Hannibal Lecter is arguably one of the greatest villains in cinema. In the span of four films, we see the creation and development of a character of great perversity and elegance.
Hannibal Rising is Lecter’s origin film. Lecter’s psychopathy is created, a result of incredible wrongs perpetrated by society and the governments of the world. He sees his parents die in front of him at the hands of soldiers from two armies, and is abused by another group of soldiers who then kill and eat his younger sister in front of him. When he is found, orphaned, he is put into a home by the state where he is then further abused by his peers and ignored by the administrators. Lecter internalizes the evils he has witnessed. He is silent, traumatized by the events. This killer was made, a victim of the greatest evils humans are capable of.
Hannibal is respectful to those that are courteous and kind, and violent to those who are rude and hurtful. Hannibal has a code, a sense of morality which he strictly adheres to and expects others to as well. He has zero tolerance for vulgarity or disrespect. He refers to his victims as “free range rude,” murdering those that reflect the darkest, ugliest parts of society.
He has a great love for beauty, a passion for art, music, literature, and an appreciation for those that try to maintain a moral order (like he believes he himself does). He is almost a vigilante, and we would accept him as such if he did not cannibalize those he removes from society. If he did not eat his victims, would we see him as a flawed hero rather than a crazed psychopath?
In Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, he proves to be a great asset to the government and the people by helping the FBI catch two highly disturbed serial killers. He also grooms two of the BAUs agents to become the best in their field. On the surface he appears contemptuous, playing games with Graham and Starling for his own amusement. While he is certainly enjoying what he is doing, he is also forcing Graham and Starling to think for themselves, look at the evidence in a way different from what they were taught in their training. He pushes them to become exceptional individuals rather than just another mindless cog in a governmental machine.
Everything Lecter does is an effort to improve society, his life and the lives of those around him. Why then is he a villain? Is it because he does not follow our rules? We have seen in other films such as V for Vendetta and The Dark Knight that society benefits from the work of these violent, intelligent outliers, but always rejects them. Is it because we are scared of their power, or do we recognize something sinister in their desire to work alone?