To the Villain, It’s a Zero-Sum Game

The definition of a zero-sum game is if one side wins, the other side loses.

Whatever proportion of goodies Player A takes, by that exact amount is Player B’s stake diminished.

Paul Bettany as Will Emerson in “Margin Call”

In a zero-sum equation, if I take a slice of the pie, there’s that much less for you.

This is the how the Villain in our stories sees the world.

In Margin Call, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, the executives at a major investment bank realize, over one long dramatic night, that their trading model is fatally flawed. The instant “the Street” gets word of this, the firm will implode—unless these same execs can somehow offload the contaminated securities before potential buyers realize they’re worthless.

Oh, I almost forgot. This act, should the dastards pull it off, will produce the most catastrophic market crash since 1929.

Paul Bettany plays “Will Emerson,” one of the firm’s senior officers. He is asked by a pair of younger execs, played by Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgley, if such a stunt is even technically possible.



You can’t … it’s impossible. But they’ll figure out a way. I’ve been at this place for ten years and I’ve seen some things that you wouldn’t believe. When all is said and done, they don’t lose money. They don’t care if everyone else does, but they won’t.


That’s zero-sum thinking.

If the creek runs dry in Shane, either the villainous cattleman or the vulnerable homesteaders lose. No other outcome is possible.

In The Revenant, it’s Leonardo DiCaprio versus Tom Hardy. In One-Eyed Jacks, it’s Karl Malden against Marlon Brando. Only one can win. Every James Bond film, every sci-fi monster pic, every comic book and superhero saga is zero-sum, at least in the eyes of the villain.

In Margin Call, Kevin Spacey plays sales manager Sam Rogers, one of the few characters possessed of a glimmer of conscience. In a critical four-in-the-morning meeting, he confronts the firm’s CEO John Tuld, played by Jeremy Irons.



The real question is: Who are we selling this to?


The same people we’ve been selling it to for the last two years, and whoever else would buy it.


But John, if you do this, you will kill the market for years. It’s over. And you’re selling something that you know has no value.


We are selling to willing buyers at the current fair market price. So that WE MAY SURVIVE!

Jeremy Irons as CEO John Tuld


The Villain believes in a world of scarcity. His point of view is predicated upon the notion that if he is to survive and even prosper, he must take from you and me. No other equation exists for him. He cannot conceive of any other world.

Here’s gangster Johnny Rocco (a brilliant Edward G. Robinson) to ex-Major Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) in John Huston and Richard Brooks’ Key Largo.



I’ll tell you what he [Rocco] wants.


Go ahead, soldier. You tell ’em.


He wants more.


That’s it, soldier! More! I want more!


Marine Colonel Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) in Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men understands that point of view exactly. Here he is on the witness stand facing off against Navy prosecutor Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise.



Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? … I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it!


Is life really zero-sum? Is this truly the way the world works?

The hero doesn’t think so.

The protagonist in most (but not all, be it said) novels and movies is the character who is capable of a non-zero-sum answer.

We’ll examine this in greater detail over the next few weeks.