How would you describe a villain?
Someone who hurts everyone?
Someone who wants complete anarchy? S
someone who thinks of nobody but themselves and would commit every possible sin to satiate their needs?
Now, how would you describe a hero?
Someone who wants to save everyone, someone who wants to protect the world from absolute destruction, someone who thinks of nobody but the people around themselves and would commit every possible sin to satiate their needs.
Of course, both the hero and the villain fight for polar reasons, serving as equal and opposite forces against one another. Nonetheless, their actions, time and again, lead to converging consequences at some point for the world around them - An interesting perspective in fiction.
However, not a surprising one, since we know man to be but shades of grey. There is no black or white - not even you and I are purely guilty or even innocent. This makes us question if a villain sketched in a story, any story, is really, truly beyond redemption, forgiveness or sympathy. So today we try to study the antagonists, what makes a villain, what drives them to insanity and whether or not their actions are justified.
Now, who is a villain? A villain is a deliberate criminal - someone who does not think twice before destroying another man’s life to better their own. They are unapologetically evil, as a result of trauma or simply delusion. A bad guy, simple as that!
“In any story, the villain is the catalyst. The hero is not a person who will bend the rules or show the cracks in his armour. He is one dimensional intentionally, but the villain is the person who owns up to what he is and stands by it.”
Marilyn Manson, American singer-songwriter
Yet, more often than not, we find ourselves lingering somewhere along the lines of almost justifying, if not blatantly defending the villain. Why do we have this sympathy for the villain? What makes us take this questionable stance? If villains are truly irredeemably evil with sins unforgivable, why do our statements sound like “sure, the villain was wrong, but…”
This dilemma is the courtesy of cinema giving birth to morally grey antagonists to engage and resonate more deeply with the audience, since, of course, we ourselves are inherently flawed.
This is the primary reason we relate a little more to the villains, the primary reason they are a little more real and grounded in reality in our eyes than the hero. We find it easier to understand the antagonist because they are drawn more like us, not one dimensional characters raised for a sole reason and existing for a sole purpose.
Before we surf a little farther into the ocean of villains in cinema, let’s understand a small but significant difference between the two harbingers of the wider term ‘antagonist’ -
The Villain and the Antihero
In the simplest of words, an antihero has the intentions of a hero and the actions of a villain. They are flawed heroes who fight for the greater good in morally destructive ways. A villain, on the other hand, means no good to the society in the slightest. They are born of pure hatred and spite.
Having drawn a line between the two, we must remember that it is the intention of the antagonist alone that influences the side of the scale they incline towards; eliciting pity or sympathy in the heart of the audience does not pardon the antagonist the title of an antihero. A villain with justified reasoning is a villain nonetheless, as long as they have purely corrupt intentions.
Hannibal Lecter, the serial killer the world loves to hate, remains a classic prototype of a villain. This genius cannibal takes pride in his maniacal murders committed with not an ounce of humanity, yet retaining perfection and objective morality in his actions, or so he believes. Hannibal is a monster who would not feel so much as even a little grateful when granted mercy, but would pounce back, making one hope they had not offered it in the first place.
Thanos, on the other hand, continues to be a classic example of an antihero, with almost no one ever drawing the conclusion that he was entirely wrong in the role he played. He firmly believed the universe was populated beyond its capacity to sustain life. In an extreme attempt to save the universe from utter chaos and genocide, he decided to save half of it by ceasing the existence of the other half. He was even merciful in his way- simply ceasing the existence of life instead of killing anyone. How sweet is that!
Today we psychoanalyse characters, tracing their crimes to their roots. Aware that no character is ever entirely right or wrong, we have compiled simply the evil arcs of characters, merely moments where the good boys go bad- who either go on to suffer the unyielding consequences of their actions or redeem themselves.
Let’s see how a villain is made, why they come to life.
Love and Obsession.
How far would you go for love? Could you give up the world for love? Or the last piece of your chicken nuggets? Now, that ought to be a good villain origin story.
Villains in cinema go far and beyond for love. They annihilate races and burn civilisations to get back what they have lost, stopping at nothing. Just like profound love for someone can alter the entirety of our personality in their presence, hyper-fixated obsession with someone can push us to the very limit of our emotional capacity, driving us insane. After all, how many people over how many generations had to cross boundaries for the phrase “blind in love” to be established.
In Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Wanda, with her unparalleled mastery in magic and genius reality warping powers, without doubting her judgement for even a split second, goes to war with the Avengers to refabricate Westview.
Wanda, at some point being a superhero, far exceeding the powers of Spiderman and even Captain America was consumed wholly and hopelessly with grief upon losing her children with the dissolution of Westview, a dream she fabricated into reality to live a normal life with her family again. Losing grip of time and space, what is real and what is not, she could only see herself living a happy life with Billy and Tommy in a distance, blatantly disregarding the path she must walk to be on the other side, the happier side.
While it is true that everyone Wanda loved and cared for was taken away from her, is disrupting the equilibrium of universes and killing indiscriminately any and everyone who stands in the way justified? Does understanding the roots of her villain arc make her any less of a villain in the audience’s eyes?
Sometimes, love transcends reasoning and ethics, vindicating in the mind of the culprit manipulation and toxicity in relationships. This blind obsession yarns carefully a thread of intricate lies and violation of values.
In the Netflix original series You, Joe Goldberg, a serial killer, develops an extreme obsession with Love Quinn. His unreasonable obsession and inhumanly savage ways of attempting to court Love, later in the series, makes the audience question if he ever was capable of feeling love and compassion in the first place. Although, let us also remember that Love herself turned out to be an emotionally manipulative and controlling criminal, not too unlike Joe- making us wonder who really was the bigger villain.
Coming from a dysfunctional family, with an abusive father and a compulsively cheating mother with a string of affairs, who young Joe still looked up to and adored utterly; he was a neglected child who grew up to develop an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder and be a sadistic serial killer.
Upon being wronged, how far would you go to avenge yourself? Where will you draw the line, and how would you know when you have stopped a little too soon or a little too late?
In Gone Girl, Amy Dunne, severely unstable by all accounts is driven by (of course, adding to her insanity) a concentrated need for revenge from her unfaithful husband, Nick, who had been cheating on her with a student; but a divorce was not enough to quench her thirst. She orchestrates an elaborate, nuanced trap to frame him for her murder.
From writing a fake journal about her growing fear that Nick might someday kill her to splatting her own blood across the room to bring her plan to life, from inseminated herself with Nick's sperm stored at a fertility clinic to murdering Devi after framing him for her kidnapping and rape, Amy’s sheer psychotic genius of a game plan was perfect to the tiniest detail.
Tracing back to Amy’s past, she always resented her parents for sketching Amazing Amy, a children’s book series. We know that the books were but a perfected and romanticised version of the real Amy’s failures, serving as nothing more than fuel to her adamant need to be perfect, which with time progressed into her state of insanity.
Need to Gain Acceptance/Need to Prove Oneself.
How far would you go to be welcome home again? How far would you go to feel the familiarity and warmth of being understood, of being accepted?
In Avatar the Last Airbender, Zuko, a mere child, is put to trial against his father, firelord Ozai. Upon losing, he is banished from the Fire Nation. Now, can we really blame a sixteen year old boy’s bitterness, anger, and desperation to capture the Avatar, which arises from the shame his own father dealt him with in front of an entire nation?
Azula, Zuko’s sister, much unlike him, is pushed to act upon her villainous urges and destructive tendencies by an immense, selfish need to prove herself - caring not one bit of the consequences or even the people around her.
As a child, the pure innocence Zuko harboured was deeply adored by his mother. Azula, on the other hand, impressed the firelord with her genius firebending, absolute hatred, and unconditional greed for power. Remember her smirking while Zuko got his face burned in the trial? Yes, she was already pretty deep down the hole of damnation even as a child. While Zuko was a product of a father’s neglect, Azula, in part, was one of a mother’s.
“Well, yes, I guess you’re right. I don’t have sob stories like all of you. I could sit here and complain how our mom liked Zuko more than me, but I don’t really care. My own mother… thought I was a monster… She was right, of course, but it still hurt.”
Sometimes, just sometimes, we are tested by circumstances to the extent the line between righteousness and immorality is blurred, convincing us to justify the crimes we are about to commit, with a conscience unclear; but are “dire circumstances” and “a fit of rage” always a shield strong enough?
In Parasite, the Kim family barely makes enough wage everyday folding pizza cartons to get through the night, living in a state of perpetual desperation to suffice themselves financially. Opportunistically, one of Ki-woo, the son’s friends gives the family a scholar’s rock meant to promise wealth, with a chance for Ki-woo to pose as a university student and take his place as the filthy rich Park family’s daughter, Da-hye.
The Kim family pushes their luck beyond the average grace spared to man in an attempt to infiltrate the family, each of them posing as unrelated professionals - the daughter as Jessica, an art therapist for the Park’s son, the father as their chauffeur, and the mother as the housekeeper. To get these jobs, the Kims, with absolutely no guilt at all whatsoever, framed the former chauffeur and housekeeper for actions that were not theirs. The line between righteousness and immorality was never too concrete for the Kim family, even in the face of desperation.
More often than not, in the uncomplicated way that human nature works, a satiated appetite seems to always hold a little more space when there is more food on the table. We do not know when to stop, or rather, ignore the signs, crossing boundaries and testing luck.
With a strategy so conniving and irredeemable, the Kims earned for themselves enough to live comfortably for a while; but as we ourselves have been witness to man’s incessant greed since the very beginning, every fulfilled need suddenly fell a little too short to satisfy the Kims.
A sequence of crimes unfolding out of a desperate need for bare survival turned into deliberate evil overnight. So when does the audience stop sympathising? When they frame the chauffeur for having sex in the Park’s car? When they convince the Parks their son was schizophrenic? When they trigger the housekeeper’s allergy? When they refuse to help the housekeeper and her husband, push her down the staircase in the bunker, the concussion from the fall killing her? Or simply way back when Ki-jung hit the Park's dog, showing not a glimpse of compassion to begin with?
The villainy of the Kim family was something many were encouraging and sympathising with in the beginning, given their circumstances and the general, unanimous grudge against multimillionaires the middle class holds; but when they were no longer a victim of circumstance, their wrongdoings carefully calculated, we knew they were beyond salvation.
What is man capable of when pushed to his very edge? How heinous of a sin has he the stomach to commit and endure?
In Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen puts up a relentless fight, one that not the strongest of armies stood a chance against, but upon finally having everything in the palm of her hand, for a moment she loses herself, her purpose, her destination. In that moment of weakness, Daenerys truly follows her father’s legacy and turns into the Mad Queen, burning King’s Landing despite the surrender bell. The dormant feelings of loss, revenge, desperation, grief, and pure rage, in that moment, were too overwhelming to be contained in a fraction of seconds, reducing the Princess that was Promised to insanity.
The Khaleesi had had her fair share of trauma before succumbing to her destructive impulses, her desire to take over the Iron Throne progressing into an obsession to reign over the entirety of Westeros, at any cost. While the world was rooting for her until the very moment she decided to bring with her complete anarchy, maybe neglecting the right path was not the wisest of decisions she had ever made.
So here we have a list of heroes gone rogue for a brief phase; heroes who, in their moment of vulnerability show their true, unfiltered selves, their deepest fears and what they are capable of if provoked beyond their capacity of endurance. Not much unlike our own selves. Studying these characters, if not convinced enough to justify their actions, we now at least know their reasoning- which makes us understand the deeper layers of the characters more intimately and without glamourising any aspect of the conflict for the sake of cinema.
After analysing the motives of a villain, what gives birth to them and what fuels their bitterness, let us ask you, “What would you have done if it were you?” and see if your stance has changed!