In stories, the scariest villains are not the ones who kill the most, leer the most, or have the worst weapons. Instead the scariest villains have spiritual impact on the main characters, or we as readers and viewers.
Yes, we know they’re wrong. We certainly support their defeat. But deep down, we’re still forced to wonder, to consider the horrible prospect: maybe they’re right.
Maybe we really should introduce a little anarchy.
Maybe there is no good and evil, only power, and those with the will to seek it.
Maybe sins can never be forgiven, and the only justice is unequivocal punishment.
You may recognize some of those quotes. The first is from The Joker of The Dark Knight (2008) fame. Many have remarked how The Joker compares with Bane, one of the main villains of the recently released The Dark Knight Rises film. That’s what gives rise to my thoughts today. Many have said that Bane doesn’t work as well as a villain, because The Joker was so iconically evil and Heath Ledger’s performance so unparalleled. Those could be two reasons. But I suggest Bane doesn’t work as well because he is not a spiritual villain.
Here is what I mean:
Great stories show good and evil for what they are, and the battle between them.
Greater stories make the strongest case they can for evil. Villainy is not simply “out there,” an external force in the antagonist. Instead it has a profound effect on either us, or the hero of the story, or best of all, both. Then, with that strong case made, evil is still defeated.
The greatest Story of all, of course, in Scripture and reality, makes the “best” possible case for evil across more than 2,000 pages and 66 books. Thus the final victory is even greater.
Now consider how recent film villains, and other stories’ villains, compare.
1. Bane, from The Dark Knight Rises.
I don’t intend to fill this column with TDKR spoilers, yet some spoilers about Bane may be necessary here. This powerful mercenary, who survives on painkillers and growls in a sing-song, cultured and throbbing timbre, is clearly shown as evil. At least one character even tells him so. (Spoiler.) Eventually Bane’s plan nearly comes to fruition: his terrorists attack Gotham City, taking it hostage, and nearly destroy the metropolis. (Heavier spoiler.) He also easily defeats Batman in battle, casts him into prison, and vows to make him suffer.
Never once did I as a viewer wonder, even for seconds, if Bane had the upper hand — not only physically but spiritually over Batman, and by proxy also over us.
Not once, even during French Revolution-inspired scenes (don’t compare it to “Occupy Wall Street” and so elevate that notion, or imply the story’s inspiration isn’t more timeless) did I even slightly suspect: You know, this sort of thing is inevitable. Maybe we should roll with it.
The Dark Knight Rises shows Bane’s evil, but doesn’t try to make the strongest case for it.
By contrast …
2. The Joker, from The Dark Knight.
The Joker is axiomatically evil. Unlike Bane, he has no backstory. As explored in this feature, he comes from nowhere, causes chaos, and wants only to “watch the world burn.” Beyond that, viewers may suspect that he is right. What can any hero do against such reckless hate? You can’t appeal to his motives, because his motive is chaos and anarchy. You can’t bargain or negotiate. You can only wage war, while also fighting that same instinct in yourself: the instinct that maybe it’s all for naught, the instinct that there’s no point in fighting.
(At least one person, as we tragically saw Friday, followed through with this evil desire — imitating The Joker while rejecting the theme of good triumphing over such evil.)
Unlike Bane, The Joker has a spiritual effect on viewers, making his defeat more significant.
3. The evil thing from A Wrinkle in Time.
Yes, I’ll keep reading Madeleine L’Engle’s works, because many have promised they do get better, in style if not in substance. But based on the first book’s evil thing (see, I can’t even remember the name of that villainous, Star Trek: The Original Series-like God-like Entity), I’m not expecting much more worst-case-for-evil, visceral villainy that is spiritual.
In Wrinkle, the evil thing did evil by controlling people, not by appealing to their evil inner natures. Again we spy the trope: “evil is mainly outside yourself, not within yourself.” Objection 1: that is not a Biblical concept. Objection 2: it makes for mediocre storytelling.
So when the Evil Thing is defeated, by the Power of “Love” — e.g., of sentimentality — the victory rings hollow. Only a malevolent Outside Source is put down. Our own evil lives on.
By contrast …
4. Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter.
The Dark Lord would not be nearly as interesting and spiritual a villain if he did not have such links with Harry Potter himself. I won’t go into spoilers, for those who haven’t yet read the series — and they really should, for Rowling, despite whatever faith she holds, fleshes out very Christian and redemptive concepts more powerfully than L’Engle in her Wrinkle-y theology. Yet by the end of the whole Harry Potter story, it’s revealed that Harry is not only fighting an evil villain outside himself, but is fighting a part of himself as well. Voldemort’s evil is not only external, but internal, with strong temptation: He could be right. Harry might give in. And we, fighting along with Harry, are forced to consider the same possibilities.
Voldemort is one of the best spiritual villains — even above other famous dark lords such as Darth Vader, or even Sauron. Yes, those are also evil, but you rarely suspect they have a powerful religious, philosophical case to make for their actions that could overwhelm us.
Here I’m also thinking of Inspector Javert, from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. How do Javert and other villains, have spiritual effects on a story’s heroes, and/or us?
How else do other villains, such as Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, function mainly as external, non-spiritual and therefore not as evil or threatening antagonists?
Before ending my words in lieu of your own, I must say one more word about the Aurora, Colorado suspect’s shooting of 12 people, 20 minutes into The Dark Knight Rises’s midnight premiere. People keep wanting to make the “real” villain “external” — Hollywood, guns and gun laws, the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, etc. Why this insistence that all other Things must be villainized — anything except humans’ evil nature itself?