“Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth.” —Picasso
Note: I’m not always on top of pop culture, but in case you’re even more behind than me, this post does feature spoilers about The Last Jedi, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, and Harry Potter. (The last two probably aren’t worth mentioning, but I sometimes pick up a series years later…)
I googled “greatest villains” and, unsurprisingly, came up with few attractive results. Hollywood isn’t casting many classically handsome men or supermodels into these roles. Our villains are often caricatures, humanity’s worst infused into a single individual. The more cruel and vile, the more memorable. This is especially the case in fantasy and science fiction, so the bad guy can be set up against the protagonist in the representative clash between good and evil. There was nothing redeemable in Sauron or Palpatine, making them an easy rallying point for the forces of darkness.
But it feels like our stories are shifting away from such clear paradigms. I’m a big Star Wars fan, and one who loved The Last Jedi (but we can debate that another time). Take Kylo Ren as an example. I did not like him in his debut appearance in The Force Awakens—whiny, uncontrolled, wannabe Darth Vader who turned to the Dark Side because his father was a letdown and he couldn’t get his family history straight. He felt like a weak imitation of Vader, an all-time classic villain. But then The Last Jedi happened, and his character became compelling. He’s still a megalomaniac murderer, but you learn his story and see flashes of humanity, something notably absent with Vader until the very end. Instead of wanting to see Kylo destroyed, I wanted to see him redeemed.
He’s not the only villain that’s shy of pure evil. We are seeing the lines blurred more and more. Fictional villains are a reflection of our times, and there’s a common thread defining those from the postmodern era.
The 21st century villain is conflicted, damaged, and sympathetic—to an extent. Mostly, he is victim of his circumstances. He is made into who he is because of external influences, not inherent wickedness.
Kylo was unwillingly burdened with his famous bloodline, and to top it all off, his uncle almost tried to kill him. Rey captures his victimhood when she confronts Luke with the haunting question: “Did you do it? Did you create Kylo Ren?”
I wouldn’t call Severus Snape a straight out villain, but he is morally ambiguous. And perhaps you can blame it on his rough past: unhappy home life, unpopular at school, and the love of his life marries his childhood enemy.
Then you have Grant Ward from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Ouch. I did not take his Hydra reveal well. After he’s exposed, we catch a glimpse of the events that shaped him. His mentor Garrett gave him a second chance at life and molded him into a cold double agent. Garrett brokered an irrevocable loyalty in his protege. Ward isn’t without feelings for the S.H.I.E.L.D team he betrays, and he doesn’t genuinely believe in Hydra’s mission, but like he tells Raina, “I owe Garrett everything.” I give credit to Marvel—he may be the most complex villain I’ve seen them create, even though I can’t forgive them for it.
Drew Taylor’s review of Maleficent sums up this phenomenon: “In 2014, the Mistress of All Evil is just another victim.”
I have mixed feelings about all this. On the one hand, I appreciate the complexity of character and depth it gives to the story. Snape is my favorite Harry Potter character, but that doesn’t mean I endorse him as any paragon of virtue. The stakes are higher when I feel a stir of sympathy for the villain—I’ll be hooked and even more invested in the outcome. I’m all for giving the bad guy a compelling, believable backstory because people aren’t just monsters for the sake of being monsters. The Joker aside, most people have deeper motives than wanting to watch the world burn.
At the same time, the tragic villain trend may be a reflection and a reinforcement of our culture’s softening towards calling evil evil. Certainly, people are complex and flawed, and our stories should explore that. There are perplexing moral dilemmas and our characters should wrestle with them—they can’t all be swept away by a cliche. But perhaps we are also seeing the line between right and wrong, good and evil, blurring and fading from the collective conscience.
The “gray areas” are ripe playgrounds for storytelling, but there is no gray without the black and white.
For a postmodern generation, the phenomenon makes sense. Our culture is sweeping away belief in objective truth, so who is to say what the authority is on right and wrong? The loudest voice, a temporary cultural consensus? Morality does not fit consistently into a postmodern framework, and that becomes evident in our stories. The lines may blur, but we are unable to escape some imprint of the cosmic battle between good and evil raging around us.
And even if you cling to the refrain that society is the monster and all of us victims, evil shouldn’t find excuses. So I say to the postmodern villain: give us your sob story, let us sympathize, but bear the responsibility of your choices. You may not be heartless, but there’s nothing redemptive in your victimhood.