On Villains: In Which I Don’t Ask Much

The alternate title of this post is: Don’t Be Lex Luthor.

This is a little unfair to Lex, I believe, at least if you take in the scope of comics canon in which he has issues with aliens and is the President and, um, something about Kryptonian steroids? (Have to admit I couldn’t really follow that bit of Final Crisis.) And, I guess, the canon where he’s really vengeful about being bald. No, I’m talking about the Silver Age/Superfriends era Luthor. The guy who would invent working giant robots and orbital mind control rays and use them to rob a bank. Because not only could he, as per the trope, make a lot of money just selling this stuff, but I’m given to understand that there’s a substantial layout involved with making giant robots in the first place, not to mention having a secret underground base.

If you had a secret underground base, would you really need to create giant bank-robbing robots? I wouldn’t. It’s an underground base! I could just hang out in my underground base all day! If I needed money, I could rent rooms. In my underground base.

I think I got a little bit sidetracked there.

Right. So I was reading a pretty decent urban fantasy series, and liking it okay, until they started spending a lot of time on the villains’ point of view. No problem there, in theory, since I do that myself a bit, except that the villains were kind of Luthoring it up. Right, okay, you’re all sinister and powerful conspiracy people with private helicopters, and you’re doing black magic to get you artifacts of sinister power so that you can…do more black magic? Maybe? I don’t understand! You already have occult power and private helicopters! What do you want? (This sort of gets resolved in a later book, but in my mind, you can’t wait too long for these things.)

Okay, then. Things The Reader Needs to Know About Your Villain, Because I’m So Good at This:

1) What do they want right now? This is pretty easy; this is, in fact, giant bank-robbing robots or armies of mind-controlled lemurs or the Gem of Amarra. Pretty much everyone gets this right. Moving on.

2) Why should the reader care?

Sometimes this is really easy. It’s hard to be neutral regarding the Crimson King or Freddy Kreuger; I don’t think most people would argue LeChuck’s case.

In more ambiguous cases, though, it’s tougher. The secret cabal of secretness is trying to run the world from behind the scenes? Well, what are they trying to do with it? Frankly, in the modern world, having large parts of my life controlled by monolithic forces is a basic day: does it really make a difference if it’s the Illuminati and not my day job and the public transit system? Will our alien puppet-masters give me a good dental plan and maybe some more options re: telecommuting?

If you want me to unquestioningly cheer for the hero against the conquerors or the conspiracy or whatever, you probably need to show them doing unpleasant things. Not necessarily wantonly unpleasant–hey, someone has to go down the beryllium mines if Count Vordax is going to have a new set of wineglasses this year–but, you know, tell me why I should give a damn who’s ruling. National identity doesn’t do much for me in general, and certainly not if it’s a nation that doesn’t actually exist.

ETA: If I’m not supposed to be cheering for one side or another, that’s fine too. That’s a thing where you are Guy Gavriel Kay and you’re writing The Lions of Al-Rassan and making me cry on the goddamn bus, and that’s fine. I mean, I kind of hate you for the bus-crying thing, but well done.

3) What can it get them that they can’t get by being a normal person? You’re a billionaire: what do dark powers get you that a billion dollars won’t? Why do you want to rule the world? Don’t you know how much work it is? Why don’t you just channel your energy, as a thousand guidance counselors have put it, into more productive outlets?

Here’s where the title of my post comes in. I’m a simple, undemanding sort of girl. I don’t ask for deep motives and labyrinthine plots. I mean, they’re great if you can get them, but if your guy’s deal is that he drowned because camp counselors were having sex and now he wreaks his bloody vengeance on all horny teenagers? I can get behind that too. We live in a world, sadly, where people go on killing sprees basically because they don’t have prom dates: Evil Guy Flips Out, Tries to End World or At Least Kill a Lot of People doesn’t shatter my suspension of disbelief. Likewise, the old Horde of Alien Locusts thing is just fine. Sometimes you eat suns because suns taste great and are less filling. I’m on board.

And yeah, there are plenty of people in history or great literature who got power and just kept wanting more, or got wealth and then went after power, or whatever. Macbeth makes sense, in a horrible way. Dude succumbed to a little temptation, once, got in over his head, and…there we are with Birnam Wood and MacDuff and severed heads getting carried around. It can happen.

Just show how it happened. Show why it happened–at least a little. Or don’t spend much time from the villain’s POV. You have a lot of alternatives, ’cause I’m relatively easy to please. Just…don’t be Lex Luthor.

I mean, purple and green? Together?

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Rosemary’s Baby

Part of my “Netflix Presents: Movies I Really Should Have Seen” series, I guess. Spoilers, of course. Also triggers for severe nonconsensualness and pregnancy trauma.

Two things really stood out about this movie.

Okay, three things, and the first is that–as I’m neither religious nor planning on having kids, I guess–the “your longed-for child is actually the son of Satan” plot didn’t terrify me nearly as much as the mid-sixties decor. And clothes. Rejecting racism, greed, and unjust warfare is great, The Sixties; rejecting the concept of a waistline is not so lovely. When Rosemary’s maternity clothes differ only in size from her pre-maternity outfits, I am disturbed.

More seriously, it’s a neat and probably inadvertent illustration of how creepily patriarchal the sixties still was. There’s a bit at the end where Rosemary goes to her doctor and tells him all about the Satanists and the evil spells and the yadda yadda yadda, which, to me, felt really dumb*: of *course* he’s not going to believe you, you’re rambling about witches! Just tell him your previous doctor was giving you really sketchy medical advice–true–and that your husband threw a hissy when you talked about not going to him any more–also true–so you don’t feel safe around him any more and could he examine you without telling either of them…oh, wait, it’s 1965. (There are probably some places today where things aren’t much better, horrifyingly enough, but I don’t think it’s as widespread an assumption that of *course* your obstetrician will tell your husband everything if you don’t bring the Satanists into it.) Yow.

Speaking of the husband…gaaah. Guy, just because you let Satan impregnate your wife doesn’t mean you have to *act* the part, y’know? I could see his asshattery later in the movie as a coping mechanism, I guess–I feel really bad about this thing I did, so I’m going to be horrible to you to convince you and myself that I don’t care, or something–if he hadn’t really been kind of a jerk even before he sold out to the devil.

That seems not to have taken much convincing, by the way. Rosemary and Minnie are washing dishes, they come back in, and Guy’s gone from Sort of a Jerk to Really Really Sketchy. How did this conversation go?

Roman: “So, Satan–”
Guy: “Yes please!”

Anyhow, it’s either a commentary on the time or the relationship or both that Rosemary stays with Guy. Deal with the devil aside…I mean, I *suppose* I can overlook the gratuitous insulting her hairstyle bits: she asked, and maybe he’s Compulsively Honest Guy. (I sort of hate Compulsively Honest Guy, personally, but that’s another story.) But he flips out at her because she doesn’t finish her dessert–which, yes, is because he wants her to eat the Satan Roofies**, but she doesn’t know that–and she just sort of shrugs and scrapes it into a napkin, like he’s her dad and she’ll get in trouble for not cleaning her plate. Creepy! He then as much as states that he had violent sex with her when she was passed out–and “fun, in a necrophiliac way” is not a line that anyone should use at any point ever–and she’s…disturbed, mildly, but more like she’s disappointed by his inconsiderateness than like she’s realized that she’s married to a sociopath. And again, when he’s flipping out over the potential obstetrician change, there’s no real recognition that maybe this is really not an okay way for your husband to be acting.

I don’t know. Either we’re supposed to believe that Guy’s actions are, without the Satan, mildly dysfunctional relationship behavior and not something a woman would leave over under the media standards of the time, or we’re supposed to believe that Rosemary is so used to her husband being Controlly O’Dramapants that nothing he does really seems like a danger sign until Hutch starts delivering warnings about the devil. Either way…

…ladies and gentlemen of the jury: GAH.

On a less creepy and more storytelling-relevant plane, I’ve been wanting to do a post on villain goals for a while now, and this movie does a pretty good job in terms of showing villains whose motives we don’t really understand that well. The Satanists, well, worship Satan, want him and his son to rule the world, etc etc. Roman is in it hereditarily–and possibly for vengeance–and we can extrapolate from Guy that maybe most of them got some favor or other from His Dark Yadda Yadda, but we don’t know what it is. (In Minnie Castavet’s case, we know only that it clearly *wasn’t* the ability to make her lipstick line up with her actual lips.) That works out okay, though, at least in my view, because the movie is very tightly focused on Rosemary, who has no idea what’s going on here.*** The Satanists are pretty much the Faceless Conspiracy until maybe the last half hour, so while we need to know their goals, we don’t really need their individual motives.

It’s a well-put-together film, and I recommend it. I recommend seeing it on Netflix, because…Polaaaanksi….but it’s good stuff for non-gory, non-jump-scene horror. And the mid-sixties.

ETA: The verdict, talking with a friend, was that Rosemary should totally have left Guy, both because he’s a controlling jerkface and because, frankly, I would so watch a show about the Antichrist and his single mom. Sharing an apartment with her old college friend who *also* has kids and no husband. In the sixties. Get on this, HBO.

*It’s actually a semi-major pet peeve of mine. If you know that talking about the aliens or the witches or the alien witches or the Illuminati makes you sound delusional, and there’s a way you can get help without mentioning them, then why are you not going with that?
**Another part where this movie is disturbing in a way that the director probably didn’t plan. More so because the director is…Polanski. Yeaaaaaaah.
***The movie is one of those Crying Game type things where everyone knows the basic facts by now, and I don’t know to what extent the trailer or box art spoiled things at the time, but in the movie itself? The Grand Plan actually doesn’t become clear for ages: there are wonky neighbors that are up to something, but we don’t know what, and then maybe the Satanists are trying to sacrifice the baby, and only near the very end is it clear that no, Antichrist.