Something, Something Dark Side

I have always been magnetically drawn to the villains in popular culture and literature. I don’t think that I am alone in this. As an adult I have come to understand the reasons why — tragic backstories, ingenuity, fierce determination. But, as a kid, it was simply a case of villain=cool, hero=boring. In the 70s and 80s everyone’s favourite Star Wars character was Darth Vader. I mean the dude needed a respirator to stay alive but could still strangle people over video calls. And boy did I covet my Skeletor toy from Masters of the Universe … how boring was He-Man? Sheesh! Even more boring was the inevitability of the hero’s triumph in the fictional worlds of my youth. Every day, after school, I would watch Inspector Gadget in the vain hope that the brilliant Dr Claw would, quite rightly, triumph over the bumbling titular hero.

What we learn, as we grow older and as Western society in general matures, is that the line between hero and villain is thin, shifting and vague. Popular culture is responding positively to this awakening. Disney, in my opinion, have absolutely led the way in rethinking who, and what, we define as heroic. The preposterous stereotype of the handsome prince who saves the damsel in distress is now, thank goodness, dead and buried. In its place we are seeing the emergence of complex heroes, true heroes, meaningful heroes. From misunderstood and ostracised ex-villains (Maleficent), to princesses who do the saving and the leading (Frozen, Aladdin). From intrepid, young, female adventurers (Brave, Moana) to warriors who are loyal, brave and true (Mulan).

Heroes can be any gender, any culture, any age.

The perception of villains is also changing. Storytellers are moving away from the good and evil dichotomy that has dominated for so long. We are being reminded that there is always a reason for the behaviour of others. Nobody is born inherently bad or good.

It’s amazing how many fictional villains of the past are the “lesser sibling”; physically weaker (often due to illness or disability); not as attractive (according to the society in which they live); highly intelligent (and less inclined to follow the status quo); emotionally abandoned by family and bullied by peers. These fictional villains are disadvantaged their entire lives. Unlike fictional heroes they don’t have anything handed to them on a silver platter. There’s no divine destiny for them. They get knocked down and kicked in the guts over and over again. But they survive and thrive against all odds. Fictional villains are almost always true to themselves, brave, tough and determined. But still they are scorned and their transgressions harshly judged.

Today I would like to spend a little time discussing two of my favourite “villains”: Raistlin Majere, from the Dragonlance fantasy novels, and Kylo Ren, from Star Wars.

Raistlin Majere, as a child, was the physically weaker, bookish twin brother of strong, sporty and kind-hearted Caramon. In addition to being looked down upon by society Raistlin suffered the constant ignominy of having to be “saved” from bullies by his popular brother. More sensitive, more intelligent, more balanced in his view on the world, Raistlin wasn’t interested in impressing others and was never appreciated for who he was. Caramon grows up to be an archetypal hero — muscular, strong, skilled with a sword, loyal, jovial. Raistlin seeks his own company more and more as he grows older — finding solace in his studies. He chooses the path of magic rather than that of the greatsword, and in doing so, subjects himself to the most demanding physical and mental test of all. Those who fail The Test to become a Mage, at the Tower of High Sorcery, pay for their failure with their lives. It’s an all-or-nothing gamble.

Initially wearing the red robes of neutrality Raistlin comes to understand that only through donning the black robes of evil (yes, as usual, white=good, black=bad) can he reach his full potential and become as powerful as possible. So Raistlin becomes a “bad guy” and ends up being portrayed as a self-serving villain. Ironically it is he, and he alone, who has the power to save the world, when the world needs saving.

Recently, across several Facebook groups, a poll was taken amongst Dragonlance fans to determine the greatest “hero of the lance”. This sparked much debate about the nature and definition of heroism, and at the centre of that debate was Raistlin. The pantomime villain who was hissed and booed during the 1980s was being considered for the ultimate heroic title. Why? Because we have all grown up and we now understand Raistlin, and hopefully the world around us, a lot better. I might be making a gross generalisation here but I feel as though Raistlin represents much of the fanbase of fantasy novels and D&D. Personally I was the younger, obstinate, misfit, allergic, nerd sibling. Like Raistlin is to Caramon (and like Loki is to Thor, Scar is to Mufasa, and so on) I was always compared, unfavourably, to my older brother … up there on his pedestal.

So who won the online poll? Raistlin did. Not Caramon, his brother. Not Sturm, the noble knight who died in battle. Not Tanis, the stereotypical hero and leader. Raistlin. Sure he did some terrible things, but in the worlds of fantasy and science fiction, everyone is guilty of that … your judgement on them merely depends on what angle you’re observing from.

Which brings me to Star Wars.

Star Wars came along when I was a small child and has been a very important part of my life since, well, forever. With 11 feature films, around 200 TV episodes and hundreds of novels and comic books, the “galaxy” has grown and developed in myriad ways over the last four and a bit decades. One theme, however, has remained constant. Firmly placed at the centre of Star Wars lore, since the beginning, has been the concept of balance.

The Jedi claim that it has always been their mission to bring balance to the Force. Weirdly, this notion of “balance” has predominantly taken the form of stereotypical good defeating stereotypical evil. Mass murder has been portrayed as completely acceptable when perpetrated by the so-called peacekeepers. Terrible things are sold to us as honourable and necessary when it’s the “good guys” who are doing them — much like the warmongering of Australia, Britain and the US over the last century.

When a young Anakin Skywalker is discovered by Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jin, on the remote world of Tattoine, there is much discussion over whether this child is the fabled chosen one … the one who will bring balance to the Force. Anakin trains as a Jedi, fights for the Light Side during the Clone Wars, and then famously turns to the Dark Side to become Darth Vader. When he ultimately dies, saving the life of his son Luke Skywalker, he repents his sins at the last moment and his journey is portrayed as coming full circle. Most (not all) fans interpret this journey as fulfilling the prophecy of the chosen one who brings balance to the Force.

This has never sat well with me. The white vs black, good vs evil patterns prevail after Vader’s demise. When all is said and done, Anakin’s flitting back and forth does nothing to change the message that “good” is unquestionably good and must prevail over “evil”, which is unquestionably evil.

There are many things that really annoyed me about the conclusion to the Skywalker saga — Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. Don’t worry, I won’t start listing them.

What I will never accept, however, is the missed opportunity to reveal that the chosen one was not Anakin Skywalker after all. Surely it was his grandson Kylo Ren? The filmmakers had the option of breaking with tradition, of admitting that good and evil are mere constructs used to justify the actions of your leaders, your armed forces, your self. They had the option of introducing grey to a black and white world … of placing Kylo Ren as the leader of a new order where creatures, planets and star systems are not forced to choose sides. There was an opportunity to accept that there is good and bad in all of us no matter who we are and where we come from. To preach forgiveness. To condone, nay encourage, making mistakes.

They didn’t.

All of his life Kylo Ren (born Ben Solo — the son of Princess Leia Organa and Han Solo) was the personification of the struggle for balance. The ongoing battle within his own body, mind and soul between the so-called Light and Dark sides leads him to tearfully acknowledge that he feels like he is being torn apart. Anakin Skywalker’s inner demons were explored to a certain extent but the final denouement of simply saying to Luke “you were right about me” simply reinforced the idea that there are two sides and, as Darth Vader, he picked the wrong horse when he moved from the Light to the Dark.

For Kylo Ren the most satisfying narrative arc, in my opinion, would have been a subtle shift to the centre. Not staying “bad”. Not becoming “good” … being both yet neither. Not changing sides. And certainly not DYING! As the most powerful being the galaxy had ever seen, imagine what he could have accomplished as a leader, going forward. If anyone could genuinely bring balance, it was Kylo Ren. Of all the crimes committed by the writers of Episode IX, condemning Kylo Ren to the same fate as all other “villains” was the one that hurt me the most. The most charismatic and compelling character, with the most fascinating backstory and potential for the future … discarded.

It broke my heart.

Catch up with more BORDERLINE & BI posts from Chris:

Libraries: what they mean to me ~why I miss my local library so much

My local running group ~what camaraderie means to an antisocial loner

Something good every day ~ now is the time to recalibrate your thinking

A strange thing ~ when a scene from a television show becomes a part of you

And now, for our Feature Presentation ~ back to the cinema post lockdown

The rainbow elephant in the room ~ identity, sexuality and BPD

Strangers in a frame ~ the role we play in the narrative of others

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