Nerd Alert: The Power of the Dark Side

I should preface this by explaining that I have long been enamored with the concept of the anti-hero as well as captivated by a well-written villain. There are many essays that could be written about the best villains in popular culture, and what makes being bad look so good. But the focus of my blog entry today is the exploration of one quote in particular:

You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain

Harvey Dent, The dark knight

I love this quote. I should point out first and foremost that my loyalties lie with the original 1989 Batman film and not with the rest of the suite that follows, but the writers of The Dark Knight deserve some props for this gem.

It speaks to the fact that if you choose not to die on a hill for your principles, you learn to embrace your dark side. Because there is power in your dark side.

In the movie, Harvey Dent utters this line in some unwitting foreshadowing prior to his transformation into the vengeful Two-Face and his descent into madness. He starts out in life a lawful man with a passion for weeding out crime in Gotham city, but a series of unfortunate events (including his girlfriend getting blown to bits) leads him to snap, after which point he goes full vigilante-villain.

This is particularly tragic due to the fact that he overcame a rough childhood and was able to use his wits and work ethic to climb the professional ladder to the point where he was well-situated to rid the city of the kind of violence he was plagued by as a child. He worked hard over the years to enact justice in his city for the greater good, and part of his fall from grace stems from being forcefully faced with the grim realization that good does not always triumph over evil—sometimes no matter your efforts, the bad guys will ultimately win.

There are many notable examples of good guys taking a bad turn in pop culture, but two of my particular favorites come—as one would expect—from Star Trek.

The first is from one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek ever: “In the Pale Moonlight” from Deep Space Nine.

The episode is told from the point of view of Benjamin Sisko, Captain of the space station Deep Space Nine. The Federation, of which he and his comrades are a part, is at war with a formidable force called the Dominion, and the war is not going well. One day while going over the most recent list of casualties, it occurs to him that if they could bring the Romulans into the war on their side, they might stand a chance at defeating the Dominion and ending the bloodshed, thereby saving the lives of thousands who would otherwise perish in a drawn-out war. The only problem is, the Romulans remain neutral, seemingly having no stakes in the war to warrant their involvement. Sisko decides to enlist the help of a clever, well-connected (delightfully shady) Cardassian onboard DS9 to help him carry out a plot to incite the Romulans to action against the Dominion. The heretofore good and respectable captain and his accomplice weave a complicated web of unscrupulous deals, lies, and destruction, swallowing calculated costs along the way in an extremely well-done rendition of “Do the ends justify the means?”… I won’t give away all the details because you really should watch on your own. As a side note, you should watch all of DS9 IMMEDIATELY. And then re-watch it. It is the underrated jewel of the Star Trek universe and possibly the best of all the series.

The episode title is even a reference to the famous tagline of the Joker from my beloved Batman (1989)… It all comes full circle.

Full disclosure: I’ve often considered myself a teensy bit of a “ends justify the means” sort of person. This episode makes me ponder to what extent I actually believe that, and always has me wondering how far I would be willing to bend the rules to achieve a worthwhile goal.

The next example Star Trek has for us of good guys gone bad comes from Star Trek: Enterprise (Season 3), or as I like to call it: the slow moral decline of Captain Archer.

Here, the Earth is attacked by a probe sent by an unknown alien species, killing seven million people. Captain Archer and the crew of the NX-01 (Starfleet’s first warp 5 starship) are charged with the mission of traveling into the treacherous Delphic Expanse (where no man has gone before, of course) to track down the aliens and prevent them from launching a weapon capable of decimating the planet. The Expanse is exceptionally dangerous to travelers; filled with ship-crushing spacial anomalies, alien viruses, and some very menacing bad guys. The deeper they delve into the Expanse, the more unlikely it seems they will ever make it out alive. And if the mission fails, the future of humankind is at stake. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and in short order, the mild-mannered, genial Captain starts taking ruthless measures to gain footing in their quest, including theft, biological experiments, torture, and murder. It is a dramatic transformation to behold.

There are several reasons why we can appreciate some well-concocted villainy; the good villains are 3-dimensional and often more interesting than their heroic counterparts, their single-minded determination in pursuing their goals can be admirable…But why do we take a perverse pleasure in watching honorable characters go rogue? Dare I say it?

Because they appeal to the dark side in all of us.

I know I’ve had to face my own reckoning (given the events of the last few years) that the bad guys far outnumber my previous estimates for their prevalence in the population. That they not only survive, but thrive, and frequently, frequently win.

Add to that the harsh reality that so much of professional or social gain can’t be accomplished through selfless virtue. You can choose to be selfish and victorious or be virtuous and wanting.

These characters choosing to rid themselves of ethical restrictions to get the job done gives them a lot more freedom and control over their circumstances—and therefore, a lot more power. It is in watching our heroes find their power—and discovering that that power doesn’t come from some divine righteousness, but from their own base human instincts and faculties—that makes it so gratifying. This imperfect version of our heroes appeal to the uninhibited human spirit inside us, in all its original impishness.

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