Why All The Sudden Sympathy For The Villain In Movies?

In recent years, as movie theaters and streaming services have flooded with new content, audiences have noticed a pattern in their options: So many new movies draw from existing stories. Some of these are remakes of classic films, like Disney’s live-action versions of its iconic princess movies, but others take existing characters that we don’t know much about and give them backstories. No one gets this treatment more than the villains.

By Reagan Motsinger3 min read
Lionsgate/The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Last year alone featured two major movie prequels starring antagonists. In November, theaters were packed for The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the prequel story about young President Snow and his experience with the Games 64 years before Katniss came on the scene. 

A month later, crowds poured in to watch Wonka and learn the backstory of the famous chocolatier. While Willy Wonka isn’t exactly your typical “villain,” he also isn’t a hero; he stands by as children suffer in his chocolate factory instead of rescuing them from his creations.

And these are only the most recent examples in a string of villain-centered storytelling, following the likes of Cruella, Minions: The Rise of Gru, Maleficent, Oz the Great and Powerful, and the stage musical Wicked (soon to be adapted into film). Writers continue drawing on existing characters and worlds to tell the stories of the bad guys, but why? Is this simply a new trend in storytelling, or is something deeper going on behind the scenes?

Cashing In and Complicating Characters We Know

The simplest reason for the slew of recent prequels is that audiences already know the characters and have an investment in the franchises. If audiences are familiar with some of the characters in a new story, the odds are good that they’ll flock to theaters to see the newest installment in a franchise. As Amelia Tait writes for Wired, “[Prequels and spinoffs are] an easy way to cash in on popular intellectual property and tap into existing fanbases. … But an obsession with backstories means that…writers are adding depth to characters who…don’t need [it].” 

When stories like The Hunger Games and 101 Dalmatians were first written, President Snow and Cruella de Vil were, in Tait’s words, “perfectly straightforward villains.” Their evil was unexplained, so it was easy to root for Katniss Everdeen’s victory in the Hunger Games and the puppies’ escape from being turned into a fur coat. However, now the villains have complex, tragic backstories too, which complicates things for audiences. Can we sympathize with their struggles from their prequels while still rooting for their downfall in the original stories?

Wondering Why

Many prequel films are very successful at the box office, but they often leave audiences wondering who asked for them. In anticipation of Wonka’s December 2023 release, Gabbi Shaw at Business Insider wrote, “Do we need to know about Wonka's sad childhood? Or how he met the Oompa Loompas? Or does it work better if it seems like Willy Wonka just fell from the sky and began making chocolate one day?” 

Not all prequels are a bad thing. The Star Wars prequel trilogy, for example, fills gaps in the original trilogy. It answers genuine audience questions about the origins of Darth Vader and creates the family history that Luke and Leia allude to. But this isn’t the case with every prequel, and some villains are better left as a mystery. Prequels demystify the backstories of larger-than-life characters, grounding fantastical characters like Willy Wonka and Maleficent in reality and depicting the transformation of innocents into villains, as in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

Shifting the Perspective on Villains

Film is a vessel for storytelling, and stories are a way that we make sense of the world. When so many stories rely on existing ones to make sense, it suggests that the world itself doesn’t make sense. In his book Story, Robert McKee says, “The writer shapes story around a perception of what’s worth living for…but more and more ours has become an age of moral and ethical cynicism, relativism, and subjectivism.” McKee’s point becomes clear when we realize how many stories ask us to reconsider established villains as if they are not morally in the wrong.

Giving a villain’s backstory is bound to change audiences’ opinions of that character, for better or for worse. Yes, prequels help to humanize even the most heinous of villains so we can see their nuances and their small good qualities as well, which creates rich character and story development. Audiences are willing to read extensive novels, watch movies close to three hours long, and binge multiple seasons of long-running TV shows; the space provided by these formats allows creators to further develop their characters with more complexity beyond cookie-cutter “good” and “bad” labels. However, “now that every film and franchise features a tragic backstory to underpin villainy, this type of writing has become cliché and lazy in turn,” says Tait.

Within the span of a prequel’s plot, audiences might be tempted to forget what first made the prequel’s protagonist the original story’s villain, especially when an attractive actor plays the role. In response to heartthrob Tom Blyth’s performance as Coriolanus Snow in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, many fans on the internet have been conflicted over how to feel about the character. Katie Louise Smith at PopBuzz sums up the dilemma: “Social media is now full of posts about people being attracted to young Snow, and they're low-key out of control.” In many of these posts, social media users remind themselves of the horrible things that Snow did to beloved characters like Finnick and Peeta to counteract any sympathy that his plight and physical appearance might draw.

As more and more villains receive this treatment, we have to ask ourselves what’s going on. The villains in stories we know and love become more well-rounded characters, but in contrast, the lines between good and evil become more blurred. 

As the troubled and traumatized young adults of these prequels grow up, they come into positions of power and pose threats to other young adults, continuing the same cycle. In an increasingly polarized culture, some might suspect this trend to be an attempt to make the public more complacent under corrupt government authorities. Others might suggest that these films reflect a sad reality and unite us in our humanity as we deal with the exposure of corruption and fight against it. That leaves us to wonder: Are these stories ultimately helping or harming us?

Closing Thoughts

Whether the trend of villain origin stories reflects a mere morbid curiosity about the making of a villain or a bigger problem in society, these films remind us how important the choices we make and the values we hold are. The lines blur between understandable actions and villainous ones, and we’re left to remember exactly where we draw the boundary between good and evil. As we watch bad decisions and moral decline play out in a soon-to-be villain, we might wonder how things could have been different for that character in other circumstances. We can understand them more deeply while still cheering on the good guys, and when we walk away, maybe we’ll try putting more good out into the world to combat the evil in it.

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