Saturday, April 27, 2013

"Deconstructing the Modern Antagonist" - Taylor Hochuli, Final Paper

Taylor Hochuli
Final Paper - Narrative and Technology
April 2013

“Deconstructing the Modern Antagonist”

                Can a movie truly bring about great social change? What was once viewed as pure entertainment is now used to convey deep messages and emotionally move an audience. Films like Schindler’s List and Gandhi allow audiences to re-live the teachings of history while other films spin their own tales in order to express different thoughts. This medium not only tells tales of history and grandeur, but also acts as an active social commentary on modern times. This face of social commentary is especially contorted when it comes from the villain rather than the hero. In recent films originating from the 90’s, a trend has been emerging of mysterious villains who are able to manipulate, criticize, and actively destroy social boundaries. They show the more attractive attributes of being evil as a form of freedom and try to spread their doctrine violently, ultimately running up against a hero who fights for society whether it is the police or even a masked vigilante.

 A modern iteration of this villain is the Joker as portrayed by Heath Ledger in the film The Dark Knight. The Joker actively spreads messages of chaos and anarchy while trying to test Gotham city’s people with moral conundrums and societal ironies. Mystery surrounds both the character and events in real life. Actor Heath Ledger was found dead by a drug overdose during the post-production of The Dark Knight, causing rumors that his suicide was caused by playing such an evil role in the movie. Fellow actors Morgan Freeman and Christian Bale have actively denied this rumor, but the thought of a movie character pushing an actor to suicide in real life is very striking (Celizic, 2008; "Morgan Freeman: Joker Role Didn't Kill Heath Ledger", 2013) . A more serious crossover of the movies into real life occurred at the premiere of the sequel to Ledger’s controversial performance, The Dark Knight Rises. In what was dubbed as the “Aurora 2012 Shooting” by the media, a gunman named James Holmes shot and killed 12 people while injuring 70 as well in a theater in Aurora, Colorado. What made this tragic event even more scary was that the shooter dyed his hair orange as a “homage to Batman’s Joker” and was initially reported to be calling himself “The Joker” when arrested although this was later retracted by the police (Pelisek, 2013; July 22: Tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, 2012). This act of violence inspired by the movies and a controversial character has once again sparked the debate of copycat crimes and such antagonists who may influence real-life crimes. Despite this, movies are trying to emulate the award-winning performance of Ledger’s Joker rather than avoiding the chaos it brought off set. Movie villains like Raoul Silva from Skyfall, The Mandarin from Iron Man 3, and Benedict Cumberbatch from Star Trek: Into Darkness are all being compared to Ledger’s Joker as “a villain with aggressive anti-establishment attitude who likes to discuss the ‘lie’ of society” (Houvouras, 2013). This trend could spell a new type of villain that revolutionizes movies and invokes social critique, or inspires more events like the Aurora 2012 shooting.

ABC News Coverage of the Aftermath concerning the Aurora 2012 shooting (Follow Link to Youtube since video is not able to play on Blogger)

The revolutionary villain is very well defined after seeing several examples throughout cinema from the 90’s into the twenty-first century. These examples include Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs, John Doe from the movie Se7en, Tyler Durden from Fight Club, and the previously mentioned Joker from The Dark Knight. These characters are very popular in cinema and are often considered even scarier for their revolutionary tendencies. They are defined by their socially relevant rebellion portrayed in each of their movies. Each character dislikes the current societal order in different ways. For example, Tyler Durden rejects the current societal “feminization” of men in society. He practically preaches this doctrine in a speech to the men of the fight club saying:

Fight Club Speech pe

“Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.” (Fincher 1999)

Durden actively attacks consumerism and capitalism as a controlling force that gives false hope of happiness. Both consumerism and capitalism are actively employed in modern society, so bringing up these actual issues that the audience experiences makes a more relatable villain. Both the Joker from The Dark Knight and John Doe from Se7en choose to address the issue of crime that is overlooked by society rather than addressed. With news constantly reporting crimes and wrongdoings on a daily basis, people have become more accustomed to it and accept these problems as inevitability. John Doe recognizes this and when accused of killing innocent people promptly corrects his arresters by saying, “we see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it’s common, it’s trivial” (Fincher, 1995). The Joker addresses the issue by saying if he decides to kill the average citizen, we accept it, but threatening the mayor causes “everyone [to lose] their minds” because it isn’t expected (Nolan, 2008). Both address a realistic issue which causes tension between reality and the movies where these issues are solved in a radical way.

John Doe discussing how society overlooks sin and crime due to its commonplace nature (Fincher, 1995)

This interplay between reality and artistic expression has been seen before in history and is nothing new. The most successful tales that truly brought about social change participated in what Herbert Marcuse labels “the Great Refusal.”  The Great Refusal includes art that somehow negates or transcends society by bringing up societal problems that are not normally addressed (Marcuse, 1964). This process of bringing out what is not normally observed breaks contentment with society and demands that these issues be solved. Marcuse’s point to bringing up the Great Refusal coincides with his main point that criticism and opposition to society are simply absorbed into society. They are turned into something that supports and coincides with society rather than pointing out issues, or as Marcuse puts it, “draining their antagonistic force” through a variety of methods (Marcuse, 1964). This new trend of idealistic villains who are anti-establishment seem to match the qualities of the Great Refusal by highlighting true societal problems, but ultimately are not an effective model for social change due to their ineffective messages, casting as villains, and psychologically insane nature.  

                The controversies surrounding these antagonists are the ways in which these characters choose to address these real societal problems. The resolution of societal conflicts seems to fall along the lines of either anarchy or terrorism. Hannibal Lecter seeks an integration of higher culture and baser instincts, seeing as he is a learned psychiatrist who is also an aggressive cannibal. Lecter refutes the system by highlighting agent Clarice Starling’s repression of childhood memories and escaping incarceration by wearing a policeman’s face (Demme, 1991). Lecter chooses to take a very traumatic and bloody path to his escape rather than accepting his incarceration and helping out the police in their investigation. This refusal of law frees him rather than limits him since he is able to fool his incarcerators, the police, the FBI, and a senator with great ease (Demme, 1991). This is similar to John Doe who constantly evades capture for his crimes which are elaborately set up years in advance in order to manipulate the police. He eventually gives himself in, only to fulfill his killing spree while incarcerated (Fincher, 1995).

 The most radical villains are Durden and the Joker who employ very realistic forms of both terrorism and anarchism in order to solve societal issues. Tyler Durden envisions a nation that has animals “around the ruins of Rockefeller Center” and “wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower” (Fincher, 1999). It is a primitive view of the land that suggests society is worse than the glorious wild where there are no rules or regulations.  He decides to make this vision real through “Project Mayhem,” a terrorist group evolving from his fight club that creates acts of discord. This involves committing minor crimes around the city, spray painting a giant smiley face on the face of a tall building, and ultimately blowing up financial corporation building in the city in order to erase all debt in society (Fincher, 1999). This final scene is reminiscent of the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11 that occurred only two years after the movie was released. Some have even speculated that this movie showed a “weak point” in society that the terrorists were able to make into reality (Petersen, 2005). The Joker arrives post 9/11 with an anarchism that is described as a simple desire to “watch the world burn” (Nolan, 2008). He evades police capture until is suits his needs, robs a mob bank, blows up a hospital, and nearly blows up two ferries as the people inside attempt to flee his chaotic hold over the city. The aforementioned villain John Doe summarizes perfectly the nature of these villains’ acts by saying to the police:

“Wanting people to listen, you can't just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you'll notice you've got their strict attention.” (Fincher, 1995).

The antagonists see the resolution to societal problems in a complete wipe of the system. Removing society will liberate the individuals inside and the only way to do so it to tear the entire thing down piece by piece. There is no medium ground or compromise, only radical change or continued oppression.

                These radical solutions cannot act as true social commentary simply because they inadequately discuss the issues that are brought up. Most of the individuals succeed in their endeavors, but the problems still remain. The terror of Hannibal Lecter allows for his escape and freedom, but the individuals he tries to corrupt remain repressed by society. Agent Starling goes on being a police officer with troubling nightmares, a senator who Hannibal wins over returns to being a corrupt politician, and the asylum continues to house madmen like Lecter despite his loathing of their system (Demme, 1991). Lecter gets his personal freedom, but leaves all other ideals in the dust once he has it. John Doe is able to successfully commit his murders based on the seven sins, even after being incarcerated willingly, but small crimes and sins are still looked over by society despite his acts of rebellion (Fincher, 1995). This is made even more explicit when Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) ends the movie by revising a Hemmingway quote that the world is “worth fighting for”, but is still far from a “fine place” after the actions of John Doe (Fincher, 1995). Doe also dies in the process to embody “Envy”, not allowing him to continue his radical solution to the societal problem. The Joker is successfully able to terrorize Gotham and corrupt the “White Knight” of Gotham, but is subsequently defeated by Batman and Harvey Dent’s evil acts erased by having Batman take the blame (Nolan, 2008). Things seem to go according to plan for the Joker, but fall apart once he is captured.

Lastly, Tyler Durden successfully organizes “Project Mayhem” and is able to blow up financial building to wipe out debt, but Durden is ultimately killed and Project Mayhem falls apart with its leader in ruins. The men of the fight club just go back to being tools of a culture that represses their manhood and individual abilities with the only difference being that the main character is able to establish a relationship with a woman (Fincher, 1999). Also, author Henry Giroux examines the flaws evident in Tyler Durden’s social critique that harm his argument.  He points out that the sexism involved in the male liberation, the “dominant militarism” in place of capitalism, and indistinguishable forms of freeing and abusive violence cause more problems than are attempted to be solved in the movie overall (Giroux, 2001). The antagonists all succeed in their immediate goals, but do not ultimately cause any social change to correct the problems they preach about. With no alternatives to solve the problems about overlooked crime and a flawed society, the problem will only continue to exist despite a failed attempt to change things.

Having the social critique come from the villain also undermines their messages about social problems because they are what the audience roots against. In a more constructive social criticism, societal problems should cause the conflict rather than the villains. In The Dark Knight, Batman fights for a system that is flawed since it restricts the power of the police and allows a murderer to kill his parents. He consistently is in contact with the police through Commissioner Gordon and helps assist the unit by bringing back a mob banker from Hong Kong and interrogating the Joker for the police once he is arrested (Nolan, 2008). Although he is considered to be a criminal vigilante by the police, he works with them, essentially showing his support for society but with less restriction. The Joker mocks this, saying that “the only sensible way to live in this world is without rules” and urges Batman to kill him in order to finally be free from societal restriction (Nolan, 2008). Ultimately, Batman is able to resist corruption from the evil Joker. The system remains flawed but the audience is turned against the Joker who is meant to spur on change in society. Simply acting as the villain diminishes any possible critique despite his claim that “It’s not about money…it’s about sending a message” (Nolan, 2008).

The Joker is interrogated by Batman while preaching about the freeing nature of having no rules (Nolan, 2008)

The quickest way that these idealists are written as villains is their violence. The Joker kills his own thugs, Hannibal Lecter is described by describing how eats his nurse’s tongue, and John Doe very graphically kills an obese man by causing his stomach to burst. This transference into villain is best seen through Tyler Durden who starts as an inspirational revolutionary, but turns into a villain a little over halfway into the movie. Durden is immediately shown to be the villain in a short flash-forward in the movie’s preface where he has a gun stuck in the mouth of the protagonist, Jack (Fincher, 1999). This is done in order to ensure the audience that the man is a villain because he is so idealized in the very beginning of the movie. He represents everything that the narrator wants to be and liberates the middle class men of their city from their feminine, capitalist oppression through moderate violence that the men accept. It paints him as a saint to these men who preaches their worthiness despite what the system sees them as, simple units of labor. Once Durden forms a terrorist organization that results in the death of a more feminine man, he becomes the villain (Fincher, 1999). Since he turns into the villain so late in the movie, the director might have put the flash-forward in to have the audience critical of the man’s message rather than also going along with his violent doctrine. It shows that attaching villainy to these characters is specifically used to tone down their anti-establishment message.

The nail in the coffin of any social critique from this form of villain is that all of these villains are painted as psychologically insane. Marcuse actually comments negatively against psychiatric ideas saying that they “’solve’ [a] problem by suppressing it” rather than actually dealing with the problem (Marcuse, 1964). In this way, mental problems can be a form of breaking this oppression in order to show and ultimately solve the actual problems they are dealing with. However, this tactic is used to such an extreme level, the villains become less trustworthy. Hannibal Lecter is the least seemingly insane, but still makes comments that define him as insane. For example, Lecter comments to Agent Starling that he ate a past visitor’s “liver with some fava beans” and also immediately describes Agent Starling’s skin care products just by catching a whiff of her through the holes in her cell (Demme, 1991). These acts come off as immediately disturbing and crazy despite the high culture knowledge of Dr. Lecter. As Marcuse suggests, Durden is the past antagonist “essentially transformed” into a group of “freaks or types of the same life, serving as an affirmation rather than the negation of the established order” (Marcuse, 1964). Tyler Durden turns out to be nothing but a figment of the author’s imagination, created by his need to break free of societal control. Jack uses Tyler to “re-establish equilibrium in [his] psyche” after a series of people push him around (Lee, 2002). By casting Tyler Durden as an illusion of an insane man, he loses all credibility and all his ideas are labeled as crazy too. His marketing of the “collapse of financial history” is redefined as a terrorist act while Durden is branded the villain of the movie who must be destroyed by the society the movie is actively trying to criticize (Fincher, 1999). The Joker outright admits that he is strange and comments on his insanity throughout the movie.

Agent Starling first meets Hannibal Lecter in a psychiatric hospital under extreme lockdown (Demme, 1991)

John Doe from Se7en has a room filled with journals (estimated to be 2,000) that he raves in about God and Sins and generally disturbing things. Some excerpts paint very demented and odd thoughts to paint Doe as insane:

“On the subway today, a man came up to me to start a conversation…my head hurt from his banality…I suddenly threw up all over him. He was not pleased, and I couldn’t stop laughing.” (Fincher, 1995)

“What sick, ridiculous puppets we are…not a care in the world, not knowing that we were not what was intended.” (Fincher, 1995)

These journals are “his mind poured out on paper” and truly reflect this as they are rambling and crazy in nature (Fincher, 1995). This insanity does come up again when it is discussed further by the character’s themselves. Detective Somerset warns his young partner that John Doe is “not the devil,” but rather an actual man despite his insanity. Despite this, Detective David Mills still mocks John Doe by commenting that he’s so insane that “he’s probably dancing around in his grandma’s panties…rubbing himself in peanut butter” (Fincher, 1995). When John Doe is actually arrested, Detective Somerset asks him if he knows he is insane or if he’s oblivious to it. Doe replies that it is just “more comfortable” for society to label him as insane rather than dealing with the fact that societal problems led to his creation (Fincher, 1995). Although this is thought provoking commentary on society’s dismissal of the insane, the fact that the audience has witnessed his gruesome and over-the-top murders and crazed journal scrawls has made them judge him as so insane that this is nonsense rather than something to be taken seriously.

                The emergence of these rebellious, anti-establishment antagonists attempts to join the Great Refusal with legitimate social commentary, but ultimately falls short since they are cast as insane villains who have complicated or too radical solutions to real problems. So now that these characters are established as being not effective at passing along messages of complete social overthrow, why do copycat crimes continue to occur in society? The results of research are mixed, but seem so focus on the age of the people watching the movies and the violence portrayed rather than the radical messages by this new type of villain. A recent study looking into copycat crimes had 575 inmates judge their consumption of media daily and whether their own crimes were inspired by these forms of media. The results showed that controversial and violent media seemed to act as “crime catalysts and rudders, rather than as crime generating triggers” (Surette, 2012). The younger criminals appeared to be more inspired by media violence and used it as a model to commit their crimes. Also, most copycat crimes occurred from people who had committed these crimes in the past (Surette, 2012). It seems that exposure to violence in movies at a younger age causes these issues rather than the controversial villains’ messages. In fact, more movies seem to be inspired by real life crime rather than inspiring crimes themselves. These types of criminal movies are also able to be implemented as instructional tools in criminology (Jordan, 2002).

                These real world results support the conclusion that rather than the message corrupting people into committing copycat crimes, it simply escalates these crimes by showing how to commit higher level crimes. From the meticulous planning of John Doe’s crimes to Tyler Durden’s discussion of household explosives, this crime catalyst is seen in films with controversial antagonists. After analyzing these specific movies for their social critique, the crimes that followed their release only support the idea that the social agenda of the villains don’t influence copycat crimes. Hannibal Lecter mostly is connected with past cereal killers that inspired his creation, but the movie portrayal also drew attention when a boy murdered his mother a year after the movie release. David Lorenz (29) of Baltimore beheaded his 57 year old mother and was dragged away by police shouting “I’m Hannibal the Cannibal” (“Police”, 1992). It was already known at the time that Lorentz was admitted to a psychiatric hospital 5 years before the incident and that he was released only four months before committing this crime (“Police”, 1992). This psychiatric instability of Lorentz is more to blame for the crime since he was a past criminal who was simply motivated by a new icon he found in cinema. The aforementioned “Project Mayhem” of antagonist Tyler Durden inspired a 17-year-old’s bombing of a Starbucks much like the destruction of a coffee shop representing consumerism in the movie (“Starbucks”, 2009). The teenager also organized his own fight club inspired by the movie (“Starbucks”, 2009). In this case, the crimes of the movie are emulated, but not truly connected to the villainous figure that they are based off of.  Returning to the Aurora 2012 shooting, more details were revealed about shooter James Holmes as legal proceeding begin. Holmes was actually a Ph. D. candidate, but began to amass weapons while in the program. After failing a end-of-the-year test and dropping out of school, Holmes added an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle to his collection to be used a month later in his rampage (Pelisek, 2013). Although the actual intent of the massacre is still a mystery, the suggested cause of the attack does not relate back to the Joker’s messages of anarchy, but rather employs his tactics of mass terrorism to make up for his problems.

                After analyzing several iterations of the new anti-establishment antagonists with viable social critique, one can see that the characters attempt to participate in the Great Refusal, but fall short of transcending society due to their role in the movies and flawed messages. This leads to only the violence and terrorism of the antagonists being transferred to real life and inspiring villains not with their long speeches against society, but rather their tactics to fight back against it. Although these villains remain ineffective at solving true social problems, future reiterations of this character type could prove useful in cinema rather than causing traumatic events like the Aurora 2012 shooting. As Marcuse suggests, social critique in film should speak to “that which is not seen, not touched, not heard” in society and shine a positive light on that aspect despite the antagonist’s wrongdoings in the film(Marcuse, 1964). The star of the show should be the oppressed over those who fight for them. Social critique from villains should also take on a more constructive role rather than suggesting that one error of society negates all its advantages. If the antagonist does not do this, then the protagonist should at least have a viable way to solve a social problem, creating an “ingression of a different order of things into the established one” rather than doing away with the established order completely (Marcuse, 1964). Finally, in order to prevent such copycat crimes, these villains should have less explicit descriptions of violence. Detailing exactly how Tyler Durden constructs his bombs or how John Doe is able to make a man’s stomach burst conveys realism, but allows criminals to re-enact the fake crime more easily. Although this next generation of “Joker” archetypes might fall into the same errors as past antagonists, implementing a more constructive message with less violence could prove effective in both creating terrifying villains and getting an effective message across for the audience to reflect upon.   

Works Cited

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Fight Club. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. 20th Century Fox, 1999. DVD.
Giroux, Henry A. "Brutalised Bodies and Emasculated Politics." Third Text 14.53 (2001): 31-41. Taylor and Francis Online. Web. 24 Apr. 2013. <>.

Houvouras, Anghus. "The Joker Effect - Why Movie Villains Are Starting to Sound the Same." Flickering Myth, 24 Mar. 2013. Web. 23 Apr. 2013. <>.

Jordan, Casey. "Movies and Crimes." Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment 1 (2002): 222-25. Google Books. Google. Web. 25 Apr. 2013. <>.

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Lee, Terry. "Virtual Violence in Fight Club: This Is What Transformation of Masculine Ego Feels Like." The Journal of American Culture 35.3-4 (2002): 418-23. Wiley Online Library. Web. 25 Apr. 2013. <>.

Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964. Print.

“Morgan Freeman: Joker Role Didn't Kill Heath Ledger." N.p., 13 July 2012. Web. 23 Apr. 2013. <>.

Pelisek, Christine. "James Holmes Hearing Begins—Inside the Prosecution’s Case." The Daily Beast. The Newsweek/Daily Beast Company LLC, 7 Jan. 2013. Web. 23 Apr. 2013. <>.

Petersen, Serritslev. "9/11 and the ‘Problem of Imagination’: Fight Club and Glamorama as Terrorist Pretexts." Orbis Litterarum 60.2 (2005): 133-44. Wiley Online Library. Web. 24 Apr. 2013. <>.

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Se7en. Prod. Arnold Kopelson, Stephen Brown, Nana Greenwald, Sanford Panitch, Lynn Harris, Richard Saperstein, Gianni Nunnari, Dan Kolsrud, Anne Kopelson, Phyllis Carlyle, Michele Platt, Michael Kaplan, Arthur Max, Jean Black, Michael White, and Monte Westmore. Dir. David Fincher. By Andrew Kevin Walker, Howard Shore, Richard Francis-Bruce, Darius Khondji, Rob Bottin, Peter Albiez, Danny Cangemi, Ren Klyce, and Charles Picerni. Perf. Andrew Kevin Walker, Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Richard Roundtree, Lee Ermey, John C. McGinley, and Kevin Spacey. A New Line Cinema Release, 1995.

“Starbucks Bombing Blamed on ‘Fight Club’ Fancy." The Washingtion Times. The Washington Times, 16 July 2009. Web. 24 Mar. 2013. <>.

Surette, Ray. "Cause or Catalyst: The Interaction of Real World and Media Crime Models." American Journal of Criminal Justice (2012): n. pag. Springer Link. Web. 25 Apr. 2013. <>.

The Dark Knight. By Christopher Nolan. Perf. Michael Caine, Aaron Eckhart, and Christian Bale. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008. DVD.

The Silence of the Lambs. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Perf. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. Orion Pictures Corporation, 1991. DVD.

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