The rise of the sympathetic villain

We can’t always put movie characters in boxes.


Jordan Lewicki

From the Joker to Loki, there’s a plethora of misunderstood characters out there.

Raymond Vasquez, Guest Writer

For decades, the battle between good and evil has attracted masses to the screen. Even in the ancient tales, the difference between good and evil was so stark that one had no choice but to root for the good character. Mainstream iconic characters have always had their evil counterparts, and the hero’s struggle to defeat the villain is a tale as old as time. 

Yet in the last decade, the world has started to see the gray between the light and the dark. The hero is not always as shiny and clean as first portrayed, and the villain is not always as innately wicked as we are first led to believe. Now, instead of rooting solely for the hero, we look more towards the villain. We no longer hate them, we adore them, and some of us even aspire to be more like them. They are powerful, unforgettable and no one takes them for a fool. Why are we so pulled towards the villain now?

No film studio has capitalized so much on this idea as Marvel Studios. With the astounding success in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Marvel has constantly pushed the boundaries of storytelling.The MCU has churned out some amazing villains with diverse backstories, including Killmonger from “Black Panther” and the most recent Avengers villain, Thanos. The two villains’ stories I want to analyze, though, are those of Loki and Baron Helmut Zemo.

The story of Loki Laufeyson, the Trickster God, is full of hopeful dreams and smashed realities. Taken to Asgard after being abandoned as an infant, he was raised as an Asgardian prince alongside his new brother, Thor. After foiling a plan of his, Thor stopped Loki from falling into an abyss, both in a physical and metaphorical sense. However, once Odin, their father, saw and disapproved of Loki’s actions, Loki chose to fall into the endless abyss of space. 

Fans have been enamoured with Loki, with much of that being due to the dry wit and clever schemes. However, he has never once been regarded as a one dimensional character, but as a representation of a man that, despite all that he tries to do, can never seem to be the hero. Through his burgeoning connection with Thor, the audience watches as Loki transforms from a villain to a lovable antihero, even going so far as to sacrifice his life to protect Thor and his people from Thanos’s wrath. The outcry for more of the Trickster God was met with a sounding agreement from Marvel Studios, and fans will be able to watch more of him and his sarcasm in the upcoming Disney+ show “Loki.”

When the Avengers came to Sokovia, a young boy looked up, excited to see Iron Man flying past his window. The boy’s father Zemo assured his wife and the boy that they were safe. However, after the Avengers blasted through the city fighting a robot they created, it took Zemo two days to find his son’s body beneath the dust and destruction. As Zemo’s world ended around him, the Avengers just flew home. The destruction of his family, his country, and everything he held dear was too much to bear, and Zemo knew what had to be done.

Zemo spent months studying the heroes and charting out a plan to turn them against each other. He knew, despite all his rage and agony, that he cannot fight them himself, but he had seen their cruelty. If he could find a way to turn that awful power against themselves, to have them destroy their own family, then maybe he could hurt them. Maybe he could make them feel the same pain they forced upon him ever since they flew away.

The key to these stories is seeing that, yes, while they are bad, the motivation for why they are bad is so human. We hope that they find redemption in their stories, because we hope that we can redeem ourselves when we make a mistake. These stories hit home in more ways than we may comfortably admit. The ideas of pain and regret, hopes and dreams, and a will to never give up are integrally connected to who we are as humans. However, deeper than that, these stories tell of men who had everything taken away from them and were powerless to stop it. Of a relatable story of feeling abandoned or alone, stuck in a tunnel with seemingly no end in sight or of people who strive to change the world in their own way, no matter the cost. No one can actually be as innately good as Captain America, or as wealthy and innovative as Iron Man, but humans can be the jealous, spiteful and broken villain in another’s story. 

A popular idea that has sprung up in pop culture is the idea of what a villain is willing to do to keep that and those they love safe. While a hero would sacrifice everything they love to save the world, the villain would sacrifice the world to protect those they love. You see, it is not wrong to root for the villain, even though the idea has been taught for so long. It is important to see why you might root for a certain villain, so you can see what it is that connects you to that character. If that villain can be redeemed and viewed as the hero of their own story, why can’t you?

Another important takeaway from this idea is that pop culture is beginning to view and accept the gray areas of the world. Things would be so much easier if the hero and villain were quickly identifiable and the hero always won, but life is rarely so simple. What is considered “good” and “bad” is always up for debate. The people that are looked up to can do bad things and vice versa. The sympathetic villain is a reminder that, even in what seems like pure darkness or evil, there can always be a chance for one to be saved.

Nobody is born a monster, but villains are created every day. So, I pose a question: why do we so despise the villain, when the villain may be nothing but the fractured hero?


Opinions expressed in letters and other editorials, unless otherwise stated, are those of the writers and not of The Horizon staff or the college collectively.

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