Perhaps it was Darth Vader that made being a villain “cool.” I doubt it was the Wicked Witch of the West or King Kong. Whatever the reason, celebrating these dark characters in our beloved stories has become fashionable. (Suicide Squad, anyone?). Halloween costumes, apparel, office accessories, emojis, and just about everything else has become a medium for villainous personas.
The trend to make the villains and antiheroes the protagonists doesn’t appear to be waning anytime soon, and in recent years there’s been a boom (Breaking Bad, Maleficent, Dexter, Lucifer, Sons of Anarchy, How to Get Away With Murder, etc.). I understand that compelling villains and antiheroes are needed for a good story. Indeed, a good villain makes a story better because it elevates the conflict that our hero needs to overcome. But I think there’s a line that storytellers like to cross because they know everyone consuming their stories likes to cross it too (*cough* Quentin Tarantino *cough*).
What Would Jesus Watch?
I may prefer traditional morals as a Christian, where good is good and evil is evil (Isa. 5:20), but we all know that life is filled with gray areas (this is something the antihero trend has done well for the storytelling industry because it makes stories more true to life). So what do conscious people do with this antihero/villain craze, especially when these beloved characters are downright evil (like Negan from The Walking Dead or The Joker)?
Should we disown it and navigate the movies and shows we watch with extreme caution because traditional morals apparently compel us to shun movies that teach bad morals?
Should we ignore it and just “enjoy the show” because to overanalyze is to spoil the point of storytelling?
Should we take it in stride because life isn’t black and white and stories are no different?
Should we accept it as indicative of how everyone has the capacity to be a villain or antihero (Rom. 3:23), and thus see it as a manifestation of a Biblical worldview?
Regardless of one’s answer, the fact that storytelling is timeless and captivating makes me believe there’s more to fiction than an opportunity to waste time and eat popcorn. I believe we consume more than concessions at the theater. For that reason alone it’s not fruitless to venture into deeper questions concerning our beloved villains and antiheroes.
Fiction is Not Idle Entertainment
Storytelling and art are often seen as peripheral to “real life” in that they’re not seen to substantially influence our lives–but imagine a world without music, theaters, and novels. I understand there’s a tendency to overanalyze something like fiction, but I’m inclined to see it as a “mirror” of reality–nothing fancy or complex, just a reflection. Most of us have a basic desire to become better people, so I simply ask: what can we glean from the stories we love and the characters therein, and how do we apply what we find to the “real world”?
“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Eph. 5:15-17).
There’s a “safety” in admiring fictional bad guys. We generally don’t see people celebrating the characters of Charles Manson or Adam Lanza like they celebrate those of the Joker, Darth Vader or Walter White. So what do we see in fictional villains and antiheroes that cause us to swoon? Is it their “presence” in the story? Is it how they make the story good? Or is it how they motivate us? Everyone will have a different answer, of course, and that’s the point, as I will get to later.
Chemicals in the brain are released when we’re involved in a good movie or TV show (or book, if you can still read in this age) that enable us to empathize with the characters. We’re made to relate and empathize, and it turns out many of us can’t help it when we do so with a darker character. The Apostle Paul was right: we’ve all fallen short. We’re all antiheroes, and we all have the capacity to be villains; remember, villains think they’re the heroes (Matt. 15:14). Seeing ourselves in the “mirror” of good stories is nothing to be afraid of. What matters is what we do with the image we see (2 Sam. 12:1-6).
“When anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light” (Eph. 5:13-14a).
“For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:20).
“Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph. 5:11).
As Jesus exemplified with his parables, fiction is a perfect time for personal reflection. Like the characters in the stories, we can follow our consciences to the light, or shove it down with excuses until we entertain the villain inside without a second thought.
It’s a mirror of reality, not a “Matrix” where we can indulge escapism and be mindlessly glued to the screen or page. Fiction equips us to “suck the marrow out of life,” as Thoreau said. When we go to the theater or plop on the couch, we put a filter on our eyes to see the world from a different lens. It’s always the same world, regardless of the setting, be it Hoth, Middle Earth or Kansas. The “world” of every story is humanity because humans are connected and will always project themselves onto the stories they create and consume.
Transformation of Character
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a story is only a story if there’s opposition. Whether it’s personal, impersonal or interpersonal (it’s usually a combination of all three), the opposition is what drives the narrative. It’s what focuses the plot and motivates characters. And most importantly, opposition is what transforms the characters–villain and hero alike. It’s what determines whether the characters produce good fruit or bad fruit (Matt. 7:15-20).
This transformation is the cream-filling of storytelling, and it happens to everyone in the real world too. Fiction merely focuses and frames the opposition to fit a neat plot, while the oppositions in “real life” are more nebulous and nuanced (perhaps fiction is irresistible for the simple reason that it makes sense of our complex and mundane reality).
Like the real world, villains and heroes are both faced with opposition, and who they become depends on how they let the conflict transform their character.
Jesus’ message of repentance is made for the sake of self-reflection. Turn from evil before it’s too late (John 12:35-36) and keep on the narrow way if you’re already on it (Col. 3:1-17; Heb. 12:1-2). We’re not doomed to become the villain, and seeing their example and their path is a warning we should heed.
Depending on a story’s ending, some villains may meet their demise, while others may walk free. Some may even find redemption. Antiheroes may go bad, or be refined. Heroes may lose their way or meet their end in a noble sacrifice. This is mirrored in the real world; we’re all producing fruit, and we’re all still being transformed into what we’ll be in “the end.”
Storytellers must also be held up to scrutiny, for they’re the ones propagating the popularity of the villainous. Although it should be an article all its own, discerning what sort of worldview is in control of the screenplay is required for anyone wanting to be a smart story-consumer (see Hollywood Worldviews by Brian Godawa). It’s not hard for storytellers to make evil “good” and vice versa, so pay attention to the man behind the curtain (and no, this doesn’t “ruin the story” unless you want it to).
It’s not overanalytical for us to dig into what makes antiheroes and villains so intriguing because what these dark characters are is what God’s been trying to redeem in all of us.
To love the villain or antihero because she makes the story good is expected.
To love the villain or antihero because he’s like us is natural.
To love the villain or antihero because she’s dark is misguided.
To love the villain or antihero because we want to be him is downright disturbing.
But to love the villains and antiheroes because they remind us to seek a redemptive ending to our own story is perhaps the best thing writers, viewers and readers can do with the growing popularity of the villainous.
Alex Aili (B.A. in Biblical Studies) writes short stories and offers his musings about God’s hand in the world at Covert God: Redemption in Shadows. He is a novelist-in-progress who lives in northern MN with his wife and two sons. He enjoys coffee, good pipe tobacco and longs walks in the woods. See what he’s up to on Twitter.