Victim, Manager, Rebel, Destroyer
Postmodern, Modern, Medieval, and Ancient Typologies of Villainy
In the introduction to his magisterial opus After Virtue, Alasdair Macintyre describes postmodern society as having fallen into a dark age, a post-apocalyptic state. But this is not the apocalypse of Mad Max. The apocalypse has destroyed, not our technology, but our morality: “We possess simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have… lost our comprehension of morality,” he explains. Postmodern society does not know what good is.
Being unable to understand good leaves society unable to understand evil; and so instead society pathologizes it. Evil becomes a psychological state that results from personal trauma, from some crucial moment when the world failed to show someone compassion, empathy, or trust, or left them exposed to the world’s cruelty. Every postmodern villain is a victim. Behind every figure of terror we find a terrorized figure.
Darth Vader appears as a towering tyrant in Star Wars IV. But the prequels reveal that Anakin Skywalker was a victim: enslaved as a child, separated from his mother, forbidden to marry the woman he loved, rejected in his aspirations by the Jedi council, dismembered by his former mentor, and then involuntarily made into a cyborg by his new one.
Hannibal Lechter appears in Silence of the Lambs as the quintessence of villainy, brilliant, cold, manipulative, remorseless. In the sequel Hannibal, we learn that he’s a victim: During World War II, the kind and gentle young Hannibal was forced to eat his sister by cannibal soldiers.
Lord Voldemort appears in Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone as the most powerful and evil sorcerer in the Wizarding World. But later we learn Tom Riddle was a victim, the product of abandonment by his mother. J.K. Rowling even says “everything would have changed if Merope [his mother] had survived and raised him herself and loved him.”
Kylo Ren enters Star Wars VII as a dark Jedi so powerful that he can halt a blaster bolt in mid-air. But Star Wars VIII reveals Ben Solo was a victim who felt abandoned by his father and betrayed by the paranoia of his mentor, Jake Skywalker.
The Joker, most infamous and vile of all of Batman’s foes, is revealed in his eponymous 2019 movie to have been a victim, too. Arthur Fleck is a mentally ill bastard rejected by his birth-father and humiliated by his coworkers.
Postmodern culture stops at nothing in its relentless transformation of villain into victim. Cruella de Vil is the most recent example. She appears in One Hundred and One Dalmations as a wealthy socialite whose life goal is to murder puppies so she can wear their skins. But the 2021 movie Cruella reveals that she, too, is a victim: Her birth-mother abandoned her and her adopted mother was killed by a pack of vicious dalmations. (I’m not making this up.)
The postmodern villain, then, is just a moral cripple. Psychological trauma has ruined the villain’s ethical system just as spinal trauma might ruin a person’s nervous system. We are meant to feel bad that they do bad. It’s not their fault.
That every postmodern villain is a victim should not surprise us; it is characteristic of postmodern morality as a whole to make the victim the center of its moral universe. Postmodernism’s heroes are victims too, victims of white supremacy, colonialism, oppression, patriarchy, or other systems of malevolence. The victimized are to be the beneficiaries of social justice in the new progressive world to come.
What distinguishes the virtuous victim from the villainous victim is mostly the cause of their victimization. A virtuous victim is deliberately victimized by a malevolent actor or system of oppression. A villainous victim is accidentally or negligently victimized by a benign or neutral system.
Anakin Skywalker is a villain because the Jedi Council aren’t actually malevolent and don’t mean to harm him. Tom Riddle is a villain in the Wizarding World because wizarding society is largely benevolent. Hannibal Lechter is a villain in the Thomas Harris novels because the people he feasts upon cannot be blamed for what happened to him and his sister. But this distinction is often the only difference between postmodern hero and villain. Both are victims and both can freely employ violence to their own ends - “there are no bad tactics, just bad targets.” Hence postmodern entertainment can easily protagonize the postmodern villain.
The same cannot be said of the modern villain. If the postmodern villain is the accidental victim of a benign system; and the postmodern hero is the oppressed victim of a malign system; then the modern villain is the bureaucratic agent of that malign system.
Bureaucracy is central to modern villainy. Modernism is characterized by the banality of evil. Like Adolf Eichmann as viewed by Hannah Arendt, the modern villian is managerial in his wickedness. It’s nothing personal. “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic,” he might say. “I’m sorry you have to die.”
When a modern villain appears in postmodern fiction, he will be an old straight white man, and symbolize the old oppressive order which the hero-victim must overthrow. Often he supervises a younger postmodern villain-as-victim. In Star Wars IV, Darth Vader is supervised by Grand Moff Tarkin. Tarkin is not a victim. He wasn’t dumped in high school by a girl who looks like Carrie Fischer. He didn’t suffer a childhood allergy to Alderaanian shellfish. He just destroys Alderaan because it’s the most efficient way to demonstrate the Death Star’s power against the rebels.
Likewise, Kylo Ren is supervised by Supreme Leader Snoke, and Cruella de Vil learns her wicked ways from Baroness von Hellman. The modern villain may want power, or fame, or money, but whatever he wants, he already has more than enough of it.
Standing in opposition to the modern villain is the medieval villain, who is a rebel against rightful order. The greatest of the medieval villains is, of course, Lucifer, who lead an army of fallen angels in rebellion against God’s righteous rule: “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back.” (Revelations 12:7) The antagonist of The Silmarillion, Morgoth, is another medieval villain, and directly inspired by Lucifer. So is Mordred, the prince who seeks to overthrow his father Arthur in the Arthurian Mythos.
As a rebel fighting against the system, the medieval villain shares some similarity with both the postmodern villain and the postmodern hero. What differentiates the medieval villain from the postmodern villain is that the medieval villain is never a victim. He is, in fact, exceptionally privileged and talented. It is his greatness, not his weakness, that causes him to rebel.
Lucifer was an archangel of the Lord, some claim the most powerful of the Lord’s angels. He waged war because he sought to overturn the natural order in favor of one of his own design, with him at the top.
Morgoth, likewise, was the most powerful of the Valar, and might have wrought beautiful things in Middle-Earth had he done what he ought. But he sought to work against, rather than for, Illuvatar.
Mordred, like Voldemort, was a bastard produced through a magical union. But unlike the victim Voldemort, who was abandoned by his mother and discriminated against by the Wizarding World, Mordred had no excuse. He was raised by his mother and welcomed by his father as a prince. He just wanted to rule Camelot in Arthur’s stead.
Thus the medieval villain’s evil is consciously chosen. No one else is to blame. His evil is prideful. He will not serve. Isaiah 14’s condemnation could apply to every classical villain: “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” The medieval villain does not see himself as a victim of his betters; he sees himself as better than his victims.
If the medieval typology of evil is rebellion against the moral order, the most ancient typology of evil is destruction of the natural order. The ancient villain is the monster of the mythological chaoskampf. In the chaoskampf, we see the eternal battle fought between order and chaos, creation and destruction. Creation and order are represented by a hero-god such as Zeus, Marduk, or Ra. Destruction and chaos are represented by a monster such as Typhon, Tiamat, or Apophis. The battle is not for control of the cosmos, but for its existence. The ancient villain seeks to destroy, not to rule.
The contemporary mind, captured by the notion of progress, believes in the possibility of “creative destruction,” of annihilation as a creative act, clearing away dead wood to make room for new growth. This was not the worldview of the ancients. The coupling of creation with order, and chaos with destruction, is embedded deep in their pattern of thought.
It lives on in the words we have inherited from them. The English word “cosmos,” nowadays a synonym for “the universe” or “all of creation” derives from the Ancient Greek κόσμος or (kosmos), meaning “order” or “government.” Likewise, the English word “chaos,” nowadays a synonym for “anarchy” or “disorder,” derives from the Ancient Greek χάος (kháos), meaning “void” or “nothingness.”
To the ancient mind, the statement “there was nothing until God created the universe” is the same statement as “there was chaos until God created order.” To annihilate order is to annihilate creation; chaos is destruction.
We find this doctrine across many ancient societies: The Hellenic kosmos, the Vedic rta, the Buddhist dharma, the Sumerian mes, and the Egyptian maat. Each subject of the Pharaoh was expected to follow his or her maat in order to hold back chaos; to not follow them ran the risk of chaos breaking forth and destroying the cosmos.
In the ancient villain we thus see evil as chaos itself, or its representatives - desiring not to govern in place of the rightful ruler, but for the absence of order altogether. The best contemporary example of an ancient villain is the Joker in the 2008 film The Dark Knight, played by Heath Ledger with terrifying glee. Unlike Joaquin Phoenix’s version of the character, Ledger’s Joker is nobody’s victim. Every time he’s asked for an originary motive, for some trauma that could explain his villainy, the Joker offers a different reason, and we gradually realize there’s no reason at all. Our brief moment of sympathy for the villain-as-victim gives way to horror. Some men really just want to see the world burn.
But Ledger’s Joker is notable because he is so rare. For a medieval villain to be villainous, he must rebel against a rightful order. For an ancient villain to be villainous, he must destroy a rightful order. Both types require that society believe in the existence of rightful order. But that postmodern society does not.
We return to Alasdair Macintyre warning us that we have “lost our comprehension of morality.” There’s no understanding of the good. Postmodern morality is entirely apophatic: It defines itself by what it is against, as anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-misogynist, anti-transphobic, and so on. Taken as a whole, it is antinomian. It stands against the entire moral order that preceded it. As such, it has no place for villains who threaten the moral order.
Rather, characters who threaten the current order are postmodernism’s protagonists. Saul Alinsky dedicates Rules for Radical to “the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer.” The hero is revealed as the incarnation of the medieval villain! Postmodern entertainment is defined by its literal sympathy for the devil.
Helen Killer is a postmodern villain-as-victim. Helen Song is a blind, deaf, and mute student at the California School for the Blind; her superpowers manifest when she defends herself from a would-be rapist intent on taking advantage of disability, accidentally killing her assailant. The internet turns her into a meme, “Helen Killer,” and even the US government treats her like a freak. We can empathize with Helen even though she’s on the wrong team.
Reynard the Fox is a modern villain. An internet mogul with the ability to telepathically manipulate machines, his villainy is purely bureaucratic. He might digitally erase your bank account, but his taste in wine is impeccable. The occasional murder is just the cost of doing business.
Maximum Leader is a medieval villain. Possessed of a brilliant intellect and inexorable will to power, he has ascended to become the mightiest being in the world. He aspires to overturn the international order and establish a nation of ascendants under his own rule. No one has victimized Maximum Leader. No one could victimize him. He is evil by his own choice. He would argue he is beyond good and evil.
Manticore is an ancient villain. His motivation is to destroy, and he takes pleasure in it. His transformation into a monster is neither a victimization or a tragedy; it is simply an actualization of his true nature. Befitting an ancient villain, the first part of Ascendant: Star-Spangled Squadron (which you can read here) pits Manticore in a classic chaoskampf against a culture hero defending civilization from destruction, a paragon of order against chaos. American Eagle is Zeus, father of heaven, symbolized by an eagle, and striking from on high against the Titan that threatens creation.