Shortly after Marvel’s Black Panther was released, a discourse erupted in my internet bubble with many critics calling the movie ‘too centrist’. What they meant by that was the villain wanted to overthrow systems of oppression and the hero stopped him because said villain’s methods was wrong. There was a fair bit of discussion on it and I won’t further open it up or anything (you can read this post and this one if you want the gist of the interpretations).
Black Panther isn’t unique though. A large amount of fiction, heck fiction for a long time, has villains who, due to the cruelty their group was treated with, grew up into monsters and I am generally not fond of this.
An off the top of my head example that comes to my mind is the chancellor (Matal) in Magi. Matal is the leader of a nation of mages and non-magic users are not allowed entry. Harrowingly enough there are non-mages in his country but they live in absolute poverty deep below the ground and have their magic energy harvested.
As part of his backstory we learn Matal and the mages of his kingdom were oppressed and practically slaves of the non magic using nobles. The anger formed by the life they had to lead under those nobles as well as what happened to his daughter turned him evil and into a non-magic using human hater.
It is not that Matal is an especially bad villain, rather he is incredibly fascinating to me and a really well done example of how someone can seem so loving to one group but be unbelievably bigoted and hateful to another.
He loves mages so much he is willing to go to war for one of his students and yet despises humans so much his favorite humans register as no more than pets to him.
But that backstory of his raises some eyebrows because it makes you question whether his justice was worth the carnage, and whether his suffering entailed the suffering of others.
In Matal’s specific case, his coup happened long ago, so his views of extreme bigotry can be safely debunked in the present but in a lot of stories the villain’s ‘radical revolution’ is here and now and the hero must confront them over it (e.g. Black Panther).
That is to say the hero (and us the readers) focus on the means through which the villain is trying to achieve an otherwise noble goal. And while this is a good question to ask in general, it often masks and obfuscates the original problem.
Pushed too far and you get Mahouka’s “these oppressed weeds need to suck it up and stop complaining”, but in general you find that in trying to make villains more relatable or believable the narrative has implied that disturbing the status quo, that approaching the problem in the “wrong way” is more problematic than the original problem.
It is not like you have to write villains this way to make them believable or lovable either.
You can make someone a villain by implying their inability to understand causes them to do great harm (cough Kyuubi cough) or even that they are just evil for the sake of evil (everyone loves Fate/Stay Night’s Kotomine Kirei). Heck, you can even incorporate cruel treatment into the villain’s motivation if you play it right.
One of my favorite anime villains is Mendoza from the first Garo anime. In his backstory, Mendoza is shown to be cruel and inhuman towards powerless human beings. As punishment he is cursed by his fellow Makai Alchemists. The anguish that comes about because of this curse is one of the most powerful emotions I experienced while watching this anime.
Yeah, Mendoza is an absolutely cruel man, but in that moment you feel for him, you sympathize with him. You almost want to go and kill all the Makai Knights yourself. And yet Mendoza wasn’t an oppressed or otherwise discriminated against person.
He had a loving teacher and the cruel punishment given to him came about as a result of his own malice (even if the malice was born out of love). (I wrote a bit about him in this old post.)
Unfortunately, while Garo’s handling of Mendoza is really good, it does use the suffering of the ordinary citizen as a catalyst for their demonization. Demons take advantage of crushed hearts and take over the humans. The same holds true for Magi.
In Magi it is not only Matal, but almost everyone who becomes villainous does so because they have suffered and they give in to the black rukh (or as Alladin puts it, they curse their fate). In both these shows, as well as other literature, likely as old as literature itself, it is often the weak or those suffering who are taken advantage of and turned to evil.
When folk are suffering (even at the hands of others), they are told to be patient and forever strong, to not give in to Satan, devils or to darkness in general. Patience in the face of adversity is admirable, forgiveness in place of revenge is praiseworthy and diplomacy over violence is recommended, but not all adversity’s are equal and it is not the privileged who get to decide how victims should act.
When we focus on the deeds of those suffering and not what caused their suffering, we fail to fix the root cause of their suffering.
Most heroes don’t fight to make the world a better place; they fight to restore the world to a ‘better’ state. They enforce the original status-quo or so to speak. That is why when writing villains and antagonists it is good to be careful lest we create a status-quo not worth returning to.
- I mentioned Magi and Garo here, but I only really picked them cause I thought of them. I like both shows a lot and as far as the sins mentioned here, they don’t do too terrible a job of it. While suffering humans turning into demons is in my opinion a bad look, Garo’s world is so grim and terrible it doesn’t feel preachy. Magi is a bit preachy but Aladdin’s big understanding heart offsets that a little. That and the crew in Magi do try to solve the systems of oppression (e.g. Alibaba enacting a democracy in place of the corrupt nobles)
- If you follow folk on my timeline, you’ll notice that while I am talking about fictional media here, it is not hard to draw a parallel to the news media or the wider discourse where we often focus on the small amount of violence protestors such as BLM or Antifa might cause and entirely forget why they were protesting in the first place.