When I was a kid, I always identified with the hero in movies. Nothing could be more natural. The hero is portrayed as a sympathetic character. The hero’s perspective dominates the narrative. The hero is the good guy. Villains, on the other hand, typically aren’t given much of a platform. Attention is paid to their background and psychology only when it condemns them for being the way they are. Villains are always wrong. And if you identify with the villain, then something is wrong with you.
Villains often lose their status as such when their side of the story is told.
Today I am still typically persuaded that the villain filmmakers have invented is more or less in the wrong. The villain simply doesn’t stand a chance against complicit costumes, makeup, dialogue, disturbing music and the occasional smoke. But I also realize that life is more complicated than a hero-villain binary would let on. The most realistic villains are normal people motivated by a sense of grievance. They learn to resent those they deem responsible for their plight and lose faith in the institutions they represent. Sooner or later this process leads to a desire to get even. In the extreme, destructive, anti-social behaviors manifest. How many people say that they have lost faith in their political system due to a sense of grievance? This is a dangerous sentiment because in it lies a seed of revolution. The same seed that villains nurture in response to an offense.
A prime example of this comes from the movie 300. Ephialtes of Trachis was a deformed man whose parents ran away from Sparta, a huge no-no in that culture. Ephialtes hoped to redeem his father’s honor by returning to Sparta and serving in Leonidas’s army. However, he was quickly turned down by Leonidas himself for being too weak to raise his shield. Leonidas said to Ephialtes, “If you want to help in a Spartan victory, clear the battlefield of the dead, tend the wounded, bring them water. But as for the fight itself, I cannot use you.”
Rather than accept a downsized role, Ephialtes reacted by informing the Persians of the Anopaea, a path that only the locals knew. This treasonous act that gave the Persians a tactical advantage was motivated by revenge. Had Leonidas accepted Ephialtes in the Greek army, the outcome of the story would obviously have been very different. In reality, however, his noble intentions turned sinister. The truth is there is both a hero and villain inside every man. The one that triumphs is the one that gets nurtured the most.
Today there are countless wars being fought around the globe. And there are many interests being represented. Leaders notoriously demonize the opposition in motivating their side to support a conflict. It’s a lot easier to kill villains than ordinary people with differing interests. You know the expression, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” To be clear, I’m not saying there is a moral equivalence in every conflict. There isn’t. What I am saying is people tend to portray their enemies as evil even when there is no often appreciable difference in morality between the two sides.