I like villains, particularly the rather theatrical sort found in classic horror films or animated family films—those villains that have a set of qualities that could be described as exhibiting a kind of “mustache twirling factor.” However, here comes the issue which storytellers and those that love good stories have noticed, the more evil you make a villain, the similar they become to one another. In particular, despite different backgrounds or variations on motives, they are all essentially creatures of extreme pettiness. I will turn to a film character of recent years in some detail to elaborate this point and to compare other characters both real and fictitious. I will use one of favorite films for this purpose, Kung Fu Panda 2.
Now the villain in that film is the power hungry peacock Lord Shen. The narrator informs us at the start of the film that Shen is born into the ruling family of a major city. All is not well, however, as Shen at a young age realizes that the main ingredient of fireworks could be used for military purposes. His concerned parents consult a soothsayer who says that if Shen continues down the path he walks, he will be defeated by a warrior of black and white (which is artsy movie lingo for Panda). Shen, overhearing this, responds by killing every Panda he and his goons can find. Shen’s parents, not thrilled by their son’s act of genocide, banish him from the city. Instead of using his time in exile to reconsider his actions, Lord Shen lets his wounds fester and plans his revenge.
Shen, of course, returns to take by force what he believes belongs to him and thus sets the plot of the film in motion. The film’s Panda protagonist Po sets off with his kung fu fighting compatriots to stop Shen and his cannon wielding army from taking control of the country. During the film we see the character of Shen receiving warning after warning to turn back from the road he is on—he will never find peace on that road. He meets the Panda Po, who Shen rightly realizes as the one who could defeat him. Indeed, nothing is more telling of his character than when he is asked, “Will the subjugation of the whole world finally make you feel better?” And he responds, “Hmmm, it’s a start. I might also convert the basement into a dungeon.” Finally, at the end of the film, when Shen is amidst his wrecked fleet of ships defeated by Po, the tragedy of the situation is the utter pathetic pettiness of Shen in contrast to Po’s new found wisdom. Shen is warned a final time to let the past go by none other than the one whose parents were murdered by Shen. Instead, he tries one last time to kill Po, the very one giving him one last chance, causing himself to be killed by a falling piece of wreckage.
Now, why go into such detail over a CGI peacock? Well, other than the fact I’m living up to part of my Internet handle, I think Shen represents that pettiness of villains, both real and imagined, that I spoke of at the beginning. Consider a Stalin, a Nero, or some of the most wicked men you can think of alive today, are they not but variations on this theme? Using www.oxforddictionaries.com simply to look up the definition of the word ‘petty’ itself, you get among the results, “unduly concerned with trivial matters, especially in a small-minded or spiteful way”. Whether it comes in the form of greed, pride, malice, envy, or even lust, I believe the definition of petty works rather well in describing the character of evil itself. Am I going a bit too far perhaps? Look at Satan! Created perfectly as a majestic being who not only would probably be of such a sort that no mortal human could convey the splendor of his original form, but he was honored to serve in the courts of the Almighty. What a blessed existence that must have been!
However, that was not enough, he wanted to be God. When cast from heaven for his rebellion what did he do? He has lived as the most pathetic of petty creatures. In the words of Calvin, “For he opposes the truth of God with falsehoods, he obscures the light with darkness, he entangles men’s minds in errors, he stirs up hatred, he kindles contentions and combats, everything to the end that he may overturn God’s Kingdom and plunge men with himself into eternal death. From this it appears that he is in nature depraved, evil, and malicious. For there must be consummate depravity in that disposition which devotes itself to assailing God’s glory and man’s salvation.” (Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2. Ed. John T. McNeill. Trans. Ford Lewis Battles) And Satan continues to be so still, fully knowing his end is near. If the results were not so tragic (indeed, it is foolish to make light of him considering the warnings of Scripture to believers), Satan’s level of pettiness is almost comic as it reminds one of a child unable to have their way, throwing a tantrum in response.
If Satan is the paradigm of evil and wickedness, is not my point that evil, from greatest to smallest act, is petty in character, proved then? Our culture often paints evil as “cool” and our villains as “individualistic,” but what could be further from the truth?! Look at the heroes of the faith, both in Scripture and in the history of Christ’s Church, and there is where you see a magnificent variety of personalities and differently gifted individuals. For those that reject God and insist on their own way, how alike they all are in their vices. They only appear different because God in his graciousness lets them hold onto a few scraps of virtue. Deep down it is so much shaking their fists at God and in their hearts, from Satan himself to the “least” that follow his path, they say in their hearts what Alice Cooper in tragicomic fashion so perfectly parodied in song form:
I never learned to bow, bend or crawl
To any known authority
I really want to build my statue tall
I’m just trying to be God
I only wanna be God
I just wanna be God
Why can’t I be God