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The Villain Protagonist

When I first learned that a significant number of Shakespeare scholars consider Iago–slimy, scheming, irredeemably evil Iago–the protagonist of Othello, my mind rebelled against the notion. I knew the central character of a story wasn’t necessarily required to be a “good guy,” of course–MacBeth, A Clockwork Orange, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City more than proved that. “Still,” I thought, “is it not the eponymous Moor’s jealous wrath (or wrathful jealousy?) that causes his tragic downfall?”

But gradually, I came to realize that Othello’s rage is fueled almost entirely by his duplicitous advisor’s planning, plotting, conniving, and manipulation–in other words, he reacts. Iago, on the other hand, acts, pushing the play towards its inevitable, blood-soaked conclusion; that is what makes him the quintessential villain protagonist.

Naturally, that got me thinking about similarly proactive baddies–how their ambitions and aspirations drive the conflict, shape the narrative, and even change the hero:

1. Roy Batty, Blade Runner: Were it not for this emotionally-awakened android’s profound desire to extend his fleeting lifespan, blade runner Dick Deckard would spend the entirety of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic moping at that noodle stand, drowning his sorrows with cheap liquor, and (depending on which version of the film you watch) halfheartedly narrating his boring life. More importantly, Batty’s final act–saving his bitter enemy, the assassin sent to cut short his already dwindling life–inspires Deckard to embrace his own long-repressed humanity… as well as his feelings for Rachel, the innocent replicant that taught him how to love again. 

2. Joker, The Dark Knight: Batman may be the hero that Gotham deserves, but in the early scenes of this bleak, Nolan-directed epic, the clown prince of crime is all that stands between him and retirement: Bruce Wayne hopes to hang up the cowl, pass the torch to courageous D.A. Harvey Dent, and settle down with childhood friend and sometimes-lover Rachel Dawes. Luckily (for the audience, anyway), Joker’s chaotic crime spree disassembles this idyllic dream piece-by-piece, forcing the Caped Crusader to rebuild himself–into something better, stronger, and more significant.

3. Loki, The Avengers: In Joss Whedon’s Silver Age-flavored superhero blockbuster, everything revolves around Loki; his insatiable thirst for power, control, and petty vengeance is the thread that so seamlessly weaves together Marvel’s seemingly disparate cinematic properties. Without this mad god’s penchant for mischief, the Avengers–a soldier adrift in an unfamiliar era, a deity cast out of paradise, a vain billionaire with some wonderful toys, a scientist with anger-management issues, and a pair of exceptionally skilled super-spies–would have no real reason to assemble, and the action-packed plot would grind to a halt.

[Originally written July 21, 2012.]

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