I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how badly our blockbuster movies have done at designing villains lately, prompted by frustration both with Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness. But yesterday, two pieces I read made me think about a rather different issue that’s raised by the way we design villains: how our heroes deal with them. Because we’ve got a situation that’s a problem not just for storytelling variety, but for what we understand as heroic. If all villains are so powerful that they present a threat to our continued existence, our only solution becomes to subject them to an awful lot of physical violence. It’s not just, as Linda Holmes has suggested, that we’re still hailing as heroes people who are responsible for or fail to prevent an awful lot of collateral deaths. Heroism’s getting collapsed to the ability to do a lot of physical damage in the name of right, no matter the cost to our stated values.
“One reason filmmakers might be wary of this idea is that they’re afraid of the optics of a male hero hurting a female villain, given the prevalence of real-world male violence against women,” Dan Wohl wrote at The Mary Sue. “If physical confrontation between hero and villain is absolutely crucial, it’s hard to deny the possibility that the imagery of domestic violence or sexual assault could be evoked.”
It’s telling, in Wohl’s formulation, that we’ve become awfully comfortable with wildly showy displays of violence against male villains, even those who are eventually taken into custody for trial or imprisonment. In The Avengers, the climactic showdown with Loki comes in the midst of an invasion of New York City. It makes sense that the superheroes in question mount up in response to the sudden arrival of alien invaders who proceed immediately to killing an enormous number of American citizens without serving notice of their intentions or giving anyone any sense to surrender. But those invaders are somewhat different from Loki, the god from Asgard who spearheaded their incursion. When he comes face-to-face with the Hulk, Hulk tosses Loki around like a rag doll, literally pounding him into the stone inlay in Tony Stark’s office. It’s a very funny bit of action choreography that fits well with what we know of both characters, both Loki’s sense that he’s invincible, and the Hulk’s sense of profound irritation. But if the Hulk could physically subdue Loki, he also could have taken him into custody, as Loki is later taken, without beating the hell out of him.
Similarly, and as I’ve written before, Star Trek Into Darkness had a number of conflicting cues in the script that made it unclear whether it was really necessary for the heroes to spend the third act of the film shooting at and brutally beating Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch). But whether or not Khan is vulnerable to phasers set to stun, organizing an entire third act around a chase and fight sequence between him and Spock suggests that our expectation is that if a villain isn’t killed, he’ll be beaten into submission before he’s secured into legal custody for trial, transport to Asgard, or freezing into a futuristic sleep pod.
It’s for that reason that I appreciate Denise Martin’s suggestion as part of Vulture’s Best of Television package that Parks and Recreation‘s Councilman Jeremy Jamm is the best villain of this television season. “His C.V. of villainy is packed: His questionable pro–Paunch Burger agenda. His miniature-golf outfit. His unauthorized usage of Leslie Knope’s toilet. But it was the decision to ruin Leslie’s wedding that makes orthodontist and Pawnee city councilman Jeremy Jamm the absolute worst villain of the year,” she wrote. “Not only did Jamm jeer Leslie as she walked down the aisle by singing, ‘Here comes the boo! All dressed in boo!’ he also threw stink bombs. Jamm is your moronic little brother all grown up and in a position of authority — a position he seemingly occupies solely because it allows him to thwart and taunt opponents with his catchphrase ‘You just got Jammed!'”
I found Jamm irritating to watch all season, and I hated watching Leslie Knope be pulled down to his level. But on reflection, that’s what makes him an important villain, beating out more creative killers like American Horror Story‘s Dr. Oliver Thredson, and actual psychopaths like Game of Thrones‘ Joffrey Baratheon, even if, and precisely because, he doesn’t pose life or death stakes to anyone in Pawnee. Jeremy Jamm is a reminder that there are gradations of consequences, and that a lot of truly dreadful and compromising things can happen to you before you face torture or death. You can give up your values. You can be defeated on a project that’s important to you. You can lose your temper embarrass yourself or hurt people you care about.
Parks and Recreation has always been an optimistic reminder that organizations and kinds of people who are often degraded in our popular discourse are actually capable of a great deal of good, and can even be the sources of a significant amount of happiness that we rarely credit them for. But in Jeremy Jamm, it served up a different lesson that the rest of pop culture could stand to take a lesson from. When the stakes aren’t life and death, and even when they are, sometimes the path to real victory lies through restraint and a sober rededication to the best things that define us. We don’t need all of our villains to threaten to end the world for them to be effective and frightening. And now, more than ever, we need heroes who are willing to hold back and say no, rather than descend to their level.