Why villains are our heroes

They are powerful, charismatic, self-obsessed, ruthless and free from responsibilities. In real life we know these people as jerks. In popular culture they’re called villains, and they’re often more popular than the heroes they face. Here are three thoughts on why we love them.

What’s that you say? Time to stop partying and assume my responsibilities?

1. They’re interesting to look at

The villain’s moral disfiguration is often revealed by a physical mark. Think the Joker, Voldemort, any number of Bond villains (Le Chiffre, for example, sports a scar, clouded eye, weeps blood and has asthma), Steerpike, Freddy Krueger, Scar (the Lion King), Davy Jones and on and on … Racial difference is another way villains are marked in film (difference from the assumed majority). It’s a form of prejudice. But as far as I’m concerned, they’re more interesting to look at (and they often wear nice clothes).

It should be noted that female villains are a little different. They usually reveal their moral disfiguration by means of racy costumes and flirty attitudes. Go figure. For more, see ‘sex appeal’ below.

2. They’re smart

Well, I think this is one reason to like them. Villains are generally pretty book smart. Heroes are often dunderheads. Not always. Often. If you’re going to get a Shakespearean quote or an ironic reflection on the vagaries of life, it will generally be from the villain. It seems like we distrust intelligent people. Because, you know, they could use their brains to defeat us. Their only weakness appears to be a propensity to expound on their plans or gloat when they should get down to business (let’s face it, if they were as smart as they seem, the movie just wouldn’t work out).

Dr. Evil: Scott, I want you to meet daddy’s nemesis, Austin Powers.

Scott Evil: What? Are you feeding him? Why don’t you just kill him?

Dr. Evil: I have an even better idea. I’m going to place him in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death. 

There has been long line of eloquent and therefore relatively sympathetic villains in literature: Frankenstein’s monster and Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost  are two examples. I’m sure you can think of heaps more. One of my favourites is Steerpike from Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy. We can’t help but smile inwardly with him as he flatters the hopelessly gullible twins:

“In dead and shackled language, my dears, you are glorious, but oh, to give vent to a brand new sounds that might convince you of what I really think of you, as you sit there in your purple splendour, side by side! But no, it is impossible. Life is too fleet for onomatopoeia. Dead words defy me. I can make no sound, dear ladies, that is apt.”

“You could try,” said Clarice. ‘We aren’t busy.’

Which brings up the next point. Your garden variety hero is just as often socially awkward, maybe so we can relate to him/her? Villains can be oh-so-charming.

I always loved Mark Antony in the 1950s Julius Caesar. His shameless political machinations aside, what’s not to love about the eloquence of Shakespeare’s soliloquies delivered by a brooding Marlon Brando? Charming.

3. They have sex appeal

Well, maybe not all of them. But let’s face it, villains have no limitations on their behaviour, plus they’ve been around the block a few times and surely know how to show a girl/boy a good time. Surely. This is particularly true of the girls. As noted earlier, you can usually tell when a woman’s turned evil – she becomes shamelessly flirtatious (sometimes even towards other girls – gasp!) plus she often dons a push up bra or full on bondage costume (are breasts inherently evil?).

Wolverine misses (ignores?) the three certain signs of evil (scantily clad, dyed hair, sexual confidence).

Examples include Jean Grey / Phoenix in X-men, Halle Berry or Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Angelina Jolie in Beowulf (embodying the time-honoured but perhaps inaccurate theory that women are sexy in order to take away men’s souls). BTW I did a little search for ‘female villains sexist’ in the hope of finding some thoughtful blog to link to, but Google confidently directed me to ‘female villains sexiest’. The power of popular culture…

Heroic villains? Villainous heroes?

Villains appear to be the ultimate wish fulfilment characters. They’ve done away with all that admirable but tiresome responsibility to community that heroes labour under. They get all the best lines. They’re feared and obeyed by an army of minions, and they have better clothes. What’s not to enjoy? Granted, they are often trying to destroy the world. And some of their behaviour is just plain … villainous. We can’t quite approve in the cold, hard light of day. So what to do? How to satisfy such a fickle audience?

michelle pfeiffer as cat woman

Scientific fact: Catwoman is ten times more fun than Batman.

It appears the tendency for audiences and readers to find villains cool has led to heroes more often carrying the visual trappings of their dark doubles. Halle Berry’s Catwoman has really become a hero, and Michelle was not far from one anyway. There’s a great deal of fondness for Captain Jack Sparrow, despite the fact that he’s a murderous, plundering pirate. Heroes can even have an undying thirst for human blood now. Provided they abstain (or, at least feel really bad about it when they don’t). Werewolves are also acceptable. We even feel a bit sorry for them when they forget to guard against full moon mayhem. Anti-heroes are everywhere.

So how can we darn well tell who the villains are these days? Have we just become more openly sophisticated in our understanding of what’s heroic? Or are authors and directors just fulfilling our self-absorbed fantasies of being just a bit bad?

goodies? But they're wearing dark glasses at night ...


The complicated hero has, of course, been around since we started to tell hero stories, he just didn’t always dress in a long, black leather jacket. Here’s a description of the romantic hero (in the nineteenth-century sense of the word), which could also describe a number of our favourite heroes, but also villains, today: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romantic_hero

Dogma was a pretty bad film on many levels, but I feel like this little scene sums up something about our fondness for villains, no matter how wicked they’re being: http://youtu.be/maqUW3QIByo

Skinema, a strangely specialised site about skin conditions in film. Here Skinema tackles the connection between having skin problems and being pure evil: http://www.skinema.com/Evil1Scars.html


4 thoughts on “Why villains are our heroes

  1. Pingback: gothic tropes in my novel – let me count the ways | Ophelia's Fiction Blog

    • I think the rule should be that you can consider a villain for a one night stand, but don’t marry one!!


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