July 15, 2013 by NowhereButPop
I’ve just bought Chuck Klosterman’s newest book entitled I Wear the Black Hat, made up entirely of essays dedicated to villains and the notion of villainy. Even though I’ve yet to crack it open this idea of villainy and what constitutes a villain has sent my mind racing. Villainy is an interesting topic because a term as absolute as “Villain” is in all actuality a rather lucid and relative concept. Even as a kid I was always fascinated by the bad guys, specifically what drove them to not only be bad, but to stay bad.
As I got older I realized that most of America has the same fascination with bad guys. Part of that comes from trying to understand what could drive a person to be whatever acts of villainy they commit; another aspect comes from the sensationalized nature of doing something bad that automatically draws interest; but the most important aspect of our intrigue in villainy comes from trying to comprehend and rationalize what they did in terms that we can quantify.
As a society we tend to do one of two things to those we deem as villains, we either demonize them completely as the walking embodiment of evil, or we try and humanize them to just enough so that whatever act they committed isn’t too unjustifiable. The former is done when no exact motive or justification can be given for an act and the latter is done when an act of perceived villainy can be identified as being romantic in nature. Examples of the former, people who have generally been associated with evil for their acts, include: Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, The Joker, O.J. Simpson, Kermit Washington, John Wilkes Booth and Emperor Palpatine. In their cases no one can really understand why they committed their acts of villainy, because there doesn’t seem to be any overt or justified reason to do what they did. Pol Pot killed simply for want and destruction, the Joker is a sociopath with a twisted view of the world, and O.J. just felt like killing his ex-wife. Because there is nothing human about their acts, they are demonized and hated by society (with good reason of course). These example represent the villains that we hate and so they become villains for two reason, one is because of their initially act(s) of villainy which brought about the title, and the second reason is because we as a society choose to dislike for their being a villain.
Examples of the latter, villains whose acts of villainy can be quasi-understood and are therefore humanized to emote some semblance of compassion and/or understanding include: Julius Caesar, Harvey Dent, Pete Rose, Magneto, Mark David Chapman, 2010-11 Lebron James, and Bill (David Carradine’s character in Kill Bill). In one way or another all of these examples have done “bad things” from slaughter thousands to filing for free agency. The commonality of society trying to understand their motives, and from that understanding yielding a gray area in their label as villain is created. Mark David Chapman, assassin of John Lennon didn’t murder him on a whim or for no just cause, it was because he was obsessed with Lennon and wanted to be him. The only way for Chapman, who saw himself as a failure compared to Lennon, was to purge that fixation by killing him. Because we as a society understand obsession and mental disorders, it’s easier for us to humanize his act and not put him in the same category as a Hitler or an O.J.
For someone like Magneto or Caesar who’s goal is world domination (a villainous desire to begin with), there is a romantic underbelly to protect it from absolute scrutiny that doesn’t offer itself to genocide or inciting mass chaos. Magneto wants mutants to rule as a defense mechanism so as to not allow another holocaust to occur. He sees it as a proactive measure against an even worse fate that he experienced firsthand. Julius Caesar turned the Roman Republic in a Roman dictatorship because he wanted to rule the Empire. Bu the reason why is just as important to the act itself. It was because he thought he could do a better job of running things. Yes it is an act motivated by arrogance, but arrogance is one thing that all humanity can relate to and understand. To have pride, and too much of it, is literally to be human. He wanted more not out of gluttony but because he thought his presence, his actions would make the Empire stronger, and better.
Bill, in Kill Bill does two things out of the ordinary in the presented paradigm. He commits a villainous act out of love, but then also relents that he was wrong to do what he did. Taking his anger over his love’s deceit on The Bride herself, Bill tries to kill her. However after four years he admits that he overreacted, and that he let the emotional, hurt, and all too human side of him take over. Now most guys, won’t try and off a girl who just walked out on us, but what Bill did can be understood as the extreme manifestation of an all too human emotion. His act of villainy is borne from a human and easily relatable motivations: love and hurt. He loved her, but then that love turned to anger when he found out she faked her own death to get away from him. It was the rejection, the hurt, and the pain of grieving over a loved one that pushed him to try and kill her. And unlike most villains, he’s all too ready to admit that what he did was wrong.
We love villains for two reasons. It’s either because they give us a socially acceptable image to hate (which he love doing in the first place), or because they give us something to humanize and analyze at the same time. We love to hate villains who are bad, but we also love to romanticize villains who can be understood and sympathized with, if in motivation and not in act. It made sense that Lebron left Cleveland to play for Miami, as he had a better shot of winning a championship; it didn’t make sense for Adolf Hitler to kill 12 million civilians for literally no reason. We love misunderstand villains, but hate inexplicable ones. What we love even more are people who become villains because of noble motives gone awry. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, we love those who pave it so, and not the ones who belong there.