We are all part of an audience that consumes content in multiple ways, which could be watching movies, going to the theatre, watching soaps and sitcoms on T.V, or even the newer Web Series through numerous OTT platforms or videos on YouTube. Content is made to tell us new stories and for us to connect with their characters, and siding with the protagonist or the “hero” is quite normal and almost cliché.
Despite that audiences often find themselves feeling empathetic towards the antagonists. There is something about the villains that touches an untapped part of our emotions because we can feel their pain, even if it doesn’t justify their actions. We can understand them, feel bad for them and actually wish for them to get a chance to redeem themselves. Why is this the case? Is it morally acceptable for people to side with the “Bad Guy”?
We can take the example of a few characters from the Rogues’ Gallery of Hollywood. Anakin Skywalker, a popular character from the Star Wars franchise, goes on to become the most evil man in the galaxy, Darth Vader. He can be confused for the stereotypical villain who is bad just for the sake of being bad and dresses in all black and speaks in a menacing voice. The reason people resonate with the character as much as they do, is because we have faced the same circumstances as him at some point in our lives. We have all thought highly of someone in our lives, only to be disappointed. We have all felt betrayed by somebody we love, and we have all been tempted by something or someone who promises the best to us, without realizing its malevolent nature.
Another example, could be The Joker, a popular antagonist from the Batman Universe, he is a manic psychopath who enjoys bloodshed and wants nothing more than to humiliate the hero and reduce Gotham to ashes. Despite being such a sinister character, we can understand where he is coming from. We feel bad for what happened to him, that he got trapped in the world of crime out of sheer helplessness. We sympathize with him, are impressed by the profoundly crazy things he says, and we almost want him to win sometimes. These villains bring out the grim nature of the world around us, which is why we may catch ourselves condoning the violent things they do.
Another great example would be of Macbeth, from Shakespeare’s famous play. He starts out as a well intentioned man, who is ready to go to great extents to show his loyalty towards King Duncan. Even though he isn’t the traditional villain, he is tempted by his wife, who renders him greedy for wealth and power, and convinces him to murder his King, which results in the prophecy of the Three Witches coming true, as Macbeth’s fall begins.
As an audience that is consuming these stories, we obviously see how the antagonist is wrong in what they are doing, but we still resonate with them as there is an inherent human quality to them. There is something very relatable about being wronged in life, getting fed up with the world and turning to the dark side. Even though most heroes also go through the same painful experiences, they make the difficult choice to remain good. As inspiring as that is, it’s barely doable. When push comes to shove, our emotions take over any smidge of rationality we may have, and we end up doing questionable things which we think is for the greater good. Darth Vader wants to bring balance and order to the Galaxy, Macbeth wants to make his wife happy and be a just ruler while trying to wrestle with the guilt of killing his beloved King. The Joker wants to earn his place in the world again, and wants to avenge himself by putting Gotham through hell, just like the city did to him.
We may not condone the ways these characters achieve these goals, we may not condone the goal itself. Though we can understand their pain and sympathize with them. We have all done things in our lives which we wish we could take back, we have all wished for do-overs. Similarly, we feel badly about what the villains have become and wish for them to get the chance of redemption which we never got. We project our own sorrows onto them and that creates a special kind of connection which is tough to find with the typical “hero”.