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Why It’s Better to Keep Villains Alive

Killing off your main antagonist can be annoying.

I’ve developed a specific annoyance among franchise films. It happens in a ton of media, but I think it’s particularly egregious and telling among Marvel movies, DC movies, or really, any movie written with the assumption that there’s going to be a sequel. It happens in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), Black Panther (2018), Eternals (2021), and some other movies that aren’t made by Marvel that I can’t think of right now. (Also, naturally, I’m going to talk about the plots of these movies with the assumption that you’ve seen them.)

The offending situation is this: Your hero is experiencing your classic moral dilemma. They’re facing an issue both personal and greater than themself. This issue usually has a face, the form of a villain, and the villain embodies aspects of the hero that they’d rather be rid of. The hero recognizes issues, grows, becomes better, and defeats the villain, often in a way that forces the villain to recognize why they were wrong. Then the villain just dies, almost independent of this. The hero then sometimes has a sad recognition and then finishes up the movie.

In Eternals, for example, the titular Eternals have huge philosophical debates about the nature of humanity and whether it’s morally right to sacrifice a planet full of people to ensure the birth of countless planets in the future. They fight; there’s drama and betrayal, etcetera. They defeat Ikaris and undo the plan to turn the Earth into an incubator for a life-creating super-being. Ikaris looks at the woman he’s loved for millennia and the family he rejected for his duty, realizes his wrongdoing, and what does he do next?

Richard Madden in Eternal (2021) / Marvel Studios

He flies into the fucking Sun. He doesn’t say a word. There’s no indication from any of the characters or the surrounding scene or anything. He just straight-up fucking dies.

Now, I feel the need to say that I did not have any emotional attachment to Ikaris at all, but I think his death is particularly bold-faced in its intentions. Though not by suicide, similar cases happen with Shang-Chi and his dad, with T’Challa and Killmonger, and with Batman and Two-Face in The Dark Knight (2008) (that was the other big example I forgot earlier). I’d also argue it happens in nearly every Spider-Man movie, including the one about not killing villains at great personal expense.

If the villain is supposed to represent the aspect of the hero that the hero needs to overcome, then, logically, for the hero’s journey to be complete, the villain must be recognized, confronted, and overcome. So, they gotta die, right?

Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther (2018) / Marvel Studios

The problem comes in when the villain is supposed to be alluring in some way to the hero and to the audience. But the villain has some aspect of themself that the hero rejects. The villain and the hero both have the same thing within them, but it’s buried deep inside the hero while the villain wears it proudly. The audience and the hero are supposed to see these kinds of villains as corruptions of progress in some way.

So to embody this corruption, writers push the villain to extreme action. It’s a classic way to avoid moral ambiguity or complexity. Yes, it’s cool and good that the scientist develops technology to regrow damaged or lost human tissue, and yes, it sucks that the corporate medical executives screwed you over, but no, you can’t turn all of New York into lizards. There are books worth of things to be said about this pairing of progressive beliefs and violent radicalism that can only be met with violence in kind, but I bring it up here for a different reason:

When the villain dies, the reflection of the hero dies with it. There is no longer a need for someone in the story to turn the hero to face their own flaws. We’ll sometimes get a recognition of the villain with a scene about them laying a flower on a grave or opening a trade school in Oakland where a multifamily housing complex was.

The hero thought about it and said, “No.” We did it. Good job, everyone. Show’s over.

Ella Jay Basco, Jurnee Smollett, Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Rosie Perez in Birds of Prey (2020) / DC Films

I’ll pause here briefly because of how my brain works to say that I know I’m oversimplifying these plots, and I’m excluding a huge swath of movies for convenience. Many movies have what I’ll call “adversaries,” a person in the way of the hero that presents primarily as an obstacle, not as a reflection of the hero themself. I’m not here to argue that the Nazi super-soldier general should be redeemed, or that Thanos was right, or that maybe we should give the global super-surveillance structure a crack just to see how that turns out. Despite the fact that maybe Captain America can use some of these conflicts to do a little meaningful introspection about the military-industrial complex, the people acting directly against the hero like this aren’t who I’m trying to save here.

Movies like Birds of Prey (2020) are served well by a mutual adversary as a plot-driving force of both character-building and camaraderie. (Great job, incredible film. No notes.) It doesn’t matter what similarities the heroes have to Zsasz or to Roman because the purpose of the villains isn’t to show the potential corruption of the hero’s ideals; their purpose is to get beaten. The issue comes when conflating the two. Constantly. Across a whole genre of films.

Jayden Tianyi Zhang and Tony Leung Chiu-wai in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) / Marvel Studios

When the villain dies, the audience is given the definitive answer that the character was beyond redemption, and maybe their beliefs were as well. Xu Wenwu, Shang-Chi’s father, took to his imperialist ambitions, and Shang-Chi abandoned his own past to reject his father’s addiction to power. But the Xu Wenwu we see driving the plot in the movie is seeking relief. He’d dropped the mantle and reformed when he started a family, but, as Kacey Musgraves says, “healing doesn’t happen in a straight line.” Shang-Chi bests his father by embracing his past without being bound within its frame like his father is. They both realize when this happens, and then Xu Wenwu immediately sacrifices himself to save Shang-Chi.

He doesn’t get to witness his son save the day. He doesn’t get to make cameos in future Marvel properties. He doesn’t get to recognize what he’s done wrong and explain why he did it. He doesn’t get to apologize.

He doesn’t get to get better.

Daniel Zovatto and Mackenzie Davis in Station Eleven (2021) / HBO Max

Dead characters don’t change. Our perspectives of them can change, but they don’t act anymore. In Station Eleven, the HBO adaption by Patrick Sommerville of the Emily St. John Mandel novel of the same name, The Prophet (Daniel Zovatto,) says, “If I die, I lose control of the story.” He says this to the protagonist, Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis), who near-fatally stabbed him shortly after meeting him and was threatening to more-fatally stab him again.

There’s a version of Station Eleven that I thought it was going to be at the end of episode 4, when the viewer gets their first glimpse into the goings-on of The Prophet’s post-apocalyptic cult. Kirsten works her way into the cult, recognizing the parts of her that could’ve become The Prophet or one of his followers before she kills him and breaks up the cult. Roll credits. It would’ve been just like any of a million other post-apocalyptic tales with an adversary disguised as a villain.

But Station Eleven is smarter than that, bolder than that. The Prophet isn’t a guy hellbent on destroying every trace of the past by way of dooming the future of the human race because his parents were self-absorbed and neglectful. The Prophet is a human, you realize, and Kirsten almost robbed both him and herself of their ability to grow as characters and as human beings.

Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal in Station Eleven (2021) / HBO Max

Station Eleven is about those moments. It’s about life and growth in the face of the end of the world. We see every character screw up and do cruel, hurtful things, and they all grow because they are written to live long enough to reflect on their actions. I don’t mean that they are “complex characters” because they do good things and bad things, so you can’t classify them on a moral binary. I mean that they apologize or miss their chance to apologize. They regret and make amends, whether directly or by proxy. They become people they never thought they would become in communities they never thought they’d be a part of because they are alive.

And you know what? That’s hard as shit to write, and I don’t blame most stories for choosing to exclude that from their scope. But what it means for us as a society is that we overwhelmingly see that the consequences of pushing too hard, of being dug in too deep, are that you are irredeemable, and that is just simply not true of the real world. People realize that their actions hurt people, and they change. It’s not easy, and honestly, not everyone does it.

Freddie Stroma and John Cena in Peaceaker (2022) / HBO Max

What I’m saying is that we need more examples of characters that survive their bad decisions and get better. I think the Peacemaker (2022) series does a good job of this by turning one of the most detestable characters into a sympathetic, damaged guy who is still kind of a jerk and not a great guy. Okay, it’s not a perfect example, but what I’m saying is that too many media show the path to self-destruction for villains, not their recovery.

When we watch this trend of villains play out through countless media, we’re (consciously or unconsciously) building and maintaining a society that believes that people incarcerated for crimes are better off out of sight and out of mind. We’re getting used to the idea that mistakes are irreversible and that healing is impossible, rather than the idea that people can change and heal when given what they need to recognize the path that led them there. After all, how much more often do we see characters make decisions that lead to their own growth rather than their demise? And how often are those characters not the hero of the story?

If superheroes are meant to be aspirational examinations of society, shouldn’t they give us that more often than they give us another tale of a tragic Guy Who Had Good Ideas But Decided The Best Plan Was To Kill All The Whales, So He Got Eaten By the Whales?

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