Tumblr user scribbleymark wrote a brief analysis on (“formerly Darth, now just“) Maul and how he is somehow able to be a sympathetic character despite doing incredibly horrible deeds.
The key to making Vader and Kylo Ren redeemable is that they eventually or constantly feel guilt or remorse for their wrong-doing; that they know what they’re doing is wrong on an emotional level, and suffer from it internally. This same idea is employed a lot with villains to make the audience like them. Consider all the reluctant, beloved baddies you know of, who do bad things only because there’s no other way! These types usually spend time pining over the pain and loss of life they cause.
Maul has none of those moral dilemmas or guilt. Maul doesn’t feel bad about what he does. Ever. He has no problem using people up and then discarding them, or maiming and murdering them for his own satisfaction. But at the same time, he genuinely cares about his brother. His heart is broken when his mother dies. He’s left emotionally scarred by the fact Sidious quickly replaced him and didn’t even want him back, and that bitterness tracks him for decades after.
Even at the finale of Rebels, Maul lashes out at everyone except Ezra. Why? Because he’s attached to Ezra.
Maul’s emotional attachments are what humanize him to the audience, rather than moral guilt.
While I do like a good villain-redemption story based on morals, this caught my eye, because there have been times where villains have endeared themselves to me, while still being villains. And I’m the sort of person who likes the goody-two-shoes like Captain America and Superman. Looking back at many of these villains, who I have actually liked and not just enjoyed their monologues, I have liked them because of their emotional attachments to others.
Take for instance, Daredevil Season 1. Fisk, Vanessa, and Wesley put me in a very weird position of rooting against them while hoping that they all would turn out alright in the end. The way that Fisk had a family between Vanessa and Wesley, the way that they were the people he loved, made me understand what they were fighting for. There was still this nebulous idea of remaking Hell’s Kitchen, but it became rooted in this loving – if a bit worrisome – dynamic. That was something I could latch onto.
If we go with a more nebulous definition of villain, I would take a look at the point-of-view characters of Halo‘s Kilo-Five trilogy. Both the titular team of Kilo-Five and the cult-leader-to-be, Jul ‘Mdama, are characters that form emotional attachments while in the middle of planning or enacting some pretty horrible things. While I actively root against them in most parts of the novels, I still have that hope that somehow things will turn out alright for them.
Jul ‘Mdama in particular matches up with scribbleymark’s analysis of Maul, particularly with this point:
See, one of the fantastic things about the way that Maul is written is that he unapologetically perpetrates evil, yet the narrative still asks us to feel sympathy for him at points, to feel bad for him or root for him. Or even, in the case of Rebels, to find him redeemable.
In the Halo fandom, a general movement had worked itself up; people wanted to see ‘Mdama have a redemption arc. They wanted to see him shift his beliefs and side with one of the franchise’s protagonists, and I think a lot of that comes down to his emotional attachments.
Nearly everything ‘Mdama does is for the safety of his people, particularly of his family. His motivations are to protect them or to return to them. When his wife is killed in battle against humans, that serves to increase his desire to rid the galaxy of humans. It makes him take more drastic measures.
Later, ‘Mdama appears to make some form of connection with the human Dr. Halsey. They are working together towards their own goals, but through the course of the Escalation comic series, until the last few issues, they appeared to have formed some sort of rocky friendship. This emotional connection fueled the fans’ hope, seeing this relationship as the start of ‘Mdama’s turn to ally.
Of course, since Halo 5 killed off Jul ‘Mdama, Halo fans didn’t get a redemption arc. But it was so strongly held as a theory despite ‘Mdama never having a second thought about his goal to destroy the humans, and I believe a lot of that was due to the relationships we saw him have with other characters. We wanted them to turn out alright.
I think Fisk and especially Jul ‘Mdama add to scribbleymark’s theory about the sympathy villains can evoke from viewers by simply having emotional attachments to others.