Why We Love Supervillains

Loki, Kylo Ren, The Joker, and Miranda Priestly – what do they all have in common? Unless you live on another planet, you can probably identify them as the bad guys in our favourite movies. From their mischievous and dark personalities to their tragic backstories, these characters have made their way into our hearts despite their relatively evil philosophies in life. But why do we love these villains so much? What is so intriguing about them that they so easily steal the spotlight from their heroic counterparts?  

Rebecca Krause, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University, suggests that fictional worlds create a protective lens through which we can identify with the characteristics of these villains without the fear of real-world consequences. The world of movies and books creates an alluring safe space: one that pulls the viewers into an alternate reality of their own lives. Antisocial tendencies, sinister thoughts and uncaring behaviours are not usually valued in the real world. Whether it's the fear of rejection or alienation from one’s community, we always put our best – and sometimes insincere – foot forwards. So, naturally, when we see the same traits in fictional worlds that have little to do with our own lives, we are drawn to these possibilities of oneself. The discomfort we may feel when comparing ourselves to the same qualities in the context of the real world seem to disappear in these fictitious realms. 

As if magically, identifying with these villains further opens a realm of new character traits – this time, however, focusing on their good rather than their apparent evil. Loki, who clearly cares about only himself and wishes to gain power by all means necessary, becomes a tenacious dreamer. Despite experiencing several significant losses, he comes back stronger than ever. We learn to love his ambition and intellect along with his mischievous and cunning personality, almost entirely forgetting the evil motives at the forefront of his character. Through this careful unravelling of characteristics, these villains take the pedestal intended for the heroes.

Perhaps it was never about the villains. Maybe it's the nearly perfect human embodiment of superheroes that drives us away from them. Their high moral standards, level of perfection, and seemingly irrefutable talents create an untouchable persona. They become the standard of ideals fed to us by society, leaving very little to which viewers can relate. This lack of personal connection and unattainable perfection drives us away from appreciating superheroes the way we do villains. 

I suppose I should take into account that modern antagonists are never illustrated as one-dimensional villains. It is rather the superheroes that seem to have become one dimensional in our current entertainment industry. It is through the villains’ complex, and thus humane, personalities that these characters build a place in our hearts.



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