How Stories Can Encourage Evil

Evaluating Hit Man, the #1 Movie on Netflix as of June 2024

By Adam Lloyd Johnson, Ph.D.

Some people dislike stories that involve appalling evil such as sexual immorality and murder. However, such stories can be powerful tools to encourage us to do what’s right and fight against our prideful, selfish desires. Often this is done by having an appealing character make an evil decision and then showing the audience how that decision destroys his life. A famous example of this is the story of David whose decisions to commit adultery with Bathsheba and murder her husband ruin his life, his family, and his kingdom.

Unfortunately, some stories do the opposite and actually promote, celebrate, and encourage evil. They do this by having characters suffer no consequences for their evil but instead enjoy various benefits from it such as pleasure, satisfaction, fame, prestige, wealth, peace, accomplishment, honor, and respect. By showing that all these wonderful things come from committing evil, these stories can help motivate people to commit terrible atrocities. Todd Phillips’ 2019 movie Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix is a prime example. By following this strategy Joker communicated to the audience that murder is justified, glorified, enjoyable, and rewarding if it’s committed by someone who has been beat down, bullied, and oppressed as long as the people they murder are the ones guilty of oppressing them. I wouldn’t be surprised if this movie motivates or emboldens potential teenage school-shooters to take revenge on all the people at school who’ve hurt them. That’s why in 2019 I called out the makers of that movie and chided them for being irresponsible in their storytelling.

The most recent movie to glorify evil is the number one movie on Netflix right now—Hit Man. This is no small potatoes—the movie was produced and directed by someone who was included on the annual Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world: Richard Linklater. Movies are highly influential in shaping how people, especially young people, think about life and morality. This film is billed as a romantic comedy, but it actually celebrates cold-blooded murder. It does this by leading the audience to support, admire, and cheer for the main character, Gary, a professor of psychology and philosophy, as he and his love interest get away with two murders, reaping all sort of benefits from their evil choices and incurring no negative consequences whatsoever.

As you’re watching the movie, you see Gary spin a web of lies in order to woo a beautiful woman as he transforms from a nerdy professor into a confident alpha male. Though I could sympathize with many of his choices, all the while I was expecting his deception to catch up with him and the consequences to come pouring in. But they never do. There were a few scenes where I was convinced that everything was about to fall apart for him so he could learn from his mistakes. However, towards the end I started to get that sinking feeling in my stomach as I began to wonder if he was going to get away with it all. Come to find out, not only did he get away with it but he covered up his lies by committing a graphic, brutal, cold-blooded murder that’s difficult to watch. Then the movie ends showing how he reaped all sorts of benefits from his evil choices.

Throughout the film there are scenes of Gary lecturing to his philosophy class in which he affirmatively quotes philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most notoriously evil philosophers in history. Check out my lecture Friedrich Nietzsche (Intro to Philosophy Part 12) to learn more about Nietzsche and his impact on Western culture. Of course, like many postmodernists, Gary tries to put a positive spin on Nietzsche’s ideas, which is as absurd as trying to put a positive spin on Hitler’s ideas. In fact, there’s solid evidence that Hitler’s Nazi ideas were heavily influenced by Nietzsche. Regardless, after the main characters are shown enjoying the results of their murders (peace, satisfaction, tranquility, a loving family, newfound confidence, charisma, etc.), the movie closes with the following speech Gary gives to his philosophy class:

I used to believe that reality was objective, immutable. And we’re all just stuck in a Plato-Descartes-Kant sort of way. But over the years I’ve come to believe that the truth is created through the integration of different points of view, and there are no absolutes, whether moral or epistemological. Now, I find this to be a much more empowering way to go through life, this notion that if the universe isn’t fixed, then neither are you. And you really can become a different and hopefully, better person. Now, the one thing I know for certain, is your reality will change over time in ways you cannot even imagine, and I urge you to be open to this transformation. So, as we close out this semester, if I have but one piece of advice for you moving forward in this complicated world, it is this: seize the identity you want for yourself. And whoever you want to be after this class, be them with passion and abandon.

Most culture-shifting ideas come from key thinkers and philosophers, even though most people never read their work directly. Instead, the artists pick up on these ideas and communicate them to the masses through their art. That’s why storytelling art forms such as poetry, movies, songs, TV shows, literature, comic books, etc. play an important cultural role by influencing how people think. Unfortunately, we often don’t realize how the art we consume influences our thinking because the messages it communicates aren’t explicitly stated but are communicated implicitly through the story. Since every piece of art communicates a message, we need to carefully consider how the art we’re consuming is influencing us. I must say that the movie makers behind this film are being quite irresponsible. They’re using their admittedly tremendous artistic talents to encourage evil instead of warning people of its consequences.

Instead of watching Hit Man, here are two older movies you might want to check out where characters explain in the movie that they’re attempting to follow Nietzsche’s philosophy, commit horrible evils, and then experience negative consequences for their actions. Note that all the movies I’ve discussed in this article are rated R and include multiple graphic scenes, so you may want to watch them via a filtering service such as ClearPlay.

Murder by Numbers is a 2002 movie starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Gosling. It’s based on the real-life murderers Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb who were inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophy to commit the “perfect” murder.

Irrational Man is a 2015 movie by Woody Allen starring Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone. This story is remarkably similar to Hit Man in that the main character is a philosophy professor, often quotes Nietzsche and other existential philosophers, and transforms himself into a stronger, more confident person by committing horrendous evils. Thankfully, though, the movie ends much differently.

Convincing Proof