Why We Love Villains

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The world needs villains.

In the narrative realm, nothing is more essential than a good villain. As an agent of chaos, the loathsome foil to the loveable hero not only defines the protagonist, but also serves as a metaphor for the larger terms of a world built on disharmony.  

Hero Of A Thousand Faces muse, mythology expert, and all around god of the screenwriting world Joseph Campbell recognized the value of a good villain when he said, “love thine enemies because they are the instruments of your destiny.”

And love them we do. Though it may be hard to stomach the idea of loving the evil stepfather, cruel neighbor or jock stooge who have made various stages of your life a living hell, silver screen nemeses have a magnetic appeal.

Anthony Hopkins, Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Anthony Hopkins, Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The Hannibal Lecters, Daniel Plainviews, Jack Torrances, Vaders, Voldemorts, Batemen of film are some of the most enduring figures in the modern pop culture canon. Filmgoers relish villainy for a variety of reasons that speak to our core essence as human beings.

Absolute freedom

First and foremost, a villain has the one thing most of us law-abiding citizens do not have—permission to wreak havoc. Ours is a world of surveillance and constant morality policing. Modern humans spend an inordinate amount of time and mental energy negotiating the demands of law and etiquette. Step out of line and you’re chastised, punished, castigated and ostracized for your lapse of behavior.

Villains, on the other hand, couldn’t care less. They have absolute carte blanche to disrespect, destroy, devalue, deflower, dominate, degrade, devolve and denigrate people and institutions that are otherwise sacrosanct in our society. Deep down inside all of our well-behaved shells are primal beasts who envy characters that do not have to comply with the mandates of social order.

Heath Ledger as The Joker in 'The Dark Knight' (2008)
Heath Ledger as The Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008)

As a spiritual credo, this freedom is profound. As an on-camera tactic, this liberty is entrancing. Actors are drilled to make specific choices. The lens (and the editor, for that matter) detests flavorless ambiguity in a performance. Thus, actors are incentivized to build unique moments within scenes. The finest practitioners of that trade string together a vocabulary of language, emotions, and physicality to create memorable impressions.

Take your pick

On an acting level, villains can utilize a much broader toolkit than your average hero. Everything is on the table from dark humor to subtle guile, emotional manipulation to feigned catatonia, impotent rage to deliberate threats. In any given scene, a John Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg from The Fifth Element or Hans Gruber from Die Hard can spin a ropey web of mania, cunning, calm negotiation and desperate violence to achieve a desirable end.

Not that these momentary impulses are untethered. Far from it. Superlative villainy in rooted in absolute earnestness. A Joker desires nothing more than anarchy. A Gordon Gekko sees free markets and triumphant capital as essential to independence. A T-1000’s very existence hangs on its ability to kill John Conner. Why? A good villain confronts the fact that his or her much-beloved way of life is being directly threatened.  

Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in 'Die Hard'
Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in ‘Die Hard’

Conviction

Clear motivation is a bedrock component of narrative film. From acting to screenwriting and directing, few abstract notions carry as much weight in any project than the minutia of a character’s physical and psychological needs. What makes a truly wicked villain is a sense of infallible self-righteousness in the face of external threats. Al Swearengen, Amon Goeth and the Wicked Witch of the West all commit horrible atrocities against their fellow man because the core DNA of their character has convinced them that they are absolutely right.

This illuminates an important contradiction true to film villains and the world alike. If the wicked are culturally valuable as icons of everything we despise, they’re priceless as tools of perspective. When we see a fully rendered human villain on a screen, we begin to wonder what life looks like from their point of view. What inner hurt drives them? What would their ideal world look like? Could they be right?

Ultimately, a villain’s dramatic turn is a declawed approximation of worldly wickedness delivered in pausable snippets of narrative format flickering in a movie theatre, living room TV or laptop. In the privacy of dreamlike cultural space, we get to rehearse our opinions and convictions about positions of good vs. evil and the possible universality of the human condition.

Beyond the scripted boundaries of the screen, the 21st century suffers from no great shortage of villains. From tyrants and mass shooters, to jihadists and violent bigots, life is a constant confrontation with an “other” hell bent on destroying things we cherish dearly.

Someone hates you

Now an intriguing idea if you’ve got the ears to hear it: we are all somebody else’s villain. Maybe your workplace rival hates your guts or you really ruined that waitress’s day because of a petty misunderstanding. Take a deliberate stroll across a piece of wet pavement just after a warm rain and I’ll guarantee you are the personal anti-Christ to a few hundred writhing worms.

Even the best amongst us have moments of outright deplorable behavior. The well-rounded film villain is your chance to exorcise your guilt. We all want to be Luke Skywalker, but sometimes we’re Vader for a day or two and if we don’t clean that mess up, we have a way of becoming Emperor Palpatine.

For every time we’ve had to tuck our tails between our legs, bow our heads, say a mea culpa and beg for forgiveness, there’s a character out there in one film or another that knows exactly how you feel. So try not to judge.

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