The Four Eras of Villainy

Alexander Macris provides a typically astute analysis of the evolution of the concept of the villain from ancient to postmodern:

In the introduction to his magisterial opus After Virtue, Alasdair Macintyre describes postmodern society as having fallen into a dark age, a post-apocalyptic state. But this is not the apocalypse of Mad Max. The apocalypse has destroyed, not our technology, but our morality: “We possess simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have… lost our comprehension of morality,” he explains. Postmodern society does not know what good is.

Being unable to understand good leaves society unable to understand evil; and so instead society pathologizes it. Evil becomes a psychological state that results from personal trauma, from some crucial moment when the world failed to show someone compassion, empathy, or trust, or left them exposed to the world’s cruelty. Every postmodern villain is a victim. Behind every figure of terror we find a terrorized figure.

Darth Vader appears as a towering tyrant in Star Wars IV. But the prequels reveal that Anakin Skywalker was a victim: enslaved as a child, separated from his mother, forbidden to marry the woman he loved, rejected in his aspirations by the Jedi council, dismembered by his former mentor, and then involuntarily made into a cyborg by his new one.

Hannibal Lechter appears in Silence of the Lambs as the quintessence of villainy, brilliant, cold, manipulative, remorseless. In the sequel Hannibal, we learn that he’s a victim: During World War II, the kind and gentle young Hannibal was forced to eat his sister by cannibal soldiers.

Lord Voldemort appears in Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone as the most powerful and evil sorcerer in the Wizarding World. But later we learn Tom Riddle was a victim, the product of abandonment by his mother. J.K. Rowling even says “everything would have changed if Merope [his mother] had survived and raised him herself and loved him.”

Kylo Ren enters Star Wars VII as a dark Jedi so powerful that he can halt a blaster bolt in mid-air. But Star Wars VIII reveals Ben Solo was a victim who felt abandoned by his father and betrayed by the paranoia of his mentor, Jake Skywalker.

The Joker, most infamous and vile of all of Batman’s foes, is revealed in his eponymous 2019 movie to have been a victim, too. Arthur Fleck is a mentally ill bastard rejected by his birth-father and humiliated by his coworkers.

Postmodern culture stops at nothing in its relentless transformation of villain into victim. Cruella de Vil is the most recent example. She appears in One Hundred and One Dalmations as a wealthy socialite whose life goal is to murder puppies so she can wear their skins. But the 2021 movie Cruella reveals that she, too, is a victim: Her birth-mother abandoned her and her adopted mother was killed by a pack of vicious dalmations. (I’m not making this up.)

The postmodern villain, then, is just a moral cripple. Psychological trauma has ruined the villain’s ethical system just as spinal trauma might ruin a person’s nervous system. We are meant to feel bad that they do bad. It’s not their fault.

I have to admit, I’m naturally prone to writing medieval villains, although I tend to put a modern spin on their self-perception. Anyhow, read the whole thing, it’s an interesting piece that will provide you with a useful analytical reading tool.