An interesting phenomenon turned up during the recent release of Rogue One, the darker, more tragic addition to the Star Wars films. Despite having a completely new cast to market and work from, many of the ads focused on a single appearance: Darth Vader.
Now, Vader isn’t in this movie very long and his presence only affects the plot in marginal ways, yet all anyone could talk about was the incredible last scene where Vader completely massacres a group of rebels just to get the Death Star plans.
Will I complain as a Star Wars fan? Never. I got to see Darth friggin’ Vader on the big screen for the first time.
Not Anakin, not the underwhelming cameo in Revenge of The Sith. Actual, awesome, terrifying Darth Vader that struck fear into hearts back in the 70’s.
Behind every great hero is an even better villain. Something fun and dark lurks in a well-written antagonist, and while we aren’t rooting for them, we relish having them to act as a moral counterpoint. Their popularity has since led to a growing trend of villain-lead stories; comics and stories centered around Darth Vader, or Loki from The Avengers, or The Joker from Batman. Anime and manga haven’t shied from this either, giving the world Kira of Death Note and Lelouch v Britanna of Code Geass. Villains suddenly act as their own protagonist, and deal with their own antagonists.
The villain lead has taken on a new importance, whether it be in origin stories as with Fairest and Heartless by Marissa Meyer (books that focus on The Queen of Hearts and Levena, Meyer’s science fiction reincarnation of Snow White’s Evil Queen). Or with outright antagonistic protagonists, as with the popular Six of Crows books by Leigh Bardugo. Characters who aren’t always saved, nor do they want to be. Leads capable of crime and debauchery all the way to end.
Of course, we can point fingers at the Hot Topic-esque marketing monstrosity that is Suicide Squad for leading the recent march, but villainous protagonists have existed for much longer. Macbeth is an outright murderer, driven by his own ache of power and paranoia. Dorian Gray uses, abuses, and kills to protect his cursed secret. Humbert Humbert justifies lust and control to satisfy his own meek existence. All the main voices of their story, opening their minds to the audience and sharing in their worlds.
Now, not all leads are created equal. While a Harley Quinn can be charmingly chaotic, main characters for novels like Lolita and A Clockwork Orange are unquestionably perverse and wicked. Monsters that edge passed a moral horizon and beyond what much of the audience is comfortable with. Are these, the truly diabolical, meant for antagonistic roles alone?
When putting the more controversial leads into perspective, it’s important to remember that we are all the protagonist in our own mind. We are all heroes, even when our choices are not so heroic and not so brave. The truly evil, in real life, are not those aware they are committing wrongdoing, but those who justify their own wrongdoing as something right or morally just (this is a sound tip for writing villains, by the way. I stand by this rule for my antagonists).
Does that make these characters purely irredeemable? Not always. Even true villains like Darth Vader technically earn a chance to do the right thing, and many other more villainous leads get a chance at the same redemption. But all the same, does every not-so-good protagonist need redemption to be likable? Can a villain not simply do what villains do best?
The best example lies in a widely popular story, that almost wasn’t the same story. In the original final chapter of A Clockwork Orange, Alex realizes the error of his violent ways and changes himself, which sounds pleasant enough. Yet when the novel was released in the US and adapted, editors and filmmakers saw fit to remove the last chapter, effectively voiding Alex’s recovery and leaving him as a vicious psychopath. While the author himself never cared for this new ending, many readers and viewers agreed that Alex’s change would have defeated the point of the story. The very real, raw idea that sometimes, no matter what happens, people are purely content to be monsters.
So, perhaps some villains are just villains, and they are best written that way. And perhaps we, as readers, enjoy exploring the more complex layers of these characters. Often darkness makes for the best stories.