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The Villains We Love Only Want Their ‘Freedom’

“We like these villains because they embody a type of freedom we long for. A freedom to be your own boss. And everyone else’s.”
| Jul 5, 2019 | 23 comments |

In the early 1990s, a movie released about a bodyguard. This flawed, misunderstood bodyguard was assigned to protect a high-profile figure from a possible assassin.

No, I’m not talking about the movie, Bodyguard, starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston. Rather, it was a Clint Eastwood film entitled In the Line of Fire (1993) where he stars as a Secret Service agent. My grandfather, Pops, and I both watched it, but separately. After he saw it, he asked me an interesting question that I still think about: “When the assassin is assembling his gun under the table, did you find yourself rooting for him?”

It took me a while to understand what he meant. In the scene where the shooter, Mitch Leary (John Malkovich), is putting his weapon together, Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) is trying to find him. Leary seems to be moving at a snail’s pace, since he is doing everything by feel, not sight, all while trying to keep a straight face. By contrast, Frank is running around frantically. The camera switches back and forth between the two men, and the effect is you feel nervous—for both of them. The way the dramatic tension builds, you want to see something happen.

And indeed, it does.

Leary shoots just as Frank spots him and jumps in the way—literally right into the line of fire. The bullet is blocked, the President is saved, the assassin is stopped—all in the nick of time. Imagine how differently that scene would have been had Leary shot before Frank found him. Or if Frank snuck up on Leary as he was assembling his gun. Or if Leary had thrown caution to the wind and moved more quickly. The timing would have been off and the save wouldn’t have been as dramatic. And the movie probably would have needed a different title.

But my grandfather was onto something deeper. He specifically pointed out how in the moment of preparation for the assassin, you feel nervous for him. There’s some inner, strange desire to want him to succeed. Why is that?

In 2017, my family and I went to see Despicable Me 3. Like you probably do, we love the Minions—these adorable, yellow, evil henchman. We have watched all previous Despicable movies over and over. Not only are they hilarious, there is amazing character development with the chief villain, Gru. He does these horrible things and has the best one-liners. In Minions, it’s revealed how the little fellas are constantly in search of an evil master to serve. The more evil he/she is, the more devoted they are. And so throughout the movie, as they encounter one bad guy after another, we hope and pray they will find the perfect villainous boss. Why is that?

Minions promoted an idea that we first saw in the second trailer: villains are cool. The three traveling minions are headed to Villain-Con, “the biggest gathering of criminals, anywhere.” In a scene that my kids love to mimic, one of them, Bob, is asked, “Any evil talents?” His response is adorable. They and other characters walk around starstruck, as they encounter the world’s baddest bad guys. There’s a glamour about the event, a fascination with the archenemies of good, and we get swept up right in the excitement.

Pops was onto something.

Now, I’ve studied screenwriting, and there’s a lot to be said about how certain plot devices can guide our emotions in a certain direction. However, I think there’s more to this phenomenon than just dramatic suspense, or likable characters, or clever dialogue. Yes, the villain has to be well-written on some level. But there’s part of us that wants the bad guy to succeed, and it’s less to do with having a more interesting plotline and more to do with something inside of us.

We root for the bad guy because we are the bad guy.

Of course, you’re probably not a presidential assassin, or an evil overlord, or a fearsome dinosaur, and neither am I. But when you and I look in the mirror, if we’re honest, we see things we don’t like, and I don’t mean blemishes or a bad hair day. There’s a brokenness, a bent towards something besides heroism. Because let’s be honest, we like Superman but we really like Lex Luthor. We emulate Luke Skywalker but love to imitate Darth Vader.

We like these villains because they embody a type of freedom we long for.

A freedom to be your own boss. And everyone else’s.

A freedom to get what you want, how you want, when you want. Whatever anyone else wants.

Movie villains give us a peek into what our lives could look like if we gave into certain desires, executed particular plans, acted out specific thoughts—ideas that we would never speak aloud. We cheer for them because we love to imagine ourselves as one of them. We feel empathy for them because we know, deep down, we’re not that different from them. Sure, we’ll never pull a trigger or steal the moon or take over the galaxy. But we won’t judge those who do. And there’s an inherent attraction we have towards other, lesser evil activities—even if they just stay in our imagination.

There have been numerous times in my life, often in traffic, when I’ve contemplated certain less-than-fully-legal responses to someone nearby. In high school, I knew a guy who was part of a sophisticated shoplifting racket at an electronics store, and it was a seductive thing to daydream about. I’ve even had delusions of certain vigilante activities—doing something bad for the greater good.

Have you also felt your mind wander down one or more of these paths? Do you find yourself to have an unusual affinity for movie villains or even regular ol’ criminals we see on TV? What do you think this means about human nature?

Zackary Russell grew up on a steady diet of STNG, Myst, The Wheel of Time, and Discover magazines. He dives into wild speculation that connects with the deepest parts of our souls. A short story he penned, entitled “Luminous Matter,” was published with Havok. His current project: a YA sci-fi novel centered on the bonds that transcend deep space.

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Autumn Grayson
Guest

I think that’s partially true, but not in every case. Who the audience hates or sympathizes with is going to depend on a lot. Many times, people will root for the main char simply because that is the character the story follows, and maybe a certain level of camaraderie tends to develop between readers and the main char. But, also, a lot of people will sympathize with chars they agree with or identify with. And they’ll get very emotional and justice oriented about it too sometimes. Like, it won’t matter what the char’s been through or why they’re doing something and what the results will be. If the char disagrees with the viewer, then the char is a big meanie and deserves every bad thing that happens to him. Conversely, people will also have a bias toward chars that they agree with/identify with.

In a lot of cases, when someone roots for a villain or thinks they’re cool, it’s because the villain hasn’t done anything that would actually make a lot of viewers hate them or think they’re truly an evil that needs to be destroyed. Yes, Gru came across as a bit of a jerk and like he could be a problem, but after a while at least he was portrayed in a way that played on the audience’s sympathies and as if he were a guy that was secretly sad and chasing his dreams, not necessarily someone that wants to do anything truly heinous. Yeah, snatching the moon would be a very horrible thing in real life (from what I understand, the moon influences tides and whatnot) and maybe a lot of people would die if the moon disappeared, but the audience isn’t going to feel in touch with that reality and is instead going to root for Gru’s dream(though in a way I think a lot of people were invested in his redemption or at least kinda loved him more for it). As for the minions…they delight in following bad guys, but did they really actually do anything that would make the audience hate them?

I don’t even think the Despicable Me series necessarily made villains seem cool. In some cases it kinda did, but after a while the veil was pulled back on the other villains and we see that many were kinda lame, incompetent, clownish, etc. Also, they had silly childish motives often enough.

Usually I don’t find myself rooting for the villain. I might want them to succeed for plot reasons, but that’s about it. That said, due to my personality type and life experiences, it’s very easy for me to be like ‘I care about this person and understand what they’re doing and why, and they have legitimate reasons to want to solve this problem in their lives. But the person’s methods are wrong and I don’t support their behavior.’ And then I think about what that person could have done instead.

R. J. Anderson
Member

Villainous competence does definitely cause a kind of vicarious thrill in many readers, as V.E. Schwab discovered from readers’ enthusiastic response to her VICIOUS and SHADES OF MAGIC series. There’s something magnetic about watching a really efficient, clever, ruthless and determined villain execute his master plan (see also: Hans Gruber in DIE HARD), even if part of that visceral thrill is also tied up with the much healthier and more understandable reaction of wondering how the hero can possibly defeat such a deadly enemy, and being excited to see how he does it.

Which has made me realize, interestingly enough, why so many fans of Darth Vader and other ruthless Star Wars villains have had a conflicted or downright hostile reaction to Kylo Ren in the new trilogy. They wanted and expected a cold-blooded and seemingly unstoppable villain who would pose a major threat to the heroes, and at the very beginning it seemed like Kylo was that kind of character. But as the first movie went on he started to show all kinds of cracks of weakness and self-doubt, his air of cool command dissolved into fits of impotent rage, and finally he ended up gut-shot by his father’s henchman, sliced up by his uncle’s (and previously grandfather’s) lightsaber, and kicked flat in the snow by the newly Force-empowered heroine before she escaped in his father’s ship. So a lot of fans then felt robbed of their expected Villainous Thrill and decided that Kylo was a weak, wimpy, unsatisfying Vader-lite and THE FORCE AWAKENS was a dramatic failure. They were even more disappointed when instead of levelling up in villainy in the second movie and becoming a truly daunting foe, Kylo continued to vacillate between the Light and the Dark Side and failed to achieve any of his desired ends. Curses, foiled again!

I’ll be very interested to see how those fans react to the third movie when the real villain of the trilogy and his long-range master plan are revealed. Will the thrill of that and the threat he now poses to the heroes be enough to satisfy viewers’ longing for villainous competence? Or will those fans still be frustrated that Kylo Ren wasn’t Darth Vader 2.0, and in fact was never meant to be?

notleia
Guest
notleia

TL;DR: I find this theory questionable.

I wouldn’t call it evil that we’re fascinated by, more like the buried charm of tricksters and villains is in the tension between selfish motivations and pro-social motivations. All of us are a little selfish, and within a certain extent that’s not even a bad thing. Plus I always admire competency, even in a villain.

notleia
Guest
notleia

Plus there’s usually aspects of power and control built into the thing. What kind of person has an overwhelming need to control everything? Someone with a deep-seated sense of insecurity. And insecurity is a very relatable thing.

Rachel Nichols
Guest

If the villain is good looking, charming, and funny we can admire those characteristics since they are all good things. But they really are only surface characteristics.

Rachel
Guest

I find it troubling that we are so enamored with Evil as a society. The “Evil is sexy” trope.

I realize Minions is meant to be goofy. But why the adoration of villains?

In real life most villains are neither corny (Snidely Whiplash) nor cool (Joker) but banal. Think Adolph Eichmann at the Nuremberg Trials. Nothing cool or sexy about him.

As Christians we want to humanize the villains–at least the human ones. But it’s their humanity or not-evil characteristics we like. We should make the audience yearn for their redemption even if it never is attained.

Quit thinking Evil is Good for crying out loud!

This dates back to Paradise Lost. Milton wound up falling in love with his bad guy, giving him all the great lines of the epic, and making Satan more sympathetic and interesting than Adam or God Himself. Pretty creepy.

C. S. Lewis pointed this out in the introduction to his Screwtape Letters. Laughable as the POV villain is you never would want him to be your BFF and are glad when he is thwarted at the end.

Tyrean A Martinson
Guest
Tyrean A Martinson

I think you’ve made some excellent points and so have many commentators, but I am going to throw in another curve: are you sure we aren’t really rooting for a redemption arc? I love Gru because he has the possibility of being good. There’s a tension alive in him between good and evil, and the same can be said for the minions and who they are attracted to for a leader. I think this is why audiences like Loki – is he mischievous, misunderstood, or is there a glint of good lurking under all of his tricks. Thanos is a truly despicable villain, yet he “loves” his daughter. It’s a twisted, broken love but it makes him both more and less of a monster. I think we do want to excuse the bad because we are sinners, we understand it and the motives behind those bad choices. Yet, I think we really want the bad guy to get redeemed – God’s story is written into us in a way that goes beyond our sinfulness. Even though we are born into and live in a broken world, God knit us together in the womb. We long for him to make us whole so we long for the villains in movies to find wholeness – I don’t know if I would want a villain to succeed but I would really like to have some of those movie villains find peace and wholeness. So I think our sympathy with villains is rooted in our own sinfulness but it’s also rooted in our longing for grace, which comes from God.
BTW – loved this post! It made me really take a moment to think.

notleia
Guest
notleia

Ooh, had another thought. Somebody reviewed The Promised Neverland at some point, and at some other point I watched a review talking about how (SPOILERS) Mama Isabella is a nasty type villain we don’t usually get anymore. I mean, she’s raising human children for slaughter.
The show kinda ruins it at the end by trying to make us not just understand her motives but also sympathize with her. Nope, show, that’s a bridge too far and I’m erasing it from my headcanon.

That’s something I think that even show writers miss, that understanding something and sympathizing with something are two different things, and I want to see it more explored.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Tragic backstories where we feel sorry for everyone’s kind of an anime staple. I haven’t seen Promised Neverland, so I can’t comment on it in particular. But, I dunno. I agree that understanding and sympathizing are two different things, and sometimes it is interesting to see villains that are completely evil. But, it’s very easy for me to sympathize with someone without agreeing with them or rooting for them, so a tragic backstory doesn’t usually bother me from that standpoint unless it feels out of place.

I kind of wonder if giving everyone a tragic backstory can kind of erode people’s sense of mercy, compassion, etc, though. Like, in some ways it can make people more merciful in the sense of trying to understand others and not hate them. But, it could also go the other way. Like, people might start to figure that compassion doesn’t matter anymore if even the most heinous beings have reasons and tragic emotions and whatnot. If people get to that point and hate someone or feel motivated by justice, nothing will move them toward mercy, not even understanding the person or seeing how much pain they’re in. In fact, seeing that could make them even angrier because they might feel like such things are an attempt at manipulation.