Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Villain Week: Day Three (prescheduled)

Welcome to day three of Villain Week! Today's topic is:

The Role of Villains in Film and Television

I'm not big on watching movies or television shows, especially the latter. Books have always seemed to me to be a higher form of entertainment and so much of what's put up on the big and little screens tends to be terrible anyway. I do, however, have some favorite films and TV shows, many of which are teeming with awesome baddies.

Today I'd like to explore the use of villains in film and television. I think that a lot of the time, villains are seen as being secondary characters, which is regrettable. They aren't top-billed (in the case of movies) and they come and go from week to week (in the case of television). Yet I, like many others, find these characters to be memorable and, in some cases, much more interesting than the heroes they face off against.

So, just what is the role of the villain in film and television? Furthermore, what should the role of the villain be?

First, let's look at one movie villain in particular: Hans Gruber from Die Hard.

Hans Gruber is hands-down my favorite villain in all of movie-dom. I mean, he's Alan Rickman, for crying out loud. If that doesn't automatically make him incredible, I don't know what does. Oh wait, yes I do. Gruber is handsome, well-dressed, highly-educated, smooth-talking, determined, and given to hatching strange plans. His suit is worth more than most of the homes on my entire street, he has this subtly evil calmness about him, and he can fake a pretty decent American accent when he's trying to fool the enemy.

Just who is the enemy? That would be the film's hero, this guy:

Yeah, that's the kind of guy I want my
future daughters to bring home. Not.

Bruce Willis' filthy everyman, Detective John McClane, spends the entire movie trying to stop what he believes to be a terrorist organization from blowing up the building where his wife works. In contrast to Gruber's slick look, McClane wears mostly muscles and an undershirt for the duration of the film. Instead of being ten steps ahead of Gruber and his gang of thieves, he tends to just make stuff up as he goes along, usually involving lots of bullets and bucketloads of sweat. He has a boring back story--his wife separated from him and moved across the country and now he's going to try to patch things up with her *yawn*--and his grittiness tends to annoy after awhile.

And yet I love this film. In fact, I consider it to be one my favorite Christmas films. (Take that, It's a Wonderful Life.) The reason why isn't Willis' catchphrase or his constant attempts to save his wife. It's actually because of Gruber and his swanky nature. So, what is Gruber's purpose (other than to foil McClane's attempts to foil his plot)?

The more I look at this film, the more it seems to be about class--upper vs. middle, that is. John McClane is, as I said, the everyman. He's a hard-working cop and a family man. He prefers westerns to (we can assume) French film noir. He smokes, he swears, he wears a wife-beater. Most guys sitting in the audience will identify with his blue collar attitude and his urban cowboy strut. Hans Gruber, on the other hand, is every bit the gentlemen--you know, when he's not pulling guns on people. He's polite, he utilizes a large vocabulary, he has a foreign accent (German), and he wears a business suit better than any of the schmucks at the Nakatomi Plaza Christmas party. As a thief, he has presumably racked up a hefty sum of money in his past endeavors and is just waiting to steal more from the hard-working SOBs that work so hard doing whatever it is the workers at the Plaza do.

In the case of Die Hard, the villain, it seems, is designed to say something about society--that the rich are out to get us and that the working folks need to stop them. This is pretty much true, but that doesn't make me like McClane any more or Gruber any less.

What about other villains though? Surely, not every movie or television villain represents the Marxist class struggle? They don't. And don't call me Shirley.

Let's skip ahead a decade or so and change genres to television. Namely, Heroes.

Gabriel Gray, a.k.a. Sylar, terrorized everyone from a painter to a male nurse to a freaking cheerleader. His ability--to absorb other people's powers by killing them and consuming their brains--pretty much assured that this guy was going to be evil. He was not, however, some rich, business-suit-wearing bourgeois. Instead, he had much humbler beginnings: he was the son of a watchmaker.

Sylar always felt that he was destined for something greater, that he could be more than a watchmaker. His desire for power and fame and whatever else non-watchmakers get to have overpowered his sense of right and wrong and he became obsessed with obtaining as much of all of the above as he could by whatever means necessary. In Sylar you have a classic case of power corrupting. Apparently he didn't listen to Uncle Ben when he said "with great power comes great responsibility." Could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he'd just read Spiderman as a kid.

He even kind of looks like Peter Parker.

Sylar was mostly juxtaposed with Peter Petrelli, the goody-goody empath with the floppy hair.

Exhibit A: the floppy hair

Peter was an empath and so, like Sylar, could absorb other people's powers. This guy, however, only needed to be near someone with an ability to acquire it--far less messy and a lot less zombie-like. This doesn't mean, however, that Peter didn't need to be careful. He, too, was capable of falling prey to an insatiable hunger for power. The fact that he tried to fight it made him an excellent foil for Sylar.

The villain in this case is used to teach a very different sort of lesson from Hans Gruber. Sylar is an example of what being a megalomaniac can do to a person, stripping them of their values and causing them to murder their fellow man. Obviously, most people in this world aren't vicious sociopaths or cannibalistic murderers, but many of them do desire to be more than what they are. And most of these people are poor.

That's right, kids: this is a case of good-old-fashioned propriety. Sylar being the villain instead of Peter says that people who try to rise above their station in life are doomed to become murdering twits. Sylar, the son of a poor watchmaker, tries to become something more but destroys his humanity in the process. Peter, the son of wealth and privilege, has a similar ability but manages to become (mostly) the good guy. This shows that the rich are destined for greatness and the poor are destined for prison. To prove my point further, later on in the series (spoiler alert), Sylar is led to believe that he is actually Peter's half-brother and is, therefore, part of the wealthy Petrelli family. Lo and behold, he becomes the "good guy." When the truth finally comes out, he goes back to killing people. Charming, right?

Okay, so this is still an issue of class struggle, but it's now been reversed. It's no longer the poor stopping the rich, it's now the rich trying to stop the poor. Are there any villains who don't fit this mold? I can think of two: one from film and one from television.

Julian Sark (Alias) is much like Hans Gruber. He's foreign (British), handsome, well-dressed, and has that unnerving calmness seen in the higher class of villain. Murderer, thief, terrorist, and all-around bad guy, Sark is one villain who has seemingly nothing to do with class struggle.

His adversary is Sydney Bristow, female spy extraordinaire. While Sark's loyalties shift throughout the show's five seasons, he tends to keep a special animosity towards Sydney. Or, rather, she keeps a special animosity towards him. (I'd like to think that this was mostly because they were secretly attracted to one another, but that's only because I shipped Sarkney. Don't judge me. Guys ship, too.) In terms of socio-economic status, they seem to be pretty well-matched. No one on this show is going hungry, I can tell you that. So what, exactly, is Sark's role as a villain?

From the moment he stepped out of the shadows in a dimly-lit warehouse and shot a man in cold blood, I watched his progress on the show. He was young, he was intelligent, he was mysterious. I mean, we didn't even find out his name until a few seasons in (until season three he's just known as "Mr. Sark"). Unlike other villains on the show, Sark didn't really have a manifesto. He didn't follow the teachings of Rambaldi, he didn't want to take over the world, he didn't even really like getting his hands dirty if he didn't have to. He is a man who's in it for one person and one person alone: himself. He'll work for whoever he has to, pretend to believe whatever his employers believe, as long as he gets paid at the end of the day.

I can't say I blame him. If this woman told me to believe
that the sky was made of cheese, I'd ask her what kind.
Hell, she wouldn't even have to pay me.

Nothing wrong with that, right? Here's a guy who seems to be a man unto himself. Nothing wrong with being an individual and all that. The thing is that Sark isn't an individual. In fact, Sark's role on this television show seems to be to show that conforming will get you ahead in life. Stick with me, here. I have a valid point.

Like I said, unlike the other baddies on Alias, Sark didn't have an agenda aside from whatever his current employer wanted. His only goal in life seems to be to get ahead financially, but other than that there isn't much that Sark wants from his life of crime. He has no discernible political, social, or religious affiliation and so he can be a chameleon, fitting in with the hardcore Rambaldi fanatics one day and then slipping into a political terrorist group the next. And you know what? It works. Not only does he succeed in quite a lot of his nefarious deeds (although Sydney stops him from time to time) but he's also the only villain on the entire show who gets away in the end. He's able to slip through the cracks time and time again and it appears as if that's because he's a conformist. So take heed, criminals: if you want to live the good life, you need to be a sheep.

The one good thing about Sark's conformist attitude is that it doesn't change who he is. He doesn't actually believe any of the crap that his employers do, he just pretends to. At heart he remains the same heartless SOB that he was when we first met him...and that's why he's my favorite Alias baddie. Well, that and he's pretty bad-ass.

Another villain whose purpose isn't to highlight the struggle between rich and poor is Captain Barbossa from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

Screw Jack Sparrow; Barbossa's my pirate captain.

The message behind Captain Hector Barbossa's villainy seems to be pretty innocuous--if you're greedy then bad things will happen to you. You'll become the walking dead, not be able to eat or have sex, and then you'll die. Oh, wait, no it's not, because he comes back in the sequels.

Barbossa is an interesting villain because he sort of becomes the good guy later on. At least, he fights at the side of the good guys. Who, really, aren't good guys because they're pirates but they're better than those corrupt politicians who are only trying to destroy piracy because they hate freedom. Or something like that.

Barbossa's main adversary is, of course, Captain Jack Sparrow. Jack is an interesting sort of fellow and that's putting it mildly. He's constantly drunk, probably crazy, and hornier than a college student at a frat party. Barbossa, although he's an evil jerk who kills people to steal gold from them that he stole in the first place just so that he can eat a freaking apple again, is none of these things. Okay, maybe he's horny. But he's not drunk because he can't drink and he's not crazy because he can actually string a coherent sentence together.

As the films progress, Barbossa inexplicably comes back from the dead (thank gods, because I really didn't like the baddies in the second film...except for Norrington) and then helps bring Jack back because he's a good guy now, right? Wrong. He brings him back because he wants to rule the seas with the help of freaky sea goddess Calypso and he needs Jack's piece of eight to unbind her from the spell that a bunch of forward thinking pirates put on her in order to stop her from doing things like killing them with giant storms. But Calypso doesn't play nice and she has no intention of helping Barbossa be the sea king (probably because she's already got a thing going with King Triton).

Hey, at least this guy doesn't have tentacles on his face.

So, in the end we discover that greed still doesn't get you what you want and that everyone gets their comeuppance. Except not, because he's coming back for the latest installment of the franchise and probably still hasn't learned his lesson. Which is the real role that I think Barbossa plays in Pirates of the Caribbean: he shows that no one ever learns from their mistakes but that you should keep trying to do the same things over and over again because perseverance never hurt anyone. And you'll never actually have to pay for the things that you've done because there's always a sequel that needs a baddie.

Truth be told, I actually really like these films. I even liked the third one which everyone else seems to inexplicably hate. That doesn't mean that I don't see through the special effects and eye candy. These films are, at heart, about bad guys doing bad things to other bad guys. It has debauchery and drunkenness and all those other horrible things that I love engaging in. The funniest thing about them, though, is that the bad guy is practically a teetotaler compared to the hero. Perhaps the other underlying message here is that no one likes that cranky sober guy.

So, what have we learned today? We've learned that some villains are bad because they're rich, some are bad because they're poor, some are bad because they want money and are willing to give up their own values to get it, and others are bad because they stole things but didn't actually have to pay a price for it so they just keep on stealing things. Other popular villain tropes include the ugly one, the bastard son, the witch, the British guy, the boss, the girl who's bad because she likes to have sex, and the guy who's bad because, well, someone needed to be the antagonist.

The question that remains after all of this is: Gabe, if all villains are like this, why do you love them so much? And the answer is that heroes are even worse. Heroes are good guys solely because stories need a good guy. Even when the story is about two bad guys, one of them is always less bad than the other. That guy will inevitably be your hero. Most of them are flat and have no back story, while others are flat and have too much back story. There are exceptions, of course, but film and television heroes are often lacking in the dimension and depth that some of their literary counterparts have. It's only a very good screenwriter who can provide these things to their characters and sadly there are very few who seem capable of doing so.

So, I guess what I'm trying to say is that the real role of the villain is to make up for the lame hero. Villains are entertaining, unpredictable, darkly humorous, and are, for me, the most memorable character in any film or television show.


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