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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27 Comments.

  1. In real life, people are often cast into the role of villain by others, yet don’t consider themselves bad. These people may identify more with the one cast as the bad guy.

    A reason behind this is that the often back-and-white world of fiction places as villains characters with motivations that tend into the grey. To take as example the Juggernaut that you mentioned, one of his main motivations given was brotherly strife against Xavier, something many people can relate to.

    For less relateable villains, the appeal might be simply the fact that they are simply free to snub social mores, and even if they eventually get beaten by the heroes, the nature of comic books means that they remain free to do it all again. The subject has been a matter of discussion in Batman comics, where no matter the heinous nature of their crimes, the rogues’ gallery is always remitted to Arkham Asylum to eventually break out again.

  2. Interesting question. Spike from Buffy is a fabulous villain – entirely lovable. But Angel, in his villain guise, is entirely unlovable. Not sure what it is – helps that Spike looks extraordinary.

  3. The interesting and popular villains are often the relatable ones for various reasons. In particular, villains with a sense of humour (or in the Terminator’s case, ceratin humourous connotations) often have a great appeal. With Lecter, it is a very intelligent, dry humour. Villains with their own code also attract followers. Doom and Thanos are obvious examples. Poor writers often produce fan hostility because they do not keep characters to their core values. The villain codes also often highlight the character flaw that each has. Doctor Doom has a blindspot ith accepting the abilities of others. The Terminator is limited in his ability to interact, and so on.

  4. Magneto and Hannibal Lecter are kind of like bullied kids who lash back at their antagonists. That’s all I’ve got.

  5. It also helps when the victims are made to seem as unsympathetic as possible. Whether due to the victim as somehow deserving of his/her fate or kept suitably anonymous.

  6. ” Spike from Buffy is a fabulous villain – entirely lovable. But Angel, in his villain guise, is entirely unlovable. Not sure what it is”

    Spike is an ironist, Angel most definitely not.

  7. There should be a difference in how we discuss the appeal of consistent villains and those who transition into anti-hero status, like Spike. Doctor Doom, even when he is for some reason working with the heroes, can never be said to be an anti-hero. Namor, who has many parallels with Doom, has nonetheless made the transition from villain, to anti-hero to hero.

  8. Most of us have lots of “evil” impulses and thoughts, but do not act on them or even dwell on them, but we may identify with them in fictional characters and even enjoy watching those fictional characters act out those evil actions which we are too “nice” or too scrupulous to act out.

    I don’t read comics or science fiction, but I’m a big fan of some members of the Corleone family, Vito and Michael.

  9. It is a very interesting question. I expect there is more than one answer. But could one of the answers be that we tend to be rather knowing and ironic in our consumption of genre fictions: we know that their value codes are faulty and facile so the villain within them tends to achieve his/her villainy by transgressions that we can partly applaud.
    Obviously we can’t applaud them unambivalently: murder is murder even when you kill a horde of plastic nice guys. But within fiction we can comfortably foreground our distaste for their facile virtue and skirt over the bloodletting a little.
    Sometimes this enjoyable subversion of genre morality is built into the fiction itself; sometimes it is purely an audience response to a completely unironic fiction.

    And then again, sometimes the villain isn’t just thwarting a facile set of values internal to a genre product. Sometimes he (I’ll say “he” since I’m thinking of Hannibal Lecter!) is a very astute critic of values that are more or less present in the world. Lecter is my favourite example of an admirable baddy. I suppose his failing is that he upholds some important values whilst violating some rather more basic ones.

    Another, very different, source for identifying with the bad guy might be a kind of fiction-relevant version of Stockholm syndrome. I’m sure that in the case of Lecter my admiration of him is prompted partly by a fearful identification with a powerful person who (insofar as I am immersed in the fiction) threatens to obliterate me in the most total way unless I can make him admire me (he never kills people he admires). From a position of weakness and fear, the most natural way to seek admiration from the powerful person is to endorse and approve them — to flatter the narcissism that fictional super-villains seem to excel in. So we like the baddy to stay safe from him.

  10. I think the 2 main things are personality and goals. If the villain has personality traits we admire, such as humour, as it was mentioned earlier, or wit or traits of the “cool character” like always having a plan or reacting well under pressure. Even personality traits that aren’t liked can be explained away by a sympathetic backstory.

    Also, it really helps if we can sympathize or, even better, agree with their goals. For example, Magneto’s desire to protect mutants is pretty sympathetic, even if his methods might not always be. And it helps in his case that he has a backstory that helps explain why he’s suspicious of humans.

    As an extra, I think it makes a villain also more likeable if we don’t like the hero. For example, if it was a villain against Wesley Crusher, how many of us wouldn’t root for the villain if the villain was anything but completely evil (and not in a cool or good evil way)?

  11. There’s much discussion of this topic in screenwriting and in media fandom. A few of the ideas:

    - the best stories have sympathetic three dimensional villains
    - the best villains have a dynamic that’s only a hair removed from a hero
    - villains are the heroes of their own stories
    - villains are often wounded by their society/upbringing and are thus sympathetic – we all feel wounded by life in our early years
    - villains are often standing up for an ideal or higher purpose (just like heroes)
    - villains may be getting used by an even greater villain (again making them sympathetic – we have all felt used at some point)
    - villains hold out the hope of redemption & we deeply want to believe in the possibility of individuals and the world being redeemable & fixable
    - villains often defy group norms in ways that are inspiring/transgressive/sexy (ie villains often have the best clothes, are often shown as having sophistocated tastes etc)
    - the sexy, sophisticated, symathetic yet dangerous person/man is a deep trope in westen christianity (devil is often show this way – the man at the crossroads etc – as are now vampires etc)
    - in contrast to villains, heroes are often insipidly goody goody. We want our heroes to struggle with their own darkness to be interesting/real. Batman vs Superman.

    Characters to consider,along the hero/villain dimensions: Spike, Batman/Bruce Wayne, Spiderman/Peter Parker, V (from Vendetta), Severus Snape, Q (Star Trek Next Gen), Magneto, Loki, etc.

  12. The (original series) Star Trek episode Space Seed has an interesting discussion about admirable villains, specifically Khan.

    Kant and Plato’s view about villains with virtues is probably relevant here as well-a lovable villain is just a few degrees of virtue short of being a hero. Or, in some cases, a few virtues short.

  13. I agree with Claire that there is certainly more than one way to skin a villainous cat. One possible reason is related to the human desire to be self-actualized, a desire that is often derailed by real or perceived social and societal responsibilities. These villains seem to effortlessly move beyond such obstacles with intelligence and swagger. Once villains are fully realized (often after many hardening years of ostracism), they seldom care what is thought of them. They seldom worry about the “wrongness” or “evilness” (or “impracticality”) of their lofty goals. In this way, supervillains exhibit almost perfect wish fulfillment. They know exactly what they want out of life and they go after it single-mindedly and passionately. Who doesn’t want to feel that way about something?

    In addition to delighting in the smug self-satisfaction that comes hand in hand with supervillainy, there is, of course, another vicarious experience villains offer. Villains allow us to test our own sense of morality by letting us be complicit in their crimes but more importantly they allow us to experience “villainy”. Our capitalistic age is one that glorifies the sociopath. Those qualities that make a Lecter, a Joker, or a Dexter – an obsessive personality, an unstoppable self-confidence, a devastatingly high IQ, and freedom from obstructive societal norms and social mores – also make a successful CEO, a passionate leader, and a charming host or hostess.

  14. Lots of us admire power and to some extent can overlook the ends towards which it’s used. Not merely power, though – someone who buys or cheats their way into control of something is unlikely to be favoured thus – but power that’s the result of the force of somebone’s character. The sort that commands respect. The sort people would like to have. Take this scene from Breaking Bad. The character is trying to protect his freedom to sell psychoactive drugs to addicts. Looking though the comments, one notes that few people have mentioned what a fundamentally unadmirable deed this is. Why? Because the commenters are far too busy getting off on his ability to intimidate a big muscly dude. Because he’s a BAMF. (Don’t look it up. You can work it out.)

    It also, as cafeeine notes, has something to do with the fact that while most of us are obliged to respect the codes of our societies, families and places of employment villains seem to have the freedom to pursue their own desires. An interesting theme of The Sopranos, as either Kotsko or TLP observers, is that while viewers might have envied Tony’s ability to ignore the rules of everyone from the police to his wife he finds himself bound by the responsibilities of crime and dreams of being a precision optics salesman.

    the best villains have a dynamic that’s only a hair removed from a hero

    Hair, you say?

  15. Villains seem to have more interesting character motivations. They do more to drive the plot forward, and they have more room for style.

    Heroic motivations often feel generic and forced. There are so many stories that amount to, “Billy McGuffin is threatened/was hurt? I will do anything to save/avenge him!”

    Villains, on the other hand, seem more likely to want something that’s intimately tied to the plot.

    Then, interesting decisions are often left up to the villains. There are tons of ways to construct a great scheme/heist/crime, but only a couple ways to bring them down.

    And, the fact that heroes are often written as underdogs means that they can’t ‘waste’ energy on style. James Bond is just trying to survive. But a Bond villain has enough cash and confidence that they can build a moon base or learn to kill people using hats.

  16. What a curious phrase ‘charismatic figures’ is for those “malevolent fictional characters” − ‘charis’ is from the Greek word-concept for ‘received graciously’? But your question is good. What is it about my psyche that promotes sympathy for someone who wishes evil on another and who acts on his wishes?

    As per my anamnesis, I started to like the Terminator when he yelled at the knock on the door “Fuck off, buddy” or something like that. There have been times when I wanted to do that sort of thing. Is that ‘It’?

  17. Well, ‘charismatic’ refers more to ‘charisma’ in its modern definition, not ‘charis’, so it’s not as problematic.

  18. Words are like bad memories. You cannot control whence they come.

  19. Great question.

    Drew Hardies made a great point. Villains generally want to change the world in some way, which gives us an insight into their motivations, and requires them to be – to a greater or lesser extent – clever, imaginative and driven.

    Heroes, very often, are rective, defending the status quo without ever initiating anything.

    When villains fail (as, for me, with the villain in the latest Batman film), it may be because their plans are stupid, or a poor match with what we are shown of their motivations and values.

  20. Great comments, folks – I don’t know what I can add. This seems very comprehensive, but keep it coming if there’s more. I’ll definitely acknowledge you collectively when/if I write a book on the subject. :)

    It really does get complex, doesn’t it?

    I’m sure part of the reason I have always had a tendency to root for villains (unless it’s somone successfully coded as totally evil, like the Red Skull), is just that, however much he hero may appear to be the underdog within the diegesis, villains always ultimately lose. Well, almost always, as sometimes you do get a story where the villain triumphs and the most the hero can obtain is some kind of psychological victory, perhaps from just surviving against a more powerful enemy. But that’s rare.

    I think I have a tendency to want at least good showings or temporary wins for villains partly because at some level I see them as the underdogs and partly for the reason that we always want a third set in a tennis match: let’s at least have a hard-fought struggle.

    But none of that explains why individual villains can seem so alluring, and that must, I suppose, be because of qualities about them that make them seem “cool” – perhaps their striking visual appeal; perhaps their lack of hesitation and doubt, which gives them a sort of enviable freedom (especially when we see them take down people who are themselves obnoxious, as at the start of The Terminator); perhaps the intellect, courage, ingenuity and/or nobility of a kind that some villains seem to show, even while plotting and carrying out their crimes. But I think all of this is in various responses above.

  21. Villains are often not just more charismatic than some rather anodyne superheroes ( nowadays with by-the-numbers social problems ) but they’re more articulate in expressing why they’ve made their choices. If you want to read about “an examined life” in fiction, then the baddies have more interesting pathways to follow.

  22. Have you seen SKYFALL, Mike? That might be a case in point.

  23. A example that doesn’t work in every case, but for me in many cases is that it was the villain who upset the status quo, while the hero sought to restore the former order. Even though the change the villain was trying to bring about may not have been positive, he was still the one driving the plot, while the hero wante to return to a former state that was touted as idyllic. Whether it be screwing with line of succession, leading an alien invasion or working just to make a single person’s life a living hell, there was the sense of the forbidden that just made me innately curious to see how the world would look after their actions.

  24. This has been an amazing find, seeing that I am about to write a thesis of Villain vs Anti- Hero. Thanks all!

  25. Villains make the show interesting. They are often memorable and engaging characters that are crucial to the storyline. Villains have ventured and have pushed beyond the metaphorical lines of morality. They have explored new depths that most people would not dare traverse, thus, they are like small peepholes to human depravity and we can’t help but be equal parts fascinated and repulsed.

  26. They’re simply more interesting. Charismatic too. They’re rebels and that’s what I like.
    Most heroes just react, while villains think things through and make a plan.(most movies that I’ve watched at least)
    Or maybe they’re different and weird and people like this relate to them.
    Or maybe it’s just because they lose.

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