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A Structure of Antipathy

Constructing the Villain in Narrative Film

Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen

Abstract

Many narrative films feature villains, major characters that audiences are meant to condemn. This article investigates the cognitive-affective underpinnings of audience antipathy in order to shed light on how filmic villainy is constructed. To that end, the article introduces an analytical framework at the intersection of cognitive film theory and moral psychology. The framework analyzes villainy into three categories: guilty intentionality, consequential action, and causal responsibility.

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Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen

Abstract

Morally flawed antiheroes in TV and film, such as Dexter Morgan and Dirty Harry, often inspire sympathetic engagement from audiences. Media scholars have argued that it is these antiheroes’ status as fictional characters that allows audiences to flout their moral principles and side with the antiheroes. Against this view, I argue that these problematic sympathies can be explained without reference to a special fictional attitude. Human morality is sensitive not only to abstract moral principles but also to the concrete motives and situations of an individual moral agent, and the motives and situations of the sympathetic antihero very often seem exculpatory.