Thursday, 14 August 2014

When did we all start preferring the villains?

There's something that I've noticed changing in the general attitude towards villains (particularly in regards to Disney) that seems to be bleeding out from the internet into the mainstream media. We're losing interest in heroes. The trend of increasingly featuring antiheroes as protagonists has been going strong for a while (for more on the general rise of the antihero trend see this Den of Geek article but watch out for Dexter spoilers!)

On Youtube, there are a few musical parodies of Disney films in which the villain is painted very sympathetically. The below two are very well done with varying seriousness (and plausibility).





And this public interest in Disney villains has definitely been noticed by the studio. With its release of 'Maleficent' we saw what they can do when  given free reign to explore darker personalities and it resulted in 'Maleficent' absolutely storming the box office.

Were we always so interested in villains? Disney's legacy was built on infallible good vs abhorrent evil and Snow White premiered during the depression, which I guess makes sense. When it seems like the world is out to destroy itself it must be nice to sit in the cinema and put a face to that evil for an hour or so.

During World War II we saw the rise of the Superhero; Superman was indestructible and could do anything, anything, to get the job done. When boys were growing up watching fathers and brothers leave for an unknown enemy it must have been a comfort to read about an all-American (well, kind of.) man facing down against the odds and rising up against villainy of all forms.

It may have to do with the political leanings of the time. From a distance (England), I think that since America is a two party country that swings from Conservative to Liberal it's interesting to see how the public likes to see the villain portrayed. A Conservative audience paints things much more black and white than Liberals, who want to see the reasoning behind the traditional villain's motives.

Bane was tortured, for goodness' sake. Wouldn't you go a bit mental?
In England we saw the riots of the 1980's and sympathised. The general public (particularly in the North and the Midlands) saw the riots less as the actions of a mindless lower class and more of an outpouring of frustration when the system seems so firmly set against normal people.

The rise of Feminism has also seen us looking to the evil Queens of Disney stories past to ask 'Why are they evil?'. More recent villains seem to be much more sympathetic than they have been in the past. Mother Gothel in Tangled was seeking eternal youth but was also seen to treasure her adopted 'daughter' in her own way.

Whether she loved her or not is difficult to tell, but for someone who's lived so long, so selfishly, she sure did provide Rapunzel with the materials to keep her entertained and educated rather than locking her up with no means of escape.

Did Mother Gothel grow to honestly love Rapunzel?
If we look at superheroes again, we're seeing many more 'antiheroes' portrayed more successfully than their straight-edged compatriots. Iron Man has become one of the biggest single superheroes on modern times and I hadn't heard of him before Robert Downey Jr. became the biggest millionaire playboy to grace my screen.

His appeal lies not just in his heroism, but in his arrogance and selfishness. He's developing, and becoming a little more serious but the fact that he was an arsehole is precisely why he's so popular. Hell, we even made Thor an arrogant jock to suit our own tastes.

If we love our antiheroes that much, then it's a natural progression to want to see more of the villains. Loki, as played by Tom Hiddleston, has one of the most ardent fan-bases on the internet. He's greedy, selfish (that word again), and doesn't really care who he hurts or kills. So why do we love him so much?

We do. We do love you.
Maybe it's wish fulfillment. We're all, in general, obedient to the rules of society and the law and yet we see villains who take whatever bad thing that's happened to them and using it to go beserk on society. Freud said we are, as a species, inherently selfish, with no real compassion. We act compassionate in order to gain others' admiration, which benefits us selfishly.

Maybe he has a point. GTA is popular because we get to do whatever the hell we want, so maybe we do all have a secret desire to steal and kill everything.

On the other hand, maybe villains are a way for us to face the parts of us that we don't like. Carl Jung believed healthy confrontation of our 'shadow selves' would help us to evolve and better ourselves. Villains can be a good way to focus our anger at ourselves and become aware of our own faults.

Maybe we'd rather be the villain instead of letting those bad things in our past defeat us. No one likes to be the pitiable person who can't defend themselves, so we might want to not get sad, but get mad. Let's fight back against our bullies, and let's assert our authority over weaker people in order to find our own self-worth. If we hurt people along the way, then it's their fault for not fighting back right?

Right?

Or maybe we're fascinated by the incomprehensible. We can't fathom being that heartless, but this person has so much power and we can't look away. We explore that character, trying to find an explanation for what's happened, even where there might not be one.

Good transitioning to Evil
This might be why we love Walter White so much. We've seen that journey. We might not comprehend it, and we might not want to believe that this could happen to us, but we desperately want to understand it, and we're endlessly fascinated by it.

This is the option I'd like to believe, but it's different for everyone.