It’s ironic that I would be having a conversation with friends over the weekend about human nature in regards to having a certain fondness for “bad boys” and then on Heroes last night, one of the all-time greatest villains in the history of television would experience redemption and a perceptible change of heart.
The life of a villain is an interesting one, usually fraught with complications, emotional devastation, and various traumatic events in an attempt to explain his psychosis. Our culture is uncomfortable with merely classifying evil people as evil (because to acknowledge evil exists is to acknowledge that something other than evil exists, a process which ultimately points toward a divine God) and so it takes a psychological approach in determining how someone became evil. I understand that mindset and agree that frequently, it is our experiences and problems that encourage us to “act out” our ingrained genetics. But I think the human mind and soul is far more complicated than psychology can possibly understand.
Two individuals can grow up under the exact same circumstances, bad or otherwise, experience the same things, and choose different paths. One might become evil as a result and the other choose to remain good in spite of the weighty abuse that Life has heaped upon them. This, psychology cannot explain — it all comes down to the individual and their choices, and that’s hard to handle. We want to believe everyone is basically good and sometimes bad things influence evil behavior — but that is simply not the case. Everyone is basically evil and based on our belief system, our sense of morality, and our cultural upbringing; we choose whether or not to act out on our sinful instincts.
I rather doubt that the greatest perpetrators of evil actions in the history of the world had “mommy problems” or were insulted as a child. That might have contributed to certain of their problems but was not the entire cause unless there was a screw loose to begin with. I find it hard to find much empathy for Hitler and his band of high-ranking, murderous Nazis.
Which brings me back to cinematic villains: what is it about them that we find so alluring? I ran an array of theories past my friends and they thought all of them were valid reasons — things like “we feel sorry for them” (it’s not all Magneto’s fault — the man was in a concentration camp!), we are attracted to their sense of sarcasm (let’s face it, who has the better dialog on Smallville… Lex Luthor or Clark Kent?), and we “just want to save them.” Women in particular seem to want to undertake a role of good influence in man’s life — this comes out of our natural gift as women; God intended for us to be a support system for our husbands and encourage them to become everything they are meant to be in Christ, just as he defined men as our “protectors” so that we can reach our full potential. Out of that comes a deep desire for a woman to be a divine “influence” for good. Secretly, that is what we all want, for us to be worthy of a man changing for us. There’s a funny throw-away line in our culture that is, “Marry them, and then they’ll change.” Unfortunately, too many women assume that is the case. It doesn’t always happen that way and in fact, many good girls have been taken down wrong paths by “bad boys” instead of being a stronger influence on the boy.
One notable literary exception is in A Walk to Remember, in which Jamie’s sweetness, innocence, and devotion to her faith influences Landon not only to become a moral person, but to embrace Christianity as well. It was a sweet story and one that touched my heart in spite of its flawed thinking — that it is all right to date a non-Christian in the hope of influencing him into becoming one.
But the bottom line in our interest in bad guys is that ultimately, some corner of our heart wants them to be redeemed, to turn away from their evil pursuits and become good. Our culture loves telling us that whatever we want is okay; we don’t have to live under certain convictions or standards and should love ourselves in spite of our faults. While I agree with the principle of learning to love and accept yourself (within reason — we should never stop striving to become a better individual and iron out our faults), I think our fascination with villains also underlines an important truth: that deep down, all of us understand that we are Fallen creatures and caught up in the turmoil of sin. Our sinful nature tends to “delight” in evil things because that is what our heart often craves; the danger, excitement, and sexiness of having no inhibitions or boundaries. But at the same time, part of us wants to see that villain redeemed because if they can be “saved,” all of us can be “saved.” If they are worthy of redemption, so are we.
Most villains never find redemption, and some of them cannot handle it when they do. Inspector Javert’s demise in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is a good example of a man struggling with the knowledge that even having kept all the “rules,” he is still “worse” than a redeemed convict. Valjean has admitted his sin and turned from it, unlike Javert, who is so caught up in obeying the “rules” of society he has forgotten to be compassionate. Javert is unable to deal with this and commits suicide.
Finding “redemption” is difficult for a villain. In fact, I can think of only two characters in recent television that have accomplished it. In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer saga, we were introduced to an unrepentant vampire known as Spike, whose sarcastic sense of humor and wanton enjoyment of misbehavior made him one of the audience’s favorite characters. Somewhere along the way, he started having feelings for the show’s heroine and in a dramatic and powerful arc (almost religious in its symbolism — whether that was intentional or not, I do not know) went literally through hell and back in order to reclaim his soul and find salvation.
The second, apparently, is Sylar on Heroes. In portions of the second and third season, he was encouraged to be “good” by outside influences but because that was not his choice or the deepest desire of his heart, ultimately he failed. Sylar has been a villain from the beginning — a serial murderer who has no inhibitions and takes whatever he wants. But flashes of humanity started appearing in the fourth season, the gravity of his misdeeds sunk in, and it seems that he has at last renounced his murderous inclinations and had a complete change of heart. It is different this time because it was his conviction and his decision. I must admit that my reaction has been divided. Part of me doesn’t believe it, because he has pulled similar manipulations in the past, and the other part of me is astounded and hopes it sticks. (Even so, I also hope he can maintain his sarcasm — I would miss his biting insults.)
Redemption… something we all covet desperately and then when faced with it, find it hard to accept. Is that our cynical, untrusting nature kicking in or a deeper belief that the most evil among us cannot actually be saved?