When looking for a movie to take my daughter to last weekend, I came across, Cruella, a full-length movie telling the origin story of the villain from, 101 Dalmatians. These type of redemptive villain stories are becoming more mainstream in Hollywood. There have been many examples of this anti-hero archetype over the years, from Butch and Sundance to Bonnie and Clyde, Randle P McMurphy, Vincent Vega, Tony Soprano, Walter White, The Joker. The story of the villain-protagonist for some reason resonates. Ironically, in the age of cancel culture, we are glorifying, humanizing, contextualizing evil characters.
These movies attempt to show the full humanity of the anti-hero, so we will not to judge his bad deeds in a vacuum, and try to understand the underlying reasons why he became who he is, and why he did what he did. But in reality, we can only see these types of characters as sympathetic quasi-heroes on a screen because if we met any of them in real life, we would revile them. Would we allow mafia bosses, drug dealers, bank robbers, rapists, psychopath murderers into our life on any level?
Yet, these extremely flawed men are redeemed on screen not by their deeds, but by their humanity. The protagonists in these anti-hero stories are presented as likeable. They become characters we can identify with, empathize with, root for. Likeability becomes redemptive; likeability is forgiving.
The most famous example is Vito Corleone in the movie, The Godfather. He was an evil crime boss; a thief and a murderer. But we like him, identify with him, understand him because of his commitment to his family. We see him celebrate his daughter’s wedding, and enjoy spaghetti dinner with his family like we do. But he was not simply an imperfect hero, who possessed some of the character flaws the rest of us have. Rather, he was elevated from the traditional villain to a quasi-hero because we can identify with his humanity, and understand the reasons which led to his sinister decisions.
These anti-heroes are often seen as victims of circumstance. The situation dictates their actions, more than their nature. Michael Corleone, Vito’s son, infamously once said, “every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in.” As if he had no choice in his life decisions. The true hero doesn’t allow himself to be pulled in at all. True heroes don’t succumb to pressure or temptation or convoluted codes of behavior. They stay true to who they are. There is a consistency of character that transcends circumstance.
Walter White, the anti-hero in the TV show, Breaking Bad is humanized because we see the reason why he broke bad, to support and protect his family. But we overlook the many families he destroyed in the process; the young kids he helped put under the ground, and the parents who lost a child because of what he produced and sold. Doing what’s best for himself and his family regardless of how many other people are hurt and destroyed is not heroic; it’s not even forgivable. We should not contextualize his breaking bad because his son has cerebral palsy, and he has cancer.
At the critical jucnture in the anti-hero's journey, he has the chance to become a hero, if only he makes different decisions. A hero faces down dire circumstances and choses to do the right thing even when offered a way out by sacrificing some or all of what he is? The hero holds onto his character regardless of the circumstances? Simply because we can see why he broke bad does not justify him breaking bad and definitely doesn’t make him a hero. William Wallace in the movie, Braveheart, could have avoided an excruciating death by asking for “mercy”, and recanting on his quest for Scotland’s freedom. But he chose to stay true to his cause, to his character, and to who he was. And that inspired the movement to continue the fight beyond his death until Scotland won its freedom.
Too often, irredeemable characters are redeemed to a certain level due to their humanity. These characters are not human, in the sense that they do not possess the basic understandings and emotions that separate humans from other living beings. They lack the capacity for empathy, compassion, forgiveness, or even human love which allows them to act as they do. The more we humanize the evil among us, the less human we become, and the less we’re able to discern the civilized from the uncivilized. Heroes are human, but simply by humanizing evil, does not create a hero.
Judd Garrett is a graduate from Princeton University, and a former NFL player, coach, and executive. He is a contributor to the website Real Clear Politics. He has recently published his first novel, No Wind.