Sympathy for the Devils: An Analysis of the Villain Archetype Since the Nineteenth Century
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The portrayal of villains has changed dramatically since the late nineteenth century. Modern villains are not necessarily punished, and they are presented as relatable or at the very least sympathetic. An analysis of the major events that shook the Western World in the last century reveals a pattern that links the classical style villain to the modern anti-villain via sociological and cultural changes. The Victorian period showed the West that the British Empire was not eternal and could be threatened. Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s Dracula represented these fears and forced the Victorians to reexamine everything from their belief in science to the role of family. The Modernists came to further question the validity of things like manhood and bravery, and characters like Robert Cohn Ernst Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises served as a way to teach readers that even assumptions about race said more about those who made the assumptions than the targets of said prejudices. His portrayal as a complex human being labeled as a “villain” simply because the other characters vilified him helped set up the idea that antagonists need not be vile creatures to stand against the “heroes.” Finally, the Post-Modern period continued this trend by showing the West that nuclear weapons could destroy life on Earth, not just target nations. As the Cold War overshadowed politics, the Joker in Batman comics came to symbolize the grotesque and evil Other, and yet his characterization in The Killing Joke draws parallels between his relationship with Batman and the relationship between the United States and Russia. The Joker represents the final evolution before the twenty-first century anti-villain. He forced readers to question just what separates a hero from a villain. These three examples explain today’s anti-villain. Today’s antagonists are charismatic and sympathetic. The new wave of fear following the 9/11 attacks rekindled the old colonial fears of the Victorians, and the threat of nuclear or biological weapons has brought back the fears of the Cold War. Additionally, the War on Terror has created the kinds of trauma that plagued the Modernist period. Villains today help us cope with these problems by offering a way to examine questions that “heroes,” by virtue of being “good,” cannot answer.