On Heroes-Turned-Villains and Moral Ambiguity – Caitanya Singh Jaswal

“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

The hero-turned-villain trope is a popular motif in movies. It’s an easy way to explain away the origin of a villain as well as his character and end goals.

It is also one of the more delicate tropes to handle. Many good guys turn into bad guys towards the end for nothing other than the shock factor or setting up a sequel—none of their true aspirations are hinted at throughout the movie till the end when suddenly, “boom bada bing, hey-o, I’m a bad guy now.”

It’s a cheap way to go out on a high note, and it leaves the audience incredibly disillusioned with the character and the movie as a whole. You’re left with a bad taste in your mouth, like the writers decided to collectively spit in your face.

But when this trope is used ingeniously and originally, it can make the audience sympathetic, possibly even empathetic, to the villain’s cause. And that’s what makes a good villain—moral ambiguity.

Severus Snape is a great example because he’s a d*ck to Harry Potter, and you want to spank his ass with a machete for the first few movies/books.

But in the end, you find out he’s been protecting Harry all along (plus some other stuff), and you feel, “eh, he’s protecting the protagonist, noice”.

But he is still a d*ck, and he is a bad guy who’s done bad things. He’s not a traditional good-guy-turned-douchebag but he has enough depth to make the viewer sympathize with him.

Greed is another easy way to make your main guy turn bad. Contrast Snape’s character with that of Hans from Frozen who turns out to be just a d*ck just because he is one and wants a kingdom. There’s no character development–– it’s just a surprise that’s sprung on you, one that wears off after a few minutes. The viewer is just kind of forced to accept that Hans is the new villain and to roll with it. There’s no build-up, no subtlety to it.

Now, remember how this op-ed started out about good guys turning bad but then turned into a piece about how to create a good villain? What happened there was that I lost direction because I felt that to talk about good and bad villains, I first had to define what made a good villain good.

In the same way, a lot of movies lose direction. At the other extreme of not explaining a hero’s transformation into a villain well enough, some movies take too much time explaining a villain’s origin, and there’s not enough movie left in the movie for the movie.

The Incredibles is a fantastic movie that strikes a great—though not perfect—balance between both of these. In just a few minutes, during a single monologue, you learn Syndrome(the villain)’s motivations— he was a kid who wanted to be a hero, but Mr. Incredible, his hero, the man he had looked up to his entire life, the reason for him wanting to become a hero, ruined everything for him.

You understand why Syndrome becomes a villain, but you don’t agree with what he’s doing. Murder is murder, after all. You might sympathise with him, but you don’t empathise with him. Superman and Darth Vader are similar examples: both experienced a cataclysmic event (Lois’s murder by his own hands in Superman’s case, and Padme’s death in the case of Vader) that drives them over the edge. Again, you get why these guys are bad, but their moral ambiguity isn’t very complex. They’re still just bad guys after all who need to be stopped, and the viewer never feels like “hmm, maybe he has a point after all…”. This small but important disconnect separates good villains from great ones.

So what really makes a villain truly great? One that you not only sympathise with but also empathise with—one who makes you doubt the essence of his villainy.

Thanos is a perfect example because he’s capable of making choices that people bound by grade-school morals can’t. The universe is threatened by over-population, and everybody is going to die from starvation. In Thanos’s story, he is the hero. Nobody else is doing anything. And so, Thanos elects to wipe out half of all life to save the other half.

The concept by itself is not very original. It’s a classic moral dilemma: which choice is better—the certainty of saving the few, or the possibility of saving the many?

In most movies, the good guys are on the side of the latter. Their simple, caveman-level understanding of good and bad is in very disappointing shades of black and white (“Ugga bugga we don’t trade lives hurr durr”). It’s almost as if their mulish, stubborn brains are incapable of understanding the concept of sacrifice and risk.

Sure, Iron Man sacrificed himself in the short run, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the universe will thrive. Overpopulation is still a huge threat and just because the Avengers can’t punch a lack of food resources in the face doesn’t make it any less dangerous than any other villains they’ve faced so far.

In the end, Thanos isn’t a hero-turned-villain. He was both. And that—being the hero—makes a perfect villain.

 

~Caitanya Singh Jaswal, Amity International School, Noida

2 Likes

Leave a Reply