Thursday, January 22, 2015

Empathetic Villains

This is a little indicative of something I plan to bring up in my review tomorrow, but bear with me here.

You know what makes a great villain? The idea that s/he didn't have to be a villain. Their backstory (the same thing that makes a great hero). Being able to empathize with them on some level.

Something about Harley Quinn's sometimes-terrified devotion to the Joker makes me feel bad for her (though it kind of depends on which canon you're working from, I guess). In fact, I would argue that the Joker himself is pretty empathetic because he makes us laugh, and we tend to like people who make us laugh. Mystique makes some really horrible decisions but you can absolutely see why. And Snape... well, find me a Potterhead who doesn't immediately go misty-eyed at the word "Always."

But there are less fleshed-out villains, too. Cruella Deville's motivation for puppy genocide is that she wants a coat with spots on it. Snidely Whiplash doesn't seem to have a good reason for the way he is, as far as I can remember. And Bowser - despite having become a playable character in many games - is not empathetic in the classic games, or even in some of the more current ones. He kidnapped Peach... why? (Don't give me that "they're having an affair and/or Mario's delusional" theory. It's unoriginal and you can do better.) Sorry... these are not great villains.

My point is, a great villain is a little bit lovable. Do you have any idea how many people love Draco Malfoy? The concept of a relatable villain is the entire driving point behind stories like Despicable Me and Megamind. Personally, one of my favorite villains is GLaDOS, but I can't tell you why, because, like, major spoilers. But trust me, she's insanely empathetic.

Yep, Joffrey. Everyone hates this guy. Some of us love to hate him, some just flat-out hate him. But he's an excellent villain. I'm not trying to claim that he's particularly empathetic himself, but we're privy to his background: his unorthodox parentage, how everyone spoiled him rotten knowing he was heir to the throne, and the myriad conniving backstabbers he's related to and raised by, all vying for his favor in order to advance their own agendas. You can see why he is the way he is, and while it's not an excuse, it's a perfectly legitimate explanation, and that's all we really need in a character sometimes.

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