Empathy for the Devil: Villains, Antiheroes, and Origin Stories

“There are two equally valid sides to every story. Every warped viewpoint must be weighed seriously for any grain of truth it might contain. If you shout loudly enough, down is actually up.”

—“From Cruella to Maleficent to the Joker: Is It Time to Retire the Villain Origin Story?” by Stephanie Zacharek, TIME Magazine, May 26, 2021

I enjoy Horror as a genre. Stephen King’s novel Carrie captivated me early on as a reader. It still does. It’s a brilliant novel about mundane evil—one of King’s best. It’s also a villain origin story. A young, abused girl with powerful psychic abilities she can’t control, Carrie White destroys everything she wanted and everyone she loved. Stephen King takes a complex, nuanced approach, skillfully treading that fine line between humanizing Carrie too much—and therefore blaming teen bullies for their own horrific murders—and making a teen girl’s indignation into a horror monster. In the final scene of his adaptation, Brian De Palma highlighted the dilemma. When Sue Snell lays flowers on Carrie’s vandalized grave, Carrie’s gore-soaked hand reaches through the earth to attack her. De Palma and King seem to say, “Be careful who you empathize with, lest you too be dragged to hell.”

Today, one of my favorite villains is Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin (brought to life by the talented actor Vincent D’Onofrio). The show’s writers and D’Onofrio do a stellar job of knowing, remembering, and never losing sight of what Fisk truly is. In portraying the crime lord’s childhood, they illustrate a brutal history fueled by toxic masculinity. And they manage to do so without excusing his out-of-control rage, corruption, and murder. We watch an adult Fisk promote his service to the community without once forgetting the fact that he’s absolutely terrifying. The visual of him sitting in front of that white abstract painting is chilling. His dire childhood grants the moment emotional depth but not necessarily empathy. That’s the intent.

It is at this point that I feel I should define the terms “antihero” and “villain.” An antihero (yes, according to Merriam-Webster, to make it official) is a protagonist who lacks traditional heroic qualities. A villain, on the other hand, is an antagonist who is deliberately unethical (a criminal or rogue) and is deemed responsible for a specific evil or difficulty. For me, one of the distinctions involves the character’s motive. If their intent is to do good but they can’t or won’t follow the rules, then I tend to file them under antihero. Some examples: Deadpool (the movie version), Wolverine, Black Widow, Jack Sparrow, and John Wick. Like Sam Rockwell’s Francis in Mr. Right, they tap dance on top of the line and sometimes even teeter over it, but they ultimately mean well. Like Deadpool, they’re often made of bad decisions that result in a positive number in life’s ledger by sheer happenstance. Villains are rarely interested in the general welfare—if they are (or think they are), it’s less valuable to them than being more right, more intelligent than anyone else in the room. This is where I tend to file characters like Hans Gruber, Kylo Ren, Loki (when he’s wearing his “I’m a bad guy!” belt buckle), the T-1000, Freddy Krueger, Agent Smith, Norman Bates, Emperor Palpatine, Nurse Ratched, Sauron, and Hannibal Lector. The biggest difference between antiheros and villains is that the beating heart of the villain is steeped in Horror.

At its best, Horror is psychological. It engenders intense ambivalence, not just fear. It makes the reader uncomfortable. It forces us to gaze into the darkness and learn advanced lessons about being human. Because concentrating on only the Good™ means ignoring the shadow, and as every religious fanatic has demonstrated since the beginning of time, we ignore our shadows at our peril.

On occasion, in an effort to bring moral complexity to a story an author can lose sight of those vital distinctions. In 1999, Thomas Harris published a follow-up to one of my favorite novels, The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling is one of those rare female characters created by a male writer who is a full human being. When I discovered the sequel was to be a romance between Hannibal and Clarice I was incensed. I literally threw the book across the room because it struck me (and still does) as the most catastrophic case of gaslighting in recent literary history. I’m still pissed off about it.

That same year (1999), Darth Vader made an appearance as a sad, sweet, little boy taken from his mother.  Ever since, our film screens and novels have become overpopulated with villain origin stories: Revenge of the SithHannibal RisingMaleficent 1 and 2, CruellaRatchedThe GrinchLeatherfaceSuicide SquadThe Suicide SquadThe Boys… it’s like someone turned the tap on in the bathtub and walked away. We’re drowning in them. By the time Joker hit the big screen, my sense that something was very wrong had become overwhelming. America crossed a line—from doing the homework of studying our inner monster to hero-worshipping said monster.

I blame the myth of the American Rugged Individualist™ and well, its favorite High Priestess, Ayn Rand.

A glut of a specific story type isn’t unique. Every decade or so, there’s an overabundance of individual tropes, genres, and/or writing techniques. Thing is, trends don’t happen in a vacuum. Often, they’re spurred on by a mix of current events and the prevailing social climate. As a writer, I tend to keep an eye out. While it’s not wise to let that dictate what you write, trend-watching can be helpful. For example: Are readers living through a never-ending pandemic going to be up for grimdark? Sure, everyone handles stress differently but I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that grimdark sales weren’t exactly robust in the spring of 2020.

Mind you, it has been said that the new rash of villain stories is the direct result of entertainment corporations squeezing the very last drop of profit from successful franchises.  Capitalism certainly fuels the entertainment industry. However, I can’t help feeling there’s more to it. They wouldn’t continue in that direction if it weren’t proving profitable. So, why?

I believe one of those additional factors is backlash against the ongoing push for social justice.

There’s a pattern. When America makes big, uncomfortable social changes, antiheroes become all the rage. During and shortly after the civil rights era, the Vietnam War protests, and advances in feminism, Hollywood produced scores of violent and often vengeful films: Dirty HarryDeath WishThe GodfatherTaxi DriverA Clockwork Orange, and Mad Max to name just a few. Multiple opinion pieces cried out in terror about young Boomers with their Free Love, dove, and Peter Frampton overrunning America’s Moral Fabric. And now? Post-Occupy Wall Street, President Obama, and Black Lives Matter, we’re going through a similar trend—and it’s blurring the line between hero and villain until it functionally no longer exists. The American psyche is being saturated with fantasies of vigilante justice and violence—including the fantasy of the cop that can’t truly dispense justice unless they’re judge, jury, and executioner. Lately, the intent behind villain backstories seems to be normalization, even aspiration. Why do the long, hard, painful work of improving and fixing problems in a civilized democracy when you can shoot somebody in the face, say something snarky, and walk away?  Look at me, the Joker insists. Feel sorry for me. Ignore the people I horribly murdered. I’m the one you should feel sorry for!

Feel eerily familiar? It should. Because that’s the sound of the establishment re-asserting itself. When our nation takes steps toward correcting injustice, there’s always a political backlash AND a cultural one. The fear of change is a strong motivator. These stories are a part of America’s collective unconscious desperately trying to reassure itself: “See? Being the villain of the story isn’t that bad. I’m not evil. I’m just drawn that way. You don’t understand me! That’s just the way it is! The big fish eat the little fish. Why should I feel guilty about that? I’m not the one who created this system!”

So, what does all this mean? Do we stop consuming villain backstories?

Maybe? Maybe not. The thing is, as the end of every fad approaches the drive to indulge in it becomes more powerful. It’s another pattern. Ever heard the expression “selling like it’s going out of style”?

Which means villain backstories are going out of style. Thank the gods!

Ultimately, I’m not here to tell you what to watch or read. Nor will I declare that there’s some direct causality between people who consume a lot of vigilante justice stories and people who, say, break into capital buildings and threaten to overthrow the government because they didn’t get what they wanted. That way lies madness. However, there is one thing I will say: it’s okay to like problematic things BUT… not only is it important to know they’re problematic, we also must know the ways in which they’re problematic. It’s the responsible thing to do. It prevents us from being manipulated into accepting the status quo. And sure, change is scary—particularly if you’re a member of a group that feels they have a lot to lose. The deal is, we have great deal more to gain from dismantling oppressive systems than we ever have lost or ever will. Be brave. Listen. See the bigger picture. Work for change. Help others. Have empathy for the marginalized. Make space. Be thoughtful. Listen. Work to improve yourself as a human being. There’s hope. There’s always hope.

Because in the long term, being the villain of the story never goes well.

Stina Leicht is a science fiction, horror, and fantasy writer. Her Feminist SF novel Persephone Station is in bookstores now. Her next novel Loki’s Ring (another space opera) will debut in January of 2023 from Saga Press.

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