Or, rather, in support of villains being unambiguously evil. And for that matter, unambiguously good heroes.
First, a tip of the hat to Brian Niemeier (@BrianNiemeier on Twitter) for inspiring today’s blog topic with his tweet: https://mobile.twitter.com/BrianNiemeier/status/1144662651328434176
As I have mentioned in past posts, I am sick of “everything sucks” grimdark. But I’m also quite through with rehabilitating villains. Disney has taken one of their first evil queens, Maleficent, and made her a sympathetic fairy who was just lashing out at her abuser. HER VERY NAME MEANS “ONE WHO WORKS EVIL!!!” Darth Vader? That sumbitch was just plain evil. He chose the dark side, he murdered the crap out of subordinates, he was totally, unambiguously evil. Kylo Ren? As far as I can tell, he’s an unstable angry teenager whose uncle tried to murder him. He’s more broken than evil.
It’s all so tiresome.
I think one reason that superhero movies are so popular right now (yes, despite Marvel and DC being generally horrible, yes despite cape fatigue) is that they give us permission to have a good team, and a bad team, and to cheer for the good guys to smash the bad guys in the face with a huge fucking hammer of thunderbolts. Sometimes it really is that simple. The good guys aren’t perfect, they don’t have to be. Their goals and methods are noble, they strive to be good, and in the end they are worthy and win BECAUSE they choose the side of good. And their foes are bad. Sure, you’ll have the occasional Magneto (who did nothing wrong). But then you’ll have an Apocalypse, some ancient and absolute evil hellbent on planetary enslavement and murder. The existence of a Red Skull makes Winter Soldier that much more threatening when we meet him, and the reveal of his identity that much more shocking (for the 3 people who didn’t know). Bucky didn’t just throw in with the other side in some ambiguous, no-heroes conflict. He was running with too-evil-for-movie-Nazis EVIL.
Redemption arcs only makes sense when there is some distance between team bad guy and team good guy. Darth Vader goes from being so committed to evil that he’ll slaughter children, to turning back to the light for the sake of his son. How effective would that be if Darth Vader were a devoted Praetorian of a morally grey empire that brought harsh but necessary justice to a lawless galaxy? If the rebels were spit-roasting Ewoks one at a time to get them to reveal the back door of Endor base, would we even want them to win anymore? (I know I frequently use Star Wars references, it’s because almost everyone knows the basic plot and characters, and because it’s template Hero’s Journey so there’s usually a solid example of just about anything I want to discuss). The distance between Vader and Luke makes the turn meaningful.
People want to identify with the hero. Even most antiheroes are generally depicted as reforming, retiring, or otherwise becoming good by the end of their stories. There are exceptions, for example Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos, but even those generally follow a classical tragic story arc and show the evil ending in death and defeat. We want team good to triumph, and we want team evil to get what is coming to them, and it’s all far less satisfying when the bad guys aren’t really that bad, and the good guys aren’t really that good. Should I be cheering when the villain get it if you’ve spent half the story making him sympathetic, or even justified? Should I feel good about the good guy being crowned king if his noblest deed was surviving?
Of the two, I would argue that truly evil villains are the more important. As noted above, you can have an engaging, tragic story where there are no virtuous heroes. An unending diet of tragedy is depressing, but delivered in moderation they can make great stories. But a virtuous hero needs a foil, and the best foils are ones that highlight the hero’s virtues via contrast. The villains don’t all have to be dark mirrors of their heroic counterparts, but their depravity should show something of what the hero finds worth the hellish fight you’re going to put him through. “What do you despise? By this are you truly known.” Frank Herbert knew. Our heroes are defined by their villains.
You should have known
The price of evil
And it hurts to know that you belong here
It’s your fucking nightmare
– Avenged Sevenfold, Nightmare