I saw the big finale to the Harry Potter saga, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, on the same day that I watched the second season finale to Sons of Anarchy. Before I get into the connection here, I will say that I thought that this was the best of the Harry Potter movies, the first one that I can say that I really liked quite a bit.
Why did this one get a pass when the rest of them ranged from just fine (Prisoner of Azkaban) to pretty terrible (Deathly Hallows Part I)? I think the answer to that lies in the age-old pleasure in watching the bad guys get their comeuppance. Now, bad guys in movies have paid penance since the beginnings of storytelling (just ask Claudius in Hamlet), but sometimes the bad guy has been such a vile shithead that the comeuppance, when it comes, is extra satisfying for the viewer.
There is no tried and true formula for that feeling you get in the deepest, darkest caverns of your soul when you watch the hero take out the villain, but it hits that lizard part of your brain that thrives on bloodlust and wants to exact pain and retribution on the bad guy. Like I said, that doesn’t happen with every movie; most movies don’t really make you hate the bad guy. Sure, you recognize that there is some morally questionable things going on in terms of the things they do- heck, maybe they are even downright evil. But to really get to you, to get past the blockades of morality in your psyche and make you as the viewer want payback as much as the hero of the movie? That is a special kind of bad guy.
I wouldn’t include Voldemort in Harry Potter along those lines, although I think Ralph Fiennes did a great job in the role. Yes, I found it pretty satisfying when Harry gave him what was coming to him, but not as much as Harry Potter fans who have Loved (with a capital ‘L’) the series. Me, I always had a tough time getting past the silliness of watching wizards shoot one another with magic wands. Yes, I loved the books, but my imagination was able to render the inherent ridiculousness of the idea of wizard fights with a bit more dignity than the movies were ever able to achieve. Still, I do think the success of this last Potter movie has a lot to do with getting to watch the bad guys get theirs.
Season 2 of Sons of Anarchy was a lot like that, too, although I found the bad guys there to be a whole lot more vile and deserving of the type of revenge only a motorcycle club can dish out. After watching an entire season of the “good guys” (yeah, I recognize that the good guys on this show are gun-runners and murderers) eat shit from the white supremacists, I was more than ready to watch payback. And yes, I had that sense of satisfaction in watching the comeuppance of most (but not all) of the bad guys.
Bottom line in movies and shows like this- you need a good bad guy. Without the truly bad, the triumph of the good is not nearly as powerful. When you can put an entire audience in the shoes of the hero, that is something special. Here are a few movies that captured that feeling for me, along with the moment of comeuppance.
The Untouchables (1987): Eliot Ness, the quintessential do-gooder, throws Frank Nitti off the courthouse roof.
Superman 2 (1981): Superman crushes General Zod’s hand and then throws him to his death (into a dry ice ravine, but still…)
Aliens (1986): “Get away from her, you bitch!” This reminded me a bit of the moment in the new Harry Potter when Mrs. Weasley says something similar to Bellatrix.
Rocky IV (1985): Not my favorite Rocky movie, but the moment when Rocky lands his first punch on Drago is pretty great, mainly for his trainer’s reaction (“You see? He’s not a machine! He’s a man!”)
Lethal Weapon 2 (1989): Glover taking out Mr. Diplomatic Immunity. He should have known he was in trouble when he saw the patented Murtaugh “head roll”.
Some Kind of Wonderful (1987): The double slap Hardy Jenns (“With two ‘N’s!”) receives from Lea Thompson. Seriously, Craig Sheffer’s Hardy was one of the best villains in all of John Hughes-dom. “I want you to beg!”