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People react to grief and loss differently. Take Reverend Shaw Moore from Footloose. As the spiritual leader of a small town, his influence carries a lot of weight. His reaction to the death of his teenage son was to blame dancing and music, which he believes led his son down the road that would eventually kill him. While Moore may be a bit misguided in his attempt to protect the town’s youth from the same fate, he’s not quite a villain, despite what some of the kids in Bomont believe. In fact, Moore's reaction to grief would be considered tame by comparison to some of these other movie characters.
While many a movie antagonist’s evil is rooted in greed, jealousy, and/or a need for power, there are some whose stories begin in a much sadder place, with loss being the catalyst to set them on the course for evil. The following characters are as different from one another as the movies they’re featured in are, which is what makes them so interesting. The most notable common denominator among them is their grief. Despite coming from different backgrounds and set up in different types of stories, each of them has suffered loss and each dealt with it by unleashing their grief on others.
His fall from grace is foreshadowed when he utters the line, "you either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain," and he soon finds himself 'living long enough' to see his love's life threatened. His transformation begins the second he realizes that Rachel is in danger, which leads to his own capture. Finally, Joker's misinformation leads Batman to save Dent - not before half his face burns away - instead of Rachel which puts the final nail in Dent's crazy coffin. He wakes to find his trick coin, now scarred to indicate Rachel's death, and the sound all but fades as the grief overtakes and transforms. He screams, tearing the bandage from his face. Dent is dead. Two-Face is born. Gotham will pay.
Peyton’s wrath is distributed neatly and quietly as she inserts herself into the life of Claire Bartel, posing as a well-meaning nanny named Mrs. Mott. While Claire, believes Peyton is a kind, helpful person and a huge help to her as she attempts resume her work and raise her children, she has no idea that this woman is slowly chipping away at her life, driving a wedge between her and her husband, friends and children. Had Claire truly been responsible for any of the things Peyton blames her for, we might have had cause to cheer Rebecca De Mornay’s character on for her efforts, however her anger is misdirected, which only makes her seem like a sad, crazy person who sees herself as a grief-stricken woman who’s lost everything and is set to get revenge.
While there’s no forgiving the Romulan’s actions – he murdered over a billion people including Spock’s mother and Kirk’s father – but on some level his actions could be understood. There are thousands of films of films that feature a protagonist out for revenge when everything they love is taken from them and audiences cheer them on every step of the way. There’s no denying that Nero went too far and assigned blame to the wrong person (pretty sure supernovas falls under “Act of God” in most insurance policies), but to truly understand the antagonist you must ask yourself: How would you react? There are some of us who would cry ourselves to sleep every night. Others would contact the proper authorities and try to sort everything out in a legal fashion. If you’re like Nero, however, you will blow up a fucking planet in the name of vengeance.
There’s a reason why most archenemies had an intensely personal relationship at some point in their past. Nothing breeds hostility quite like a best friend betrayal, and a strong case could be made that no hero has ever betrayed a villain more than MacGruber. Prior to Von Cunth’s wedding, the bomb-disarming protagonist not only slept with the bride, he convinced her to terminate her child and leave the relationship. The abortion may have been the only way for a fresh start in MacGruber’s mind, but it was the ultimate symbol of war to Von Cunth. He murdered his two-timing ex-fiance as she said her I Do’s to MacGruber and set a new course of sociopathic villainy. I can’t condone his later attempts to blow up Washington DC, but if ever there was an antagonist with an honest to MacGruber axe to grind, it was Dieter Von Cunth.
Listen, nothing can compare to the grief felt by a parent when they lose a child. Nothing. But that still doesn’t justify Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) hacking away at a cabin full of horny twentysomethings in Sean S. Cunningham’s original Friday the 13th. The reveal of the killer’s identity is a bit of a surprise (spoiler warnings on a 31-year-old film are unnecessary), as audiences assume it’s Jason knocking off fornicating counselors. Not yet. Old hockey mask would get his chance in Friday parts two through whatever number we’re up to at this point. But the first Friday centered on a grieving parent pushed into a blinding rage when negligence robs her of her only son. And since Footloose kick started this initial discussion, here’s a direct tie-in: Kevin Bacon was one of the counselors murdered by Mrs. Voorhees when they returned to the camp. How’s that for a six-degrees connection?
In Toy Story 2, when Jessie told her story of being left behind, it simply made her afraid to love again; when Lotso is replaced, he goes into mourning for the version of himself he once knew, so much that he decides no other toys can feel that love again. It's a strange kind of grief, sure, but maybe that's the mastery of Pixar-- through evil leader toys they show you how grief doesn't just have to be for someone else, but for a part of yourself that's now gone forever.
Padme represented what was left of the love in Anakin’s life after his mother died, however even she proved unable to help him control his rage in the end. She died in childbirth, which may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, as Anakin Skywalker disappeared for a long time after that, giving himself over to the dark side and becoming the ruthless Darth Vader.
Interestingly enough, while Vader may be among the most celebrated villains in movie history, he’s also one of the few that redeemed himself in the end, showing us his face and what was left of his humanity at the end of Return of the Jedi. While his grief all but destroyed who he was as a man, there was just enough love in him to bring him back in the end, proving that it’s never too late to turn it all around, even if you’re Darth Vader.
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