The Relativity of Antagonists

I love a good story just as much as anyone else. It can be fiction or nonfiction, thought-provoking or simple fun, dramatic in scale or strong in heart. As long as the quality of the production lines up with my personal tastes, then the genre it falls into matters little compared to its execution. In this vein, I would like to respectfully disagree with the opinion espoused by the original author. I believe that audiences can empathize with antagonists not because their flaws somehow represent who we are, but simply because we find well-written villains interesting to watch.

The original piece appears to make the assumption that all people have the same expectations for their movies – as if moviegoers are some monolithic, single-minded force lacking in dissenting opinions and preferences. Everybody has different tastes – just look at the Rotten Tomatoes reviews for any movie and you will see a diverse selection of commentary all on the same film. Sure, people like to see the good guys succeed, but only if they are portrayed as more righteous and/or sympathetic than the alternative, the “villains”. If the creators of a movie want to make audiences empathize with the antagonist and possess the skills to do so, then they are certainly capable of making a villain sympathetic. Alternatively, if the movie is terrible and the heroic leads are unsatisfying to watch, then audiences may very well find themselves rooting for the bad guys. There is no unspoken rule saying villains are the only ones who possess flaws that we recognize in ourselves. Many heroes have limitations common to countless people as well. You can like a villain because they are portrayed with desirable traits like confidence and intelligence, or because they have a backstory which tugs at your heartstrings. Alternatively, you can like them for their top-notch fashion tastes and snarky dialogue. You can dislike a hero because they are overbearing, generic, or humorless. The qualities and vices possessed by any character in a fictional medium are decided by their writer, whose goal is simply to tell a good story. Whether or not their audience identifies with the bad guy over the good guy is merely a matter of personal taste. Fictional characters, like real people, possess both desirable and undesirable traits.

Good and evil in real life is not a dichotomy but a spectrum, intensely variable depending on the context. Captain America: Civil War is a great movie because it reflects many real life scenarios of clashes between two sides, both of whom believe that they are doing what is best. Oftentimes in our lives we find ourselves confronted with decisions that have no clear right option. Take the trolley problem, which is a classic example. In it, a runaway train barrels down the tracks towards five people, who are tied up and unable to move. You are standing some ways off, and have the option of pulling a lever which will divert the train to a different set of tracks, thereby saving the five people. However, there is one person on the side track, who will be killed if the train switches paths. As a nonbeliever I am curious: is it a sin to sacrifice one person’s life to save five, given that there were no better options available? Have we done wrong simply by being caught with such a terrifying, unavoidable choice? I don't think so. The existence of situations like these contradicts the idea of pure right and wrong, thus cancelling out the possibility of anyone being completely moral.

Real life is not the same as a popular movie. Good and evil are hardly clear-cut categories. There is no unspoken rule saying that antagonists deserve to fall, especially if things are muddled so that we are not sure who is the hero and who is the villain. Even if a fictional character is explicitly stated to be an antagonist, there is still the possibility of them switching sides. Doing so would move them from the label of “villain” and tentatively into the camp of “anti-hero” or “redemption seeker”. After that, would the character remain branded by their past errors, and by the aforementioned admission, still deserve to fall? I don’t think so. Unless the director intends it, I don’t think there are fancy hidden messages we are supposed to get from looking at movie villains. They exist to provide proper entertainment worth our money. Any deeper understanding you develop from watching a villain is something you generated yourself, not something that can be generalized to everyone else.

As an atheist, I do not understand the connection between Jesus’s death and personal redemption. I don’t take responsibility for my own mistakes because I am eternally guilty of my flaws. Instead, I take responsibility because I believe that doing so paves the way for gradually becoming a better version of myself, and through this providing a better world for the people around me. When I shun religion but try to act as morally as I can, does that make me the hero or the antagonist? I think it depends on your tastes.

Victoria Zhang is a rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Cognitive Science. Her favorite summer movie was Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.