Loving Killers More Than The Savior 


(OPINION) There are scientific reasons that everyone loves Hollywood’s bad guys like John Wick – but it’s Jesus who actually meets those needs better than these amoral, violent characters do.

Today’s Hollywood action heroes are as popular as ever with audiences – each John Wick movie making more money than the last – and spawning a plethora of imitators from “Nobody” to “Bullet Train,” to “Gunpowder Milkshake.” This popularity has also extended to characters not directly inspired by John Wick such as David Fincher’s Netflix film “The Killer.”

What’s interesting about these characters is that they don’t have the heroic nature of previous eras of action heroes. Classic heroes like Indiana Jones, John McClane, James Bond and Ethan Hunt all killed lots of people to beat the bad guys and protect innocent people. But this wave of Hollywood bad guys don’t kill people for good reasons, but selfish ones like revenge. Often, they continue their life of murder even at the end of the film.

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This is interesting in any context, but it’s particularly curious in a country where the majority describe themselves as Christians who admire Jesus as great. Jesus, who regularly called upon us to love our enemies and do good towards them, seems to be in sharp contrast with our love affair with killers. 

I am a Christian, but I still love characters like John Wick. Earlier this year, I endured a painful, week-long depression. Due to lack of rest and some difficult personal events, I felt small, weak, insecure and generally bad about myself. I couldn’t shake myself out of it. I tried praying. I read the Bible. None of that worked very much. What did work? Watching “John Wick: Chapter 3.” In fact, watching John Wick fight and murder his way through all his enemies all over the world somehow made me feel strong, powerful and confident. 

My problems no longer seemed as big. I felt far more capable of handling it. And I did. 

Why do we love killers who aren’t obviously heroes? What is it about being a killer that we find intrinsically attractive and admirable? And for Christians, what is it that we love about them that we don’t get from Jesus?  

The first — and most obvious — reason people love killers is that they make us feel safe and powerful. We live in a world of danger, where we often feel weak and small. A killer is someone strong enough to confront and defeat things in the world that try to harm and overcome them. They make the world feel safer.  

Surveys show people have far higher opinions of police and the military than pretty much any other American institution — the two places where people are allowed to kill to keep us safe. Moreover, when we imagine ourselves as the person able to kill, it doesn’t just make us feel safe but powerful because we are the ones that are making ourselves safe.  

Why do these killers still make us feel safe when they aren’t good guys? The answer is because of a tricky way our brains tell us who the “good guys” are. Studies like those referenced in The Atlantic piece “Why It Pays To Be A Jerk” show that when people break rules in ways that benefit themselves or other people, we see them as jerks. When they break them in ways that benefit us, we see them as leaders. In other words, we think of people as “good guys” who do things that benefit us. That’s why when a politician in the party we agree with does something bad, we justify it. When it’s in the opposite party, we are eager to condemn it.

So how do these Hollywood action movies hack our brains to make us see the killer protagonists as being on “our side”? A few reasons: By having us spend time with them and by watching them suffer. 

Studies show that we empathize most deeply with whoever we spend most time with and know the most details about their story. When the person we empathize with most deeply suffers, we are very likely to hurt an innocent person in order to elevate the suffering of the person we know. So all these Hollywood movies have to do is have us spend time with them, have them endure suffering and we immediately root for them. This is why Paul Bloom, author of “Against Empathy,” thought having such feelings was a bad basis for making ethical decisions

But the reason we love such protagonists — specifically those who are not heroes – is that true killers can resist social pressure. This was a surprising conclusion my co-host and I came to on our podcast “The Overthinkers.” Most of us deeply feel how much of a prisoner we are of social expectations. We don’t do what we truly want to do, we do what other people expect of us for fear of social rejection. Therefore, we admire people who are able to resist such pressures. 

Since violence is one of the biggest social taboos, killers feel like they are the ultimate self-determining individuals. This is, in fact, at least partly true. As Dr. Richard Tremblay has shown in his research on children, people are most violent at the age of two and are socialized out of it. Serial killers are — at least in part — people who were simply able to resist such social programming. 

Many often attempt to dismiss or explain away the reasons that people love killers as the result of sin or societal brainwashing, oftentimes citing what’s called the “myth of redemptive violence” from Walter Mink’s book “The Powers That Be.” They describe the belief that violence is necessary as propaganda by the ruling class to defend the status quo and that violent means are used to maintain such power. 

And yet, the psychology suggests that it’s more innate than that. People don’t believe that violence is sometimes necessary because they’ve been tricked into it by authority figures, but because they’ve seen it. War was necessary to stop the Nazis. Guns were necessary to enforce desegregation. Many of us have personal stories or ones from our friends who are safe because someone was able to stand up and physically defend them from violence or the threat of violence.

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