, because the degrees of your appreciation are tied to who villains are as characters. In this article, I want to unpack our individual perspective on the “villain” in general terms, but, more specifically, I want to talk about that gray-zone phenomena of when we find ourselves, as upstanding and decent human beings, fawning over and even sympathizing with those who do evil.
Now, of course, we do not always appreciate a villain because we can relate to them. I feel this is best to get out of the way now. There are many villains we love simply because something about them is so staggeringly different or capable that we can’t help being intrigued by their minds, beliefs, or behaviors. I do not know a single person who is an openly psychopathic anarchist (or has seriously entertained emulating one), but anybody who has seen Batman‘s The Joker in action can’t help but shake this grim interest in his mannerisms, blunt sadism, and horrifying, masochistic humor. Likewise, we are given absolutely no reason to care about the pride-driven actions of The Lion King‘s Scar and his selfish, superimposing rule over the established monarchy by annihilating whoever stands in the way… Unless it is by our mutual pride and narcissism that we build a connection? It’s hard to say, as Scar receives no redemptive character arc at all and dies a hideous death at the hands of those he tried to control. If anything, he’s an object lesson for children. Or the dark, hidden fulfillment we all have of wanting to kill our siblings. Who knows.
But not every villain is The Joker or Scar, who we are fond of not because they remind us of ourselves or evoke some emotional connection. No, we like them just because they’re mad and proactive within their own stories. Nor do we love them as we love Joffrey Baratheon, whose only real appeal seems to be from the mutual togetherness we find in uniformly hating him (speak not of nearly the entire Lannister family roster).
Some villains, however, are pitiable. Either we are reminded of ourselves through them, or we can emphatically and cognitively relate to who they are, what they’ve become, or why they’ve chosen their specific courses of action. It is here we can find the invariably wide expanse of character motivations and historically dormant underpinnings which created them and led to their actions in the present.
Fishing out of a veritable ocean of examples, let’s inspect Breaking Bad‘s Walter White. Walter has been dealt a pretty upsetting hand by life. In spite of his brilliance, his professional career imploded some time ago, forcing him into a position of high school teacher for the intellectually decaying youth of today. Life at home is, as he sees it, a hash of the mundane where nothing promises a future of any particular interest. A vaguely cold distance has formed between he and his wife, and his son would rather have nothing to do with his almost impossibly boring father. To top it all off, he now has cancer. An unfortunate development, putting it mildly, especially when you have no means of providing for your family once you are gone.
With no other options, Walter turns to the only logical option remaining for a chemistry teacher: entering the notoriously violent and spontaneous underworld of the Mexican drug cartel as a methamphetamine manufacturer. Of course, his plan was to get in, make a little green to help his family, and peace out with all his fingers intact. Now, because of Walter’s reasons and the sob story we’ve developed for him in the first few episodes, we (as an audience) hesitantly endorse his behavior. After all, though making meth might be illegal, Walter is acting selflessly and putting himself in harm’s way for the sake of the only people he loves. How noble, indeed.
I will make a point of not diluting this article with a case study of Walter White, as I could easily expend another ten-thousand words about how this man transforms over the following five seasons, morphing from an ignorant klutz about the drug industry into a beautifully sociopathic, god of manipulation which would make the likes of Loki proud (another phenomenal villain that I, sadly, will not be addressing any further). Walter is simply a good exhibit of a character who progresses from heroics into villainy, somebody that we learned to root for and eventually revile. He shows us how our judgments are subject to change based on what we perceive to be “good” behaviors and emotions. He is the subject of our sympathy, gone awry. Other notable mentions of this particular character arc are Illidan from Warcraft, Ganondorf from The Legend of Zelda, and Magneto from X-Men, though all of their motivations are different. You can probably think of several dozen others off the top of your head.
Unlike Walter, sometimes the villain was never a bad person. Or, at least, they didn’t know if they were a bad person or not. Prince Zuko from Avatar the Last Airbender comes to mind. Now Zuko covers nearly the entire spectrum, running from villain in the first season, to anti-hero in the second season, to full-blown member of the hero party by the final season. Zuko is relatable in his own right–a victim of wanting the love of a father who does not care, and a slave to his own inner rage. These are things people can generally relate to or understand. We see Zuko, even at his worst, and we do not think of him as a monster. We see him as somebody who would probably be a good person if only they had a little help and could overcome their obstacles. And when Zuko does those very things, we are inspired, because our human emotions connect to that sense of progress and think: “See, he did it, I can do it, too.” Zuko might have done evil things for a time, but he was not an evil person at the core of it all.
We love characters like Zuko; or Scar from Fullmetal Alchemist or Vegeta from Dragon Ball, though this last example isn’t superb, since Vegeta put himself in a situation where he was genuinely evil and was pretty much forced into becoming a good guy over time. These characters are some of our favorites because they fail like us. They struggle like us. They can change, like we can; and, sometimes, we lean on them to do so because we aren’t yet strong enough to make that push for ourselves. This is why, so often, these are the most memorable characters from any given series. Not only are they relatable, but because they are also the crux by which we hope to be inspired.
In beginning this article, I had a litany of villains I wanted to address. There were so many variables to discuss, so many characters to share that, now, I fear I will not reach them all, as we’ve only cut through about five percent of that list. I would like to talk about those villains who believe themselves the good guy, such as Light Yagami from Death Note. I would like to talk about the anti-heroes like The Punisher. I would like to talk about villains who are so genuinely sick in their souls that we do not sympathize with them at all, like Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter or The Millenium Earl from D.Gray-man. I would like to talk about the ones who are just misunderstood, like Itachi from Naruto or Father from Fullmetal Alchemist. I would like to talk about the ones that we are given a reason to feel bad for, but can’t because they take things too far, like Kilgrave (AKA “The Purple Man”) from Jessica Jones. I would like to talk about all of the wonderfully brilliant or tragic characters from a million different stories, but I can’t.
So instead I’ll say this: it is okay to love the villain, whether you can connect to them or not. Sometimes they help us learn more about ourselves, and sometimes they can act as object lessons on what to expect should we behave in a certain way. But, most of all, they perpetuate the concept of “hate the sin, love the sinner.” It is not our place to be contemptuous, hateful, or judgmental of others–even the worst of people. We don’t need to like everyone, but it is our duty to at least try and understand them, because not everybody is darkness incarnate. Understanding does not mean agreeing, and not hating doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to be angry.
Jumping to conclusions and labeling people as irredeemable has never done anyone any good. If you can learn to sympathize and empathize with the lowest of the low, then translating those skills into daily relationships should not be out of your reach.
Cooper D Barham
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