I like evil that works for good. It’s a weird, tense concept, but it appeals to me on a bone-deep level. It might be a big thing – a criminal mastermind who devotes their vast resources to restoration – or a small thing – the Master rescues the Doctor by exacting his revenge on a bigger evil – but it grabs my attention, enthralls my mind, and sings to my soul, every time. I wasn’t totally sure why, when I started writing this post, but I have formed theories now and then, and they cohere better than I expected.
First, I think I identify with supervillains more than superheroes. Heroes generally work hard and devote themselves to virtues and in so doing become a glorious beacon to inspire others – I would freak out if people were looking at me that much, I have a tendency to view hard work as a last resort (“If I can’t figure out a shortcut on this, I guess I may actually have to apply myself – at least that always works”), and I’ve never felt especially principled. Supervillains, on the other hand, use shortcuts, plan ahead, dream big, get their power from the careful application of other people’s hard work, and often try to stay out of the spotlight.
The problem with a supervillain, of course, is that they’re also, y’know, evil. Their shortcuts sometimes go right through other people’s internal organs, their dreams involve crushing rebellious nations underfoot, and the other people they apply to problems are either lackeys or pawns in their chess metaphor. Supervillains don’t like people, they often don’t have any particular virtues to stand for – they try to impose their will on the world at a vast scale. The basic supervillain tenet is “I should get what I want.”
Somewhere along the way I realised that I don’t like a lot of people either. I’m introverted, so I tend not to want to be surrounded by people anyway, but I can have very little patience at times for some very common failings (I probably have an unreasonably high bar set dividing ‘informed’ from ‘ignorant’) and once I have completed my estimation of a person, I tend to assume they’re not going to grow very far from where they are. These things aren’t so much empirical observations as they are instinctive expectations – I am wired for cynicism. All of which added together seems like it should equal misanthropy. Except… ew. That’s not a great philosophy: to think that the world is basically populated with failures who don’t matter? Intellectually, I can see that nothing good is going to come of that.
So I decided to act otherwise. I decided to work from the premise that people are basically good, deserving, and remarkable; that it is morally right to defend the freedom to do foolish things; that popular democracy is better than benevolent dictatorship. (It helps that there are various separate logical arguments for each of these concepts.) A little research informs me that in depression therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous, “fake it ’til you make it” is a pretty standard technique for creating positive feedback loops – act like you believe something good even though you don’t right now, and the day may come when you really do.
I think maybe this is why I so adore the villainous hero – where the hero has faith in their virtuous principles, the villain has no such thing, and instead must consciously choose to pursue a dream that they intellectually prefer, even though they think a dream is all it will ever be. The most brutal evils are often from fallen heroes – Lucifer being a mythological template that a lot of stories like to follow – and so perhaps by transitive philosophy I reason that the greatest good should come from the risen villain. The villain might not even particularly enjoy the just, free, and equitable world they try to make, but they can try to make it anyway, and that is a powerful, resonant idea for me.
There are other, more superficial reasons as well, mind you. Villains are more likely to practical and pragmatic – they don’t get rescued by the deus ex machina, after all – and thus avoid some of the more painfully daft choices that heroes tend to make. “Evil will always triumph because Good is dumb”, as the saying goes. Partly it’s just that I like the inherent defiance when things that were originally awful get ‘misused’ for good.* And partly it’s because a well-formed villain inspires fear – the most tenacious, insidious, and devastating emotion – and their reversal throws it all in photonegative, turning that fear into hope – my favourite, my faith** – with a side dish of wicked joy at the fear now being inflicted on some greater foe.
I’m not quite so excited about straightforward redemption stories, because the key to all of this is the act of choice. Someone who stops believing in evil things and starts believing in good is just a regular hero with a dark past. Give me someone who believes in evil and chooses good anyway – give me Havelock Vetinari, give me Percival Cox, on rare occasions give me Jaime Lannister – and I will follow that story anywhere.
*There’s a country sound called “Honey Bee” that an online friend mentioned as a hideous cornucopia of gender essentialism and stereotyping, being as it’s sung by a man (strong, serious, protector) to a woman (sweet, bubbly, entertainer). I gave it some thought and it settled into one of my apocalyptic stories, and I like it so much there that I don’t know if I could excise it – because now it’s being adorkably sung/played by a teenage boy trying to apologise to his about-to-be-boyfriend and it just becomes fodder for them to tease each other with because (being people rather than stereotypes) they utterly fail to stick to either role. Also, because these are pre-apocalyptic teenagers and not the most mature folks ever, there is a running gag about ‘sweet iced tea’/’sweet-ass tea’. Having listened to the song a few times, I still think he’s singing the latter.
**If I had a religion, its most central tenet would be: things will get better. At some point in my life someone noted that I have a Kirk-like tendency to dismiss the concept of a no-win situation, and I liked that, so I nurtured the idea and tried to let it spread. Things will get better. Slowly, perhaps, so very slowly and with so much pain and loss, and with so much work to be done, but there will be victory in some shape. I don’t have proportional bucketloads of evidence for this in terms of world history, but it’s the only view that seems worth choosing.