In a recent NY Times article, A.O. Scott has conducted a fascinating survey of the movie villains of the last year. For Scott, the death of Lord Voldemort marks the end of an era in the American characterization of evil. The rise of the Harry Potter franchise and Voldemort coincided with the rise of terrorism and Osama Bin Laden in the national consciousness. Within the world of Harry Potter, Voldemort embodied evil without qualification in the same way that Bin Laden gave a face to the mercurial threat of terror. Both men offered the possibility that good and evil, right and wrong, were easily distinguishable. We know who the enemy is, we just need to figure out how to beat them.
If Voldemort marks the end of a certain type of villain (somewhat artificially, of course), then Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of Magneto signals the rise of an ambiguous villain whose vices reflect the sinfulness of our human nature. Magneto elicits our sympathy precisely because his criticisms of humanity ring true with what we know about ourselves. In this new era, the cosmic struggle between good and evil is now a struggle within our ambivalent selves. It is here that this new wave of villain better portrays the complicated nature of life itself. It is this complication that (less-than coincidentally) reflects a Christian understanding of humanity. If we are both the black and the white swan, then the problem of much worse than previously imagined. In this new narrative, Scott rightfully doubts whether good will ultimately will in the end – how can we rid ourselves of ourselves? The answer to this question is obvious – we can’t.
But the most interesting point overlooked by Scott is the correlation between the fall of personifications of Manichean evil and the rise of the ambivalent, if not sympathetic villain. In other words, the less we believe that the evil of the world is “out there”, the more we recognize it within ourselves. When we stop accusing everyone else for the state of the world we begin to understand our own culpability. Your enemy is not your boss, your child, the president, your pastor, or an impersonal “system” and the more we accuse these projections the more blind we are to the truth of ourselves.
In all likelihood, the end of the super-villian is probably more of a temporary hiatus. New enemies are always being reincarnated in new, more nefarious, forms (see below!). After all, we are very good at avoiding accusation. But perhaps now that Voldemort has finally been defeated we could engage in some much needed self-reflection.
Magneto, more than the others, also evokes a curious kind of self-reproach, because his well-founded vendetta is, after all, directed against us. (And the worst of us is represented by Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw, the nemesis behind the nemesis.) Magneto’s tragic beginnings give him something in common with Caesar, the chimpanzee who transcends his species-based oppression to become a simian Spartacus in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” There is nothing malevolent about Caesar at all: he is the underdog we are expected to root for, even if as a consequence we are rooting against ourselves…
The sins that seem intrinsic to the human condition are unlikely to be so easily beaten. War, racism, inequality, the abuse of authority — we can imagine small, partial victories against all of them, but nothing like the cathartic deliverance of the kind we crave from our stories. Which means that the old demons are likely to return eventually, at least as metaphors for the desire to be free of the stubborn, invisible ills they represent. But right now it does not seem so easy to picture them or to envision their final defeat.
Even at the movies, things are a little more complicated, a little more unsettled and inconclusive. We may not always love our monsters — apart from the studly werewolves and dreamy vampires — but we know them too well to hate them completely. They are us, after all.