Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Byronic Hero - or why we love the bad guys

Reposted from another blog. Original post date 16th May 2012

Be warned there will be spoilers for Labyrinth, Wuthering Heights, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Thor and The Avengers here. This is a favourite subject of mine and has been for a long time. I thought I would revisit is since the subject has got a lot of attention at the moment thanks to Loki's Army? What's that, you've not heard of it? Clearly you do not tweet :o) Fangirls and boys the world over are unable to get enough of The Avengers villain, Loki. Now in a film with a whole team of good guys and girls of all different flavours why is the bad guy so popular? Let's have a look at some of my favourites and I'll see if I can explain. Ok let's go right back to the first baddie that captured me at the tender age of 4. You're right, I probably didn't realise it at the time, but I have stayed faithful to my love of this villain. Jareth. 
He is definitely a villain. Steals children, cheats at the game etc. But look at it from another view point. He is an intelligent man/goblin surrounded by goblins he clearly feels are beneath him. He's alone playing a game he always wins because no one is good enough to beat him. What's a Goblin King to do? And then along comes this young woman who actually challenges him. You can tell by the way he looks at her that she captivates him. And suddenly he is turning the world upside down for her. He is trying to be good to make her like him and failing miserably. Which means we now empathise with him and start to like him. 

Next up is Heathcliff. Almost the archetypal Byronic hero. He is a dark skinned gypsy brought to live with the Earnshaw family. Resented by all the family except for Cathy he is off to a bad start in life. At this point he has done nothing wrong apart from be different. He is a child who is just in need of love. He grows up loving Cathy and they are thick as thieves, clearly in love. However Cathy betrays Heathcliff and chooses to marry another. This sets him down a disastrous path on which he becomes cruel and determined to destroy Cathy, her husband and child and his own wife and son. Clearly at this point he is at the very least an anti-hero if not a villain but you can't help but sympathise with him. 

My next choice is Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He starts of as a Big Bad in season 2. He's a vampire and he loves it. Death and destruction are merely fun diversions for him. However over the next 6 seasons we learn a lot about him. We see how as a human in the 1850s he as ridiculed by society for his awful poetry and derided by the woman he loves. We see him be turned into a vampire and begin cutting a bloody swathe across the world trying to prove himself. We see him try and fail to establish himself as a force to be reckoned with in Sunnydale. We see him fall in love and regain his soul. We see him become a champion. But even at the end, when he is in full champion mode, he is still a bit of a git and that is why we love him. He is snarky and bad and is just as likely to get you drunk and steal your wallet as he is to save your life. But the gamble is what makes it fun. 

Which brings me back to Loki. Filmverse wise we meet him in Thor. He is the younger brother of Thor, son of Odin. Quieter, not interested in fighting, full of magic and glib lies. Desperately wanting to match his brother in his father's eyes. Already he is the underdog and our heartstrings are pulling. Add to the mix the discovery that he is adopted and is actually the child of a Jötunn, a race despised by all in Asgard. The shock of this throws a man who was likely to play pranks that bordered on the malicious into a spiral that lands him fully in the role of villain. Determined to outshine his brother once and for all he concocts a plan to rid the universe of the Jötunns forever. Of course, since the bad guys never win, it fails. The last we see of Loki in this film is what can only be described as his suicidal fall into the abyss. 
When we next see him he is trying to take over Earth. Much death and destruction and we really should despise him by now. I mean, listen to this: 

“Kneel before me. I said… KNEEL! Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power. For identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.” 

Ego much? But all the way through the film you can't help but feel for him. His struggle with The Other and the Chitauri, his desperation to be worshipped, that moment when you really feel he is gonna give up and go home with his brother. Now I am not saying for a moment that what he has done is justified. But he is far too complex to just say "he's the villain". He is dangerous and evil, as likely to rip your face of as pass you a drink and despite that I want to take him home and feed him pie. I want to tell him he is worthy, that he is loved. I want to make him realise that he can step out of Thor's shadow whenever he is ready to. 

The wonder of wikipedia lists the characteristics of the Byronic hero here. The ones that lead to us loving these characters in my opinion are Disrespectful of rank and privilegeEmotionally conflicted, bipolar, or moodySeductive and sexually attractive and Socially and sexually dominant. Thus concludeth my mini treatise on the Byronic Hero or why we love the bad guys. I think I will be coming back to this subject another day when I put more thought into it.

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