When I first watched "The Matrix" as a ten year old, to me it was an action packed film unlike any other. It had a great storyline, the incredibly handsome hero - with his doubts at first and the ultimate rising to the occasion to save the day. The way Neo (Keeanu Reeves) defeated Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) was legendary. The rules were simple - there's a villain trying to harm the world, and the hero gloriously fights back and wins. Hooray!
And then, many years later well into my adulthood on a dull summer evening, I decided to watch the film again. But wait, did Agent Smith just compare our species to viruses? Why does that make sense?
Without even realizing it, I began to see the film from Smith's point of view. His comment on humanity's obliviousness and how we define our reality through misery and suffering rang a bell somewhere deep down inside of me. I began to understand the cause behind this antagonist's actions.
When Christopher Nolan introduced his enigmatic Joker (Heath Ledger) to us with his notoriously deceptive motives, the desire to cause anarchy, I, like millions of others, was torn between good and evil, and right and wrong. I realized it's not that simple, that the world isn't black and white. Rather, there is a big fat grey area in between.
When the Joker says "Chaos is fair," I couldn't help myself but understand why. When he proved that even the best of us can become corrupted, I couldn't help but agree.
Why did Marvel's Thanos (Josh Brolin) become the most compelling villain? Why was Eric Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) a lovable antagonist? What is this admiration we have for these so-called villains?
As the Russian novelist and journalist Fyodor Dostoyevski said on the subject of evil, "Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him." These characters are an amalgam of both positive and negative attributes, and which aspect of their consciousness takes precedence depends on what their reality is.
As we, the spectators, grow older and see our own realities unfold and shape our paths, we experience the human condition with all its flaws and bitter truths. We don't always get to be the hero. We are villains in someone else's story. Our journey to self-actualization often leaves behind unintended road blocks on someone else's journey. That's the way the world works.
Then there are the situations where the scale of balance tips so far below that the forces that control the world seem downright cruel. We feel frustrated and angry and helpless. The dilemma of existence becomes the steady point from which we continue to live our lives unremarkably. The need for acceptance, acknowledgement and preservation of our symbolic self - because how we are remembered is important to us - navigating our mind, as our inner voice slowly recedes to a quiet whisper.
So when we turn to the screen and see a character who is unconflicted about his conviction - someone who plays out our forbidden impulses and secret wishes, we go through an experience that taps into a part of us that forevermore remains in the dark. We are drawn to their fierceness, intelligence and confidence. Yes, their actions are horrific, immoral and downright psychotic, but the cause resonates with us on a deeper level.
When Thanos decided to eliminate half of the population in the universe, despite the insanity of it, we understood his wisdom behind it. His conviction, no matter how sociopathic, that the universe will restore balance when there are less people in it left us dazed. Even after he succeeded in his mission, we didn't see him sitting on a throne gloating. Instead, he went away to live a simple life in solitude. The conflicting image of his peacefulness against the ruthlessness is what instills respect and admiration in us.
When Killmonger follows his father's ideology and plots to rule Wakanda, we understand his anger and the drive to fight against racial inequality. When Agent Smith talks about how human species use up all the natural resources wherever they go and disrupt the equilibrium, can we honestly argue with it?
What these movies have executed so brilliantly is that they have offered us the chance to look at the souls of the forces that work against the heroes, allowing us to understand the reasons behind their actions even if we do not advocate them. They shred the "villain" label and become the antagonist that challenges the protagonist. Ultimately, a great villain is what makes a hero's journey worthwhile.
But in the end, the bad guy always loses - leaving a part of us wondering, "What if?"