WARNING: Spoilers follow for Downfall (2004) (and World War II, I suppose), House of Cards, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Also, and I think we’ve had this discussion before, but if you haven’t seen The Wrath of Khan yet, I’m not entirely sure what you’re doing here.
I’ve been thinking about bad guys a lot lately. It can be a loaded topic.
In trying to put these thoughts into writing, I wanted to avoid politics, because how can you make a quantifiable statement on something like that anymore? We can generally regard someone as odious, but—and I’m not going to say any names here—that joker can still be beloved by (checks recent poling numbers) 38% of the population.
But, I’m not so much interested in politics but much more to do with the structure of stories*.
I’m not talking about antagonists, either. Antagony** is completely free of any sort of moral equation. In Downfall (2004), the antagonists are the Allied soldiers, while the protagonist is Adolf Hitler. It makes that movie difficult—to say the least—to watch, but it is the face that launched a thousand “Hitler reacts to…” videos, so there’s something to be said for that.
Although that might be a bit of an extreme example, it’s pretty clear there is a difference between being a bad guy and being a bad guy. Again, people of the internet, for the record, Hitler was a bad guy, emphasis on the bad. Hoped I wouldn’t have to draw that line in the sand, but we live in strange times.
Part of the insidious part of the inaugural season of Netlfix’s House of Cards was the question as to whether or not the protagonist—Congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey)—is evil, or just not very nice. Sure, he has no scruples, no ideology, or sense of anything beyond his own temporarily thwarted ambition.
But he gets a lot done in a day, more than most of us. For a politician, that practically qualifies him for sainthood. It may not matter that he’s not entirely likable, but he seems like a guy who is good at his job, and has an—at times, distressingly—honest relationship with his spouse.
Before too long, it becomes pretty clear that Underwood is evil, but completely comfortable with his evilness. He revels in it. In fact, in the few scant moments that he flirts with something like remorse for the people he has mowed down in his quest for power, he seems the most lost. It’s not even a matter of having sympathy for his actions anymore, as it might have been when watching Breaking Bad’s Walter White (Bryan Cranston). In one moment, Frank is ruthless, and in another it became clear that he had long ago abandoned any semblance of a moral boundary. Five years later, we’re hardly shocked when he pushes his own Secretary of State down a flight of stairs. In fact, we’re surprised it took him this long.
But there are even some characters who are clearly intended to be the bad guy but take a little bit of time to fully live up to their title. Upon discovery by the crew of the USS Reliant, Khan (Ricardo Montalbán) is a man not necessarily consumed by revenge, but a slightly ruthless leader with a legitimate beef. Neither Kirk (William Shatner) nor any representatives of the Federation bothered to check on the exiled former inhabitants of the SS Botany Bay. That might be forgiven, but the Federation wasn’t the least bit curious about the aftermath of one of the planets in the Ceti Alpha system exploding, when their records clearly show that they left a whole bunch of people there***?
And had Khan gone through proper challenges—lodged a complaint with the Federation council, perhaps—he might have emerged as the hero of the piece. In short, he would have had a point. Even when he commandeers the Reliant and leaves its proper crew marooned on Ceti Alpha V, he was probably justified in his actions. However, by the time he engages in wholesale slaughter of the scientists aboard space station Regula I, he’s lost any moral high ground he might have had. No wonder Kirk had to scream out into the cosmos.
So, what finally turns an antagonist from merely the character at odds with the protagonist into the proverbial Snidely Whiplash****? Every character—including antagonists—are the hero from their own prospective. The true descent into villainy for characters—and I suppose, for people as well—is when they take their quest too far.
There’s probably some kind of lesson in that thought. Although, for the life of me, I can’t figure out what it might be.
*What’s the difference between politics and storytelling? Good question. I’ve been working most of my adult life trying to sort that one out. I’ll let you know when I come to some kind of cogent answer.
**Copyright 2017, Party Now, Apocalypse Later Industries. All rights reserved, assuming I can reserve rights to a word that didn’t previously exist. I’m the wrong guy to ask; I was only in Law School for about forty-five minutes.
***After that little rant, I think we can all agree that its an absolute miracle that any human person agreed to marry me.
****I probably shouldn’t be able to refer to a cartoon character as “proverbial”, but again, we live in strange times.