Our Brains Can't Handle This Without A Villain

Our movies just didn't prepare us for this.
Our Brains Can't Handle This Without A Villain

Somewhere between an armed militia threatening to shoot police officers if they tried forcing a barbershop to close, the murder of a dollar store security guard who asked a customer to wear a mask, and the conspiracy theorists rallying to tell us that this is all fake, I began to suspect that not everyone is handling quarantine super well.

As of writing, that Michigan barbershop is open and serving customers who are declaring haircuts essential despite a statewide stay-at-home order, although its owner has so far only been given misdemeanor tickets because no one, understandably, wants to give the closure order that risks them having to announce "An officer was murdered in the line of duty by some selfish dipshit who couldn't figure out how to use a pair of scissors and a mirror." One of the militiamen, who's bravely protecting his sovereign right to risk a stranger dying alone and in agony so that he won't have to live in minor discomfort for a few months, commented, "Hopefully the police decide that fucking with pissed off armed men is a bad idea."

Putting aside the fact that the kind of people who casually threaten murder always have the ugliest hairstyles anyway, who are they pissed off at? The universe? No one is thrilled at our current circumstances, and political leaders are certainly not above reproach given that the Insane Clown Posse has offered a more robust response than the White House, but threatening to shoot your way out of a viral outbreak is like threatening to shoot someone who offers you a bottle of sunscreen at the beach because your arms are turning red.

The history of anti-government attitudes in America needs about 500,000 more words to go over than we have space for, but equating "We're technically ordering you to stay at home so people don't die, but ultimately we're just working on the honor system here because some of you are fucking nuts" with Orwellian tyranny is the culmination of treating every issue as having two equally viable and diametrically opposed viewpoints. At a time when the deletion of a horny tweet promoting a video game can be decried as "cultural Marxism," there has to be a pro-virus side. If there are heroes tolerating the death of loved ones, financial ruin or, most horrifying of all, hair that looks a little shaggy, some villain, however improbably, has to be benefitting from, and encouraging more of, all this human misery.

You see, we really don't have any easy firsthand analogues for COVID. The Spanish Flu might as well have been a Biblical plague for how unrelatable its circumstances are today. But boy, do we have pandemic pop culture. And, in the vast, vast majority of it, humans are to blame and humans must be defeated. Either the virus is a human creation that escapes its laboratory confines, or it's a natural occurrence that provides an excuse for totalitarian governments to form, roving warlords to seize power, and authors to make grim statements about how, whoa, the real virus is man's capacity for evil. A good story needs a good villain, and the vagaries of the universe can't give an evil speech before beating someone's head in with a baseball bat.

Think of any story with a virus, no matter how highbrow or lowbrow. The Walking Dead? Every promise of safety is a trap laid by gangs of murderers and rapists. The Handmaid's Tale? Power is seized by a cruel theocracy. Resident Evil? Ruthless corporations and bioterrorists grow bolder with every installment. The Stand? The government executes civilians in a futile attempt to stop a rogue bioweapon. World War Z? The moment Jerusalem shows mercy by letting refugees in, it's annihilated. The Last of Us? Once you escape the roving hordes of cannibals you discover that the scientists promising help are evil. 28 Days Later? Supposed government authority will trick you into sexual slavery and the outbreak is the fault of animal rights activists. Rise of the Planet of the Apes? Humanity accidentally creates the virus. Love in the Time of Cholera? The cholera was released as part of a plot to steal bearer bonds. Authority should never be trusted, the promise of safety is always a lie, and the actual virus is just an inconvenience for the heroes and a tool for the villains.

That doesn't make any of these stories bad -- I enjoyed most of Resident Evil 6, so my standards are lower than anyone's -- but it does make us ill-equipped to deal with an actual pandemic. Stories need a clear cause so we know how our heroes got in the mess they're in, and they need a clear villain so our heroes have an opponent to overcome. Yes, there are exceptions -- Contagion is enjoying a resurgence -- but World War Z quadrupled Contagion's box-office, so let's not pretend that our default view of a pop culture pandemic is slow and talky. We want our heroes to shoot at the evil government scientists until their problem vanishes forever in a climatic finale, even if that problem is an indifferent planet.

There are no mainstream thrillers about humanity quietly waiting out the whims of nature. There are no famous stories of "And then the hero sat quietly until the problem was solved by hardworking professionals and the passage of time and, in doing so, they had the chance to reflect on how they weren't really the hero in this particular story at all." That's understandable, because I would get about 10 pages into that novel before leaving to play Doom. But our insistence that every story -- contemporary, historical, fictional -- must have a clear protagonist and antagonist has given us people who think that COVID has pro-virus representatives who can be threatened and killed until it all goes away.

Maybe the people currently pushing American gun sales to record highs aren't major cinephiles, but their apocalypse cosplay certainly puts them in the center of a reality where their violence is conveniently righteous. Their "Mission Accomplished, we totally crushed the curve, I'm the invincible protagonist so I'm not going to listen to those liberal stooge doctors who want to take away our right to get hammered at Chili's when the Packers lose" has the same line of thinking that powers conspiracy theories: that there is a plan, however evil, behind all of this, and that by glimpsing it you are given an insight into the nature of existence that everyone else lacks. Not coincidentally, conspiracy video Plandemic has had, ahem, viral success with claims that include COVID being the product of human manipulation to pump money into Big Vaccine. Conspiracy theorists are mounting small but intense public protests, because you can't take to the streets to protest cosmic indifference to our existence.

It takes a certain cognitive dissonance to consider yourself the sort of grizzled patriot who would wage a prolonged guerilla war with the government in the name of the Constitution should the need arise, then demand that you should be able to enjoy a Big Mac and a trip to Urban Outfitters no matter how many Americans must die to facilitate it. Even if you're not shooting up a McDonald's because its employees are part of the nefarious pro-virus camp, demanding that America re-opens ahead of schedule is to reduce everyone not in your immediate line of sight to the extras devoured by zombies in the opening scenes, to nobodies who exist only to let the hero's survival prove how much tougher, more resourceful, and plot-relevant they are. If COVID is the ultimate test of whether reality is exclusively about you, these people are failing. (But hey, at least the time protesters held out before the allure of enjoying Applebee's mozzarella sticks in their native fluorescent ecosystem became too much to resist was put to such good use.)

When COVID began, there was a spike in viewings of pandemic-themed movies, in part because all but the bleakest of them still have happy endings. But the real comfort in these stories, I think, is that no one, hero or villain, is in denial. No one's yelling at you to Google "rage virus hoax documentary" even after you tell them that a zombie gnawed your friend's face off. No one argues that since the first wave of murderous biker gangs were repulsed it's time to get back to work, because the Walmart employees picked off by the second wave are just part of the cost of doing business. No one stands up to give a stirring speech about how some of the huddled masses must be sacrificed to the plague so that Tesla shareholders don't experience too much disappointment in the fourth quarter. Everyone agrees that a virus exists, but some people use it as an excuse for evil. In reality, non-existent evil has been projected onto others as an excuse for callous indifference.

Of course, the obsession with giving every story heroes and villains has also given the handfuls of people waving signs about how 5G will melt your brain into goo outsized attention, because no one wants to read profiles of the people who did their part by staying home and re-enacting the entirety of Point Break in Animal Crossing. The escapism of post-apocalyptic stories is that the hero only has to be a little more ethical in their mass slaughter than the villains to be worth rooting for, that the societies we've spent millennia establishing will just melt away and never be thought of again. In reality, society is the only thing protecting those protesters from a natural and brutal demise, and dammit, we have to keep it that way whether they like it or not.

So if COVID has a pop culture analogy, maybe this is really our alien invasion movie, where all of humanity bands together against a universal threat that cannot be reasoned with. Those movies just failed to anticipate that, in the middle of global empathy and action, a notable proportion of Americans would scoff "Well, that's not my problem" at the daily headline of "Death Lasers Sweep Through Yet Another City."

Mark is on Twitter and just wrote a brand new book.

Top image: Michael Swan/Wikimedia Commons

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