sympathetic villains: fair!?

Alternate, listicle-style title:

Three Times A Villain Lectured the Hero About How Their Optimism Was Solely a Result of Their Privileged Upbringing, and We Kind of Saw Their Point

1. Magneto versus Professor X

X-Men-Professor-X-and-Magneto-Play-Chess

Let’s go over this again.

This is basically their WHOLE BEEF, so I can hardly pick a single monologue. The conflict between Xavier and Magneto resonated so much in the original movies that the reboots then hammered on it ALL OVER AGAIN instead of drawing on the many, many other diverse characters and viewpoints the comics are known for. But I digress.

Charles Xavier was born into wealth! His mutation is invisible! He grew up knowing good people and little-to-no oppression, and as a result believes whole-heartedly in peaceful co-existence with non-mutant humans.

Erik Lensherr lost his family in the friggin Holocaust! His mutation is also invisible, but his message is very attractive to all of the mutants who can’t hide what they were, because they’ve all seen the worst of humanity and understand that humans inevitably lash out at anyone perceived as Other.

And I mean… Magneto ain’t wrong. The best part about this hero/villain dynamic is that you can see exactly what led the villain down their current path, and can sympathize with their motivations. What they choose to do about it is still wrong, and that’s their core tragedy.

2. Killmonger versus Black Panther

killmonger black panther

You’re not… wrong…

Better writers than I have broken down the thematic/historical underpinnings of Killmonger, so I’ll summarize in my usual haphazard, exclamation-point-heavy style.

T’Challa was born into royalty! In a super advanced secret civilization utopia that deliberately ignored shit going down in the rest of the world! Of course he’s hesitant to disrupt the policy of isolationism that gives his people this cushion of safety.

Erik Killmonger was abandoned in poverty, and his father murdered, due to that very same policy! He grew up under systemic racism, bitterly aware of the legacy of colonialism on the African continent despite the existence of a secret utopia that could have saved them! Of course he’s right to want their liberation, and to want Wakanda to step in and help.

But the dude goes too far down that path and becomes exactly like the people he hates. He straight shoots his girlfriend! He wants to turn Wakanda into an empire and dominate the world! The way he’s going about it is wrong, but…what he wants is entirely understandable, isn’t it? Magneto never budges Charles, but in this case Killmonger does nudge T’Challa to a more responsible middle road. His monologuing is top notch.

3. Stinky Pete versus Woody

stinky pete woody

FAIR?! I’ll tell you what’s not fair!

Hear me out, it’s the same thing!

Woody gets some shade in the first movie for always being so confident about his place (he’s been Andy’s favorite toy since kindergarten!) but the Prospector lays it out even more explicitly in the sequel.

Toys like Woody are beloved by their children! They get all the play time they want! They’re passed down as family heirlooms, loved all over again! Of course he sees the best in the situation, and believes a toy’s sole purpose in life is to make a child happy.

Toys like Stinky Pete either get bought and neglected, or never bought at all! They aren’t cool, they aren’t likable, they certainly aren’t lovingly preserved over generations! Of course he’s bitter about this (let’s face it) nightmarish world in which toys are sentient and immortal but doomed to an eternity in a landfill one day if they aren’t broken to pieces first.

Does that give Stinky Pete license to kidnap Woody and force him to live out his days in a museum? Of course not. But is he right to be bitter? Well yeah. Did I mention this world is a horrorshow? The older I get the more these movies make me recoil in grief. I love ’em, but. Damn.

In conclusion

This is one of my favorite hero/villain dynamics. I’m an absolute sucker for the sorta-justified-but-took-it-too-far villain every time. I’m equally a sucker for bringing the hero down a peg when they’ve had things too easy.

What I like even better is to have the hero also come from difficult circumstances, because then you get a stronger contrast between their character arcs. Heroes and villains can both spring from the same origin. A hero overcomes their flaw/tragic backstory. A villain doesn’t. They lean into their flaws, they give in to their bitterness, they use their tragic backstory as an excuse to turn around and inflict pain on others in service to their own ambitions. A villain is the abusive parent who declares, “I’m like this because I had a terrible childhood!!” Sure. But you’re still being a shit. The best kind of hero is the one who also had a terrible childhood, consciously decided they don’t want to raise their kid the same way, and doesn’t.

In the above examples, the villains are absolutely right to call out the heroes for the easiness of their good guy roles. They’re good because nothing ever happened to tempt them to be bad. Give me sympathetic villains, hell yeah. But I also like to see them pitted against less likely heroes.

(P.S. And if you really want my money, make more of them ladies!)