The Banality of Evil (Origin Stories)

The Banality of Evil (Origin Stories)

On The Wicked Witch, Darth Vader, and why their evil origin stories completely miss the roots of true evil.

It’s not exactly a revelation to observe that Hollywood is overrun with sequels, prequels and reboots – the economics are simply too powerful. When you have a built in audience, it’s far easier to get butts into seats. This has led to the rise of a particular kind of narrative – the “Evil Origin Story.” The formula is (theoretically) simple: take an iconic villain that people already love (to hate) and explain how they got to be that way.

Most recently, we have “Oz: The Great and Powerful.” While primarily a story about how Oz became the Wizard, it’s also a story about how a Princess, Theodora, becomes the Wicked Witch of the West. This part of the story is very much in the mold of the the Star Wars prequels, which were, in large part, the story of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader.

“Oz” itself is actually a pretty good movie overall, but the “Witch Becomes The Wicked Witch” plotline is by turns reductive, misogynistic and unconvincing. Without really leaving anything out, the story is:

  • Theodora gets misled by Oz into thinking they have a romantic relationship
  • Her sister, Evanora, shows her that Oz is flirting with Glinda
  • Heartbroken, Theodora eats a golden apple that will “harden her heart”
  • It turns her green and makes her evil.


That’s it. No deep relationship building, no psychology, just an evil golden apple. The apple, by the way, comes out of left field – it’s never mentioned before the scene in which it’s eaten, we don’t know why it’s evil or how it works, and we never really learn why Evanora had it in the first place. The story of Darth Vader is a little better in the prequels, but only a little. Here, I’ll talk about why I think that is and why I think these stories so completely miss the true roots of evil.

I’ll start by discussing a little bit about what makes great villains in the first place. In their original incarnations, both the Wicked Witch and Darth Vader are somewhat implacable evils. They can’t be bargained with, persuaded or scared way from accomplishing their nefarious ends. Their internal motivations are deliberately obscured in the original property – Darth Vader wants to destroy the Rebels, and the Wicked Witch wants those ruby slippers; we don’t really need to know why. That’s just who they are – like the scorpion that stings the toad, “It’s in my nature.” Many of the best cinematic villains fit this mold – Hannibal Lecter is scary in part because he just is – there’s no real way to explain why a sophisticated genius would start eating people (which is also why the prequel TV series was also rubbish.)

A great villain often has a distinctive voice and physical appearance as well. The Wicked Witch has the green skin, the cackling voice; Darth has the black cyborg suit and the respirator. These characteristics set the villain apart from the rest of humanity, moving them just a little bit further down into the uncanny valley. The import of these physical characteristics is underlined by the in-universe conception of good vs. evil – we’re led to believe that the “Dark Side” of the Force has a physical reality. Darth Vader doesn’t just do evil things – there is something real that sets him apart as evil.


Unfortunately, these same characteristics set the would-be prequel writer up for failure. Implacable is pretty close in meaning to “unexplained.” An evil that you can’t negotiate with is probably also an evil that lacks a rich internal life. That lack of empathy is unimportant when the subject is your movie’s antagonist, but is disastrous when you’re trying to move them to center stage. Similarly, the distinctive look of a villain makes an “origin story” writer’s job even harder. Now we need a single story that explains TWO things – how a good person became evil and how a person of normal appearance became deformed. There are of course, ways of doing this, but it represents an additional hurdle for a writer to jump over.

In the end, most of these stories are simply unconvincing. For an implacable and unabashedly evil evil villain, it almost impossible to create a origin story that both a) makes the audience empathize with the future villain and b) portrays a convincing transformation. In Episode III, Anakin jumps pretty much straight from “arrogant but still good Jedi” to “murdering children in cold blood.” Oz’s transformation of the good witch is even more abrupt – she just kind of decides that if she can’t have the boy she likes, she might as well eat this evil apple.

The problem with these origin stories isn’t just that they’re generally not very good (though they’re not) – they’re also misleading and morally dangerous. They are entirely reductive – in both cases, the message is basically “broken heart = evil.”

The underlying motivation of these origin stories is that evil must have a readily identifiable cause. This is of course a comforting story – we want to believe that it’s something we can harness or control. We want to believe that it’s something that we can avoid – if you don’t want to be wicked don’t eat the golden apple. If your boss asks you to murder a bunch of younglings, he’s probably a Sith Lord. We see otherwise good people turn completely evil at the drop of a hat; but that’s just not how evil works. Even the most evil people are almost certainly not that way because of any one identifiable cause; it’s a death by inches, made up of years of little choices and injustices.


DARE to keep kids off apples.

The problem with this narrative is apparent in our political discourse around evil people and evil events. In the wake of the Columbine attacks, a number of “causes” jumped into the public imagination and influence the dialog. Some argued that the two killers were just bullied kids, lashing out at the “jocks.” others pointed to the effect of violence in the culture. The two killers had come from ostensibly “normal” families, and so people searched for some reason, some cause; we want to go to bed at night and think “Well, I don’t let my kids play violent video games, so I’m OK.” Tiny details of the two killers lives got blown out of proportion, and the narrative quickly lost any touch for reality. If you’re interested in a chilling and sober look at the tragedy, I’d recommend David Cullen’s Columbine, which attempts to explains both the killer’s motivations and how the story got so badly misreported in the wider culture. [Ed: I originally had the name of the author wrong; thanks user “Meggie” for setting me straight!] Ultimately, there’s not one reason why two teenagers just up and decided to pick up guns and murder their classmates – if anything, the two boys were bullies themselves, and while they played violent video games, there’s no real evidence that it was anything but a idle time waster for either boy. In the end, all we know is that these were two deeply, deeply troubled individuals who made an almost incomprehensible decision.

Of course, there’s another, far more common form of evil  – the banality of evil. Real life villains generally don’t have cackling voices or a black death-helmet. They don’t even think of themselves as being particularly evil. Real life villains don’t call themselves “Darth Dictator” or the “Wicked CEO of the West.” Most evil is just people going on with their lives, either oblivious to or uncaring about the consequences of their actions.

Even the truly evil, the Eichmanns of the world, will probably tell you that they’re “just doing their job.” You don’t start off killing children with the light saber – you make a compromise, and another, and another, and maybe you wake up one day to realize that you’re evil, but evil origin stories are banal. The great dictators of the world can’t be explained by a broken heart or a magic spell.

Ultimately, most evil origin stories do the audience a disservice. For the most part, I don’t WANT to know why my villains are the way they are, I just want them to bad awesome. The Joker in Dark Knight illustrates this perfectly when he gives multiple conflicting accounts of how he got his scars: he creates an origin story just to mess with his victim’s head. He doesn’t have a motive or a cause, he just wants to watch the world burn. I don’t need to see Darth Vader when he’s a little kid or Hannibal Lecter as a whiny teenager. I don’t need to know why he’s an unstoppable killing machine; I just need to know that he is an unstoppable killing machine, and try to figure out how to stop him.

44 Comments on “The Banality of Evil (Origin Stories)”

  1. Build A Better Fan #

    There are enjoyable origin stories for evil, but they may be difficult to compress into shorter formats. It might be helpful to start with a list of stories that got it right, or mostly right.

    Here’s a start: Breaking Bad’s mission statement is turning Mr. Chips into Scarface, and it starts with a character who spoiled his great potential mainly through some kind of vanity but who was mostly harmless until faced with a terminal illness that threatened his family’s livelihood.
    The Wire explains a number of slides toward evil with institutional failures (though the roots of really implacable evils like Marlo remain at least partly mysterious), and Seasons 4 and 5 in particular portray child characters being formed by institutions into recognizable analogues of various adult characters.
    And regarding Hannibal Lecter, I’m hearing good things about the new NBC show. We’ll see.


    • Dan Miller #

      I think the Wire was smart enough to avoid this trap, although it hinted around the edges–I would have loved to see the story of how a young Stringer Bell moved from black power to drug kingpin. I think this explains why these kind of stories are so hard for screenwriters to stay away from, because the villains are frequently the most interesting characters, and they’re frequently fan favorites. Hell, I know it would be a mistake and I still want to see young Stringer and Avon. I can’t fault a writer for having the same thought.


    • Build A Better Fan #

      Perhaps shorter time formats tend to require extreme levels of drama to give implacable villains a believable motive.

      X-Men’s Magneto is a Holocaust survivor who, at least in the recent “First Class” movie, had an understandable motive for revenge coupled with what turned out to be a realistic view of how society would respond to mutants.

      Perhaps a better example: “American History X” attempts to explain both the slide toward darkness (Derek’s father exhibits some racism; when Derek’s father is murdered by a black drug dealer, Derek takes that racism to a gruesome extreme; Danny idolizes his older brother and starts to follow in his footsteps) and the hard climb to redemption.


      • An Inside Joke #

        Breaking Bad jumped to mind immediately for me, too. I think the argument above supports the author’s basic theory – you can show a very slow, gradual slide into evil in a long-form format (like a TV series) but need to compress into abrupt jumps in a shorter format (a stand-alone movie)


  2. atskooc #

    The needless back story isn’t limited to evil characters, of course. The biggest example of a gratuitous back story is in Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. I actually dug the film, aside from the flashbacks to Willy’s childhood. There is no reason for us to know why Wonka is the way he is. In fact, Charlie explains it in the film perfectly: “Candy doesn’t have to have a point; that’s why it’s candy.”

    Wonka doesn’t need a reason to be infatuated with candy; he just is and that’s what makes him him.


    • H #

      Having Saruman as your father is a good cause for anything though.


    • fenzel OTI Staff #

      Allow me shamelessly to quote myself, from one of my ramblier OTI articles, “In Defense of One-Dimensional Characters,” from 2010 (which addresses, among many other things, the two versions of Wonka, and the needless Burton Wonka backstory):

      “The language of three-dimensional characters is written in the bankrupt vocabulary at the lazy nexus between acting and writing. There are certain things acting does well that writing does poorly. There are certain things writing does well that acting does poorly. Dramatic art is a collaboration between, among others, actors and writers. Why can’t the actor do the actor’s work and the writer do the writer’s work?

      If a character lacks depth and believability on the page, the actor can provide it. If a character lacks a motivation and seems to not commit to actions with purpose, the actor can provide it. If the character’s language doesn’t reflect an obvious, obvious change in the character, the actor can still do it. You’ll still see it on the stage or screen, you just won’t hear them come out and say it, which is disquieting to critics and producers even if it doesn’t matter at all to the audience or the overall effect of the work.

      All the rules of three-dimensional character creation are acting rules, not writing rules. I say, if an actor wants to work at their craft, make them work. There’s no reason why a writer has to make it easy on them.”

      Darth Vader and the Wicked Witch of the West are great villains at least in part because they are great _performances_. As much as a writer may want to force a textured performance by baldly stating a bunch of needless crap, when it comes to the bad guy, there is no substitute for great acting.


      • atskooc #

        And looking back at that essay I realized I made damn near the same comment there as I did here.



        • fenzel OTI Staff #

          Doesn’t mean we aren’t still right :-)


  3. Meggie #

    Hate to be “that guy” (especially since I’m a woman), but the book is by Dave Cullen. I correct only because it’s so magnificent that I hope everyone will read it.


    • Ben Adams OTI Staff #

      Nothing to be sorry about – that’s an important “Well actually” to make. Thanks for keeping me honest – and everyone else go out and read that book.


  4. Lon #

    As I read this, my mind immediately went to the Joker, a implacable bad guy we have seen several takes on throughout the years in comic books, movies, TV, & games (among others, surely). He shares the physical deformity with Darth Vader and the WWotW as well. And sometimes, the creators do a better job of showing how he became the lunatic that he is… i.e. what broke him / forged him into something stronger. But I think one important distinction is that there was never any attempt made to move the Joker from a purely good character to Big Bad status. He has always been shown as having that banality of evil at his core.

    Which leads me to thinking of some other super villains and their ‘origin story’. But that would get way to long for a comment.

    Nice piece, I enjoyed it.


  5. Erik #

    I think that “gritty” stories in a long-form format certainly have advantages over typical short-form stories. There is not only the time to tell the tale and the “gruesome reality” that can be depicted, but also the audience has signed on to a certain level of investment.

    The best non-gritty, short-form origin story that I can think of is “Dr. Horrible.” He’s essentially a brilliant but unfocused nerd who wants to impress the world, particularly a girl. He doesn’t really “want” to do evil acts, and even has his own morality, but the path of least resistance (that he is aware of) is to join the Evil League of Evil. If he can do that he will be considered “great.” That’s where he starts out, anyway. Brilliant. Ambitious. Shy. Unfocused.

    That’s matches the reality of most people in the real world that perform evil deeds. Very few people are truly evil all the time. They just allow themselves to justify ever-escalating occasional actions. In some, eventually this may eat away at overall empathy (especially for those who trend towards sociopathy already).

    I can think of a ton brilliant Ivy League seniors who have been patted on the head and rewarded with A+s their entire lives who eventually get to the end of the treadmill and are staring at the void of post-college. The path of least resistance is to take the highest-paying, highest-status job you can, which also happens to be the one that will get you the best network and opportunity for future advancements. So they go to work for Goldman Sachs. Prestige, money, security, attractiveness to girls, and above all the continuing knowledge that they are still the best of the best. But it’s all still pretty banal. Then it becomes a matter of ignoring or suppressing the signals that show the impact of some of what you are asked to do.

    Now, Dr. Horrible does take a sudden turn towards the end to catalyze his descent, but in a short-form dramatic story that is simply a requirement. There must be an apex. It just can’t trail off. But other than that I think it’s a pretty good view on how a good person can become evil.

    In fact I substitute it for the Star Wars prequels in my mind. It makes a lot more sense than “my mother died, and I’m having bad dreams, so I will do anything to protect my wife.” No war hero who has had countless friends die would suddenly bow down to the person that has orchestrated the entire war for nothing but his own benefit. If anything, I would think he would have attacked the Emperor in a rage (a la Dooky), which is what I always really wanted to see. After all, that was the trap laid for Luke. What did the Emperor plan to do if Luke killed Vader and then turned on him? What was his snare? We’ll never know, because all he had to say was “I’ll teach you how to save your wife oops I won’t”.


  6. clayschuldt #

    It does seem like evil orgin stories are becoming popular without any great stand out successess.

    I just remember reading a list of the American Film Institutes list of the top movie villians of all time.

    The Top Four on the list: The Wicked Witch, Darth Vader, Norman Bates, and Hannibal Lecter.

    All four of these evil characters have received a origin story with Norman Bates and Hannibal both getting their own T.V. Shows.


  7. MarkP #

    Paragraph 5 (second after the first picture)
    “Their internal motivations are deliberately obscured in the original property – Darth Vader wants to destroy the Rebels, and the Wicked Witch wants those ruby slippers; we don’t really need to know why”

    The only problem with this is we know exactly why the Wicked Witch wants those slippers: They belonged to her sister, and Dorothy stole them off her sister’s corpse. The poor Wicked Witch just wants her dead sister’s shoes back.


    • Amanda M #

      Exactly. Even as a kid, I never thought the WWW was evil – from her point of view, some chippy murdered her sister and snitched her inheritance (thanks to some meddling by a simperingly condescending, manipulative witch).

      From the get-go at age 8, I was always on the WWW’s side. S’why I love Wicked (speak not of the musical, with it’s artificially requisite happy ending because it seems America can’t handle good old-fashioned nihilism, /rant), because it’s a far more satisfying and rich backstory.


      • cat #

        I think both versions of Wicked, the book and the musical, do a better job of providing a backstory than this movie does. I loved Wicked when I read it in high school but it isn’t the greatest book ever written. The politics get a little convoluted and the characters feel flat. Nevertheless, it was a smart move to start with her being green.


  8. El Knid #

    Macbeth, Citizen Kane, the Godfather, Breaking Bad, are all intensely compelling works that could be called “evil origin stories.” Oh, and then there’s the fallen epic hero from Milton’s Paradise Lost… what was his name again? Could it be… SATAN!? (Church Lady, anyone?) So clearly, there’s nothing inherently unsatisfying about watching someone “break bad.”

    Additionally, while I’d agree that any attempt to explain Hannibal Lecter would cheapen the character, you really can’t make that argument about Darth Vader, whose fall-from-grace origin story as a “Dark Side of the Force” cautionary tale is baked right into the character from pretty much the start. In fact, part of what makes the character such a compelling villain is cognitive dissonance created by the audience’s inability to reconcile the bad guy they see on the screen and the good guy he supposedly once was.

    I think this latter bit is the key to why evil-origins-as-prequel tend to disappoint: it’s not that there is anything inherently unsatisfying about the prequel’s story, it’s the entailed re-contextualizing of the original that’s problematic. Even in the case of Vader, where we’re told all along that there’s a fall-from-grace backstory, actually seeing it kind of ruins the “mystique” of the finished-product bad guy.

    That’s how strong our aversion to “the banality of evil” actually is — the reality of moral situationism is so discomfiting that even when evil’s backstory is intellectually believable, we still don’t really believe it on a visceral level. So if we buy into the character of Annakin Skywalker, we can’t ever really buy into Darth Vader — even though we know, as you point out, that in actuality, “the truly evil, the Eichmann’s of the world” embody the jarring syncreticism you plead to not be subjected to in your entertainment.


    • Ben Adams OTI Staff #

      I think your completely right about the stories like Macbeth, Godfather and Breaking Bad. I probably should have defined my terms better to include specifically origin stories that explain characters we already know. Godfather is ABOUT the fall from the grace, and it’s always been about that, so there’s not all the hurdles to greatness that I talk about above.

      It’s only when we take a character originally only intended as an antagonist/villian, and decide “Let’s see what they were like as a teenager!” that we get into trouble.

      I’d recommend Patton Oswalt’s take:


  9. Seminymous Coward #

    Battlestar Galactica did an evil origin story side movie called Razor. It worked by focusing on a new character who paralleled an existing “villain.” The extended cut has some material on the origin of the preexisting character, and it’s actually quite convincing as well, perhaps because it shows only vignettes separated by years.


    • Timothy J Swann #

      But, it changes Helena from being motivated by a desire to keep humanity alive, the dark parallel of Adama, to a jilted lover – which is not without controversy. Her condoning of the gang rape of Six is a horrific act regardless, but the motive of hating the Cylons as a group contrasts with Razor’s idea of it being revenge for accidentally falling in love with a Cylon. It stops Cain being a person who could be humanity’s best hope facing extinction to a person who definitely shouldn’t be trusted with Pegasus or command.


  10. Gab #

    Alright, it’s slightly punny, but I bring it up in earnest: Bane, in The Dark Knight Rises. It’s all in one movie, albeit a pretty long one.

    I’m guessing most people have seen it by now, but in case, SPOILERS.

    Even though we think we know some of his story, it’s still mysterious enough to keep who he is “in the shadows,” so to speak. We “know” he was born in the prison and got out, but when it comes to his rise in the underworld, nothing- that in itself is kinda creepy and intimidating. So once Talia reveals who she is and thus who Bane actually is, he becomes incredibly lame. And so does she, really. The whole, “I hated my father until I realized you murdered him,” part is weaksauce, and okay, yeah, it’s touching that Bane would care for her so much, but it makes him so much less scary to think he’s actually just a huge puppy following her around. Huge puppy with bigass fangs, sure, but still.

    And I say this as a person that really loves that movie. But that was one baddie backstory I didn’t want to know all of, and then wished I didn’t.


    • JCHandsom #

      While I love TDKR and Marion Cotillard, Talia was hands down the worst part of that movie and it is for that EXACT reason.


    • Lavanya #

      Apropos of Batman and your post, Gab, the animated movie “Return of the Joker” uses the underwhelming effect of exposing origin stories as rhetorical weapons on three occasions. As if, to apply it to your DKR example, Batman had learned about Talia’s true origin and then mocked her for being so deluded as to avenge a father she never actually loved.

      The movie is over a decade old, but, still,


      So the three occasions:

      1. The Joker and Harley Quinn torture Tim Drake to insanity, and find out about Bruce Wayne’s night life. And when the Batfamily comes together to rescue Tim, Joker whips out the “sadly anti-climactic” origin of Batman to mock him, as part of a general effort to final truly break him as he did Tim. “Behind all the sturm and batarang, you’re just a little boy in a playsuit, crying for mommy and daddy!”

      2. Joker later tries the same thing against Terry McGinnis, the second Batman in the future of “Batman Beyond,” but it doesn’t phase him.

      3. Terry then, in what’s probably his most famous scene in the series, lectures Joker to death about his own pathetic origin story. I’ll just link to it, as there’s too much back-and-forth to quote here:



      • Gab #

        Yo, I completely forgot this one, nice!


  11. cat #

    “Oz’s transformation of the good witch is even more abrupt – she just kind of decides that if she can’t have the boy she likes, she might as well eat this evil apple.”

    It’s not like a similar plotline has never been done before. But usually a woman doesn’t decide to do the thing that will “harden her heart” towards the guy she met a few days ago. Off the top of my head, there was the episode of Charmed when Phoebe became a mermaid and the episode of Once Upon a Time when Snow White took an amnesia potion.


    • Gab #

      Haven’t seen the Charmed ep, but yes, you’re right about OUAT- at least Snow had been in love with Charming for a while before that.

      The only-knew-him-for-a-few-days thing makes it even more demeaning to how awesome the Wicked Witch of the West is as an icon.


  12. Will O'Connor #

    Personally, I see Theodora as a fallen idealist, someone who was incredibly naive who reacted badly when faced with harsher realities, or the illusion thereof. Her key characteristic prior to her fall is that she is something of a dreamer, and that goes beyond her crush. She clearly wants to be Queen, rather than simply being Oz’s girlfriend or wife. She appears to have been a true believer in the prophecy, and from her perspective, it turns out she was wrong about all of it. The man of her dreams rejects her, the Wise Wizard is nothing of the sort. Her cherished dreams, predating her ever hearing about Kansas, are crushed. She responds by projecting her anger at herself at the man who seemed to personify her hopes. Rather than admitting her own naivete, she projects an image of a Wizard who tricked her into being the fool she formerly was. She’s not just a lover scorned, she is a fallen idealist turned raging cynic.

    It is not that the Wizard actually tricks her, he just sort of goes along with her daydreams. Theodora misleads herself. Her sister actually points this out, “are you quite sure it was not you who said it to him?” Her rage at Oz is a kind of projection of her reaction to her former self.
    Yes the fact that her fall is inextricably linked to romantic rejection is problematic, perhaps even misogynistic, but while romantic rejection is the proverbial straw, what the exposure of Oz represents is the loss of all her day dreams romantic and otherwise. She is never going to be Queen. The Wicked Witch Glinda (again, from Theodora’s original perspective) is not going to be vanquished, there will never be peace in Oz. Worse, she pinned her hopes upon a false idol. Her fall is a consequence of her innocence, and the film goes out of its way to show just how innocent she is.


  13. Opellulo #

    Imho the BANALITY of evil is the REASON of evil. The most beloved evil characters (like Joker, Darth Vader or Tyler Durden) are the most puerile and unimaginative: simple characters that refuse “normality” in a straight, clear way: let everything burn!

    “Pure” Evil characters are inerentlty banal: they are charming because they connect on our most puerile power fantasies, but this doesn’t change the paper thin weight of their lack of ambiguity.

    On the other hand, if you build a more motivated evil character, one that is well aware of his setting and the ambiguity of reality you end with something in the grey area of the Bad vs Evil scale; someone whom you can relate in a deeper, more meaningful way.

    The most recent fiction example is Walter White in Breaking Bad: his motivation are clear in the start (he wants to provide for his family) he understands the burden of his choices and has an important goal to guide him. The more he became entangled in the criminal world the more his character is semplified; until he hit the bottom in the last season ending: a drug lord with so much money he hasn’t the slightlest clue how much it is and what to do with it.

    Imho the show worsened a lot following this path: turning from a show about ambiguity to a simple power fantasy fulfillment: Hey! I want to be Heisenberg: he’s smart! He’s rich! He’s Powerful! He doesn’t give a shit!

    Too bad, much of the most successfull fiction is going down this way…


  14. Kyu #

    All this talk of the origins of implacable evil makes me want to see a prequel that’s solely about the design and construction of the Terminator.

    And yeah, you’re thinking of the Hannibal Rising movie. The new NBC show (which doesn’t show the origin of Hannibal’s evil at all) is, so far, pretty great.


  15. Jens Yenzo #

    Interesting discussion! I would love to contribute something thoughtful about how little our beloved fictional depictions of villains have to do with actual, real-life ‘bad people’, but I don’t feel competent enough to do that.
    Ben, if I judge your interests correctly, I can recommend a couple of books to you that I think you’ll enjoy: The Roots of Evil by Ervin Staub and The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo. Both are social psychologist with an awe-inspring background in violence research – Ervin as the leading investigator of what led to the Rwandan genocide (and, more importantly, how we can facilitate the process of reconciliation), and Zimbardo as the principal investigator of the now infamous Stanford Prison Experiment.
    Both books are very well readable while at the same time presenting a large amount of data and theory.


  16. JPSorell #

    I’d say a better example of this trope is found in Shakespeare, if we’re going to look at good examples. Macbeth and Richard III, two of the best plays ever (and in the case of Richard III, the other pieces of the Henry VI tetralogy) both contain an excellent study of their “villains” and give the audience a great deal of evil-doing. However in these cases are we talking about antiheroes?

    In another sense, what would separate Richard and Macbeth as antihero/ villains, structurally speaking, apart form the Darths and witches we’ve been given in the 20th century.


    • Gab #

      So I didn’t want to go there after reading the article, but you’ve poked at this nugget in my brain again, so I will.

      I think, at least with respect to portrayal, the “deformity” of Vader, Richard the III, even how Macbeth was not born of a woman (or as simplistically as how crazy he seems), can be categorized as abnormalities as the mark of evil; we can then stretch that to mean disability as the mark of evil.

      Or the witch/stepmother in Snow White, when she succeeds in duping Snow, she’s a hag. Appearance may not be a disability in the sense we’d normally think of it, no, but people far away from the social standards of beauty are quite often treated as Other and in ways similar to persons with disabilities.

      Or Mother Gothel in Tangled, her goal in keeping Rapunzel there is to retain beauty, normalcy. The message there is that if you aren’t good looking, you’re of no value and incapable. It’s ableism.

      So yeah. Disability separates them structurally, since disability isn’t just a medical or physical classification, but a social and structurally determined construct.


      • atskooc #

        Macbeth was born of a woman. It is Macduff who was “untimely ripped” from his mother’s womb.


        • Gab #

          Ah, right. Well, he’s still mentally ill. And the visions his wife has are pretty symbolic of being physically “marked” as evil, too. That damned spot.


  17. mim #

    Actually, this is the kind of story that should be told more often. We’re so used to this black and white reality that we don’t really seem to understand “evil”, as you might call it, and our mythology is a part of it. Imagine what difference it would make to not just speculate in the wake of a disaster, but actually understand right from the start, how finding a sense of belonging and dignity can lure you into faschism, how misunderstanding can turn you into a bigot of magnicifient proportions and the consequences that this has, or how how constant encouragement in different shapes little by little sets up the basis for becomming a rapist, guilty of assault or even murder. And mundane as all of those stories are, they are far from boring.


  18. Kylroy #

    One of these stories was told in the first campaign of Warcraft 3 (made before the infamous World Of). A prince decides to burn down a city full of zombie plague victims, and cannot accept that he is condemned for it; he’s driven to more and more exteme acts to try and prove his heroism and clear his name. He ends up essentially selling his soul to ensure that he’ll inherit his kingdom, and becomes and undead monster in the process.

    A simple tale, but I felt that it was told quite well within the constraints of blocky graphics and sound staff voice-acting. Plus, to connect to the idea of longer narratives doing better at this story, the game featured 3 definite choices showing his slide into evil, versus the one in most movies and the dozen-plus possible in TV series.


  19. Paul #

    I’d like to bring up “Chronicle”, last year’s found footage superhero movie – or, rather, supervillain movie. In my opinion, that’s one of the best evil origin stories I’ve ever seen; the main character is always at something of a distance, so we never fully sympathize with him, and so his actions towards the end remain unconscionable and unexcusable but we have some sort of understanding towards why he became that way. It’s a story of someone going through intense pain, and it’s extremely interesting – and difficult – to watch.


  20. George #

    The reason in my mind why these attempts at providing backstory for those nefarious creatures in our midst has at its core a purpose of moral relativism that creates a way for us to not only relate to the evil within, but to welcome it and have it gladly destroy us.


  21. Martine Votvik #

    I think one of the shortcomings of the evil origin stories is that they run the risk of taking the responsibility and agency away from the villain and blame their actions on either third party or external influences.

    There is something oddly pacifying about feeling sorry for Anakin Skywalker while he slaughters down the tusken raiders(women and children included). I’ve got a lot of understanding for wanting revenge, but to me, Anakin has a choice here. He chooses to give in to his anger. He chooses to breech common principles of not hurting the innocent.

    He doesn’t meaningfully repent for this crime and he isn’t forced to take any responsibility for it either.

    To me the story reads like a massive pity party designed to make douchebags feel better about being douchebags just because they had some hard times.

    I think the prevalence of these kind of stories are closely connected to the corporate machine’s need for consumers to keep making unethical choices.


  22. yellojkt #

    It’s perhaps too cliche to have been mentioned by anybody except me, but any good villain thinks he’s the hero. In some way his or her motivation must make some sort of logical sense in at least their own mind.


  23. Andreas Habicher #

    Hard to compare the Evil Witch of the West with Darth Vader, because she has so little time to establish herself, while he leads a productive life. Nobody speaks for her, but there are numerous references to his past even in the original trilogy. “Best pilot in the galaxy”, “my friend”, “so we meet again, and now I am the master”, and, what I like most, how he convinced the Imperator that they should try to get Luke to join them, and the rather emotional way he watched Luke’s ship through the window in part three.

    I agree that the jump to slicing kids is waaaay to abrupt, yet we really get to see quite a lot of the gradual changes – his fits of anger, the death of his mother, the forbidden marriage, the haunting dreams, and the eternal frustration by the Jedi Council that mirrors the Imperator’s frustration with the Galactic Senate.


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