Why Don’t We Learn From Our Villains?

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Okay, this is just one of those philosophical food-for-thought kind of posts about morals and humanism and how we live our lives. Bear with me, there’s a point in here somewhere. Tell me what you think of it.

So I started thinking about fictional villains. Villains are crucial to an exciting story. They are the ultimate antagonists, and it is from them that our heroes learn their ultimate lessons. Right? That’s how the story always seems to go. But I was thinking about it and I don’t think we really learn the lessons we’re supposed to from the villains.

First, here’s a list of popular villains to get you thinking about them: Bowser, Ganon, Kefka, Sauron, Shredder, Rita Repulsa, Dr. Claw, the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, Emperor Palpatine, the Borg Queen, Sylar, Syndrome, Maleficent, Ursula, the Wicked Witch of the West, Magneto, The Joker, Lex Luther, and Simon Bar Sinister.

(I love a good Underdog reference.)

Now, all of those villains exist in very different contexts, but they all have a lot in common. First and foremost, they are all driven by greed. The greed might be for money, for power, for control, for revenge, for jealousy, for lust, or for all of the above, but they all want something and lots of it. I mean, that’s why they are villains. Their greed is insatiable.

They also all have most of the following things in common: an impenetrable stronghold/secret fortress, an army of minions that obey their every whim, special powers, special advantages, special artifacts that enhace their abilities, traps laid out for the hero, and any other defensive advantage you can think of.

Then, following the formula, our singular hero or small band of heroes, who sometimes have no special powers, somehow overcome all of the defensive traps the villain has layed and slay the villain.  Right? That’s how it always goes. Let’s look at two examples:

Example 1: Mario vs. Bowser (Context: Super Mario Bros. 3)

Bowser has kidnapped Princess Toadstool, who he is hiding in his big fortress in his own kingdom full of lava, protected by tanks, warships, airships, and some of his most dastardly minions. (He also wants to get it on with her, it seems, but I’ve never figured out how that would work.) Also, his Koopalings have each stolen a magic wand and taken over one of seven kingdoms, and they all have their own airships too. Mario and Luigi are two plumbers who can turn into flying raccoons. Mario and Luigi win (if you play the game right).

Example 2: Sauron vs. The Fellowship

So, this guy’s been alive thousands of years in different incarnations. There are these cursed rings out there that serve him. He has this huge fortress with this crazy glowing eye. He has legions of orcs and other violent wretches serving him. But, two little hobbits sneak into the center of his stronghold, are able to destroy his ring in his Mt. Doom, and thus destroy him and all his evil power.

Get the idea?

So here’s my big question with all of this: Why don’t the good guys ever have the huge stronghold and devoted legions and special powers? You know? Like, how did these big evil leaders get all this power while no one was looking? And then, all of a sudden, the good guys have to scramble to come up with a plan to charge in and wipe ’em all out.  It’s just kind of weird isn’t it? But that’s the story we like! It’s the story where good, no matter the odds, can overcome evil. But, from this formula, we can ultimately draw these conclusions:

Evil = Superpower, dominating force, thirsting for control, greedy, selfish.

Good = Modest, humble, compassionate, working together, protecting others, self-sacrificing.

Now, look at our society.

We live in a society that promotes everything that we see as “bad,” but in society, we see it as good. It’s the frickin’ American Dream. You can accomplish anything. There is no limit to what you can earn for yourself. I mean, really, our whole economy is driven by the fact that people want more money. And conservative values (which I might consider the villain of this blog) promote this thinking that the opportunity to make limitless money is more important than making sure everyone is protected. That’s why they don’t support progressive taxes or universal health care or protections for minorities… because those are all things that interfere with money-making opportunities.

But what’s truly rich (pun intended) about this landscape is that because of religion, those qualities have been painted as good. That same greed for money and power purveys (and perhaps is at the heart of) religious institutions in this nation. The very institution that claims to be the source of morality is the one that recruits its followers to support “evil” ideas. Christianity is a stronghold with special powers protecting every word it speaks. And the powerful Christian leaders offer these very strong messages that those who are trying to help the common good, to level the playing field, to create a society that really supports all of its citizens despite their disadvatanges… they’re the “evil” ones. Obama is the antichrist. Democrats are socialists trying to destroy the fabric of our society.

Isn’t it all backwards from what we truly idealize?

If American society were a fictional movie and weren’t our world, who would we cheer for? Would we cheer for the rabble rousing elite who are trying to hold power no matter what the casualties? Or would we cheer for the underdogs who don’t have special power on their sides but who truly want to create a society where people can live comfortably and harmoniously? Wouldn’t we want everyone to get along and be protected and cared for? And wouldn’t we want the greedy villains to have their power interrupted and be forced to live by the same rules and limitations as everyone else?

But we don’t. And it’s because that sense of greed and entitlement pervades our society. We’ve created a society that not only encourages it, but depends on it.

That’s probably why we love such fantastical stories where humble heroes persevere to overcome the supervillain. As long as that kind of story is a fantasy, we don’t have to feel guilty for not living it out in our real lives.

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There are 2 Comments to "Why Don’t We Learn From Our Villains?"

  • Neil says:

    Great post! I found your blog on the Planet Atheism site; there is always lots of good stuff there.

    I like the idea of using modern villians and stories as a comparison to the current conservative and religious and political
    climate. In the second half of the post, it seemed like there were a lot of ideas that you wanted to get into the essay, and it seemed a bit vague. I realize that there are so many unfavorable comparisons and statements that can and should be made concerning conservative religion and politics in America, and that it is hard to separate them out without writing a thousand pages or more. Greed, a major theme in your ideas here for example, cuts across a very wide cross-section of Americans, yet I think you are right in laying some of the blame on the churches and church-goers. The churches, as institutions, do a lot to help keep many bad ideas alive. While some churches may occasionally preach the virtues of modesty and humility, those words are meant for the already poor, and they do little or nothing to really encourage such values. Instead, the popular religious landscape seems to be made up of the worst elements of catholic sado-masochism and calvinist self-righteousness. The popular American view, rarely criticized by the clergy, seems to be that if you are poor, downtrodden or suffering, then you deserve it, and shouldn’t expect any help no matter what circumstances or injustices may be involved. If you are prosperous, even rich beyond any need or reason, then you are blessed by god and nobody should dare criticize, no matter what evils were committed in the pursuit of money and power(as long as you are in the conservative christian club-if you are a prosperous person with more liberal tolerant values, you will be cast as the sinful beneficiary of the devil, of course!)

    Perhaps a large part of the problem is that for every person who feels like you and I (and there are millions) there seem to be a hundred willfully ignorant sheep who will yell out whatever slander that Rush Limbaugh, James Dobson, and their local preachers decide to spit out. Even though they don’t outnumber us by much if any, and constantly spout falsehoods and radical opinions as fact, most of the media willingly give them a platform and a voice beyond their numbers and their merit. This in turn helps to demoralize and discourage those who would seek change; start vicious cycle of fear and apathy, rinse, repeat…

    Anyway, I’m not really adding anything here that you haven’t already thought about, I’m sure…I like the idea and thought it might be better with a little more detail or concrete comparisons, and more connections to the broader applications at the end of the post. There are a lot of unfortunately real and popular ideas and beliefs coming out of the radical religious right these days that are alomst perfect storybook villain-as you obviously have noticed.
    One last thought-perhaps there is another valid comparison between the ridiculously heroic narratives in the movies that allow us to purge our sense of responsibility and hold on to our unlikely hopes for a better world without feeling the need to work at it, and the ridiculous narratives of the Bible. They probably have an identical purpose in part, but because the bible stories are perceived as “real”, the power is even greater. Between the doctrines of original sin and redemption by faith, anything goes! Not only can one be free of responsibility for one’s fellow man; one can commit any evil for his worldly gain, can entertain any prejudice for his social comfort, and never need pay any penalty or have any guilt at all, as long as nobody has the nerve to speak up and criticize! What a wonderful hero that jesus is!
    Sorry to go on so long, but your post really got my head rolling, and that’s a good thing.

  • Mark says:

    you forgot Lord Voldemort 🙁

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