Hooligans, Villains, Bad Guys and Maniacal Ne’er-do-wells
by Kevin Rigdon (@pralix1138)
An integral part of any story, whether screen, print, or tabletop, involves a person or entity that the protagonist has to confront, and defeat. This is the conflict of the story, and every story everywhere must have some sort of conflict. From Darth Vader to Lex Luthor, to Voldemort to the Observers, to the Reapers, there are hosts of villainous slime that are out to destroy (or rule) the world, the galaxy, or all of reality. The numbers are legion and so are their dastardly deeds. But what makes a good bad guy? Why are we so fascinated with them?
Just like heroes are a reflection of the best in us, the way we want to be, the villain is also a reflection of some of our dark thoughts and emotions. Whereas the hero has been tried by fire and come out better for it on the other side, the villain often undergoes a chrysalis of sorts as well. Rather than undergoing hardships and developing courage and compassion, the villain attempts to overcome trials by turning inward and consuming his/her own soul. There is a pain and hatred for not only the source of hardship, but for the society, the people, the god, and so on, that allows the hardship in the first place. Where the hero comes to fulfill his nature, the villain rejects his own nature, and seeks to overcome it. The hero shows us the potential for a broken humanity. The villain shows us the desire to reject that potential and to overcome humanity itself.
Rarely is the villain simply an uncontrollable psychopath. Those are easier to despise, and cheer against. Those bad guys who are essentially evil, we can see as beyond redemption, and so must be defeated. But what do we do with those villains who have a “legitimate” motivation. I think particularly of Magneto. One could see his devolution into super-villain as an understandable, and even sympathetic, process. In other words, I can understand his motivations. He thinks that he is doing good. He is an example of an idea put forth by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, a 20th century theologian, who said, “The real tragedy of evil is that it always involves a personal choice.” So, evil is ugly, and unsettling, because it involves a human person who makes the choice to do it.
This is disturbing for us because each of us has the capacity to do evil. This is not to say that we are evil on an essential, or ontological, level. I believe we can say that no one is actually born evil. We are born broken to be sure. We are all certainly less than perfect, but we are not evil by nature. There are even some who are born so broken, so fragmented, that they do not have a conscience, and they cannot tell good from evil. They may even be incapable of controlling their own actions, or even understanding why they do what they do. They may do incredibly evil, horrific, things. They may be so broken that we think they are irreparable, but we cannot call them essentially evil. To quote Dumbledore, “it is our choices that determine who we are.”
It is our choices. Choices make us who we are. Or rather, reveal who we are. Though our choices certainly determine what type of human being, mutant, alien, or mythological figure, we become, it does not determine our nature. You see, as we are all essentially good, the hero is the telos (the ultimate end, completion, or fulfillment) of human nature. This may be the real tragedy of the villain.
As the villain is born good, with the capacity to be fulfilled as hero, and rejects that nature, rejects that fulfillment, it is incredibly destructive to his soul. Think about Voldemort and the creation of horcruxes. Voldemort voluntary commits the evil act of murder in order to overcome death. He sees human nature as weak and wants to transcend it. To accomplish this, he has to reject his nature, and his soul, and mutilate both by continuing to do evil. But throughout the story, we see how Tom Riddle came to be Voldemort, and we see the divergence. Riddle and Harry had similar beginnings. They were both orphans. Both parselmouths. Both carry a feather of the same phoenix in their wands. But each makes different choices.
One could argue that Harry got the worst of this comparison, having to grow up with the Dursleys. Regardless, Harry continues to make good choices. He could’ve easily chosen to do evil, to not only put down Voldemort, but even take the Dark Lord’s place. But he doesn’t. “It is our choices, Harry.” Undergoing his trials and tribulations, Harry chooses the good. Undergoing his trials and tribulations, Tom Riddle chooses to do evil.
In this contrast between the hero and the villain, we discover something about being human. We have the capacity to do good or evil. We can choose to embrace and fulfill our nature, or reject it. But the rejection of our nature comes at a terrible cost, as most villains discover. In rejecting his own nature, the villain becomes unreasonable, and self-destructive. He/She devolves to such a state as to be inhuman. Again, wisdom from Harry Potter, as Hagrid tells Harry about Voldemort, “I don’t know if he had enough human left in him to die.”
I think this may be why some of us find the villain so compelling. I sympathize with Magneto, with Loki, The Illusive Man, and others. In a sense, I can see where I differ from them and where we are the same. The path to evil is usually the easier. The path to power is smoother, and quicker, with evil. Doing good is always harder. Rejection of human nature will always be the easier option, and ultimately the most destructive, and each one of us must make these choices on a daily basis.