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.
How do you make good choices?
How do you know when something is right, just, and ethical?
How do you go about determining the morality and ethics of any given situation?
These are the kinds of questions that lawmakers, philosophers, scientists, religious leaders, and YouTube commenters debate constantly. It’s one of those deep, fundamental issues that everyone contemplates regularly, but few can claim to understand. The world is so chaotic and complicated. It’s incredibly difficult to surmise a simple, concise, consistent standard for making good choices.
However, there are ways of simplifying that daunting process. It may still be impossible to completely resolve such issues for every person in every situation, but we can make it easier. As it just so happens, one of the greatest TV shows of all time, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” provides us with an important tool that also happens to be hilarious.
Using that tool is simple. It goes like this.
If a certain choice, response, or recourse seems like someone that the Gang would do in “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” then chances are it’s not the one you should follow.
To anyone who has watched this show in any capacity, that makes total sense. For those who haven’t had a chance to watch this hilariously obscene middle finger to every sitcom ever made, here’s just a sample of what I’m talking about.
Even if you’re not familiar with the show, this should at least get you familiar with the implications. I’ve written about “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” in the context of its masterful handling of dark comedy. I concede that this is one of those shows that isn’t for everyone. It’s hard to explain to most people the appeal of a show that finds humor in baby funerals, crack binges, and unauthorized Lethal Weapon sequels.
At the same time, it’s because this show dives head-first into dark comedy that it paints a clear picture on what goes into making bad decisions. There’s no getting around it. The characters in this show, also known as the Gang, are not morally upstanding people. In fact, they don’t even try to be moral. Nearly every episode involves them pursuing some elaborate plot based entirely on selfishness, greed, ego, or misguided pettiness.
They’re not stupid on the level of Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin, but they aren’t very smart either. Everything they do, from hoarding gasoline in an oil crisis to stalking a waitress, is incredibly simplistic. It can always be reduced to a basic level of selfish narcissism that never goes beyond basic.
It’s because the Gang’s choices are so basic and self-serving that the show is so funny in the first place. “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” essentially takes the unique setup of a sitcom to amplify all the terrible traits and tropes that frequently go along with other shows that try too hard to be deeper.
At its core, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” doubles down on the simplicity of having characters who don’t even try to be moral. Through 14 seasons, the Gang actively avoids any effort to change or grow in a meaningful way. Charlie, Dee, Dennis, Mac, and Frank are the same selfish narcissists they are in Season 14 as they are in Season 4.
Even as the show has gotten bolder and more absurd with the Gang’s antics, their motivations are the same. They don’t need to be overly complex to be funny. That’s what makes these characters and the entire premise of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” such a great filter.
The next time you’re in a situation where you need to make a decision, try and apply this filter. What would Sweet Dee do? What would Frank Reynolds do? What would Dennis, Mac, and Charlie do? If you can determine that, then you can also determine exactly what not to do.
Even if it’s not specific, the moral filter of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” can act as a reminder. If you’re going to be exceedingly selfish and narcissistic in making decisions, then you’re tempting fate the same way the Gang does with every absurd antic. Doing so will rarely pan out well for you and those around you.
If you need further proof, just look at Rickety Cricket.
Some things are worth waiting for, but when that wait spans nearly two years, that’s pushing it. Patience is a virtue, but after a certain amount of time, it becomes a test in how much you can tolerate frustration. For fans of “Rick and Morty,” the line between patience and frustration got real blurry for a while.
The last episode of Season 3, “The Rickchurian Mortydate,” aired on October 7, 2017. That might as well have been another lifetime and several universes ago. In that time, a lot happened behind the scenes. Show creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon explained in 2018 why it took so long and, delays aside, there was a legitimate reason for it, which hopefully helps the show in the long run.
That didn’t make the wait any less arduous. However, on November 10, 2019, it finally ended with the premier of Season 4, Episode 1, “Edge of Tomorty: Rick Die Rickpeat.” To say I was excited would be like saying Kalaxian Crystals help lighten the mood at a lame ass party. I built my entire day around it. I even cussed at the clock many times for not moving faster.
As frustrating as the two-year wait was, I can attest that it was worth it. This quirky, colorful piece of nihilistic sci-fi didn’t miss a beat. Everything in “Edge of Tomorty: Rick Die Rickpeat” is a testament to why the show is so awesome and engaging. By the end, I quickly forgot about how frustrating the wait was. I’m just glad the show was back.
There’s a lot to unpack with this episode. The premise is fairly simple by the eccentric standards of “Rick and Morty.” Morty joins Rick on a quick space excursion to harvest valuable death crystals. These crystals have the ability to show someone how they’re going to die, which makes them both useful and terrifying. From there, plenty of violence, hilarity, and jokes about fascism ensue.
Yes, the show jokes about fascism about a time when fascism is no laughing matter to some people. Then again, this is the same show that gave us Abradolf Lincler so I don’t see why anyone should be surprised.
However, it’s not the fascist jokes that really made this episode stand out for me. What I found more intriguing was how this episode furthered Morty’s story. It’s a story that has changed a great deal since the first season.
When the show began, Morty is a deer-in-the-headlights teenager who is constantly overwhelmed by Rick’s exploits. He often comes off as scared, inexperienced, and naïve. He tries to maintain some level of idealism in the face of Rick’s misanthropic nihilism, but it rarely pans out. Sometimes, it’s downright traumatizing.
Then, beginning with “Close Encounters of the Rick Kind” and really further escalating in Season 3, especially with “The Ricklantis Mixup,” the show began hinting that Morty had a dark side. The hints weren’t subtle, either. Rick once stated that an overly confident Morty is a dangerous thing, which has fueled plenty of fan theories about where Morty is heading.
This episode will likely add more fuel to those theories because it shows what Morty can do when he’s motivated. Season 3 already showed that Morty has become more and more capable. He has been able to utilize Rick’s technology and solve Rick’s life-threatening puzzles. If the first episode of Season 4 is any indication, he’s capable of going even further when he’s got a strong incentive.
In “Edge of Tomorty: Rick Die Rickpeat,” the incentive is simple. He wants to pursue a future in which he dies happy with his long-time crush, Jessica. It’s a simple desire and one most people can understand without the aid of portal guns or magic crystals. On the surface, it’s not the kind of thing that would lead someone to committing egregious acts that require military intervention.
However, true to the high-level absurdity that is “Rick and Morty,” this is exactly what where Morty takes things. He’s not content to just know that this future is possible. He’s willing to go to great lengths to make it happen, even if it means going against Rick, bullies, the police, the military, and anything else that gets in his way.
It’s scary, yet revealing to see Morty go this far. It’s certainly not the first time the show has explored his dark side. In “Rest and Ricklaxation,” we find out that when Morty is purged of his toxic side, which includes his limitations, fears, and poor self-esteem, he becomes an full-blown sociopath.
Conversely, in that same episode, we find out that when Rick has his toxic side removed, he becomes kinder, more understanding, and downright affable. He doesn’t even randomly burp without excusing himself anymore. It implies that the toxic parts of Rick are part of what make him so misanthropic and cynical. Behind that toxic shell is someone who does have a sense of humanity, albeit to a certain extent.
For Morty, it’s the opposite. Strip away that shell that makes him feeble, inept, and whiny, as was often the case in the early episodes of the show, and his core persona is very different. He’s darker and more self-centered. Whereas Rick’s motivations rarely go beyond petty self-interest, Morty demonstrates more high-level narcissism. He’s willing to bend the world around him to his will in order to get what he wants.
Beyond adding more fodder for the popular “Evil Morty Theory,” it hints that Morty has a dark side in the mold of Walter White. I’ve mentioned before how Walter White walks a unique path into becoming a villain. A key part of that path involves a villain revealing that he has a dark side of himself was always there, but never came out because there were no influences to draw it out.
In “Breaking Bad,” a number of events compounded over time to bring out Walter White’s dark side. It started with him claiming that he did what he did for the good of his family. By the end, he flat out admitted that he did what he did out of selfishness. While Morty’s circumstances are very different, the signs are there too.
When Morty is inclined to be selfish, he can be downright dangerous. He hasn’t completely broken bad yet, but if “Edge of Tomorty: Rick Die Rickpeat” is any indication, he can walk that path and he won’t always be able to blame Rick for it. These were ultimately Morty’s decisions and, given how the show has emphasized choice in the past, that’s a potentially relevant development.
Whatever happens with Morty, I’m just glad this show is back. I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out over the course of this season. I’m sure there will be controversy, debates, arguments, and outrage. That’s part of what makes “Rick and Morty” artifact in our cultural landscape.
Until then, wubba lubba dub dub!
Even in an era where masculinity has gained way too many negative connotations, there’s plenty of room for men who distinguish themselves in respectable, honorable ways. There are countless male characters in popular culture who attempt to set themselves apart. Sometimes, it brings out the worst in men. Sometimes, it brings out the best.
I’ve made a concerted effort to focus on the best aspects of masculinity. To date, I’ve profiled two characters, Joel from “The Last of Us” and Hank Hill from “King of the Hill.” I’ve cited both characters as examples of noble masculinity. It manifests in different forms, but it helps bring a unique strength to their characters.
They have a wide range of traits, some of which aren’t distinctly masculine. When those manly characteristics do emerge, though, they don’t just reveal the greater subtleties in who they are. They demonstrate just how powerful masculinity can be when it’s channeled. In that spirit, I’d like to highlight another character who channels that kind of masculinity in a way that’s compelling, memorable, and full of memorable one-liners.
That character’s name is Alex J. Murphy of the Detroit Police Department, but most know him as Robocop. He’s not just a cop who got caught up in a greedy corporation’s agenda. He’s not just a man in a machine carrying out the duties of a cop. When you take in the entirety of Robocop’s story, including the Jesus connotations, you find a character whose masculinity shines even in the R-rated violence that is Detroit.
Now, before I go any further, I want to establish that the version of “Robocop” I’m citing here is the original 1987 version played by Peter Weller. This profile will not draw from the 2014 “Robocop” played by Joel Kinnaman. I’m not saying that version of the character is without merit. I enjoyed that movie. However, it did not come close to demonstrating the level of noble masculinity that the original conveyed.
On the surface, the original “Robocop” wasn’t that groundbreaking for its time. Stories about urban decay and dystopian cities were already popular thanks to movies like “The Terminator” and “Blade Runner.” In terms of substance, though, “Robocop” achieved something profound in terms of crafting a memorable male character.
The core of Alex Murphy’s character, even before he became Robocop, is that he’s a good, honorable man in a city that doesn’t have many of them. This version of Detroit, which is sadly very similar to the real-world version, is full of deviant criminals and corrupt business types. The very company that creates Robocop, Omni Consumer Products, is full of ruthless individuals who see crime only as a hindrance to profits.
A man like Alex Murphy is a precious rarity in that world. As such, it doesn’t take long for it to get snuffed out. On Murphy’s first day on the job, he’s callously killed by a gang of sociopath criminals led by Clarence Boddicker. All that innate nobility and idealism Murphy had was literally shot to death within the first twenty minutes of the movie.
However, that was not the end of Alex Murphy’s story. It was only the beginning. When he’s turned into Robocop by OCP, who see him only as a means to further their business plan, the extent of the noble masculinity he portrays only grows. The fact it does so while he cleans up Detroit’s rampant crime is a nice bonus as well.
From the moment he awakens as Robocop, we see what looks to be only a shell of a man. In fact, OCP goes out of their way to remove as much of the man as possible, not bothering to salvage his hand or anything below the neck. The only part of Alex Murphy they keep is his brain and part of his face.
It’s a total deconstruction of a man, ripping away the very flesh that makes him masculine and yes, that includes his genitals. To OCP, he’s a machine who just happens to run on human parts. They try to filter out the humanity in hopes of creating an obedient commodity that they can then mass produce, market, and utilize for profit.
It’s dehumanization to an extreme, more so than what characters like Wolverine endured. For a brief while, it looks like OCP succeeds. Initially, Robocop carries himself like a machine, confronting Detroit’s worst criminals with an efficiency that wasn’t possible as Alex Murphy. He could’ve become a perfect example of reducing all men to machines, devoid of emotion and focused only on a task at hand.
Then, the story takes a more human turn and Robocop suddenly becomes more man than machine. Despite everything OCP took from him, including his body and his free will, Alex Murphy still emerged. Even after everything that made him a man was deconstructed, literally in some cases, he fought to regain control.
In the process, we get to see Robocop learn about the man he used to be. We see glimpses of his life as a father and a husband. We find out just how good a man he was to his wife and his son. It contrasts heavily to the ruthless criminals and callous business people that affect much of the story. That’s critical in terms of establishing Robocop as someone who conveys a heroic brand of masculinity.
From the outside perspective of the audience, Alex Murphy’s home life seems mundane and even a little corny. However, when put into the context of a crime-ridden urban dystopia, it becomes instrumental in elevating Robocop’s sense of duty. They make his prime directives more than just base programming. By adding Murphy’s humanity into the mix, they gain greater meaning.
It’s an inherently masculine trait, protecting those who cannot otherwise protect themselves. Murphy already embodied that trait because he was a cop and a family man. However, he could only accomplish so much on his own, as his fatal encounter with Boddicker proved.
By becoming Robocop, that role is elevated because technically speaking, he’s better equipped than any man has ever been. He’s got a human mind, but he has a robot body, complete with bullet-proof skin and the ability to shoot with inhuman accuracy. Instead of stripping him of his masculinity and his humanity, becoming a robot actually enhanced it.
That, more than anything, is what elevates Robocop’s noble masculinity to another level. An act that should’ve utterly dehumanized him ended up making his humanity even stronger. It had to be in order to overcome OCP’s control and uncover the plot to exploit him as just another product. The fact that OCP tries and fails in the sequel to recreate him further reinforces just how unique Robocop is.
Through that journey from utter masculine deconstruction to total reaffirmation of his identity, the line between Robocop and Alex Murphy blurs. The line between carrying out noble acts and following basic programming blurs as well. In the end, Robocop isn’t just a machine following a program. He’s a man inside a machine, doing the same job he did as a man, but with much better weapons and more memorable catch phrases.
“Robocop” is hailed as a classic for many reasons. Robocop, as a character, continues to be an icon, despite sub-par sequels and a failed reboot. I think a big part of that appeal comes directly from how the first movie managed to portray the best traits of masculinity within a setting where the worst often thrived.
Even in a contemporary context, beyond the current state of Detroit, Robocop conveys a powerful message that men and women alike can appreciate. You can put a good man in the worst situation, destroying and deconstructing him at every level. That same man will find a way to re-emerge and do what needs to be done.
It’s a testament to the strength of manhood and our willingness to protect innocents in an unjust world. Robocop combines the spirit of a man with the power of a machine. One need not subvert the other. In fact, one can supplement the other and, dead or alive, the criminal element of any gender doesn’t stand a chance.
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.
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.
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.