On Villains and Villainy

On Villains and Villainy

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” – Gerald Seymour in Harry’s Game

When I first heard the Joker movie with Jaoquin Phoenix was being made, I admit I was disturbed in the slightest. Critics of pop culture have long criticized what has seemed like a gradual and unnecessary decent into what seems like an anything-goes mentality for entertainment’s sake. The inundation of sex, drugs, and violence in pop culture appears to be on one hand merely for the sake of titillation. Yet, on the other hand it may be a reflection of the Western world’s dark underbelly it seems the average citizen doesn’t want to concede exists nor accept their explicit or implicit role in.* It is, however, the glorification of the villain that has troubled me the most when it comes to pop culture. I can name countless movies, not to mention countless musical artists, whose villains and villainy outshine their protagonists.

[*Perhaps the same can be said for the world at large.]

To be clear, I prefer my villains to be complicated, for their motivations to be more than evil simply because that’s who the villain cannot help being. Certainly, the new Joker movie is a reflective character analysis in this regard. Even the long string of Marvel movies were part of a story arc that centered around stopping a ‘mad’ Titan, Thanos, from wiping out half the life in the universe. His murderous methods aside – which we assume are wrong – it’s difficult to say what’s wrong with Thanos’ motivations for those of you who are aware of them. I think it’s fair to want interesting villains – the world is not black-and-white after all – but we’ve reached the point where in America’s culture at least, we’re literally rooting for the bad guy.

Case in point; at last night’s WWE’s Hell In A Cell Pay-per-View (I apologize for still keeping tabs on professional wrestling at my age), a character called The Fiend did not win the championship match and fans in the audience were audibly upset. This Fiend character is very popular among the internet wrestling community to the point that fans would rather see him crowned champion than have a face (good guy) retain the gold. I agree that the character is interesting and that the heel (bad guy) needs to win on occasion to maintain the delicate and eternal dance between good and evil alive for the sake of storytelling, but for a crowd to nearly riot when the heel doesn’t win indicates something is possibly wrong with either the Western psyche, the current rules of society, or perhaps a matter of definitions. (It is possibly all of these.) I point to actual current events to make my case.

The election of Donald Trump to President of the United States in 2016 couldn’t make my point clearer, being of the opinion that Donald Trump is clearly a villain. Why; what has he done that is so wrong? I could name a number of things and not be nearly exhaustive: Asking foreign powers to interfere in U.S. elections, accepting the word of despots over his own intelligence community, cavorting with said same despots, backing out of treaties with traditional allies and treating them with contempt, rolling back environmental and civil protections, coddling white supremists and stoking xenophobia, ignoring the U.S. Constitution (this is perhaps because he’s clearly never read it), embezzling from his charities, doing nothing about gun violence, and generally acting like a third-grade schoolyard bully. While I understand the frustration of many modern American voters with the federal government, I was aghast to find out a large swath of the U.S. thought Donald Trump was the answer. In my opinion, I can’t say Donald Trump has never done any good as U.S. president – even a broken clock is right twice a day by accident – but does the good outweigh the bad? No, because all things considered, the person in question wouldn’t be a villain. Inevitably, then, we’re forced to think about what exactly makes someone a villain.

What is a villain? The definition of ‘villain’ is broad throughout various dictionaries, meaning anything from the antithesis of the protagonist in fiction to generally someone doing harm to others in reality. In either case, a villain is typically breaking the law. They are considered dangerous or have behaved heinously towards any given person or group of people. A villain is often considered immoral, and therein lies a problem.

To some people, Donald Trump is a hero, a freedom fighter even. He is a protagonist to all those who feel they’ve been ignored, stepped on, or otherwise aggrieved by the federal government. The current president of the U.S. doesn’t play by the established laws, traditions, or unwritten social contract. This makes him a terrorist to some (in that word’s broadest sense) and a hero to others who feel that the current laws, traditions, and unwritten social contract need to be revised or reset to reflect some unspecified glory somewhere in America’s history. (Possible interpretation: When they felt more entitled.) So if a villain can also be a hero, there must either be something wrong with our definition or perhaps there is no such thing as a villain, objectively speaking.

It’s easy to contend there is something wrong with the definition. Scores of English words are too broad in their definition to be of much use or are outright confusing; ask anyone studying the English language. I contend that in modern U.S. culture, the definition of ‘villain’ is so ambiguous as to be vague to the point that many people would not know when they are behaving as a villain. (I’m not sure which is worse, a villain who knows they’re a villain or one who doesn’t know they’re a villain.) It also seems wrong to label anyone who offends us or that we simply don’t like as a villain, but that does seem to be the manner in which many Americans now operate.

Do villains exist, objectively speaking? Not if all cultures are relative, something we have to assume if not all cultures can agree that murder is wrong. (There’s always a caveat.) Villains can exist within a given culture, certainly, as there is no doubt that people have existed that have flouted the laws of a society they are seemingly a part of. Again, though, this allows a villain to be a hero to society’s downtrodden or anyone outside of a society that would like to see that society fail. So it’s hard to say villains actually exist anymore than we can now say heroes exist. Now we can see that heroes merely prop up the rules of society, and this would make them villains in someone’s eyes somewhere.

My original feelings towards the Joker movie have to be misgiven. After all, what does his nemesis Batman do but prop up the rules in Gotham City? Imagine Batman having grown up in 1930’s Germany; what would he have been but a Nazi superhero come WWII? Thank goodness he’s not, but Batman must be seen as a villain by some law enforcement agencies; there are procedures for catching and detaining criminals and subsequently putting them on trial. When this sense of fairness is broken can we agree this is something villainous? In the Joker movie, the central figure that is Arthur Fleck is driven insane by a thousand unfair psychological cuts, so can we blame him for the anarchy that ensues?  Can we blame a mass shooter who goes on a rampage because they think they’ve been treated unfairly?

Hopefully you are saying ‘yes’ because you agree that murdering innocent people, people who have not directly affected the shooter, are being murdered and we have to agree this is wrong no matter what society we belong to. Breaking two fairness rules – making two wrongs – does not result in a right, correct? Unfortunately, any given mass shooter or lawbreaker will have sympathizers. (To say nothing of laws that should be broken either because they are apparently unethical or quite ridiculous.) It would make more sense for a mass shooter to only kill the people that have affected them assuming the punishment fits the crime against them and we’ve never seen that.

If we invoke this rule of fairness which we, Western culture, seem to have forgotten as of late it might be easier to gauge who the villains are when the doctrine of fairness is broken. Given the current impeachment inquiry regarding Donald Trump, his proponents can argue for an investigation into the Bidens ad nauseum, and I’d be okay with that, but so should there just as well be an investigation into Trump. The fact that Donald trump obstructs justice in a manner that most of us cannot violates the fairness doctrine. I think it therefore reasonable to construe him as a villain. Then again, his proponents see this ‘unfair’ characterization as exactly what’s wrong with current American culture (despite these same people not wanting to do anything about solving the problem of mass shootings, which I view as villainous). I can’t imagine asking a Donald Trump supporter what they think made Obama such a villain because it seems like their definition is going to wind up being arbitrary. In fairness, though, I am willing to hear them out. Villains on the other hand hear no one out and simply assume they are entirely in the right.

All Rights Reserved (C) October 2019 John J Vinacci