Embracing the villains: Why everyone needs a troublemaker in their lives

Jul 10, 2023
The captivating power of villains. Source: Getty

Everyone needs a villain in their lives.

Villains provide us with a purpose. Somewhere to focus our rage. Villains unite us. We join forces with others to vent our collective anger about someone – or something that someone has done.

Alex Carey played that role last week when he controversially stumped Jonny Barstow in the second Ashes series cricket Test match at Lords.

Carey did nothing wrong. He played by the rules of the game. In fact, the umpires – the adjudicators of right and wrong on the field – endorsed his actions by sending Bairstow on his way.

But the English, two-nil down in the series and desperate to reverse their situation, invoked the “spirit of cricket’’ accusation to pillar Carey and Australian captain Pat Cummins at the ground, in the media, and even in the halls of Parliament when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak weakly took aim at Australia through his mouthpiece, his press secretary.

Sunak, as you know, is the current third choice British Prime Minister since the last election. He is going so badly that he is tipped to lose the upcoming election to Labour by a record margin. Never elected to the office by the people, Sunak replaced Liz Truss after she nearly destroyed the UK economy in her 49 days as Prime Minister. She had earlier replaced Boris Johnson after he was found to have lied about being on the booze partying at Number 10 Downing St during Covid lockdowns.

These three are typical of England’s self-righteous ruling class who criticise everyone without ever taking responsibility for their own actions. The English delight in taking the high moral ground, especially if it involves Australia being the focus of their anger.

England cricket coach, the New Zealander Brendon McCullum, said Australia’s actions – by that, he means replicating exactly what he had done during his playing days – would galvanise England to fight harder in the remaining three matches.

And it probably will. 

It’s odd that a team would need adversity in order to “galvanise” itself for battle. Surely, the Ashes challenge should galvanise them enough. But that’s the thing about villains, they do bring us together.

For the rest of the English Summer the Australians – in particular Carey and Cummins – can expect to be roundly booed at every opportunity and no one will question the herd mentality that drives the boorish behaviour of crowds.

I won’t deal with real villains in this story. By “real villains” I mean people like Vladimir Putin and Saddam Hussein. That’s a discussion for another day.

This current debate was triggered by cricket, something that is a bit like a Pantomime. Good fun to watch, but not at all life changing. It’s debatable at this stage if Carey’s actions will become folklore like Trevor Chappell’s underarm delivery or the sand-paper-gate affair. Only time will tell.

So, who are the greatest sporting, film and television villains of our generation?

We remember villains because, in fiction at least, they seem to have more fun than the heroes. They definitely get the better lines on the screen. We remember villains because they are genuinely interesting, often tortured and flawed souls.

I think the number one television villain would be J.R. Ewing, the shrewd, ruthless character from the TV drama Dallas. Ewing, played by Larry Hagman, consumed our water fountain conversation from 1978 to 1991. We hated him with a passion, but we also couldn’t take our eyes off him and hung on every word he said.

Game of Thrones produced a couple of note-worthy villains Joffrey Baratheon and the incest-loving Cersei Lannister, played by Lena Headey. 

In the film, it is hard to go past Darth Vader (played by David Prowse) in the original 1977 Star Wars movie as one of the worst, yet most compelling, villains. I remember sitting in the cinema as a 17-year-old and people booing Darth Vader and throwing popcorn in anger at the screen. He embodied evil.

Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins did an amazing job creating the character of Hannibal Lecter in the 1991 film, Silence of the Lambs. His calm, almost thoughtful demeanour, was totally at odds with his penchant for human flesh.

Glenn Close tops my list of female villains for her brilliant portrayal of the bunny boiling Alex Forrest in the 1987 blockbuster, Fatal Attraction.

In real life, Jack Nicholson looks like he’s a little mad, and he may not be acting at all when he plays frightening villains on screen. He was at his psychotic best as The Joker in one of the early Batman movies and who can forget him in The Shining as Jack Torrance.

It’s hard to tell if we love villains because they seem to get away with everything, or we just love to hate them.

As filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock famously said: The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.

We started with sports, so let’s end this discussion with sports.

It’s Wimbledon time so we can’t not put John McEnroe on our list as one of tennis’ greatest villains.

In my opinion, McEnroe is also one of the most watchable tennis players ever to grab a racquet. The New Yorker had us glued to our television sets for hours and hours as he ranted and raved berated officials and climbed to the top of world tennis.

Cyclist Lance Armstrong went from hero to villain when he was exposed as a drug cheat. After denying drug cheating allegations for years and years, Armstrong eventually came clean, ruining his reputation, before being stripped of his Tour De France medals.

Another to take the path from hero to villain was athlete Marion Jones. She was one of the stars of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney winning three gold and two bronze medals. By 2007 she was confessing that her performances were improved by the use of steroids. She ended up going to jail for six months for lying to investigators.

Australians have always had a love-hate relationship with rugby league player and boxer Anthony Mundine. The St George and Broncos player went on to win, post football, world titles in the boxing ring, but his outspoken opinions put him off-side with the public.

I truly believe that if Mundine was born and raised in America, where being outspoken is seen as a sign of confidence, he would be considered a national hero.

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