“The best revenge you can have upon your enemy is not to become him.”
Marcus Aurelius, Roman philosopher
You’ll read a lot in screenwriting books about mentors, those grave and thoughtful (usually) elderly (usually) men who pop up to set your hero on the right path, bolster their belief in themselves, and even say a few wise things illustrating the theme of the movie.
But why does no one ever talk about that virtually ubiquitous character, the evil mentor? The character who wants to pull your hero off the right path, warp their mind and poison their heart – who wants to turn your hero, in short, into a version of themselves.
Ducard in Batman Begins is an evil mentor of the first order. Arriving when the hero is at his most vulnerable physically and emotionally, he seems to show Bruce Wayne a way forward with his life – he actually says that Ra’s al Ghul can “offer you a path”. And for a while, that path looks good. Strength, justice, power. It’s only when the true price of walking that path comes to light that Bruce rebels against it.
Frodo in The Lord Of The Rings has both good and evil mentors in the form of Gollum and Sam – characters who actually embody the conflict going on inside his mind in physical form, voice the thoughts he’s afraid to acknowledge, and even physically fight one another for control over Frodo’s destiny.
X-Men: First Class seems to be out to set a record for good and evil – or at least morally dubious – mentors. Sebastian Shaw and Charles Xavier compete for Eric Lensherr’s soul, offering him pain and anger on the one hand, and righteous strength (“We have it in us to be the better man”) on the other. Despite Eric’s hatred of Shaw, the mentoring relationship is explicitly acknowledged towards the end of the movie when Eric tells Shaw, in effect, ‘I am what you made me’.
Charles and Eric mentor the various young mutants they recruit, conflicting in small but steadily increasing ways about how to handle them, and the younger characters eventually have to choose between their conflicting ideologies. Meanwhile, Eric and Charles offer different socio-political options (hiding, or ‘out and proud’) to Raven, while Eric and Hank offer her different kinds of love and acceptance – she’s beautiful to Hank only while imitating ‘normal’ humans, but Eric accepts her in her true form, and genuinely finds her beautiful.
Carl Jung said “To confront a person with their own shadow is to show them their own light”, and the evil mentor is the shadow-version of your hero. They embody what the hero may become if they don’t find a better path. They have all your hero’s weaknesses, failings, and dark possibilities, but none of his strengths and moral judgment.
Those psychological and morals strengths – and the experience of seeing what it is they stand to become if they follow that path – are what’s going to make it possible for your hero to avoid becoming them.
In plot terms, then, the evil mentor gives you a fantastic way to dramatise what’s at stake in your story. What will happen if Luke Skywalker doesn’t fully master the ways of the Force? He’ll be overwhelmed by anger and fear, and he’ll turn into Darth Vader – and we can see how bad that would be, because Darth Vader is right there in front of us, choking his lackeys, blowing up planets, and generally being all-round evil. No confusion about what’s at stake in this story!