This is me giving myself an interview about pop culture’s strange attraction with villains, because why not? You’ve seen it and heard about it. You’re probably even apart of it, starting with the ever so evanescent Edward Cullen and his brood of vampires, all the way to Loki of Asgard and the slighted Winter Soldier both hailing from the marvel universe. First the “‘gad guys” were given smokin’ hot bods and then they were allowed to be flawed. Were the fangirls/boys weakened by this change in character traits? Yes, we were.
(Edward may not be portrayed as a villain in the Twilight Saga, however vampires have a long history of blood, seduction, and being generally baddies, which is why I’ve cited him/them as “villainesque”)
So, Rachel, why do you think Villains have become so popular among popular culture, mainly teenagers? Villains have always been around, from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein to the Joker behind Batman, what’s changed.
Insert Tom Hiddleston as Loki in not one or two, but three Marvel Universe movies with more to come. He was supposed to be a one-off, but his prowess as the damaged brother of the almighty Thor led to the character’s revival as supervillain with the mostest. He also stole the show when it came to the writing of Avengers. Why? Because he’s hot. Not just hot, but stunning with the air of an English gentleman and the body of a Greek god. He is one of the reasons why villains have taken over our fangirl worlds.
Well, that and they’ve just been way better written as of late.
“Better written,” what do you mean by that?
Yeah, better written. You’ve got villains that have become more than just bad guys because the hero needs someone to pound. They’re people now, human verging on inhumanity. Seeking out just how far someone can go before they aren’t human anymore. I’m talking about villains with class and purpose. We are in a Renaissance of Villains. Anti-heroes akin to the bad dudes of Shakespeare, who wrote some of the most realistic characters in all of English Literature. We just finished reading Hamlet in my Research Writing class, that’s why I’m thinking of this. The finesse with which Claudius is crafted, the clear villain in Hamlet’s story. He has motivations beyond what is obvious and that is the kind of writing that we are seeing reborn today. Then again Hamlet is pretty villainous too…
Shakespeare was no doubt a fantastic playwright! Can you give us an example of the kind of modern day writing you’re talking about?
Of course! The Joker, circa Christopher Nolan and The Dark Knight, the guy just wanted to see the world burn. Despite a seemingly clean cut character, the Joker opens up a whole discussion on what it means to be a villain or a hero. There’s this super good bit of dialogue between Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth that happens in that movie. Bruce is trying to understand why the mob went to the Joker for help and Alfred sets him straight.
Alfred Pennyworth: You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.
Bruce Wayne: Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. Just have to figure out what he’s after.
Alfred Pennyworth: With respect Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man that you don’t fully understand, either. A long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So, we went looking for the stones. But in six months, we never met anybody who traded with him. One day, I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.
Bruce Wayne: So why steal them?
Alfred Pennyworth: Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
The Dark Knight 2008
The Joker is simple and straightforward, but we love him. He doesn’t care about money or power, he’s different. He’s chaos. He’s doing it for the fun. He’s complicated in his un-complicated-ness. We love his style, the way that he fulfills our secret desires—to murder people—maybe. More like overcome the established order of our mundane everyday lives.
The Joker isn’t the only one we love though and mostly for completely different reasons.
I mentioned Loki before. Loki is more than just a pretty face, he’s damaged. Fangirls find themselves fawning over him because we think we can fix him. Can we? Only in our dreams, where we insert ourselves into Fanfiction saving him with undying love and dedication. Love will turn Loki good, giving him the adoration and attention that his “family” never did.
Wow, you’ve said a lot about Loki and specifically referencing Marvel at one point. What do you think they are doing with their villains that other franchises, books, movies, etc. just haven’t?
Probably the most famous of Marvel comic book writers, Stan Lee, once talked about how they tried to create characters that could happen in real life. That’s really where it starts too, at the comic books that eventually became these movies with fantastic and real characters. For example Batman vs. Iron Man. Personally, I think that Iron Man is a much more realistic character than Batman. What were Batman’s reasons for becoming a superhero: his parents died, he had this fear of Bats, and he had tons of money, so he thought Hey, Gotham’s a shitty place and needs someone to protect it. Someone who never reveals his secret identity. The hero Gotham deserves! Dude, could’ve become a politician. Now although the politician argument could also be made for Iron Man, Tony Stark’s endless narcissism is more in line with the billionaire scene. Not only that, but he has a purpose in creating the Iron Man armor, he wants to renew the Stark name. Make it a force for good instead of the weapons of mass destruction that have become the company’s staple. In the end, he changes as a person not just in body mass. The Billionaire Playboy Philanthropist we’re first introduced to grows into a hero of his own right.
They do this with villains too. Captain America’s longtime friend Bucky Barnes is another tugging-at-the-feels sort of bad guy. A sweet kid who was turned into an assassin by the Nazi’s, and by extension HYDRA, through aggressive abuse and reprogramming. We saw him die. A character we fell in love with as a hero forced to become a villain. It hits us fangirls right in the feels. Especially when good guy and all American hero Steve Rogers refuses to fight him due to their friendship. Even Steve believes that Bucky can be returned to his heroic status. Sympathy is a powerful drug, one fans seriously succumb too. Bucky Barnes is definitely a villain we sympathize with, almost too much.
Interesting, I’ve never thought of how similar villains and heroes are, and just how important it is that the audience feels that they are real.
Last question, what do you think makes the best kind of villain?
There are two answers to that question and they sort of overlap in some ways:
1)The best villain is one we care about just as much as the hero. One that we don’t want to see fail, even if what they are doing is against our moral codes.
2)The best villain is one that doesn’t think that what they are doing is evil. Their truth is absolute.
Thor: The Dark World
Captain America: the First Avenger
Captain America: the Winter Soldier