Good vs. Evil. It is the most rudimentary of human conflicts, disputed in theatres of war, chambers of argument, and across Thanksgiving dinner tables. Our nature as logical beings is to categorize the world in comprehensible terms. We use the descriptors of “good” and “evil” as shorthand designations of our own complex moral schemas. In human storytelling, this binary is often represented in the classic struggle between heroes and villains.
During Halloween, villains take centerstage as culture celebrates the macabre and mischievous. Personally, I’ve always found it fascinating to see people I would identify as “good” masquerading as murders, serial killers, dictators, and demons. As a child, I, myself, certainly took great delight in donning the ominous helmet of Darth Vader and feigning a vehement force choke. While I have laughingly taken the lives of thousands of imaginary Jedi, I am proud to say that I have never slain anyone in earnest (except perhaps with my cutting wit). So, why is it that I, a milquetoast, corn-fed Hoosier, enjoy playing the villain?
Shakespeare, penner of enumerable great villains, famously writes in Hamlet, “[T]here is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” This axiom perches on the atheistic postulate that there is no inherent moral structure to the world and “good” and “bad” are more-or-less arbitrary attributes with no empirical basis. By this logic, “heroes” and “villains” are mere matters of opinion. This engenders the classic trope of villains being the heroes of their own story. Their perspective on what is good and what is bad “makes it so.”
While after 200,000 years of existence, the jury is still out on what is good and bad, humans have rallied around codes that spell out what is at least permissible and forbidden based on what benefits our survival as a species. Since killing and stealing from each other is not sustainable for the longevity of humankind, protections against murder and theft have been a part of most legal codes throughout history. The morality imputed to the law often derives, in some way, from the religious/spiritual culture of the subjugates. It is the application of this ethical lens that turns a lawbreaker into a villain.
Still, history shows us that law and morality are in some cases diametrically opposed. If the law is perceived as immoral, then lawbreakers become heroes and law enforcers/abiders become villains. For instance, American textbooks hail George Washington as a liberator who fought despotism to create a free country. However, British publications from the colonial period paint him as a sanguineous terrorist leading a radical minority to topple the institution of law. Two different moral interpretations of the same laws make valid cases for George Washington’s heroism or villainy in their own logical paradigms. If “nothing is either good or bad,” then you could call George Washington your “favorite villain” depending on where you see the moral high ground.
Speaking of high ground, let’s reflect on my villainous alter ego, Darth Vader. If we examine him outside of his fictional universe where there is an inherent, existential arbiter of “good” and “evil” (i.e. the Force), then we find ourselves in a similar moral quandary as we did with the father of our country. To a Jedi, Vader was a perfidious murderer who and helped enshackle the galaxy to an oppressive regime. Conversely, an Imperial sympathizer would view him as a hero of the Clone Wars who united the galaxy under a secular, federalist government with a sound economic system and robust law enforcement policies. So, depending on your political ideology, the menacing masked man might actually be a hero (or your ideal presidential candidate)!
One of my favorite quotes in contemporary literature comes from Lemony Snicket, who posits, “People aren’t either wicked or noble. They’re like chef’s salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.” Fiction provides a safe space for typically upright humans to explore morality’s liquidity. While in reality, we might raucously abhor the actions of our favorite villains, the dimensional distance of pulp and celluloid allow us to identify with and even sympathize with their motivations.
In the Star Wars cannon, Darth Vader is a genocidal colonialist who perpetrates truly heinous acts. However, he is also a loyal, fiercely compassionate boy with a strong sense of justice, taken from his provincial life into an ascetic order whose orthodoxy forbade the basic human needs of love and connection. While Vader’s resultant carnage has no merit in any sound moral framework, the provenance of his malefaction is at the very least understandable to anyone who has ever been forced to repress their emotions. The payoff comes when, in the end, the very feelings love he was told to abandon compel him to sacrifice his life and overthrow the evil Empire. Thus, the unchecked feelings that led to his villainy were redeemed in an act of classically defined heroism.
While I cannot say that my third-grade mind was scintillating with moral philosophy when I paraded through the neighborhood as the inimical Sith Lord, I would like to think that I was embodying the admirable ingredients of his ethical salad. Whatever the case, villains serve as an important reminder to examine the kind of people we want to be. Since it is so often the means and not the ends that separates villains from heroes, they are the penultimate foil to which we can compare and contrast our own actions to ensure that we are doing the right things for the right reasons.