It began with Vader, 1977.
I am there gawking, slack-jawed, at his shiny 6’8” robot/spaceman suit stretched over a 50’ drive-in theater screen. Little me and massive whatever-the-hell-he-is are bonding, alone on a multi-acre plot under the Oklahoma stars. The rest of the audience has vanished. My older brother Darrell and that Ford Ranchero of his, gone.
When Lord Vader breathes, I stop. When he speaks, I listen.
He wants something…
Whoa! Are you seeing this? He’s lifting a guy in a white pee-pee helmet by the neck, he’s…hol-ey Sith! He just crushed Pee-Pee Man’s windpipe!
I correct my posture. This monster’s on a mission, but what is it? How can I help him out? The spell is interrupted by crunching and a rude giggle… Put that popcorn down and everybody shut up! I’m trying to pay attention.
Darth Vader and I spent the next couple hours trying to track down those damned dirty Death Star plans. We failed. Years later we were chasing after his errant blue-eyed brat…that flip-flopping punk! One day it was all talk of joining the Imperial Academy, next it was linking up with some guerilla rebellion or off to join some extinct mystical order of hermits.
Such is the capriciousness of youth, but Big Daddy Vader was past that life stage. The Dark Lord knew in no uncertain terms what he wanted out of life.
Galactic dictatorship. Such lofty goals…
Thing is, Vader had no question about pulling it off his stunt. Rule the galaxy? In his mind it was a fait accompli. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People? Screw you! Vader only needed one thing.
A Stark Comparison
Contrast his daily life to ours. We mope around whining about (Pick at least ONE):
• The pay hike that never came
• The spousal quibble over them costly new tires we put on the credit card
• The fact our political party can’t pull their head out
• Netflix, which just pulled our favorite show
Vader doesn’t give a Goddamn! Sith don’t bitch about insignificant matters. One must clear their own path in life, in his view, but one must become a Master of themselves first. His faith in himself, his abilities, and his destiny were unshakable (and frankly he found your own pitiful lack of faith disturbing).
Isn’t that an optimistic outlook? Search your feelings; you know it to be true!
A New Hope? Goodie gumdrops, but as Vince Lombardi put it, “Hope is not a strategy.” Faith, however, is another story. Faith is optimism in daily action, or as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints defines the word:
“Faith is a principle of action and power. Whenever we work toward a worthy goal, we exercise faith.” I may go to Hell for using LDS’s definition in this context, I believe it fits well. Apologies, Mr. Smith!
Shared Traits of Scum
Line up every legendary villain and you’ll see Vader isn’t alone. They all exhibit a metric ton of faith-based optimism. They are utilitarian in nature, their eye on the future, on the horizon, forgetting the means so long as the end is obtained. Jedi Master Yoda considered that a bad thing. But say what you will—villains get things done!
Villains don’t wear horse blinders. They don’t sweat the small stuff and they aren’t necessarily OCD perfectionists. Failure’s viewed as a natural part of the process of goal attainment, and they move on—quickly and with resolve, murdering associates or goons only when it is necessary to make an example.
The path gets bumpy? They keep smiling like maniacs (which they are). Their hands get dirty (or bloody, more like), but they keep busting skulls because it’s part of the grind.
Don’t you see these “villainous scum” are positive people?! Villains know they’ll “get there,” and so the ends—be it a dystopian government, personal wealth, the destruction of a system of planets—however horrific or sloppy or downright nuts those ends, they are automatically justified.
If you can’t grasp that, you’ll never make a successful villain.
Why Bad Guys Are Magnetic
Be they confined to the cinematic screen, the comic panel, or the typed page, successful villains all apply their time achieving their (twisted) dreams—because they have faith they’ll succeed.
So they never lose laser focus. They don’t banter with their lessers (unless it’s to fuck with them). They devote their soul to the mission, and their mission is to stuff their black hole egos like a Butterball turkey. Villains stay in the zone, and that zone extends beyond the cliff of insanity. Maybe that’s what gives them that winner edge…
It’s worth your time to analyze the raison d’être of scumbags, and I’m not alone in thinking this. Even on a subconscious level, this code is etched onto our brains, this fascination with villainy.
Toy makers realize Darth Vader toys far outsell Luke Skywalker ones. Cereal markets based boxes on classic monsters like Frankenstein (Franken Berry) and Count Dracula (Count Chocula). Ever seen a box of Van Helsing Berry? No.
The heroes may be more loved—Batman is more cherished than Joker, and Sherlock Holmes far more revered than Professor Moriarty—but there is no denying that once we hear those vile villainous names we catch a bit more chemical buzz.
There’s more than one answer to that question. We’re not “supposed” to like the bad guys, and yet the best ones are written to be sympathetic and cool. So really, we are “supposed” to like them.
Remember, a villain doesn’t care what they are “supposed” to do. They do whatever pushes them nearly to their goal. But the dark secret we hate to face is that villains share an underlying optimism, and that is their most attractive attribute. They’re wild, incongruent optimists.
Forget how nonsensical their schemes may come across, for to them, they’ll work! And there’s never any doubt. No hesitation, no trepidation.
Want to rule the entire galaxy? It’s within the realm of the possible for a Sith Lord.
Want a cut of every criminal deed performed in London’s underground? All you need is a well-laid plan.
Want to build an enormous bottle rocket and tie your caped nemesis to it, then launch him into space? There’s nothing stopping you. Not when you’re a villain.
Why can’t we all be so confident?
As a kid I was, despite his not being a complete villain, a Garfield fan. And tacked on my wall was a poster of Jim Davis’ Garfield on a tree branch with Odie the dog inexplicably beside him. Garfield’s cottony thought-bubble read: “It’s amazing what one can accomplish when one doesn’t know what one can’t do.”
Isn’t that the essence of the evil megalomaniac?
So here are a few examples from the world of the fictitiously deranged, the downright scum of the galaxy. Each draws from a different well of strength—faith, methodical planning, ruthlessness, grandiose dreams, fearlessness, egotism, aggressiveness…but they are all linked to optimism. Always with the optimism.
Exhibit A: Moriarty
Facing the world’s greatest private dick (prior to Batman, one might argue) Professor Moriarty, the “Napoleon of Crime,” displays not a pentaquark of concern. Any lesser scum would fear they were done for. But Moriarty knows he isn’t outmatched, after all. Because he knows how well-constructed his cobwebs of treachery are…
Here’s a brief exchange of megaminds:
“Tut, tut,” said he [Moriarty]. “I am quite sure that a man of your intelligence will see that there can be but one outcome to this affair. It is necessary that you should withdraw. You have worked things in such a fashion that we have only one resource left. It has been an intellectual treat to me to see the way in which you have grappled with this affair, and I say, unaffectedly, that it would be a grief to me to be forced to take any extreme measure. You smile, sir, but I assure you that it really would.”
“Danger is part of my trade,” I [Holmes] remarked.
“That is not danger,” said he. “It is inevitable destruction…”
That’s some hard Victorian smack talk for ya! And that’s Moriarty, the master plotter. He’s optimistic because he takes time to plan ahead, to prep for any and all eventualities. Having that sense of security, knowing you did a thorough and comprehensive job, gives one that certain smugness which a genuine villain requires.
Exhibit B: O’Brien
George Orwell’s 1984 featured a villain unlike any we’d run into before. O’Brien’s cold heart made Moriarty look like a volunteer at Habitat for Humanity. In dystopic Oceania, no deviation from the INGSOC Party line’s allowed, and any hint of dissent leads to erasure from existence. So when miserable little Winston over at the Ministry of Truth decides to start up a forbidden diary, a figurative rope is lain out for him to hang himself with it.
INGSOC Inner Party man and world class sadist O’Brien relishes in the slow indoctrination of Winston into a wholly fabricated resistance movement. Once the game’s revealed and Winston learns he’s been duped, O’Brien takes his sweet-ass time torturing, tormenting, and utterly eroding the will of his captive, for no good reason but to do it.
“Always, Winston, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
If you had to define “ruthless bastard” with one literary character, you’d been pressed to do better than O’Brien. His is the faith of the nihilist; the optimism of the damned. But he’s very good at his job. He’s optimistic, at least, because throughout his decades of service he’s never failed to get ‘er done.
Exhibit C: Ozymandias
Lest we give short thrift to our illustrated Übermensch, gaze upon the deeds of Watchmen’s Ozymandias, Alan Moore’s ultimate contribution to the field of antagonists. The “World’s Smartest Man” is also one of its fittest and fastest, able to accurately predict the move of any opponent and simultaneously counter it.
Unfortunately the real superpowers of Earth—America and Russia—have become deadlocked in a high-stakes game of nuclear wipeout, their opposing ICBM’s primed to launch en masse, ensuring Mutual Assured Destruction. Ozy can’t abide. But the best scheme he can cook up leads to the purposeful obliteration of New York City.
Killing millions to save billions. It is the ultimate ethical dilemma, the “trolley problem” thought experiment taken past the extreme. If he does nothing, the world will perish. If he does the one thing able to stop it, New York will die. So he does the one thing, murdering his fellow superheroes along the way in order to keep them from stopping him. Ozy did what had to be done, and his predicted outcome came true. The world bonded. Enemy nations came together.
But how did he have the fortitude to carry out the act? Pure stoicism, spawned from alienation. Alienation led Adrian Veidt to become Ozymandias. In his own words:
“I burned with the paradoxical urge to do everything. Do you understand? My intellect set me apart. Faced with difficult choices, I knew nobody whose advice might prove useful. Nobody living. The only human being with whom I felt any kinship died three hundred years before the birth of Christ. Alexander of Macedonia.”
Ozymandias is optimistic that his cold logic is infallible, and that he is the only man who can save the world.
Exhibit D: Gustav Graves
Don’t we often gauge the success of a Bond film by its antagonist? I know I do. One neglected 007 megalomaniac is Gustav Graves, the North Korean-turned-billionaire industrialist who never ever sleeps. My favorite quote from the franchise comes from Graves:
“One of the virtues of never sleeping, Mr. Bond. I have to live my dreams.”
Graves is a villain to be reckoned with because he dreams big. He’s demonstrably optimistic in his larger-than-life schemes…as well as in his ability to end the great James Bond when nobody else could:
“Ya see Mr. Bond, you can’t kill my dreams. But my dreams can kill you!”
Exhibit E: Joker
“Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just…do things.”
That’s a sentiment from the Joker in “The Dark Knight.” Joker’s lying, manipulating Harvey Dent to ally with him. Because Clown Prince of Crime certainly does make plans…he planned to rip off the mob bank, planned to pit the passengers of two vessels against each other in a sick twist of the old Prisoner’s Dilemma gambit. Still there’s truth in his words.
He does “just do things,” without dwelling much on the outcome. If an evil idea comes into his head, he implements it without fear or hesitation. And that’s his greatest strength. He’s fearless. Yet his optimism pushes through to the surface, not just in his clownish demeanor but his unflappable sense of humor.
Exhibit F: Anton Chigurh
Speaking of madmen, the thick-necked Anton Chigurh from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men uses a captive bolt pistol and pressurized air tank to get results. It’s crude, demented, and surprisingly effective. Chigurh, like the Joker, appears to operate in a personal state of chaos, leaving little things like the Life and Death of strangers up to a coin toss.
Chigurh: You need to call it. I can’t call it for you. It wouldn’t be fair.
Gas Station Proprietor: I didn’t put nothin’ up.
Chigurh: Yes, you did. You’ve been putting it up your whole life you just didn’t know it. You know what date is on this coin?
Gas Station Proprietor: No.
Chigurh: 1958. It’s been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And it’s either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.
Sporting a birth-control haircut and monotone vocal timbre, the assassin’s will is a palpable as a fist shoved in your mouth. But he loves to fuck with his prey, which is nearly everybody. He’ll stand there and banter with the local yokels until whatever mental stopwatch he’s running alerts him that their time’s expired.
An equal opportunity killer, Chigurh is compared by his competition to the bubonic plague in terms of his effectiveness. When your rivals respect your abilities so much, you must be onto something.
Chigurh may be off his meds but he’s not only confident but cocky. A little egotism can go a long way, but in Chigurh’s case a lot can go lot further. His lack of outward emotionalism belies his internal optimism, though. He’s a shark swimming in a world of living chum, always calm, never hungry…and always up for a fun yet fateful coin toss!
Exhibit G: HAL 9000
Sentient ship-controller HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey doesn’t take no for an answer. When the crew believe HAL has made a diagnostic error, they believe it is too significant to ignore…so they conspire to take the A.I. system offline, a fact HAL learns and doesn’t think too highly off. So…he murders them all. All but one—Dave.
HAL may be hard to categorize as an evil villain, but really it is no different from the others on this list. It is operating in perfect accordance to its own logic, as do the others. Judging solely by its deeds—killing innocent people (some in their cryo-sleep, no less!), HAL is a villain. But it is programmed to ensure mission completion, and the crew are jeopardizing that mission. What choice does they leave HAL? It cannot abide by failure; yet it certainly takes no pleasure in the termination of the crew’s life functions. These acts are merely a means to an end… HAL is logical (naturally) but also quite persistent, because it is optimistic that it can achieve the end goal by itself, without those pesky meatbags!
Exhibit H: Satan
Eternal shame on me if I neglect to mention the vilest villain ever to meddle in human affairs. The original go getter, Lucifer’s been a’wheelin’ and a’dealin’ with the Creator of the Universe itself since the days of Job. Takes a pair of steel huevos to cut deals with the Lord Almighty, but that’s who Satan is. It’s who he was made to be.
Mark Twain said, “We may not pay Satan reverence, for that would be indiscreet, but we can at least respect his talents.”
Søren Kierkegaard put forth the notion that “Christianity is the invention of Satan, calculated to make human beings unhappy with the assistance of the imagination.”
Sufi Islamic tradition contends that Satan’s refusal to bow before Adam was a test—which he passed through his insistence, even in the face of damnation, that none shall be worshipped by God alone. Perhaps there is something to that concept.
It’s of note that the wily dark angel got Jesus to proclaim the same sentiment:
Satan to Jesus, in Matthew 4:9 – 10: “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”
Then saith Jesus unto him, “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.”
So to be clear, Jesus refuses to worship anyone but God, which is seen as a good thing, but when Satan refuses to worship anyone but God, he’s cast into a pit of fire and becomes history’s greatest villain? Such is the fate of independent thinkers.
Despite the variety of religious/historical opinions on Satan, it’s agreed that he is hubris incarnate. And he’s aggressive, never altering his stance, always leaning forward to trick mankind into folly and despair.
In the end, Satan hopes for a reinstatement of his former glory, an end to the banishment from his Maker’s Kingdom. After all these years, he’s still truckin’.
Surely that’s proof of the optimism of villains?