I’ve always hated Voldemort as a villain. Even though he does not bear a mustache, you can practically see him twirling it as he cackles, “Hahahaha. I am EVIL!” He murders casually, feels no remorse, speaks of himself in the third person, and has no real specific goals except to kill our protagonist and take over the world by becoming de facto Minister of Magic. Unlike Tom Riddle, his former identity, Voldemort lacks much, if any, nuance, and we can see it in the climax of Deathly Hallows. I think the low point comes when he reports to the gathered students and teachers and other good guys in the courtyard at Hogwarts that, Harry “‘was killed while trying to sneak out of the castle grounds’” and “there was relish in his voice for the lie” (731). Such a childish lie! Such simplistic, obvious evil!
Then there’s the substance of evil in the wizarding world: racism. Racism is the cause which unites the Death Eaters more than any other. They’re called “Death Eaters” because they supposedly want to destroy death, but this is never cited as an article of faith by any of them, and Voldemort himself only references it occasionally. Sad, because that could be wonderfully complicated. Racism against muggle-borns and power over them are the Death Eaters’ real passion. Essentially, grown-up bullies looking for prey to push around.
Racism is also obvious evil. There’s nobody (worth talking to, anyway) that will disagree with its status as evil. There’s no complex way of looking at the Slytherin cause. It’s as obviously evil as Voldemort’s most frequent crime, murder. It’s an easy target, and the way it’s portrayed teaches us almost nothing that we can take away into the real world. We just know it has to be defeated. The trick is figuring out how to take it down, not wondering, as in the real world, if it should be taken down at all.
There’s a way you could make it more subtle and nuanced. There’s a way you could even make it believable and worth writing about, if you were to show how an ordinarily good person can be susceptible to strains of prejudice that might lead to inter-ethnic hatred, but in the world of Harry Potter, you’re either a racist supporter of Voldemort (and hence in Slytherin) or on the good side. This even as Sirius Black tells Harry, speaking explicitly about Dolores Umbridge, that “The world isn’t divided into good people and Death Eaters.” Then in Book 7 Umbridge becomes exactly that: leading the persecution of Muggle-born wizards and taking pleasure in her sadistic torture of them. Evil in Harry Potter is almost always plain and obvious—and dare I say, boring.
I say “boring” not because I think it should be more exciting, per se, but I think evil in fiction, especially in a book series as otherwise amazing and incredible as Harry Potter (I love it to death, if you didn’t know), needs to teach us something about the evil it portrays. Because sure, there are a few complex characters in there who grapple with evil in the kind of complex way our heroes never do—I’m thinking of Snape, of course, but also Draco, and ultimately his parents, and maybe slightly Peter Pettigrew, if he had been given more page-time—but…well, let’s put it this way: the primary villain and his organization never present a personal challenge to Harry Potter’s soul. There’s no courage in standing up against him except for bodily harm. We are never confused about who is right and who is wrong. Recognizing evil in the wizarding world—unlike in the real world—is easy, and standing up to it, while taking a kind of courage, is the obviously right thing to do.
Now, looking at the title of this post, you might be thinking: Neal, how the heck can the Joker be the main example of non-obvious evil? He’s dressed as a demonic clown! He murders people slowly and savors it! He admits himself he’s an agent of chaos! He…makes us laugh? And makes audiences in the theater clap and cheer? His performer wins an Oscar because he’s so enrapturing to watch?
Yes, his evil is obvious, in a way. But it wasn’t obvious to Harvey Dent! Dent was persuaded by the Joker that all this stuff happening, it’s not the Joker’s fault. It’s the system’s fault. I didn’t kill your fiancee, Harvey. I am no devil, for there is none. Even staring evil personified in the face, Harvey Dent was seduced by his words and ideas, and he proceeds to let the Joker live when killing him was in his power, and goes on to shoot others who are only tangentially mixed up in this horrible business that the Joker, of course, started.
His evil wasn’t obvious to the people of Gotham! They blamed Batman for their troubles. Barbara Gordon cries out to Batman, after learning that her husband is dead, “You brought this craziness on us! You did!” The reporters and public and police at Harvey Dent’s press conference call for Batman to be arrested and convicted rather than focusing on stopping the true evil. If it wasn’t for someone standing up to evil, their cowardly reasoning goes, evil never would have risen and adapted to the challenge! Therefore no one should ever stand up to evil at all. That seems to be their perspective: bitter, sweet, and sweet, bitter.
And, as I intimated, the Joker’s evil is not even as obvious to us as it should be. We celebrate that character like none other. Some of us watch the movie just to be entertained by him. We’ll call him evil, and know it on some level, sure, but as has been said, if we laugh at the Joker, he wins.
This is presented visually in a profound way. In the final images we see of the Joker, he is literally hanging upside-down. From his perspective, Batman sees him this way, the correct way. But Nolan, perhaps in anticipation that the audience would find the Joker electric to watch, turns the camera upside-down to match the Joker, and to us, he looks rightside-up. Even though it should be obvious that he’s evil, we still can’t help but enjoy it. Our worldview turns upside-down with him.
This is why The Dark Knight is so much more than a superhero movie. Ultron, Loki, Obadiah Stane, whoever Mickey Rourke was, the Nazis, Robert Redford, whoever that villain was in Guardians of the Galaxy—all obvious villains who only needed to be, in layman’s terms, punched really hard in the face.
The Joker wasn’t just the bad guy because he killed people and blew up hospitals. The profundity—and REALITY—of his evil is that he’s a corruptor. Corruptors are by nature subtle and obvious. They make good evil and evil good. They can deflect blame for themselves onto others, often on larger targets like “the system” or “the establishment.” Amalakiah is one of the greatest villains of the Book of Mormon. But what was he to the Lamanites? Frankly, Trump-like. He worked over that whole nation by degrees, and changed them without them even knowing it. Because of his flattery and seduction, few saw him for what he was, which is why he was able to gain power over the soul of the Lamanite nation.
“You didn’t think I’d risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fistfight with you?” the Joker mocks Batman, laying out exactly what his purpose was. Not to destroy bodies, but to destroy souls. The stakes of souls are so much greater than the generic quest to save the world, because one of those battlefields is realistic and the other is not.
That’s why the climax of The Dark Knight is so profound: it all comes down to an ordinary man looking inwards, and deciding not to give in to the evil inside him. This nameless man makes a choice to reject the devil’s designs on his soul. (BUT—his choice would not have made a difference if Batman, the Christ-figure, had not intervened to take away the Joker’s power to kill/damn all those people anyway. But that’s a subject for another post.) That businessman probably doesn’t even know that he and the rest of the ferry-goers were led into this kind of spiritual trap by the Joker. The Joker doesn’t care. He doesn’t need to be recognized. Like the devil, he’s got no ego. He doesn’t need to be recognized for his masterworks. He’s perfectly content to be absolutely invisible, pulling the strings without anyone ever knowing it.
There’s hard reality to non-obvious evil. We know murder and racism are wrong, and every reasonable person agrees that we should imprison or execute murderers and shun racists. There’s no genuine dispute there. The real kind of evil is the kind that not everyone agrees over. The ideas and attitudes and perspectives that seem reasonable to some, even if it is destroying their soul and the soul of society inwardly.
That evil is much more frightening to me than a big bad guy killing people indiscriminately. We all agree that that man needs to be stopped. We all cheer in the theater when he’s killed or otherwise defeated (usually in a very entertaining way). Non-obvious evil, though, doesn’t usually do that. When it’s defeated, we don’t stand up and cheer, because at first we’re not quite sure what is really going on. We have to think about it, digest it, and recognize it. Do we clap when that nameless bald businessman decides to put the detonator back in the box? No, and most people don’t even see the depth of that moment. They just consider The Dark Knight a great comic book movie, and don’t really think about why. Instead, they clap at the “magic trick” scene, where the Joker uses a pencil to kill a man.
The point is this: we don’t notice non-obvious evil very often, but it is critically important that we do so. Because it’s the kind of evil that encroaches upon our own soul without us knowing. It’s the kind we’re least aware of because we more often than not fail to recognize it as evil at all. It’s the kind that the ordinary person, like you or me, in the ordinary realm of ordinary events, is most susceptible to without ever being aware of it. Non-obvious evil needs to be portrayed more and more in fiction because it’s the kind that teaches us about ourselves.
Voldemort’s style of evil is easy to recognize, so the only challenge is, essentially, beating it up. Non-obvious evil must first be recognized as evil, which is much much harder because usually it involves confronting something within ourselves. And that is the point of its portrayal! That is why it’s so important. Those are the stories that don’t just stick with us, but, ideally, CHANGE us. Those are the stories we need to write and patronize.
The question is, can we write that kind of story and still make it viscerally entertaining?
I think Christopher Nolan has proved that we can.
[Credit for Voldy with a mustache goes to Wafflepal at deviantart.]