Villains

Sep. 4th, 2017 10:58 am
jack: (Default)
[personal profile] jack
I've been thinking about antagonists, or anti-heroes, maybe, people in general. Ones I liked as people, ones I liked the writing of, ones I didn't like, what worked well and what didn't.

And it occurred to me, what commonly works well, is that they have a sympathetic/plausible/justified motivation. But that they go too far or do bad things in the cause of it.

That most of what they think, what you'd see in a story from their point of view, is what you might agree with. That doesn't apply to everyone, some people genuinely spend all day doing horrible things, but there are several advantages to using a character like that, the audience finds it easy to sympathise with them, and so does the writer.

But the other half of the equation is that they do bad, unjustified things, but they usually don't *think* about whether they're ok, they're usually not "here is my complicated justification for why X is ok", they just take it as the way the world is.

You can recognise a spectrum. Some antagonists are not really better or worse than the protagonist, we just empathise with the protagonist because it's their story, the differences is that each just happen to be opposed by circumstance, their moral choices aren't very different. Some antagonists do clearly horrible things.

A common choice is a character who *usually* does bad things but isn't *right now*, and you can get invested in their story and then see if they redeem themselves, or if you get to know them before deciding they're still a horrible person even if you came to like them.

It can also be done inconsistently where the villain see-saws back and forth across "can the audience empathise" because the writer picks some things which are kinda bad and some things which are really horrible without regard to an overall arc.

The first couple of Game of Thrones books do this very well, most of the viewpoint characters I find very sympathetic, even if I hated some of them when reading about what they did from the outside.

An example prominent in my mind was Magneto. I recently saw someone saying "Magneto was right", and I thought that a lot after the first film I saw: that if he *could* fight back and do anything to prevent mutants being systematically contained and abused by society, that makes a lot of sense. It's possible Charles' approach is more likely to work, but it's possible Magneto's is (or more likely, both approaches together are more effective than either alone).

However, as I watched more movies that characterisation seems lost. It seems like in every single movie, Magneto's noble goals lead through a train of tortured reasoning, to "and then mass murder", or "and then genocide". And then the X-men get to be the 'good guys' without having to ask whether a more targeted campaign of violence they'd be wrong to oppose. I'm inclined to put that down to the characterisation suffering for the needs of the plot, because I like the character and don't want to condemn them. Or that it's pushing the message that "any violence leads to too much violence" which I *generally* agree with, but probably not for a minority fighting against their extermination. Or that Magneto has a character flaw where his justified hatred of non-mutants, leads to all his plans ending "and then a massive indiscriminate slaughter of non-mutants" which doesn't seem to actually help.

Date: 2017-09-04 12:21 pm (UTC)
simont: (Default)
From: [personal profile] simont
Magneto: I kind of agree with you that his portrayal becomes more obviously evil as the movies progress, but I think the key thing for me that makes Magneto a villain is that he's even willing to victimise other mutants (and not even just the ones actively opposing him) in the pursuit of his larger goals – and he did that even in the first film.

If it wasn't for that, I could just about live with thinking of his viewpoint as within the spectrum of things you might convince yourself are good (even if I wouldn't agree with that myself): starting from the premises that mutants are Your People and that mundanes are waging an undeclared war on them, it could plausibly follow that your reasonable right of self-defence justifies some fairly large-scale retaliation, especially if it's not just random revenge but strategically well-thought-out actions specifically aimed at targets which will reduce the enemy's ability and/or willingness to continue fighting you.

For example, his plan in the first movie to mutate all the politicians who were supporting the anti-mutant policies seemed like the sort of thing you could at least try to defend as a legitimate sort of action and a legitimate target, supposing you accept all the premises that led up to that (not to mention having to take a quite ... imaginative ... interpretation of the laws of war). But at the point where he hooked up Rogue to the machine in place of himself and (would have) willingly sacrificed her life to his cause, despite the fact that she's exactly the sort of person who he's supposed to be considering valuable and non-disposable, I think he lost any moral high ground you might have argued him to have left.

That callousness to even his own side does become even more pronounced in the later movies. (I particularly remember the bit in XM3 where he turns up at the enemy camp with a few mutants he actually cares about and a big pile of low-grade cannon fodder, signals the attack, and then holds back his lieutenants with the line 'In chess, the pawns move first' – and, once the cannon-fodder mutants have predictably become cannon fodder, adds '... and that's why the pawns go first'.) But it was there right from the start.

It's possible Charles' approach is more likely to work, but it's possible Magneto's is (or more likely, both approaches together are more effective than either alone).

Hmm, do you think so? My feeling on that one is that both approaches together are less likely to work, and more likely to get in each other's way. Magneto's conspicuous and large-scale destructive activities damage the credibility of Charles's efforts to convince mundanes that mutants aren't any more dangerous or untrustworthy than anyone else, and the existence of Charles's non-violent faction probably reduces Magneto's pool of potential recruits, and is the sort of thing that would qualify as 'appeasement' or 'defeatism' or one of those 'being nice to the enemy is tantamount to treason' sorts of words to Magneto's hawkish way of thinking.

I've always felt that surely both Charles and Magneto agree that their two approaches hinder each other more than they help – which is why they're having this dispute over strategy in the first place rather than just each getting on with their own plan and leaving the other alone!

Date: 2017-09-05 07:01 am (UTC)
simont: (Default)
From: [personal profile] simont
I'm thinking particularly of the "kill everyone in the entire world" in X2, unless I remembered that as worse than it was?

Hmm, yes, I had forgotten that one – I remembered examples from X1 and X3 but somehow skipped over the total human genocide plot!

That one certainly is hard to justify. I idly speculate that it might not have been as premeditated as the other things; the opposition had set up the technology to kill everyone on one side or the other of the mutant/mundane divide, and Magneto came across it and opportunistically thought 'oh, well, in that case, let's use it, with the switch carefully set in the right position'. It's not as if he built all that equipment up from scratch himself (even though, as co-designer of the original Cerebro, he might well have been in a position to). And also, the opposition had just that moment attempted to use the same device with the switch set in the other position, killing everyone Magneto (ostensibly) cares about in one go, so his blood was probably up. Heat of the moment.

But really, when the thing you're trying to excuse is an attempted act of total human genocide, those excuses wouldn't add up to more than epsilon relative to the total amount of awfulness, even if you believed both of them. One feels that having a certain reluctance to wipe out the entire human race even if your blood is up and an opportunity conveniently presents itself is kind of the first duty of any moral agent! :-)

Date: 2017-09-04 06:51 pm (UTC)
wild_irises: (Default)
From: [personal profile] wild_irises
Well, yes. If the villain doesn't have a comprehensible motive, then we just hate them without any compensating concern. And if they don't go too far, well, they're not villainous.

And I think the article you read is correct. I can't think of any major historical change from the bottom which was brought about by anything other than militancy (violent, nonviolent, violent-against-property-only, legal, illegal).

The only other thing that works, I think, is a villain so horrible that s/he sends chills down your spine even though you can't empathize with her/him at all. The example that comes to my mind here is Killgrave in the Jessica Jones graphic novels and TV drama. In the TV drama in particular, some attempts are made to humanize him in the end, but what he's for is to scare the living daylights out of the reader/viewer. He doesn't care at such a deep level that you can't possibly care about him, but (at least for me) that intensifies caring about his victims.

Date: 2017-09-05 10:35 am (UTC)
ptc24: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ptc24
The Magneto problem: I say this with next to zero knowledge of the X-Men, apart from what I see in the comments here, and a little general cultural osmosis diffusion.

Magneto's flaw, a wild guess: ego. The flaw is easier to see with some extremists for bad causes - the past they pursue is destructive to their targets, destructive to their associates, destructive to themselves. This self-destructiveness may look in a certain light like heroism, I mean if you think of selfishness as the big evil then on a straightforward "materialistic" level it's the opposite of that. But if it's self-worship you're after, throwing your life or freedom away in pursuit of being able to live up to a twisted inner ideal makes a certain sort of sense. Also, if part of it is "I am very important", then sacrificing your people may ostensibly be to the cause, even in your own thought, but really it's your ego they're being sacrificed to. Printing yourself a licence to operate outside the usual moral constraints[1] is another good self-importance trip.

Of course, if you have a good cause, it's easier to slip all this past your conscience - and many other people's consciences too.

[1] I was about to say GSV Operating Outside The Usual Moral Constraints, but actually, it's the ROU Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints.