Everyone roots for the bad guy, right? Darth Vader, the Joker, Freddy Kruger, we all love the villain. At least we think we do, we love ’em when they’re turned into one-liner joke machines or tragic misunderstood good guys.
What sparked this was the new Maleficent trailer, specifically Disney’s description of the film:
“The untold story of Disney’s most iconic villain from the 1959 classic “Sleeping Beauty.” A beautiful, pure-hearted young woman with stunning black wings, Maleficent has an idyllic life growing up in a peaceable forest kingdom, until one day when an invading army of humans threatens the harmony of the land. Maleficent rises to be the land’s fiercest protector, but she ultimately suffers a ruthless betrayal – an act that begins to turn her pure heart to stone. Bent on revenge, Maleficent faces an epic battle with the king of the humans and, as a result, places a curse upon his newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Maleficent realizes that Aurora holds the key to peace in the kingdom – and to Maleficent’s true happiness as well.”
Yep. How do you make a movie about one of the scariest villains ever? Make her the hero obviously. It’s what I hate about the Terminator all over again.
Movie 1, The terminator. An evil robot tries to kill an 80’s virgin Mary. Villain factor ten right there. But then people really liked Arnold so…
Movie 2. He’s the good guy and the robotic killing machine learns to love and hope and be the great dad that robo-apocalypse jesus never had. Fucking thanks. but at least it was over the course of one movie and they were pretty straight up about it. Not like Vader, Vader’s legacy was, to put it nicely, quite thoroughly tarnished. Like a bitch.
No one really holds it against Vader that he goes all lovey blue ghost at the end of Jedi because he was so awesome in New Hope and Empire and the ending doesn’t seem like a cop-out happy ending where he’s the great dad space apocalypse Jesus never had.
But then the prequels. That phrase carries such weight and ruins so many fun conversations it could be a thrash metal band name. I assume Lucas wanted to make a slow-burning epic descent-into-madness tale about sweet little orphan Ani becoming a galaxy-ruling death-tyrant but all he got was a story of how kids are dumb. I also assume the problem was Lucas was scared to have the audience hate Anakin. Because the audience already loves Vader and film-makers now are scared to make audiences feel bad. (Or think. Feeling bad often comes from thinking.) Lucas tried to keep us rooting for Anakin and feeling good about it so the movie wastes our time forgiving, explaining, and making excuses for him. So the well told Villain story of the original trilogy got ruined because the audience liked it too much.
So let’s cap this off for today with me tearing down a classic graphic novel. The Killing Joke. If you haven’t read just skip down to me praising Lex Luthor. In discussions people say it’s not a joker origin story, that’s all in his head but the fact is it’s all in our heads. Whether it’s canon or not is irrelevant because it’s still an attempt to take the Joker from terrifying murder with a flair for theatrics to just a mixed up bumpkin who was trying to save his pregnant wife. The book loves the joker so much even Batman gives him a smile at the end to say “Sure, you’re a torturer and a rapists who physically and emotionally crippled the Gordon family for generations but you’re not all bad.”
Now you might take away from this that I just want “Pure” villains. And in a way that’s right.I like the shark from Jaws because he’s a killing machine who never secretly worries about being a great dad. however while it serves the role of bad guy in the film it’s not really a villain, it’s not really a character. When horror movies do have villain characters they all go down the same road. Slasher film series go from killing innocent people to comedies about killing people who aren’t likeable. And I hate when villains are awkwardly made sympathetic because audience started to like them. But that’s all because I hate a good story badly told, evidenced by the fact that my favourite villian is Lex Luthor.
There’s an amazing graphic novel called Under The Red Sun which has Superman landing somewhere other than America. Specifically the Soviet Union. Luthor is now America’s greatest hero and only hope. That’s just to give you some perspective about perspective. The thing that makes me empathize with Lex without making him any less of a villain is actually in All Star Superman when Lex Luthor is in jail being interviewed by Clark Kent. During the interview LL is reading great works of literature while building robots, working out in the gym while studying classical music. Clark says he seems like a great guy and asks him, sincerely, why he hates superman. LL explains that he’s in jail, he’s on death row, and he’s still working all day everyday to be the best at anything he does. He trains, struggles, works, build fortunes, studies, challenges himself to be better and never makes excuses, anything worth doing is worth figuring out a better way to do it. He’s the greatest role model ever, the triumph of the human spirit. But then superman comes in and takes it all away just by existing, makes it all meaningless by being effortlessly perfect, by claiming to understand justice when he’s never really lost or earned anything. And that’s why Lex has to beat him, because greatness shouldn’t be an accident. Even Kent thinks he makes a good point.
the way stories try to turn villains into heroes by apologizing and excusing is wrong. If a good hero is someone who holds their ideals, their sense of justice, above all else no matter the personal cost, why is it so hard to see that that makes a good villain too?