Friday 30 September 2016

On villains

Nazis are, if pop culture is to be believed, the bad guys it's OK to mow down in droves.

They're inhuman, signified as empty people, devoid of thought or feeling. It might be a bit perverse, but the final extent of that, I think, is in Star Wars, where the bad guys are functionally the same as the good guys in the practical effect of what they do,1 only that the mid-level bad guys get coded with uniforms that vaguely call back the Wehrmacht, their soldiers faceless shells moulded vaguely into death's heads. In The Force Awakens, the Inevitable Doomsday Weapon is fired while they're having a more or less pitch-perfect Nuremberg Rally. Without the uniforms, language, and militaristic behaviours they'd just be... you know. Guys.

The fascist coding makes the Imperial/First Order soldiers fair game for slaughter, the skull-shaped masks hiding their screams as they are gunned down, their distorted faces that, stilled forever, reflect the outer shell in death, hidden. They cease to be people enough that even while you wince as a nameless Rebel soldier buys it, it's intended that you feel a sense of triumph and catharsis when his masked counterpart falls.

Of course, in any real world, they'd be people, complex people with loves and hates, and complex self-justifications for what they do. I'm protecting my nation. I'm doing this for God. I would do such a thing if my family were in danger.

Now, apart from that, there's always been this move in the more thoughtful genre fictions to humanise bad guys, to remind you that they're human beings capable of gaining their sympathy. And when that's done right, that's important and useful.
Two irredeemable, complex bad guys: Stringer Bell and Proposition Joe.

In The Wire, for example, Stringer Bell is an ice-cold player who orders the deaths of boys barely out of puberty if he thinks it serves his operation ("Where's Wallace at? Where the fuck is Wallace? Where's Wallace, String?") But he's also doing an MBA evening class and aspires to move into legitimate business. Of course, he can't remove the street from his blood and as dangerous as he is, he doesn't stand a chance against Clay Davis, the corrupt politician who takes him for millions and leaves his attempt to make a killing in business in pieces. When two hitmen with a grudge take him down in the middle of his empty, unfinished office development, he's actually already dead in the water, with the police on his tail and his money lost forever.

You feel a little sorry for him. But he never stops being an ice cold murderer. His money is blood money. The path of his aspirations is carpeted with corpses.

He's a very bad man.
Fuck this guy. Seriously, fuck this guy.

The problem begins when you protagonise figures like this; for example, Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones (and seriously, fuck that guy), is a prince who has sex with his sister and throws a little boy off a high tower, both in the first episode. Of course, the litany of despicable things he does continues, among them rape and murder, but at the same time he's presented as the show goes on as a tragic, maybe even redeemable figure, because look, he falls in love, he loves his daughter and grieves for her. And of course you don't get a medal for grieving for someone you love. That just makes you a baseline human being. And you don't get plus points for being dreamy to look at. That's just an accident of nature.

Lannister is still in deficit: he's still a black-spirited bastard, unforgivable, vile.
Anyone who links another Downfall video with comedy subtitles, I'll be very cross with.

Many movies and TV shows humanise Nazis. Not that this is a thing that is necessarily bad; take Downfall, which in a lot of ways is the be-all and end-all of Hitler movies and which only frames the evil of these people. The Man in the High Castle, though, is much more troubling. Sometimes this humanisation can make it seem almost like they're more admirable than their opponents.
Nearly all of the decent press photos from this film have Kate Winslet with her kit off. This is also a problem.
It can take you to weird, icky places. In the really quite grotesque 2008 movie The Reader, Kate Winslet's character Hanna, who participated in the crimes committed at the extermination camps and who was actively complicit in one particular atrocity, presents as sympathetic, honest and very much a victim of history.

At the end of the movie, she commits suicide in prison shortly before she is due to re-enter society. The man who once, when he was unaware of her crimes, was her lover (Ralph Fiennes), goes to one of the survivors of Hanna's ministrations with a tea caddy filled with her life savings, supposedly a gift. As grotesque and crass as this is, at least the survivor refuses the money, asking pointedly if this is an excuse, but then spoils it by taking the tea caddy because it reminds her of one stolen from her by the Nazis, and the film frames this as a symbolic reparation. Of course, it isn't; it can't be.

As much as I believe that it is the mark of an adult to offer an unreserved apology, there are some things that nothing can make up for, and for which there can be forgiveness that no human agency can offer.2

By all means, humanise your villains. But allow for the fact that they are not good people. There is no points system; you do not offset crimes by doing things that are basically things normal people do. That just elevates you to personhood.

Can a villain find redemption by performing acts of self sacrifice or heroism? I don't know.
Obergeist: so very classy.

In Dan Jolley and Tony Harris's crass 2001 comic series Obergeist, the protagonist was a Nazi extermination camp doctor, resurrected from the dead to atone for his sins as a superhero, and there was a lot of posturing about how what he'd done was unforgivable. But the framing of it as a superhero story and the explicit placing of a black woman as a sidekick figure who knew the truth and helped the protagonist anyway was calculated, whether deliberately or not, to bring the reader to the implicit conclusion: yeah, probably, beating up supervillains totally atones for Auschwitz.

Obergeist was tasteless as fuck. It was beyond tasteless. I still don't know why I even read all six issues.3

Here's the thing: when your fictional character does things like abuse or murder children, let alone participate in the larger, inescapable horrors inevitably mandated by empires – and yes, the Holocaust is the most infamous by far, but it's not the only systemic human genocide – you can humanise them, and please do, but don't presuppose that this brings redemption.

It doesn't work like that.

1When my eldest son was nine, and we showed him the original Star Wars trilogy, he observed "The bad guys are only bad because they say they're the bad guys."

He's more astute than I was at his age, truth be told. Now in Year Six, he's already written his maiden speech for Parliament and he's reading Macchiavelli's The Prince as his elective class reader.

I'm a teeny bit afraid of him. (back)

2Which begs the religious question, but I'm not even going to try to tackle that one. Nope. (back)

3Or were there seven? I'm sure there was an extra seventh one. I bought them in the days when I bought monthly American comics, and sold them on years ago. (back)