As long as there have been movies, there have been villains. They range from the neglected step-brother Loki to the power-hungry adviser Jafar to military experiment Bane. Among this diversity, there seems to a separation in theory and method in villain approach, which could have a very different set of effects on us as the audience.
As a child, I remember watching movies and shows where the villain basks in wickedness. He or she celebrates evil and, as Michael Caine’s Alfred said in “The Dark Knight” referring to the Joker, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” The Joker himself is a perfect example. Other examples include Cruella De Vil, Voldemort, and Agent Smith of “The Matrix.”
On the other end of the spectrum, there has been an increasing number of villains on the big screen who are presented in a less distant, more accessible nature. No longer are we seeing villains whose sheer evil nature is far beyond what has ever crossed our imaginations, but instead we are seeing villains that we can understand and sympathize with. Take Loki in “Thor,” for example. Yeah, Loki did some really bad stuff, but you can’t help but feel bad for the guy, right? He was stolen and raised by an opposing king, his arrogant brother got all of the credit, and he just wanted to prove that he could be just as good as his hotshot brother. So while we disagree with the path he chose, he’s not such a bad guy, right?
The Norse god of mischief and chaos is not alone. Let’s take another popular supervillain: Ra’s al Ghul. Ra’s is a very interesting character, especially because he comes from the complete opposite direction that you expect him to. You would expect that someone backing The Scarecrow and determined to destroy an entire city would be basking in evil. Instead, he wants the same thing that Batman wants; the same thing that we would want – he wants to rid the world of evil. Yet again, while we disagree with his methodology, we can understand where he’s coming from.
Is this a good thing? How will this affect us and our children, seeing villains in a more sympathetic light? Should we be enraged or supportive?
I was recently reading the story of a young woman who was appalled at the horrid choices she had made in her college-aged years. She had led a life of sexual promiscuity that led to an unplanned pregnancy and ultimately an abortion. She was horrified at what she had done and kept repeating “I just can’t understand how I could do something like that!” The godly person who was counseling her reminded her (I paraphrase): “This isn’t the first time your sin resulted in the death of someone. Your sin put Jesus on the cross. All of our sins did. What’s shocking isn’t that you killed someone, what’s shocking is that you can be forgiven and renewed.”
There are two sides to this issue. The first is that we don’t want the evil of villains (and thereby our worldview of evil in the world) to be minimized. However, the flipside is that by seeing villains portrayed in a more accessible light, we begin to realize that “I could become that.” It’s a sobering thought to realize that sometimes the villains aren’t only the terrorists, the slave traders and the corrupt politicians; sometimes the villains are regular people like you and me. That scares us to death. As it should. Within this issue is a lesson well-learned: we could become that. So let’s be wary and make sure that we don’t.