From maniacal clowns like the Joker to the literally inhuman Darth Vader, a compelling villain is a key ingredient when setting out to make the best movies of all time. What ties a lot of these villains together is the fact that, in some way, they are somehow less-than-human: whether that be in terms of sociopathy like a lot of the killers in horror movies, or by being quite literally otherworldly beings like Thanos, the Mad Titan in the Marvel movies.
Sometimes, especially when we’re kids, the villains in movies can scare us — but as we cowered behind the sofa or peeked between our fingers, we’d soothe our nerves by reminding ourselves that these films aren’t real. These monsters aren’t real. As scary as genetically-engineered dinosaurs might be, we can be fairly confident that we won’t encounter them in the real world: they’re reduced to a two-dimensional fantasy that doesn’t make sense in normal life as we know it.
But as the dangerous rise of incels in popular culture is illustrated in movies like The Batman and Don’t Worry Darling, the possibility of these villains walking among us feels all the more likely. And that is what makes them terrifying.
For those unfamiliar, ‘incels’ (a shortening of ‘involuntary celibate’) are a self-identified subculture of people — usually straight men — who feel that they are deliberately deprived of sexual and romantic intimacy by women.
Ironically, the very foundations of the incel subculture are intertwined, again, with movies. Incels often describe their introduction to this line of thinking as taking the ‘red pill’ as depicted in the science fiction movie The Matrix.
In broader terms, taking the ‘red pill’ means seeing the world the way it is, no matter how harsh and brutal that may be. Incels’ worldview, in turn, is arguably bleak, as they believe that society is structured in a way that favours women, who in turn deprive them of sexual and romantic intimacy: something that they believe they’re entitled to.
This worldview, in turn, is also characterised by extreme resentment and anger towards not just women, but the way society is structured in general. More often than not, the ‘incel’ mindset acts as a gateway to other extremist and alt-right ideologies.
One example of these kinds of ideologies is the ‘manosphere’ — a collection of podcasts, forums, and blog posts promoting anti-feminist rhetoric, misogyny, and men’s rights activism. Another is the ‘black pill’ — a state of extreme nihlism where the person comes to the conclusion that nothing matters and that there’s nothing they can do to improve their lives.
As self-identified incels marinate in this melting pot of toxic ideologies, they find their self-pity warping into extreme anger and hatred towards not just women, but the society that they believe has let them down and deprived them of the life they deserve.
Perhaps incels would feel less scary if they were limited to angry men on the internet, but as we have seen, especially over the last few years, the threat incels pose is very real.
You get active participants of these kinds of communities became emboldened to commit despicable acts of violence and, in return, became objects of worship on these alt-right forums. Just look at California shooter Elliot Rodger, who said he wanted to “punish” women from rejecting him, or Plymouth gunman Jake Davison, who actively promoted and endorsed the ‘black pill’ worldview.
Although incels have since been identified as an extremist hate group and linked to several violent attacks, the most sinister aspect of them is that they often go through life, hidden in plain sight, before it’s too late.
And this is exactly what made Batman villain The Riddler (Paul Dano) so terrifying in the 2022 detective movie. Not only did the continual rejection he experience as a child arguably radicalise him to become a violent killer, but he also paid it forward: using social media to mobilise and radicalise his own ‘army’ of copycat Riddlers to bear arms by nurturing their dissatisfaction with their own lives and the way that society let them down.
“Paul Dano’s performance is unsettlingly reminiscent of young white men we’ve seen on the news in the wake of tragic mass shootings. The Gamer’s Jade King writes, “The revolution he incites is made possible by a similar group of people who also believe they’ve been wronged, that the government owes them something, and the only way to enact change is to take up arms and make higher powers answer for their crimes.”
Watching Dano in The Batman gave me a similar sense of unease because while many aspects of the superhero movie were obviously fictional, seeing The Riddler’s radicalisation of other misfits play out on social media didn’t feel completely outside the realm of possibility.
In fact, it felt like something I had seen before — and the truth is, we have, many times, with not just the news stories of incel-inspired attacks but also in the mainstreaming of alt-right, anti-feminist views by people like Andrew Tate and Jordan Peterson.
As Chris Pine’s Frank repeatedly derided mainstream society to raucous applause in Don’t Worry Darling, I was left unsettled not just because of the rhetoric he was saying — but the fact that I had heard it all before, especially more so in the past year, thanks to the rise of ‘alpha male’ podcasts.
By Don’t Worry Darling’s ending, we realise that Frank’s awe-inspiring sermons are, in fact, nothing more than an alt-right podcast themselves in the ‘real’ world.
This grandiose, God-like man we become acquainted with through the film has suddenly become another angry incel in the glare of a Dorito-dust-encrusted computer screen. And with Don’t Worry Darling, the most terrifying part is that, according to director Olivia Wilde, these ‘incel’ comparisons are no accident.
Wilde actually based the character of Frank on Jordan Peterson, describing him in an interview as a “pseudo-intellectual hero to the incel community.” She explained, “Jordan Peterson is someone that legitimizes certain aspects of their movement because he’s a former professor, he’s an author, he wears a suit, so they feel like this is a real philosophy that should be taken seriously.”
The heroic, ‘perfect’ husband Jack (Harry Styles), who lets his wife drive and performs oral sex, is, as revealed in the real world, actually a pathetic, insecure partner who ends up becoming radicalised by Frank’s ideals to the point that he drugs and traps Alice (Florence Pugh) in a simulation with him after becoming jealous of the fact she works all the time.
Again, the idea of your partner trapping you in some 1950s simulation might seem a little far-fetched, but the attitudes underpinning these extreme actions are all too real, familiar, and are becoming increasingly ingrained in our day-to-day lives.
In this way, perhaps, both Don’t Worry Darling and The Batman act as cautionary tales for the kind of future we can expect if we don’t put a stop to the growing palatability of incel-like ideas.
But these two movies probably aren’t the first to incorporate the online subculture underpinning the incel movement, and they’re definitely not the last, either. This is because incels walk among us, making them the perfect, unexpected Hollywood villain.