Stories are about heroes, and the odds they overcome, right? Whether it’s Iron Man or Beowulf, the base of storytelling is about a conflict, and how our hero wins. Why, then, do we love the villains so much? Over time, stories shifted from the protagonist as the main perspective, to the challenge and the personification of that challenge.
Next week, the new Terminator movie comes out, whose main character is the villain who travels in time to kill somebody, so that they can kill people better in the future. How are we supposed to root for that character? When people think about The Dark Knight, a film widely regarded as the best superhero movie ever, people think of the Joker, a nameless character with unknown motivations and skill set. Sure, a hero is nothing without a villain, but we should be rooting for the hero to win at the end. So why do we get so excited by a villain?
Often times, our heroes have to be symbols of good, with the occasional flaw or two, but focused in their pursuit of saving the day. Therefore, we always know what the hero is going to do. We might not know how, as that changes based on each hero, but we know that they are going to do everything they can to stop the villain, save the innocent, and save the day. These are things that we all agree is largely good, and good people do. These are things we should be doing, but don’t always live up to. These are things that sit on our subconscious and conscience, as we make every decision in our lives.
Villains aren’t held back by these rules, these inhibitions that stop our gut reactions every day. Villains tend to give into their id, or their animalistic tendencies. They do things that we quietly wish we could do.
All heroes are aiming for absolute good as their end goal, and there isn’t anything too good. Villains though, aren’t after absolute evil, because that’s not realistic. They don’t want a world on fire (no matter what Alfred says), because there’s nothing achieved then. They see themselves as heroes of their own story, so they want a version of the world that they see as good, even if we don’t agree with them.
Think back to Star Wars: A New Hope, our hero/villain combo was Luke Skywalker, and Darth Vader. Luke was a farm boy who wanted to get out and see the world. He was relatable, but ultimately boring at the beginning of the movie, because he wanted to go to Tosche Station to pick up more power converters. Darth Vader though, that was a largely powerful figure, dressed in black and a cape, that could choke a man without ever touching him. He spoke without facial expressions, and those around him bowed in respect, as well as fear. Vader was far more interesting in one movie than Luke ever was in three.
Villains can have a variety of motivations. Whether it’s unrequited love, revenge for a wrongdoing, or just money and power, villains have different goals. When the story begins, neither the audience nor the hero knows what the villain wants, or is doing, so we get to go on a journey to find it.
Heroes are varied as well, because some save the day with their brain, others their brawn, and most with a mix. Villains also have this range, so it’s not fair to say villains are more varied in this way. There are also some heroes that are willing to kill, and others that are not, whereas very few villains are hesitant to kill someone.
At the end of the day, it really comes down to what each one is willing to do to achieve their goals. Heroes try to limit casualties as much as possible, whereas villains almost relish the idea of someone getting in the way of their plans.
Thinking about the MCU, some of our heroes didn’t want the powers they have, others worked hard for them. Some come from the 1940s, others from outer space. There is some variety between the heroes, which is why we all have our favorites, but at the end of the day they all can kick butt because of the skills that they’ve acquired. The villains though, they are very different. Sure, an MCU trope is a large gray villain ora generic gray army, but whether they got that army from Hitler himself, or a space goblin changes. Do they have a vendetta against one of the heroes specifically, or are they a force to be reckoned with, that doesn’t see the Avengers as a threat? The variety of villains is so much greater than the variety of heroes.
Heroes and villains represent the culture that they are based out of. Heroes are the idea of the best someone could be, whether they uphold the ideals of their society, they’ve risen up from the ashes, or they are just skilled in the ways we appreciate. Villains, however, don’t necessarily represent the worst someone could be from their society, but instead represent something that stops us all from becoming the best we could be. They might represent selfishness, xenophobia, extremism, shortsightedness, or any other mix of problems that people face on a day-to-day basis.
They show how difficult it is to deal with problems we face in our everyday lives, no matter how strong you are.
The greatest of these caricatures, in my opinion, are the heroes and villains of Lord of the Rings. Sauron is a giant floating fiery eye in the sky, that leads an army of deformed elves to rule the world. The hero is a halfling that has no formal training, yet is tasked with the single most difficult challenge anyone could face. These are clearly extreme versions of the idea that one person, no matter who they are, can stop the greatest of evils. J.R.R.Tolkien famously fought in the Battle of the Somme, a battle of over three million men (3,000,000) and he survived. Being present at a moment like that, instills the idea of how each and every individual is monumentally important to the outcome of the greatest battle of all. There are entire college courses you can take, going through the symbolism and metaphors that lie in the Lord of the Rings story.
All in all, villains are so much more interesting, not only because what they look like, or say, or do, but because of their job within the story, and how that job changes within each story.