I recently read a post over at i09 postulating that we’ve reached a point where villains have become too humanized. I’m paraphrasing here, but essentially the point of the article was that by seeing so many origin stories for villains, they’re just not villainous anymore. If we see a sympathetic reason for someone becoming a villain, then they’re not really villains as much as unfortunate victims.
I’d like to take that idea to the next level. That being, are villains as an archetype even villainous anymore? Basically, all the villains we have, whether from comics, TV, movies, games, books, etc., are just rehashes of standard villain archetypes. I think we’ve come to a point where the whole idea of a villain just isn’t appealing anymore.
Maybe this is a symptom of our society growing up and no longer being afraid of the boogeyman anymore. After all, while Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker is by far the most sadistic, mad, and visceral we’ve ever seen, it’s not like we hated him, or were even in the least bit afraid of him. In fact, I’d go so far as to say we probably liked him more than Batman. And this isn’t a commentary on Christian Bale’s bland performance. Rather, it’s an observation on the fact that villains have pretty much become our heroes.
I suppose the rise of the anti-hero has a lot to do with this. Back in the day our heroes were Superman, Batman, and other “justice first” types. But palates have changed over the decades, and people want (or perhaps are just given) heroes that have ulterior motives, questionable tactics, and vague loyalties. If our pure heroes have transformed into something darker and more morally questionable, then are we making villains more human to balance out that flip-flop?
I’m not sure if a true villain is even possible anymore. Is it that showing sympathetic origins, and really, any origin in general, is too humanizing. I guess there’s the belief that you can’t just have bad people doing bad things, but that’s kind of what has always made for the most fascinating “bad guys”. Someone who kills for the pleasure of it, or lusts for power simply because they believe it is their right, those are the types of villains that are the most frightening. If our heroes are morally questionable, with extreme and sympathetic origins, then our villains have to be so much more than just having branched off on a different path. They have to be truly malignant otherwise the counterpoint between hero and villain is lost.
A lot of the villains we have today are either holdovers from a time when people’s sensibilities were much more delicate. People today are, for better or worse, more desensitized to villains who simply don’t follow societies law. The Jokers, the Green Goblins, and the Lex Luthors, are all just too standard. Too overplayed. We’re no longer aghast at espionage, corporate greed, or governmental manipulation because these are a part of our everyday real lives. These motives are too real to be the basis for our leisure-time entertainment.
One of the best villains I know of was Colonel William Tavington, from The Patriot. He wasn’t a villain because he was an British commander, he was bad because he was truly mean, sadistic, and evil. He took pleasure in the suffering he caused. He wasn’t broken because of something that happened to him as a child. He was just a monster. If they had shown us some childhood misery that lead him down a path of hatred and revenge, the gravity of his character would have been lessened.
I just find it difficult to know who to root for anymore. The good guys are not pure, and the bad guys are not wholly evil. I’m not suggesting this is a problem plaguing all of fiction, but it is a trend that I believe needs to stop. We need a really bad, really mean, really evil villain to come by and scare the hell out of us!