FOUR THOUGHTS ON BAD GUYS
How is an American villain different from a Russian villain, or a West African villain? What is “evil” to us? Why are some villains really powerful characters with deep grips on our imagination, and others just seem annoying? These may be worthy questions, since villains can make or break a story: “Each film is only as good as its villain,” declares film critic Roger Ebert. “Only a great villain can transform a good try into triumph.”
Four ideas on the subject:
a) American evil is either human and social, or cosmic. American evil began with Ahab. Professor Lee Quinby has considered these questions in depth, and delivers a powerful answer — or certainly the framework of an extended answer — in her dissertation, Demurring to Doom: A Geopolitics of Prevailing. She considers two “entrenched” categories of evil that have dominated American stories from the beginning: the first is cosmic or apocalyptic evil, and the second is human-driven evil, which is particular and specific. The Terminator movies feature apocalyptic evil, while a villain like Doctor Octopus in Spiderman represents one man’s ambition and good intentions gone terribly bad. Harry Potter features both categories of villainy – Valdemort is an (English) example of apocalyptic evil, while the Minister of Magic’s villainy seems more rooted in his personal vanity.
Villains mirror their heroes.
Lex Luthor does not fit against Luke Skywalker.
Both of these contending categories of evil, she argues, are powerfully delineated in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick, especially in the character of Ahab, the villain of Moby Dick. Prof. Quinby also looks at President Franklin Roosevelt’s portrayal of poverty as human-made and socially alterable. As the nation struggled against the Great Depression, Roosevelt was trying to motivate his countrymen – “We can fight this,” he was telling us. “It is not our destiny to be defeated by poverty.” Both Roosevelt and Truman linked evil to social issues such as poverty, economic inequality, and the unchecked pursuit of profit.
On the other hand, terrorism is today often portrayed as apocalyptic – a cosmic force, something we cannot prevent or understand. Movies like White House Down, Independence Day, Green Lantern, and War of the Worlds feature evil like this – a force you cannot really understand (but must defeat). Certainly the Joker in The Dark Knight is like this — he wants to bring general chaos to Gotham City for no rational reason. By contrast, the villain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises had a specific human story behind his villainy. Jack Torrance, the bad guy in Stephen King’s The Shining, is an unlucky man controlled by a higher evil force.
b) American social evil is often hedonism. Because of America’s Puritanical streak, we tend to portray our villains as high-living creeps who transgress the work ethic. They are hedonistic – they enjoy material things way too much. They represent bad values. The Die Hard films, for example, feature villains who want to get ahead without working hard and playing by the rules – they want to cheat. That is why they are so despicable, and must be defeated at all costs. Corporate villains (Robocop) often fall into this category.
This is close to a class theory of villains – that bad guys are all upper-class, and represent the failed values of the rich, while heroes come from the working classes (the Green Goblin is wealthy, Peter Parker is middle-class).
Henchmen are minor villains and may not need a theory at all.
c) Each villain is simply the mirror image of its hero. Captain America is a strong smart hero (with no special powers) fighting for democracy, so the Red Skull is a strong smart Nazi (with no special powers) opposing him. That is why you can never switch villains – Lex Luthor does not fit against Luke Skywalker.
d) Any truly realistic story does not have a pure villain, only good characters who have made some bad decisions. An author named Ben Bova advises that, in real life, “there are no villains cackling and rubbing their hands in glee as they contemplate their evil deeds. There are only people with problems, struggling to solve them.” In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean turned to crime (he stole a loaf of bread) only so he could feed his family. Under this theory, only a weak story features a villain who is not at some point just like us.