“Villains & Faith” Panel at Stan Lee’s Comikaze 2014
Earlier this week, a panel discussion considering the intersections of villains and faith took place at Stan Lee’s Comikaze. Moderated by Jordan Gorfinkel, “Villains & Faith” featured David N. Weiss (whom I heard speak at TribeFest this spring), Butch Hartman, David Sacks, and Lisa Klink on Sunday. Gorfinkel did a really excellent job moderating the panel, having prepared a list of relevant questions on the topic with which he peppered the panelists.
Gorfinkel opened with quoting from a piece written by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin in a recent issue of the Jewish Journal – that there really is evil in this world. This led into a consideration of evil and villainy. Sacks proffered that “evil works for good” and that “there is one power in the world” and that, drawing from kabbalistic sources, when evil comes to you, it wants you to say “No” to it; if one says “Yes”, it tears its clothes and cries. The evil inclination (יצר הרע) challenges us to put more good in this world.
Hartman put forth that the villain always thinks they’re doing the right thing, although they’re doing it for the wrong reasons. And, Weiss added, “the villain is the good guy in their story.”
This then led to a tangential discussion of one of the most interesting villains of all time, Darth Vader. Is the villain the most interesting when he’s the most trouble or when he is the most mysterious and in-control? Each of the panelists offered their opinions of their favorite Darth Vader, whether of “A New Hope”, “The Empire Strikes Back”, or “Return of the Jedi”. Weiss also considered such villains as Gargamel and Doc Oc, especially certain moments when we see a certain humanity to them and when we almost feel bad for them. On the other hand, one of the nice things about being a villain, as Hartman pointed out, is that they “kind of get to do whatever they want.”
In a return to a meta-discussion concerning villains, the question was posed: “Are villains just misunderstood or are there actual evil people in the world?” Gorfinkel then inquired: “What is the distinction between a villain, an antagonist, a bully, and an anti-hero?” Klink submitted that “A villain is someone who knowingly hurts people, consciously and they still do it and a villain is always an antagonist. But, an antagonist is someone who is trying to accomplish something different from the protagonist, but they’re not necessarily evil.”
Gorfinkel put to the panel: “Is a hero only as good as his villain?” To this, Hartman responded, “When a sequel is bad, it’s because they haven’t upped the stakes for the hero and a good villain will up the stakes for the hero.”
Gorfinkel also asked: “Must a villain be redeemable? Is there such a thing as real evil?” Weiss responded, “There’s a teaching I really love”, referring to the first two sections of the Shema from Deuteronomy, focussing on tefillin and mezuzot. He then continued and spoke about how the cow’s hair on tefillin being exposed reminds us of the sin of the golden calf, that we have to have some evil; otherwise, we have no free choice -“Those little hairs are all the evil that has to be in the world for there to be free choice in the world.” Weiss also added, “There are people in this world that are really evil, like the leader of Boko Haram.” Every villain, though has to have a chance to repent, there are consequences, though, to their actions. “Evil is allowed to grow and there has to be some room and, every day, we get to choose in different moments. In theory, all villains are redeemable, but, sometimes, they aren’t.”
The panel then moved into a discussion of being afraid to making any portrayals of Muhammad – especially for cartoonists, which they all felt saddened that there was a fear of physical (or other) attacks for doing so. This also included a mention of the South Park episodes in which Muhammad was to be portrayed and the network did not allow it. Sacks mentioned that he had made a minute-long video years ago about 72-year old virgin (the joke being that, instead of there being 72 virgins waiting for martyrs, there was a 72-year old virgin waiting), but that he didn’t post it to Internet due to fear of being attacked. Since everybody on the panel agreed that it is a pity that there is a fear of showing Muhammad, I wonder if there had been a Muslim on the panel for their voice to have been heard on this topic and how the conversation could have been enriched.
The next question Gorfinkel asked to the panel was “Do we have a responsibility to not show villainy or should we?” Hartman wisely responded, “You have to know your audience: I think there’s a reason some movies are so popular, such as family films.”
Towards the end, a very important question was asked: “Why are so many villains drawn from the religious cloth?” “I think that part of the reason that religious extremists are turned into villains is because they believe in something that, if you don’t believe in it, it seems like magic,” said Klink. “They operate outside of logic; they can’t be reasoned with and that seems scary to someone who thinks that villains may be redeemable.” Hartman added, “Anyone who is extreme in anything is hard to reason with.”
Finally, there was some discussion surrounding the issue of being religious in the entertainment business. “The media isn’t Christian,” said Hartman, who is. “When you’re not accountable to something, it bothers people when you see someone doing that. I feel bad about myself, so I am going to tease someone who is. In Hollywood, very few people are religious, which is an inverse relationship to the country.” Weiss added, “I work with Jews who are not religious and, when they see me and think that I’m saying to them that they’re not good enough,” it’s just not true. “Whenever I meet people who are antagonistic about the religious stuff,” said Sacks, “is that they haven’t been exposed to it, so I just try to be good and loving towards them.”