What if we lived in a world without villains? How marvelous would that be? At least that’s how we imagine life would be – almost like heaven. Truth be told, it’s not how we like our storytelling. We want greater conflict and complexity. We crave the excitement of watching our heroes confront the most powerful villains. It’s how we come to know ourselves. If stories are metaphors for the human condition, then you can bet on us creating a villain for every season.
Swiss psychiatrist, Carl G. Jung, suggested that myths and fairytales are dreams drawn from our collective unconscious. He referred to the “archetypes” found in stories as the underlying patterns of personality shared by all humans. Each archetype performs a specific function in a story to further advance the narrative. Thus, the Hero is the central character in a story that embarks on a journey to resolve a particular conflict, while the Shadow is the villain or enemy the hero has to confront and defeat. This archetype also symbolizes the repressed feelings and emotions that the hero needs to overcome, if he is to be successful on his quest.
If the hero is the one who sacrifices his life for others then what constitutes a villain? Is it that the villain places his own self-interests above humanity, no matter the cost? We like to think of goodness as a trait that transcends personal experience, but does a child enter the world wanting to be a criminal? How much is character shaped by environment, predisposition, or personal destiny? What drives a person to embrace the dark side knowing it will end in self-destruction? What role does a society’s laws, morality, ideology, or stratification play in creating a villain? On the other hand, can a hero exist without a villain? Maybe we should pity the villain, who may be a necessary evil that forces us to change and confront our true nature.
Villains are the bad guys in our stories. They wear the black hat. They may suffer from certain neuroses that cause them to act egomaniacal or megalomaniacal. They possess no moral compass. They play by their own rules. They act on their darker impulses and tend to be greedy, and corrupt. They commit heinous acts in cold-blood, without any feelings of remorse. They may be driven by a cause they wrongly believe to be just, so they think the ends justify the means.
These villains scheme and plot to dominate the world, while heaping untold misery upon humanity through their evil deeds. They come in all shapes and sizes, and can be human or nonhuman, natural or supernatural. They are portrayed with physical characteristics that set them apart to look evil and repulsive. In some cases, the villain may gain our sympathy by possessing a fatal flaw that brings about their downfall, which makes them more relatable.
Great stories reveal hidden truths about the vast unrealized potential of the unconscious mind. The wisdom contained in stories acts as a guide to help us navigate and negotiate the passages of life. They serve as cautionary tales teaching us right from wrong. On the other hand, villains express the dark side of the psyche and expose what is monstrous in human nature. They reveal what can happen to us when we lose the battle to repress our animal nature and allow the demons that inhabit our inner world to roam free.
Below is an analysis of some of the best movie villains from our cinematic Gallery of Rogues. I believe these characters perfectly express the darker aspects of the mind in their own unique and terrifying ways. These movies allow us to examine the world of the villain from a safe distance, which is how we prefer our villains.
Dr. Henry Jekyll is a brilliant scientist who believes his chemical concoction can separate the goodness from the evil nature of man. He is portrayed as a genial, moral, and respected doctor. After sampling his own brew, the dark side of his nature is revealed in the form of Mr. Hyde. Once his metamorphosis takes place, he becomes a hairy, ugly, and murderous brute, who acts on pure animal instinct. His physical repulsiveness symbolizes his immoral and hideous nature.
The story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is fundamental to an understanding of human nature. It suggests that we possess a dual personality, with the animalistic side barely constrained by the bonds of civilization, custom, and conscience. Dr. Jekyll lives in a Victorian society where all forms of sensuality and physicality are repressed, while order and decorum are highly valued. Being Mr. Hyde gives Dr. Jekyll the moral freedom to explore his hidden nature. Unfortunately, he loses self-control and his darker impulses take over. Once the veneer of civilization is stripped away, we discover the monstrous side of human nature that society strives so hard to eradicate. On the other hand, one has to wonder whether a society that does not allow for the expression of sexual desire is not responsible for creating the monster in the first place.
As the self-appointed Avenging Angel of Gotham City, Superhero Batman is being blamed for the deaths of policemen and other citizens. While some accuse him of being a vigilante, others view him as a protector of the city. As Batman contemplates his retirement, the Joker, a clown-faced sociopath, bursts onto the scene like an evil force of nature. He creates a lot of mischief and chaos, while leaving a path of destruction in his wake. At one point, he creates a moral dilemma for the citizens of Gotham, with a diabolical scheme to have two ferry-loads of passengers blow up the other boat before they are blown up themselves. He takes perverse pleasure in watching everyone dance to his tune.
This movie raises the eternal question about nature versus nurture. Both Batman and the Joker were traumatized as children, with Batman losing his parents at an early age and the Joker being abused by his father. While Batman has transmuted his pain and suffering into protecting society, the Joker only wants to punish it. Because of his abusive childhood, he feels no connection to humanity. It is why he wants to expose Batman for the fraud that he suspects him to be. In his twisted mind, he believes that Batman is no better than he and may be exacting his own revenge by killing the bad guys. It’s why the Joker feels driven to remove the mask that he feels Batman carefully hides behind. Being a villain serves to imbue the Joker with the power that was denied him as an abused and neglected child. He also proves a worthy adversary since it allows us to take the full measure of Batman as a Superhero.
It has been three years since the Death Star was destroyed in the first movie Star Wars: New Hope. After escaping, Darth Vader has become the commander of the Empire forces fighting the Rebel Alliance. While his friends are being pursued across the galaxy by Darth Vader, Luke is being mentored by Yoda in the ways of the Jedi and the Force. Yoda sends Luke to a cave to experience the dark side of the Force. He has a vision of decapitating Darth Vader and seeing his own face when he removes his mask. After leaving the cave, Luke learns that his friends have been captured and abandons his training to save his friends despite Yoda’s objections. Little does Luke know that Darth Vader is using them as bait to lure him into his trap.
Darth Vader is an evil villain, who has fully embraced the dark side and has become a force of darkness. He is capable of the most horrific acts and even destroyed an entire planet without blinking an eye. He is without a moral compass. As Luke seeks him out, we are plunged deeper into Vader’s dark world. The two face off in a lightsaber duel and Luke’s right hand is severed. At that moment, Luke discovers the horrifying truth that Darth Vader is his father. He asks Luke to join the dark side so they can rule the galaxy together, but Luke chooses to plunge to his death rather than live with the sins of his father. This heroic act evokes an emotion in Vader that shows him still capable of redemption. Vader is reminded of what it means to be human by the moral courage displayed by his own son.
Oskar Schindler is depicted as a flawed hero, who starts out as a womanizer, drinker, gambler, and an opportunist. He sees his chance to live the good life and moves to Nazi-occupied Poland at the beginning of WWII, where he opens a factory in order to exploit the system. He expects to become rich by hiring Jews for low wages. As the situation grows dire for the Jews, Schindler becomes a changed man and uses his wits to save his workers from the gas chamber. His adversary, Amon Goeth, is the Nazi commandant of the prison camp, who is devoid of any humanity. He makes his own rules and shoots Jews in the prison yard as target practice. He takes perverse pleasure in playing God, with life and death power over his victims.
Goeth is representative of the Nazi system that was so evil that anyone encountering it became consumed by it. This system granted cover and courage to those who would do evil. In Goeth’s case, it brought to light his true nature. Instead of becoming benevolent, it brings out the beast in him. For a brief moment, Schindler helps him get in touch with his humanity, but it’s only a fleeting emotion. Goeth revels in his power over the Jews and reverts to kind. He is the essence of banal monstrosity, which shows why great heroes are needed if we would counteract evil. In the end, the Jews establish the homeland they always longed for, but pay a heavy price for their dream.
A happily married lawyer, Dan Gallagher, has a one-night stand with a publishing executive, Alex Forrest, while his wife goes out of town for the weekend. It’s intended to be an innocuous encounter, with both parties understanding the rules. However, it becomes progressively violent as Alex lays claim to her lover’s time and attention. Dan reminds her that it was supposed to be a one-night stand between two consenting adults. She apologizes and promises not to make further demands, but she can’t help herself. Alex begins acting like a woman scorned and seeks vengeance on the man who spurns her.
The movie Fatal Attraction points out the dangers of committing adultery. As more women began joining the workforce and becoming independent, the fear was that it posed a threat to the institution of marriage. A career presented women with choices besides being a wife and mother. It gave them the freedom to pursue their own personal happiness. They could explore their sexual desires outside the bonds of marriage. The movie appears to be on the side of marriage as it contrasts the life of this seemingly crazy and desperate career woman with the serene and secure life of the wife. At the same time, it shows the irreparable harm that is caused by marital infidelity. Gallagher is happily married and appears to accept the boundaries of his life. It suggests that he only strays because of the temptation posed by a career woman. Of course, these fears did not prove groundless, as the divorce rate continues to climb and young people delay marriage.
The hero J.J. Gittes is a private detective hired by a beautiful widow, Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray, to investigate the drowning and possible murder of her husband. Before long, Gittes becomes tangled in a web of deceit that involves a conspiracy to divert water from the San Fernando Valley, in order to create a drought so that the land can be bought cheaply. Afterwards, the plan is to return the water to make the land fertile and then be sold at a higher price.
During his investigation, Gittes concludes that Mrs. Mulwray’s husband figured out the scheme and did not live to tell the tale. The more Gittes keeps digging, the more the skeletons tumble out of Mrs. Mulwray’s family closet. At the heart of mystery is her father, Noah Cross, a sinister and ruthless monster, who is not only the mastermind behind the conspiracy, but has broken one of the greatest taboos and crossed that sacred boundary within the family to satisfy his animal appetite. This is what makes him a villainous villain. He shatters his young daughter’s innocence, and just like Humpty Dumpty, the pieces of her life can never be put back together again.
A young and ambitious Swiss scientist, Victor Frankenstein, discovers how to reanimate the dead and ends up creating a monster that never should have been wrought in the first place. The creature he creates is assembled from the body parts of dead criminals from the charnel house. Even though his experiment is successful, Frankenstein becomes so horrified by the hideous monster he brings to life that he abandons his creation with grave consequences.
The creature’s first encounter with the world is his rejection and abandonment by his father. He is cast into the world to fend for himself without the proper tools for survival. His initial innocence and desire for love suggest that a child is not born a monster. He only becomes one after being attacked and shunned because he looks different. Once he reads Frankenstein’s journal about his origins, he becomes disillusioned and embittered with the man whose dark ambitions resulted in his creation. The mistreatment he receives by those around him turns him into a villain when he was really the victim. This is why he seeks vengeance against them. Ultimately, this story serves as a cautionary tale of what happens when humans transgress the divine boundaries by wanting to master life and death. Frankenstein’s relentless pursuit of this forbidden knowledge brings about his downfall.
In the end, these movies question what it means to be human. Throughout our lifetime, we play many roles that include being good, bad, or indifferent, depending on whether we want to compete or cooperate with others. The villain is the one who takes things to the extreme. Under ideal circumstances, who is to know how these villains would have turned out? After all, what we are really seeking is love, happiness, and self-fulfillment in life. On the other hand, these villains represent the untamed, instinctual part of our nature that must be nurtured and governed, if we are to survive as a species in a hostile natural world.
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