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.
It’s one of the oldest, most confounding questions in all of philosophy and science. Cantankerous old man and nagging old women alike debate it. Are people fundamentally good or evil? People have been trying to answer that question for centuries, some more so than others. However, the answer never seems to be complete.
It’s a question that has huge implications. If people are naturally good when stripped of circumstance, then that bodes well for our ability to survive when the zombies attack, the Illuminati take over, or aliens invade. It means that “Independence Day” wasn’t too far off in showing how good people could be inspired to do great things.
Conversely, the implications of people being naturally evil are a bit more dire. If the Joker was right in “The Dark Knight” and people are only as good as society allows them to be, then that means our society and our civilization is even more fragile and precious than we think. If something like zombies or aliens attack, then it won’t be long before we become the monsters we dread, hopefully without clown makeup.
I’m not a philosophy buff. I’m also not a scientist. I write sexy stories and talk about sexy topics in hopes of making a living from it. I couldn’t be less qualified to answer this profound question without admitting I sleep with a lead brick under my pillow. Like a virgin on her prom night, though, I’m still going to try and hope for the best.
I’ve talked about evil before and how that affects iconic villains in fiction, but I haven’t really dug into the better angles of our nature. Sure, I could point out that civilization is getting better by nearly every measure, but the Joker enthusiasts of the world would just point out that’s because people are getting better at boxing in their inherent evil with the comforts of civilization.
I won’t say there isn’t some logic to that. I also won’t get into all the research that has gone into determining the nature of mankind. That stuff is too technical. It’s not going to get anyone’s panties wet in discussing this issue and I have sexy standards to maintain on this blog.
Instead, I’m going to tell a story that isn’t very sexy, but should help get my point across. While my outlook on mankind has changed a great deal throughout my life, often coinciding with high school and failed relationships, I genuinely believe that people are innately good. I know that’s hard to grasp for anyone who watches the news or reruns of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” but I believe it’s more apparent than most people think.
To illustrate that, I want to highlight a moment from my late childhood that I didn’t really appreciate until I became an adult. Whenever I find myself thinking about the nature of man, my thoughts often drift to this memory and I smile for reasons that should soon be apparent.
Picture, if you can, a cold and dreary day in late March. Enter a 10-year-old me, still in grade school and just starting to realize how much I hate school. I wasn’t a miserable teenager just yet, but I wasn’t some cheery child either. I often stressed myself out in way more ways than any kid should, but that’s another story. All you need to know is that on this day, I went a bit overboard.
The weather was getting crappier by the second. That’s when I found out that I left something at school. Keep in mind, I’d just gotten home and just wanted to play video games to unwind. However, I had to go back because this wasn’t something I could put off. I had a big project coming up and, being the neurotic grade-grubber I was at the time, I needed to take care of this.
I remember hating myself so much, if only because it took away from the time I wanted to spend playing video games. Then, after talking to my parents, I decided to ride my bicycle up to the school to pick it up. They told me they could drive by later after they got groceries. That wasn’t good enough for me. I had to punish myself for being so forgetful.
So I got on my bicycle and rode down to the school through the increasingly-crappy weather. I was not happy about having to do it, so much so I just peddled as fast as I could, not caring that I had the athletic prowess of a senile hamster. This quickly proved to be a mistake because, less than a block from my house, I swerved off the sidewalk and crashed right into a gate.
I’m not going to lie. I cried like anyone might expect of a 10-year-old kid. I didn’t hurt myself seriously. I didn’t break any bones. I just bruised my knee and scraped my elbow. If my gym teacher were there, he would tell me to walk it off. I probably should’ve, in that case, but I didn’t. I just sat there in the cold, muddy grass and cried my eyes out.
Now, I’m not proud of it. Remember, I was 10-years-old at the time. I hadn’t exactly refined my toughness yet, nor did I realize that forgetting homework from school was not the end of the world. That didn’t matter, though. In my own limited world, this was basically the apocalypse.
I don’t remember how long I just sat there crying on the sidewalk. At some point, though, a woman from the house right behind me came running out from her back yard to tend to me. The way I was crying, she must have thought I’d been impaled by a tree branch. For all she knew, she was about to walk up to the most horrifying site anyone could see outside of a promo for “Law and Order: SVU.”
That didn’t stop her, though. She just came to me, helped me up, and basically babied me until I stopped crying. I didn’t even know this woman. I didn’t know if my parents knew her either. She was a total stranger and in that same year, my school started giving us all those stranger danger lectures. This woman must have missed the danger part.
I never learned the woman’s name. I don’t even remember thanking her. I just remember drying my eyes, saying goodbye once the stinging stopped, and riding my bike back to the school so I could pick up my stuff. I think she mentioned something about calling an ambulance. I did not want that. After I realized I wasn’t hurt that badly, I finally grit my teeth and got up.
My mood didn’t really change, but that was beside the point. The fact that she, some woman I didn’t know, helped me so much on that miserable day still sent a message to me. It would take a long time for me to appreciate it, but I like to think that woman had a far greater impact than she’d intended.
She didn’t know me, but she didn’t care. I was a wounded child on a sidewalk on a cold, dreary day. She didn’t need to be inspired to help me. She didn’t need some sort of incentive or reward. She just did it. She came to my aid, even when I didn’t appreciate it. On that day, she was basically Wonder Woman.
To me, that highlights a part of human nature that’s overlooked and underrated. If the Joker were right and people are only as good as the world lets them, then that woman would’ve needed some sort of incentive to help me. There would have to be some sort of outside pressure to make her do what she did.
The situation I just described might as well have been in a vacuum in a laboratory. There was nobody there to tell her to help me or to belittle her if she didn’t. She didn’t go out and tell the papers either. She didn’t seek any kind of vindication or admiration. I don’t think I ever saw that woman again and I didn’t even tell my parents about the incident until days later. She still did the right thing in helping a wounded child.
If people don’t need to be influenced, guilted, or pressured into doing the right thing, then that just leaves one conclusion, in my book. People are naturally good. That woman who helped me was a genuinely good person.
Granted, there may have been someone else who’d heard my cries and chose not to help. That person might have been a sociopath or might have just seen the woman beat them to the punch. Even if that were the case, though, that doesn’t take away from what the woman did. She still helped me.
The fact that one person can do something innately good in that situation proves that it’s possible. If it happens once, then that means there is something in the human condition that compels us to be good. Combine that with all the other overwhelming acts of kindness that people have done and you can’t ignore the implications.
While I don’t deny that there are some truly heinous people in this world, the fact that they make the news just shows how rare they actually are. There are over 7 billion people on this planet. The kindness and care that people show for one another every day will probably never get reported.
That only furthers my point, though. If being good is so mundane that it never makes the news, then that tells you all you need to know about the innate goodness of people. For me, it took one woman on one miserable day to convince me of that. I wish I’d learned that woman’s name. I wish I could thank her for what she did for me. She’ll probably never read this, but I’ll say it anyway.
Ma’am, whoever you are and wherever you are now, thank you for helping that crying 10-year-old boy that day. You helped convince him that people are genuinely good.
So long as I’m discussing the topic of evil on this blog, it was only a matter of time before I started venturing into the extremes. It happens with any topic that holds your interest for more than a few minutes. It’s not enough to just see one cat video. You have to find the greatest, most adorable cat video possible.
It’s human nature, a common and all too fitting theme when it comes to discussions of good and evil. To really grasp a concept, we tend to look to the extremes of that concept. That makes sense because the extremes usually catch our attention. They make the more subtle aspects of the concept not subtle. Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Elton John are living proof of this.
What’s going to hold your attention more? A thorough, detailed assessment of all the intricacies of a topic or the equivalent of a monster truck driving down down the street that shoots flames out the tailpipe while playing Slayer music? Unless you’re Sheldon Cooper, the answer should be obvious.
With that in mind, I think it’s fitting that any discussions about evil involve extremes. Sadly, human beings give us plenty of real-world examples of these extremes. History is full of ruthless conquerors, sadistic dictators, and eccentric directors who damage beloved superhero franchises beyond repair. These characters are not works of fiction. They’re real people who commit real evil. That makes their acts all the more revealing.
So in the interest of revealing and/or repulsing our tender sensibilities, I found a video from our old friends at WatchMojo that highlights 10 of the worst human beings in history. Some are serial killers. Some are kings, dictators, and despots. Every one of them is undoubtedly evil by nearly every measure.
Some may not agree with this list. Some may think it left off a few too many kings, queens, and disgraced professional athletes. At the very least, of provides some context and insight into the sheer breadth of humanity’s capacity for evil.
Are you ashamed to be human yet? Do you wish you were born a lizard? If so, step back and take a deep breath. These are extremes. By definition, they’re not the norm. They’re the exact opposite of the norm. They take the norm, take out its knees with a baseball bat, and kick it into submission before robbing it on the spot. I’d be more excessive, but I’m starting to have one too many flashbacks to the third grade so I’ll stop.
It’s an important perspective to maintain, even as we contemplate the worst of the worst when it comes to evil. The same thing happens when we watch Fox News for too long. Seeing all these extremes, which are often meant to get attention rather than convey the truth, gives us a flawed perception about what it means to be human. It doesn’t help that these perceptions find their way into our most famous stories.
It’s no secret that Bram Stoker’s inspiration for “Dracula” came from a real-life person with a bloody evil streak named Vlad the Impaler. In many respects, the things Vlad did make him much more terrifying than Dracula can hope to be because Vlad actually lived. Vlad earned that nickname and didn’t give a damn how infamous it made him.
Not every evil person earns that kind of label, but their real-world deeds definitely leave a mark. It’s not always on the people they hurt. Sometimes, their very presence skews our perceptions of human nature. It’s because these extreme evils catch our attention so much that our caveman brains can’t help but render sobering, albeit inaccurate conclusions.
As an aspiring erotica/romance writer, I may end up contributing to that issue. While I haven’t created a character on the same level as Dracula, characters like Warren Irvine in “Skin Deep” and Madam Felicity in “The Escort and the Gigolo” are not the kind of people you want be friends with. They’re definitely not the kind of people you want as your enemies either. Again, they’re not Dracula.
That said, it is tempting sometimes to push the limits of your antagonists. There are a number of novels I have in mind that require a mean, pissed off, utterly deplorable person to make the story work. How far can I take that? I’m not sure, but the real people who do real evil in this world do set the bar pretty high.