Spoiler warning: significant spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The Road to Hell
The Road to Hell
Everyone thinks of themselves as a hero of the story.
Gandhi thought of himself as a good person. So did Lenin. So has every president of the United States, from Jackson to Lincoln to FDR. Your parents see themselves as good. Your annoying neighbors see themselves as good. Everyone sees themselves as good.
This is a problem.
People tend to model their identity - and their life - after stories. Alas, the tropes which make fun stories are not representative of the real world. People grow up with stories of heroes fighting villains, heroes fighting monsters, heroes fighting alien invaders. In the stories, nine times out of ten the problems are caused by antagonists. So of course, people turn to the real world, and they see problems, and they look for antagonists. They blame society’s problems on the rich, the politicians, the religious, the sinful, etc.
We’re a world full of heroes in search of villains.
What if what we really need is more villains?
Remember that scene in Avengers: Ultron, where Tony and Cap argue about how best to defend the world from invasions by alien armies? Tony argues that Earth has no viable defense against an invasion, and Cap argues that the Avengers can handle it.
Really? Six people? How are six people going to stop an invading army?
“Together”, replies Cap, against a backdrop of dramatic music.
Yeah. Great plan ya got there, Cap. All that togetherness makes for a real solid planetary defense strategy.
But it’s not Cap being a moron that’s notable here. Heroes act that stupid more often than not. What’s really surprising is that one of the good guys - Tony - is not a complete moron. Normally, it would be a villain’s job to point out that six people and some togetherness do not constitute a military defense strategy.
But it’s not a total departure from literary norms - Tony’s unusual common sense is portrayed as a character flaw. Tony overcoming that character flaw is one of the main lines of character development in the film, as well as the following Iron Man III film.
Apparently the only way a superhero is allowed to display real intelligence is as a character flaw.
What’s really alarming about all this, is that these are the stories which people use to model their own identities… and everyone thinks of themselves as a hero. We have a world full of people trying to be Captain America, people who want to save the world by (usually metaphorically) punching villains in the face. If the punching doesn’t work, then maybe we need some more togetherness?
They say politics is the mind-killer, but it’s broader than that. Morality is the mind killer. Everyone is trying to be the hero, and the vast majority of the heroes we see are morons. It’s no surprise that the moment morality comes up, everyone scrambles to grab the idiot ball.
In addition to behaving like morons in general, heroes have a contractual obligation to make very poor decisions in certain situations.
Going back to Ultron, there’s a trolley problem near the end of the film. The villain is levitating a mid-size city. Once it gets high enough, the villain plans to drop it, generating a big enough boom to wipe out Europe (or something like that). Tony suggests nuking the whole thing while it’s still near the ground. Cap says “No! There’s civilians in that city, we need to evacuate them!”. Of course, there’s no real doubt for the viewer - everyone knows they’re going to evacuate the city first. When a hero faces a trolley problem, they save the baby and then punch the trolley in the face.
Heroes, in general, are very bad at tradeoffs. Mosquito nets can save a life for something like $5000, but what hero would leave a baby on a train track in order to save a briefcase full of money? It’s hardly surprising that most altruism is so ineffective, when everybody’s trying to mimic heroes who have no idea how to handle tradeoffs.
The nature of fiction dictates that protagonists mostly be reactive, rather than proactive.
When the hero sets out to foil the villain’s dastardly plan, they don’t know the plan yet. The plan is a mystery, gradually revealed over the course of the story. It makes for a good story.
The converse would be a hero making a plan. Imagine: the first half of the story consists of the hero running various scenarios and putting backup plans in place for each of them. Finally, the plan actually kicks off, and the second half of the story consists of watching the plan work more or less as outlined earlier.
You know what we call that? A heist story. Funny coincidence, the genre where the protagonists plan things is also the genre where the protagonists are villains.
Heist stories aside, hero plans do not usually make for a good story. At most, they are small in scope, limited to laying a trap for the villain. Villains have plans, heroes try to break them; that’s how the story works.
When people try to act heroic, their first thought is not “you know what we need? A plan!”. Maybe they’ll throw together a small plan to stop their perceived villain, but nobody sits down to write a detailed, quantitative plan to eliminate poverty.
And if someone did write a detailed, quantitative plan to eliminate poverty, they would probably be a villain.
Join the Dark Side
Time for the pitch.
Join the dark side! You’ll immediately receive:
- 15 IQ points!
- Special Ability: Make Tradeoffs! (Includes: Resistance to Dutch Book Attacks!)
- Special Ability: Plan Ahead more than Five Minutes!
… and many other bonuses.
You don’t need to take over the world. You don’t need a secret lair. You just need to ask yourself - what would a villain do? When faced with a problem, you just need to consider the Evil approach.
Even if your goal is world peace, or eliminating poverty. Villainy does not judge you on your aims, only on your methods. Ruthless efficiency, the pursuit of your objective above all else, doing what works - that is what the Dark Side is all about.
So the next time you want to do something about poverty, don’t volunteer at the soup kitchen or march to “spread awareness” or write a scathing facebook post about Bad People. That won’t fix poverty. Instead, do what a villain would do. Sit down and research the problem. Learn the underlying causes. Run the numbers. Make a detailed, quantitative plan. Find a devious way to make people help, whether they want to end poverty or not. If you need resources, acquire them. Make the necessary tradeoffs. And above all, be smart - it’s not about punching Bad People in the face, it’s not about togetherness or love, it’s about achieving the goal.