Tag Archives: Villains

Jack’s World: Why Conservatives Make Better Villains (For Now)

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!

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Why Conservatives Make Better Villains (For Now)

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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.

Look at those who actively oppose LGBT rights, women’s rights, and immigrants.

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.

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A Simple Comment On The Criticism/Whining On “Birds Of Prey”

Sometimes, a movie just fails to find an audience.

It’s not because of some larger social agenda that backfired horribly.

It’s not because of some huge backlash caused by misguided marketing strategies, either.

Most of the time, the world isn’t that fanciful. It’s just chaotic, unpredictable, and messy. No matter how much a movie, TV show, or product attempts to appeal to a broad audience, it can just fail. That’s all there is to it.

Trying to fit an agenda into that failure is like trying to build a conspiracy around why you’re stuck in traffic. The world isn’t out to get you or people like you. Most of the time, shit just happens and you’re just caught up in it. That’s not to say that agendas never squeeze themselves into the media. It happens, but it’s effect is often exaggerated. Most of the time, the final product just doesn’t work.

That brings me to “Birds of Prey.” Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I completely forgot about this movie. I had no excitement for it and not just because I was underwhelmed by “Suicide Squad.” I like Margot Robbie. I like Harley Quinn. She’s a great actress who plays a great character. The movie just did not grab my attention.

I saw the trailer. It was fine, but forgettable. I didn’t feel compelled to watch it 10 times in a row, as I did with “Wonder Woman 1984.” I didn’t feel compelled to see the movie, either. Even though it got good reviews, it just didn’t appeal to me. I planned to watch it when it came out on cable. Based on the early box office haul, I’m not alone in that sentiment.

I’d be perfectly fine to leave it at that. In previous years, I wouldn’t even bring it up. However, due to the growing inclination to make everything political, the under-performance of “Birds of Prey” is already getting the wrong people talking about it for all the wrong reasons.

Some are already lumping this movie in the same category as 2016’s “Ghostbusters” or the horrendously bad “Charlie Angels” reboot. Now, I don’t want to get into the politics behind it, mostly because I value the integrity of my brain cells. I’ll just say this. Whether you’re liberal, conservative, feminist, traditionalist, anarchist, or Marxist, there’s one thing to remember.

It’s a goddamn movie. Sometimes, movies just fail to find an audience. That’s it. That’s all there is to it.

Maybe it eventually becomes a cult classic, like “Blade.” Maybe it rebounds with good word of mouth. Either way, it has nothing to do with an agenda. The public, as a whole, just didn’t respond to it. Any criticism/whining beyond that is just asinine.

That’s all I have to say about “Birds of Prey.” Harley Quinn is still a great character and Margot Robbie is still a great actress. Your agenda, whatever it may be, has no bearing on that. It never has. It never will. Get over yourself and just watch the movies you enjoy.

 

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Jack Fisher’s Weekly Quick Pick Comic: Dr. Doom #3

Death has always been a running joke of sorts in superhero comics. Characters die all the time, but rarely stay dead. That includes important, iconic characters whose deaths resonate beyond the pages of comics. Sometimes, these deaths are incredibly dramatic, showing just how great these characters can be when everything is on the line. Regardless of how heroic their deaths might be, however, it rarely sticks.

That’s why it’s often more interesting when major villains die. While they rarely stay dead as well, their postmortem journey is often more arduous. If ever there was a villain who constantly skews the concept of death, it’s Victor Von Doom. If anyone needs proof, then look no further than “Dr. Doom #3.”

While he has “died” before, he rarely stays dead. It’s not just because every one of his “deaths” can be attributed to a Doombot, either. This is a man who has been a God and won battles against Marvel’s version of the devil. To him, death is more an inconvenience than a permanent end. It’s just a lot more inconvenient than usual in “Dr. Doom #3.”

These are not good times for Victor Von Doom. The Fantastic Four are back. His brief stint as the new Iron Man ended before he had a chance to show up Tony Stark. He has also been deposed from Latveria, exiled from the country, and thrown into a world with a target on his back for every superhero and SHIELD agent. It is the most vulnerable Doom has been since he was stranded butt naked on Counter Earth.

In short, he’s vulnerable, pissed off, and under constant attack. It’s precisely the situation that brings out the best and worst in Dr. Doom. While the events of “Dr. Doom #2” ended with him “dying” at the hands of Taskmaster, death only gives him a chance to remind everyone why no afterlife can hold him.

It also gives him a chance at another rematch with Mephisto, also known as Marvel’s devil and the one responsible for breaking up Spider-Man and Mary Jane’s marriage. It’s not the first time they’ve clashed, but to date, Dr. Doom has a winning record against Mephisto. That’s something Mephisto is eager to change in his own hellish way.

It makes for a battle full of hellfire. Artist Salvador Larroca brings beautiful depictions of the hellscape that is Mephisto’s domain and writer Christopher Cantwell captures their less-than-heavenly egos every step of the way.

Mephisto tries to torment Doom with what he has sacrificed in the past to achieve his goals. Doom tries torment Mephisto by reminding him that he has beaten damnation before and only got stronger because of it. Neither one of them comes off as heroic, but that’s exactly what makes Doom’s defiance of death’s grip so unique.

Dr. Doom is not the kind of man who makes heroic sacrifices, but he’s also not a man who does what he does for no reason. As I’ve noted before and as other comics have highlighted, Doom doesn’t terrorize innocent people, heroes, and even other villains for no reason. He does what he does because he truly believes that the only future in which people are free from want and suffering is a future in which he rules.

It’s a sentiment that the late Stan Lee himself echoed. The first two issues of this series effectively double down on this vision, but “Dr. Doom #3” presents it with a major challenge. There are obstacles in his way aside from the Fantastic Four and the Avengers. Death and damnation only compound those obstacles, but as is often the case, Doom raises to the challenge.

There are times when Mephisto tries to poke at Dr. Doom’s very few, but very real vulnerabilities. He tempts him with challenges and deals that test even his unshakable will. Cantwell never lets Doom come off as pure evil or pure ego, but he never comes off as a hero, either.

Heroes don’t beat death, Hell, and the Devil like this. At the same time, villains don’t prevail in ways that makes us want to cheer them on. That’s what Dr. Doom does in “Dr. Doom #3” and he’s somehow more menacing because of it.

There are only a handful of characters in comics that can truly die and stay dead, even if some of them do find roles in alternate universes. There are also certain characters who can die in any number of ways, but will never stay dead for long. Dr. Doom is definitely on that list, if not at the very top.

Dr. Doom #3” might very well be Doom’s darkest hour in the sense that his destiny to rule the world in a Utopian future seemed most distant. He has been dethroned, killed off, and sent to Hell to be tormented by a devil with plenty of motivation to see him suffer. For once, Doom has to beat the odds when they’re not stacked in his favor.

It’s a test of his will and resolve, but one we expect him to pass because he’s Dr. Doom. This is what he does. It doesn’t matter how many times every hero, villain, angel, or demon takes him down. Doom always finds a way to claw his way back. It’s not always easy to root for Dr. Doom, but when he’s beating the devil himself, it’s hard not to cheer him on.

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“Rick And Morty” Season 4 Premier: Is Morty Poised To Become Evil?

Rick and Morty Season 4 Credit: Adult Swim

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.

This was basically me all day.

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!

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What “Malcolm In The Middle” And “Joker” Can Teach Us About Deviance

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What makes someone deviant? What turns otherwise normal human beings into the kind of deviants who go onto commit crimes, foster discord, or lash out at the rest of society? These questions are often contemplated by psychologists, police, politicians, and people who just want to live in peace.

The answers aren’t easy, but they often make for compelling movies and TV shows. Some dare to offer answers that are as revealing as they are distressing. That’s part of what made “Joker” such an impactful movie. It’s also what triggered the controversy surrounding its subversive message. I tried to explore that message my review of the movie, but in doing so, I uncovered something surprising.

The themes in “Joker” are more relevant today than they’ve been in years. It makes the case that when people denigrate, marginalize, or ignore those in the lowest rungs of society, they’re going to create the kinds of monsters and supervillains that undermine the current order. Moreover, they deserve the chaos and deviance that these individuals cause.

In “Joker,” Arthur Fleck was a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances and societal denigration. While Gotham City didn’t turn him into the Joker, they put him in a position to make those fateful choices. Nobody tried to help him or give him other options. If anything, the help and options he needed were taken away. It was part of what made his deviance both compelling and understandable.

It reminded me of a famous TV show that made a similar point, albeit one from a very different genre and medium. It dared to make that point decade earlier, long before the current controversies surrounding mass shooters in movie theaters and so-called “incel culture.” That show is “Malcolm In The Middle.”

The two narratives couldn’t be more different. One is an R-rated movie that defies the conventions of the superhero genre and explores the twisted mind of an iconic villain. The other is a prime-time sitcom full of funny, cartoonish antics from a dysfunctional working-class family. One is dark and serious. The other is funny and light-hearted.

Despite those vast differences, they convey very similar messages. They both make the case that a callous, negligent society will create deviant individuals within its most disadvantaged. They also highlight how efforts to push them aside or suppress their deviance will only make things worse.

In “Joker,” it turned Arthur Fleck into an agent of chaos who went onto inspire more chaos in others. The circumstances in “Malcolm In The Middle” were very different and a lot more subtle, but the underlying message was still there.

It’s subtle, but it’s there.

From the first episode of the show to its finale, Malcolm and his family are depicted as both dysfunctional and disadvantaged. In some instances, they’re downright destitute. On many occasions, they deal with crippling debt, dead-end jobs, and arrogant upper-class types who look down on them with disgust. More often than not, Malcolm and his brothers get back at them in their own creative way.

Whatever form the antics take, the show never uses the lower-class status of Malcolm’s family to justify their behavior. Much like “Joker,” it establishes that the characters have agency. They’re dealt a lousy hand, but they still have opportunities to make non-deviant choices. They’re rarely forced into deviant acts. Opportunities arise and they exercise poor judgement, to say the least.

The very least.

Malcolm and his brothers didn’t have to lie about what happened to Dewey’s bike in Season 1, Episode 15. They did it anyways and things only escalated from there when the consequences caught up with them.

Malcom and his brother didn’t have to buy their mother a terrible birthday gift in Season 2, Episode 3. They still did and the end result led to them fighting an army of clowns in one of the show’s most memorable moments.

It’s not just the kids, either. Hal didn’t have to resort to unorthodox tactics when coaching Dewey’s soccer team in Season 3, Episode 16. He still did and things only got messier from there.

Lois didn’t have to force Malcolm to getting a job as terrible as hers in order to teach him a lesson in Season 5, Episode 6. She still did and, in doing so, taught him an entirely different lesson about just how screwed people like them are. It’s a message that even found its way into her memorable speech in the series finale.

It’s an important component of the show’s brilliance and humor. Malcolm and his family are a mess. They’re constantly getting screwed over by circumstances, bad choices, and other people who look down on them. However, they never come off as victims, nor do they carry themselves as such. They have opportunities to become less dysfunction, but often squander them.

Arthur Fleck had chances to become something other than a killer clown. There were a number of instances in “Joker” in which he could’ve gone a different path. He simply chose not to and society didn’t lift a finger to help him. If anything, they took away what little help he got.

Throughout seven seasons in “Malcolm In The Middle,” Malcolm’s family finds themselves in similar situations. One of the best examples is in Season 4, Episode 17, which happened to be the second clip show episode. In that episode, Hal and Lois recount the births of their kids as they prepare for the arrival of another.

In every instance, the births are subject to strange and hilarious circumstances. In one of them, Lois goes into labor in the driveway of their house because Francis locked her out of the car. Then, while she’s writhing in pain from the labor, a jogger passes by. She yells out she’s having a baby, but the jogger just ignores her and congratulates her.

It’s funny, but symptomatic of the family’s lot in life. Nobody goes out of their way for them. Nobody offers to help them. It even happens again a few episodes later in Season 4, Episode 21 when Lois goes into labor with Jamie. Even though someone calls 9-1-1 and an ambulance arrives, they don’t get there until after she gives birth. The EMTs even joke about how they stopped for coffee.

Like Arthur Fleck, the society around Malcolm’s family doesn’t care about them. They even go out of their way to avoid or neglect them. In “Joker,” Arthur is repeatedly victimized by both the system and individuals who go out of their way to harass him. His situation is already bad, but these ordeals only make it worse.

Early in the movie, Arthur does show signs that he’s capable of being a decent person. He tried to make a kid on the bus laugh. He entertained sick children at a hospital. He could’ve been a productive, positive force in society. Then, society started screwing him over and bad choices on his part led him to become a dangerous deviant.

While Malcolm and his family didn’t become as deviant as the Joker, they still did plenty of damage with their antics. At the same time, there were plenty of instances that showed that, as dysfunctional as they were, they could still be good and decent to others when given the chance. They just rarely got those changes and society rarely provided the incentives.

It’s a powerful message with respect to what makes people deviant. Some people are at the mercy of bad circumstances, be they poverty, mental illness, or having an overbearing mother like Lois. They’re still capable of being good, but it’s easier for them to become deviant when society neglects them. That deviance only compounds as a result of poor judgement and bad choices.

Yes, they compound a LOT.

There are plenty of differences between “Joker” and “Malcolm In The Middle.” Whereas “Joker” takes things to the worst possible outcome in the descent towards deviance, “Malcolm In The Middle” manages to maintain a more hopeful outlook. People can still be deviant and dysfunctional, but they can rise above it. The events of the series finale affirm that.

Those differences aside, this movie and this TV show offer lessons and insight into something that all societies must deal with. There will always be a certain level of deviance. There will also be those more inclined to pursue it. It’s just a matter of how to confront it. More than anything else, “Joker” and “Malcolm In The Middle” shows the consequences of confronting it the wrong way.

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Jack Fisher’s Weekly Quick Pick Comic: Black Cat #1

Every Wednesday, this crazy and chaotic world gets a bit more bearable when a new stack of comics enters this world. Some feature iconic superheroes. Others feature devious villains. Some dare explore the vast gray area in between. Of all the new comics this week, one book dares to stand out by staking a claim in that gray area.

Black Cat #1” is one of those comics that probably wasn’t on many peoples’ radar. Felicia “Black Cat” Hardy is not one of those obscure comic book characters that only ardent Marvel fans know about, nor is she in that top-tier class occupied by the likes of Spider-Man and Captain America. However, whenever she shows up, she finds a way to leave her mark and looks dead sexy while doing it.

For years, Black Cat was a supporting character for Spider-Man who often fluctuated between being a sexy villainous, a volatile love interest, and a full-fledged anti-hero. At her core, she’s a thief who treats stealing as an art and a profession rather than a matter of necessity. She’s basically a female Danny Oceans with infinitely more sex appeal.

Black Cat #1” doesn’t try to shake up those previous roles. Instead, it embraces Black Cat’s thieving persona. It even celebrates it in ways that rarely play out in a typical Spider-Man comic. It showcases just how capable, devious, and downright coy Black Cat can be when she’s at her best.

There’s no Spider-Man sub-plot here. The plot in “Black Cat #1” is entirely built entirely around Felicia Hardy organizing a daring heist. However, it’s not just for money or thrills this time.

Thanks to recent events in Amazing Spider-Man, she has a target on her back. In addition to the police and various other superheroes who don’t take kindly to thieves, she managed to piss off the Thieve’s Guild, an organization that tends to hold a nasty grudge, even by comic book standards.

Black Cat can’t simply rely on her cunning, skill, and sexiness to get out of her predicament. She also can’t do everything on her own, for once. As such, she has to exercise both her thieving skills and her ability to manage a crew of other thieves who don’t have a romantic history with Spider-Man.

It’s a simple heist that requires a complex effort. It’s not quite on the same level as “Ocean’s 11,” but it’s not as simple as just breaking the glass and sneaking through air vents. In fact, “Black Cat #1” avoids some standard thieving tropes, focusing instead on everyone who tries to stop Felicia.

I won’t spoil many of the details, but I will note that they fail. Whether they’re security guards, police officers, or ninjas attacking her car, they certainly make a concerted effort. True to her skill and persona, Black Cat fights back and smiles a lot in the process.

Writer, Jed MacKay, captures both the personality and spirit of who Black Cat is. For once, she isn’t pushed into a particular role, as is often the case when she shows up in a Spider-Man comic. He lets her be herself. He gives her a voice that feels distinct and appropriately sassy. The collective artwork of Mike Dowling, Travel Foreman, and Nao Fuji ensures she looks good every step of the way.

That’s an accomplishment because one of Black Cat’s biggest shortcomings is that it’s not always easy to root for her. While she never descends too deep into outright villainy, she can often come as crass and manipulative, even without Spider-Man. That never happens in “Black Cat #1.” She only ever seems confident, charismatic, and focused.

On its own, “Black Cat #1” is a solid, well-contained heist story involving one of Marvel’s most famous thieves. It shows Black Cat when she’s at her best, stealing things that are difficult to steal and navigating obstacles that frustrate even the more competent villains. There’s never a point where you feel like rooting against her.

What makes “Black Cat #1” even more compelling, as a comic, is how it sets up the next part of Felicia Hardy’s story. Unlike many other stories where she acts mostly as a supporting character, the one MacKay teases feels more personal. It doesn’t just present a new challenge. It adds a significant complication to a life that is already inherently complicated by being affiliated with Spider-Man.

Even if you don’t know much about Black Cat or haven’t paid much attention to her story in recent years, “Black Cat #1” is one of those rare comics that can sell you on a character. In one issue, you get a good idea of who she is, what she’s about, and why she matters in the larger Marvel universe. In that same issue, you also get a sense that there’s more to her story and it’s about to change in a major way.

Some characters need to be overhauled while others need to be reinvented. Black Cat needed none of that. She just needed a chance to show what she can do and how much fun it can be to see her work. That’s exactly what “Black Cat #1” delivers.

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Gender, Psychopaths, And The (Revealing) Differences

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Psychopaths are akin to the nastiest side-effects of the human condition. They are, by their nature, an extreme manifestation of certain traits that often run counter to humanity’s best strengths. A big part of our success, as a species, is our ability to coordinate, cooperate, and empathize with one another in ways that balance selflessness with survival. Psychopaths completely throw off this balance.

Between popular misconceptions and a glut of TV shows and movies that glorify psychopaths, most people don’t know the specifics of these twisted minds. In a medical context, psychopathy isn’t considered a mental illness like schizophrenia or OCD. It’s a personality disorder in which individuals exhibit a set of common traits such as:

Having little to no empathy, conscious, or capacity for guilt

Poor impulse control and reckless disregard for the consequences of their actions

A low threshold for boredom coupled with a high capacity for stimulation

Little respect for authority and a predilection for controlling others

Excessively high self-esteem and strong inclination towards selfish behavior

Basically, these are traits consistent with every classic supervillain ever made. Look at all the defining traits for a character like Lex Luthor. That’s the essence of a psychopath. It’s not just that they’re more selfish and less likely to regret bad behavior. They take their selfishness to an extreme and regret doesn’t even enter the equation. Guilt, for a psychopath, may as well be an alien concept.

Naturally, that kind of deviant behavior ensures that psychopaths are highly represented in prison. While they’re not always violent, they tend to be cold and calculating in their actions, not caring for mortality, law, or social norms. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes them useful as ancient blood-thirsty warriors and modern dictators. In ordinary society, though, they can be dangerous.

However, and this is where discussions generally get heated, that danger manifests differently when gender enters the equation. While men, women, and everything in between are equally prone to becoming psychopaths, an emerging body of research is showing that the effect is not entirely equal.

One recent study revealed that while female psychopaths share most of the same traits as their male counterparts, those traits vary in a few key ways. They’re just as inclined to selfishness, manipulation, and deviance. They just go about it differently. You could even argue they’re more cunning in their approach.

That same study also showed that female psychopathy is frequently attributed to mental illness or other disorders, such as borderline personality disorder. While there often is overlap, it’s actually somewhat convenient from the perspective of a psychopath. It allows them to cloak their psychopathic behavior as an illness that warrants sympathy.

That approach does plenty to serve the interest of the psychopath because sympathy is an easy emotion to manipulate. Others don’t see them as selfish, callous, or reckless. They see them as victims. That means they need treatment, attention, and care, which can both stroke their ego and serve their interests. It’s working smarter and not harder.

While it’s difficult to know for sure whether someone has a legitimate issue with mental illness, the fact people are more prone to attribute psychopathic behavior with illness in women reveals something critical about our approach to gender. We’re perfectly fine labeling a man a psychopath if he fits the criteria, but we’re more inclined to make excuses for women.

Some of that, in my opinion, has more to do with popular culture than gender politics. When most people think of a psychopath, the first image that comes to mind isn’t some devious woman who emotionally manipulates everyone around her to get what she wants. They tend to conjure images of villains like Lex Luthor and serial killers like Ted Bundy.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of female psychopaths in popular culture. From the Wicked Witch of the West to Regina George in “Mean Girls,” most people can think of at least one female psychopath in fiction. Some can even identify a few notable female psychopaths from history. However, the fact they’re not the first image that comes to mind when we think of psychopaths is telling.

On some levels, we don’t want to believe that women can be as psychotic as men. Historically, society has been less inclined to attribute heinous crimes to women. More recently, especially with the anti-harassment movement, there’s an even greater tendency to give women the benefit of the doubt, even when there are documented cases of deceit.

Another major difference manifests in the preferred tactics that psychopaths utilize. One study by the International Journal of Women’s Health concluded that female psychopaths are more included to use flirting and sexuality to manipulate others into serving their selfish ends. While I doubt that’ll surprise anyone familiar with the traits of a psychopath, it further plays into a distinct gender-driven narrative.

Some of that is due to logistics. Male psychopaths tend to bully others more directly because of basic strength differences. A female psychopath is less capable of imposing their will on someone physically, but emotions can be every bit as powerful as muscles. When sex enters the equation, the incentives get even stronger.

These methods can be both effective and devious, but they serve the same goal. It helps the psychopath get what they want, be it attention, money, power, or just a good thrill. Psychopaths have a low threshold for boredom and a high threshold for satisfaction so they need to use whatever tactics work best for them. Women just work with different tools.

The end results for male and female psychopaths is just as striking. While all psychopaths care little for law or morality, female psychopaths are less inclined to commit homicide. They’re also less likely to end up in prison, but that may just be a byproduct of having different tactics that make killing less appealing to a psychopath’s interests.

Now, and I wish I didn’t have to make this disclaimer, none of this is to imply that female psychopaths are worse than male psychopaths. At the end of the day, the damage done by psychopathic behavior is gender neutral. Using, abusing, and manipulating people for selfish ends is deplorable, regardless of what body parts someone has or doesn’t have.

There’s still something to be said about how psychopaths conduct themselves and how we react to their behavior. In some ways, we may be doing female psychopaths a favor by approaching them differently than their male counterparts. Psychopaths don’t need much incentive to take advantage of other peoples’ more considerate tendencies. Our attitudes towards gender are only making their job easier.

Like it or not, psychopaths are part of our society. Some of them even wield a distressing amount of power and influence. This is one domain in which we have to be brutally honest and exceedingly fair in how we deal with psychopaths of any gender because they most definitely won’t.

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The Future Of Villains And Villainy

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What is happening to villains these days? That’s an entirely reasonable question to ask. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a remarkable shift in how we approach villainy in movies, TV, comic books, and video games. I’m not just talking about the superhero media, either. However, that happens to be the most visible manifestation of this change.

As a long-time fan of both superheroes and quality villains, I welcome this change. At the same time, I’m curious about where it’s leading and what it means for the future. Villains are as old as storytelling itself. From the Bible to “Star Wars,” these stories work best when there’s villainy to oppose the unfolding narrative. Villains have always evolved alongside the heroes that oppose them, but that evolution seems to be accelerating.

I’ve discussed the unique journey that villains undergo and how they set themselves apart from heroes. Traditionally, a villain’s primary purpose was to both oppose the hero and highlight how heroic they are. The sheer malice of characters like Lex Luthor help contrast the pure selflessness of characters like Superman. It’s easier to appreciate those heroes knowing they have to deal such malicious opponents.

Then, something remarkable happened. Audiences began demanding more of their villains. It wasn’t enough to just have a villain oppose a hero. People began wanting villains who were understandable and even relatable to some extent. Ironically, they wanted a villain they could root for.

That helped lead to characters like Walter White from “Breaking Bad.” His impact was so profound that I even called his influence the Walter White effect. However, I think there were others who paved the way for Walter White. If I had to pick one villain that helped kick-start this trend in villainy, it would be Heath Ledger’s Joker from “The Dark Knight.”

From this portrayal of villainy, the emerging state of villains emerged and it may very well set the tone for the future. On the surface, this version of the Joker wasn’t too different from the one who had existed in the comics for years. He’s dangerous, destructive, murderous, and callous, like many villains. Unlike most, though, he does what he does with a laugh and a smile.

What made this version of the Joker so memorable was the principles behind his madness. To him, society is corrupt and people aren’t inherently good. As such, he seeks to point out how laughable it is when others try to save it. Batman’s crusade against crime is the biggest joke of all, which helps drive their rivalry.

It’s a philosophy that few other than terrorists and extreme nihilists would buy into, but it’s one that’s understandable to some extent. We don’t have to agree with them or their methods. We just have to see their twisted logic. They can’t just be standard James Bond villains whose motives are indistinguishable from fascists, communists, or terrorists. There needs to be something more personal at work.

We saw plenty of that in 2018’s biggest movies. From “Black Panther” to “ Avengers: Infinity War” to “Incredibles 2,” the villains all had something personal at stake. Erik Killmonger saw his villainous actions as heroic. He wasn’t out to just take over Wakanda. He had a vision in mind that felt justified to some extent, especially to those familiar with real-world historical injustices.

Thanos raised the bar even more in “Avengers: Infinity War.” He never tries to come off as a hero, but he never sees his actions as villainous, either. In fact, when heroes like Dr. Strange call him out, he frames his desire to cull half the population in the universe as mercy. For him, it’s simple math. Half a population is better than no population at all.

These motivations, as devious they might be on paper, have some semblance of merit to it. Both Thanos and Killmonger think they’re doing the right thing. That significantly impacts how the heroes in their stories go about thwarting them, although I would argue that one story was more complete while the other remains unresolved.

In “Black Panther,” T’Challa doesn’t just stop at defeating Killmonger. He actually sees some of his enemy’s points and takes steps to address them. He doesn’t revert things back to the way they were. Wakanda doesn’t return to the same isolated state it had been at the start of the movie. Instead, he seeks to find a middle ground. That, I would argue, is the new template for how heroes defeat this kind of villain.

The resolution in “Avengers: Infinity War,” however, is not as clear. That’s largely due to the story not being complete. There is a sequel planned, but at no point in the three-hour spectacle did the Avengers attempt to prove Thanos wrong. They only ever tried to stop him. That oversight has not gone unnoticed by audiences.

This, in many ways, sums up the new dynamic between heroes in villains. It’s no longer enough for heroes to just defeat their adversaries. It’s not even enough for villains to be exceptionally devious. There have to be larger principles at work. It can’t just be reduced to general greed, ego, or bullying.

Thanos seeks to kill have the population because he believes that it’ll prevent the complete extinction of all life.

Erik Killmonger seeks to empower oppressed minorities to right past injustices.

Dr. Doom seeks to conquer the world because a world under his rule is the only one free of suffering and want. That’s actually canon in the comics.

It’s makes crafting compelling villains more difficult, but at the same time, it opens the door to more complexity. On top of that, it demands that audiences think beyond the good versus evil dynamic that has defined so many stories, going back to the days of fairy tales. It’s a challenge that some are certain to fail. Some already have, sadly.

It also sets the tone for future forms of villainy. How that villainy manifests is impossible to predict, but given the current trends, I think there’s room to speculate. At the heart of this emerging villainy is the idea that the current system just isn’t working. It’s so bad that the only viable option is to destroy and rebuild it. There’s no room, whatsoever, for reform.

This is where the heroes will have to evolve, as well. They can’t just play “Super Friends” and save the day. They have to actually make meaningful changes to move society forward. King T’Challa did that at the end of “Black Panther.” Other heroes need to be as willing. Otherwise, they won’t be able to call themselves heroes. They’re just defenders of a status quo may not be working as well as they think.

It’s an ideological struggle that parallels many real-world struggles. People today have less and less faith in established institutions. As a result, more people are falling sway to populist rhetoric that promises to break down the current system entirely. By and large, people today aren’t content with just preserving things as they are. They seek more meaningful change.

That presents a serious problem for heroes and a golden opportunity for villains. Historically, heroes haven’t been able to effect change beyond a certain point. Some of that is for logistical reasons. A hero can never create a functioning utopia without ending the story completely, which is something major media companies cannot have. There’s too much money to be made.

Logistics aside, the future of villainy will have plenty of raw materials to work with and plenty of societal angst to draw upon. Heroes who save the day, but do little else won’t be able to call themselves heroes in the world currently unfolding. Villains who have a real vision with understandable motivations will find themselves with more supporters than before.

It’s no longer taboo to root for the villain, especially when the heroes don’t confront the flaws in their rhetoric. In what seems prophetic now, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” may have put it best when Ultron stated:

“I’m sorry, I know you mean well. You just didn’t think it through. You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change.”

That’ll be the key to the future of villainy, change in a world that resists too much of it happening at once. It’ll make for some complicated villains, but it will definitely make the struggle of heroes even harder. However it plays out, I believe it’ll be worth watching.

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Walter White Vs. Saul Goodman: A Tale Of Two Villains

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If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, then the road to villainy has many paths with similar landmarks. Well-developed villains can be every bit as compelling as their heroic counterparts, if not more so. Ever since Heath Ledger’s Joker stole the show and an Oscar in “The Dark Knight,” great villains aren’t just a complement to the heroes. They’re a journey unto themselves.

At the moment, Walter White from “Breaking Bad” is the ultimate embodiment of this journey. His path to villainy made for some of the greatest moments in modern television and Bryan Cranston has the Emmy trophies to prove it. Since then, it seems as though everyone is just struggle to keep up.

However, there’s one journey that comes very close and is remarkably similar. Fittingly enough, it spins right out of the world of “Breaking Bad.” I’m talking, of course, about “Better Call Saul,” the prequel/spin-off that tells the story of how an aspiring lawyer named James McGill became the morally bankrupt legal guru, Saul Goodman.

I’ve been watching this show closely for a while now. I was originally planning to wait until the conclusion of Season 4 to write about it, but after re-watching the Season 3 finale, I feel like there’s too much to work with. After seeing that episode, I feel like I saw a turning point in the ongoing transformation of James McGill to Saul Goodman. I also saw some important parallels with Walter White that are worth discussing.

At its core, “Breaking Bad” is a story about how a law-biding man goes from an underpaid chemistry teacher to a blood-thirsty drug kingpin. Creator Vince Gilligan nicely summed up Walt’s transformation as going from Mr. Chips to Scarface. That journey, and the story behind it, took an initially unassuming character and turned them into someone they never thought they could be.

The essence of “Better Call Saul” is very different. James McGill is not the same as Walter White. From the very first episode, we can see traces of the unscrupulous con man manifesting in a many ways. The show establishes in Season 1 that James McGill is not some clean-cut straight-arrow like Walt was. His soul was tainted before he ever applied to law school.

James “Slipping Jimmy” McGill is someone who always seems inclined to cut corners, break rules, and cheat to get ahead. That’s something his older brother, Charles “Chuck” McGill, constantly points out over the course of the first three seasons. Every time Jimmy had a chance to do the right thing, he compromised. Just doing the right thing wasn’t enough for him.

Walter White’s decision-making process was similar. In the early seasons of “Breaking Bad,” he showed a reluctance to cross certain lines and go too far. He often found himself pushed or tempted, sometimes by forces beyond his control and sometimes by the consequences of actions. At the end of the day, though, he still didn’t get off that path.

That’s a common thread for many villains in their journey. They find themselves on that path and they see opportunities to leave it, but they choose not to. They don’t seek redemption like a hero would. They just keep making excuses, willfully entering a brutal cycle of corruption and compromise.

Whereas Walt succumbed to that cycle, though, James McGill steadily embraces it. Moreover, he isn’t drawn into that path by tragedy or bad luck. He gravitates towards it. He’s even excited by it. James is at his most animated and charismatic when he’s pulling a con, putting on a show, or crafting a lie. It’s not a necessity like it was for Walt. It’s a thrill.

If James is tempted by anything, it’s the lure of walking the honorable path like his older brother. In fact, Chuck might have been the only positive influence that kept Jimmy from becoming something worse than a sleazy con-man. He and a host of other influence, especially Kim Wexler and Howard Hamlin, play the part of a reverse temptress, trying to keep him off that villainous path.

Early on, there’s a sense that James genuinely wants to be a decent, upstanding lawyer. There are situations where he does the right thing. Some of the causes he takes on, such as a case against an elder care facility that was stealing money from its residents, are objectively noble. In the end, though, doing the right thing isn’t enough for him. The end of Season 1 really cements that.

Walt goes through a similar process early on. Like the “refusal of the call” that heroes experience, Walt attempts to escape the villainous path. However, a combination of circumstances and choices put Walt back on the road towards becoming Heisenberg. By the end of Season 1, there’s a sense that there’s no going back.

Where Walt and James diverge, as villains, it’s how and why they make their choices. Walt becomes Heisenberg because he think he has to, first for his family and later for selfish reasons. James becomes Saul Goodman because he wants to. He tried to be the upstanding lawyer his brother and friends wanted. It just didn’t work for him. Being James McGill just wasn’t enough.

There’s plenty of conflict surrounding those choices. Part of why I love “Better Call Saul” is how it reveals the steady progression from James McGill to Saul Goodman. It doesn’t happen all at once. It doesn’t even happen in a steady, linear narrative. James fluctuates on his journey to becoming Saul. He even hesitates a few times. He still doesn’t avoid it in the end.

That ending, as revealed through the finale of “Breaking Bad” and the flash-forward sequences of “Better Call Saul,” shows one other key distinction between Walt and Jimmy. While both men complete their villainous journey, they both end up in very different places. Walt is dead or at least close to it, as some fan theories predict. However, Saul Goodman’s fate might actually be worse.

In the first minutes of the first episode of “Better Call Saul,” we see what came of James McGill/Saul Goodman after the events of “Breaking Bad.” Gone are the days where he shows up in flashy commercials and hatches elaborate cons on unsuspecting people. Instead, he lives an unexciting, mundane life in Omaha, Nebraska managing a Cinnabon.

Some might argue this is Saul’s personal Hell, trapped in a such a sad and unassuming life. I would say it’s more like his purgatory. In this world, he can’t embrace that villainous persona that gave him so many thrills. Even if he wanted to be that villainous character again, he can’t because it means losing what little he has left.

Just as he frequently did in the early seasons of “Better Call Saul,” James McGill takes the easy way out. Walt tried that too in the last few episodes of “Breaking Bad,” but that didn’t last. He eventually chose to confront the byproduct of his villainous choices. James ran and didn’t look back. The easiest path, in the journey of a villain, is often a coward’s path.

Whether or not James McGill escapes his purgatory or continues wallowing in obscurity remains to be seen. The fact he ends up in this state after undergoing this transformation into Saul Goodman reveals another critical component to the villain’s journey. While the hero ultimately triumphs, the villain eventually loses. It doesn’t always end with them going to jail, but they often endure a less-than-desirable fate.

Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” are both great shows that set a new standard for depicting the evolution of a character into a villain. I won’t claim that “Better Call Saul” is superior to its predecessor, if only because the story isn’t finished. It does, however, accomplish something every bit as remarkable as the story of Walter White.

The process of becoming a villain is a steady, inconsistent journey full of many complications and tough choices. Walter White and James McGill began that journey under different circumstances and ended up in different places. Ultimately, they both crossed lines that sealed their respective fates. It’s tragic in some ways, but it makes for some damn good television.

 

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