Is the villain the story? Really?

I think we've all heard that the villain is the story. That worries me because I'm not at all sure I have strong villains. Do you really need a villain in order to have a viable story, and what is the villain's role, structurally?

 I've been avoiding this series because I don't like darkness and mayhem, but I’m finally showing the most recent Batman films in the library. Yesterday, I showed The Dark Knight. And I've been pleasantly surprised.

Just like so many other people, I think these are really strong films, at least so far. And what a villain the Joker is! He’s terrible, absolutely without conscience or remorse. I cringed just about every time he was on screen (which was a lot, obviously), and had my eyes shut some of the time – particularly when one of the young boys in the audience warned me that some particularly awful mayhem was about to erupt. As over the top as he was, you actually believed in the story while you were watching, and longed for the Joker’s defeat, even as you tried to anticipate what he would do next. At least, that’s how the performance and script affected me! I remember whispering to the young man who’d been warning me, “I wish he would die!” And I am strongly opposed to the death penalty in real life. But what can you do with a villain like the Joker? He’s a complete sociopath, incapable of empathizing with anyone, and he does terrible things just because he finds them funny.

 Doesn’t that make him a rather boring villain, though? If the villain is the story, doesn’t an insane villain require an insane story? But this story (again, so far, over the two films) strikes me as quite sane and thoughtful. It’s centered not so much on the villains, but on how the good men and women, especially the batman, respond to them.

Fathers and sons are a big part of this story. Since he’s a serial liar, on top of everything else, we never really learn whether the Joker’s father was truly the one who mutilated him; we certainly don’t learn why. The one thing that’s clear is his volcanic anger at his parent. In the first film, another villain mocks Batman, claiming his father is a coward because he doesn’t fight back when his family is attacked. This gentle, generous man is far from a coward. He’s a healer, and the wisdom he imparts to his son resonates through the series. Bruce Wayne/Batman is a conflicted hero, and it's that conflict that makes him a compelling protagonist. He wants vengeance for his parents’ murders; he wants justice, but he refuses to be an executioner. Surely his father’s example is one of the things that keeps him from becoming a killer.

 The Joker tests that resolve. He’s a mad dog, as he himself says. He kills for fun, and maybe – just maybe – killing him is the only answer. The big question the movie asks is this: will the Batman become a killer in response to the Joker, or will he still retain the ethical lessons his dead father (and other father figures such as Alfred and Gordon and Lucius Fox) try to impart to him? These films are Batman’s story because he is the one who must choose, and he’s a hero because he pretty consistently tries to do right. At least, that's what I think.

The villains exist in order to test the hero, and that testing is the plot. But the villain is not the story. He’s just the catalyst for it. I would say the hero is the story.

What do you think?