Why the love for the villain? My best friend (30+ years and counting) stepped in the room and said “Brother you have to watch this series! The focus lies on the villains and you know we love us a good villain.” That got me thinking, how come we love us a good villain.
First we are going to start with what defines a villain. Let’s have a look at the meaning of the word villain (according to the Encarta World English Dictionary)
- An evil character in a novel, play or other story, especially one who is the main enemy of the hero.
- Any person regarded as evil or otherwise contemptible
- Cause of problem; somebody or something that is seen as the cause of a particular evil or problem
- Somebody who behaves in a mischievous or troublesome way
- A criminal
- Villain :a feudal serf who had the status of a freeman except in relation to his lord to whom he owed dues and services in exchange for land (late Latin Villanus)
Most of us are familiar with the first 5 meanings. But number 6 is where it gets interesting and where the appeal of a villain might lay in. “A feudal serf who had the status of a freeman”.
Many villains come from a lower status or identify strongly with those of a lower status, the serf status. What sets them apart is that in their minds they are a freeman, a freeman in the sense as that they are no longer a slave to their status and that in their own mind they have earned special privileges. The rest of the definition might lead you to believe that they are still in services to a person.
If you look at “their lord” as being the change they strive to bring about or the circumstances of where they come from, you realise how much definition 6 actually relates to them and how this brings about the depth many good villains have.
A good villain usually shows us the dark side of society, they shine light on social issues such as discrimination, societal structure, and our dark inner thoughts.
Let us have a look at some popular villains Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the lambs), Darth Vader (Star Wars), Joker (Batman), Agent Smith (the Matrix), Magneto (X-Men), Yagami Light (Death Note), Killmonger (Black Panther).
Killmonger and Magneto shed light on discrimination and a way of dealing with it that might not be the most agreeable solutions. Where their counterparts walk the path integration and the idea that overtime society will accept the differences, they speak to our doubts of these paths and the possibility of radical change. A radical thought that we actually understand from their history and the history of our own world society.
Darth Vader and Agent Smith both villains in a story where society is being run in a manner where there is a lack of freedom. Both are enforcers of the society structure and absolute order. They show us what such a world might look like and the arguments for maintaining such a structure. Agent Smith shows us how absolute belief in such a system can affect a person. With Darth Vader we see the temptation within such as system. In Darth Vader’s case we actually get to see how this process developed and also get a small redemption at the end.
PS, one could even take a standpoint that they are actually the good guys of their respective stories as they represent the dominant leadership.
But that is a topic for a whole other article.
Yagami Light is a villain that shows our dark inner thoughts of dealing with crime and what absolute power can lead to. He reflects the flaws and frustrations of/within our justice system. His way of dealing with criminals is one that has been debated over the ages. He shows us the dangers of absolute power and makes us question what we would do with absolute power. How far would we go in exercising this power and how far would we go in keeping this power?
Hannibal Lecter and the Joker shine in their insanity and anarchy. What makes them shine is the questions they pose to us and the mirror they act as. Their complexity intrigues us as they bring up the different choices we make and possible repercussions of those choices. Their path and choices how dark they might be, still reflect possible choices and possibilities.
They trigger the ‘What if” within us.
Taking a deep dive into any of these villains can show one the complex layers of the human psyche and what absolute mental freedom can lead to. This complexity is what appeals to so many and what makes many a hero pale in comparison.