Let me begin by saying I love a good fall from grace. I know all too well it’s hard at times to find any virtue in being noble when the ignoble are thriving all around. I understand the narrative allure of a good-hearted character who finally says, “Fuck it, I’m going rogue.”
The issue for me is that a good fall from grace is an Act I event, to be followed by consequences, struggle, and redemptive ascent, whereas several recent media examples center and glorify the fall itself and then stop, by necessity, because they’re the stories of characters known by the audience to remain despicable villains.
In literary terms, a lack of triumph is a hallmark of tragedy, but that’s not what’s happening with this trend. Here, embracing villainy is portrayed as the character’s triumph. They fall. They hop on board the evil train. They go on to have long careers cutting a swath of senseless destruction through the world.
Some perpetrators of this narrative claim it’s a public service to help us understand, as if we should all be kinder to the monsters in our midst, as if everyone who experiences trauma should be excused for their subsequent choices to become, say, mass murderers. Be gentle with those unrepentant killers, these writers beseech us, for they had loveless childhoods.
I’d say “join the club,” except the vast majority of members don’t have things like “genocide” on our list of acceptable coping mechanisms. The vast majority of members get up every day and make conscious decisions to be decent human beings despite however we’ve suffered in the past. Choosing villainy, actually, isn’t all that relatable.
I have plenty of sinister theories about what would motivate anyone to try to portray a known villain as a sympathetic hero, but for the purpose of this post, I’ll attribute it to misguided interpretation of an old writing adage:
Every villain believes they’re the hero of their own story.
(I’ve seen words to this effect attributed to Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey, but my copy is an unsearchable paperback, and I’m not having any luck citing it via Look Inside. If I come across the actual quote next time I consult that book, I’ll update it here.)
Like most writing advice, this has been distilled to a pithy one-liner lacking all the nuance necessary to make it work in practice. It may be possible to interpret those words in isolation as “Heroism is only a matter of perspective”—if one ignores the fact that many actions are inherently unheroic from any point of view.
I’ve known villains in real life. They know damn well they’re villains. They hurt people because they enjoy it. They go to great lengths to conceal what they do and silence their victims because they know they’re the bad guys and don’t want to face the consequences.
They hurt people because doing so gives them pleasure, not because they fancy themselves the heroes of the situation.
In real life, some people are simply evil. They are the one-dimensional, mustache-twirling villains. It’s perfectly “realistic” to write a fictional evildoer in the same vein. The standard Good vs. Evil conflict has been a staple of storytelling for as long as stories have been told. There’s nothing “wrong” with having your clearly good guy duke it out with your clearly bad guy.
The “villains believe they’re the heroes” advice is meant to be applied to a more nuanced type of villain, one whose presence creates tension in the hero and in the audience because we can see their point.
First, this nuanced villain cannot be of the simply-evil variety that hurts and destroys for fun because, as previously noted, that villain knows they’re no hero. They don’t have a point to see. They’re overtly bad.
A nuanced villain has a motivation and goal the hero and the audience can understand and perhaps even agree with, but the method of pursuing that goal violates the social contract by jumping the decency fence. They make us say things like “I was with you right up to the part about innocent civilian casualties.” If their energy can’t be redirected toward positive forms of activism, the hero ends up battling someone they agree with up to a point over their socially unacceptable path after parting philosophical ways.
@Talen_Lee on Twitter wrote on January 21, “it is pretty funny that as time goes on, Poison Ivy becomes less of a villain without ever changing a single opinion she has.”
I’m not super deep into Batman lore, but I remember Poison Ivy as being an anticorporate environmentalist. Right there with you, sis! Her methods, however, have leapt over the socially agreed upon fence of decency into the realm of domestic terrorism. She won’t back down because socially acceptable methods haven’t worked, which is an understandable frustration, but she can’t be allowed to run around murdering people for the cause. Bruce Wayne surely writes huge checks to support environmental charities, but Batman can’t let her gas a thousand minimum wage workers at a pollution factory to lodge a protest. Her sentiment is fine! Her methods make her the enemy.
Functionally, from a writing perspective, that isn’t an enemy you’re limited to fighting to destroy. The hero understands, agrees, would prefer her efforts to be on behalf of the Good Side, so before there’s no choice but to defeat her, he can talk, reason, plead, threaten, charm—there’s a long menu of interaction options other than “fight.” More options lead to less stale and predictable storytelling.
Rustler’s Rhapsody (1985) is a spoof of Gene Autry/Roy Rogers-type Westerns. The hero is ultra-wholesome Rex O’Herlihan. His manners are impeccable. His shirts are always pressed. He’s too respectful toward women to have ever had sex with one. He wears his white hat with pride. When he takes up the sheep ranchers’ cause in the story, the cattle ranchers know they’re screwed because Rex is clearly the Designated Hero.
Their solution is to hire their own Designated Hero for the final showdown. Designated Hero II (Bob Barber) is working for the obvious villains, but he says and does all the same heroic things, only better, to the extent that Rex begins to doubt that he (Rex) is “the most-good good guy” whose victory is guaranteed.
This silly movie brilliantly pits the hero against a villain who is almost exactly like him. It’s played for laughs in this case, but look at that powerful dramatic effect:
This villain’s nature makes the hero doubt he deserves victory.
External conflict generating additional internal conflict is always a good thing.
Are Ivy and Bob heroes being viewed through a biased lens? Not in the slightest. Exploring their sad formative years wouldn’t excuse their present bad deeds, and they never go on to take a redemptive turn. What they are is well-done villains who enrich and complicate the stories in which they appear by not being utterly devoid of virtue even while being villainous. Their sympathetic humanity is not in the distant, hazy past before they went bad but right now, concurrent with their wrongdoing. Their ultimate defeat is no less necessary, but that present, visible humanity adds a bittersweet edge to the real hero’s victory.