Given the Wild Popularity of Violent or Negative Films/Books, Why the Dark Hero, or Even the Villain, Is Idolized
Why are we fascinated by supervillains? Posing the question is much like asking why evil itself intrigues us, but there's much more to our continued interest in supervillains than meets the eye. Not only do Lex Luthor, Dracula and the Red Skull run unconstrained by conventional morality, they exist outside the limits of reality itself. Their evil, even at its most realistic, retains a touch of the unreal.
An abstract of the study, "Violence Depicted in Superhero-Based Films Stratified by Protagonist/Antagonist and Gender," will be presented on Monday, Nov. 5, at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. Researchers involved in the study analyzed 10 superhero-based films released in 2015 and 2016. They classified major characters as either protagonist ("good guy") or antagonist ("bad guy") and used a standardized tool to compile specific acts and types of violence portrayed in the films. The researchers tallied an average of 23 acts of violence per hour associated with the films' protagonists, compared with 18 violent acts per hour for the antagonists. The researchers also found the films showed male characters in nearly five times as many violent acts (34 per hour, on average), than female characters, who were engaged in an average of 7 violent acts per hour. "Children and adolescents see the superheroes as 'good guys,' and may be influenced by their portrayal of risk-taking behaviors and acts of violence," said the abstract's lead author, Robert Olympia, MD, a Professor in the Departments of Emergency Medicine & Pediatrics at Penn State College of Medicine and an Attending Physician at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center/ Penn State Children's Hospital. "Pediatric health care providers should educate families about the violence depicted in this genre of film and the potential dangers that may occur when children attempt to emulate these perceived heroes," he said.
Our culture promotes interest in villains based on this interdependency between heroes and villains. We recognize the evil perpetrated by villains as important and required for the maintenance of society. Without evil present for comparison, we would not effectively know what it was to be good. To illustrate this binary, villains are interpreted as a mirror to the hero (Haraway, Donna 2001). The intent of mirroring is for the reader to see the hero as representing goodness and light, that which is morally acceptable, while his counterpart is one of darkness and evil, the morally corrupt. While the contrast between the wealthy and the poor is a familiar binary to most modern readers, a more primitive variation of the antagonist can be found in tales of evil gods and beasts such as the Babylonian demon Pazuzu and the monstrous Greek Minotaur manifested in the monster/hero binary relationship. “The primordial oppositions depicted in myth and high art for millennia – good vs. evil; order vs. disorder; eros vs. thanatos – have resonated across American popular culture at least since The Last of the Mohicans,” and centuries before that (Greenberg 14). In The Structural Study of Myth, Claude Lévi-Strauss claims that the monster as villain stems from the metaphor of humanity’s triumph over the earth.
After all, notwithstanding the limitations of retrospectively analysing these accounts, this study at least hints that we should start looking at intuitive social heuristics (rather than rational decision making) if we are to understand heroism. Pointing to evidence that altruism can be cultivated as a habit, Rand speculates that these heroic events may be the culmination of a lifetime of generous acts. Eventually, the caring outlook has become its default, so that the heroes like Kenny didn’t even have to think twice before risking the ultimate sacrifice. In other words, regular random acts of kindness may one day blossom into something far more profound.
Greenberg, Harvey Roy. Mere Anarchy: The Batman Trilogy. Clinical Psychiatry News, Vol. 40, No. 9 (Sept,. 2012). 14. Print.
Groensteen, Thierry. The System of Comics. Trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. Print.
Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch, et al. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.