If pop culture is any guide, we tend to be more honest with ourselves through our villains than our heroes. In crimefighters and caped crusaders, writers invest humanity’s most aspirational qualities, creating an ideal against which we can measure our own efforts to be and do good. In their antagonists, however, we see the flawed shadow-selves that we can’t help being. Jealousy, pettiness, vanity, selfishness: our commonplace mortal frailties undergird even the most megalomaniacal of super-foes.
It’s a pathology dating back to Milton’s Satan, as Donald Sutherland’s stoner professor notes in that key philosophical text, Animal House. “Was Milton telling us it’s more fun being bad than being good?” he wonders. Sure, he then declares Paradise Lost “boring and longwinded”, before losing the attention of his own bored students, but even so, his point stands: each medium matures as it goes, and although literature got there first, it has in recent decades been joined by cinema and television in recognising that the world is more nuanced and interesting when not merely boiled down to right and wrong.
Well over a century ago, conveying good and evil could be as easy as putting one man in a white hat and another in a black hat. Proto-western The Great Train Robbery (1903) pitted a gang of outlaws against a posse of local fellers in hot pursuit, a standard good guys/bad guys setup that viewers just getting acclimatised to moving-picture technology could follow. The decades to come translated their biggest crises and anxieties to the silver screen, with villains to match. The annihilating aliens of 1953’s The War of the Worlds embodied post-second world war unease over the destruction the bombs had wrought, and the 2005 remake updated that dread for the age of 9/11 and terrorism. American Psycho’s homicidal Wall Streeter Patrick Bateman exposed the carnivorous underside of Reaganism with a decade or so of hindsight.
Elsewhere, there emerged borderline antiheroes such as Michael Corleone and his spiritual son Tony Soprano, killers we nonetheless gravitated to for their turmoil or depth or charisma. They spent the 20th century complicating Manichean poles by attracting and entrancing us, but as the 21st has progressed, brutal white men have begun to lose their lustre for rising generations of viewers. The axis has tilted, a reckoning long overdue.
Just as the themes of each decade informed what new shapes that danger would take, the major arc of the 2010s – a belated interrogation of the past – has cast everything before it in a fresh light. Take Japan’s proudest reptilian son, Godzilla, a nuclear Frankenstein’s monster born of humanity’s scientific hubris during the then-ascendant atomic age. His rampage came as a warning then, but the latest crop of Hollywood-produced vehicles for the leviathan star upgrade that subtext to text. As Vera Farmiga’s scientist explains, Godzilla and his fellow beasts have emerged from the Earth’s core to extinguish the threat homo sapiens pose to the planet. She compares them to antibodies combatting a virus, but it would be more accurate to call them Earth’s biggest ecoterrorists. Squint, and their stompings start to resemble good deeds.
More than a century on from The Great Train Robbery, the symbolism of the white and black hats has been reconfigured by HBO’s miniseries Watchmen. Its deconstructionist superhero narrative opened with a faux-silent film in which real-life African-American rough-rider Bass Reeves, the valiant Black Marshal of Oklahoma, rounds up a corrupt white-hatted sheriff who’s been stealing cattle. It is the opening salvo to a more complex perspective about the intersection between race and law enforcement, and an urgent reassessment of a longstanding brutality that most recently inspired nationwide protests this past summer.
The episodes muddle the dynamic: a masked black heroine must ally herself with an openly bigoted police force; a flashback shows Nazi propaganda suggesting black soldiers from the US would face less discrimination if they defected; and a long-simmering whodunnit murder winds up being an act of righteous retribution against a KKK member. “Criminals” keep order while the officials appointed for that purpose abdicate their duties.
A debate over the role of the mighty cop has been just one piece in a wider inspection of how power can distort the limits of what’s justified and acceptable – and has done. This hard road to “wokeness” has played out on a global scale as well, placing nations and their wars in sobering new contexts.
Ever since Hitler sent his stormtroopers goose-stepping through Europe, the imperialist model of villainy has been recognisable to western minds, that fear filtered back through pop culture in the form of army-commanding despots such as Darth Vader and Lord Sauron. But George Lucas couldn’t make his true political leanings much more public than a note attached to a synopsis of the original Star Wars script in 1973, implicitly likening the “large technological empire going after a small group of freedom fighters” to America’s involvement in Vietnam. The satirical jingoism of 1997’s Starship Troopers played up the joke by making Earthlings the hostile galaxy-conquerors, a sick gag lost on most audiences at the time but now embraced by an expanding cult of fans.
A couple of decades and $200m after Starship Troopers, writer-director Ryan Coogler brought this dynamic to the fore with Marvel’s Black Panther in the form of Killmonger, an ominously named challenger to the throne of the secluded African nation Wakanda. He is not bent on anything like world domination, just the liberation of the black diaspora over their white oppressors through any means necessary. Killmonger’s views may be extreme, and yet from a critical-theory perspective they are not entirely beyond the pale. The meme that “Killmonger was right”, half inside joke and half revolutionary slogan, entered the common lexicon within months. He was not the first villain to claim compelling motives – The X-Men’s primary nemesis Magneto always committed his crimes in the name of empowerment for his fellow mutants at the expense of humanity – but the explicit real-world component made the tensions richer and realer.
Mass culture has warmed to the idea that the most fearsome figures from the rogues’ gallery of screen fiction may have had their reasons, their outward impression of nefariousness concealing private tragedy and ambiguity. The “let’s hear the villain’s side!”-style origin spin-off has grown into a subgenre all its own, as everyone from Sleeping Beauty’s tormentor Maleficent to psych ward hawk Nurse Ratched have got their moment in the spotlight of empathy. (Next up, Emma Stone makes sense of Cruella de Vil’s predilection for dalmatian fur.)
The examples mentioned here draw their premises from the feminist principle that women have been unduly demonised since time immemorial, witch-hunted and scapegoated by the men in their orbit. In the case of someone like the latest iteration of the Joker, a more general institutional neglect curdles a toxic male mentality, although director Todd Phillips was criticised for an excessive fondness toward a loathsome character.
This realignment cuts both ways, saving face for some while digging others deeper into damnation. From Donald Trump to Harvey Weinstein, the past five years have confronted us with irredeemable characters in news broadcasts, too unrepentant for sympathies to be projected on to them, and the lightless void of their personalities has sucked in parts of the pop-cultural mainstream. Amazon’s nihilist superhero series The Boys punctures the valiant defender myth with characters far surpassing antihero territory, much closer to amoral black holes. Homelander, a clear Superman stand-in, has been so warped by his own omnipotence that he kills and rapes without a second thought. His comrade Stormfront is a holdout Nazi bent on continuing Hitler’s campaign of genocide. These ostensible heroes – sources of safety and authority – have been rotted through, the privilege of their power abused beyond conscience.
More banal yet no less chilling is the unseen predator lurking in The Assistant, Kitty Green’s frank account of one day at the office of a high-powered movie executive. Because the film follows the young woman forced to facilitate his schedule of harassment and sexual assault in her job as his secretary, the creep himself never rears his ugly head. Even without a physical presence, he is made conspicuous through his politely menacing emails and phone calls; well-shaded while wholly awful. His portrayal reflects a real-world shift away from the mechanisms of excusal, as the #MeToo movement has emphasised consequences and reprisals over forgiveness for those with no interest in earning it.
The saying goes that the moral universe bends towards justice, a gradual trend that has grown more perceptible as modern mindsets give attention and protection to those who deserve them, and fewer second chances to those who don’t. This societal lurch in the direction of fairness carries our art with it, and poses the question of where we will go with our evolved principles. Everyone is striving to build a kinder and more merciful future, but no amount of rehabilitation or re-education can obscure the eternal truth that the villain has always been – and will always be – within us. We can cultivate a sensitivity to our transgressions, but so long as we are made of flesh and blood, we’ll keep transgressing, our evil twins on screen waiting to follow our example.