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March 19, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Why Cackling Film Villains are Making Society Stupid


Here is the typical Hollywood movie villain. He is a cackling psychopath who is hell-bent on dispensing misery and consumed with delusions of grandeur. Complex emotions are a foreign concept to an individual who manages to avoid pangs of conscience. As much as it may be entertaining, is this portrayal in any way accurate? If so, is it a problem that films deviate from reality?

Mainstream Hollywood films tend towards absolutism, where villains are the epitome of evil and display few redeeming characteristics. Their motives are typically clear: destruction and terror at any cost. In James Cameron’s Avatar we are expected to abhor the humans, who seem determined to exterminate the native Na’vi rather than endure their meddling. The humans embody so many clichés of greed that we end up with cartoon villains, who are crudely juxtaposed against the noble Na’vi. The message is blunt and naive: corporations are bad. Other films indulge in odd vagaries where the villains’ evil intent is driven by some inexplicable influence. In the Star Wars prequels the Sith desire immense levels of destruction because the ‘dark side’ compels them. Sure, it may be entertaining but it’s hardly thought-provoking stuff. It’s particularly concerning when such simplistic notions of evil are employed by films that have grossed the highest amounts in history.

These films ignore the idea that there is a certain banality to evil, where ordinary men can make morally abhorrent decisions. Complex reasoning underlines people’s decisions. Explaining them as simply having a lust for fortune and power is a lazy method of storytelling. They aren’t all James Bond villains, who seem to have been born with the desire to destroy the world and all its inhabitants.

However, does it matter that many movie villains are ridiculous? Well yes, because in the process they manage to sanitise evil. Instead of casting a critical eye upon society, films become fantastical pieces of drivel which insulate us from the harsh realities regarding the world we live in. Evil is reduced to a narrow concept that allows us to assure ourselves that the person is an anomaly. It’s easier to dismiss a real life villain as simply being ‘evil’, rather than trying to comprehend the reasoning behind their actions. When films indulge such simplistic notions then they lower the level of artistic discourse and discourage critical thought. Films don’t have to be realistic, but they do have to communicate some ideas about the human experience.

Thankfully, some filmmakers manage to craft their antagonists more realistically by rejecting the approach of absolute evil. They treat evil as a myth; a storytelling gimmick used to push a simplistic moral message. Instead they recognise that people are complex, and thus motives are rarely straightforward. For example, in the
film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy the mole at the top of the British secret service is not meant to be reviled. His treachery is not predicated by some desire to cause harm and destruction. Instead he simply “chose a side.” Apart from just enhancing the film’s realism it also builds upon its thematic concerns. It breaks down any moral distinction between the opposing factions and encourages the audience to recognise that few groups are inherently evil. Thus the film encourages us to re-evaluate our preconceptions, as well as being a gripping yarn.

Greater realism regarding film villains is vital, if we wish art to be a critical study of society, rather than mere popcorn fodder. When a villain enters the realm of the absurd, a film coddles its audience; entertaining them but not challenging them. Dispelling the cackling villains from film enhances the intellectual integrity of the art form. Plus who really likes Avatar anyway?

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