Some of our favorite villains are those that defy expectations. Darth Vader was, inside his life-support suit, a scarred old man rasping for air. Heath Ledger’s joker was simply perpetuating a clingy bromance. And Severus Snape turned out to be, all along, a big softy with a boring mom haircut. In 1985’s Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome, the original villain of the film was equally surprising.
Despite Max (Mel Gibson) first describing him as “A big guy giving a little guy a piggyback,” Master Blaster cuts a terrifying figure as he paces about his underground methane plant. His entire getup and rig is something to behold. On top you have Master, a snide older man of tiny stature, dressed in black samurai attire. He’s the obvious architect of the operation which keeps Bartertown functioning. Below you have Blaster, a juggernaut of sweaty muscle, clad in a heavy metal dome.
Master’s leverage in being treated as the town’s highest authority is displayed when he freely turns off Bartertown’s electricity (what he calls an embargo), forcing Aunty Entity, played by Tina Turner, to publicly announce Master’s position of power. Her plan to rid herself of the little overlord involves pitting Max against Blaster in a brutal game of death called “The Thunderdome,” after which everything takes a strong turn against Max. He wins the fight, but refuses to kill Blaster—who, beneath the helmet, is revealed to be developmentally disabled. For reneging on the deal he’d made with Aunty Entity, a new game is summoned amidst boisterous cheers: “Bust a deal, face the wheel.”
Here we’re shown a fresh side to Master. He’s part doting caregiver, part helpless old man. In a world where death comes easily, who can fault him for creating a symbiotic safety system with Blaster? Tragically, hubris grown from the comfort of power, not technological know-how, is his downfall. Later on in the movie he re-joins Max and becomes one of the pivotal characters in helping a band of children escape Aunty Entity.
This type of thing doesn’t fly in every movie: The foe turned ally to defeat a larger foe. Can you imagine Hans Gruber, upon defeat in Die Hard, joining forces with McClane—brain and brawn together—to take down an even larger terrorist cell? But it did work for many of the super-powered enemies in the animated series: Dragon Ball Z, including Piccolo, Vegeta, Android 18 and 19, and Majin Buu. It’s also fine for the terminator to be reprogrammed and sent back to help John Connor, filling in as a surrogate father figure for the boy. The most famous such flip-flop might be Darth Vader playing shot put with Emperor Palpatine in order to save his son. Because the dark side is more of a taint than a permanent character trait, the Star Wars universe has provided plenty of such arc reversals.
Maybe it highlights a hope we all have, that there’s a bit of good in everyone. Surely no one can be so cruel as to be unsalvageable. Except we tend to see it more in movies than real life. If anything, when in trouble or a full-on tailspin, people often double down on their choices rather than repent. In an autobiography they might feign a change of heart, but it doesn’t often happen—especially when we’re talking about the real bad guys of our world, like con men, killers, terrorists, and even corrupt CEOs.
Bernie Madoff sure didn’t pull about-face and ensure everyone saw their money back. Instead, after receiving a maximum sentence for his record-breaking Ponzi scheme, he said that he had no excuses to cover his actions: duping investors out of an estimated 18 billion dollars, not to mention the hardships for his friends, family, and hundreds of employees. He followed this up with: “There is no excuse for that, and I don’t ask any forgiveness. Although I may not have intended any harm, I did a great deal of harm.” It sounds just like what a killer might say to the family of their victim, still clinging to the hope that someone will see their actions as unwitting.
But for our fictional scoundrels it’s okay. Realistic or not, we’ll gladly let them hop over to the hero’s side and cheer for them too. Repentance with action and not just words is one of the facets of storytelling that keeps our invented worlds happily addictive, even if reality rarely follows suit.
Featured image credit: Warnerbros