New Historian

It’s Good to Be Bad: Shining the Spotlight on the Villain

<![CDATA[The late, great Roger Ebert once said: “Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph.” It’s Good to be Bad And, really, if we take a quick look at some of the famous and infamous villains, such as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Hans Gruber, Col. Hans Landa or The Joker, the films in which they appeared wouldn’t have had such an impact without them, or they would be something entirely different. And most actors relish playing those roles, as they can get away with a lot more, as opposed to when they are playing the hero. We always root for the heroes, but they are often one-dimensional characters, limited by the requirements of the script and the expectations of the audience, as they have to be the epitome of all that is good and righteous. Ok, maybe every now and then, there comes a hero that is a bit more complex and dark, with his own demons, but still, he has to obey some rules. A villain doesn’t have to do any of that. He’s not constrained by morals, ethics, and while we may not love them, we certainly love to hate them. If a villain is smart, powerful, ruthless, cunning and often charismatic, we feel that much more satisfied when the hero triumphs. But this is not only true of films. Examples of this can also be found in literature, mythology and folklore of all cultures, and while the line between these three is often blurred, and they share some of the stories and characters, the rules are almost the same. As this subject is really broad, this time we’re going to focus on one well-known Hero vs. Villain rivalry, the one between Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Without question, the Sheriff of Nottingham is Robin Hood’s principal nemesis. There have been many incarnations of both Robin and the Sheriff in films, literature, folklore and each of them brought something new, establishing a distance from the original story in terms of accuracy. It is almost impossible to determine the real facts, or even if Robin or Sheriff were historical figures, but, that’s not our concern at this time. We’re going to focus on what’s common to all the interpretations, the antagonism between the two of them. A good source, if you’re interested in a more in-depth study, is “Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to That Celebrated English Outlaw; To Which Are Prefixed Historical Anecdotes of His Life” by Joseph Ritson (PIBN: 1000597106). We practically know all there is to know about Robin Hood, but the same cannot be said about the Sheriff of Nottingham. The Sheriff himself was appointed by the King, as a legal authority, but that certainly didn’t make him the moral authority, as he and his henchmen were rotten and corrupt, introducing unfair taxes and robbing the people they supposed to protect, executing everyone who stood in their path. He is most commonly portrayed as intelligent, ruthless, greedy figure, who will do anything to stop Robin Hood, the only one brave enough to stand up to him. While we are more familiar with Robin, as he is the hero of this story, and more attention has been given to him and the people around him, such as the Merry Men, or Maid Marian, some space has been left for the Sheriff of Nottingham to counterbalance the good deeds done by Robin, thus making the story more suspenseful and making the hero more likable by setting him up against a truly heinous villain. And although the Sheriff doesn’t have the support of the people, or his associates, which might assist him sometimes, but at the same time have their own agenda, he still has considerable means at his disposal which he uses to battle Robin, including his blackmail, bribe, money or worse. Even though he is evil, he isn’t just a mere psychopath, spewing venom, but a more shrewd, calculated figure, driven by ambition and greed, using his intellect in addition to violence to remove the opponents who stand in his way. In that aspect, he serves as a perfect foil for Robin Hood, displaying character traits of equal intensity, but on the opposite end of the scale. Also, some of the tactics employed by Robin and his men, such as theft, are justified as they present the only way of fighting the villainous authority figure. And that is the key fact that explains our perception of a hero: as someone who is defined by his great deeds, and not necessarily someone who is morally incorruptible. That, in turn, defines the role of a villain, as well, who isn’t burdened by similar requirements. The villain’s job is to provide the archenemy and moral nemesis for our hero. That’s what makes a villain. However, being a great villain is something a lot more complex, as the author needs to infuse the character with a human element, motivation and the reasons for his wrongdoings, making him into something more than a cardboard cutout. As a consequence of that, the story sets itself apart from the bunch, ultimately becoming something more: a legend.]]>

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