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.
I genuinely believe in the inherent goodness of humanity. I know that’s not a popular opinion, these days. I’ve even tried to remind people of it a few times. You need only look at the news, history books, or headlines from Florida to undermine your faith in human nature. I don’t deny that there’s plenty of bad, but there’s also a great deal of good. Sometimes, you find it in unexpected places.
In this case, the place is the epic space opera that is “Mass Effect.” It’s not just one of my favorite video game franchises of all time, which I often go out of my way to reference. It’s a game that dares to give players a choice in how moral or immoral they want to be. There are plenty of games out there that let you play virtuous heroes and deplorable anti-heroes. This game lets the player decide which path they want to follow.
In the original trilogy, it’s called the Paragon/Renegade system. Throughout all three games, you’re given choices on what to say or what to do in various situations. Some are inherently selfless and heroic, such as saving the Rachni from extinction. Others are just pure dick moves, like punching a reporter or shooting Mordin.
The path you choose doesn’t prevent you from completing the game, but it does affect the story. It also effects the endings of certain games and the plots of others. You can basically play the same three games and forge a very different story. You can be a pillar of virtue and nobility or you can be a total dick who still gets the job done. It’s entirely up to you.
I’ve played this game so many times that I’ve done both, but I prefer the path of the paragon. It just feels more rewarding at the end, even though it doing so does come at a price throughout the game. Recently, in an article by Forbes that featured one of BioWare’s developers, I found out that I’m not the only one who shares that sentiment. In fact, that sentiment is revealing in ways that go beyond the game.
The information comes from BioWare’s John Ebenger, who was retweeting a meme on Twitter about how devs give players choices to be evil villains in games, yet people always pick the nice options anyway. And it turns out that’s even more true than the meme suggests, as Ebenger laments that with all the work they put into the Renegade content in Mass Effect, that something close to a whopping 92% of players chose Paragon in any given moment.
Those bold parts are my doing. Regardless of your math skills, 92% is not a slim margin. That’s an overwhelming majority of players. Given the many stereotypes of gamers, it’s somewhat refreshing. When given the choice to be a hero or be a dick, they choose to be a hero.
That’s a profound notion because this is a video game. There are no real stakes outside beating the game. Players have no real incentive to be good or evil, but they still choose good. Even when making the renegade choices comes with legitimate advantages, players still go with the way of the paragon. I think that says more about people in general than it does about those who play games like “Mass Effect.”
Say what you will about the genuinely evil people in this world. They exist. They make the news. They’re the kind of people we can’t overlook, but therein lies the critical context. We’re aware of such evil because it’s so rare. When most of the people are simply making paragon choices, it’s not noteworthy. It’s considered normal.
As someone who has faith in humanity and loves all things “Mass Effect,” I find that genuinely uplifting. It proves to me that most people are inclined to be good and decent. Even if you put them in a galaxy-spanning adventure against rampaging Reapers, they’ll still do the right things for the right reasons.
In a sense, Commander Shepard gave us insight into the nature of humanity and showed us that most of us have the heart of a true paragon. That’s something worth celebrating and cherishing.
What makes a villain truly evil? It’s a question with many answers that apply to both the real and the fictional world. History is ripe with real people with villainous tendencies on par with that of any mustache-twirling villain in fiction. The world of fiction is just as vast, full of all sorts of cruel, sadistic, greedy beings that range from alien conquerors to psychotic killer clowns.
Then, there’s Alexander Joseph “Lex” Luthor. What Superman is to heroes, an ideal and a standard to which others aspire, Lex Luthor is to villains. Think back to the question of what makes a villain evil. Lex Luthor checks every box and even a few others you probably didn’t think of.
In the spirit of celebrating Superman’s 80th anniversary, which I went out of my way to honor, I think it’s just as important to appreciate the other, less heroic side of the spectrum. Superman occupies the extreme end of that spectrum, namely the side that embodies truth, justice, and the highest of morals. Lex Luthor, conversely, is at the other end, one where the depths of greed, hatred, and outright cruelty are at their worst.
To that end, it’s impossible to appreciate the values Superman stands for without also appreciating the villainous traits that Lex Luthor personifies. I’ve noted the major differences between the journey that a villain takes, compared to that of heroes. I’ve also singled out characters like Walter White, who have given a new level of complexity to modern villains. However, the villainy of Lex Luthor is as basic as it is profound.
Lex Luthor doesn’t need the same complexity as Walter White, nor does he need the tragic circumstances that help forge villains like Magneto. Lex is a villain to his core. He needs no catalyst or motivation. He is, by his own nature, an arrogant, selfish person who will go to any length to get what he wants and/or deserves, regardless of cost or ethics.
Despite that simple, if not inelegant approach to villainy, Lex Luthor still finds a way to elevate himself above the many other villains that occupy the real and fictional world. It’s not just because he’s Superman’s primary adversary either. At his core, Lex represents something that highlights the breadth of true villainy.
Like most iconic villains, Lex Luthor’s status was closely tied to that of the hero he opposes. He first appeared in Action Comics #23 in 1940, a full two years after Superman debuted. Like most villains in those days, he didn’t get much development or backstory. He was simply the extra devious bad guy who tested Superman more than most.
Over the years, Lex Luthor’s story has evolved, but the extent of his villainy has never waned. The modern version of Lex Luthor, which became canonized after the big 1986 event known as Crisis on Infinite Earths, is defined largely by his greed, ego, and extreme xenophobia. He became less a mad scientist and more heartless narcissists.
Through that evolution, Lex establishes a blunt, but powerful method to his villainy. He is, at his core, a selfish egotist. There isn’t an altruistic cell in his body. Everything he does is for one purpose and that’s to profit and/or glorify himself. It doesn’t matter whether he’s battling Superman or creating a community of low-income housing. It’s all to serve him and his interests.
In the same way you can assume that every decision Superman makes is in the name of truth and justice, you can also assume that everything Lex Luthor does is in the name of benefiting Lex Luthor. Even by Ayan Rand standards, Lex’s motivation are extreme. At the end of the day, he’s out for himself and no one else.
To some extent, though, that’s what makes him even more devious. In his endless crusade to serve himself, Lex will portray himself as less a villain and more a hero who is out to use his unrivaled genius to make the world a better place. He has even become a hero on multiple occasions within the annuls of DC Comics.
Lex Luthor will save the world. He’ll even work with Superman every now and then. However, such efforts are never in the name of doing the right thing. It always comes back to Lex serving his own agenda. He understands, at the end of the day, that no one can glorify him if the world is destroyed.
Even with those circumstances, though, Lex still finds a way to set himself apart from other villains. Characters like Dr. Doom, Thanos, and Darkseid definitely fit the mold of a villain, but even they have motivations that go beyond their ego. You could even argue that villains like Dr. Doom often blur the line because their actions sometimes align with what most consider the greater good.
With Lex Luthor, though, there are no blurred lines. He is not Dr. Doom in that he feels he needs to rule the world to ensure that it’s free from want and suffering. From Lex’s point of view, ruling the world and destroying Superman are simply a means to further glorify his ego and fuel his narcissism.
That’s what makes him so dangerous, but it also reveals something profound about villainy itself. It’s not always simply a product of being greedy and sadistic. To some extent, it’s a byproduct of being entirely self-serving and having no inclinations for selfless acts.
Whereas most people would feel some level of guilt for that level of selfishness, Lex feels nothing of the sort. That’s not to say he’s a sociopath on the level of some serial killers. He just feels that he rightly deserves all the power and aggrandizing he wants. It’s not a matter of morals. It’s a matter of him just being better than anyone else.
It’s in that domain where Lex’s rivalry with Superman becomes truly adversarial. Unlike Superman, Lex is human. However, he also happens to be the smartest human in the world, as well as one of the smartest beings in the entire DC Universe. That means he doesn’t just think he’s better than anyone else. He can actually prove it.
That’s how he’s able to craft insanely advanced technology. It’s also how he managed to get elected President of the United States at one point. It’s not enough to have a massive ego. It’s that he’s smart enough and ruthless enough to outwit anyone into serving him. There’s simply no way for any other human to match him on an intellectual level.
That’s where Superman enters the equation. That’s also what fuels Lex’s unparalleled hatred of him. From his point of view, the very existence of Superman undermines his ability to establish himself as the most superior person in the world. More than that, though, he see’s Superman’s presence as a degrading force to the human race as a whole.
It’s a sentiment that isn’t often touched on in the comics or recent movies, but it is perfectly articulated in the animated feature, “All-Star Superman.” If ever you want a perfect demonstration of Superman’s heroism or Lex Luthor’s villainy, this movie is the current gold standard.
Beyond the condescension, the bragging, and the insufferable ego behind his words, Lex Luthor makes some uncomfortably valid points. In light of Superman’s impossible ideal, every human being falls short. Even him, the smartest human being of them all, can’t hope to match it.
From Lex’s point of view, that’s not just profoundly insulting. It undermines the entire human species. The existence of an alien god-like being reduces humans to a bunch of ants under the boot of a titan. By relying on that being, looking up to him as an ideal, people can only ever hope to be better ants and nothing more.
Even if that thinking is valid on some perverse level, Lex takes it even further by making it the ultimate excuse. By establishing Superman and heroes like him as affronts to his rightful place at the top of humanity, he can basically justify anything. Read into his history and you won’t find any shortage of atrocities.
It’s for that same reason that Lex rejects any notion of truth, justice, and the American way. As he also articulated in “All-Star Superman,” he sees those concepts as inherently flawed. They’re just vague concepts that can’t be touched, measured, or quantified in any meaningful way. In Lex Luthor’s world, all that matters is what he can do with the forces around him and how they can be used to glorify him.
As a villain, Lex Luthor doesn’t live in a world of abstracts, ideals, or faith. His world is cold, calculating, and deterministic. Much like Superman, he puts a face and a name on a particular archetype. Unlike Superman, though, he doesn’t evoke hope or inspiration. He inspires fear, hatred, and mistrust.
By standing against Superman, challenging him in ways that even other god-like beings can’t, Lex Luthor demonstrates just how far someone can take true villainy. In his world, nothing is ever given. It’s either earned, taken, or stolen. Things like compassion, empathy, and love are weaknesses and not strengths. They are barriers to overcome and not strengths to embrace.
Even by the standards of Rick Sanchez from “Rick and Morty,” that kind of extreme callousness is excessive. At least under Rick’s nihilistic outlook, there’s a context to his action. For Lex Luthor, though, the only context that matters is the one that serves Lex Luthor.
Superman is a beloved heroic icon and for good reason. He represents the best to which a hero can aspire. However, the extent of those aspirations and the power of that heroism is hard to appreciate without also acknowledging the villainous side of the struggle.
Superman is the hero he is because he has a villain like Lex Luthor to battle. Lex Luthor is the villain he is because Superman pushes him. However, even in the absence of Superman, Lex would still be the kind of villain who hurts, exploits, and deceives anyone and everyone to serve his agenda. That, more than anything, is what makes him the ultimate villain.
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.
Every now and then, I come across a story, sometimes fictional and sometimes non-fictional, that resonates with me in an unexpected way. Sometimes it’s a movie. Sometimes it’s a comic book. Sometimes it’s even a video game with a powerful story that actually gets me choked up at the end.
I don’t deny it. I’m human. I may be a heterosexual man, but I do get emotional at times. Sure, I’m not one to cry when Bambi’s mother dies in a Disney movie. Everybody responds differently to certain things. It’s part of what makes us such a diverse species and it’s part of what frustrates every single marketing department that ever lived.
With that in mind, try not to bust my balls too much when I say a recent sports documentary really struck a nerve with me. That alone might not surprise too many people. Sports fans can be an emotional bunch. Just ask any Eagles fan since 1960.
However, this particular documentary involved a guy by the name of Lawrence Phillips. Okay, now try even harder not to bust my balls.
Who is Lawrence Phillips and why should we give a damn? Well, anyone who has followed the NFL or college football over the past 25 years has probably heard his name at least once. He’s not so much an athlete or a football player anymore. He’s become the ultimate cautionary tale. Get football fan talking about him and they’ll usually talk about him with the kind of disdain they usually reserve for bullshit pass interference calls.
To be fair, Phillips earned that disdain in multiple ways. He was an insanely gifted athlete who helped the University of Nebraska go undefeated for two consecutive seasons and win two BCS National Championships in the process. After that, he was drafted 6th overall by the St. Louis Rams in 1996. This is the ultimate dream for a football player and Phillips, despite all his talents, proceeded to piss it all away.
It didn’t happen all at once, but in many ways, that just made it worst. This was a guy who seemed to get arrested every other week and kept finding excuses to beat up women. By the end, he was less respected by the NFL than Scott Norwood is by Buffalo Bills fans. He is now regularly cited as one of the greatest NFL Draft Busts of all time.
Now as a noted NFL fan, I fully admit that I saw Lawrence Phillips in this light. When I follow the NFL and I see someone get into serious legal trouble, a part of me rolls my eyes and things, “At the rate he’s going, he’ll be another Lawrence Phillips.”
That’s what happens when someone becomes a cautionary tale. They become a symbol for the flaws we see in others. As a result, that person ceases to be a person. We don’t even see the person anymore. We just see what he or she represents. It’s harsh, but it’s how we process certain concepts about ourselves.
Then, when we get a chance to actually learn about that person, we find out that just calling them a “cautionary tale” is kind of a dick move because it ignores a much bigger, much more complex picture.
That’s where this documentary comes in. It’s called “Running for His Life: The Lawrence Phillips Story.” Even if you’re not a football fan, I highly recommend this movie. It accomplishes something truly remarkable. It peels back the layers of the cautionary tale that is Lawrence Phillips and reveals the man.
This isn’t a documentary that tries to make excuses. It does not try to glorify Phillips or gloss over his egregious flaws. It just explores the whole of a complicated, volatile, yet gifted man.
It spends a lot of time exploring where he came form and this is important because where we come from has a huge impact on who we are. He was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, but his mother moved him out to California. He was estranged from his father and did not have the best relationship with his biological mother. His home life, to put it mildly, was anything but stable.
The documentary tells stories about the abuse he suffered as a child. It even recounts a story where one of his mother’s boyfriends held him down an urinated on him. Sadly, it gets even more disturbing than that.
After running away from home, Phillips became a ward of the state and bounced around foster homes. Along the way, he lived in a few group homes with other kids. The way the documentary describes this place sounds like something that would make Charles Dickens himself cringe. These are places where things like love and innocence go to die.
Eventually, Phillips did end up in a foster home with a loving mother who tried to help him. However, the damage had been done. The boy had been scarred in ways that never truly healed. The documentary described these scars as demons that he struggled to deal with. A lot of people claim to have demons, but let’s not lie to ourselves. Some are more powerful than others.
Despite these demons, Phillips still had insane God-given talent. The documentary make sit a point to highlight just how talented this man was. By every measure, he had all the physical tools of a gifted athlete. He did try to use those tools as well. Football helped him escape the rough, abusive world he came from. He could’ve been a success story like John Randall or Randy Moss. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.
The documentary eventually starts to reveal just how dark a turn this man’s life took after college. It described a man who was cold, unloved, and did not know how to show love to others. The women interviewed described a man who just could not control his emotions and when there was upheaval, violence was his first, second, and third reaction.
This fits perfectly with the mold of someone who has an abusive personality. When women’s centers list warning signs, Lawrence Phillips checks most every box. He came from a world of abuse. Naturally, that’s the kind of world he forges around him.
However, the women also took the time to emphasize how good he could be at times. That good cannot and should not be completely ignored. It’s still not an excuse, but it does make clear that this man had other aspects to his personality. He wasn’t just the scary ex-football player who abused women.
This, in my opinion, is the most important message of this documentary. It’s also the most important lesson we can glean from the story of Lawrence Phillips. I’ve talked a lot about evil on this blog. There are plenty of people who would rightly call Phillips evil for the crimes he committed, one of which may have been the murder of his cell mate in prison. However, he was still a human being.
No matter what anyone thinks about Lawrence Phillips, whether he’s a cautionary tale or a violent abuser, it doesn’t change the fact that he was a person. He was a child once. He had a life and he tried to live it. We like to think about evil people as nothing more than monsters. It’s easy to just think of them as wannabe Biff Tannen’s from “Back to the Future.” That still ignores the person and the full story of their lives.
At the end of the documentary, there’s a haunting message about Lawrence Phillips that I think many of us can relate to. It talks of a man who was so physically gifted that he could outrun anybody, but he could not outrun his demons. At one point, an old friend of his said he was always running from his demons, but in the end, the demons caught him.
Whether you’re an aspiring erotica/romance writer, a football fan, or just a decent human being trying to make sense of this crazy world, it’s a message that’s worth hearing. It’s a message we shouldn’t forget. There may very well be another Lawrence Phillips-type story in the future, but let’s not make light of that story. In the end, they’re still people. As soon as we forget that, we cease heeding the lessons of that story.
Go to any message boards for comic books, movies, TV shows, or Twilight fan fiction and you’ll hear any number of twisted interpretations of certain characters. Everybody has their own opinions, but let’s face it. Some go out of their way to melt their own brain in an effort to interpret a character in a particular way.
Talk to certain Harry Potter fans and you’ll find takes on Voldermort that are creepier than all the clown makeup and anime porn in the world. As a noted comic book fan, I’ve certainly had my share of twisted interpretations, as well as heated debates on message boards. I understand that these debates are about as productive as spitting into the ocean in hopes of causing a flood, but it also reveals how broad our interpretations can be.
I bring this up because in my many discussions about evil, villains, and recent trends in villains, I knew there was going to be one major complication to this discussion that was sure to piss off certain fans of certain characters. Given how much time and effort some people put into dressing up as certain characters, that’s not an anger to take lightly.
For many of my discussions about Walter White from “Breaking Bad,” I referred to him as a villain. I even fit his narrative into the context of the “Villain’s Journey.” When I watch Breaking Bad and assess the story, I believe Walter White to be a villain.
I did this knowing that there’s a sizable chunk of Breaking Bad fans that refuse to label him as such. To these fans, and they’re not entirely misguided in their assessment, they see Walt as an anti-hero. They see what he did and why he did it as not being fit for a true villain. Never mind the problem with calling any villain “true” in the era of “alternative facts,” it’s not an unreasonable position.
Walter White is not Dr. Doom or Lex Luthor. He’s not Wolverine or Dirty Harry either. There are any number of debates fans can have, and there have been many, on this issue. I don’t want to have them all. My blog, if not the entire internet, simply isn’t big enough for that debate.
However, if I’m going to talk about villains like Walter White, Magneto, and Dr. Doom, I need to address the influence of anti-heroes. I hope to do another more in depth exploration of anti-heroes in a future post, but for now, I’ll keep it in the context of how they relate to villains.
First off, I think I need to make clear that villains and anti-heroes are not the same. Granted, they can be easy to confuse, but they are very different in terms of narrative, motivation, and personality. It’s possible for an anti-hero to be a complete asshat and still be heroic, as Wolverine regularly proves. It’s also possible for a villain to be endearing, as Freddy Krueger movies regularly prove.
So what’s the difference? What sets an anti-hero apart from a villain? Well, it doesn’t help that the definition of an anti-hero is somewhat vague. Even Wikipedia struggles to answer it. The simplest definition it offers is this:
It’s not overly ambiguous, but it’s lacking in that it uses what a character lacks to define them. Unless you’re diagnosing personality disorders, that’s just not sufficient. Anti-heroes are as old as Ancient Greece, Don Quixote, and a time when Clint Eastwood actually had a successful acting career. By any measure, this concept does have roots.
Being a comic book fan, there are plenty of anti-heroes occupying my list of favorite characters. Wolverine is probably the most notable, but there are many others like the Punisher, the Hulk, Deadpool, and John Constantine. Some of these characters, like Deadpool, go out of their way to make clear that they’re not a hero. However, they do have some distinct qualities that set them apart from villains.
Anti-Heroes, especially those in superhero comics, still battle injustice in a larger world, just like traditional heroes. They fight criminals. They protect the innocent. They’ll even save the world from an invading alien army. The main difference is they’re just more willing to be assholes about it.
While most sane people have an innate aversion to assholes, we are willing to overlook a certain amount of assholery if it serves the greater good. Aristotle might have been a racist, anti-woman, douche-bag by most standards, but his contribution to western civilization was pretty damn important for our progress as a species.
There is a limit to just how much douche-baggery we’ll tolerate for an anti-hero, but core sentiment of the character remains. They still want to help others. They still want to save the day. They still, and this is critical, will do the right thing even if it doesn’t serve their best interests.
It’s that last quality that helps unblur the lines between villain and anti-hero. When faced with a chance to do the right thing or do something that’s self-serving, an anti-hero will most often do the right thing. They may be a total dick about it. They may even kill, destroy, or cuss like a hung over Quentin Tarantino. They’ll still do the right thing.
A villain will, at the end of the day, mostly favor the decisions that serve their interests. At the moment in the comics, Lex Luthor is a member of the Justice League and Dr. Doom is the new Iron Man. It’s a long story as to how this happened, and some of those stories are pretty damn awesome, but the sentiment of the characters is still the same.
Lex Luthor and Dr. Doom are being heroes because it still serves their interests. It’s not about doing the right thing for them. They may claim they want to redeem themselves, but that’s really not that altruistic when you think about it. They want to be perceived as heroes. They want to have that kind of adulation. On some levels, it’s inherently selfish.
Compare that to Wolverine or Deadpool. They couldn’t give two whiffs of a wet fart about how they’re perceived. They still do things their own way and their decisions aren’t always self-serving.
By this standard, Walter White is far more in line with a villain. He let Jane, Jesse’s girlfriend, die rather than save her when he had the chance. He poisoned a little kid as part of an elaborate plan to take down a rival. There are all self-serving decisions. These are, by most measures, morally abhorrent. That’s what makes him a villain and that’s what sets villains apart from anti-heroes.
I understand there are still arguments to be made about Walter White’s status as a villain and an anti-hero. I’ll save those arguments for another post. In the end, it’s still somewhat easy to confuse villains and anti-heroes. However, when you break down their character and what motivates them, the line isn’t as blurred as we think.
There’s a place for villains. There’s a place for anti-heroes. I imagine there will be plenty of debates about which is which and who is who, but it’s these very conflicts that help bring out the best and, necessarily, the worst in these characters.