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?