Please note: this column discusses spoilers for a number of movies, series and books, including Black Panther, The Incredibles, Umbrella Academy (Seasons 1 and 2), Fullmetal Alchemist (2003) and (2009), the Harry Potter series and Voltron: Legendary Defender. Child abuse, abandonment, transmisogyny, genocide, anti-Blackness and anti-biracial sentiment are discussed below.
If fandom’s the most famous – or infamous – for anything, it might be its love for villains. Whether it’s Envy and Greed from Fullmetal Alchemist, Final Fantasy’s Sephiroth, Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape from Harry Potter, or (particularly in modern fandom) the Darkling of the Grishaverse, a good villain can attract a more determined fanbase than anything – or anyone – else. Of course, this also attracts some of the most vicious discourse in fandom; is it really Nazi apologism to think Kylo Ren is hot? But then, by contrast, is it really appropriate to be getting Dark Mark tattoos when it’s treated with the same horror as a swastika in universe? Is it excusing a villain to identify with their tragic backstory, or is it just understanding where they’re coming from? Is shipping a villain with the protagonist the same as shipping an abuser with their victim-? Usually not, but sometimes they are abuser and victim. It depends on the story.
All of this aside (and I don’t care much for most of that kind of discourse; fiction is worth discussing, but ships aren’t consistent or persistent enough to treat with the same analytic methods as a single text), it’s clear that there’s something about villains in fiction that attract a lot of attention. Certainly a lot of famous villains are queer-coded, whether intentionally or otherwise. But it’s more than that; a lot of common stories and arcs given to villains are significantly more sympathetic than they’re intended to be. This is a lot of where the tension around ‘tragic backstories’ comes from – the line between ‘excuse’ and ‘reason’, compassion vs. letting someone off the hook.
The reason this has come up again recently, although it’s a pretty consistent underlying battle, is the latest installment in Disney’s (frankly mediocre-to-terrible) “villain remakes”; Cruella, in which the gleefully evil Cruella de Vil is somehow, somehow given a tragic backstory. And it’s terrible. It is truly terrible. Setting aside the ridiculousness of the actual story – it misses a huge amount of why people bond with villains in the first place.
So, ultimately, why are we so fixated on villains, and what is it we want from these stories, that Disney and other studios so drastically misunderstand and others have tuned into so perfectly?
1. Abuse and Abandonment
I’ve already mentioned queercoding in villains, but in many ways, queercoding as a theory doesn’t go far enough. Certainly there are plenty of cackling, power-hungry villains with no sympathy to be found. But there are also an alarming, tragic amount of villains with backstories that clearly discuss abuse, abandonment, bigotry and the weight of oppression. It’s sometimes concealed behind different language, or elided behind how it’s not an “excuse” for their behaviour; but it’s present nonetheless. Here are a few examples.
I know, I know! Bear with me. Buddy/Syndrome is deeply unsympathetic. He’s an annoying fanboy with a parasocial attachment to a superhero and a pathological issue with rejection. It’s very easy to interpret him as a Gamergate-style chud. And at no point am I trying to excuse his actions within the movie; once you’ve got someone who’s a creep to women and happily bombs a plane with kids in it, you’ve got an excellent villain.
But I’m deeply curious about the fact that he’s a kid. Not in the main part of the movie, no – but it’s always sat strangely to me that a kid showing childlike behaviour and ending up in danger was punished for it. Where are Buddy’s parents? Where, in fact, is a single adult telling him that they are worried for him? Mr. Incredible’s had a day from hell. I can understand that – but there’s something interesting about the weight of this somehow being on Buddy, and not on those around him. Certainly the movie makes some vague overtures at how Mr. Incredible could have been kinder to him, but the movie is still implying that Buddy would “always” have grown up petty and immature, somehow. Still, at least, Buddy’s only shown as a lonely, somewhat obsessed kid. The absence of parents doesn’t indicate anything. It’s just that a very similar character also exists, with an almost identical plotline.
Leonard Peabody/Harold Jenkins has much the same plotline as Buddy, with even less sympathy. He’s humiliated by Reginald Hargreeves, without so much as the excuse of having put himself and others in danger, and we’re explicitly shown that his father is violent and abusive. He murders his own father, goes to prison – and carries out a plan for revenge, which again, within the story, tracks as him being villainous. He’s manipulative, and slimy, and hits a lot of the Gamergate-chud notes, just like Syndrome.
But why are we once again given a lonely, abused child with trauma as a villain?
Umbrella Academy is an interesting example here, too; because in the second season they do much the same thing, and then course-correct. Lila is given another option. She isn’t the problem; her abuser is. She’s done bad things; but she’s been lied to. It’s a daring choice, and it’s one that suddenly casts the villainizing of characters like Leonard and Buddy in a different light.
Of course, it can’t be denied that Leonard and Buddy have a distinct thing in common; they’re white, abled (as shown, at least) cishet men, and it’s impossible to deny that the petty grudges underscored by violence is something that plays out in real life. But they’re part of a wider pattern.
Queercoding returns in full force when looking at anime like Fullmetal Alchemist (2003); Envy’s gender has been a source of both arguments and often-meanspirited jokes ever since its airing, and Wrath is a whole cornucopia of coding and analysis on his own. Dante is viciously abusive; she’s explicitly and vocally shown as such, but despite the show lingering on this and giving both of the above characters quite a bit of depth, neither of them truly get to break fully out of the villain role. (Wrath is arguable; but his eventual fate is all the more tragic with that in mind.) And then there’s characters like Dabi in Boku no Hero Academia; Crona in Soul Eater; Western animation provides wasted opportunities like Lotor in Voltron: Legendary Defender and Amon and Tarrlok in Avatar: Legend of Korra. The thing that binds them all is that they are victims of abuse, and that while some of them get redemption arcs, partial redemptions or are indicating possible redemptions, they begin as villains.
It’s not so much that victims of abuse can’t be villains. Nor is it that I think more of them should be redeemed, or that their redemptions aren’t good enough; it’s that I find it concerning in the first place how many of our interesting villains in the first place “become evil” because of abuse from others.
2. Good Causes, Violent Means
I’m far from the first person to point out this particular flaw in pop-culture villains; it’s certainly only grown the worse in recent years, as Hollywood tries to acknowledge the growing power of leftist movements without actually committing to supporting them, but it’s not limited to Hollywood by far. Too many villains, given the chance to be sympathetic, are positioned as having good ideas, as being right… but then going “too far”. And too often, they’re depicted as needlessly violent or otherwise acting out in a way that doesn’t make sense to back up the idea that they’re a violent extremist.
Of course, this is often done well enough for it to pass without comment. While Killmonger from Black Panther fits this, it’s also explained in the movie with such deftness that it’s hard to take too much offense to; he’s a Black revolutionary, but he also works for the CIA. He’s not a leftist going “too far”, but is on-screen identified as someone who’s been working for the enemy for a very long time. When he phrases Black liberation in terms of violence, retribution and vengeance, it’s flavoured and influenced by years of toppling governments in service of the very systems he’s condemning. In addition, the heart of what he’s protesting – Wakanda’s isolationist tendencies abandoning Black folks worldwide to the forces of colonialism – is challenged by other people than him in the movie, most notably by Nakia. However, it’s still part of a consistent problem of who we cast as our villains to begin with.
A better example from the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and the one that still pains me every time I watch the otherwise wonderful movie – is the Vulture from Spiderman: Homecoming. Toomes is sympathetic; in fact, he’s far too sympathetic. In the opening scene, we see Tony Stark and S.H.I.E.L.D. put him out of business and shove him into bankruptcy without so much as a second thought, and it’s deeply difficult to fault him for his actions. In fact, it’s so difficult that the scriptwriters had to make it so that he and his crew made weapons, something that killed people, instead of anything else that they could possibly be selling underground; and even then, Toomes’s desperation makes that hard to condemn. (Not impossible. But difficult!) The only thing that saves the movie from being a near-Villain Protagonist is that Toomes gives a speech about being the underdog while clearly having more money at that point than he’s ever had, with a nice house, a nice car, etc. But the artifice of it, while Stark flies around in multi-billion-dollar suits he doesn’t even have to be inside to fly, is startling, and all the more upsetting when ideologically, you’d expect the usually-struggling Spiderman to have at least some sympathy for Toomes instead.
You see this all over the place, handled with more or less grace; the League of Villains in BNHA, Scar in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and even characters like Lord Asriel and Marisa Coulter from His Dark Materials, or Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Some of these examples are particularly tricky, because they are good depictions of extremists of their type; Lord Asriel and Marisa Coulter in particular are embroiled in a religious/church war, which aren’t known for being particularly nuanced and free of bystander violence. Instead, though, I want to draw attention to the sheer frequency of the “well-intentioned extremist” character and how often they exist in narratives where the non-extremist version of the good intentions on display either don’t make an appearance or are such a watered-down version that it misses the point of the extremist character’s anger at all.
Consider, for example, Scar in Fullmetal Alchemist. He makes an excellent example, because Fullmetal Alchemist has two animated adaptations; one that was created in 2003 that diverged heavily from the source material, and one that was made in 2009 and remained closer to it. Before anything else, it’s a common misconception that Japanese shows and animators “don’t have any investment in” or wouldn’t be making commentary on American or other world events; quite the contrary. Japan is full of American military bases, and things like the Gulf War, Iraq, etc. may have been less talked about, but certainly were part of the conversation. So, Scar. The base concept of him as a character is that he’s a survivor of a genocide against his people, the Ishvalans; in the manga, they’re based explicitly off the indigenous Ainu people. In retaliation, Scar sets out to systematically murder the State Alchemists, essentially human weapons, who killed his people.
Neither series beats around the bush that Scar is dangerous, and that Scar is in the wrong. There’s no forgiveness for murder happening. However, the first show does something very interesting with his character arc; while he never really stops being a killer or an extremist, he’s put in context. We see Ishvalans who disagree with him, even as he defends refugee camps from attacks; we see him forced back into violence-as-defense against Amestrian soldiers again and again, and even his last moments are both an act of horrifying violence and an act of saving countless lives in the long-term (the Liorans) and a single one from immediate danger (Alphonse). By contrast, the manga and the 2009 series take a different tack, where he instead learns that violence is wrong – from, frustratingly, Amestrians and one Ishvalan in particular who “wasn’t involved” in the genocide. It’s hammered in instead that he never should have done it and how his response was always the wrong one; the refugee camps aren’t focused on or really mentioned, and we’re not given nearly as much context for why he ends up at his “extremist” position. He’s an (anti-)villain in both, but the positioning is hugely different.
Of course, both of these still fulfill what we really want from stories; we want them to be engaging. We want them to be good to read.
3. Bad vs. Good [Anything, Really]
I’m loath, at any point, to bring up Voltron: Legendary Defender – in part because both the show and the fandom feel like fever-dreams or distant memories. But when we’re discussing villains and heroes, obviously, the concept of the ‘foil’ has to come up. The foil is a wonderful literary device, in which two characters are similar in some ways and different in others; mirrors and parallels, opposites, and excellent contrasts. There are good ways to do this. There are also exceedingly, terribly, horrible ways.
One of the good ways to do this is in, say, Netflix’s Lupin; Youssef Guédira is a foil to Commissioner Dumont in ways that end up converging beautifully by the end of Part Two. The bad way is, tragically, framed in VLD’s treatment of Prince Lotor and Keith. We’re intended to see them as foils from the beginning – half-Galra, lonely, struggling to prove themselves, and with interesting relationships with both Allura and Shiro. Opinions… differ, drastically, on Lotor and Keith’s treatment throughout the show, but most people can agree that Lotor got the short end of the stick (down to a pretty horrifying demise).
Where it really gets bad is finding out that the showrunners explicitly compared Keith and Lotor as the “good” and “bad” mixed-race child. (Which, by the way, don’t do this, ever, please.) What made Keith a compelling but sometimes-confusing character was recycled to make Lotor a sympathetic but back-stabbing villain; shock value, essentially, in how you “thought” a mixed-race kid Could Be Good, But Alas.
As always, I adore sympathetic villains… but Lotor should not have been a villain. It’s not as a villain that I liked his pitched character; it’s not as a villain that he appealed to so many fans of the show. In fact, he was barely set up as a villain at all, and it’s a chilling indicator of exactly where villain discourse often goes wrong that so many people take his sudden switch to villainy at face value. Within the setting of VLD, we can analyze Lotor’s actions and choices as the actions of a person – but as a story, it needs to be severely questioned how the literary device of a foil can give way to some truly awful tokenization and myths about “divided loyalties”.
Other series fall into this trap, albeit in other, more subtle ways. FMA 03 makes a reappearance with this trope, where Envy is set up as the “bad” abandoned child versus Edward… for, it would seem, very little reason other than that Ed remained human and that Envy didn’t. As opposed to the above example, FMA03 struggles with this trope to some degree – it never seems quite comfortable with what to do with the homunculi after giving them so much depth – but it ultimately follows the dictates of its genre, to (in my opinion) its detriment. And again, the Harry Potter books use it; the entire device around the ‘Half-Blood Prince’ is that it can apply to three different characters – Severus Snape, Voldemort/Tom Riddle, and Harry himself. Why, though? Why the focus on Voldemort and Snape as half-blood, in contrast to Harry, when the message is intended to be that the bloodline doesn’t matter?
Harry Potter, however, does at least one thing that the other mentioned franchises don’t; at least it comes up. Lord of the Rings has the same trope and the same resolution, where it is at least important that Frodo and Gollum have a shared heritage, something that comes up and is part of how they connect. In Voltron and FMA, and a lot of other media, the information’s there to create the sense of comparison – and then never dwelt on much at all.
Of course, the sense of comparison usually isn’t there for the characters. All of these are there for readers, to create an enjoyable story that will draw people in and give them a sense of escape, closure, etc. Which brings me to the central point–
3. Why Aren’t They The Heroes?
Queercoded villains, abuse survivors, “well-intentioned extremists”, etc… They make wonderful characters, for sure.
So why aren’t they the heroes?
“Hero”, for a lot of people, still has some sort of moral or ethical implication. Protagonist has slightly less of one, and certainly I could use protagonist and antagonist here instead. But that would open the gate to the questions of villain protagonists, and stories with no clear right or wrong, and grimdark, and a thousand other discussions, when there’s something instead very specific I want to ask:
What is so wrong with any of these people being heroes?
You see it in fanfiction all the time; certainly the redemption arcs, yes, but even more simply, stories where the favourite characters are given a heroic role just because. There’s plenty to say about the concept of “woobifying” a villain. There’s just as much to ask about what people want from heroes that they’re not getting. It’s too easy to boil it down to “more queer heroes! more redemption arcs!” without engaging with the villains themselves; it’s nice and easy to brush off one character or another as “well, those fans are just silly, or ignoring that he’s a Nazi or a murderer“.
The truth is – how many of our heroes are just as bad? Aragorn son of Arathorn is wonderful; I love him. He’s also the surviving member of an inherited monarchy, re-establishing that monarchy, and who knows what he’s actually like as a ruler? Elric of Melniboné is one of the most lasting influences on modern fantasy and is quite deliberately a terrible person. We’ll happily play along with The Punisher or Law and Order: SVU, or even the more questionable moments of Brooklyn 99, because these are our heroes, and they’re presented to us as such. So who actually decides who our villains are?
Marginalization is a huge part of it – marginalization, and the othering of abuse as something that happens to Other People. “Good” abuse survivors can be heroes, and even somewhat morally grey ones; ones who kill their fathers with hammers, never. If you’re really lucky, trans people can be heroes in YA novels if they’re squeaky clean and well-behaved, transitioning in specific ways, and fitting a model; “uncategorizably queer” characters are still more likely to be villains than not, especially if they’re intended to be read as men. (Which in the case of transmisogynistic depictions is, unfortunately, usually the case.) BIPOC who either aren’t traumatized by racism or who are Nice To White People and never snarky beyond cute, accessible jokes can still be heroes; angry ones with trauma of their own are still going to be cast as extremists who “have good points” but “should be a little softer-spoken”.
What’s the real difference between, say, Enji Todoroki and Envy? Orphan Black’s Sarah and Helena? What makes one character worth following and another only worthy of being a good Antagonist and never a central character? Plenty of villains make wonderful, cackling villains on their own – but it’s worth thinking about, when we start defending or thinking about villains in general, which ones we love because they’re villains, and which ones we love despite it.