Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Taking Evil Seriously—Part II: Competent Villains

Beyond the honest portrayal that the line between good and evil is at blurred at best and difficult to straddle, the villains in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy are worthy foes for the Dark Knight.  These aren’t the bumbling, incompetent “bad guys” that we so often see portrayed on many TV shows that seem more like comic relief than credible foes.  I particularly notice this on the cartoons that my children watch.  The “good guys” are always a step ahead of them and never seriously threatened.  In fact, in many cases, the “bad guys” become “good guys” by the end of the episode!  

While I realize these are shows aimed at children and not adults, I’m always a little troubled by this, because I think it gives children a somewhat skewed view of the reality of evil in our world.  

For example, take Captain Hook as depicted on Jake and the Neverland Pirates.  We are supposed believe he is an “evil pirate”, but the problem is that he comes across more like a circus clown.  His henchmen often seem more competent and self-aware than he is!  I dare say any resemblance between Hook and a real pirate would be coincidental.  Real pirates are nasty individuals that you probably don’t want to tangle with—cunning, smart, evil.  If they seek to do you harm, a wooden sword and magical pixie dust won’t solve your problem.  

Captain Hook Jake & the Neverland Pirates
At the risk of saying something obvious:  Real life isn’t like children’s television.  Evil usually isn’t bumbling and incompetent; it’s competent and dangerous. I think Nolan’s Batman trilogy does a good job depicting evil as it really is.

In each of these three movies, intricately layered evil schemes unfold. The “good guys” foil one plot only to realize the “real” evil was far more insidious than they realized.  They stop one villain only to find out that villain works for another more powerful villain.   

Far from being incompetent buffoons who chase after the “good guys” in vain, Batman's opponents are very good at being bad, and extremely smart—and that combination makes them extremely dangerous.  It takes every ounce of strength and courage the heroes can muster to defeat these foes. The victories don’t come without sacrifice on the part of the heroes.

Ra's al Ghul
Batman Begins
Ra’s al Ghul (featured in Batman Begins) is evil—but he’s also brilliant and cunning!  His acts of evil aren’t random; they are painstakingly planned and executed with precision.  In fact, the purpose behind his plots might, at first glance, seem noble—restoring ecological balance.  He’s just willing to use any means necessary to achieve that purpose—even if it means destroying a city and harming millions of people.  
The Joker
Dark Knight

The Joker (in Dark Knight) is different kind of evil; he’s a psychopath.  But just because he’s crazy, doesn’t mean he’s not smart.  Smart and insane is a really dangerous combination!  

Dark Knight Rises

Bane (in Dark Knight Rises) relies a bit more on brute force, fear, and intimidation than the other two villains, but still possesses intelligence, having been trained by the same organization that trained Batman.  Strong, smart, and evil is also quite lethal!

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