Pop psychology has killed the villain

(unherd.com)

43 points | by deepbow 9 days ago

11 comments

  • woodruffw 7 days ago
    The author's hypothesis is undermined at two points: by their insistence on making it as oblique as possible (thanks, I suppose, to UnHerd's editorial predilection towards dressing up conservative culture war talking points) and by the fact that none of their "villains" are actually villains. At best, they're morally flawed or challenging characters, producing narrative complexities that Disney (or whoever) lazily expounds on. That, not the darn liberals, is why we get therapy-Joker.

    Commercial media is doing what it's always done: identified lucrative properties and milked them until the audience either becomes tired or cynical. They've been doing it to Roald Dahl for half a century now! But to (again, obliquely) identify the BFG as a villain reeks of argumentative desperation. Come back when they try to rehabilitate Miss Trunchbull[1].

    [1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miss_Trunchbull

    • dbreunig 7 days ago
      The tell is the author had to resort to using the Buzz Lightyear movie as an example of rehabbing a villain.

      I think they dramatically misread Toy Story, which is disqualifying given the subject of their thesis. Biased and lazy, a twofer.

      • ZeroGravitas 6 days ago
        They also cite Gru from Despicable Me, Willy Wonka and the BFG (i.e. the Big Friendly Giant!).

        This is one of the worst argued pieces I've ever seen submitted here.

    • The article frames the issue in way that's too black-and-white. Providing a backstory isn't necessarily bad storytelling it's just very difficult to get right so that most prequels, backstories, and flashbacks do not turn out well. It is absolutely a fair criticism to say that Hollywood uses prequels to milk existing IP and there are endless examples of cases where a vague or mysterious backstory was preferable to the one some studio decided to canonize. That's not always the case though.

      Rogue One worked because it provided plausible explanations for points about the original film that didn't seem to make any sense. It seemed impossible that the Death Star could be destroyed so easily or that the rebels could find that flaw so quickly. Now we see why. Solo fell flat because nothing about Solo's past, as depicted in the film, significantly changed how we see his character.

      I suppose Joker worked for some people because every version of the Joker is different so you could look at Joaquin Phoenix's Joker as a stand-alone character driven to insanity through various things in his life. It surely didn't work for anyone who expected an origin story for a version of the character that would eventually turn out anything like Heath Ledger's Joker. It's just not possible to draw a line from one to the other.

      • dragonwriter 7 days ago
        > Some of these are successful entertainments but, nonetheless, ones that nobody asked for. I doubt that any child has ever watched the Wicked Witch of the West and thought, “Huh, what’s her story?”

        Wicked wasn't aimed at children.

        Nor is it even remotely intended as a friendly to the original explanation of backstory, it is a deliberate inversion that is based as much as anything on the insufficient demonstration that the “good” labelled characters in the original are good as anything else.

        This whole piece reads as a messy collection of sloppy arguments directed at tendentious misreadings of art that are undergirded by boiling resentment that people dare explore alternatives to established cartoonishly simple good vs evil narratives.

        • hamburglar 7 days ago
          Yes, it’s almost as if the author suddenly noticed that grownups have learned that one-dimensional villains aren’t very interesting or realistic. Why this needs to be “blamed” on anything is beyond me. We might as well try to assign blame to the person who decided stories should be more interesting than watching the nth iteration of a good guy just barely saving a damsel that’s tied to the railroad track.
        • romwell 6 days ago
          >I doubt that any child has ever watched the Wicked Witch of the West and thought, “Huh, what’s her story?”

          Also, apparently, I was that child.

          Not with Wizard of Oz in particular, but I had a book called "Fairy-Tales Of the People of the World" in pre-K, and I remember being distinctly pissed about most of them having a "good" ending whereby the villain was killed.

          I was, like, this doesn't seem necessary. Seems kinda bad from the perspective of the baddie. And the "good" characters became kind of repelling.

          My favorite tales were the ones about the Sly Fox and the like, where the stories were about tricking and outwitting.

        • avl999 7 days ago
          Weird article

          > How much do we need to know about a TV detective to be invested in a whodunnit?

          There are tons of shows that do exactly that. Turn on a random CBS procedural and you will get exactly that- 40 mins of by the numbers crime solving with a smartass quip thrown in every once in while.

          On the other hand there are options for those who are bored by the repetitiveness of crime solving in these shows and get more invested when the characters in the show are full blown people not just vehicles for crimes to happen or be solved (say True Detective (Season 1) or Broadchurch).

          I am sure there is a market for both these things and options for viewers that are interested in either option (or even both depending on their mood). Let the free market sort it all out. Not sure why the author of this article is so outraged.

          > As one of the showrunners of Lost, Damon Lindelof was as responsible as anybody for the backstory epidemic, creating a time-hopping narrative tangle that concluded with a crushing disappointment.

          > On his next show, The Leftovers, he learned his lesson and leaned into his characters’ reactions to the mysterious disappearance of 2% of humanity rather than the reasons for the event. Trauma was the cake rather than the icing, and therefore taken seriously. In becoming so comfortable with complexity and ambiguity, Lindelof made one of the finest shows of the decade.

          Another strange argument, even if some people were disappointed by the LOST ending it was still one of the most popular shows of its era and is to this day considered to be one of the best shows ever made both in the critic and regular person circles.

          On the other hand The Leftovers was widely panned in its first Season and was never a popular success. While it has its ardent fans, it's never going to come close to having the popular success or impact on tv as LOST did.

          I like both shows. Like everything else it is not one or the other, you can have both and let people choose.

          This entire article comes across as: "these are the things I like and anyone who likes what I don't like is wrong and everyone should only make art that fits my personal sensibilities" eventhough nothing is stopping the author to keep liking the things he likes and let others enjoy things they like. There is no shortage of content out there.

          • zozbot234 7 days ago
            > Why is Cruella a canicidal fashionista? Because otherwise Dodie Smith’s story would have been just a bunch of dogs running about.

            I actually think that prequel did a pretty nice job of crafting Cruella's character. It's a lot closer to the common real-world theme of "the banality of evil" than some sort of fuzzy pop-psych story about deep trauma as seen wrt. The Joker. I'm not sure why OP felt like they needed to complain.

            • sp332 7 days ago
              Yeah but it also makes her not a dog-killer. I guess the writers didn't feel up to the task of making that seem banal. It crafted a different character.
              • woodruffw 7 days ago
                I'm not much of a Disney person, but I wouldn't be surprised if the "no dog killing" change was more of a change in child media guidelines than the vague (and culture-war-y) psychological aspersions that the essay's author claims. Violence against animals (and children) is one of those "hard no" rules that I understand to be common practice when developing media for children. Which isn't to say that I necessarily agree with that rule.
                • romwell 6 days ago
                  I agree with this rule.

                  As a child, every time I encountered a character that was cruel to animals, I was like come the fuck on, that person is already clearly bad, how fucking lazy is this writer?

                  There was one book where there was one character which was cruel to cats in a very specific way. In 34, I am still feeling traumatized by that short, textual description.

                  I'm not disturbed easily. Just to quantify: a few years ago, I've seen an aftermath of a fatal car crash: bloodied children, first responders doing CPR on mother's body that didn't need it at that point (she was a goner; news said, she didn't wear a seatbelt). I helped clean the debris for the ambulance to come through.

                  I was fine at the scene. It wasn't on my mind a eek later. I didn't forget, but it wasn't disturbing anymore. And I didn't even know one can flip an SUV in clear weather.

                  But I can't get over that fucking cat murderer. I don't even remember the name of the book, or anything else from it. Just the way he did it.

                  I gained absolutely nothing from that, except a strong hatred for this cheap way of creating a villain.

                  Even though I learned, when I grew up, that some people do torture animals, and that it is a predictor for other horrible things that they do. That book might have been not just realistic in that description, but outright real.

                  ..I still wish I could've un-read that part.

                  The only other thing that affected me that strongly was watching "Dancer in the Dark" as a teenager. It's still one of the movies that I'd rank as the Best of All Time. I have not seen it twice, and I don't feel I'm ready.

                  But at least the cruelty wasn't pointless there. It was a means, not the point.

                  Cruelty to animals as a villain's trait is rarely a means to an end. A hunter that skins his game isn't an example of that.

                  But, say, a character that skins an animal for fun is traumatizing.

                  The problem here is forcing the child to choose between being unempathic or traumatized.

                  Because either you empathize with the defenseless, tortured being (traumatic), or you get desensitized and learn to not feel bad about cruelty for cruelty's sake.

                  Which is precisely what we want to avoid.

                  • zozbot234 6 days ago
                    Yeah, one should keep in mind that the prequel is a comedy film. It's supposed to be funny. I think it was quite good once you properly account for that.
              • dsizzle 7 days ago
                The “rubber ducky” explanation isn’t bad because it tries to explain a character, but because it’s a bad explanation.
                • SOLAR_FIELDS 7 days ago
                  I did find the article’s point - that having a comically evil villain can sometimes work out really well as a narrative device - to be relevant. The example that the author points out - that some people are just plain evil and their malice is beyond comprehension - is exhibited really well by the Joker. A few other memorable examples that come to mind where such villainy plays off its absurdity to make a larger point are Gary Oldman in Leon the Professional and Tilda Swinton’s various villains in Joon-ho’s films.

                  But far too often the one dimensionality is used as a lazy writing device and serves as a showcase for an amateurish script.

                  • Causality1 7 days ago
                    I think really good villains tend to have a traumatic/motivational background that guides their desires but also fundamental personality flaws that lead to them acting well outside the bounds of normal human behavior. Some modern stories fall down when they decide to just take forever really grinding that explanation into the audience. For example, Ramsay Bolton was a great modern villain. I don't need to spend an hour watching him be sad that his dad was mean to him.
                    • setr 6 days ago
                      I think the differentiator is the quality of “evil” — the joker has a type of evil, with a certain texture and patterns associated with it. Whereas a truly 1D villain will simply take on any kind of evil necessary to fit the moral goal. You don’t need to provide a reason behind it, but you still need an internal consistency, which boring characters generally lack. It should feel like there is a driver, even if you don’t know what it is.
                  • 1MachineElf 7 days ago
                    The majority of comments here seem to be critical of the author's thesis, with one even questioning the cultural-political motives behind this media outlet.

                    FWIW, I agree with the author.

                    I found myself thinking about this last night as I finished the first 10-episode season of Netflix's Cowboy Bebop live-adaptation[0]. There were many changes to the original story in the live adaptation, and I feel that part of these changes involves building up a rubber-ducky story for a plot twist at the end. I'm opposed to it not just because it's a change to the source material, but also because it created a needless sense of moral ambiguity.

                    SPOILER ALERT

                    In the original, the protagonist Spike seeks justice in the final episode for the death of his loyal love interest Julia, who dies at the hands of Spike's arch-nemesis and evil syndicate leader Viscous. With the Netflix live-action, in addition to a number of story changes that allegedly made it more appealing to modern audiences, the love interest Julia lives, exacts her revenge on Viscous after years of abuse, becomes the leader of the evil syndicate, and also... shoots the protagonist?

                    The old Julia was perfect in the original story, but the new one cares more about power than anything else. The new version's plot twist for Julia was built up to, with a rubber ducky explanation gradually developed as a side story in each of the new episodes. The director wanted you to see Julia getting her revenge after years of abuse and then cheer for her as she becomes the girl-boss[0] of the most evil crime organization in the galaxy. This ending was... disgusting.

                    An overwhelming volume of contemporary media sends the message that you can be a bad person if you have sufficient justification, and that coincides with OP's concern of the overused rubber ducky device.

                    When I was very young and impressionable, I always liked the villains the most. In kids TV shows, villains could never be shown doing anything truly heinous, and so my sense of them was that they were the only ones who actually felt free to do what they wanted. It was the "good guys" who always ruined the party. Like Nietzsche's ubermensch, villains were great because they were not imprisoned by morality. I thought villains were amazing until I matured some. I needed to realize the value of morality and understand what real-life villains were actually capable of. More and more, contemporary entertainment seeks to deconstruct that idea, which seems like a shame to me. Every rubber ducky story strengthens some real-life narcissist's ego - who wants to live is a society where people like that feel empowered?

                    [0] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1267295/

                    [1] https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200127-the-advert-tha...

                    • woodruffw 7 days ago
                      > I'm opposed to it not just because it's a change to the source material, but also because it created a needless sense of moral ambiguity.

                      I haven't watched the live adaptation, but I find this complaint strange given that the original series is drenched in moral ambiguity: it's a neo-noir-cum-cowboy space opera about bounty hunters! They hunt down and kill people across the galaxy, sometimes solely for the crime of being rival criminals! And Vicious (not his syrupy brother Viscous), the villain, was Spike's friend and partner in crime! He kills his friend!

                      Cowboy Bebop is all about the thing you're aping as a flaw in "contemporary entertainment": a collection of figures who do seem to have sufficient justification to do all of the morally ambiguous things we see them do throughout the show. That's what gives it it's appeal, instead of just being a crime procedural that's inexplicably in space.

                      • 1MachineElf 7 days ago
                        >Vicious (not his syrupy brother Viscous), the villain, was Spike's friend and partner in crime! He kills his friend!

                        Thanks for the spelling correction, but I have to disagree with the moral ambiguity here. The guy's name is literally Vicious. He kills innocent people indiscriminately, like Julia.

                        >They hunt down and kill people across the galaxy, sometimes solely for the crime of being rival criminals!

                        Most of the people with bounties are actually doing bad things, and bounty hunting itself isn't illegal in the setting.

                        >the original series is drenched in moral ambiguity

                        Spike was a bad person, but then he turned his back on that old way of life, then started a new one where he uses his skills in a legitimate way. This is a common trope told in shonen-oriented manga and anime. Ruroni Kenshin is very similar - the Battosai was an expert killer like Fearless, but then he switched from evil to good and became Kenshin like Fearless became Spike. They then go on to fight the good fight, and things get dicey when their past catches up with them. Similarly, there's Inuyasha, who was destined to become a terrible demon until his commitment to Kikyo/Kagome made him change. They fight the good fight, and sometimes you wonder if they are going to revert to their old ways, but they keep making the right choice. Even if Spike wants to seem careless, he still knows what's right and wrong. This trope appears repeatedly in these kinds of shows. The original Cowboy Bebop has it, but it's less pronounced in the Netflix live-action.

                        • woodruffw 7 days ago
                          > The guy's name is literally Vicious. He kills innocent people indiscriminately, like Julia.

                          I'm not saying he isn't unambiguously bad, at least in terms of events contemporaneous. I'm saying that the main characters in Bebop exhibit moral ambiguity, even (and especially!) if they eventually do the morally right thing from the viewer's perspective. Their journey towards the right thing is, after all, what makes them interesting to us; Bebop would be a lot less interesting if the characters didn't struggle with their histories, impulses, &c.

                          (Another example of moral ambiguity I just remembered: Spike's personality and design are an explicit reference to Lupin III, the platonic anime anti-hero.)

                          > Most of the people with bounties are actually doing bad things, and bounty hunting itself isn't illegal in the setting.

                          Illegal is one thing, and morally ambiguous is another: being a bounty hunter is perfectly legal in the US, but I think most people would consider it a morally ambiguous job.

                          • 1MachineElf 6 days ago
                            As with bounty hunters, the samurai protagonists of Japan, and cowboy protagonists of the US, are all technically morally ambiguous, but it's widely understood their stories are about a hero.
                    • kgwxd 7 days ago
                      tl;dr author only likes shallow characters and plots because they can only write shallow stories themselves.
                      • optimalsolver 7 days ago
                        >Authors such as Gitta Sereny (who wrote about the Nazis Albert Speer and Franz Stangl ...

                        This jumped out at me because I had just read an interview with one of Franz Stangl's lieutenants [0].

                        Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka death camp, has to be one of the most evil humans in history, and most people have never heard of him.

                        [0] https://collections.ushmm.org/film_findingaids/RG-60.5046_01...

                        • wpietri 7 days ago
                          I hadn't heard about the site, so I looked it up: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UnHerd

                          It's paid for out of the pockets of a hedge fund billionaire who used to support the Liberal Democrat party in the UK, but who has since become a major Conservative donor: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Marshall_(investor)

                          He's also a major funder of the recently launched UK News, whose biggest draw appears to be far-right politician Nigel Farage: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GB_News

                          • anm89 6 days ago
                            It's an article about someone's opinions about storytelling. Who cares what political team some person connected to the project was on. Are you claiming this invalidates their opinion about screenwriting?

                            Not every occurrence in the world needs to be leveraged to air political grievances.

                            • dTal 6 days ago
                              >Not every occurrence in the world needs to be leveraged to air political grievances.

                              But the article is rich with political subtext; the idea that society is declining due to unreasonably soft-hearted attitudes towards undesirables is a fundamental anti-progressive pillar. The author is completely aware of these political lines and directly references them.

                              Counterpoint - why would you expect articles on a media website funded out of pocket by a hedge fund billionaire with a penchant for political lobbying to be neutral? What's in it for the billionaire?

                              • anm89 6 days ago
                                Gasp! Billionaires! And they have their own website which people can post links to! Gasp again!

                                Those dastardly billionaires with their media websites.

                                If only I had known this website was run by evil billionaires I could have found some other website to read links people post about tech stuff.

                                • romwell 6 days ago
                                  You have added nothing of substance to the thread.

                                  Thanks for admitting you have nothing to say; I love comments that consist of nothing but sarcasm for that reason alone.

                                  Please continue.

                                  • wpietri 6 days ago
                                    Gosh, you sound like a guy with a political grievance. Why are you bringing that to a simple statement about who paid for an article?
                                • wpietri 6 days ago
                                  > Not every occurrence in the world needs to be leveraged to air political grievances.

                                  Sure. But many things do exist exactly for that purpose. So I think it's always worth knowing why something's being written. In this case, the funding model suggests that it's exactly about airing political grievances. Since you claim to care about that, shouldn't you be glad to know that may be going on here?

                                  • bigbillheck 6 days ago
                                    > Not every occurrence in the world needs to be leveraged to air political grievances.

                                    The comments on the original article certainly appear to have taken it as an invitation to air political grievances.

                                    • optimalsolver 6 days ago
                                      >connected to the project

                                      By "connected to the project" you mean "funds the entire thing".

                                    • afavour 7 days ago
                                      Not that it matters but I was amazed to find out via your Wikipedia link that his son was a founding member of Mumford and Sons. What a strange world.
                                      • _dain_ 7 days ago
                                        poisoning the well
                                        • yuliyp 7 days ago
                                          Why is the top comment an ad-hominem? I mean, it's clear that the article is making a point that's antithetical to all sorts of social justice and equity ideas, but why should identifying the (unsurprising) fact that the author supports right wing politicians be the most important bit of the discussion?
                                          • wpietri 7 days ago
                                            One of my fundamental questions with anything I read is where the writer is coming from, what motivates the writing. That not only helps with interpreting the work, it helps me decide whether it's worth my time at all.

                                            I don't think that's ad hom, in that the characteristics I'm raising are relevant. For example, if I am reading an article about a company's stock, I'm not going to care whether the author's eye color is blue or green. But I will care whether they hold that stock or something related, as that's relevant to how I read the article and weigh its claims.

                                            • Nathanba 7 days ago
                                              So you won't have a problem with people commenting this under everything you write?

                                              "I havent heard of William Pietri before, he seems to be a San Fransisco liberal, LGBT affirming atheist and leading figure for the ADL's Online Hate Index."

                                              • wpietri 7 days ago
                                                If you want, sure. Whatever floats your boat.

                                                An important difference here is that I try to have useful profiles pretty much anywhere I write. Whereas I had to look this information up specifically because UnHerd is studiously vague about all the things I mentioned: https://unherd.com/about-unherd/

                                                • Nathanba 7 days ago
                                                  I think the way you connected Unherd with Nigel Farage is a pinpointed, ill-intentioned way of disparaging a site and I think if you want to be honest, you know that's why you did it. It is pretty normal not to broadcast your source of funding for a business.
                                                  • wpietri 7 days ago
                                                    It is quite normal for journalists to disclose conflicts of interest, which especially includes ownership/funding. For example, The Economist: https://www.economistgroup.com/results_and_governance/owners...

                                                    Or Pro Publica: https://www.propublica.org/supporters

                                                    The Washington Post gives their whole ownership history, including Jeff Bezos's purchase of it: https://www.washingtonpost.com/company-history/

                                                    That these folks aren't so forthright should concern anybody. And why should mentioning Farage be seen as disparaging by UnHerd's Daddy Warbucks? He liked the guy enough to put £10 million into getting him and others on the air, so I presume he's proud of the association. It's true I don't like Farage or his politics, but that doesn't oblige me to hide the name of the biggest star of the network that is the other major media effort of UnHerd's funder.

                                                  • woodruffw 7 days ago
                                                    > It is pretty normal not to broadcast your source of funding for a business.

                                                    Not only is it extremely normal, but it's also a time honored tradition in good journalism and civic mindedness. In another era we called it "following the money."

                                                  • willcipriano 7 days ago
                                                    If you were to write on religion, would you find it reasonable if the religious were to simply dismiss any argument you made, no matter how correct or well constructed, simply due to your atheism?
                                                    • wpietri 7 days ago
                                                      Generally when I write on religion, I do make that clear. If some want to dismiss my views because of that, that's their choice. I certainly dismiss a lot of what religious people say, so I can hardly call it unfair.
                                                      • willcipriano 7 days ago
                                                        In a world where everyone operated as you do, I don't think there would be much point in writing, as everyone who reads what you have to say will already agree with you.
                                                        • wpietri 7 days ago
                                                          Not at all. I have plenty of good dialog with people of goodwill that I disagree with. And I have time for that because I don't waste a lot of time on people who are engaging in motivated reasoning, propaganda, suppressing cognitive dissonance, disinformation, and the like.

                                                          And I'm sure you do the same. How much time do you spend in open-minded conversation with Flat Earthers or UFO cultists or Q adherents or telemarketers? I don't think there's much point in talking with people who aren't thoughtful, sincere, and at least self-critical enough to have their acts together. But there are plenty of people who qualify.