Looper is the new Joseph Gordon-Levitt-Bruce Willis, futuristic, action film that's got critics believing Willis has returned to form (just in time for Die Hard 5), JGL has grown into a formidable character-actor, and Emily Blunt can do in 20 minutes of supporting screentime what most actresses her age (and older) can't do in a film they're starring in. Needless to say, it'll be one of the most memorable movies of the year. But while many viewers will walk away impressed by certain perspective shots, gory scenes, and tough-as-nails bravado, I'll be marveling at the underlying premise that hopefully doesn’t go unnoticed.
Looper isn’t just a film about time travel or life-altering moral choices or harsh Darwinist realities. It's also a member of a rare subgenre known as the villain's origin story.
This summer audiences have been inundated with superhero films, from Avengers to The Dark Knight. The hero’s journey and ascension is a very popular type of tale, even when there isn’t a cape involved, inspiring such iconic characters from Bourne to Bond. But rarely do we see what drives a villain to become what they are, the breaking point that makes them go down the wrong path.
You may not even realize it, but you’ve actually enjoyed a few villainous upbringings. There was The Godfather trilogy, where we watched a young Michael Corleone go from a protégé to a contender, christened in blood. There was Star Wars, Episodes I through III, that showed a young, rambunctious Anakin Skywalker before he became the darkest Sith Lord of them all, Darth Vader, and before he experienced the losses that led him to accept evil into his heart. And then there was the long, winding tale of how a boy named Tom Riddle became a twisted sorcerer who no one dared name in Harry Potter. Most interestingly, J.K. Rowling ventured not only to tell the story of how a boy managed to outsmart and overcome the most powerful wizard there ever was with the simplest of gifts, love, but also to show that both Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort had very similar childhoods, capable of the same power, but drawn to different paths. She showed what happens when such a person chooses good and when they choose evil—when they choose to be fueled by hate versus love.
I prefer the villain’s origin story because what drives a person to do wrong is far more interesting to me than what drives them to do right. There are only but a few possibilities for the latter. I know, from church homilies and after-school specials, all the pluses of being a hero and all the consequences of being a villain, so it confuses me as to why someone would choose to do evil. I want to know what could possibly blacken their hearts so much that they would forgo their humanity for a fleeting sense of victory. Cause, let's face it, the hero always wins in the end.
Corleone was born into evil. It was his birthright and the only way he knew how to live—how to survive. Anakin turned evil, because nearly everyone he loved kept being taken away from him. He felt the need to have absolute control to stop the pain. What better way to stop evil from hurting you than to join it and dominate it? And Tom Riddle gave into dark magic, because he never felt the love that every child deserves, and he was never accepted for who he was. His story is like a supernatural cautionary tale about bullying. Push the wrong kid too far and there’s no telling what they’ll do. Or what they’ll become.
For that reason I was very intrigued by Looper’s subplot about a future terrorist known as The Rainmaker. Willis’s character goes back in time to kill him before he can grow up to become the type of monster that telekinetically kills thousands of people without remorse. While I naturally wondered if I would have the balls to kill a child, let alone kill two others that unfortunately fit his description, I was more focused on why this kid grows up to be The Rainmaker. His powers are stronger than any telekinetic person in his time, of which there are many. His power is ignited by fear and anger and love, which is something he shares with both Skywalker and Potter. But if he had a mentor or a protector, like Obi-Wan Kenobi or Professor Dumbledore, and they lived long enough to guide him down the right path, would he then become good?
Director and writer Rian Johnson did the smart thing in showing the viewer two possible outcomes to the final showdown. Not because it assuaged viewers who wanted a happy ending, but because it showed you exactly what could’ve went wrong. It was important that it was made perfectly clear what the turning point was for this unstoppable force of evil. It was important to see that his motive wasn’t frivolous or unfounded. He was completely justified—excessive, but justified. Greater men have done worse for lesser reasons.
It was also interesting that both versions of Joe, present (JGL) and future (Willis), were not in the least bit heroic. They were selfish and driven by self-preservation for a vast majority of the film. What young Joe did towards the end was the most heroic act he’d ever done in his entire life, but what he did at the very end was what finally crowned him the hero. And, ironically, in order to do that, he had to save the villain. We’re often shown stories of best friends (Smallville’s Clark and Luther) and brothers (Thor’s Thor and Loki) turning on each other in spite of their love for each other, and the hero sacrificing himself in hopes of saving their villainous loved one. But rarely do you see a hero with very little connection to the villain commit such an act. He had to have an enormous amount of faith that this villain was worth saving—that one day he’d become the hero he had the potential of being.
I would understand if viewers were disappointed in not knowing what becomes of this child—to see if Joe’s sacrifice was worth it. But I’m not. Sure, it would be interesting to see more potential turning points, to see if something else eventually redirects him towards darkness, to see if his mother’s love is all he really needed. But I think that’s another story. For another time.
What I hope is that this film inspires other auteurs to tell more villain origin stories. I would've loved to have seen an entire film about Heath Ledger slash Christopher Nolan's version of The Joker, but my most recent favorite was Michael Fassbender's pre-genocidal Magneto in X-Men: First Class. What's in store so far is the Psycho A&E prequel series that Freddie Highmore just signed on to, the story of the Wicked Witch of the West in 2014's Wicked, and the as yet unscheduled Deadpool adaptation.