Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dreams of the Enemy

So, who else doesn’t really like all of the generic evil villains out there these days? For a lot of games, it’s enough just to have a villain that is simply evil. Not morally gray, not well intentioned, just evil. Same goes for movies… as far as one can tell, Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars is evil for the hell of it. Really, what does he want? Because “power for its own sake” is about the only answer visible.

Building a massive planet-crushing Death Star and destroying a civilian pacifist planet is another excellent example of what I’m talking about. What point was there to that, beyond just being evil for the hell of it? Try this plotline: Empire captures princess, puts her in Star Destroyer prison cells. Rescue team saves princess, but Empire plants tracking device on their ship.

About the only differences are: the Empire has a lot less ill will (you know, that whole not-blowing-up-a-planet deal) and a lot more Star Destroyers, since they have a lot more resources to spare. The other problem, though, is that it’s less dramatic, which is why in Star Wars the villains needed to be over-the-top; why they needed to be purely evil for its own sake.

It gets old after a while, though. Why doesn’t Team Rocket from Pokémon go into the mechanized construction business? With the number of robots they’ve built for the sake of screwing with Ash and friends, they clearly have the aptitude for it. And they wouldn’t have to go blasting off all the time. I guess it’s just not evil enough (or funny enough) for them to make an honest living and send money and Pokémon to Giovanni that way.

It certainly seems in a few different cases that there’s no internally consistent reason for the villains to act the way they do. The demands of producing an interesting movie or TV show, the demands of drama or comic relief, are the reasons for creating villains that act in these ways. But treating those stories as worlds in their own respect forces the view that they’re acting evil for the hell of it. That the villains have no goals beyond being the antagonists; that the dreams of the enemy are non-existent. And people don’t usually act that way.

So it’s awfully refreshing once in a while to get a series like Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A’s. As the series opens, the antagonists seem pretty clearly marked. You know, those guys over there that are the guardians of the Book of Darkness. That cursed book that has never been used for anything other than destruction. That tome that will gain limitless power once all 666 pages have been completed. Frankly, at first, it’s a little bit of a cliché storm. (link to TVTropes)

But, much like the first season does, it doesn’t remain clichéd for long. The motivations of the “villains” are laid bare before the season is half over; the dreams of the enemy are apparent to at least the viewer, if not the protagonists. And the master of the Book of Darkness isn’t the textbook villain lusting after power; likewise, the guardians aren’t just the textbook mini-boss squad that seems to gain nothing from being evil. Oh no.

In fact, they’re about as far from that as it’s possible to be. In a refreshing turn from the standard “bwa ha ha I’m evil and I like it” villain, the master of the Book Of Darkness specifically ordered the guardians not to go out and complete the book. She hardly qualifies as an antagonist, and even if one did try to fit her into that category, she’s definitely not seeking “power after power, ceasing only in death,” as Hobbes put it. (Yeah, I can reference political theory too.)

But then, why are the guardians completing the Book? Clearly they must be more typical villains, right? Well, actually… no. Actually, their leader accepted that order fully and completely. Until they learned that the Book of Darkness was killing its master through a curse, one that would lose effect if the Book was completed. Yes, that’s right: they’re acting as they are to save their master’s life.

What does this mean? People aren’t usually mindless drones that are only supposed to act as the antagonist for some greater story, and it’s nice to see a story that reflects that fact. Although they do exist, it’s the rare person that really does act evil for the hell of it. In the world that we live in, everyone has some kind of dream or goal. Even one’s enemy or opponent has their own wishes and desires. Sometimes, those are even noble ones.

It’s all too easy to look at an opponent and dismiss them as nothing more than an object. Nothing more than an enemy to defeat, even to kill. But that’s not what people are like. When war breaks out, the dead are reduced to numbers and the enemy is reduced to just some monolithic force that must be defeated in battle. It’s all too easy to lose sight of the people behind all of those numbers and uniforms.

Note, I’m not saying that war as a whole is wrong because of this. Unfortunately, sometimes force is the only solution to an opponent who carries a destructive dream. But there must be that awareness of the opponent’s status as a human being. And that awareness is one of the things that will help to ensure that we go no farther than we must.

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