This piece contains brief spoilers for Loki.
A good villain or anti-hero can make a fandom. Often flawed and fearless, they speak to our inner struggles and successes in a way that heroes alone might not be able to tap into, and as a result, they spark many modern-day fandom experiences. We want to be them, smooch them, fight them — and sometimes all three at once, depending on how attractive and/or infuriating they are.
In genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, and some romance subgenres), a villain or anti-hero is necessary for the story being told. Darth Vader makes the original Star Wars trilogy. Hannibal Lecter is the perfect counterpoint to Will Graham in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal series (which is why so many people, including yours truly, ship them). Griffith, a main character in long-running manga series Berserk, is one of the most chilling and effective villains out there. I watched Hellboy II: The Golden Army eight times in theaters for Prince Nuada, a villain who deserved better than he got.
The people creating and performing these characters pull from different places for their inspirations — J.J. Abrams, for example, first conceived of Kylo Ren and the First Order as offshoots of the Nazis and Joseph Morgan, who played vampire-werewolf hybrid Klaus Mikaelson on The Vampire Diaries universe, named Hannibal and the vampire Lestat as inspiration for his performance. But fans aren’t locked into the origins and motivations that the canon gives them. Especially when those don’t give them what they want the most: representation and visibility.
One of the biggest ways that fans attach themselves to these characters is through queercoding – or, more often, reading a villain or anti-hero as queer rather than necessarily picking up on purposeful coding in the source media (see: Ursula in The Little Mermaid, and dozens of other Disney villains). However, purposeful coding is there sometimes, and these fans are simply playing into an aspect of media interpretation that’s existed for decades. As queer studies scholar Alexander Doty pointed out in the introduction to Flaming Classics, “Straight people aren't the only ones making these movies, television shows, and music videos. Creative queers, including queer positioned, straight identifying people, behind the scenes and in front of the camera can also be a source of the queerness that finds its way into the final product.”
Villains and anti-heroes appeal to fans because they can feel as if they are us. Especially if fans are marginalized (queer or disabled) or vulnerable in some way due to trauma, these characters can speak to aspects of our identity or pasts that we struggle to deal with or embrace. Good villains and anti-heroes get to do bad things, be bad people, and still have value as characters. They have the freedom to seek revenge or get answers in tough situations, and fans imprint on and link themselves to these characters fiercely. They’re still central to the story. And isn’t that just something to see yourself in?
Unfortunately, not all of these characters are made or treated equally. Enter Loki, the latest (white and male-ish) villain to capture fandom imaginations, thanks to his solo series on Disney+ reawakening a fandom that’s been around since 2011. Loki appeals to fans because he manages to capture several different existences at once. He’s an adoptee, a perpetual outsider, as well as someone with trauma and abandonment issues who is constantly trying to do the best (for himself, mostly) with no small amount of wit and cleverness. Plus, he’s played by the attractive, white, male Tom Hiddleston (though Loki as a character is fluid in gender and sexuality). He is a character that fans want to be and want to imagine other characters being with and the Loki show provides fans with more nuance, as well as a look at his motivations that connects them with his character more deeply.
Loki’s popularity makes him one in a longline of famed white, male-presenting villains that modern fandom has attached itself to in a big way. The reason for the skewed demographics of beloved anti-heroes comes down to how villains are represented in their canons. Female antagonists in popular media that earn big fandoms tend to fall in line with stereotypes about what powerful and scary women look and act like, and why. “Far too often, female villains are not given the same depth afforded to their male counterparts,” Lacy Baugher wrote back in 2018 for The Mary Sue. “Most are motivated almost exclusively by revenge or heartbreak, as if what it really takes to become a killing machine is to be wronged in some way by a man. (Or, occasionally, to lose a loved one.)” Bellatrix Lestrange’s motivations, for example, hinge on stereotypes about “mad women” and an obsessive devotion to Voldemort.
Well-fleshed out female baddies like DC’s Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy are few and far between in popular media and they simply get more canon and fanon content when compared to male anti-heroes and villains like Slade Wilson/Deathstroke or Jason Todd in their same universe. Killing Eve’s Villanelle, referenced in Baugher’s piece, is a similar high quality villain that we don’t get to see highlighted in fandom or canon very often.
Then there’s how race factors into the villains we love. Antagonists and anti-heroes of color — especially Black and brown ones — largely aren’t treated the same way as white ones. Like real life people of color, antagonists and anti-heroes of color are subject to hypercriticism of their motives, appearances, and interactions with other (usually white) people in their circle. They don’t get the same volume or types of fan content that white villains do, such as content that “fixes” their canon and makes excuses for their motivations. As with female villains, some of the fault lies with the way that characters of color are written in the source media.
However, as we saw with the response to Ayo taking Bucky’s Vibranium arm during Falcon and the Winter Soldier, fandom behavior is also at play. Across fandoms, Black and brown characters specifically are frequently turned into villains by fans who see them as getting in the way of a particular moment, relationship, or main role. And when they’re actual villains and not just turned into ones by fandom? Behavior that is charming or welcome when a white villain or anti-hero does it (like the chatty Kang the Conqueror variant introduced in the final episode of Loki season one), becomes a reason to dislike a non-white character and express frustration with their existence.
Of course, there are some antagonists of color who get the hype they deserve. Back when SK8: The Infinity was airing earlier this year, a massive fandom formed around series antagonist Adam. In particular, his greeting of “Hey bitches and bros and nonbinary hos” in episode eight did double duty of making some queer fans feel “seen” and setting off the kind of “purist” anti-dub anime fans that don’t understand translation work. Eastern media fandoms (for anime series and other forms of media like Korean webtoons and Chinese dramas) rightfully have fandoms that often prioritize their baddies. But as Check, Please! creator Ngozi Ukazu pointed out at the beginning of a Twitter thread about planning for her upcoming graphic novel, “If a story has a black protagonist, do not expect fandom, a predominantly white space, to create works about them.” That goes doubly hard for Black antagonists like Black Panther’s Erik “Killmonger” Stevens who don’t get the same types of fanworks that white villains or other non-Black villains of color do in their fandoms.
Fandom is full of people that really like villains and anti-heroes. The Loki show pulling in big viewership numbers and leading to a resurgence of the titular character’s fandom that calls back to the 2011 fandom should be proof of that. There’s nothing wrong with going wild for characters that live up to Eartha Kitt’s song “I Want To Be Evil” with every choice they make. However, while most of these fans are chill and just enjoy rooting for their favorite antagonist, this deep identification with villains can lead to aggressive behavior and toxic fandom.
There’s one thing to keep in mind a week after several Loki fans embodied villains with attacks on series writer and producer Eric Martin following the season finale and that bittersweet Sylvie/Loki kiss: liking a villain doesn’t mean you get to become one in their name.
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