The dynamic between good and evil has always been an important part in dramatic entertainment. God versus Satan. Moral versus immoral. Hero versus villain. Usually, an author will write their story/screenplay/etc from the hero's point of view, to assist the audience in associating with that character. White hats signify the courageous cowboy while black hats help identify the criminal. It is a tried and true formula, and one which continues to be successful.
But an interesting thing happens when we engage in quality entertainment. The good versus evil struggle might appeal to us at first, but it wears off the longer we stay engaged. The "good" characters we tend to enjoy are usually shades of gray. Hamlet. Han Solo. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. The darkness, which we are asked to root against, makes the pure and good hero much more murky and "human."
As an audience, we understand that "humanity" as something that we all possess, and thus we are able to associate ourselves with these characters. Troubled but with a heart of gold. The vampire seeking redemption. Succeeding for right by any means necessary. Machiavellian and real.
And yet, who do we remember the most? The true villain. The one without redeeming qualities. The more over the top the baddie, the more we remember him or her. Darth Vader. Hannibal Lector. Cruella DeVil. Pure good seems boring to us. The heroes only become interesting once they are corrupted in some manner. But the villains... The worse they are, the more we remember them. Our shadows overwhelm our memory to clearly recall the horrible.
Are these characters simply written better? Meatier roles to play? Do actors enjoy living out the unthinkable more than the mundane? I am sure there is some truth to each of these possibilities. And some of the enjoyment in watching or reading these portrayals of the worst of the worst is being able to discuss these issues. People don't often sit around and discuss why Jesus was nice to the leper. He's the Son of God. It is his nature to be good. We don't question it because we are told about it up front. But why do the "big bads" do the things they do? We have to question and seek answers. Because the part of us that might understand is hidden within us.
Two more examples of which I am fond before I run out of letters to use. The television series "Homicide: Life on the Street" ran for 7 seasons and had a number of impressive performances, both from main characters and guest stars. Yet one character had life breathed into him by Eric Dellums and left the viewer mesmerized every time he appeared on screen. Luther Mahoney was a drug-lord of the worst kind, masking his evil intentions behind an obvious, yet creepily accepted, facade. Every word of dialogue that he spoke kept viewers interested. Every action he committed drew out the viewer's emotions. Even with his death after six episodes, his character loomed so large that the remainder of that season and even beyond seemed haunted by him. Would this type of reaction have occurred if the character was a saint?
The last example I would name is the reason I began this post. I watched the movie "New Jack City" again the other day, knowing that I enjoyed it immensely back in 1991. When you walk away from that movie, you don't think about Ice-T's first "real" acting performance. You don't think about how Judd Nelson has changed from his brat pack days. And you don't spend hours discussing the rationale behind why Chris Rock will never be a better actor than he was playing Pookie (which is 100% true). The thing that strikes you, the thing that you carry out of the theater in shocked silence, is the characterization of Nino Brown by Wesley Snipes. Gangster, drug lord, kingpin, crime syndicate head, and CEO all play into the role of Nino Brown. Snipes pulls off a glorious portrayal, one of pure greed and vice, intelligent and ruthless, the damned of the damned. Even though his fate is not a pleasant one, who he is rings through our minds long after the movie ends.
As our individual shadow struggles to find a voice in the reluctant hero or the conflicted protagonist, we do not mind because there is still enough "good" for balance. Yet, our shadow will not let us forget the evil characters we encounter. It is waging a war. Subconscious versus conscious. Who we are versus who we want to be.
Am I my brother's keeper?
Yes I am.