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Villains are Heroes?

Updated on February 9, 2012

Hercules performed twelve labors that brought him all over the world. For each one he traveled a great distance to retrieve some item or perform some great task. In most cases the conquering of some terrifying creature was involved. Today's heroes don't seem very prone to leave their own back yards and find them selves faced with the same baddies over and over. Have heroes gotten lazy? Or have the roles of what we think of as heroic and malicious switched?

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Myths can be divided into 3 categories. Either they hold some deep psychological message, teach a moral lesson, or are creation based to explain natural phenomenon. In most cases the hero is seeking something, whether it be; Coyote seeking fire, Jason for the fleece, or King Arthur's knights for the grail. By comparison with today's plot lines, it is the villain who seeks some material gain by defeating not a monster, but a guy in tights who won't lose. So now it is villain who embarks on the hero's journey instead.

So when did this transition take place? It's easy to point to the guardian role adopted by comic book heroes as one possible reason. But the shift started much earlier. In Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" we have a hero who is the manufacturer of his own torment. The same can be said for "Jekyll and Hyde". Frankenstein as well as Jekyll and Hyde are examples of the external enemies not being present so we create our own. The conclusion of the Arthurian saga has Arthur and his knights on the defensive against Mordred. Beowulf's great saga ends in the defense of a mead hall. Perhaps sociologically the people of the time had acquired what they had wanted and now began focusing on protecting it instead. Both Arthur Pendragon and Peter Parker can tell you, with great happiness comes great loss.

As the needs of the heroes changed so did the objectives of their adversaries. Regardless of the situation the hero is nothing without someone to conflict with. It proves the lasting power of a good bad guy, even if he is forced to adopt the hero's role without the benefit of success. Yet our modern villains return again and again, undaunted by the slew of previous failures. They are the ultimate mirrors with which to reflect our protagonists. Perseus had Medusa, once, Batman will always have the Joker. We can pretend that merchandising has nothing to do with it.

The anti-hero further changed our perceptions of storytelling. Where we now have Wolverine and the Punisher, Dracula once stood tall. Perhaps our own awareness of ourselves has come full circle from petty gods to gallant champions to self motivated loners. The anti-hero mold gives us a more honest look at the ancient hero's mind set. Both serve their own purposes. Both resort to any means necessary to accomplish their goals. The primary difference is that the anti-hero still accomplishes some greater good in his pursuits. Ancient hero's had no such prerequisite. They lied, stole, and murdered to serve their own means. Theseus' betrayal of Ariadne comes to mind. Odysseus was master of deceit and the mastermind behind the infamous Trojan Horse. Heroes were never really as heroic as we made them out to be in the romantic age.

During the Renaissance there was an enormous movement toward Greco/Roman design. With it the ancient heroes returned to the public eye, as well as the beasts they battled. The reintroduction brought a new appreciation for composition and design. This structural influence inspired the work of christian art produced soon after. The mythic gods and heroes became an overlay for the stories of saints to follow. Hercules killed a hydra and St. Michael slew a dragon. Both are Ares type figures in similar situations with similar outcomes though opposite polarities. Hercules is the baser gladiator figure while Michael is the noble protector. Once they were demi-gods, now they were holy. This seems like the birth of heroes like Superman and Captain America.

The Lizard is an example of a mad scientist.  Although his ambitions were good he still managed to become a beast.
The Lizard is an example of a mad scientist. Although his ambitions were good he still managed to become a beast. | Source

For today's heroes there is seldom an absolute victory. Their enemies have transformed from the stuff of nightmares to the guy next door. Our perspective has shifted like Jekyll and Hyde to fear what is inside rather than the external evil that is so different from us. As such the villain have developed more complex personalities.

They can range from malevolent masterminds (Kingpin) to petty crooks (Shocker) to mad scientists(Doc Oc). In some cases all three play off each other nicely. The mastermind suffers from greed and always wants more. He has built his empire by employing the skills of others to accomplish his goals. The petty crook suffers from laziness and wants to get rich quick. The mad scientist is the most interesting since he's not really evil, he's just full of curiosity. He does dangerous things because he wants to see if he can, anything he must do to accomplish his goals is beyond moral discretion. While there are other types they all share the persistent themes of requiring worldly aspirations. Heroes on the other hand typically desire the intangible, like peace or justice. When a hero saves the world or a bank their desire is for nothing to happen.

So not only does the villain get to choose his own hours, he is in fact the one truly following the way of the epic hero. The hero on the other hand plays the part of a complex beast who exists to thwart the courageous antagonist. In the age of Doctor Horrible and Deadpool we cheer for the bad guy. If the villains fail to catch the audiences appreciation the hero suffer for it. In the movie Spiderman 3 is an excellent example of villains not working well together to win approval. As a result the entire franchise has been reset. The villain is key in all his doomed aspirations to serving as the foil for the protagonist. He may not sell the brand but he extends success dramatically. A good adversary ensures the legendary status of the champion.

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    • Darkmetaly profile image

      Daníel Guðmundsson 5 years ago from Iceland Höfn í Hornafirði.

      that was very interesting I had never given this much thought.