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Villain Origin Films Encourage Empathy


Movies, books, shows, and even bedtime stories have traditionally utilized the conventional narrative of good versus evil. In recent years, the stories behind the villains of these classic tales have come to light in new films. From Maleficent to Joker, these movies have proven to be a success at the box office despite the differing views of critics, viewers, and workers in the film industry on this new plot development. 

For many companies, such as Disney and Marvel, these back stories pose an opportunity to further profit off of these classic stories. Many generations have developed an attachment to these popular tales, since these films successfully take advantage of the viewer’s desire to reminisce and build upon stories from their adolescence. Additionally, the redemption arcs within the films give the villain a chance to be viewed as a complex character rather than simply the evil antagonist. While these films vary in topic, they fundamentally share the basic idea that these villains are a product of the cruel world around them. 

Critics believe that this logic causes a false idea that there are two equally valid sides to every story, even for those villains who carry out the most heinous crimes. Since mainstream films can have a strong influence on our society, many people believe that there is an element of danger that comes with this idea. 

In a Time article, Stephanie Zacharek, while talking about the impact of these films, wrote, “Respecting every viewpoint, including those of villains, only results in a murky gray mass where none are respected at all.” Many worry that when we begin to validate everyone’s viewpoint, even those who have committed harmful acts, we lose our ability to distinguish right from wrong. Furthermore, there is also a belief that rather than offering an explanation for the villain’s actions, these stories create excuses for them. Manipulated by the tragic upbringing of these villains, viewers may begin to justify the negative actions carried out by them. Some believe that this will lead to a lack of accountability that could reach past the screen and into society.

Contrary to these skeptics, supporters of these films argue that these characters raise awareness around mental health issues. Many villains featured in classic stories are clearly suffering from untreated mental conditions such as depression, PTSD, or anxiety. Although not addressed directly, there is an underlying notion that these villains’ actions are deeply impacted by the state of their mental health. 

In the 2019 film Joker, protagonist Arthur Fleck is a failed comedian who is forced to do demeaning work as a clown to survive life in New York City. He feels isolated and ostracized by those around him, which leads him to transform into the iconic psychotic character he is known for, the Joker. Throughout the film, the Joker frequently alludes to his mental illness. In one scene, he poses an eye-opening question: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” He then follows up with the answer: “You get what you deserve.” These quotes allow us to understand the deeper cause of the Joker’s actions, as well as providing a broader commentary on the importance of mental health treatment. While the consequences of neglecting mental health aren’t usually as dramatic as those portrayed in these films, a lack of mental health services has a detrimental effect on the well-being of individuals and society as a whole. 

The villain backstory is undeniably controversial, and there is clear disagreement on whether the empathy it introduces is helpful or harmful. Regardless, these plot lines challenge our traditional idea of classic fairy tales in a creative way. These movies further develop the one-sided classics into multi-dimensional stories that change our perception of the antagonists. They also shine a light on mental illness, revealing the complexities that influence these “evil” actions in fairy tales. Overall, the awareness that these back stories create can hopefully help our society move forward in support of mental health diagnosis, trauma prevention, and treatment.