Tag Archives: villains

The Sociopath

There’s a special place in our hearts for villains. We have a capacity for empathy and adoration of the bad guy that goes beyond the rational and occasionally ventures on idolatry. I’ve argued that the villains we idolize are usually not evil as much as they are bad-boy stereotypes on an epic scale.

But then there’s sociopaths. Not just the run-of-the-mill killer types from Special Victims Unit. I’m talking about THE sociopaths; the killers that let us touch evil. In particular, I’m interested in protagonist psychos.

I’m talking about Dexter Morgan, Hannibal Lecter, late stage Walter White, Sylar and, most recently, BBC’s new Sherlock Holmes. These characters inhibit a lack of empathy, disconnect from other people, shallow or absent emotions, poor impulse control, routine manipulative behavior and various other qualities generally thought to come with antisocial behavioral disorder.

Breaking people has never been so sexy.

Breaking people has never been so sexy.

In short, they are something akin to a robot… with a fascination or excitation towards homicide. Sociopaths are constantly pretending and manipulating because they don’t feel human emotion in a strong, meaningful way. Not unlike a robot or an alien. And in the absence of concern towards others, all that’s really left is selfish desire and a drive to win. I think this is why the best sociopaths on television come off as alien. And it’s creepy the same way as a robot that kind of looks like a human is creepy. All the parts are there, but something’s not quite right.

These characters, like everything else on television, exhibit romanticized qualities that don’t reflect actual psychopaths (interchangeable with sociopath) and other antisocials. And since I’m not an expert in psychology, I’ll stick to the characters of popular fiction.

These characters are serial serial killer killers. No, you didn’t misread that. And that’s an important distinction because they enjoy the ruination of others and find ways to legally experience that joy. Dexter Morgan is the perfect example. He needs to kill, but was taught by his father to only kill other murderers. More than one Dexter arch has dealt with what happens when he goes off the rails. The character struggles with being good so as not to get caught, while feeding his killer instinct.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you can call this range of psychotics a spectrum, is Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes. He doesn’t kill, but he exhibits a trademark lack of empathy and manipulative behavior to the point of clearly not understanding why people find his behavior abrasive. And his grandiose sense of self is pitch perfect psychopathy. Watch as Sherlock calls out a friend for getting him a gift.

Everyone is uncomfortable (me included), and he just doesn’t get it. Sherlock does it all the time because he is always bored (another psycho trademark), he doesn’t actually care and the only joy he derives is from besting someone to the point that they are ruined.

These characters are a morbid fascination that fill several different rolls at the same time.

They remain an outlet for the traditional power fantasy that villains often serve. You get to do evil deeds and flout the traditional system that we spend so much of our real lives being trapped in without actually being evil. The methods are questionable, but the final result is positive.

And the thing I didn’t mention in the last villains article is that we celebrate barbarism. Consider one of our recent national holidays: Columbus Day. The Oatmeal has a pretty great graphic of how Christopher Columbus actually performed genocide and, arguably, was the father of the international slave trade. And for all that we celebrate him with a federal holiday.

I’m not saying Columbus was a sociopath, though his biography reads like he may have been. I’m saying that most celebrated historical figures engaged in violence on some level to do great things. Patton. Washington. Caesar. Odysseus. Almost every founding father. There are a few MLKs here and there, but the majority are celebrated for what they did in conjunction with violence.

Now look at pop culture. All our greatest, most popular heroes are violent. Every now and then we get an Oscar-worthy film about someone accomplishing something through peaceful means. It wins a ton of awards, even though virtually no one sees it, but the most popular fare remains Bruce Willis, Jason Statham, or anyone in a cape beating good old American values into the situation.

I talk about this all the time. These stories are an affirmation of our values. The good guys almost always win because it feels wrong when someone does the right thing and still loses. Our tradition has trouble reconciling against the idea that you can work hard, be the good guy, go to church and have it all seem meaningless. As a matter of fact, I’ll even quote myself:

At the end of the day, most movies are about the affirmation of common values. These are largely Judeo-Christian ideas about the triumph of good over evil and the sacrifice of the individual for the salvation of the people. In a way, films like these  (and TV shows, books, and comics) are a religious experience. The “good guys”, who we tend to recognize as good because they believe what we believe, shouldn’t win so often. By all rights they shouldn’t even walk away from crazy without trauma from what they’ve seen. The implication is that they win because their cause it righteous and because the big guy upstairs has his pinky on the scales.

We watch movies that reflect our beliefs. And if all our action heroes use violence to employ good, what does that say about us? More importantly, if the most idolized character of 2013 is Walter White, what does THAT say about us?

Enter the Sociopath. There is a lot of stuff going on here, but at the forefront is true barbarism. Psychopathic protagonists are the purest way to use violence for goodness sake. You could even say these characters are a kind of avatar for our own fetishism towards violent causes. What’s better entertainment than absolute moral victory through absolute destruction? Like the sociopath, the audience NEEDS a story with action and ruination. We’re hungry for it.

And neither of us will stop.

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Our Villainous Love Affair

Annually, we get to live in a post-San Diego Comic Con world where questions about who won the convention,whether Kaiju movies can work as a modern film and OMG HOLLYWOOD IS IMPLODING are speculated to such a minute degree and with so little information that it will all be hilariously wrong by SDCC 2014. Plus all the cosplay in the world.

One tidbit of information gleaned from this year is that Tom Hiddleston (as Loki) will not be in The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, but may find himself in other projects during phase 3. The new Thor trailer came out yesterday, and it’s becoming clear that he is still a central character to the universe.

That is a testament to the love we collectively have for the character. People enjoy Loki so much that he was featured as THE major villain in two of six phase one films with a supporting role in at least one phase 2 film and rumors of phase 3 involvement. Not a bad run.

It’s curious to me that the character is so popular because of what it says about the way we consume entertainment. We love this villain. We find him so engaging/charismatic/handsome/sexy that he’s worthy of being the reason The Avengers assemble.

Why is that?

Loki attempts genocide. If you’ve seen the new Thor: The Dark World trailer, you know Natalie Portman gives him the big slap for what he did to New York. And suddenly you realize that she is the only person acting appropriately under the circumstances, and just barely. He tried to do the same thing that made Hitler the go-to villain of the 20th century (with honorable mentions to Stalin and the cast of Batman & Robin). He kills indiscriminately for, seemingly, no reason. He wants to rule the world because his dad didn’t love him or something.

The character is a counter to everything we hold precious. In choosing a career as a loner sociopath, he implicitly says that having a job, falling in love, being part of a community and deciding that a life without violence is not good enough. His purpose is the destruction of all human society. He is, at the least, a terrorist.

And Loki is not alone. He comes from a growing stock of similarly apocalyptic villains that we glorify them for being the coolest of the cool.

So I have to ask. Why don’t we see this when we look at these characters?


The big freak out was that people thought this glorified the persona of a terrorist, and yet we find ourselves glorifying the personas of would-be terrorists. Granted, there is an obvious difference between the two kinds of villains I’m talking about here. One is a fictional character and the other is a probable bomber. One ruined actual lives while the other helped earn $1.5 billion worldwide.

But is that all there is to it? Killing real people is a good reason to condemn Tsarnaev (or anyone), but doesn’t explain our endorsement of his fictional counterparts. And I, like most people, experience Tsarnaev and others like him indirectly. Abstractly even. We can all agree that what happened at the Boston Marathon was horrible and should never happen again, but for many of us it’s a news story, not a personal tragedy.

The victims exist in a space not too far from the mass-murdered of Darfur or the collateral damage in Afghanistan. We agree that these things are terrible, but they are distant and, to many of us, totally unreal in our everyday lives. When you don’t know the names and faces, real becomes relative.

My point here is to illustrate that the two characters aren’t so different, both being abstracted forms of evil for those of us not personally touched. Both kinds move beyond being people and represent a threat to what we hold valuable. Even accepting the difference between the two (and I do believe there are differences) why is it so easy to idolize fictional would-be murderers?

A part of it is we understand that even the most realistic movie is still farce. It’s not just an awareness that no people were harmed, but that none of what is happening in anyway matters. But is that enough to explain why fictional killers are such popular costumes?

At the end of the day, this guy is dressed like a person who’s cool for killing.

I think something else altogether is happening here. Loki and his proxies don’t register as evil in a sense we can relate to. For all his malice, Loki doesn’t actually kill many people. Coulson dies in The Avengers, but not really; we’ve been hearing rumors of his return for months. The Joker killed some people, but they were mostly other criminals and corrupt police. Rachel Dawes died, but for some reason no one cares.

Compare that to Kevin Spacey in Seven. The bright colors and choreographed fights are absent. Instead we see, in graphic detail, what the life of a murderer looks like. The gritty realism makes Spacey a little too similar to things we actually fear–to crimes we actually have to read about. We will never have to worry about an alien/Norse god trying to conquer the planet, but we have to worry about walking alone at night.

Villains that aren’t strictly evil can become sympathetic. Many of our nasty terrorist-style ne’er-do-wells have tragic back stories and secret pains that explain why they do what they do. Loki does.

Sympathetic villains are easy to turn into fantasy. As an audience, we have the luxury of putting ourselves in the shoes of both the hero and the antagonist. Loki and his like represent a life free of being told what to wear, where to go, how much money electricity costs, what we ought to look like, who we should love and a million other things that mark the boundaries of a social world. These larger-than-life villains can make us feel free without having to feel evil.

A friend of mine says it’s a power fantasy. Taking a human life is the ultimate power. That rings true, but also gets at the core of my question: why is that a fantasy worth having? We could cosplay as doctors that cure diseases or solve water scarcity, but we don’t. We don’t because the fantasy is about the cool we derive from violently achieving ends. That’s why, for every random guy dressed like Thanos you see at a convention, there will be twenty dudes dressed like Loki.

We love the flirtation with being out of control without actually being evil.

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