The Bad Guy Epidemic

There has been a slowly emerging trend in fiction over the last fifteen years or so. Replacing the simple goodness of protagonists such as King Arthur and the simpleminded goodness of heroines such as Snow White, we have a growing contingent of more complicated, morally ambiguous characters taking center stage in our stories. Dubious heroes such as Batman and John Constantine exist only to fight off worser evils (and often their “good deeds” are almost coincidental to their battles against their own, personal demons). The traditional antagonists of our childhood have taken on new shades of human character and societal misuse, as in the cases of the Wicked Witch of the West in Wicked or Morgan Le Fay in The Mists of Avalon. We have a bevy of new “bad guys” at center stage, some of them irresistible in spite of their villainy (Thomas Crown, for example, or Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects), and some without any attempt whatsoever to justify their actions through sympathetic moments or incidental benefits to humanity, as is the case with Robert Altman’s 1992 film The Player. Why, as a culture, are our stories evolving in such a way? What is the appeal in watching the bad guys win?

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