The weird reason we are so entertained by movie villains

It’s never been a better time to be bad. Villains like Venom, The Joker, and Deadpool have dominated the box office in recent years, despite the fact that all three are merely insane during their best moments and homicidal at their worst. Why, then, are anti-heroes so popular? 

According to a new study just released by the Association for Psychological Science, fictional villains are popular, well, because they’re fictional. The fact that The Joker doesn’t exist allows the viewer to relate to his story in a way that just isn’t possible for real-life monsters like Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy. The fictional nature of these characters acts as a “cognitive safety net” that lets us identify with Darth Vader or Walter White without damaging our self-image.

Everyone has a darker side to their personalities, and at one point or another, we’ve all felt like yelling at our boss or maybe flipping over a table out of frustration. However, we all have this wonderful trait called a conscience. We know, or at least most of us know, that aggressive tendencies like this aren’t going to get us anywhere in life. 

Identifying with or seeing a little bit of ourselves in a fictional villain facilitates an almost cathartic experience. 

Take Thanos, the antagonist of the ultra-popular Avengers franchise, as an example. Thanos is obviously a bad guy; he wants to murder half the universe. But, for a giant purple alien the guy is also incredibly well-spoken and intelligent. Thanos has become a very popular character, even more so than many of the heroes he came into conflict with, likely because many viewers saw a bit of themselves in Thanos. That’s not to say that millions of comic fans want to kill half the universe, but Thanos is an alien with a goal and a strong belief, and he stops at nothing to achieve that goal and doesn’t let anyone tell him he’s wrong. These are qualities that are often trumpeted as ingredients for success in any walk of life. 

Joker is another prime example. Who hasn’t felt like the world is driving them crazy on some days? We’re not all going to go out and buy some clown makeup, but it sure feels good to watch someone else point out the silliness of society on screen. 

“Our research suggests that stories and fictional worlds can offer a ‘safe haven’ for comparison to a villainous character that reminds us of ourselves,” says lead author Rebecca Krause, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University, in a press release. “When people feel protected by the veil of fiction, they may show greater interest in learning about dark and sinister characters who resemble them.”

It isn’t exactly a new phenomenon; the 1978 Martin Scorsese classic Taxi Driver features a protagonist very similar to Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. On the smaller screen, Tony Soprano was perhaps the original TV anti-hero, debuting back in 1999. We’ve always been attracted to villainous yet relatable characters, as long as they’re fictional. In real-life, though, the same comparisons aren’t nearly as rewarding. No one watches a news report on a murderer and relates themselves to the criminal. 

“People want to see themselves in a positive light,” Krause explains. “Finding similarities between oneself and a bad person can be uncomfortable.”

But, once a villain is placed within a fictional setting, everything changes.

“When you are no longer uncomfortable with the comparison, there seems to be something alluring and enticing about having similarities with a villain,” comments study co-author Derek Rucker. 

So, how did the study’s authors research this subject? They analyzed data from a website that allows users to take personality quizzes estimating how similar one’s traits are to a variety of fictional characters. At the time of the study, the site featured roughly 232,500 users. After taking a quiz, users are told which fictional character their personality matches up with. Examples of possible matches include Yoda, Voldemort, The Joker, Sherlock Holmes, and Joey Tribbiani.

Throughout their analysis, the researchers were surprised to discover that users appeared to be pleased whenever they were matched with a villain showing similar characteristics to themselves.

“Given the common finding that people are uncomfortable with and tend to avoid people who are similar to them and bad in some way, the fact that people actually prefer similar villains over dissimilar villains was surprising to us,” Rucker says. “Honestly, going into the research, we both were aware of the possibility that we might find the opposite.”

Researchers say that further research is needed to fully understand the full scope of society’s fascination with villains and anti-heroes. 

“Perhaps fiction provides a way to engage with the dark aspects of your personality without making you question whether you are a good person in general,” Krause concludes.

The Captain Americas and Supermen of the fictional world are fairly straightforward characters with a clear cut moral code. Real people, though, are usually more complex. Maybe that’s why so many of us prefer more complicated characters like Darth Vader or Tony Soprano.

The full study can be found here, published in Psychological Science.