Why Villains Never Win

Originally Published on April 28th, 2014; Updated on June 24th, 2014.

The Hero has to win.

It’s an unwritten rule. Heroes have to win because we live in a culture that looks for the happily ever after to prove that good conquers evil. We’re acutely aware of the horrors of the real world, so we look to fiction to show us that amidst all the evil that exists, good will ultimately triumph.

Religion teaches this concept.

Parents preach the importance of doing good in order to receive good.

And when the going gets rough, we force ourselves to hold onto the idea that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, a pot of gold waiting for us, that there’s no place like home because the world is scary and the night is full of terrors.

We create bad guys to highlight good guys.

The “Happy Ending” trope, which exists in most literature to award the good and punish the evil, goes a little something like this:

Character A (the underdog — because we always root for the underdog!) has a dream, but difficult circumstances to overcome because:

  1. they have an evil stepmother/father (Cinderella),
  2. they have a horrible aunt and uncle that makes A sleep in a cupboard under the stairs (Harry Potter),
  3. they want is to be recognized and loved and wishes on stars to have more than his/her small town hopes and dreams (Dorothy Gale/Alice from Wonderland, Coraline from Coraline),
  4. they want to be popular and well-liked and more than their meager existence has provided them with thus far (many popular YA’s or teen TV shows),
  5. they dream about falling in love with someone out of their league (any YA romance set in a high school),
  6. they’re abused, either mentally (Elsa from Frozen) or physically,
  7. they’re outcasts due to their abilities (young Clark Kent, any character embodying the Geek identity),
  8. they’re weak (Steve Rogers turned Captain America) and/or selfish/spoiled/uneducated about how their actions effect others (Tony Stark turned Iron Man),
  9. they’re haunted by past demons (Bruce Wayne turned Batman), OR
  10. they live in shambles and/or are oppressed by whatever government/ruling system exists (Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, Tris from Divergent)

Character A goes on a journey, sometimes a physical one, sometimes a mental one. Along the way, Character A meets Character B. One or both characters encounter problems/roadblocks/[insert obstacle here], but they somehow make it out alive and end up:

  1. saving the world from XYZ,
  2. discovering that their small little life is exactly what they always wanted,
  3. finding the love of their life,
  4. uncovering their hidden strength, and with that, their true identity and/or life mission,
  5. getting what they wanted wanted,
  6. getting what they never knew they wanted, but realized they needed, AND
  7. living happily ever after!

But that’s just not realistic because good doesn’t always win out. Then again, neither does evil. There’s a whole lot of grey area in the world, isn’t there? But that’s not often what’s depicted in movies, books, or TV shows.

Take the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. She’s labeled as “wicked”; hell, her skin is even green to showcase how not-of-this-world (and therefore evil) she is. She embodies the haggard “witch” idea that has persisted and categorized women of a certain disposition and age for centuries: unnaturally long, curved nose, sinisterly long chin, abnormally large mole, dressed in black, and holding a broom (a domestic household object mean to showcase a woman’s real role, even amidst all of the stereotypically evil garb.)

But was she actually evil?

I mean, if you examine the story, the wizard is the one who fooled everyone? It was he who sent Dorothy on a mission to murder.

The witch just wanted her sister’s shoes, her sister who was murdered (inadvertently) by Dorothy.

Does that make her evil?

Ok, so in the movie she threatens Dorothy’s life with a giant hourglass and all, but come on! Dorothy was out for blood from the start. But we don’t see the movie or read any of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books with the mindset that Dorothy is actually just a blood thirsty little psychotic serial killer on a mission. We read it and classify the Witch as the wicked.

Many of the tropes we’ve come to know and ‘love’, those that classify “good” from “bad,” draw a line in the sand. On one side is black, the other white.

But again, is it really that black and white? Take The Joker from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. He was an enigma with a question mark past, who lived in the moment, yet seemingly had every step planned in advance.

He was observing the human condition, curious about what actions people would take, preying on their weaknesses to see how they would react. He understood the evil of the world and played upon that for fun. Did that make him evil, or acutely aware?

Sure, he killed a lot of people, robs banks, destroyed lives, and preyed on people’s fears (not to mention mind-fucking Batman every step of the way), but I have to wonder how he became that way? That’s the brilliance of Nolan’s creation: He doesn’t tell us. He lets the viewer make up their minds about the Joker, and even though Heath Ledger’s Joker does some pretty outright evil stuff, we don’t truly know what motivates him; we just classify him as evil.

Interesting how our minds go there first; before trying to understand someone’s actions, we cry wolf. I think it speaks about our societal and cultural values and our need to constantly label and classify a person’s actions. If someone does something bad, they’re labeled as a bad person. Likewise, good actions are equally praised. But do a person’s actions necessarily reflect their true nature? Aren’t we more complex than that?

I like to think of myself as a good person. I try to be as nice as my heart will allow me to be, but I’ve subtly manipulated certain situations to get what I want. Does that make me evil? Or just human?

We like to believe that “good” and “evil” are polar opposites of each other, but what if they’re closer than we think? We all exist on a plane made up entirely of grey area, like some sort of Kinsey scale of morality.

But we’re not interested in the grey area, are we? “The Avengers Defeated Irony and Cynicism,” an article on Badass Digest by Devin Faraci, details this in a review of the 2012 film, a then-capstone to a first-of-its-kind film franchise that seamlessly blended together characters from separate films:

The Avengers is a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve, that doesn’t have much cynicism and contains zero ironic distancing. It’s a movie that isn’t afraid to be big, to be silly and to embrace very traditional images of heroism […] We are living in a time of precipitous uncertainty. Nobody is interested in the grey areas anymore. Much like the 1930s – the time when superheroes were birthed – we’re hungry for something that feels optimistic, something that’s hopeful. Something that tells us it’s all going to be okay.

That something is The Avengers. It’s the most relentlessly positive blockbuster in years. The big conflict in the film isn’t between the Avengers and the Chitauri, it’s between the Avengers. It’s a movie about squabbling, disparate people coming together to get things done. No character feels extraneous, and everyone has something to do that only they can accomplish. The film’s money shot isn’t an explosion or a fight scene, it’s a shot of the characters standing together, united.  It’s exactly the fantasy that will appeal to a nation divided drastically along seemingly insurmountable partisan lines. It’s the fantasy of teamwork.

The film had clear villains — and no, I’m not lumping in Loki (who is so shaded in grey area, as highlighted in the recent Thor sequel Thor: The Dark World) — in the Chitauri, an alien race hell-bent on destroying Earth and human civilization (specifically: New York, and nobody fucks with New York in a post-9/11 landscape!) as we know it. There was no grey area there. Just the clear difference between right and wrong, and The Avengers were right.

Faraci also points out that Captain America, who is often a somewhat hokey character had become relatable because of his inherent goodness:

At the lead of The Avengers is the star-spangled man himself, Captain America – a character who was seen as almost impossibly cheesy a decade ago. The idea of a big screen version of Captain America NOT mired in post-Watergate political cynicism would have been a joke before 2008; he would have seemed out of touch and square. But now a little square is appealing, and with all the lumps America has taken lately Cap’s non-partisan, non-jingoistic patriotism feels right and good.

What’s greater than good ole fashioned American pride? After all, Captain America was once an underdog, not to mention in a coma for 60+ years before he was awakened to the hell hole known as the New Millennium, filled with such no-doubt-about-it evil.

The Marvel Universe has been wonderful at highlighting their heroes as flawed, but ultimately good characters, especially when compared to their villainous counterparts: aliens, terrorists, Nazi’s, mad scientists, et. al.

But they never quite get into the murky waters of the government and all the shady behind-the-scenes privacy-invading shenanigans that happens. It’s glossed over, because again, good versus evil needs a clear line, and that thin, almost microscopic grey area-ed line cannot be the government. Faraci wrote:

It’s interesting how little The Avengers wallows in the murky governmental aspects of SHIELD. While Bruce Wayne wiretapping Gotham was a major plot point, an even more overreaching surveillance effort by SHIELD is played off in a line or two. Much of that comes from the very different attitudes the films have – The Avengers is much more fun – but most of it comes from a sense of optimistic realism. Yes, this is the world we live in, where the government can listen in to your conversations and might even be willing to nuke a major city, but we don’t have to live like it’s a dystopia. There’s still hope for decency as long as there are decent people. Acknowledging the negative realities allows the film’s optimism to feel grounded.

Christopher Nolan’s impeccable Batman trilogy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) wasn’t afraid to highlight the grey area. In fact, so much of everyone’s actions in those three films exist in grey areas, sometimes to the point where it was hard to tell who was bad and who was good.

We all rooted for Batman when Bane beat the wings right off him, or when The Joker would challenge him, or when The Scarecrow threatened to spread fear throughout the city like a virus and watch as everyone — “good” or “bad” — drove themselves positively mad, but those films were just pointing out the viral aspects of fear and how paralyzing, controlling, and debilitating they can be, especially when its hard to tell right from wrong, good from bad.

Aren’t ideas of “good” and the ingredients of what makes a person “good” marred by subjectivity? And aren’t we “good” sometimes because we’re afraid of making a bad decision? Therefore, isn’t a healthy amount of fear necessary to propel us forward?

If it were easy to just be “good,” wouldn’t everybody just be good then?

And isn’t it possible, then, that in our quest for goodness, we’re too quick to classify evil?

Take The Little Mermaid, for example. In the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, the sea witch (again, the word “witch” is at play here) is often classified as the villain of this tale, and Disney created in Ursula one of it’s most devious and diabolical villains. But she’s not quite as evil as Disney would have us believe. See for yourself:

‘I know very well what you have come here for,’ said the witch. ‘It is very foolish of you! all the same you shall have your way, because it will lead you into misfortune, my fine princess. You want to get rid of your fish’s tail, and instead to have two stumps to walk about upon like human beings, so that the young prince may fall in love with you, and that you may win him and an immortal soul.’ Saying this, she gave such a loud hideous laugh that the toad and the snakes fell to the ground and wriggled about there.

‘You are just in the nick of time,’ said the witch; ‘after sunrise to- morrow I should not be able to help you until another year had run its course. I will make you a potion, and before sunrise you must swim ashore with it, seat yourself on the beach and drink it; then your tail will divide and shrivel up to what men call beautiful legs. But it hurts; it is as if a sharp sword were running through you. All who see you will say that you are the most beautiful child of man they have ever seen. You will keep your gliding gait, no dancer will rival you, but every step you take will be as if you were treading upon sharp knives, so sharp as to draw blood. If you are willing to suffer all this I am ready to help you!’

‘Yes!’ said the little princess with a trembling voice, thinking of the prince and of winning an undying soul.

‘But remember,’ said the witch, ‘when once you have received a human form, you can never be a mermaid again; you will never again be able to dive down through the water to your sisters and to your father’s palace. And if you do not succeed in winning the prince’s love, so that for your sake he will forget father and mother, cleave to you with his whole heart, let the priest join your hands and make you man and wife, you will gain no immortal soul! The first morning after his marriage with another your heart will break, and you will turn into foam of the sea.’ 

That’s it. The Sea Witch does nothing further to interfere with the little mermaid’s journey. Sure, her description reads as sinister, but her actions are pure. She warns the young mermaid about the price of becoming human. She warns her it would painful. And unlike the Disney film, this is the sea witch’s first and only appearance; she doesn’t try to actively destroy the mermaid.

It’s the little mermaid’s dream of falling of love that blinds her to the pain and causes her to be selfish in her actions, leaving behind her father and sisters. Her quest for love would ultimately end up hurting those who love her the most.

I don’t know about you, but the little mermaid’s actions sound pretty “bad” to me. Then again, she was just following her heart and her dreams, yet we blame the Sea Witch for aiding her, and of course Disney has to draw a clear line between the innocent young Ariel (and make it clear that her selfish actions are justified because she’s following her dreams, after all!) and the menacing Ursula what with all of her ulterior motives.

#MediaManipulation

I’ve always been drawn to the villains in everything I read or watch, usually because they’re more nuanced and layered than the typical hero.

Peel back the layers, and I think you might find that you relate to the villains more because, in the end, they’re out for their own survival (aren’t we all?) and that their actions are marred by grayness.

And really, they’re the most interesting because they simultaneously have the most to gain AND lose.

Not to mention: their redemptions are generally the most beloved aspects of these characters because it shows us that we, too, can be redeemed from our evil actions.

Darth Vader, after all, was the epitome of grey area; the Jedi wanted him to be wholly good, while Chancellor Palpatine saw that grey area and exploited it, luring him to the dark side. Had the Jedi recognized the existence of grey area, maybe Anakin Skywalker never would have turned when Padma “died” (and don’t get me started on the rule that Jedi couldn’t marry — catholic priests anyone? We see how well that’s turned for the Catholic church. But I digress…)

I’d love to read/write a story where the villain wins. Good villains are nuanced because life is not just black and white.

That, to me, would be more realistic.

In a world filled with crime and revolving news headlines reading “THINGS ARE GETTING WORSE,” I’d like a little realism. Because good doesn’t always win out. The underdog doesn’t always come out on top. The nerd doesn’t always get the girl. We don’t always get the job we apply to, even though we’re perfect for it, because it goes to the bosses nephew. Life isn’t fair.

We’re the protagonists of our own lives, and it’d be impossible for us to achieve everything we ever wanted. Can’t the villain be the underdog? Aren’t they worth rooting for, too? That might be a belief others won’t share with me because we, as a society, need the existence of “evil” to stay right where it is in order to highlight the existence of “good.” Plus, I think we’re all scared of what we might do when nobody is looking. And that thought is a little too real…

Some of us might never achieve what we set out to accomplish. But that’s OK. That’s real. That’s life.

Someone always has to lose.

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7 Comments

  1. This post is AWESOME!!!! You’re such a good writer! I have to admit that I’m mostly a sucker for an “underdog triumphs” type of story–it’s hard not to be, but you’re right about those gray areas. My husband, like you, is a huge fan of villain redemption and constantly seeks out that theme in most things he watches or reads.

    My first true love of “villain” though was with the character of Tony Soprano. He should be labeled a sociopath path, but it’s difficult to call him one when you see glimpses of his tender heart.

    Such a thoughtful post!

    1. Awwwww STOP! You’re making me blush (but pleeeeease don’t stop!)

      I feel like your husband is the straight version of me. So many similarities! I’m ALWAYS on the look out for the next best villain and I live for the moments when I can sympathize.

      I never got into the Sopranos…maybe I should watch it now. But really, I think your comments speaks to our need to villainize based on societal standards and basic human instinct, when we really never know the motivations. And let’s not forget the wolf in sheep’s clothing idea; usually the biggest, baddest villains are the sweetest, nicest people ready to stab us in the back.

  2. Color me ENLIGHTENED after that Little Mermaid excerpt. Leave it to Disney to make everything so black and white and put bitches in boxes! OMG “Bitches in Boxes” – can that be the name of our next startup? Or sitcom? or something?

    Side note: that Scar GIF is heaven.

    Side note again: I have added nothing of value to this conversation only because you wrote so well about this topic of grey area that there’s nothing else I can say (eh, eh) (#gaga).

    1. BITCHES IN BOXES. New Twitter handle? Or MAYBE this could be our book collaboration….I feel the seed of an idea germinating….

      (Also, that Scar GIF is me. And I legit said to myself, “Nic will love this.”)

  3. Again, this post is majestic.
    You did a very good job here.

    I always loved that very grey area in characters, because it helps understand the whole situation they are experiencing.
    Of course, complex motivations are difficult to understand and seldom murky waters are pleasureable to dip in, but it’s the best part of the journey.

    1. Awww thank you! Much appreciated!

      I think the complex emotions and motivations often detour most casual viewers/readers because they’re often harder to relate to. That’s why everything is SO streamlined, to fit a certain mold or package, or to fill/define a certain stereotype. But I agree, getting in deep with those motivations is the best part of the journey for me as a viewer/reader, and when I get in tough with those own deeper thoughts within myself, I learn more about who I am.

      Most consumers don’t like to learn through entertainment; they want to be entertained, and “thinking” isn’t usually involved.

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