Movie Podcast Network presents… Considering the Cinema — A Podcast About Movies and Film Criticism. I’m your host, Jason Pyles, podcasting from Salt Lake City. This is a free, short-form solocast for cinephiles and anyone with an interest in movie news, film theory, movie trivia, cinema history and film criticism. My topic for this episode is The Sympathetic Antagonist.
So, my objective for today is not to delve into the finer points and distinctions between a film’s protagonist and the antagonist. But just for the purposes of this episode, let’s just assume that an antagonist, generically speaking, is the character who is actively opposing or trying the hedge up the way of the protagonist in his or her pursuit of a goal. In other words, the person who is trying to stop our protagonist.
The No. 1 most important thing to me in the cinema is story. There must be a good story to get me engaged in the movie. And unfortunately, many films don’t have a good story, and one huge reason for this is that we don’t have a worthy or interesting antagonist.
And for that matter, if either your protagonist or your antagonist is weak, then you’re going to have a weak conflict. Drama is conflict, right? So, in order to have engaging conflict, then the opposing forces need to be sufficiently formidable for each other.
So, what makes a great villain or antagonist? I would argue that a golden arrow in a screenwriter’s quiver — a veritable secret weapon — would be a Sympathetic Antagonist.
What do I mean by “sympathetic antagonist”?
Interestingly, it’s almost the inverse of an anti-hero. An anti-hero, of course, is a flawed and imperfect protagonist. This sort of protagonist is one that may not always have the best motives or intentions — or isn’t 100 percent “righteous.” But at the end of the day, when it comes right down to it, this anti-hero type of protagonist still has a good heart, despite the imperfections.
Well, a Sympathetic Antagonist is one is ultimately seeks to do “evil,” but is seeking to do evil (or oppose our protagonist) for reasons that we can at least understand. We don’t have to agree with the Sympathetic Antagonist’s objective — or means for accomplishing their end — but we can, at least, understand (to some degree) where that person is coming from.
I can name a few examples. This first one exists within a bad movie. So, just to be clear, I’m about to name a movie with many problems, but I can argue that it has a sympathetic antagonist.
Joel Schumacher’s much reviled “Batman & Robin” from 1997 was written by Akiva Goldsman. The Sympathetic Antagonist is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Mr. Freeze” character. Now, Goldsman doesn’t get the credit for originally writing Mr. Freeze as a sympathetic character, of course, because he originated in DC Comics by writer Dave Wood.
In this movie, Goldman sticks with the most common version of Mr. Freeze’s origin story, where he was involved in a lab accident while trying to cure his terminally ill wife. The disaster lowered his body temperature, where he needs to wear a special suit to survive.
Anyway, I forget all the details, but if I recall correctly, in the movie, Mr. Freeze steals diamonds because he needs lots of them to survive to operate his suit, and I believe they are also required to continue his work on curing his wife, whom he has cryogenically frozen until he can develop her cure.
So, even though we can’t get behind stealing diamonds and killing others with a freeze gun, we can certainly appreciate his desire to survive and to find a cure for his wife.
Unfortunately, “Batman & Robin” has enough problems that not even a Sympathetic Antagonist can save it, but I would argue on a fundamental level that the protagonist, Batman, is weak in that film.
That’s why many Marvel villains and James Bond villains just don’t work very well, because we can’t really relate to the desire to “take over the world” and to oppress all its peoples.
However, to Marvel’s credit, in the 2017 film, “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” I think Michael Keaton’s Vulture character is framed as a Sympathetic Antagonist because near the beginning of the film we see that he’s a scrap / junk metal collector. Or, I think it’s that his company gets hired to help clean up the debris after the attack on New York City in the first “Avengers” movie.
But then the government sweeps in and takes the gig from him, and that costs him a huge account. So, we learn that the Vulture isn’t necessarily pure evil, he just wants to be able to make a good living to provide for his family. That’s why he’s sympathetic. We can all relate to that. But where we part ways with him, morally, is his willingness to hurt or kill others to achieve his goals.
I should also mention Horror Cinema, because the genre is populated by monsters who are sympathetic. Perhaps the all-time greatest example of this is Frankenstein’s monster. Many monsters are tortured and pitiful. Many of them have endured some previous wrong or a “prior evil.”
One quick example is the character of Leatherface in Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” from 1974. These kids keep wandering into his territory, which we clearly see in one scene, upsets him and causes him great anxiety. So, I read it as a measure for “defending his turf.” He starts killing the kids who invade his territory. Obviously, we can’t get behind the killing of these youths (except maybe Franklin), but we can certainly appreciate his anxiety and wanting to defend his home.
And finally, while Frankenstein’s monster may be the all-time greatest or best known Sympathetic Antagonist in Horror, my all-time favorite is the killer in the original “Friday the 13th” from 1980. This is fairly well known, so I’m going to give a major plot spoiler for “Friday the 13th,” but the killer in this whodunnit mystery turns out to be a grieving mother.
Years prior she trusted her son, Jason, to the care of these camp counselors, but she believes that her son drowned in the lake due to their negligence. Therefore, in her anger and grief, she lashes out and slaughters the counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, especially when they are making love. She believes their hormones kept them from properly watching her son.
So, once again, we can’t get behind killing camp counselors, but we can certainly understand a parent’s temptation to take such revenge, if your child died due to their negligence.
That’s just a little bit on the Sympathetic Antagonist. Let me know your thoughts about the Sympathetic Antagonist in the show notes for Episode 001, which you can find at Considering the Cinema.com.
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