Let's discuss Avengers: Infinity War -- a movie BOUND to make you feel so good!

April 24, 2014

Who Wins Out -- Heroes or Villains?

If you’ve been checking around the blog recently, you might have guessed that I’ve got Infamous: Second Son on the brain.  (The posts on which will come this Monday and Thursday, so look forward to my joy/despair.)  And with good reason; I may not be one for comics, but I’ve always loved the idea of superheroes.  And by extension, I’ve always loved the potential that they hold.  Powers beyond the mortal man!  A persona that’s larger than life!  HnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnngCOSTUMES!  There’s a lot to love, so there’s an obvious reason why they’re so popular today.

But if The Avengers -- and the internet at large -- is any indication, it’s that people love villains as well.  Maybe more.  Tom Hiddleston’s Loki made a huge splash in the first Thor movie, much to its (and his) credit; his presence helped make that movie what it was, and you could say the same pretty damn easily about The Dark World.  Loki’s popular, but I’d bet that he’s not the only one who’s enjoyed his fair share of popularity.  Nor will he be the last.

And I find that more than a little interesting, if we’re being honest.  Along with Loki’s horns.  That seems like an accident waiting to happen -- if it hasn’t already.  On the other hand, they ARE curved upward, so, you know.  S'all good.

It always strikes me as fascinating.  You would think that in most cases, people would automatically shun and revile the villain.  It’s human nature, and a part of human decency; the good guys are doing good things, so we should support them.  The bad guys are doing bad things, so we should scorn them.  That’s how it should be, but in the end it’s not always -- or ever -- that simple.  It’s not always best or even required to agree with a villain, but we have to appreciate their presence in a story.  They are (bad pun incoming) a necessary evil.

In all fairness, though, there’s a saying that I’ve picked up on in recent years.  Something along the lines of “a villain is convinced that he’s the hero of the story.”  Not in those exact words, obviously, but the point still stands; the villain thinks that what he/she does is best, or right -- taking on the task that no one else will, because nobody can do it better.  That’s a fair point, in a lot of cases; I’m pretty sure that by this point in the Superman canon, Lex Luthor has every reason to do half of the things he does.  Love him or hate him, his rivalry with the big blue Boy Scout has some merit to it; since it’s hoped that Man of Steel 2 will tackle the destruction of Metropolis, I’m that’d be the perfect issue for Lex to rally behind as a means to passive-aggressively attack a living god.

Setting aside rigid definitions and concepts of good and evil, when you get down to it a villain is still just a character in a story.  He/she is someone that adds plenty of tools into the box.  And they’re tools in their own right -- meaning you can use them to counteract the hero by way of some foil work, or just give them a presence of their own.  That’s where the charisma comes in, I’d bet; the villains can do whatever they want in an attempt to charm the crap out of us.  Raw displays of terrifying power; intelligence linked to deadly resolve; smugness that lets them swagger and joke from one end of town to the next.  In some cases, even the best heroes can’t compete with the tools in their boxes.

But going back to what I said earlier, maybe there’s another reason why villains can be so lovable.  The assumption was that people would align with the heroes because of their basic decency.  Conversely, people are just as likely to look at villains, see what they have to say, and think “Crap.  That’s actually a good point.”  They could be a way to indulge -- to harmlessly see what it would be like to cut loose from the social norms and standards, and try to make a world up to their standards.  (Or destroy it outright, but let’s not get into semantics.)  It’s kind of a lower form of vicarious living -- not exactly a way to live out secret wishes and fantasies, but still something you can’t help but want to observe.  If you’ve ever thought to yourself “What would happen if ___________?” then there’s a chance that a good villain can provide.

You can probably guess where my allegiances lie, but then again, this post isn’t about me.  It’s about the question at hand, and if anyone out there is willing to provide some insights sprung straight from their pulsing, springy brains.  That question is: do villains have a distinct edge over heroes?   And as a corollary, how can they get so popular -- even at the expense of the story’s heroes?

The fate of the world is in your hands.  Ready?  Set?  Defend the earth!  I mean…comment!

And look forward to those Infamous posts.  There is…much to discuss.


  1. I sure hate to admit it, but yeah, you're right. The Dark Knight wouldn't have been TDK without the Joker. I'm not going to say that movie was perfect, but it brought plenty thanks to a certain magical clown...type...thing. It kind of bothers me that the same couldn't be said of Batman, given that he's kind of the main character, but hey. I guess what's important is that SOMEBODY got to stand in the spotlight. And earn it, every step of the way.

    To be fair, though, there's always a chance that a character's lines -- hero or villain -- might end up being remembered for the wrong reasons.


    And yet he was still the best character in that movie. Make of that what you will. I sure have. To my immediate and crippling despair.

  2. Forgive me for taking the coward's way out of the discussion, but I find myself liking characters that are well written. Or I like the jerkass with a heart of gold but hides it due to his antisocial tendencies. Not sure which. >.>

    I think good guys aren't always well liked is because some people don't know how to write them well. "Okay, so-and-so is a nice guy. So what?" is what I sometimes ask myself when I see some people defend characters. Superman sometimes falls into this mold if the person can't find good examples of the man of steel being an interesting, compelling, sympathetic character.

    What makes me like Naruto more than most hyperactive, boy scout protagonists is his undying commitment and passion in his beliefs. He is the ultimate pollyanna in a world of corruption, warfare, and child soldiers. He changes the lives of all the pessimistic people he meets. He gets others out of a funk and tells them "Hey, the sky is blue! Take a look sometime when you get your head out of the dirt!" Naruto is a genuinely kind young man, has no conventional smarts, but he's got a bigger view of the world than the vast majority of the cast. He finds the good in life, and he'll fight to the death to prove his point or demonstrate his convictions. He never backs down, even when sometimes he should.

    As for bad guys, they seem to have more room to be certain kinds of people. There can be more variety, especially if they have some moral ambiguity. In theory at least. Hollywood likes to show off how much they like safe archetypes; but there are still exceptions occasionally.

    Good thing you mentioned Loki. He was at his worst in The Avengers. A plain old villain with no compelling motivation. The only good thing out of it was when the Hulk flung the tiny guy around like a wet towel. (I still cry from laughing hysterically.) But in the Thor films, he's brilliant. He has the charisma and the mischief, but his fear of being deemed inferior upsets him greatly. He doesn't fit in with the others due to his heritage, and he likes to pretend he has no ties to the family who raised him. (That scene in the middle of Thor 2 with the illusion of his composure in the prison was an absolutely beautiful moment, captured well only in the film medium.)

    Loki and Naruto have two similar commonalities that hit me. One, they have strong motivations and goals. Two, they have the desire and drive to get the mission done. Three, both have aspects of their personas that serve as a hinderance to their ambitions (Naruto is passionate but dumb and stubborn; Loki is mischievous and deceitful but insecure). Though Naruto is the hero, he has moments in which his actions seem to aid in the villain's favor. Loki may be a cocky jerk, but he still has some respect and attachment for his foster family.

    As long as characters have these kind of contridictions to their selves and they are written by someone who knows what they are doing, hero and villain can be beloved. Maybe throwing in some catchy lines or memes can help too. Or an action scene that marks a crowning moment of badass. Or explosions. But then you're not trying by that point.

  3. Villains. They make things happen. Villains act more often than not. The Hero Reacts. A hero is nothing without his nemesis. A villain without a hero is free to carve carnage. During times of peace heroes even turn into villains because they realize peace is boring.

    This is the reason I decided to be the kid on the block with the Cobra figures. Sure my minions got their butts kicked by G.I. Joes every time, but I always got a chance to play. I always had a scheme ready for my eventual takeover of the neighborhood.

  4. Aha...so you like Naruto, but you...shall we say, "take issue" with Sasuke. Interesting. I find that veeeeeeeeeeeeeeeery interesting.

    *strokes nonexistent Confucius beard*

    Actually, you bring up a good point, and something that I've been mulling over for a while thanks to Captain America 2 and Infamous. It really is remarkable how much of a difference a strong motivation can make for a character. Like you said, what's important is that characters are well-written, with their alignment being just a byproduct of that, so to speak. And one of the major steps in making a good character comes from having a strong, appealing motivation -- something for the character to struggle with, and form the backbone of one (or more) conflicts.

    I've got issues with Infamous' Delsin, but to his credit he's got a simple but effective motivation to set him on his way: "I want to save my tribe from getting rocked to death by psychic concrete." (It makes sense in context.) That's it. That's all I really need to get going, and at least try to get behind a character. Compare that to, say, Lightning Farron, who needs THREE SEPARATE GAMES just to get one ironclad motivation...and even then, I have my doubts that Lightning Returns gives us anything worthwhile. (I may or may not know how that game ends, if the four words I accidentally read somwehere are true. If they are, then I'm going to weep for several years.)

    "I think good guys aren't always well liked is because some people don't know how to write them well."

    True enough, but you know, I've always found that funny. I'm not going to pretend like writing's the easiest thing in the world, but damned if some people go out of their way to make it a lot harder than it really is. Ah, c'est la vie.

  5. Oh, right. I can't believe I forgot that little tidbit. But it is an important one; I guess when you get down to it, the villain is the true mover-and-shaker of the plot by design. I mean, if a hero got on the move to try and take action before the villain got moving, that would risk bringing the story into some controversial pre-crime territory, wouldn't it? That's probably not the best place to go...unless the story has guns that make people puke on command.

    That was my one unyielding takeaway from Minority Report -- if only because my brother and buddy will never, ever let those puking scenes go.

    Also, your Cobra forces would have been no match for my unstoppable squadron of...uh...

    *thinks back to first grade*

    Stuffed animals? Man, sometimes I wonder about my childhood...

  6. Now how in the world did I miss this comment? I'm not sure, but I'm going to do the sensible thing and call the Disqus/Blogger tag team a couple of butts and move on with my life.

    "Faize over Edge"

    I don't blame you for that one. Star Ocean 4 would have been a substantially-better game if it focused on Faize and his journey (and dumped the better part of the cast). But for what it's worth, his presence was appreciable -- and I can see where you're coming from when appreciating anti-heroes. They're willing to get their hands dirty, and do more than just ask questions; more often than not, they're the ones trying to solve them in ways that the hero du jour can't. Call it a way to satisfy an audience's itch; fantasy worlds beget curiosity, and we all want to be sated in some way. Anti-heroes (and villains, by extension) are just one of plenty of ways to make that happen.

    I'll tell you what, though. Whether heroes or villains win out, it's their interplay that's most important. They can both ask questions, answer them, and take action -- and they can do that in response to each other, making their product that much better. SO4 proved that already; seeing Faize go from fawning over Edge to declaring he was unfit to lead was one of the best elements of that game. Edge may have won out in the end, but they both fought even before they crossed blades. There's something to be had -- and enjoyed -- from that in a story.

    Soooooooooooo...cop-out answer for the win!