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The Sorting Hat Is The True Villain Of ‘Harry Potter’

sorting hat

There’s no doubt that the Harry Potter series of books and movies have a clear protagonist and antagonist. From the first page, the stage is set for a years-long conflict between the growing Harry Potter and the power-hungry Voldemort. The very catalyst of this story happens away from page and screen, when Harry becomes “the boy who lived,” but the effects of this crucial moment ripple throughout the entire series.

It’s obvious that Voldemort is a bad person and rarely sympathetic. He murders recklessly and selfishly. He unites dark wizards under a bigoted cause to elevate purebloods. But not enough is said about the environment that made a person like Voldemort happen. We can blame Voldemort’s actions on Voldemort himself, but his values came from somewhere else.

Further, there’s a reason he’s able to grab so much power in such a short amount of time. His power in the literal sense draws in followers, yes, but these people also believe in Voldemort’s vision as feverishly as he does, and we shouldn’t be that surprised by this. The wizarding world is incredibly conducive to having a latent streak of division among its people.

And it all starts with Hogwarts.

sorting hat

There are four houses in Hogwarts, each based on one of the four founders. And each founder has a somewhat simplistic personality trait assigned to each house at first glance: Slytherins are ambitious, Ravenclaws are curious, Gryffindors are brave, and Hufflepuffs are patient. In truth, each founder had some overlap of these qualities, based on the short glimpses we occasionally get into their lives. There’s a reason why these four people were able to come together under one vision, despite some fallout with Salazar Slytherin later on. Each of these traits were more like driving forces in their lives, aided by other characteristics, not conflicted by.

In theory, a four-house system is a competent way to organize the school into appropriate, productive factions. But it has inherent problems that lead to how and why someone like Voldemort can happen, Slytherin or no. It’s not because Slytherins are inherently “evil,” but rather that the school cultivates and fosters aggressive division amongst the students, who are too young to even have established personalities. As a result, they become “who they are” through intense competition and disdain for others who are different.

And this falls on the Sorting Hat, a sentient, magical object who seems to also realize this in Book 5, despite making no effort to do something about it, aside from singing a lofty song about unity that falls on deaf ears. The stranger truth is that the Sorting Hat also admits to some students that their choice gets taken into account, placing the burden of a life’s identity on the mood of an eleven-year-old, whose knowledge of each house is usually based on their immature understanding and influence from family.

sorting hat

This results in what we see throughout the series: divisiveness, paranoia, and close-mindedness. Even a Gryffindor like Ron treats S.P.E.W. (Hermione’s elf rights campaign) as a total joke, because he buys into the self-contained bigotry that the wizards seem content in. It’s no wonder the Slytherins (a group I would be sorted into, undoubtedly) hold so much contempt for the other houses. They’re often accosted and labeled for their mistakes, while other renegades from Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff are hardly ever chided for theirs.

Let’s not forget that the last two headmasters of Hogwarts (McGonagall and Dumbledore) were Gryffindors (Armando Dippet might have been, as well). For a long time, both the Deputy Headmistress and Headmaster were from one house, which is a clear sign of lopsided power, not unity. The Sorting Hat even belonged to Godric Gryffindor, which is also indicative of corruption, though unprovable.

There’s something to be said about encouraging children with limited understanding of who they are to spend most of their time with kids who are exactly like them. Though this is somewhat offset by allowing two houses to share a class, tensions are still razor sharp thanks to institutional competition that becomes the focus of each year, rather than a way to incentivize hard work. In practice, the House Cup actually drives students to either cheating to victory or holding passive aggressive angst against other students that never really subsides.

On the one hand, we do see at least a semblance of unity among the adults. In fact, we can only speculate on the house affinity for many adult wizards, like Amelia Bones and Cornelius Fudge, which makes it seem like that past Hogwarts grudges are eventually forgotten by the time wizards finish coming of age. Voldemort’s main lackey is technically a Gryffindor, after all.

For the professors at Hogwarts, we see a lot of loyalty among the staff that crosses house lines, and an unspoken desire for fairness, despite bias. But this seems more like an accident than what we would expect from reality, like with how Slytherin students have a preconceived disdain for Hagrid (a Gryffindor). Snape, of course, regularly mistreats Gryffindor students (especially Neville) and favors Slytherins, even when they’re at their most vile. In what world does that not have a purely negative affect on these kids as they enter adulthood?

sorting hat

There seems to be no concern for this, either. The Slytherins were sent to the dungeons during the battle of Hogwarts, mostly because some automatically sided with Voldemort. Yet there’s no indication that efforts were made to resolve this after the fact. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is apparently considered canon (unfortunately), and the events of the story make it clear that absolutely no effort is being made to correct the errors of the past. When Albus lets himself sort into Slytherin, his anger toward Harry only grows over the course of a few years. It’s not logical, of course. Only grounded in how damaging it can be to isolate kids and provoke distrust in differences.

And again, it all comes back to the Sorting Hat, the only character with the power to change any of this, as well as the only character who really acknowledges that a problem exists. His passivity, in a lot of ways, has contributed to never-ending aggression between people with prepubescent temperaments. He’s the true villain of Harry Potter, in that most of the issues the characters face can be traced back to the flawed rearing system that he knowingly allows to continue. As the (seemingly) only objective force at Hogwarts, he could easily do something about everyone else’s apparent blindness to Hogwarts’s archaic provisions, but instead, he is indifferent to them.

His songs are catchy, though.


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Or just say hello on Twitter: @JonNegroni


 

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On Second Thought, Zemo Was One of the Best Things About ‘Civil War’

civil war zemo

My initial reaction to Helmut Zemo in Captain America: Civil War was quite similar to the reactions fans and critics have had with most Marvel cinematic villains.

“Is that it?” we all tend to wonder.

The important thing to remember is that most Baron Zemo fans enjoy the more recent incarnations of the character. In his early run, Zemo was a fairly generic “bad guy” seeking revenge against the Avengers because his father died while fighting Captain America.

It wasn’t until the 80s that the character was involved in some more intriguing story arcs, including his formation of the Thunderbolts, which was a team of villains pretending to be heroes who ultimately become heroes for real because they like it so much.

In Civil War, I didn’t see much of this Zemo being played out by the talented Daniel Brühl. True, they both have a thirst for vengeance, and both have a genius-level intellect akin to D.C.’s Lex Luthor. But the characterization was a far cry from the more enigmatic villain we know and hate to love. In Civil War, he’s muted and seemingly interchangeable.

civil war zemo

(Plot spoilers from here on out, so if you haven’t seen Captain America: Civil War, read no further unless you don’t mind getting spoiled.)

You have to admit, though, that the villain in Civil War is also very different from most of the antagonists we’ve seen play out in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For one thing, the film doesn’t kill him off, which is a typical death wish for villains unless your name is Loki. Also, the film seems very interested in developing Zemo further, likely offering this version of Zemo as more of an origin, foregoing the rest of his arc for future films.

Take a look at some of the other heavy-hitter villains in the MCU. We see the origin of Obadiah Stain in Iron Man as he betrays Tony and dons a bigger, badder suit, only to get killed in the end. Blonsky in The Incredible Hulk also goes through the same process when he becomes the Abomination, only to get killed in the end.

Red Skull? Becomes Red Skull before the movie even starts, and then he gets killed in the end. Ronan? Uses the infinity stone to gain power and gets killed (presumably) in the end. Ultron? He’s literally born and killed in the same running time. Yellowjacket? A copy and paste of Obadiah Stain.

Don’t even get me started on the Mandarin.

civil war zemo

But Zemo’s arc in Civil War isn’t quite as familiar. His evil turn happens entirely off-screen, and months before the movie begins. He doesn’t die by the time the credits roll. In fact, he actually wins in the end, accomplishing exactly what he set out to do. The “super soldiers” are dead. The Avengers have been split up. Their “empire,” as he calls it, has fallen.

The only thing he didn’t account for was Black Panther tagging along and preventing his suicide. The one thing he couldn’t predict was a person actually overcoming their thirst for vengeance.

For once, I’m actually intrigued by what happens next for this villain, even more so than Loki. I think my initial and frankly negative reaction was painted by a decade of getting used to Marvel’s rule book of three-act villains. Now it seems that Marvel (with some help from the Russo brothers and their dream team of screenwriters) is trying something new with its bad guys. They’re treating them like they would their protagonists.

The heroes of the MCU are arguably why we love these movies so much, faults and all. We love, know, and understand these characters. And I’m all for Marvel slowing down with stories for their villains, who should be just as important. Why does Zemo need to have a beginning, middle, and deadly end within the course of a movie that is already stuffed to the brim with major plot points? Why should he be any of the characters we already know doing battle in the scene depicted below?

ciivl war zemo

That means, of course, that we can’t get the full picture of Zemo until we see how the events of Civil War change him. Will he become what he hates the most (someone with a suit) in order to stop the Avengers once and for all? Or will he move on and become something more of an anti-anti-hero, possibly leading the Thunderbolts in his own movie?

I’d be fine with either or even both, and seeing these movies from the big picture one day, it could certainly be one of the best things we got out of Civil War, beyond a few stellar action scenes and a spot-on Peter Parker.


Did you like Zemo in Captain America: Civil War? Let me know in the comments below. 

I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni

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