Pop culture trends reflect the nature of our collective mindset. They shed a light on the pulse of the majority or at least a large section of the population. Fanfare to movies and TV shows are often derivative of what makes us tick as human beings. I have noticed off late that it has become fashionable to root for the villains. Antagonists like Joker, Thanos, Anton Chigurh, Hans Landa, Cersei Lannister and Lorne Malvo have been upstaging protagonists as marketable pop culture darlings.
There have always been a few in the annals of pop culture. For instance, Count Dracula, Lester Gillis in ‘Baby Face Nelson‘, Darth Vader in ‘Star Wars, Freddy Krueger in ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’, Hannibal Lecter in ‘Silence of the Lambs’, and Mr. Blonde in ‘Reservoir Dogs’. But it was never a trend until recent times. Even in local cinema, which has been out of sync with the world for decades, the bad guy has emerged as the coolest kid in the block.
I have also been watching professional wrestling for over two decades. I can confidently say that newer fans have been rallying around the villains.
Is it because the nature of villainy is partial to deeper character psychology, and so we give it more artistic merit? Do we empathize with them because the arc of their narrative is more multifaceted? An explanation may be that we are interpreting cinema more intelligently. I am unsure how that explains the recent success of the ‘Fast and the Furious’ franchise. And why the pirates of the Caribbean seas refuse to go down with the rats in the theatres.
Or are we typecasting protagonists as being pretentious and uptight because we see their inclination to follow principles as a capacity for weakness? Maybe, that is why we get excited when the good guy showcases glimpses of evil. That must be the reason for Iron Man being one of the highest-grossing and most loved superheroes. Because everyone knows that Tony Stark is a jerk.
Growing up, it was a lot easier to pick a side. Instinctively I stood in the corner of caped heroes and muscle-heads with shiny white teeth. There were exceptions to the rule, based on my interpretation of right and wrong. The first time I remember rooting for evil was when I saw ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. In one of the animated versions, the gigantic ogre resembled a goofy Viking – with a damaged nose. Jack came across as an irresponsible and thieving brat. After trading a cow for a handful of beans, the bugger disturbs a giant that has been minding its own business for eons. Then, he tries to steal its treasure and runs away like a coward before chopping down the beanstalk to impress a princess.
What an ass!
I pitied the giant because he was not created a monster. He had become one because Jack was desperate to be a hero. And a no-good thief.
It happened again during Walt Disney’s interpretation of ‘Jungle Book’. I disliked Mowgli because he seemed to annoy every animal he encountered. Later, as I grew up, I despised him for outstaying his welcome in the jungle. Shere Khan, the tiger, was an innocent victim. An alpha predator, it had detected him as a threat to its predatory status and the biosphere’s sanctity. So, it wanted to dispose of him. The pipsqueak fights back and manages to burn half the place down to the ground. Towards the end, he runs off because an emo girl made eye contact with him.
Such a scoundrel!
As an adult, I cheered the most despicable villains. I had no reason to besides the fact that their characters were better developed. But I sense a deeper decay. Sometimes, I can feel it in the pit of my stomach. It may be that I am wrestling with the bad guy within me. Perhaps I am cautious of monsters lurking out here. I want to be able to identify them. Because I never want to root for bad guys in the real world. I cannot imagine ever playing a role in their rise to the top.
Outside of the medium of art, being a villain or a monster is a waste of existence. It is an awful thing to aspire to be. In fact, it sounds exhausting. All that effort and planning – just to hurt people and destroy lives. And to think that we are the only species in the animal kingdom to do such a thing.
A few months ago, while in the Western Ghats, I encountered a Stripe-Necked Mongoose crossing the road at a tea plantation. Nearby were a couple of tourists, who had off-boarded a van, to have lunch under the shade of a tree. When the mongoose made an appearance, at a distance, by scurrying through the tea leaves, it scared them.
I am unsure what they thought it was. I assumed – from where I stood – that a leopard cub had ventured out too far. That led me to worry about an angry mother lurking around.
But the Stripe-Necked Mongoose was no threat. Little is known about this creature, and it has strong enough teeth to rip through our flesh. It can outrun any human, who does not have Bear Grylls-level abilities, in the forest terrain. It has all the necessary skills to be a threat to intruders. Especially to humans, who are deserving of a good clawing. Instead, the mongoose left the scene to avoid further conflict. It probably spent the rest of day doing what mongooses do. Being the good guy. An animal that understands the balance of nature and takes care of itself. And it does so while contributing to environmental sustainability.
Some may argue that being a decent human being is much tougher. I am convinced that there is truth in their cynicism. However, I am also inclined to believe that it has to do with the type of individuals we choose to be nice to.
If we support people, who do not pay it forward, karma will come back to haunt everyone, including us. If we help those, who ride storms by pirating ships, we shift the tide in favor of everything that is wrong about this planet.
Let us always turn our backs on the villains yet we must keep our eyes on them. We should watch them. Study their strengths and understand their weaknesses. When the time is right, we must help the Stripe-Necked Mongooses win.
I am glad we had met;
I had stayed
Because I couldn’t tell
if there was a monster
under your bed
or if you were
to see me.