I saw Suicide Squad when it first came out, and it concerned me. I didn’t believe that bad people should be cast on the good guys’ team. I have a history of being black-and-white to a fault.
We’ve seen a lot of these types in pop-culture recently, from Suicide Squad to Deadpool, Maleficent to less obviously candidates such as Dark Phoenix. Dark, tortured souls, identifiable and dangerously relatable.
“It’s irresponsible to make villains relatable,” was what I was thinking to myself on the way out of Suicide Squad. Dangerous and irresponsible. And for a short time following Suicide Squad, across social media there was raised interest particularly in that infamous [abusive]power-couple, Joker and Harley, and the sentiment was largely shared that these dynamics were not relationship-worthy goals. But of course that wouldn’t stop young impressionable girls from idolizing Harley and normalizing her abusive situation.
My mind has changed.
Actually it isn’t so much that my mind has changed but that I have met my mind. I spent much of the last two years hesitantly allowing the forgotten shadows in my own head to come back into the light – I shared some of the results of this shadow-work regarding my sexuality in a previous post, and have continued to speak to it either directly or in allusion in some of my writing since. With the help of a very informative book, I began to take a more compassionate look at my own villains–and to ask them what their needs were. And, to my surprise… some of them answered.
Not long ago I went to see Joker, and I wasn’t disappointed. It was raw. And I’m beginning to understand that perhaps this trend of unseemly characters on the big screen is actually much more connected to the movement I’m beginning to see taking place among my peers: people are waking up to themselves. I’ve spoken to a number of people recently who also speak of learning to love and care for themselves–in the face of their shadows–one or two of which also have noticed this awakening trend. It excites me immensely to see this happening, because it is the dream I’ve nursed for a decade or more.
So how do anti-heroes and villains fit in?
I used to believe, as a christian, that the problem with us today is that we are aware. We’ve still got the residue of the knowledge of good and evil on our lips, sewn into our sinews. I used to believe that to live sinless, that transcendence would require a return to pre-fall ignorance. Maybe that’s a logical-but-child-ish view of the matter. Certainly the notion of sin needs to change; too many young people have grown up under the oppression of guilt and shame for what old men believed ‘sinful’ and shameful. This won’t do in a religion with a claim to a divine action that ended sin some 2,000 years ago. I’ve got news for you: if you believe in the cross, the events in Revelation have at least largely already taken place. I used to bawk like the best of them at people who minimized sinful behavior, who wanted to thrive on the goodness and grace and not think about their supposed incurably immoral nature. I used to believe as much as anyone that that kind of thinking was greasy–as if there were any real danger in letting people follow their own self-defined concept of ‘good’. According to that oh-so-loved book, giving people back their good nature (as if they had ever truly lost it in their dis-ease) was kind of the whole point, so why is it that Christians don’t trust anyone to behave to their personal prescription of right?
Could it possibly be that the Christian prescription of ‘right’ doesn’t actually match the inherent ‘right’ we were created with? But back to villains.
The thing about many villains is that the more you understand them, the less villainous they seem. You see motives, mental illnesses, tragedy. You begin to feel sympathy, empathy, emotions deeper than yourself over the story of someone who is supposed to be unquestioningly evil. Dangerous thinking, indeed. Anti-heroes become misunderstood, villains become broken people taking wrong-but-nearly-justifiable action against very real wrongs done them. And we walk out of the theater second-guessing the good guy for not doing better, or being more aware of the problem. The brute-force battle heroes of the world are still wrapped in glorification, but in the face of the villain backstory their actions are becoming more and more tainted. We begin to wonder, if only something different could have been done, if only these encounters had gone differently. We switch sides and fall in love with the villain.
And the real question is, “Why not?”
Why not feel empathy for the villains? Isn’t that what a man named Yeshua taught before he was brutally killed by his? ‘Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you.’ The ways of the world are changing.
The reality is we’re much closer to them than we realize with our fragmented selves half hidden in subconscious shadow. We misunderstand the deep things of ourselves and so misunderstand the deep things of others. We maintain flawless personas and scapegoat our undesirable, unacceptable traits onto others and these Others become our villains because we refuse to empathize for our own wounds and so cannot care for our projections on them. It is too convenient to blind yourself to your own narcissism by railing against the narcissism you see in others–but a narcissist by definition will see narcissism in others because they themselves can never be wrong; it must always be others with the problem.
I welcome the anti-heroes and villains into pop-culture, into our homes and living-rooms and minds. I gratefully accept the challenge of empathy, realizing that empathy of itself is a powerful and all-too-rare commodity in this life. I kindly remember the villain-characters of my own subconscious I have honored and allowed to reveal my deep needs to me, which they have always fought for. I cry for every horrible event that has brought those characters into misguided action in the lives of others under the genuine motive of self-preservation, and in so doing created our villains. The world ought not to be this way.
And I don’t know anything else but love. There is nothing else that can bring us back into wholeness. Love–compassion, empathy, mercy, the ‘softer’ sentiments. But there is nothing ‘soft’ about choosing to look your enemy in the face and say, “I love you,”–and mean it. There is nothing ‘soft’ about looking at a criminal and saying, “I honor your experience,” and mean it. There is nothing ‘soft’ about love; it is hard, gripping, it will break your heart into a thousand pieces a thousand times. It will break yours and it will break theirs and maybe it will be the fire from which a phoenix will arise. Love your villains.