[Content warning: discussions of real life assholes, incels, white supremacists and domestic terrorists]
[I’m making some sweeping generalisations about white male villains, but don’t worry, I’ll do an article about villains who actually have valid points soon…]
So Joker has come out to rapturous applause, literally, and glowing reviews. An entirely predictable result- but it has created some capital D Discourse. The reviews are largely very positive, glowing in fact. Especially the ones that first appeared on twitter. These were from critics who saw it at the Venice Film Festival and gave it a standing ovation. Some critics appeared to have swallowed a whole thesaurus in an effort to give this movie praise.
But there are, shall we say, concerns. From those of us who maybe think now’s not the time to take a cinematic, stylish look at why angry, disaffected become… um… murderers. That’s not to say people think watching this movie will turn people into spree killers, but might like… become validation for people who do? Maybe that’s too simplistic. Basically, there might be a lack of understanding in general audiences about ‘satire’. Maybe film makers should really consider this when making movies about angry disaffected white men ‘going bad’.
The Assholes We Love The Most
The people who adopt otherwise quite interesting even likeable to a point villains as some kind of mascot whilst entirely missing the point of their story. It was meant to be a horrible warning… but… trouble is, it’s a very exciting, gorgeously shot, cinematic horrible warning with an amazing soundtrack. It’s Fight Club, Taxi Driver and The Joker.
The Joker’s always had a fascination as a villain. He’s the chaotic opposite to Batman, he can be a funny prankster or like, a disgusting piece of shit. Hell, the outright evil Joker of The Killing Joke has been adopted as an anti-hero mascot. Mostly by the kind of men I used to talk to in comic book shops in the early 00s. Without any kind of self examination as to why they’d want to adopt a character who shot and sexually assaulted a woman.
These same men and Zack Snyder think of Rorschach as a gritty anti-hero and not a creepy misogynist asshole. No matter how hard Alan Moore tried to hammer it home. We were never meant to think these characters were good examples, but that doesn’t stop people adopting them. Either ironically or otherwise.
Which is kind of a problem.
Poe’s Law on Steroids
Poe’s Law rules amongst people who didn’t realise Tyler Durden was meant to be the symptom of someone in the middle of a psychotic break not a fuckin hero.
Is it possible to make interesting, fascinating villains whilst giving them just enough of a relatable/sympathetic view that you could even find yourself rooting for said villain? Well, yeah- but is it a good idea anymore? Was it ever a good idea? Why can’t we just enjoy anti-heroes without real life people seeing themselves validated by their terrible actions?
I’m not actually going to talk about the Joker, specifically- the character or the new movie- because I haven’t seen the new movie yet, but I think maybe focusing on other villain portrayals and why we might be drawn to it is worth commenting on. At least to understand why so many people are very uneasy about Joker and certain audiences reaction to it.
To be clear- no judgement. It looks like a really great movie, I want to see it, but you cannot blame us for being uneasy about its impact.
Cults and Incels
I’m not going to lie; I’m keen to go see Joker. Probably the same part of me that finds True Crime podcasts about manifesto killers, cults, scam artists and serial killers fascinating. I’m far from alone- True Crime has always been a massively popular genre. Strangely enough, women in particular seem to be a huge demographic. A lot of people, myself included, put that down to it basically being a way of protecting ourselves because guess who serial killers tend to target a lot of the time?
My main fascination is with cults and scam artists mostly because in my heart of hearts, if things had shaken out differently for me I could very well fall prey to the types of people who run scams and cults. The way my brain works, it’s sometimes difficult to read a person’s intentions. I want to recognise the signs of an asshole trying to trick vulnerable people out of their money or building a framework of followers who’ll do literally whatever you say.
They’re very often, if not the same people, then at least in the centre of a Venn diagram that looks like a very blurred circle.
Thanos the All Powerful ‘Centrist’ YouTuber
Trouble is, they make for fascinating villains- fictional or otherwise. For example, MCU!Thanos is basically a cult leader. A very bugiling one providing you don’t think too much about his philosophy, which is very plausible because… well, allow me to gesture in the direction of a legion of lost, angry white men (the type who become spree killers) who follow Youtube based cod-philosophy libertarians.
Thanos is basically a bearded YT ‘centrist’ who sounds smart, but given near infinite cosmic power. He’s a literal centrist- his philosophy is ‘balance’. He even snaps people at random to prove how ‘centrist’ he is. It’s all fair, he ‘doesn’t see race/species or gender’.
Anyway, like and subscribe and tap that bell.
At least Thanos owns up when his followers kill someone. AHEM.
Yes of course Thanos’ idea of how to create balance is ridiculous, way too simplistic and genocidal- just like that of any alt-right hobgoblin with worrying popularity on Youtube. He, like said hobgoblins, has been huffing his own farts for so long he just believes he is right because he has a huge army of yes-creatures. He sounds good, he seems smart and powerful, at least on a surface level. If you spend too long isolated from the real world and immersed in the world of one admittedly very charismatic man (in Thanos’ case anyway, can’t speak for the disgusting hobgoblins) you start to believe him. That’s how cults work.
Light it up!
But be honest… how many of us have used a Thanos meme? I know I have. It’s a very beguiling solution- literally just snap your fingers and your problems just… blow away. Hell, that’s how Iron Man solves everything in the end- but it comes with a price. Thanos making piece with that price is one of the most fascinating things about him. He’s so convinced he’s right and he lives his beliefs. How many real world villains do that? Hell, the Thanos the Avengers eventually beat is not the same Thanos of conviction that defeated them in Infinity War.
How many of us have thought about using the Death Note? The whole point of Death Note was to show how that ‘easy solution’ mentality pulls Light further and further into madness. He pulls one thread and it leads to the deaths of people who definitely don’t deserve it because they get in Light’s way. Light’s rival, L, is just as dickish as him. It’s implied he’d use the Death Note too if give half the chance. The artist of the Death Note manga called L ‘slightly evil’- and he’s the good guy. At least nominally.
Light Yamigami was definitely the mascot of many a dick in the otaku fandom community in the late 00s.
It does sound inviting. So long as you do not think about the consequences on other people. Millions of people. That lack of introspection and taking things at face value is why we’re worried about the types of audiences who will latch onto the Joker. See it as a kind of instructional manual for their own belief system. A belief system that forms the basis for self validation, rather than a chance for introspection. Introspection is the point, that’s Scorsese’s favourite theme as a film maker. I’m pretty sure we’re meant to use it as an opportunity for growth. Not let ourselves be suckered in by our worst instincts.
The movies even show the villains gaining a cult of followers, who end up dead, injured or worse- showing how easy it is to fall into a cult like way of thinking. Yet some audiences would be like… yeah, sounds like a great idea!
Thanos: Cult Leader vs Thanos: Incel
Cults are like an abusive relationship- you’re drawn in, isolated, gaslit, promised a reward and… stuck. Thanos does this to Gamora and Nebula, but through their mutual support for each other, they manage to escape… but not without a lot of pain, heartbreak and loss.
This is the story I value the most and one of the best, most complex and tragic relationships in the MCU.
I kept seeing, on Tumblr in particular but not exclusively, that comic book Thanos was a ‘better’ villain than his MCU counterpart because he was ‘doing it out of love for Death’, whereas Thanos in the MCU’s plan was ‘stupid’.
I think by ‘better’ they mean more ‘sympathetic’ or even ‘believable’. Romantic even. It’s painfully obvious they haven’t read Infinity Gauntlet because holy shit.
I mean, MCU!Thanos’ plan is not well thought out, but again- it’s not meant to be logical to us the audience, just to him and the people who have been drinking his Kool Aid*. He’s high on his own supply. He’s ear deep in his own bullshit. May I remind you that back in the real world, the plans Trump proposes are goddamn insane, but there’s a ton of people willing to buy into them. Either they genuinely believe it or are making money off the people who genuinely believe it. Not sure which is worse to be honest.
Plus, again, how many of us have used a Thanos meme as a j o k e? I have. If you don’t think too hard about the consequences (which if you’re in a Death Cult like Thanos’ The Black Order, you’re probably not thinking about anything beyond um… Death.)
That can be what happens to the men who become incels- they’re often drawn in to a point that it becomes their whole life. Until they get to a point where they feel like committing an atrocity is the only option. The people who peddle right wing, misogynistic ideology that drives incels and mass shooters are very cult leader like, I’m not the first person to tell you that.
There’s a fascinating video by Contrapoints about Incels in which she talks about them as being a kind of death cult. They’re often men who are lost, lonely, confused and absorbed some entitlement by osmosis that since they’re ‘smart’ they deserve a girlfriend. It’s difficult to reason with them. It’s difficult to know where to even start unravelling the tangled mess of loathing, self-loathing, entitlement and ill informed prejudice that turns deadly. Why do you think people are calling Joker an ‘incel friendly’ movie only half ironically?
As I said before- the only difference between MCU!Thanos and like, Stefan Molyneaux, is that I’m guessing Thanos’ podcast would at least benefit from the deep, delicious baritone of Josh Brolin.
The cult leader eventually converts himself (it’s mostly men and a few token girls) to his own belief system. What might have started out as a scam for power and wealth eventually morphs into a belief that they actually are right.
And then there’s 616!Thanos. Classic all powerful cosmic incel if ever I saw one.
That doesn’t mean he’s a less convincing villain, quite the opposite. It’s a huge improvement over his 616 counterpart… or is it? I definitely don’t think he’s more sympathetic, or even more believable, but as a villain he’s very recognisable… but so is 616 Thanos. I mean, the thing the people making this point miss is that whilst Thanos is obsessed with Death, the feeling is not mutual. AT ALL.
Death is a Stacie who wants to bang Chad Deadpool
He is in love, but in an abusive, obsessive, disgusting way. From the moment she sees him, she hates his guts because of his possessive attitude and appalling grandstanding. She brought him back to work with him and he becomes obsessed with her.
She wants him gone immediately, but because Thanos is, well, an all powerful cosmic incel, he doesn’t take no for an answer. He feels like he’s entitled to her attention and he thinks murdering half the universe will somehow win her favour. It doesn’t. She still hates him. Loathes him. She regrets bringing him back from the dead.
To her it’s the equivalent of like, you getting cornered by your boss and threatened with losing your job unless you ‘give him a chance’.
So he fucking stalks, negs and gaslights Death. With Mephisto as his wingman/enabler.
I’d forgotten that he creates his own like, waifu to be like ‘See Death? Here’s a REAL woman!’
Even Death herself can’t catch a fucking break from creepy entitled men. How much of an asshole do you have to be for DEATH to be like ‘… blocked. Reported.’
And you’re telling me he’s a more sympathetic villain than his MCU counterpart? For real? How about they’re both terrifying villains, in different ways.
Smart Men Are the Worst
I’m not surprised the more incel-ish tendencies of 616!Thanos don’t seem to come up a lot when talking about him being in love with Death, even in future stories with Thanos in them. It’s more digestible to think of his ‘love’ for Death as romantic, rather than awful. More ‘understandable’. Incels are allowed to thrive when we allow men to think they ‘deserve’ attention from women, regardless of the woman’s opinion.
I’m using scare-quotes for smart, but these men are more often than not very smart in particular fields. They’re often from tech and science based backgrounds. The author of a white supremicist novel/wish fulfilment handbook called ‘The Turner Diaries’ (do not google it just trust me on this**) was an assistant professor of physics at Oregon state. What happens is that because they are experts in very highly regarded fields- engineering and science, they then conclude that any beliefs they hold about, say, other people must also be smart therefore right. A similar thing happens with men in the arts as well, only they mostly turn into get-off-my-lawn types, mediocre comedians, sexual predators or sexual predator adjacent enablers. Or all of the above.
I mean, why do you think so many villains are scientists? They are so convinced they’re right because, well, tons of people have been telling them they are right so why would this be different.
Racism and misogyny isn’t rational- it’s a belief system entirely driven by irrationality, but how many scientists have backed up racist ‘science’ like phrenology? I wish I could say it died out in the 1940s, but a swift glance at the worst parts of the internet prove that otherwise ‘smart’ men clearly think there’s something to it. Anything to explain why they are lonely other than admitting to crippling anxiety and fear. Toxic masculinity is a hell of a drug.
As a villain origin story, you can’t fault that it’s terrifying… especially if you’ve experienced it in the real world.
Killgrave was a brilliantly conceived villain, because we all either know someone who dated a Killgrave or are someone who dated a Killgrave. For me, since I’m lucky enough to have somehow avoided the worst of it, there is a dark kind of fascination. I’m at least in the top fifteen of an incel’s hate list. I’m a queer feminist, almost forty and super into lady heroes; that’s why I’m fascinated with these types of villains. I need to see what drives that villain, not because I want to know why- I already know why– but because it should serve as a dire warning.
MCU Men = antidote to toxic masculinity
We need to teach men, well, everyone really but particularly men, that empathy is vital to human survival and to personal fulfilment. That’s the main message of the best MCU movies- emotional growth, family, togetherness and support is what makes the heroes heroic. Learning lessons about humility and empathy unlocks powers they didn’t know they had. It’s absolutely a condemnation of toxic masculinity.
Even the most arguably masculine hero, Thor, is thoughtful, sweet, funny and cares deeply for those around him.
And drank his ‘respect women’ juice on a daily basis.
A lack of empathy and isolation make for a deadly combination if you’re also subconsciously taught entitlement.
But the problem lies with people who think hearing that story is some kind of validation, not a warning. People seem to be missing that point- we’re not concerned that people will be driven to mass shootings because of the Joker, we’re concerned people who are already inclined to that behaviour will take this story entirely at face value.
Interpretation is everything
The problem people have with the Joker and how its recieved is that it could be seen as a validation of angry white men who turn into spree killers. Just because we might sympathise with the kind of loneliness and isolation he feels, doesn’t mean we should then support his actions, but… a lot of people don’t seem to be able to seperate the origin with the actions.
That’s not something an author can help. I know I quote her a lot, but Lindsay Ellis has a video on Mel Brooks that goes into ‘The Satire Paradox’. This was based on an episode of the Revisionist History Podcast where some audiences receive satirical points made by left of centre personalities as dead straight endorsements of um, not so left ideology. Ellis brings up the examples of Loadsa Money, 30 Rock and The Colbert Report. That’s just satire- straight, dramatic portrayals are worse for this. She cites how Neo-Nazis really like the imagery in American History X because, even though it was not the film maker’s intent at all, they somehow think it frames the actions of a Neo Nazi to be… like, a little bit understandable. Maybe even cool.
Which… sucks. Can we not have the journey into the psychology of a villain without like, some people interpreting it as a quasi-endorsement? No. I don’t think we can. No matter how obvious the satire/dire warning elements are.
I’ve seen some chuds, either seriously or ironically, use Starship Troopers as a basis for anti-SJW memes. Even though that movie is so obviously anti-facist/anti-conservative satire you’d have to fail basic comprehension to miss it. It’s a hallmark of Paul Verhoeven’s best movies- certainly his sci-fi epics. Trouble is, Starship Troopers is also a very cool sci-fi action movie, if you take it entirely at face value. Which… some people do.
Though, as Lindsay Ellis points out in the same videos, these same chud don’t seem to want to take on imagery from Springtime for Hitler into their own personal brands. The reasons are obvious- the satire is not glamorous and there’s not way of reinterpreting it as such. I’ll bet you any money that modern Neo-Nazis, alt righters and Incels won’t be taking any validation from Jojo Rabbit when it comes out later this year either.
That’s the problem. If you take the villain’s origin at face value, it does seem to make sense or even be kind of appealing. That’s the cult mentality again. It’s so ironic that the film inteligencia at the Venice Film Festival seem to like Joker– they should be the ones to see it as a horrible warning. As someone with a degree and a masters in film studies, I’ve seen a lot of movies about angry white men, by angry white men, get lauded because they’re ‘provocative’. They tell the untold story of how ‘easy’ it is to become a villain… if you’re an angry white man.
But rarely is this story told from the point of view of someone who is at the receiving end of this. The victims of the rampaging incel are collateral damage, the unavoidable outcome of a sad misanthrope ‘going bad’. They’re the ones whose story should be told. Now more than ever.
None of this occurred to me when I was neck deep in my degree dissertation about the constant villain figures of Dracula and Dr Frankenstien in science fiction. The lonely, melancholic entitled lord, manipulating and literally taking from people until they’re part of him. The equally entitled ‘genius’ who thinks because he’s smart enough to figure out the mechanics of life, he never thinks of the emotional consequences it might have on other people.
Like I said, there’s a type of villain that I am fascinated by.
BUT, on the other hand- who am I to tell creators what to do? I mean, there’s only so much we can help how a fan base reacts. Just ask Rick and Morty fans. Asshole characters have appeal. I just wrote a good thousand words on why I find Thanos so fascinating and why I listen to podcasts about cult leaders. I enjoy this sort of thing… because I see it as an opportunity for both self-examination (why am I drawn to this?). More often than not there’s an illicit little thrill at watching someone who’s not me be a total dick and get their comeuppance.
Entitlement is a big part of all villains, even sympathetic ones. We’re all guilty of it, of privilege getting the better of us. To be a better person, you need to conduct a lot of self examination of your own privilege and learn how to empathise with other people who don’t have what you have. That’s painful to do- especially if you’re finding your own struggles difficult, but vital. Like letting go of a toxic habit. Letting it fester and grow, or even indulging it, is what turns people into monsters. It seems to be a very particular type of people too.
I’m not sure fascination with it is healthy and it’s difficult to make those stories without romanticising it- even by accident. I’m not sure there’s a solution to this, simple or otherwise. A compelling villain is vital to a compelling story, but there’s got to be a point where maybe sympathy needs to be directed elsewhere. Maybe to people who aren’t, at the end of the day, mostly just complete dicks.
*By the way, the phrase ‘drink the Kool Aid’ comes from the story of the Jonestown massacre, where those in the People’s Temple cult willingly drank a poisoned drink (which was actually Flavour Aid), but in most cases were forced to by their leader- Jim Jones. Over nine hundred people- including three hundred children- were murdered. He’s a fascinating villain in and of himself and very much a good point of reference for a real world Thanos. The story of People’s Temple is why you should never trust white people who put themselves in charge of civil rights movements for black people. EVER.
**It’s the main book that inspired the Oklahoma City bomber.
I’m a thirty something British nerd-mum and wannabe author, fueled by tea, poor decision making and a need to be distracted. Cursed to watch favourite characters die and ships sink.