Tuesday, October 21, 2014


"Villain: a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel."

"Hero: a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities."

"Antihero: a central character in a novel, play, etc, who lacks the traditional heroic virtues."


In the last couple of weeks my friends and I have been having an interesting debate about what makes a good hero or villain. The debate started when one of my friends told me a story he was working on that included, what he referred to as, “a complex villain.” Not the run-of-the-mill, two dimensional villain, but a complete, true-to-life villain. He explained his villain as a God-fearing boy who grows up in impoverished circumstances but who later suffers a tragedy that turns him bad, really bad. After he told me the story, I said that I didn't think this character was a villain. He sounded like a hero who had lost his way. He shrugged and said that he had another character that was even worse. This, I explained, was his true villain. The first character he described engendered sympathy, because, through no fault of his own, he had lost his way and became bad. Generally, that is not a villain.

This started the debate.  

What’s the difference between a hero that’s lost his way and a villain?

When I was growing up, no one was worse than Darth Vader. He was the baddest mother in the galaxy, nothing at all good about him. But if George Lucas would have started the series with Episode One, we wouldn’t have thought of Anakin Skywalker as evil, per se. He is born immaculately (like Jesus) and is brought up in impoverished circumstances, and yet he is still a nice kid who loves his slave mother. He has a penchant for electronics and is a top notch racer. Does that sound like a villain? Later he's seduced by the dark side, but only because he's fooled by the true villain, the Senator/Emperor. In the last episode, Return of the Jedi, Anakin finally becomes the hero by killing the villain, saving his son Luke, and bringing balance to the force. He has to pay for his crimes by dying, but Anakin has redeemed himself and is given a place in the force afterlife with Ben and Yoda. He’s a hero.

Don Vito Corleone and Michael Corleone of The Godfather.
This could be argued all day because in real life the mafia is probably much scarier, but the Don and his son Mike are not villains. Technically they’re anti-heroes, but heroes none-the-less. The Don does what he has to protect his family. Of course he’s not perfect, but he does have standards of justice and he loves his family. At first, Mike seems to be the better hero. When he returns from the war (a hero), he vows to never get involved in the family business because it's bad news. But through a series of events that aren't exactly his fault, he gets sucked in and becomes the new Godfather and begins a lifetime of doing bad. But he never loses his ultimate goal, which is to make the family business legitimate. In the final installment he achieves his goal, but he has to pay for his sins, which he does when his daughter is murdered.
The trickiest by far is Blade Runner.
Who’s the villain? The replicants? I don't think so. The replicants are self-aware A.I.’s who were designed by the Tyrell Corporation to live a life of suffering and slavery. The lead replicant, Roy Batty, played brilliantly by Rutger Hauer, is the protector of his replicant family who are being hunted down and killed by bounty hunters. Any act of violence the replicants commit could be seen as an act of self-preservation against a society that rejects them. The true villain is the CEO of the Tyrell Corporation, Dr. Eldon Tyrell, who is killed off early by Roy. Did the CEO deserve to die? What if I ran a puppy mill and sold the dogs to slave drivers who would kill them if they weren’t useful, and one day one of the puppies ate me? Who’s the bad guy, me or the dog? I am. I got what I deserved and so did the CEO (In real life maybe it's not so black and white, but in story mythology characters get what they deserve). But what about the Harrison Ford character? Isn’t he the hero? He’s more of a hero who lost his way. He’s a ruthless bounty hunter hired to kill replicants, though he’s struggling with it in the beginning, which shows his humanity, but then he gives in to his dark side because he needs the money.

He shows how lost he is when he goes to visit the stripper replicant. She’s minding her own business, trying to make a living with her pet AI snake, no harm to anyone, when the Harrison Ford character hunts her down and shoots her in the back. Does shooting a woman in the back sound like a hero? Hell no. But she’s an AI and AI’s are bad, you say? No. She didn't deserve that, AI or not, and the voice over by Harrison Ford’s character confirms it. Harrison’s character continues to hunt down the rest of the replicants, but there’s a twist. In the end of the movie, the lead replicant, Roy, redeems himself and shows his true hero colors by saving the Harrison Ford character from falling to his death. In the voice over, the Harrison Ford character says he doesn't know why Roy saved him. Roy's arc was to prove to the world that he was sentient and therefore deserved to be treated with respect, and by saving Harrison Ford's character he becomes more than an AI, more than human; he has become a transcendent being, which is often what happens to superior heroes. Yes, we were scared for Harrison’s character as he was fighting the lead replicant, but we should have been afraid for the replicants as well. What redeems the Harrison Ford character is falling in love with the Sean Young character. By saving and running off with her, he becomes the hero he is supposed to be, going from a killer to a lover. It’s a fascinating switch. The villains are not the ones you’d expect.

General Francis X. Hummel in The Rock
A former war hero and army general has taken over the tourist attraction Alcatraz and is threatening to release poisonous gas that will kill hundreds of thousands of people. We learn that the General feels that the soldiers under his command and their families were treated unfairly by the government. He wants them to be financially compensated. As an audience member, it's hard to hate this character because he has a legitimate gripe. We might feel the same way under similar circumstances, but we wouldn't go to such lengths to right the wrong, and that's the undoing of that character. Later on, when the character is shot, he shows he's a lost hero by coming to his senses, admitting his misdeed, and, just before dying, redeeming himself by helping the heroes get the true villain, Major Tom Baxter.   

In a story a character can be bad, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's the villain. A character with a good heart who does bad things will often be redeemed by the end of the story, like Han Solo for example. Han starts off as a selfish smuggler who's running from unpaid debts, but by the end of the movie he comes through to help the hero save the day. Anti-heroes may be bad people, but there's still something likable and redeemable about them despite their flawed character. Yes, they should have to pay for the flaw, (which Han does in the second installment by being frozen in carbonite), but they can still be redeemed.

What is a good villain?

Generally the villain is stronger than the hero, or has some obvious advantage over the hero. He's also ruthless and cannot be redeemed.

Terminator: A ruthless killer. Can’t be reasoned with. Doesn’t feel pain or remorse. Nearly impossible to kill.

Jaws: A man-eating shark. Can’t reason with a shark. Hard to beat it on its own turf.

What if Jaws saved Roy Schneider at the end, flipping up its tail like Shamu and chirping out, “You’re welcome Roy!” That would've been weird. Villains are ruthless. They should inspire hatred and fear, not sympathy.  

Alien: A killer with acid for blood that will eat you.

If you have any other examples or you disagree, I'd love to see it in the comments!

1 comment:

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