If you’re like me (and if you follow this blog, you probably are), your social media feed keeps getting populated by “Gentleman” articles and memes about how men can be better men. Most of these tend to focus on the honorable development of your Chivalry, as we strive to become the hero of our own saga. In a similar manner, many people view the prototypical gentlemen as being too soft or nice or even delicate to deal with today’s chaotically aggressive society. So, if being a Gentleman is so conducive to being the “good guy” or a KISA (Knight in Shining Armor), why is it that every time Hollywood needs a memorable bad guy, they give us a Gentleman Villain?
When a movie starts, we see just how bad-ass our hero is in that initial sequence, as he spends the first 10 minutes of the film having to prove himself to us as an audience. The villain? He just has to step into frame in his perfectly tailored suit, impeccable eloquence, and overwhelming presence and we buy it, no questions asked. Is it because of their calm superiority? Because they are effortlessly imposing? Their arrogance? Their style? It’s all that and more.
Take a moment and think of the most memorable villains we’ve been served, the ones that become more popular than the hero themselves. From Hans Gruber in the original Die Hard to James Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes series to John Milton in Devil’s Advocate (in truth any role taken by Al Pacino), we end up more invested in the villain than we do in the hero. If you don’t believe me, just consider how out of the two hours of Silence Of The Lambs, Hannibal Lecter only appears for 16 minutes, and yet that’s all he needed to leave a lasting impression in our social psyche as one of the most memorable villains of all times. It only takes a few cords of the imperial march, to make us gasp in expectation, waiting for Lord Vader to walk into the scene.
Movies (books, theater, and even video games for that matter) tend to make heroes relatable, so the audience can live vicariously through them. This means that our protagonist will be as generic (read as “bland”) as possible. It’s only through his development that he becomes more, as he is expected to learn and grow through some kind of musical montage. To counter his blandness, writers need to create a colorful antagonist that we can all relate to hating. He must be the guy we envy in our own lives because he dresses better, drives a better car, has the better job, and is more successful than us. They create someone who makes us feel inferior as they’re playing off our insecurities.
Except some of us look at that guy and want to become him! The women in the audience find themselves wondering why the leading lady’s putting up with our hero’s bullshit self-righteousness instead of running into our villain’s hedonistic arms. I mean, the villain is someone who’s driven and committed to achieve success, real a go-getter. His wealth, social standing, and attitude are a testaments to his success. On the other hand, the hero simply waits around to react to the bad guy’s actions. The villain’s passionate about his ambitions and desires as he’s willing to do what most people won’t even consider. His attention to detail, bespoke suit, and razor-sharp wit only serves to show off the lack luster of the hero we’re expected to root for.
Note: I want to clarify that this isn’t limited to the Gentleman Villain, as the Lady Villainess is just as imposing. Just look at Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) in the Devil Wears Prada, Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty or the movie bearing her name, or even Selina Kyle (Catwoman) in the Batman Series. Nothing says “desire me all you want, but don’t even think I won’t kill you if you get in my way” like a well developed “Bitch Face.”
While the hero spends most of the time trying to prove himself, overcome his own flaws and insecurities, while the movie plays off his weaknesses for the audience’s sympathy, the villain doesn’t need our validation or sympathy. They just are, letting US bask in THEIR awesomeness. Playing the victim card? That’s left for heroes and victims to use. They don’t play to the crowd. If anything, they should inspire us to achieve greatness for nothing more than greatness sake.
They’re powerful and imposing without the need to prove it or remind us. They embrace their passions without the moralist qualms reinforced by hypocritical social standards. If they display restraint, it’s to let us know about their iron will and self-discipline; only unleashing their fury when needed and then only to deal with the incompetence of others. Even John “Jigsaw” Kramer, from the Saw series, keeps a constant and even level tone to his voice. It’s this villain’s calmness that works off our own fear. They are the epitome of the adage “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.”
Note that the true Gentleman Villain isn’t an abuser or falls for pettiness, as they see these things below their notice. They don’t need to make anyone feel inferior or show off their greatness or even remind anyone of who they are, as that again would be playing to the crowd and needing validation. Sure, they’ll blow up a shelter full of orphaned kittens, but they’ll do it simply because it was in their way. Raul Juliá best exemplifies this mentality in Street Fighter. (Before you judge me for bringing this piece of cinematic crap up, I know this is a good awful movie, but Juliá chews through every scene he’s allowed to cut loose in.)
"For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me, it was Tuesday."
The fact that these gentlemen are so determined, so imposing, and so unapologetic makes them “Evil,” or at least that’s what their creator wants us to think. It’s later on, as the writers realize just how popular the villain has become, do they feel the need to “flaw” him so either, we can believe that the hero has at least a chance to defeat them or they can become hero’s themselves in the sequel. Suddenly Vader takes off his mask and stops being James Earl Jones or the Six Fingered man just flee cowardly, as the writers dismantle the well-developed villain in only two seconds worth of bad filmmaking. Why the hell do they think this is a good thing, I don’t know. Personally, I view it as a cheat to try and keep the hero more popular. Besides, we’re expected to root for the hero simply because he’s the hero. We ignore the fact that his only motivation is probably revenge (yet nobody’s motivated to get revenge on the hero for all the faceless minions he kills) or simply because it’s his job (get’s paid to stop the villain). Sure, the villain’s the bad guy of the story, but as long as Red Riding Hood’s telling the story, the Wolf will always be the bad guy. We aren’t shown all the work that went into creating his evil empire, all the personal sacrifices and dedication that went into becoming the powerful men they are.
Let’s make it clear. I’m in no way promoting the idea that Villainy should be viewed as a proper career choice, nor are we romanticizing the extremes that villains go to or the people they hurt. We still need heroes. We still have to understand that blowing up innocent kittens and puppies should always be frowned upon because… they are puppies and kittens, you sick bastard! Because that’s where the villain fails us. They cross the line where their personal passion ignores the people they hurt in the process. That’s the only thing that makes them into villains worth stopping.
We need the KISA to prove to society that men are honorable creatures despite all the bad press we get. But don’t you think it’s time to stop having to prove yourself for other people’s validations or even permission? In a society where you have to start most expositions with trigger word warnings or begging people not to take everything personal, seeing someone being proud of who they are or openly enjoying what they’ve achieved through hard work and dedication (all those sports cars and Italian suits aren’t cheap and building an evil empire isn’t easy) is almost a breath of fresh air. When you get to a point where you no longer have to impress others, that’s when you become free.
Isn’t it time to stop asking for permission to strive for greatness? Isn’t it time to enjoy being the man you are, the unapologetic Gentleman you’ve become? Isn’t it time to prove you've gone past your own insecurities as you no longer walk on eggshells, or feel like a victim, or even have to play to the crowd? Isn’t it time to discipline yourself into the man you’re destined to be?
The world isn’t going to conquer itself.