Category Archives: Diversions

The monsters of Jurassic World

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

Philosophers and blockbusters

There are at least three reasons why philosophers take an interest in hugely popular cultural products such Hollywood blockbuster action movies. First is a kind of (non-objectionable) opportunism. At least some of these movies, etc., grapple with philosophical issues: usually moral issues, but sometimes metaphysical and epistemological ones, such as those relating to personal identity or to the problems of appearance versus reality. If these are brought to public attention in very popular forms, it provides an opportunity for philosophers to discuss – and perhaps clarify – them. There’s nothing wrong with that: the exercise may be enjoyable, and even educational, all round, though the various discussions that follow may not tell us much about the actual merits of the movie (book, video game, or whatever) that acted as the springboard.

Second, there might be more to the exercise than mere opportunism. If certain moral, metaphysical, and other philosophical ideas are being popularised, philosophers may well be qualified to discuss the merits of those ideas, whether to support them, to counter them, or to say something about them that is more nuanced and complex. Here, the creators of a movie such as Jurassic World are being treated as participants in an ongoing philosophical conversation. The movie is not used merely as a springboard; rather, its particular take on the issues is sought out, revealed, and perhaps endorsed or disputed (or some combination of these).

Third, we may be interested, in a more general way, in how artworks and cultural products engage with philosophical ideas. In that sense, our interests as philosophers may overlap with those of literary and cultural theorists, although we bring different training to the inquiry. For example, I am interested in the way Jurassic World conveys attitudes to technology, not merely as a springboard to discuss those attitudes, and not merely to discuss those particular attitudes on their merits – I am also interested in it as an example of how cultural products generally, movies in particular, and science fiction blockbusters even more specifically, represent technology. Perhaps there is something of general interest to say about this, and a new movie with such popular appeal might tend to confirm or undermine what we think we know.

In practice, we may be interested in all three of these aspects and perhaps others that don’t immediately come to mind. If I review Jurassic World, say, as I did briefly on my personal blog, I will tend to run these levels together to an extent. Still, philosophers might have something to say that is a bit different from what you’d expect from a conventional film critic (that said, philosophers often have rather broad educational backgrounds, including in cultural criticism; conversely, I’m sure that many film critics have studied philosophy to some extent or other – we don’t live in entirely separate intellectual silos).

The Jurassic formula

The Jurassic Park franchise has achieved immense commercial success, though the second and third movies were never as popular as the original Jurassic Park in 1993. Jurassic World is breaking box office records on a daily basis, most recently, as I write, the record for box office takings in the US domestic market in its first seven days of release. Something has clicked with the public, not only in the US but throughout the world.

Part of that has to do with the fact that these movies are just plain fun – scary enough to make kids, or even adults, jump out of their seats, but not too confrontational to rule them out as family entertainment. They are expertly directed, employ impressive special effects (brought up to date in the latest movie – alas, the 1993 effects are looking a bit dated by now), and use charismatic actors such as Chris Pratt.

There is also a morality play element, often highlighting the characters’ attitudes to technology. Many characters are killed swiftly – they are pretty much treated as dino fodder – but elaborate, and often humiliating, deaths are given to the characters who appear most venal or blinded by pride. (Perhaps the most humiliating death of all is given to the lawyer, Donald Gennaro, in the first movie.) Other characters are shown as having moral weaknesses, but they are punished (by their terrifying encounters with the rampaging dinosaurs) and ultimately redeemed. All of this is no doubt emotionally satisfying to a popular audience.

Thus, the dinosaurs are not portrayed simply as “bad guys” or monsters. To a large extent, they are more like instruments of fate, or something like karma, inflicting rewards and punishments. It is fair to say that the real monsters of Jurassic World and its predecessors are the human beings who exploit genetic technology in ways that are portrayed to us as greedy, vain, and irresponsible.

Attitudes to technology

The genetic technology used to reconstruct dinosaurs from fossilised DNA is fairly consistently portrayed as evil – the whole exercise in recreating the dinosaurs from ancient genetic material has something monstrous about it, or so the movies would lead us to believe. But there is an ambiguity here, a certain instability of attitude, because the dinosaurs themselves are not only dangerous and terrifying. Some of them are relatively harmless, and they are shown variously as fun, exciting, alluring, even sublime. This kind of allure associated with products of technology is almost inevitable in feature movies with a technophobic element (a point that I owe to the critic J.P. Telotte). After all, we, as moviegoers, are much like the audience of the Jurassic World theme park: we expect to be impressed and awed by the dinosaurs, not just scared by them.

This is a common feature in Hollywood’s science-fiction blockbusters. Even in the movies of the Terminator franchise, the original Terminator – a futuristic killing machine in human form, portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger – has its alluring aspects. A similar machine, also portrayed by Schwarzenegger, became a hero in the second movie of the franchise, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Terminators are scary and nasty, as we are shown, but they are cool.

We can see this element handled with a certain knowingness in Jurassic World, where the scary new dinosaur, Indominus rex, is not an attempt at recreating a beast from the Mesozoic Era, but has been genetically engineered as a theme park attraction that will be even more impressive than the likes of Tyrannosaurus rex. In the event, Indominus rex is depicted as an almost demonic creature, and it is notable for killing other dinosaurs for sport (recalling perhaps, the human big game hunters of the second movie in the series). At the same time, we are reminded that all of the dinosaurs created by advanced genetic science are, in more ways than one, unnatural. Not only are they products of human design and creation: they have been brought about in ways that make them imperfect (in some ways more dangerous) copies of the original animals that they mimic.

Still, the Indominus rex is even more – perhaps triply? – unnatural, with its deliberate “improvements”. To rub in the point, its enhanced abilities include extraordinary levels of stealth and cunning, as well as the cruelty that was asked for in its specifications.


Hollywood science-fiction blockbusters can often seem like works of anti-science fiction, expressing distrust of science and technology. Indeed, this can be seen in much science fiction in other media, going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written nearly two hundred years ago.

But technology is also seen as impressive and attractive – and perhaps as simply inevitable – whatever dangers it brings to societies and individuals, and however much it may be misused in the service of vices such as greed and pride. This ambivalence continues in much contemporary science fiction with cyberpunk or dystopian emphases. Themes of danger, irresponsibility, and dehumanization are prevalent, but the result is often, for better or worse, also shown as something cool (and this may be exploited in publicity and merchandising).

The technophobic/technophilic ambivalence is especially prominent in many Hollywood productions, where moral lessons – valuable or otherwise – play a secondary role to SFX magic and sheer spectacle.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How about a bit of murder?

This is one of my occasional Who Said This? quizzes.

I have been merely oppressed by the weariness and tedium and vanity of things lately: nothing stirs me, nothing seems worth doing or worth having done: the only thing that I strongly feel worth while would be to murder as many people as possible so as to diminish the amount of consciousness in the world. These times have to be lived through: there is nothing to be done with them.

So who said it? No Googling, because that would be immoral, especially if you’re a moral error theorist.

Russell vs. Ryle–A Philosophical Spat

As is well-known, Bertrand Russell wasn’t too keen on the “ordinary language philosophy” that was popular among Oxford philosophers in the middle of the twentieth century. This meant that when the sociologist Ernest Gellner wrote a book, Words and Things (pub: 1959), that was highly critical of the approach, Russell was only too happy to write its Preface.

At this time, the editor of Mind was Gilbert Ryle, a leading exponent of the Oxford approach, and he refused to allow Words and Things to be reviewed in the journal on the grounds that it was abusive and could not therefore be regarded as a serious contribution to academic debate.

This annoyed Russell, who promptly penned a letter to The Times, which resulted in a philosophical spat that played out in the newspaper’s letters pages during November 1959.

I reproduce it below.

Read more »

Not Suitable For Unusually Stupid Children

Another entry in my occasional bad-tempered Prefaces series. This is from Bertrand Russell’s Unpopular Essays.
Preface to Unpopular Essays

A word as to the title. In the Preface to my Human Knowledge, I said that I was writing not only for professional philosophers, and that “philosophy proper deals with matters of interest to the general educated public.” Reviewers took me to task, saying that they found parts of the book difficult, and implying that my words were such as to mislead purchasers. I do not wish to expose myself again to this charge; I will therefore confess that there are several sentences in the present volume which some unusually stupid children of ten might find a little puzzling. On this ground I do not claim that the essays are popular; and if not popular, then “unpopular”.

In the Volume 2 of his biography, Ray Monk provides some context for the “peevish” tone struck here. Russell had been disappointed by the reaction to Human Knowledge, which he had hoped would win the respect of academic philosophers as well as appeal to a large general audience. In fact, neither of these things occurred. The book was savaged by his colleagues – Norman Malcolm declared that “Anyone who feels grateful to Russell, as I do, for the splendid work he did in philosophy and logic during the first twenty years of this century, is likely to regard the present book with considerable regret” – and largely ignored by the general public.

Lord Russell meet Lord Russell

More from the world of Bertrand Russell. Here’s an exchange of letters between Russell and his namesake, Lord Russell of Liverpool, which took place in February 1959.

Dear Lord Russell

I am forwarding the enclosed as Monsieur Edmond Paris, and he is not alone, has got us mixed up. The first paragraph of his letter refers to you. The others are for me and I shall be replying to them. Would you please return the letter when you have read it.

Yours truly,
Russell of Liverpool

Dear Lord Russell

Thank you for your letter and for the enclosure which I return herewith. I have been wondering whether there is any means of preventing the confusion between you and me, and I half-thought we might write a joint letter to The Times in the following terms: Sir, To prevent the continuation of confusions which frequently occur, we beg to state that neither of us is the other. Do you think this would be a good plan?

Yours sincerely,

Dear Lord Russell

Many thanks for your letter of the 18th.

I am not sure whether you are in earnest or joking about a joint letter to The Times but, in either event, I think it is a good idea. Even were it not effective it would provide a little light amusement, and if you would care to write such a letter I would gladly add my signature below yours.


Yours sincerely,
Russell of Liverpool

Dear Lord Russell of Liverpool

Thank you for you letter of February 20. I was both serious and joking in my suggestion of a joint letter. I enclose a draft which I have signed, but I am entirely willing to alter the wording, if you think it too frivolous. I think, however, the present wording is more likely to secure attention than a more solemn statement.

Yours sincerely,

Dear Lord Russell

I have forwarded our letter to The Times but I have asked them, of course, to put your name before mine.

I like the wording immensely.

Russell of Liverpool

And thanks to the magic of the internet, here’s the letter, which appeared in The Times on February 28 1959.


Women in Philosophy – Redux 1

Back in 1999, when The Philosophers’ Magazine was only a couple of years old, Julian and I put together a “forum” on women in philosophy.

I thought I might resurrect some of the pieces, starting with an interview with Mary Warnock.

You can read it here. It’s in PDF format, but feel free to comment below (if you’re so inclined). Also, apologies for the production values – TPM was being produced out of two bedrooms at this point.

Actually, there’s a somewhat amusing story relating to this interview that I can probably tell now. In the early days of TPM, we used to chase “big names” for interviews, because we figured this was the most effective way of generating interest in what we were doing. So we were very pleased when Mary Warnock agreed to be interviewed. Thing is, she wanted to do the interview by phone, which meant that Julian had to buy a little gizmo thing to record the interview. This involved a lot of fairly farcical pfaffing around ensuring that it was working properly, with Julian on one end of a phone and me on the other. Eventually he got it as he wanted it, and it worked – it was possible to hear enough to transcribe a phone interview.

Anyway, the interview went ahead, the gizmo did its job, Warnock was audible, and everything pretty much worked perfectly, which meant we had the centre piece for our women in philosophy forum. Except, as it turned out, we didn’t, because Julian promptly managed to lose the tape! We searched everywhere, but it was nowhere to be found. In the end – and much to my amusement, it’s got to be said – Julian had to confess what had happened to Baroness Warnock (I’m sure I used her title a lot when telling him he’d have to fess up), and ask her whether she’d be willing to redo the interview. She was very gracious about it, so we got our piece in the end.

There’s quite a lot of other material on the topic of women and philosophy floating around in our archive – including a large survey, if I remember correctly – so I’ll flag some more up here in due course.

On A Presentable Brown Hat

Just because it amused me, here’s an exchange of letters between Bronislaw Malinowski (anthropologist, proto-accommodationist) & Bertrand Russell (philosopher, advocate of nuking the USSR).

Dear Russell

On the occasion of my visit to your School I left my only presentable brown hat in your anteroom. I wonder whether since then it has had the privilege of enclosing the only brains in England which I ungrudgingly regard better than mine; or whether it has been utilised in some of the juvenile experimentations in physics, technology, dramatic art, or prehistoric symbolism; or whether it naturally lapsed out of the anteroom.

If none of these events, or shall we rather call them hypotheses, holds good or took place, could you be so good as to bring it in a brown paper parcel or by some other concealed mode of transport to London and advise me on a post card where I could reclaim it? I am very sorry that my absentmindedness, which is characteristic of high intelligence, has exposed you to all the inconvenience incidental to the event.

Yours sincerely, B. Malinowski

Russell’s reply:

Dear Malinowski

My secretary has found a presentable brown hat in my lobby which I presume is yours, indeed the mere sight of it reminds me of you. I am going to the School of Economics to give a lecture to the Students’ Union on Monday (17th), and unless my memory is as bad and my intelligence as good as yours, I will leave your hat with the porter at the School of Economics, telling him to give it to you on demand.

Yours sincerely, Bertrand Russell

Source: Russell: Autobiography, (Routledge), p. 414.

Our Father vs Big Brother

The tape of Mitt Romney speaking to his cohorts in what could be described as a proverbial back-room seems to have had a lasting effect – we’ll see if it turns out to make all the difference, but it certainly brought into focus the image of Romney as oblivious aristocrat.

But even more interesting to me than the specifics of this candidate’s attitudes was the evidence of a change in certain social and technological expectations. Many people responded to Romney’s comments by shaking their heads at the fact that he would say those things out loud, that he would speak so candidly. Sure, he was at a fundraiser with other super-rich political puppeteers, but he must have known the information could get out…

Of course, a couple decades ago, it probably would not have. Even if a member of the staff could afford a hidden camera it would have taken a lot of planning and setting up to get the material, and once it was on tape it would have taken a lot of work to get it nationally aired. It may not seem like that’s that much commitment, but it’s definitely active and organized: hide tiny expensive specialty technology beforehand, and then transfer incriminating material to a standard medium, and try to get a national news outlet’s attention without being dismissed as some kind of conspirator (in fact, many journalists back then might have rejected the tape as unethical just because Romney clearly doesn’t realize he’s being taped).

Today, a person does not even have to really care about the consequences – sometimes people will record things just because they can. In a room with a famous person and some number of non-guests with iPhones, it is not at all surprising that someone recorded Romney speaking and then put a portion of it on YouTube—there did not even need to be intent behind it. The ease of catching a person in the act has increased so monumentally that the very idea of a backroom deal is in trouble.* Anyone can tape the conversation and show it to a potential audience of millions, and they don’t even need to dislike you or want to cause harm. It’s just information sharing—the connotations or potential impact of the information is not always considered (this happens on Facebook all the time: a photo posted in fun in one context is evidence of a promise broken in another, for instance).

The idea that we are losing privacy, and even losing the desire for privacy, has been argued about since technology and the internet especially first began allowing for these new methods of disclosure. An angle I want to focus on is the concurrence this has with a rise in atheism. There are plenty of other reasons that the idea of God is not as popular as it once was, and technology and the internet can contribute to the phenomenon in other ways. But there’s a social, pragmatic level at which God is becoming obsolete that could be a factor.

One of the classic reasons to have a concept of God from society’s point of view is the same as a reason to have Santa: “he knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.” From an intellectual standpoint this may not be convincing – Plato, for instance, attempts to show why we can’t use God as a referee when discussing the question of ethics in The Republic. The story of the Ring of Gyges, a ring which allows its wearer to become invisible and thus get away with any sort of immoral behavior she chooses with no repercussions, leads to the argument that even if the wearer is invisible, surely the Gods still know and can still judge. The original argument illustrated by the story of the ring is that people only act ethically when they are being watched, and this comeback says, well, you are always being watched by God so the point is moot. God serves as an external conscience.
But in The Republic, this idea is debunked—God is unreliable, and can be appeased by gifts or pleas for forgiveness. If you do something wrong, you can always get back on His good side. In other words, your conscience may know you were unethical this once, but do something extra-nice next week, and you’ll feel it’s been evened out.

In that way, Big Brother is more effective. If a person wants to steal something in a store, but thinks “No, God will know what I’ve done,” they might stop themselves. But they may also imagine that they can bargain with the big guy and promise to never do something like this ever again. On the other hand, if they believe there is a camera coming at them in every direction it will be harder to make that kind of deal. Our increasingly Panoptic forms of life make it possible to see this particular utility of God being overshadowed, since people with videos are a lot more direct and aggressive.

I am not suggesting that would consciously affect beliefs, but if the fear of moral oversight were to shift realistically toward peers, one of God’s greatest strengths would be made irrelevant. Sure, no video can see into your heart: but if it becomes widely expected that everything that happens in a public or semi-public space could be broadcast, that knowledge could play the part of an external conscience just as well as religion.

It’s true that God was famously described as dead over a century ago by Nietzsche, and he too was concerned with moral issues. However, his focus was on the lack of cohesion or agreement in beliefs, whereas I am addressing the much more mundane but perhaps more convincing issue of the cohesion of facts. That is, Nietzsche thought the concept of God was coextensive with the idea of absolute truth, and as that became untenable, religion would die. It’s arguable to what degree that happened, but the issue here is not what is right, but whether the right thing has to be done. God as an externalized conscience becomes less effective when society is doing the job in a more obvious and graspable way (which doesn’t require that God isn’t real, just that His methods are less convincing).

It could easily be coincidence that secularism is on the rise at the same time as surveillance and general recording become the norm, but I’m suggesting that it is part of larger cultural shift, and that the notion of God just fits less easily into a world where we can already picture a very ordinary kind of “all-seeing, all-knowing” presence. What was once supernatural is now merely artificial.

*I wouldn’t want to imply that therefore people will start being ethical, however. There are always adaptations and ways around – the idea is just that a fear of being seen is becoming much more real.

Of Morals and Philosorabbits

Andrei and Leila were on a walk when they came upon a sign.

When the rabbits stopped for pause, Andrei was ready to opine:

“I do not know who made this ugly thing”, said Andrei (with quite a fuss).

“Who says we ought not walk on the grass? How come the grass is not for us?”

“I do not know,” Leila said, ready at his wing.

“I suppose that we could go ahead and ask the author of the thing.

…But I do not know the author’s name, address, or anything even close.

For all I know, the author may have been a god, a man, or maybe even ghost.”

“That I doubt,” said Andrei. “And perhaps we do not even need to know,

who it was that wrote this sign and put it up for show.

The only thing we need is to know what makes it true.

And I say that — if the sign’s advice is correct — it is good for me and you.

Perhaps the grass is where the farmer hides his bombs and dynamite.

The sign is there to decrease our harm and increase in our delight.”

Satisfied, the rabbits continued walking, and got further down the way.

As they walked, a brand new sign was by the road, looming large in the mid-day.

But lurking below the sign was a low-down dirty thief,

Eavesdropping upon the rabbits, prepared to give them grief.

“Consolation for my victims, yes — and hence, these signs are true;

they are well suited for the credulous, for idiots, and for buffoons.

But I am no fool, so I will keep acting in whatever way I think is best,

So I will ignore these quaint suggestions, and let loose upon the rest.”

“It is plain enough,” said Leila, “That your victims suffer.

They lose the things that they once had, and this makes their lives much tougher.”

Leila wavered then, haunted by his words.

“But I see your point — why should anyone be moral if being moral is for the birds?”

“Ah,” says Andrei, “Well, I guess it depends on who you are.

If you are an anti-social goon, these signs will not take you very far.

So whenever a psycho nutter says, “What is morality to me?”

They do not have a need for trust, so no answer can be gleaned.

But if our new friend has a social bent, we say another thing:

‘Your reason to not steal is that you are a social be-ing.'”

“Hmm,” said the thief. “Alright, I admit that there’s some reason not to steal.

I just don’t know why you believe reasons obscure less than they reveal.

But perhaps, to see my point, you’d best follow me further up the hill,

To meet a friend of mine, whose name is Jack-Bill.”

On and up the hill they went, the three marched all in a line,

And at the top they met a creature that made the rabbits want to hide.

The thing they met was an abomination, a fluffy monster with two heads,

And either head spoke the contrary of what its neighbor said.

Said the thief to the creature: “Hullo, Jack-Bill — what say you to stealing?”

“It makes me giddy,” said the head of Bill. “No! Never!,” said Jack, “It leaves me reeling!”

“So you see,” said the thief, turning back to the troupe.

“All your talk of reason-this and reason-that? It’s just a lot of goop.

Despite their frightening looks, Jack-Bill is very nice.

We can call him “moral”, “pro-social”, or whatever you would like.

So moral claims aren’t really ‘true’ or ‘false’ when you get down to the brass tacks.

When we say a thing is moral we mean “hooray,” and when immoral, “boo to that”.

“Alright,” said Leila. “There’s no need to get too pensive —

Jack-Bill is incoherent, his capriciousness offensive.”

“Well, look,” said the thief, increasingly distressive.

“Like I said before, in words which you did not find impressive:

for me to say a moral claim is true, is to say to it that I consent.

For otherwise, I would have to defer to those whose brains are daft and bent.”

Andrei was quiet for a time, as if he were imitating mice:

and said, “That’s just fine, my new friend — but would you go to them for advice?

If not — if their lack of due deliberation makes for over-wrought demands —

Then they are not to be trusted, they can give you no commands.

So you trust yourself as final arbiter, when in the company of fools,

But that is only reason to make sensible friends, not to abandon all the rules.”

At this point, Jack-Bill roared as loud as seven oceans.

“I have ears, you know,” Bill said. “You hurt my emotions!”

Just then, the thief looked at Jack, waiting patient with a smirk.

Unexpectedly, Jack stared their way and said, “Actually, I agree with Bill — you’re all jerks.”

With that, they both breathed fireballs, and the other rabbits ran away.

Though later on, something happened in the coldest hours of the day…

Jack-Bill talked more to himself, exploring his sense of rational will,

And by degrees Jack-Bill split into two, creating Jack and Bill.

While before they had been united, when both indulged their inclinations,

Now, they found that talk in reasons made for healthier relations.

As time went on, it was not so hard for each to have their own perspectives,

Where earlier each were caught providing in rudderless correctives.

The trio ran and ran, into the forest deep,

and along the way, as they ran, Andrei and Leila lost the thief.

Andrei was bewildered at the canopy, and shivered at spooky sounds,

While Leila (made of sturdy stuff) offered to look around.

Alas, getting lost herself, the dark and dank surrounded,

The owls screeched out in hoots of despair, her direction was confounded.

She looked to and fro, and everywhere, the world looked all the same,

On the left there was little light; and to the right, the same.

Presently, however, she glimpsed a burning light:

A fairy, bright and blue, kept darting in and out of sight.

“Psst,” said the fairy, with a no-nonsense business sense.

If morals are just good advice, it only works when between friends.

But out here in the darkness, the forest is unkind,

It picks off little strangers who are lost, unwary, and blind.

If moral claims are true, they would not be much good,

They would apply to your relations with your friend, but mean nothing in these woods.”

“Help me, then!” cried Leila. “We could really use a hand!”

“I would be glad to help,” the fairy replied. “My services are in high demand.”

“Indeed, for a low price of nine dollars and thirty cents,

My associates and I can get you out of this predicament.

So would you like to pay by cash, or cheque, or credit card?

Keep in mind, the offer is limited, so be sure to think fast and hard.”

“But I have no funds,” said Leila. “We’re lost and all alone!

Can’t, from the kindness of your heart, you just direct me to a phone?”

But no: the fairy receded back

into the inky black.

And Leila was left there waiting in the cold canopy,

And the leaves twisted back and forth, as if a dark conspiracy.

The dusk settled upon the land,

And two wayward rabbits sat alone, each waited for the end.

And whatever happened next,

depends mostly on you.

What makes the fairy wrong?

What can the rabbits say or do?

Why do we love (some) villains?

In my roles as a critic and erstwhile creator of popular culture, I am fascinated by the dynamic of heroism and villainy in fictional narrative. For some time now, I’ve been running a weekly “Sunday Supervillainy” segment on my personal blog as a bit of slightly-lighter relief, and this has proved quite popular (I usually focus on events in the universe of Marvel Comics, which I grew up on as a child and have an affection for, but sometimes I go wider, and I occasionally use it as an excuse to make connections with real-world villainy of one kind or another).

I’m particularly fascinated by many of the modern tropes relating to villainy and types of villainy (these tend to have their own names over at TV Tropes, such as … look this list).

And I’m especially fascinated by the phenomenon of villains becoming popular characters in their own right. Notoriously, the eponymous villain of The Terminator (1984) obtained much audience identification, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was brought back for successive movies in which he played the roles of visually identical characters that were presented as heroes. The moral is simply that villains can be cool. Even such a malevolent character as the psychopathic cannibal Hannibal Lecter has a huge fan following.

Looking to the Marvel Comics universe, major villains such as Doctor Doom, Magneto, and Thanos are more popular characters than most of the heroes – and it’s not just a case of loving to hate them. Rather, there’s a fan identification with them and their exploits. People want to see them perform well and even obtain victories. Much the same applies to fan-favourite villains a bit lower down the pecking order (such as the Juggernaut, and one of my personal favourites, Moonstone). Marvel still has a few important villains that no one identifies with or roots for (I hope!) such as the Red Skull (a grotesque and hateful Nazi) and Ultron (a megalomaniacal killer robot), but there’s really not much that’s “nice” about Doctor Doom or Thanos, and even the more sympathetic Magneto is a self-righteous, ruthless, overbearing killer – even apart from his actual crimes, he’d be insufferable to deal with. Yet, characters like these, and of course, Darth Vader from the Star Wars movies seem to capture imaginations and loyalties.

My question for the day is simply what makes some of these malevolent fictional characters not only believably charismatic within the diegesis but actually charismatic figures in our world – in that they attract fans who cheer for them, buy posters of them, and want to read stories, see movies, etc., that are focused on them? On the face of it, it seems odd that narratives which depict the struggle between good and evil end up generating evil characters who are somehow alluring enough to attract their own large fan bases like this. I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with the situation, though some of you might want to argue along those lines, but there is definitely something about it that seems paradoxical. What’s going on here?

I do have some ideas, but I’ll stop. Let’s discuss.

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