Looking for the Usurper We Like.
July 1, 2011 10:33 PM   Subscribe

Looking for examples and/or literary history of a trope that I'd refer to as the Villains' Satan.

Basically, take the idea of Satan as the unsuccessful usurper of God. But then make the analogous God himself villainous and Satan at least smarter, if not more powerful, and in some way either killed or else punished for his disloyalty. It is important that the "Satan" figure here is more relatable of empathetic than the "God" figure, but does not succeed.

The obvious examples that come to my mind are Starscream vs. Megatron, or more importantly, Stringer Bell vs. Avon Barksdale. I'm looking for any examples, however the older the better.
posted by Navelgazer to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure this fits your description exactly, but it's the first thing that comes to mind: To Reign in Hell, by Steven Brust.
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:35 PM on July 1, 2011

Response by poster: That looks very cool, Mars Saxman. I need to pick that up.

But looking over my question again, I realize I was perhaps too insistent on the biblical metaphor. I'm looking for examples of villainous lieutenants who attempted to take out their villainous generals, and failed, but who were, themselves, somewhat rooted for by the audience.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:42 PM on July 1, 2011

Milton's Paradise Lost presents Satan as a sort of tragic anti-hero, and is the source of the title for Mars Saxman's suggestion ("Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven").

On a less Biblical bent, the recent movie Valkyrie concerned a Nazi officer who attempted to assassinate Hitler.

Some relevant tropes:

Black and Gray Morality
Grey and Gray Morality
Evil Versus Evil
posted by Rhaomi at 10:52 PM on July 1, 2011

It's been a while since I read it, but I think Jose Saramago's The Gospel According to Jesus Christ addressed this directly.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 10:59 PM on July 1, 2011

Richard Kadrey's _Sandman Slim_
posted by Bergamot at 11:06 PM on July 1, 2011

Also, tvtropes has a ton of stuff on this: Satan, Sympathy for the Devil, Satan is Good, God is Evil. But these are the biblical ones that I just noticed you said you're not totally focussed on. How about Villain Protagonist?
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 11:16 PM on July 1, 2011

You might like to read a history of the Russian Revolutions in 1917 and get to know Lenin (God) and Stalin (Satan).

Satan crushes God in that story. Me-tal.
posted by TheRedArmy at 11:32 PM on July 1, 2011

Response by poster: TheRedArmy, in terms of Russian History, Trotsky might be the best example of what I'm talking about, actually. Or perhaps Rasputin. I don't know. I'm not looking for protagonists here. I'm looking for 2nd-string antagonists who we tend to like when they try to overtake the first-string baddies, because they are simply smarter or more competent, not because of any moral reasons.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:36 PM on July 1, 2011

Bartleby and Loki in Dogma?
posted by Ahab at 11:58 PM on July 1, 2011

Not sure if these are what you're looking for, but:

In the Dark Materials series (KINDA SPOILER ALERT) I don't remember a mention of Satan, but God is actually an old senile figure and Metatron has long since assumed the position. But he's not really someone the reader is rooting for.

In the Sandman series, God is an unseen powerful figure, not exactly certain how "good" or benevolent a guy he is. Satan seems to be an amoral, if somewhat masochistic figure, that fits within God's design. When Lucifer quits his job as guardian of Hell, God directs two angels to take his place, one of whom momentarily decides to rebel before realizing how futile that would be ("God wants me to act as the devil? Well, I'll show hi... wait a minute."). In the meantime, it seems there's a "Satan's Satan," as Azazel tries to take over Hell after Lucifer's absence.

I haven't read the novels, but Thrawn from the Star Wars universe might fit the bill? He is an anti-hero Grand Admiral who apparently is both good for the Empire and is involved in internal struggles within that regime.

I've only watched Game of Thrones, and not the novels, but there's a lot of usurping going on, and probably more to come. Jaime Lannister is the one personally assassinated the previous tyrant (who no one liked); he's not a particularly sympathetic figure, though. His brother, on the other hand, Tyrion Lannister, who comes to act as "Hand" (something like a prime minister), definitely is an anti-hero. So's Petyr Baelish, the "Coin" (treasurer), who's a real manipulator, and it's not clear where his alliances lie, if he has any. Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled princess of the previous dynasty, organizes a campaign to reclaim the throne later in the series (so I've heard): it's not entirely clear how good this is for the people involved, but the reader (so I've heard) is definitely cheering for her.

Rereading your question, if you want old examples, one that comes to mind is the example of Brutus. He kills Julius Caesar, who was acting as a benevolent tyrant, but Brutus still fails to restore the republic. I don't know much about ancient mythology, but maybe Loki (the other gods he struggles against are portrayed kind of ambivalently as well), or now that I think about it the whole usurping with the Uranus-Cronus-Zeus succession and the Titan-Olympian battles as well as the comparable giants/dwarves/aesir battles in Norse mythology, might be something to look into.

One last example: Iago. Smart, evil. Tries to ruin Othello. Succeeds, but is discovered in the end.
posted by Busoni at 12:56 AM on July 2, 2011

TV Tropes, again: Bastard Understudy.

"The Big Bad has an assistant or sidekick that they spend a lot of time bragging to about just how clever they are. Near the end, their assistant double crosses them spectacularly while their back is turned. Essentially, this is Deceptive Disciple, except that the Bastard Understudy is apprenticed to an Evil Mentor. "
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:16 AM on July 2, 2011

This is another historical example, but I think the Nazi commander Rommel fits this trope nicely. He was an interesting man - a war hero in Germany, and a very skilled military commander. He also participated in a plot to kill Hitler. When that plot was discovered, in exchange for assurances of safety for his family, he agreed to quietly commit suicide.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 5:38 AM on July 2, 2011

Spoilers: Herr Starr in Preacher succeeds in killing/deposing/usurping All Father D'Arronique for control of the secret society The Grail, but is ultimately unsuccessful, in that his obsession and rage and hubris leads to his physical mortification and the destruction of all that he has worked towards.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:14 AM on July 2, 2011

Ensign Pulver?
posted by nicwolff at 7:36 AM on July 2, 2011

Best answer: Also on TVTropes, since you mentioned the trope namer: The Starscream.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:41 AM on July 2, 2011

Prometheus seems like the original archetype of this figure to me.

There are so many similarities between the Zeus/Prometheus/Pandora story and the Yahweh/Satan/Eve story in the Bible it's almost impossible not to see them as alternative versions of each other, and I think enough of the 'benefactor of humankind' aspect of Prometheus bleeds through that thin partition into Satan to make many of us members "of the Devil's party without knowing it."
posted by jamjam at 2:02 PM on July 2, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for everyone's responses. I really mis-framed this from the start. It should have been more like, "I'm looking for more character arcs like Stringer Bell's" but I got ahead of myself in archetyping. I was just considering it last night, and I'm fascinated by the human nature that goes into the response to Stringer.


Stringer commits many of the most evil acts on the show, and is without remorse for any of them. His hubris leads to Avon turning him over to Omar and Mouzone, who are totally justified in taking him out. And this hubris was in the pursuit of taking control over a violent drug empire (and while The Wire is nuanced, it hardly makes the case that the Barksdale Organization should succeed for the health of Baltimore.)

And yet, compared to Avon, we like him. He's educated and shrewd and progressive in where he wants to take "the game." We like him for his relative competency, in furtherance of a cause we don't want to succeed. His death is a tragic shock (and not just because Marlo will take his place.)

That's the sort of thing I'm interested in. MacBeth doesn't quite work because, while we like him, we don't know anything about King Duncan and MacBeth isn't a competent ruler. Regan and Goneril don't work because we never like them. Geoffrey and Richard from A Lion in Winter come very close, but that play becomes more about Henry's eventual mercy towards Richard than anything else, and besides, we're not given a good perspective outside of maybe Alais in with which to view the Plantagenets as villains.

I hope that clarifies things a bit.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:07 PM on July 2, 2011

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