Children are often characterized as innocent, but watching them play reveals otherwise. Deep down, aren’t we all a bit villainous?
A sleeping boy lies peacefully in his room, but all is not as it seems. Here and there are toys, vintage toys that represent some of the most evil characters in recent memory, staged as if they have been murdered. How do you react to this scene of bloodless carnage, all that pierced plastic?
This ingenious and well built short is the work of filmmaker and writer Paul Constantakis, who previously worked for major advertising firms, but left that world to pursue a passion for telling stories. We are glad he did, because Constantakis and his crew have put together something truly thought-provoking. This masterpiece brings up a great deal of questions in less than three minutes.
Are you cheering on the hero? Those baddies deserved everything they received and it isn’t as if they were real people anyway. Perhaps it is natural for kids to play like this, although the level of artistry seems frighteningly adult, in this case because it was intentionally heightened by Constantakis. Does play violence come from inside children or do the movies and books they encounter implant those thoughts and feelings? If we see playing with action figures or dolls as a behavior that models future interaction with human beings, then we may wonder what we are training our boys to be. It’s no accident that the child featured in Villainous is male. Ask yourself if you would be more uncomfortable if this was the work of a little girl.
Even if a child grows up without movies and books–and I don’t recommend it–he or she can’t be unplugged from society or from the collective unconscious, which passes instincts and motivations down from generation to generation. This boy will come in contact with others who shape his life: family, friends, enemies. Nature and nurture are an unpredictable recipe and we can’t say that he will become a monster as he grows up. He’ll probably be fine, just like we are.
But isn’t violence part of who we are, too? Look at the reaction to the death of real life villains like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden or even the use of the death penalty. It’s one thing to see these executions as something that must be done to protect ourselves, but many take that to a deeper level by celebrating death. Aggression finds a suitable target and releases itself, striking out with all the frustration we feel in our own lives. Is this some sort of release valve for the survival instinct latent in otherwise civilized human beings or is it self-indulgent and dangerous? Perhaps that depends on how much we enjoy the experience.
Maybe you felt a shiver of discomfort or something more ominous as you watched Villainous. The dramatization, the shots, the music, beautifully play up the darkness of the room and of the subject matter, adding to the feeling that maybe this isn’t about a child at all, but about a man’s subconscious. His innocence lies sleeping in the midst of all the monsters he has had to face and overcome. Like us, he has been unable to keep his hands clean. We each play a part in the struggles of others and sometimes we are the bad guy in another person’s story. We can scarcely imagine what happens if we fail to fight for ourselves. The very invention of heroes and villains, which is universal, points to the human instinct to frame life in terms of conflict. Is there nothing else?
The final image, Batman acknowledging our presence, is the key to this puzzle. Batman is unique among the superhero archetype. He is one of very few that do not have any special powers, only technology and anonymity. His humanity, which raises him above the villains he fights, also tempts him with dark thoughts that threaten to make him a greater villain than any of them. The reflection of darkness within us can increase our compassion and empathy for others. It can also turn us into ruthless avengers and punishers. Batman has always walked that precipitous edge. Villainous seems to suggest that he has gone over it and is asking if we care to join him.