Monday, December 8, 2014

Why Darth Vader is Cool

I’ve been reading about the concept of authentic Evil, capital E. Regardless of it’s moral veracity, it’s certainly an interesting literary trope.

We are often fond of shows with good villains. Sometimes it’s because those villains have sympathetic motivations, human details, and understandable logic. They can be so sympathetic that they blur the line between villain and anti-hero. This post is not about those.

Sometimes a villain starts with worldly motivation. They miss their homeworld, or they’re ashamed of their differences, or they’re very attached to keeping their love alive. And they do extreme things to hang onto those, things that we the audience understand are bad. Against the metaphysics of the universe. It’s very human of them, but often weak or even pathetic. We aren’t expected to respect these actions.

And then they lose. Everything.

It’s generally a long process. Sometimes caused by the cruel forces of the world that take away that which we hold dearly. Or even it’s the victories of the protagonists that lead to this stripping away. But regardless, everything they care about - every hope they have for the future - is violently, painfully torn from them.

Anakin Skywalker killed his wife and unborn child (as far as he knows), betrayed and destroyed his order, and lost his normal body. He would live in a black chrome body for the rest of his days, knowing he is responsible for the ultimate tragedies he has suffered. All this for a master he knows cares nothing for him. I cannot begin to conceive of this loss (or the resulting self-loathing.)

When everything is gone, then he can make a choice. He has reached true existential freedom. Nothing he does matters, in that none of his goals can be saved or redeemed. He is beyond status, or class, or hope. He is beyond caring.

Existential freedom is terrifying. It means we are entirely responsible for our own choices. We can no longer blame them on the things we want or forces that motivate us.

That moment of utter despair is a singularity. What emerges after it should have no connection or resemblance to what came before. All that comes is a single, all-encompassing, world-shattering choice.

“evil” little-e is about petty needs and attachments to the world. “Evil” capital-E is about choosing nihilism. Everything the villain cares about is gone, so they destroy the whole world.

It’s only through this authentic Evil that someone can radically remake the world. They do not possess attachment to a person, or their ego, or the respect of others. They are not risk averse. They are infinitely destructive, if that’s what matters to them.

When a villain goes through that, it is awesome.

Anakin Skywalker is a whiny proto-fascist. But Darth Vader is amazing. He cares nothing for what others think of him, or the general racist Imperial structure. He chokes out corrupt incompetents and hires subversive bounty hunters and gets in the thick of battles and comes up with great new plans on the fly. He is totally committed to his cause. (Which isn’t nihilism, but is universal.) And when this happens, his powers as the greatest Jedi finally blossom.

Zod from Man of Steel also falls under this trope. For most of the movie he only cares about his beloved Krypton, and his elitist order within it. When returning to that world is no longer possible, then he becomes a man with nothing to lose (or even gain). That’s also the point when he learns to fly.

Garrosh Hellscream fits this, and this may be the best thing about WOW: Warlords of Draenor. For three expansions fans had gotten sick of him, and his descent into racism and militarism. And he lost the dignity of his people, his city, and his freedom. Another expansion about him seemed abominable.

But instead Blizzard made him cool. He went to war not just with humans, not just with other races, but the whole of his timeline itself. He rejected history as inadequate. He went back in time, killed two gods who would rule his people, and remade the Orcish clans into a competent coherent machine. When he has his final throwdown with Thrall, it is the best, most convincing bit of dialogue that Garrosh has had in five expansions.

He dies. But the authentically Evil villain doesn’t care about their death or life. They only care about the singular choice they have made. When we see them, we find them admirable because they do not care about us.

Ozymandias from Watchmen tried to voluntarily give up those things, so he could become such a creature. But it was voluntary, and inadequate, and his grandiose plans were too caught up in the world as it was. Dr Manhattan had his attachments torn from him, and the freedom he realized was much more austere for it.

The Joker was always authentically Evil, and attempts at his backstory do a great job of showing no matter what sad sack of reasons led to his creation, the only thing that matters is that this being has now been created.

These are horrible people. No, they are monsters. But it is only in being a monster that a character can begin to contemplate the ultimate acts necessary to save the world. The lack of attachment earns our admiration when we see it, and is capable of so much more than all the other characters trapped in the normal system of class and worldly desire.

Who is the best, most authentic Evil villain? Who makes our heart soar for their ability to leave who they were behind?

Picture you are Anakin Skywalker, lying on that medical bed. Your whole life you’ve been training to be the best Jedi, the one everyone is counting on to save them. You’ve been living a double life, caught between your order and your love. And in one day you lost both.

I hypothesize what you would think, is exactly this:

I don't care
What they're going to say
Let the storm rage on,
The cold never bothered me anyway!
It's funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can't get to me at all! 
It's time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me I'm free!
And I'll rise like the break of dawn 
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone!

It is only after a monster has undergone this pure and all-consuming choice, that they can make the decision to sacrifice themselves and free the whole world.

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