I think it started with Coyote and Road Runner — as a kid each week I sat in front of the TV waiting for the Looney Tunes to begin, hoping that ingenious Wile E. would manage to capture the hated ostrich. There was something Promethean in his quest and I was sure that one Day he would succeed. But he didn’t. At least not in the official version — the Internet came to my rescue long years afterwards with this video:
(According to my sources), it is edited, but it seems to say something about society: I wasn’t the only one rooting for him.
Most of the heroes are terrible assholes. It is the truth we are able to see only when we grow old. Road Runner is one example, but I won’t discuss him as he is too obvious (we hate him, because he can beat talent and hard work without even trying). Let’s take Batman: he says he won’t kill, but still uses lethal means, races through the streets in a tank-like Batmobile endangering lives of just everyone around. We all loved Keith Ledger in the role of Joker mainly due to the superb acting, but also because we knew that deep down inside, Batman is a hypocrite. And I don’t mean moments of weakness, such as an (in)famous Robin-slap-went-meme:
That makes them credible. Weakness makes them more relatable. Think about Superman — he can’t fail. Physically he is not able to fail, but not due to training, hard work or dedication, but because he is Superman. The only things, he can’t do, are the things he haven’t tried yet. Lex Luthor may be pretty evil, but he is a genius and I can fully understand his antipathy towards uncontrollable, unstoppable force which happens to be more likeable than himself. If we look upon Superman as dancing atomic bomb, and most probably that was how Lex pictured him, there is no room left for adoration.
Vengeance is something we all understand. That is why Magneto is one of the most likeable heroes ever — Holocaust victim, ostracized because of his talent, faces almost impossible task but follows his vision. It is of no importance that it includes extermination/slavery/mutantization of the rest of the humanity.
Usually villains are more human, and being human is what life is about. I really liked cartoon “Megamind”, where occurs clever twist of perspective: we have seen “heroic” situation from the other angle. It is not only bad luck of the main antihero that we can relate to, but also his motivation — feeling of rejection. Similar, but much more serious and different in outcome is Walter’s White Breaking Bad: man who wants to provide for his family, ends up destroying it. Being bad feels good, and we keep on rooting for him even when he is down the spiral of crime, committing unforgivable crimes.
Darth Vader. That is the last argument which is the shallowest, but obviously convincing: bad is cool. Darth Vader is cool, and that is pretty damn cool. Being villian, not only do you get to wear cool armor/suit/superweapon, you also are extraordinary in thought, character and act. Even expression of grief can become iconic:
As a part of being bad, villains tend to be more sexy than protagonists: