Sunday, June 23, 2024

Why Does Every Villain Need to be Their Own Hero?

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Recently, a debate popped up among our Fandomentals Warrior Nun fans while discussing the directions we predicted/wanted season 2 to take. The debate centered around the idea of a redemption arc for Father Vincent, the backstabbing leader of the Order of the Cruciform Sword. While obviously not popular for his role in murdering Sister Shannon, his manipulations of Ava, and his role in eventually freeing Adriel, some see potential in him recognizing his mistakes and redeeming himself for them.

I happen to fall on the side that believes he shouldn’t get one. Still, I get it. Vincent is a decently compelling character and I want to know more about how and why he works for Adriel. Does that mean he should receive a redemption arc? Does he really need one? Should that be a priority for Warrior Nun considering all the potential storylines for Ava and the rest of the OCS that should take precedence?

And really, my main question is why characters like Vincent even need redemption arcs?

While compelling, relatable villains always have and always will be popular, prestige TV and the advent of incredibly popular antiheroes seem to have thrust them back into a newfound relevance and popularity. Every villain needs to have Reasons™ to do what they do. They all need to be the hero of their own story. We must view every side of every conflict as just in some way. Thanos cannot just be a megalomaniac trying to win the love of Death. He must be a father out to save the universe.

I am a certified sucker for prestige TV who LOVES his morally, ethically, and thematically conflicting character clashes as much as the next person. I love how The Americans had me rooting for murderous Russian spies against the American FBI agent. Black Panther benefited greatly from making Killmonger a sympathetic villain. The Legend of Korra did wonders with its seasonal antagonists and their more complicated goals, while the worst villain is the one who just wanted to be an evil-spreading Dark Avatar.

Many complex and memorable stories have complex villains with goals we can understand, that make them more than stock-issue evil to be unproblematically rooted again. They will have “good” reasons for their actions. But that does not mean EVERY villain needs to work this way.

Honestly, think about some of the most iconic villains in entertainment. Your Jokers, your Vaders and Palpatines, your Freddy Kruegers, your Albert Weskers, and so forth. Villains often stand out and endure in the minds of fans specifically because they are not treated as complicated figures we should understand and relate to. They are workers of violence, symbols of terror, agents of chaos that exist less like characters and more as forces of nature we happily root against. Then you have your pure unknowable villains, like the aliens from the Alien franchise or your good old-fashioned Lovecraft Elder Ones.

They get to exist as just this, and it works great because they have a defined place in the narrative. They are clearly antagonistic figures that the heroes can overcome without audience conflict. If every villain had understandable motives that painted them as heroes of their story, then many of these villains plainly would not exist, and the world of fiction would be less off for it.

Unfortunately, many villains like these are viewed as childish. Uncomplicated villains present a “naïve” view of the world where the more complicated shades of conflict are ignored in order to “dumb” the story down. If you want real adult storytelling, you have to present morally gray antiheroes against morally gray anti-villains. Anything else apparently cannot be true to real life.

And, well, to that I just have to say that if you think real life does not have uncomplicated monsters who happily act as villains for their own selfish need, with no complex or righteous motivations towards any good, then maybe you are giving a lot of people too much credit.

I know many people saw the name Vader up there and immediately took umbrage with everything that follows because he does have a redemption arc. For one, Darth Vader became iconic for the 99% of Star Wars where he is an uncompromising villain. Second, the remaining 1% where he becomes a redemptive figure is indicative of what many people get so wrong with redemption arcs and complicated, morally gray villains.

Stories too often try to have it both ways, where villainous characters constantly do awful things the audience hates them for. For example, Vincent having Shannon murdered and leading everyone to free Adriel. The story then tries to make up for it by simply having an episode where that character does something heroic or makes some grand sacrifice. For example, Vader chucking Palpatine to his death. Too often these single moments are treated as if they should undo every awful crime a character is responsible for.

I’m sorry but this approach usually sucks and does not actually make the vast majority of the characters it applies to anymore heroic. It does not make them genuinely complicated. Those sacrifices are just usually just lazy. Vader may be iconic, but his death after one good act did not wipe the slate clean. Besides, Vader’s turn was not about Vader, it was about Luke. It was meant to symbolize Luke’s victory through love, not Vader’s redemption. He did not redeem himself in that moment.

What happened when George Lucas tried to make Vader a sympathetic hero of his own story? We got the dreadful prequel trilogy, where Anakin was one of the worst parts.

These sympathetic villains with redemption arcs usually do not lead to any genuine atonement or exploration for whatever crimes demanded redemption. Did we ever really get a convincing reason why Kylo Ren decided to return to the Light Side in Rise of Skywalker? Is Hordak’s relationship with Entrapta really enough to address his many crimes in She-Ra?

Vader is one of the classic examples of this trope. Most others are obviously far worse.

Even if that redemptive moment does not lead to death, it does tend to rely on one single heroic moment to try and undo everything that came before. If these types of storylines really wanted to be adult and morally complex, they would not push the idea that people only need to do one good thing to be redeemed for a lifetime of mistakes and evil. This rarely gives a villain the narrative space to make those moments feel genuine or earned.

As I said before, a truly complex villain also requires a great deal of narrative space, whether they lead to redemption or not. When a character does not start out with this focus and instead gets it later as part of a season-long arc, this tends to suck all the oxygen out of a story and leave everyone else struggling to breathe. The larger the cast and the further into the story you are, the more you leave far more interesting content in the dust.

For example, let’s say Vincent gets an arc in season 2 where he repents for Shannon and Adriel. To make that truly work, you need to balance him against all the other arcs Warrior Nun has set up for season 2, of which there are many. To give the arc room to be done well, Vincent must compete for time against the arcs set up for every member of the OCS, and all the potential storylines that can exist for others.

If he does not get that room, then we would probably look at another instance of a guy being redeemed by dying or doing one good thing.

Why is that necessary? Why would that be better than more scenes with Ava, Bea, Mary, Lilith, or Camilla? Why would that be better than more ARQ-Tech? What is wrong with just letting Vincent be a crappy guy who works for the villain? What about season 1 made him compelling enough to make into a complex villain? Why would people really care that much?

The truth is that any redemption arc or effectively complex villain typically always takes over a story, and Vincent absolutely should not be the focal point of Warrior Nun. Most characters who get redemption arcs should never be the focal point of their story. But the obsession with morally complicated villains leads too many stories to make this mistake, where they center less interesting characters at the expense of the story’s actual strengths.

This pressure to make every villain have a point, to have some relatable motivation where they can be viewed heroically from their POV, leads to the insertion of ham-fisted, repetitive tropes. A loved one died, they were betrayed by a friend, the kind of quick, dirty, easy pasts to make the audience feel sympathy for someone. So you get a stretch of story where the villain’s villainy is “justified” by something easy to relate to, then they usually end up dying, and everyone feels bad and excuses them despite the villain really doing nothing to make up for their crimes. It is hard to write well, and most do not.

So why bother? Why not just let the villain be a villain? It is easy and almost always the better alternative. It also usually makes for far better villains and better stories.

Imagine how much worse Breaking Bad would be if it tried to make Gus Fring a sympathetic antagonist who was supporting a sick daughter. Think about how much worse the Wicked Witch of the West would be if The Wizard of Oz had a running subplot about the Good Witch of the North making fun of her in school as a child, and that was why the Witch of the West was evil. What if the alien from Alien was just defending its planet from invading humans and we had 30 minutes of the movie dedicated to that?

Villains often work best as symbols for a single thematic conflict rather than fully fleshed out characters. They represent the conflict the main character/cast must overcome. Ozai is pure terror and violence for a pacifist Aang to overcome. Killgrave is Jessica Jones’s traumatic past and a symbol of sexual assault. You can create complexity within these thematic conflicts, and the best stories obviously do. That does not mean the villains themselves should be complex in a way that makes them the heroes of their own story.

All that often does is create situations where the heroes look bad through arbitrary nonsense that fakes at complexity and does a terrible job. You also end up accidentally arguing why the horrific crimes of villains should be excused when they clearly should not be excused.

There is a reason so many of fiction’s most loved villains tend not to be sympathetic. Symbolic, cruel, unapologetic villains make an impact on the stories we consume that stick with us because they make us feel so much harder. They make us feel a deeper fear, or hate, or dread in ways that we remember forever. Even if we forget the finer details of a story, we always remember how those villains made us feel.

Yes, I want to see complex villains with sympathetic reasoning when the story calls for it. I also want my full-fledged bad guys, and I hope that in our craving for complex villains, we do not lose sight of the power of a true, unapologetic, restaurant-ranting bad guy. After all, not everyone is a hero, not even from their point of view.

Images Courtesy of Netflix and Lucasfilm

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