As comic book movies dominate the film industry and television networks continue regurgitating the same maniacal CSI franchises and Gossip Bitch dramas, it’s hard to see such a vast array of villains who are so much alike.
Why are we so afraid of making villains likeable–isn’t that how most villainous tycoons get to be successful in all the Bond films? Surely not every one of them got to be in a position of power by holding a gun to someone’s head. At some point those villains were children; worked a shitty job; had friends; and fell in love (or at least developed a mild crush). They, like protagonists, have a favorite food; love animals; have friends; and share moments of loneliness or crippling defeat.
But no, the villain as we know it has devolved into this nameless, sometimes faceless entity whose behavior jumps from one of two extremes at any given moment: either they kill someone or slam their hands on a fancy, mahogany desk and shout, “Make sure so and so doesn’t foil my plans of X!” where X is equal to or correlates with making money; controlling the world; gnabbing a love interest or some other ridiculous goal.
At some point, the villain has to take off their suit and put away the gun.
At some point, they have to act human.
And who knows, maybe halfway through the story they stop being evil? Or we learn that the villain isn’t a villain, they’re just someone who isn’t afraid to make hard decisions for the greater good?
Although it’s become a cliche, some of my favorite villains are the goons in action-comedies who suddenly stop fighting and say, “Whoa man, they’re not paying me enough for this shit!” because that really gets at the core of what’s wrong with action movies: the protagonist may go on a killing spree for the sake of doing good, but we never question how many people they murder because oh, well all those men they’re killing are evil. Right?
TV protagonists tend to suffer a similar fate: whereas a novel protagonist must change in some way to overcome an obstacle, television protagonists tend to remain very much the same. Their rigidity stands in contrast to the evolving characters around them. Their inflexibility acts as a sort of flagship in the show; so long as the main character remains the same, viewers will always have someone they can cling to to carry them into the next story arc.
It’s easy to love a character who remains steadfast in their beliefs. And when their core values are shaken–usually for an episode or two–we can always expect them to make the same choices they might have made in the first episode. Because let’s be frank, once you change or kill off the main character, you put the show’s ratings at risk. Everyone wants the good guy to win, so it only makes sense to keep putting the protagonist in more and more dire situations so we always know who to cheer for.
But what if the bad guy was good and the good guy was bad, and all along we’ve been cheering for the wrong side? Isn’t it time to shake things up and make villains real?