Warning: This article contains spoilers for Joker, Maleficent, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, and the BBC series Merlin.
When I tell people that I am going to play Morgan Le Fay, the power-hungry sorceress and primary villain in my school’s upcoming theater production, A Boy in King Arthur’s Court, most tell me that they could never imagine me acting evil. To that I respond, “Being a villain is the best feeling in the world.” I do not mean to be sadistic. I defend my statement with an observation of a certain trend in popular culture that brings me to the question, “Why are we so obsessed with villains?”
Humans have always feared and hated, yet secretly admired villains. The most obvious examples are in the Marvel movies. If childhood means gaping at Iron Man’s heroism and secretly vowing that one day you will grow to be as brave and noble as your favorite Avenger, growing up means realizing that Thanos actually has a point and that Loki is not represented enough to be fully understood.
Today, more noticeably than ever, fictional villains have taken the spotlight in the media. An increasing number of films, shows, and stories are featuring unconventional protagonists, from mildly disturbed antiheros to full-on criminals. The limits of being a villain is being treated with more creative interpretation. In Hollywood, the interest in evil has especially sparked a renewed perspective on traditional antagonists.
This Halloween, two box-office sensation films, Joker and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, have particularly taken the audience out of their comfort zones to reconsider what evil means and why we are so enchanted by it. Whether this current of antiheroism is an attempt to reassess society’s conventional appeals and dive deeper into the complexities of human psychology or simply a method of pleasing the masses for profit, it is nevertheless an interesting one to consider. The following analysis is derived from a combination of multiple sources and my own interpretations.
There are some possible explanations for this not-so-recent but increasingly popular fashion towards glorified villainy. UNILAD’s article on the infamous villain Joker claims, “Charisma is the key to a villain’s magnetism.” As humans, our primal aggressive tendencies might cause us to be attracted to the villain’s proactive nature that the reactive hero often lacks.
In Disney’s 1959 film Sleeping Beauty, the protagonist, Aurora, spends most of the action sequence in her bed and barely captures any attention. In 2014, Maleficent, the live-action spin-off on the classic animation, gained many fans by structuring the story around and reconstructing the “traditional villain.” In both Maleficent and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (the sequel), Angelina Jolie plays the immensely powerful fairy who literally blows others away with her wings. Maleficent’s seemingly limitless magic, boiling rage, and vengeful mischief keeps the audience glued to the screen. Of course, Jolie’s natural allure also adds to Maleficent’s villainous charisma and her character’s appeal.
Another reason for this trend is that villains (at least the ones discussed in this article) might actually project our true nature: complex and flawed with darkness and anger constantly clashing against a desire for security and happiness. Villains are often more realistic than the idealistic hero, evoking our sympathy, or even empathy, for the character.
Joker, for example, opens with the protagonist and soon-to-be-villain, Arthur Fleck, in a grim scene that highlights his tragic daily life as a mistreated outcast. Similarly, Maleficent grows to distrust all humans after her heart is broken by the future king, Stefan. As it is emphasized in the sequel, her situation is worsened by the fact that she is made an enemy of mankind from the legends that shroud her true intentions.
Morgan Le Fay, whom I will perform in my school play this November, is a villain from antiquity. In the original Arthurian legends, Morgan’s power and ambition deemed her greedy and an outcast as a woman of her time. The BBC show Merlin gives a deeper backstory to an inspired character, Morgana Pendragon. When Morgana learns of her magical powers and her identity as the princess of Camelot, she becomes fearful and lonely, as sorcery is banned in the kingdom. “Every day I must look [my father] in the eye knowing that if he were to discover who I really am, he’d have me killed,” she exclaimed in one instance. The once compassionate and loving Morgana grows vengeful, cynical, and desperate, and falls into the lure of tyranny.
Many parallels can be drawn amongst Morgana Pendragon, Arthur Fleck, and Maleficent. To all of them, the cold truth of the circumstances of their lives paired with betrayal and harsh treatment of society drives them to deep rooted bitterness. As novelist Jerry Jenkins puts it, villains exist in the “initial visceral reaction” of the terrible thing that happens to them. Most times, we ignore the external factors that shape a character and judge them for their internal traits instead, but when a certain film or character demands attention to the complexity of the situational context, we are given an opportunity to re-examine even the vilest of villains.
Joaquin Phoenix, the star of Joker, summarizes this in his interview with IndieWire: “It’s hard not to have sympathy for somebody who experienced that level of childhood trauma… Does it mean his actions make sense or are justified? Obviously not… But it allowed me to approach him with less judgment and more compassion than what I had when I first read the script.”
Furthermore, we might even recognize parts of ourselves in these evil characters we see on screen. Jenkins elaborates, “On the surface [villains] may have many, if not most, of the same attractive qualities of your hero. But just beneath the surface fester the qualities you can access in yourself if you allow yourself to.”
In Joker, Arthur writes in his journal, “I just hope my death makes more ‘cents’ than my life.” A large portion of us have gone through our own existential crises. An evil protagonist is not meant to be a receiver of admiration or praise, but they show that we are not alone in this “crazy world,” as the Joker would have called it. Villains are not censored. Instead, they are presented with all the flaws and all the dark, conflicting thoughts that we may share with them.
With that being said, I go back to my original statement that performing as the villainous character can be “the best feeling.” Angelina Jolie herself described Maleficent as “playful.” There is a bizarre, campy, almost blissful aspect in certain popular villains’ personalities that overrides the somber mask covering them. Even as I am locked in the mentality of Morgan Le Fay during rehearsals, it takes everything in me not to break character and start laughing uncontrollably at the ridiculousness of drama and all that comes with it.