The following is a video I made for my YouTube channel, Jack’s World. It’s a video version of an article I wrote a while back. I added and removed a few details to the video. If necessary, I’ll do a follow-up. Enjoy!
We currently live in a golden age of villains. Between Thanos, Erik Killmonger, the Joker, and Walter White, there has been a veritable surge of complex characters who also happen to be compelling villains. While there’s still a place for the kind of pure evil that Disney villains have relied on for years, this trend in a more refined brand of villainy feels both refreshing and overdue.
I’ve written extensively on villains before. As a lifelong fan of superhero comics and movies, I’ve consumed, contemplated, and scrutinized hero/villain dynamics more than most. In doing so, I’ve noticed plenty of trends. Like most aspects of popular culture, it’s always evolving. Very few themes and details remain constant, especially when it comes to antagonists.
That said, there’s one trend in villains that has remained somewhat constant over the course of my lifetime. It’s also a trend that I see as intensifying, albeit in a subtle way. Some of it coincides with the growing complexity of villains in popular culture, but most of the trend precedes the current era of superhero-dominated media. If anything, superhero media helped accelerate it.
While most villains and heroes rarely identify with a certain political affiliation, it’s usually not hard to discern how most would vote in a contemporary election. I would even argue that it’s easier to surmise what a villain’s political leanings are compared to that of heroes. Take any villain from the past 10 years of movies, be they superhero or otherwise. Chances are a vast majority of them would identify as conservative.
Now, I understand conservatism is an exceedingly broad term. It has a dictionary definition, but as a political philosophy, there are many sub-sets, divisions, and variations. From fiscal conservatives to social conservative to neoconservatives, there are many wildly different ideologies that still identify as conservative. A few actively clash with one another.
Those complexities aside, there are some core tenants associated with conservatism and it’s those very tenants that make it such an effective basis for villains. Chief among conservative values is the idea that traditional norms, institutions, and values be maintained. Change isn’t actively dissuaded, but it is viewed with caution and suspicion. To be conservative is to affirm the status quo, to some extent.
That’s all well and good if the status quo is beneficial to everyone. It’s not so preferable for those who either fail to benefit or are actively screwed over by that same status quo. Since there has never been a society in history that has achieved perfect prosperity for everyone, regardless of their minority status, there’s bound to be people who get left behind.
In our own real-world history, we’ve seen people from those disaffected groups organize and fight the status quo to better their lives. That struggle has played out in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the movement for women’s rights, and the LGBT rights movement that’s still going on today. Those who oppose these movements tend to have, broadly speaking, conservative leanings.
Look at the groups that opposed the Civil Rights movement.
They all espouse rhetoric that would put them at odds with Superman, Captain America, and most other superheroes who value justice, truth, and peace. For some, their talking points sound like ideas that only villains in the mold of Lex Luthor would agree with. While not all of them identify as overtly conservative, the standard principles are there.
Anything too different from the status quo must be wrong or evil.
Anybody too different from the people everyone else in a society must be bad, evil, or devious.
Any idea, trend, or movement that is disruptive or deviant in any way is something to be opposed.
It doesn’t just manifest in superhero movies or underdog stories, either. Look at a movie like “Footloose.” In this story, the people who ban dancing are uptight, dogmatic, religious zealots who likely voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984 when this movie came out. They were the antagonists of that story and the kids, while not overtly liberal, dared to defy them.
It can even manifest subtly in other media. In kids shows like “Recess,” “Hey Arnold,” and “Rocko’s Modern Life,” the most common antagonists are uptight authority figures who have no tolerance for new ideas, big changes, or anything remotely fun. It’s hard to imagine any of these characters voting for someone who builds their slogan around change, reform, and reinvention.
They like things the way they are. Most of them benefit from the current system and will naturally seek to preserve their place in that system. While they won’t always see themselves as villains, it’s difficult for them to come off as heroes. You can only be so heroic when your side is closely aligned with predatory business practices, fun-hating religious zealots, and unabashed war-mongers.
That’s not to say it’s impossible for liberals to be villains too. It does happen and it can be done very well when done right. I would argue that Erik Killmonger in “Black Panther” was more in line with an extreme liberal revolutionary who didn’t just want to pursue change. I would make a similar argument for Ra’s Al Ghul in “Batman Begins.”
These characters didn’t just seek to change society from its current unjust state. They sought to violently destroy it and rebuild it from the ground up. That kind of liberalism exists in the real world and it can make for compelling villains.
However, the number of villains who align with the politics of Killmonger are far fewer than those who would align with the politics of Lex Luthor. In general, it’s easier to resist change rather than embrace it. It’s also necessary to some extent for those to resist change to be uptight authority figures who are okay with coercing others to maintain traditions. Logistically, the villains in many conflicts must be conservative.
Now, that’s not to say that villains will always lean conservative in popular media. What it means to be conservative changes over time. If you were to listen to conservative rhetoric 50 years ago, they would sound very different. They might even sound liberal by today’s standards.
The same goes for liberalism of previous eras. It hasn’t always been closely aligned with the politics surrounding minority rights, income inequality, or political correctness. The liberals of the 1920s would likely clash with the liberals of today. That’s just part of the ever-evolving nature of politics.
For the time being, though, being a villain in popular culture usually means being conservative to a certain extent. Conservatives are more likely to be the rich, greedy business people who would gladly burn down a rain forest or exploit slave labor to raise profits. Conservatives are more likely to be the rule-loving, fun-hating, curfew-enforcing religious zealots who wouldn’t mind electing theocrats with every election.
These types of individuals are far more likely to be villains in a story. At the very least, they’ll side or tolerate the villain. It’s easy to believe that those who side with the religious right and well-connected rich people will generally oppose a selfless, likable protagonist. From a narrative perspective, these kinds of villains are better in that we tend to root for heroes who oppose authoritarian bullies like that.
Again, it’s guaranteed that political and cultural trends will likely change what it means to be conservative, liberal, and everything in between. For the time being, if you were to bet on the political leanings of an antagonist, the odds are mostly in favor of that antagonist being conservative.
What is happening to villains these days? That’s an entirely reasonable question to ask. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a remarkable shift in how we approach villainy in movies, TV, comic books, and video games. I’m not just talking about the superhero media, either. However, that happens to be the most visible manifestation of this change.
As a long-time fan of both superheroes and quality villains, I welcome this change. At the same time, I’m curious about where it’s leading and what it means for the future. Villains are as old as storytelling itself. From the Bible to “Star Wars,” these stories work best when there’s villainy to oppose the unfolding narrative. Villains have always evolved alongside the heroes that oppose them, but that evolution seems to be accelerating.
I’ve discussed the unique journey that villains undergo and how they set themselves apart from heroes. Traditionally, a villain’s primary purpose was to both oppose the hero and highlight how heroic they are. The sheer malice of characters like Lex Luthor help contrast the pure selflessness of characters like Superman. It’s easier to appreciate those heroes knowing they have to deal such malicious opponents.
Then, something remarkable happened. Audiences began demanding more of their villains. It wasn’t enough to just have a villain oppose a hero. People began wanting villains who were understandable and even relatable to some extent. Ironically, they wanted a villain they could root for.
That helped lead to characters like Walter White from “Breaking Bad.” His impact was so profound that I even called his influence the Walter White effect. However, I think there were others who paved the way for Walter White. If I had to pick one villain that helped kick-start this trend in villainy, it would be Heath Ledger’s Joker from “The Dark Knight.”
From this portrayal of villainy, the emerging state of villains emerged and it may very well set the tone for the future. On the surface, this version of the Joker wasn’t too different from the one who had existed in the comics for years. He’s dangerous, destructive, murderous, and callous, like many villains. Unlike most, though, he does what he does with a laugh and a smile.
What made this version of the Joker so memorable was the principles behind his madness. To him, society is corrupt and people aren’t inherently good. As such, he seeks to point out how laughable it is when others try to save it. Batman’s crusade against crime is the biggest joke of all, which helps drive their rivalry.
It’s a philosophy that few other than terrorists and extreme nihilists would buy into, but it’s one that’s understandable to some extent. We don’t have to agree with them or their methods. We just have to see their twisted logic. They can’t just be standard James Bond villains whose motives are indistinguishable from fascists, communists, or terrorists. There needs to be something more personal at work.
We saw plenty of that in 2018’s biggest movies. From “Black Panther” to “ Avengers: Infinity War” to “Incredibles 2,” the villains all had something personal at stake. Erik Killmonger saw his villainous actions as heroic. He wasn’t out to just take over Wakanda. He had a vision in mind that felt justified to some extent, especially to those familiar with real-world historical injustices.
Thanos raised the bar even more in “Avengers: Infinity War.” He never tries to come off as a hero, but he never sees his actions as villainous, either. In fact, when heroes like Dr. Strange call him out, he frames his desire to cull half the population in the universe as mercy. For him, it’s simple math. Half a population is better than no population at all.
These motivations, as devious they might be on paper, have some semblance of merit to it. Both Thanos and Killmonger think they’re doing the right thing. That significantly impacts how the heroes in their stories go about thwarting them, although I would argue that one story was more complete while the other remains unresolved.
In “Black Panther,” T’Challa doesn’t just stop at defeating Killmonger. He actually sees some of his enemy’s points and takes steps to address them. He doesn’t revert things back to the way they were. Wakanda doesn’t return to the same isolated state it had been at the start of the movie. Instead, he seeks to find a middle ground. That, I would argue, is the new template for how heroes defeat this kind of villain.
The resolution in “Avengers: Infinity War,” however, is not as clear. That’s largely due to the story not being complete. There is a sequel planned, but at no point in the three-hour spectacle did the Avengers attempt to prove Thanos wrong. They only ever tried to stop him. That oversight has not gone unnoticed by audiences.
This, in many ways, sums up the new dynamic between heroes in villains. It’s no longer enough for heroes to just defeat their adversaries. It’s not even enough for villains to be exceptionally devious. There have to be larger principles at work. It can’t just be reduced to general greed, ego, or bullying.
Thanos seeks to kill have the population because he believes that it’ll prevent the complete extinction of all life.
Erik Killmonger seeks to empower oppressed minorities to right past injustices.
Dr. Doom seeks to conquer the world because a world under his rule is the only one free of suffering and want. That’s actually canon in the comics.
It’s makes crafting compelling villains more difficult, but at the same time, it opens the door to more complexity. On top of that, it demands that audiences think beyond the good versus evil dynamic that has defined so many stories, going back to the days of fairy tales. It’s a challenge that some are certain to fail. Some already have, sadly.
It also sets the tone for future forms of villainy. How that villainy manifests is impossible to predict, but given the current trends, I think there’s room to speculate. At the heart of this emerging villainy is the idea that the current system just isn’t working. It’s so bad that the only viable option is to destroy and rebuild it. There’s no room, whatsoever, for reform.
This is where the heroes will have to evolve, as well. They can’t just play “Super Friends” and save the day. They have to actually make meaningful changes to move society forward. King T’Challa did that at the end of “Black Panther.” Other heroes need to be as willing. Otherwise, they won’t be able to call themselves heroes. They’re just defenders of a status quo may not be working as well as they think.
It’s an ideological struggle that parallels many real-world struggles. People today have less and less faith in established institutions. As a result, more people are falling sway to populist rhetoric that promises to break down the current system entirely. By and large, people today aren’t content with just preserving things as they are. They seek more meaningful change.
That presents a serious problem for heroes and a golden opportunity for villains. Historically, heroes haven’t been able to effect change beyond a certain point. Some of that is for logistical reasons. A hero can never create a functioning utopia without ending the story completely, which is something major media companies cannot have. There’s too much money to be made.
Logistics aside, the future of villainy will have plenty of raw materials to work with and plenty of societal angst to draw upon. Heroes who save the day, but do little else won’t be able to call themselves heroes in the world currently unfolding. Villains who have a real vision with understandable motivations will find themselves with more supporters than before.
It’s no longer taboo to root for the villain, especially when the heroes don’t confront the flaws in their rhetoric. In what seems prophetic now, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” may have put it best when Ultron stated:
“I’m sorry, I know you mean well. You just didn’t think it through. You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change.”
That’ll be the key to the future of villainy, change in a world that resists too much of it happening at once. It’ll make for some complicated villains, but it will definitely make the struggle of heroes even harder. However it plays out, I believe it’ll be worth watching.