Real Life vs Fiction: Faces of a Villain

Recently, I’ve been watching a thoroughly enjoyable crime drama. There’s always quite a number of them floating around: cop shows, superhero movies, episodic thrillers and the like. However, when it is really riveting – I’m reminded of the crucial aspect which makes them work.

A story with only an awesome protagonist lacks the essential element of a solid drama. Good art requires having an antagonist who’s a capable match with strengths similar to the hero, but riven with his or her own demons. Otherwise, we’re bored by the exploits of a leading man easily able to defeat his challenger.

I’ve seen my share of shows where the focus concentrates too much on the internal struggles of the hero. I believe that mostly works for a good book.

In a movie, if the only battle a hero has is against emotional despair, anguish, then recovery, essentially in a vacuum – well, to me, that’s not enough. That is why Superman Returns was a flop. Yes, it made decent box office bank, but it was not a good film. Superman’s most debilitating enemy was a rock, and a bit of emotional distress. The problem with film were: a lead actor who didn’t have the chops to pull off the emotional aspect, and a movie which couldn’t decide whether to be a cartoon, semi-serious comedy or both. And that’s not a good mix for a superhero like Superman if it’s not done well.

Here’s my list of villains that come to mind, whenever the show is sufficiently entertaining:

1 – The anarchist – He brings chaos from the jump, because he is chaos. Like Batman‘s Joker, sometimes his background – revealing the depths of a childhood trauma that made him what he – is told. In most cases, all we see is a character without a past, just a full-tilt off-the-walls bad guy. There maybe times, when he’s dying, he finally divulges who he really is. This happens when the writer(s) attempts to plug plot holes or present comforting resolutions.

Overall, this is a character who’s basically in it for the thrill of disaster and destruction. There is no other reason for it. He may provide excuses, but that’s because he likes the sound of his own voice. He doesn’t believe a word he says. And he’s the ultimate nightmare for the hero, because he’s unpredictable and doesn’t live by a rule book.

In real life, he’s the guy who blows down or shoots up places that are open to the public. Sometimes he leaves a bizarre manifesto, sometimes he offs himself after executing his evil deeds without a word. His true goal is infamy. And thanks to our media, he achieves it, with many copy cats ensuing.

2 – The disabled, disfigured, underestimated guy – The best villain I’ve seen in a while was the character, Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint, in The Usual Suspects. This film had the feel of a classic Albert Hitchcock movie or Agatha Christie novel. This bad guy hides in plain sight and you never consider him one, because his disability disarms you. Everyone treats him like a less-than and as a character we regard him as such. Yet, he’s hiding a cunning mind beneath the simpleton’s facade.

Update:

Shakespeare had fun with writing about King Richard III, an English monarch, one of the best known historical villains of all time. He wrote about a man who preceded him by 100 years, but that didn’t stop him from speculating about his morals, motives and machinations. There is hardly a movie I haven’t seen about this man. At one place I worked at, I recommended a co-worked watch any Richard III film to get an idea of the mindset of the people around us. She laughed at how accurate it was. Hey, people do not change.

Recently, the remains of King Richard III have been located, by the Richard III Society – who are also trying to reform his image. Yes, that’s the problem with bad guys, they’ve just misunderstood. They had to commit their deeds for the greater good. It’s all justifiable. Hmmm.

3 – The well-meaning scientist or professor who takes his theories a little too far. He meant well, but starts to develop a  messianic zeal to wipe the planet free of human beings in order to save it. Unfortunately, in this day and age, it’s hard to separate the nut job environmentalists making these kind of pronouncements – the human population  should be whittled down to 500 million, by any means – with the bad-guys scientists in Hollywood films. Spiderman (2012) had one of these characters.

One cannot blame doomsday preppers for their anxiety when supposedly sane, rational and well known scientists are making ending-the-human-species-is-good-for-the-earth kind of statements. We are animals, no different from the insects and mammals that are here. We are no worse or better than them in affecting the environment or the earth. People who talk about wiping off most human beings from the planet should just jump off the highest bridge they can find.

4 – The alpha male – He’s the perfect top flight above reproach male – as seen in the classic The Manchurian Candidate (1962). On the outside, he’s guileless: the man everyone respects, loves and adores. In reality, he’s been turned inside out. He’s often portrayed as a predictable and unassuming character, because he’s the first guy we often see in a film, but he’s a little too smooth and slick to believe.

Overall, we enjoy seeing that he is as corrupt as we initially suspected. The above reproach guy is the one we never liked that much in the first place.

5 – The beta male – He’s the disrespected sidekick to the alpha male. He feels he’s been hiding his true self while laboring in the shadow of the top dog male. He covets everything the alpha has: women, power, respect or fear and an almost extreme level of worship for his incredible prowess. In some stories, he wants the same woman, or women, of the alpha male. In the animal kingdom this happens all the time: the alpha male always has to keep the beta males in check or they will take his “throne.”

Good writing can make these story lines the best of all.

6 – The femme fatale – She does it because she’s bored, like Catwoman. She’s aroused by the pandemonium she causes, which serves to distract others from her real goals. She enjoys the havoc, but there’s no epic story here. She’s initially introduced as this retiring, shy, church mouse kind of person, when an earth-shattering event transforms her into a “dangerous”, sex-hungry, man-eating type of woman.

As is often the case, since men write this character, they show that they haven’t a clue as to how the female mind works. Rarely, are they accurate. But when done well, by the right actress, she can be fun and amusing to watch. Would be interesting if someone came up with a completely believable malevolent female villain. Although it was a comedy, The Devil Wears Pravda came close to how some women operate.

7 – The bent bastard – I was watching a British program, Line of Duty, and I grew to like this epithet. I heard it over and over again. At first, I wasn’t certain by what they meant. Then I realized it was a rather clean and clear expression of contempt. They meant someone corrupt, easily bought, with no morals or scruples. This is not a complicated villain with a higher calling or any of the other aspects we find in a typical one. He is the embodiment of the “good man” who stays silent, and does nothing, in the face of evil.

His sole objective is to get more by taking short cuts: shave the edges to make things go smoother, skim a little off the top. He has no ethics, so he’s easy to bribe and buy off. This character is a small time thief who usually ends up in trouble reaching far over his head.

What makes him a mark in the first place is that he’s a cop or a “good guy” who bends the line one time too many. His firm “rule of law” is a wet noodle. Eventually, his luck starts to run out, because he lets greed take over, unless the writer(s) decide to redeem him.

This was the case with The Shield, but I didn’t watch enough of it to see how far the writers went with the main character crossing the line into corruption. I suspected he went far enough at times.

8 – The antagonist – He’s the spiritual twin of the hero, in that he has an inflexible, unyielding moral code. He feel he’s too good for the world and must fix its flaws. He’s a highly intelligent and logical man, but he’s the worst kind of extremist. He rigidly abides by his own rule book, which leads to devastating consequences for everyone. He’s not someone satisfied with half-measures.

And he is truly the worst of the lot, yet an exquisite match for the hero. Think of  Professor Moriarty for Sherlock Holmes.

The hero is the one who has learned to accept the world as it is. The antagonist is the one who cannot. Hence, the eternal conflict between good and evil.

Ancient Parables

The original source of heroes and anti-heroes have their roots in ancient literature or religious documents. Our modern day superheroes are re-imagined demigods.

People have always hungered for a savior….

Update

Does anyone care to speculate which character-type Christopher Dorner would fall under?

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Superman Returns: A Movie Of Religious Themes

It’s inner-nerd reflection time!

Warning: I bust the plot wide open. A number of scenes are described. I’m not very religious, so pardon me if I get my metaphors mixed up.

Two millennia from now, if people looked back on this time, would they assume we followed Gods other than the monotheistic Yahweh, Jesus, and Allah? I know there are other religions, but I mention these based on my vague, yet not too great, familiarity with the three.

Today, our mass media depicts what is supposedly a reflection of our current culture. Imagine how much the language will evolve, or devolve, depending on your view. Today, English takes many forms such as XOXO, TTY l8r, brb, and other abbreviations that make me wonder – will anyone in the future be able to translate it?

And once they generate a rough translation, will their assumptions be correct? Or will they assume that our media was a form of mass worship based on the repetition of the same images?

Is the Comic Book Hero a New Deity?

What passes for entertainment sometimes appear to be the usurpation or supplanting of belief in the divinities. I often wonder: How is a lifetime reading of comic books following one character not like a religion? How is attending sci-fi, comic, and movie conventions not like adherence to attending a religious mass? How is repeatedly viewing movies based on a specific character or trilogy, and treating it as integral to a lifestyle or way of life, not the same as following religious dogma?

Is it because we tell ourselves that this is harmless stuff?

According to dictionary.com, religion is defined as: something one believes in and follows devotedly.

The God Gap

From the Old Testament to New Testament of the Bible, I was struck by how annoyed God was with the human race. He was a cruel taskmaster: harsh, mercurial, and unforgiving as the holy writer’s environment. God used to confer directly with Adam and Eve, but after many generations he spoke less directly to his children, and began using angels as intermediaries, until he stopped using any source to communicate. I view the New Testament as a fresh reboot: God would give us one more try with his Son, in his (our) Image, through a virgin birth to get his message across.

Is the clamor for superheroes a modern day yearning for a god-like figure? Is it because we’ve run out of faith? Is it because we’ve become cynical? Is technology to blame? The word superhero is nearly one hundred years old, so the phenomenon is certainly not new.

Superheroes fill what I would call the God gap. In a modern society, with more education, the number of people who believe in a deity grows smaller. In the current imagination, the superhero – this fictional near-God is accessible – whereas a true God, is an all-powerful being who ignores our prayers, pleas, directives, and utterances, doesn’t speak directly to us, unless one is a schizophrenic wandering the streets having a good chat with the Holy One.

Superman: A Look at a Modern God

Which brings us to Superman Returns: a movie with religious undertones and overtones. It does not adhere to Christian or other religious doctrine in a straight line, but it was there nevertheless.

Let’s look at, and evaluate, the following religious themes:

Scene: Marlon Brandon, as Jor-El, solemnly states he’s sending his only son, Kal-El, to planet earth to be the guardian humans will need.

My Take: God gave us Jesus, who is the Son of God. Yes? Sorry to state it so baldly.

Scene: Mrs. Kent cradles Superman on his return to earth, after his spaceship crashed in her yard.

My Take: Like Jesus, he is cradled in the arms of his mother.

Scene: Lex Luthor stating that we have a “god” who is selfish with his powers.

My Take: Obviously referring to Superman, and leaving no doubt to the religious theme of the movie.

Scene: In the last quarter of the film, Lex Luthor and his henchmen, on a piece of land created with crystal and kryptonite, beat Superman. Luthor stabs him with kryptonite.

My Take: Luthor will always be a combination of Pontius Pilate, Judas or the Devil to Superman.

Scene: Lois Lane saves a supine Superman, holding him like a baby as she pulls out the kryptonite.

My Take: She cradles him in her arms. There are many women in the life of Jesus who cradle him in her arms or touch him to wash his feet, etc.

The Resurrection

Superman goes up to the sun to heal and regain his strength. He plummets back into the Atlantic Ocean to remove, lift and toss the big rock into space. His exposure to the kryptonite weakens him and he falls back to earth, and fortunately lands in the city park of Gotham.

He cannot be treated, because his skin is impermeable. They can only leave him in his hospital bed, after he “dies” or loses consciousness.

Lois Lane comes to see him. She whispers in his ear. I suspect she’s told him he has a son. Then the little boy goes up to kiss him. In the next scene, his bed is empty. The hospital staff and cops glance at an open window.

Resurrection is a common theme in a number of theological tales regarding Phoenix, Krishna (depending on who’s telling the story), Jesus and others.

As the movie approaches the end, Superman visits his sleeping son, and whispers a lame speech about “The father and the Son.” It’s so ridiculously close to “The father, the son and the holy ghost” I was surprised he didn’t go through the physical motions of it (it’s a prayer, right?).

Our Father Who Art In Heaven

The movie ends with Superman ascending to the heavens.

Was I offended by the religious themes of this film? Nope.

I think it struggled enough with finding a good reason for Superman’s continued existence. (Comic book writers are so bored with Superman they’ve killed him off a couple of times.) Superman Returns gave us little or no insight into his character. He’s as smooth and bland as a small pebble. This effort to make him a God collapses like a cheap tent.

Superman was sent to save us. Yet with him, there is no incentive, no fervor on our part that we should feel for a God. An uninspiring figure, he fails to provide a strong, compelling, and moral reason why he should be in our lives. He couldn’t even show us the right way to live and exist. He is a baby daddy after all.

This movie about Him ends up being about nothing at all.

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