Relative villainsWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
He is one of this summer’s most foul betrayers. He is manipulative, heartless and does not hesitate to play God; without remorse, he is willing to send innocents to their deaths.
He also smells like strawberries and giggles when you tickle his feet.
He is Lots-O’-Huggin Bear, the bad guy in Pixar’s “Toy Story 3.”
After seeing the film, our 4-year-old son Evan had a lot of questions about bad guys. In addition to queries about specific plot points, Evan seemed fascinated by Lotso’s turn to evil.
“Why is he a bad guy?” Evan asked.
We talked about Lotso’s journey and why he “turned to the Dark Side,” though I could not easily explain some of his [plot-spoiling] chicanery later in the film. We also talked about how appearances can be deceiving; Lotso may look cuddly, but a black heart beats under his pink fur.
Evan’s follow-up question was tougher to answer: “Why are there bad guys?” he asked.
It is a lot easier to talk about and celebrate heroics than it is to discuss villains. Role models on a scale from firefighters and policemen to Jedi Knights and Backyardigans have clear-cut values and actions that a 4-year-old can understand.
Villains are often far more complex and ambiguous, and are therefore more difficult to encapsulate.
Then, Evan said something that required a careful response.
“I like bad guys,” he said.
This alarmed and pleased me. Alarmed me, because liking bad guys isn’t healthy. Pleased me, because I do, too. At least, in literature and film.
There is an undeniable fascination with evil that manifests itself in fiction. I’m cool with Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, but I’m rabid about Boba Fett and Darth Vader. I would rather watch Vito Corleone and Tony Soprano than Elliot Ness or Joe Friday. Batman is one of the greatest creations in all comics, but everything I have in my library centers on The Joker.
I understand the moral puzzles involved in being enthusiastic about the bad guys, but bad guys look cooler, get wittier lines and have more dramatic impact. That is not a modern idea; Shakespeare knew the value of a strong villain. Hamlet blah-blah-blahs his way to a title role, but Iago, Lady MacBeth and the lesser-known but awesomely evil Aaron the Moor electrify.
John Milton knew the attraction of the baddest bad guy of all and used that allure to its zenith in “Paradise Lost.” When Satan purrs it is “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” it sticks in the mind, against all moral and civil reason.
As part of its ongoing 20-year anniversary celebration, Entertainment Weekly recently listed its “100 Greatest Characters of the Last 20 Years.”
There are nearly 20 “bad guys” on the list, from no-foolin’ monsters like Hannibal Lecter and Dexter Morgan to borderline calls like Stewie Griffin and Gollum. Among the others are a number of characters who are unquestionably bad guys, but are among the coolest protagonists of their stories: Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield of “Pulp Fiction,” Keyser Soze of “The Usual Suspects” and Catherine Tramell of “Basic Instinct” lead that litany of evil.
I obviously do not want to enthuse about how cool bad guys are to my 4-year-old. We do not hide evil from him, but I recognize the impropriety in making villains even remotely attractive. God knows there are enough bad guys in real life to deal with — people divorced from humanity, disconnected from pain and consequence, those cowards, thugs and porch climbers who think only of themselves.
It’s one thing for adults to choose how much exposure to fictional bad guys they endure; it is our responsibility to monitor how many mustache-twirling psychos sneak through to pelt our kids with images of evil.
I began to mentally catalogue the images Evan has been exposed to. Nearly every book or TV show has a villain, from wicked stepmothers (“Cinderella”) and nasty queens (“Snow White,” “Alice in Wonderland”) to thieving foxes (Swiper in “Dora the Explorer”) and troublemaking cats (Pete in the “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse”). There are sneaky heffalumps and woozles in “Winnie the Pooh,” trash can-dwelling misanthropes on “Sesame Street” and a parade of Disney baddies: Dr. Facilier, Ursula, Scar, Captain Hook, Cruella, Jafar and Maleficent are the tip of the iceberg.
“Why do you like bad guys?” I asked, trying to contain any anxiousness in my voice.
“Because good guys need bad guys to do good guy things,” he said.
In a couple of decades, Evan might understand that what he meant was, “Good needs evil to define itself. Without the extremes of evil to show us the worst of human nature, there would be no quantifier for the best of human nature.”
Or maybe not; but his innocent take certainly sums it up. Evan will one day understand that good and evil are not always neatly defined. “Good” people sometimes do stupid, bad things, and “bad” people are sometimes capable of doing friendly, positive things.
Villainy, like so many things in life, is all relative.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. E-mail him at email@example.com.