Have you noticed that in popular culture it’s getting easier and easier to tell who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? I’m talking about everything from children’s stories to Marvel movies to the 5 o’clock news.
The delineation between right side and wrong song, heroes and villains, seems to be getting wider and more pronounced. A while ago I wrote a post on vigilanteism, and how our culture is moving toward subjective truth while simultaneously pushing to enforce justice. That’s not what this post is about.
Here, I want to talk about the bad guys. And since I believe that popular culture is a window into our perspectives and mindsets (although there is definitely a chicken and egg issue there) let’s talk about popular movie villains.
Recently, over coffee and cranberry bread, when we were supposed to be talking about app design, one of my coworkers and I got into a disagreement about the new Thor movie: he loved it, I disliked it. I knew I was going to have trouble making my case when my first argument was, “Hela’s hair should NOT have been black.”
Seems like a dumb thing to critique. But here, let me show you how Hela as she first appears in the movie:
Even if you’ve seen the movie, just look at that photo with a clean slate and tell me what you think that character’s story arc is going to be? Is she going to cause trouble or be helpful? If she meets you in a dark alley, will you still be alive afterwards? If you had to guess, is she going to pursue power or relationship?
I can pretty much guarantee that you guessed it right. As the goddess of Death, Hela attempts a coup, kills thousands of soldiers, and shows no mercy even to her younger brothers. There is no opportunity for redemption, and no question of her loyalty.
Excluding the actual psychopaths and sociopaths of the world, when was the last time you interacted with someone that you knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, had not one kind, merciful, or helpful bone in their body? Is there someone in your life who has never, not even with a pet, pursued relationship instead of power?
Even our famous historical bad guys had friends, family, loyalty, some positive characteristic. Most real-life villains, like Hitler, Tanya Harding, or the Unibomber, not only had some positive qualities, but they actually believed that what they were doing was right. Teenagers and psychopaths behave badly for the sake of behaving badly. The rest of us do what we think is right, based on our view of the world.
Stealing a stapler from your office? Come on, have you seen what this company makes in a year? They can afford another stapler.
Talking about someone behind their back? They do it all the time, and who does it hurt, anyway, if they never hear about it?
Lying to a friend about being too busy to hang out with them? They don’t need to know. I deserve a night at home, anyway.
We justify our decisions in order to make them right in our minds.
The reason for this is actually quite simple: holding a “yes, and” philosophy is uncomfortable, at times even painful – not just emotionally, but even physically! There is physical discomfort involved when we recognize that a different point of view also has merit, or different behavior could also have been a positive choice. Holding two conflicting ideas, actions, or concepts in tandem is not pleasant.
And so we learn to justify one, while excluding the other, eliminating the discomfort. For most of us, it simply creates an “us versus them” atmosphere. But taken too far, it can lead to excluding an entire reality, allowing us to justify behavior that is harmful to others.
In other words, villains are the ones who have coped with their pain and discomfort by eliminating opposing points of view, allowing them to believe that their worst behaviors and ideas are right.
It isn’t until all opposing ideas and views are ignored that you get someone like Hela. Eliminating her pain by justifying her behavior, Hela has no remorse, empathy, or chance for redemption. She is just evil personified.
But I know that I have dismissed an opposing view because I wanted to believe that I was right. Haven’t you? Does that make us villains? Or does it mean that real villains are more complicated than simply being pure evil? And that by simplifying movie villains into only evil beings, we are perpetuating the norm of simplifying others into a good guys or bad guys category?
Bottom line, I really wanted Hela to have red hair. Because I think that then she’d be real, a human like you and me, with a complicated and painful set of “yes, ands,” and Thor and his brother would have to wrestle with the fact that not everyone is either with them or against them.
I’d love to hear who your favorite movie villain is, and why!
Sources: Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown, and Ambivalence and Our Wounded Hearts, a podcast by Dr. Dan Allender