Okay, fine. you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. – Harvey Dent

In this course I am taking online, we students have been debating on what exactly makes a super villain or a villain in the first place, and since this is the theme of the month here, I decided to write a post about it and you readers are invited to share your opinions!

Going back to Shakespearean times, would you say Macbeth is a villain? This book is considered one of the darkest and most powerful works of William Shakespeare, and it’s not a coincidence that the complete title of the book is “The Tragedy of Macbeth”.

Whenever the discussions regarding heroes, antiheroes and villains arise, I am reminded of how hard it is to simply state things in black-and-white because things are actually much more than that, and behaviors can be either bad or good depending on the point of view. Let’s take the following quote from the “The Books of Magic” comics, by Neil Gaiman:

It’s not black magic versus white magic. I tend to think of it as live magic versus dead magic. But even that’s simple dualism… additionally, magic, even dark magic isn’t Satanism — although I’ve dealt with the odd devil in my time. Magic is about power. It’s seeing through the shadows to the real world beyond. – Tannarak

Yes, it would be such simple dualism to divide characters into heroes and villains. And the division into heroes, villains AND antiheroes is a little less simplistic, but it is still not that wide either. It is hard to encompass and categorize human behaviors and as such it is as hard to label characters’ behaviors, because they represent the archetypical human behaviors, right? So, let’s expand this a little more: heroes, villains, antiheroes and the tragic hero.

According to Aristotle, a tragic hero is a man to which misfortune comes not through vice or depravity, but by some error of judgment.

Therefore, Macbeth would be a classic example of a tragic hero. And a contemporary tragic hero would be that one a lot of people love to hate: Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Loki.

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Even in the comics, and in his origin from the Norse mythology, Loki has kind of a noble birth with heroic or potentially heroic qualities, just like Macbeth, and both are fated by the Gods or supernatural forces to doom and destruction (including great suffering).

Some characters start as a tragic hero, hero or antihero, but they can tread the path to become a full-time villain. And this is the case of Wilson Fisk, from the recent adaptation of Daredevil, in which he starts seeing himself as a hero (yes, sounds absurd, but that is one of the reasons why I mentioned “twisted morals” in the title of this post), in which he compares himself to the Good Samaritan from the Bible, and he decides, in the end, that he is the evil doer, not the good one. Not only a villain is born, but he also embraces his now full-time and unmasked villainy.

Thinking of Loki again, and mentioning his role in The Avengers, Thor and Thor: The Dark World, he helped fix what he caused at first, but he did not exactly cause the situations per se, he brought about some things that would end up happening one way or another and, in his twisted ways, he helped The Avengers and Earth and Asgard. I won’t delve into all of the details of his actions and I am not justifying them either, but stating that a villain is the one who kills people and no hero kills is falling into the pit of the dualism mentioned by Tannarak in “The Books of Magic.”

If we refer to The Dark Knight (the second movie in the most recent Batman trilogy), The Joker might be perceived as not a villain, apparently… Check this so well-written article about how The Joker in The Dark Knight could actually be perceived as a hero himself, which delves further into The Joker’s portrayal in said movie.

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Like some of my colleagues in the course said, even Thor and Captain America eventually kill. Even Daredevil, in the Netflix series, ends up killing.

So, taking lives is not exactly a point that defines a villain, right? In CW’s TV series Arrow, Oliver Queen’s vigilante takes lives, is seen as a murderer sometimes, and sometimes even the police sees him as a much needed help. And the Dark Archer? Merlyn has twisted morals, but he thinks of himself as a good-doer. And lives are taken in the process. Even when aiming not to kill, the actions and decisions taken by Arrow result in death and loss and suffering.

I think this is a debate that can go on and on and on, because it seems that villains and heroes and the in-between are much more about how others perceive them, whether their victims or partners or us as readers and viewers. But sometimes, like with Wilson Fisk in the Netflix’s Daredevil series, it is also about how villains perceive themselves.

And some go back and forth… like Magneto – even the description of one of the comics, “Magneto: Not a Hero”: The X-Men are shaken when Magneto finally goes villain again. Again. Because Magneto can be perceived as a villain, an antihero and sometimes even a hero because he crosses the fine line of being an antihero and goes villain and he goes back and forth, both in the comics and in the movies. But his intents are not evil per se. It is complicated, right? Because we are rainbows of emotions and actions and thoughts, we are shades of grey of feelings and morals and actions, and as such complicated beings we are, our fictional representations could not be simplistic either.

Final note: If you saw the movie/read the comics of Watchmen, do you consider Ozymandias a villain or a hero? Is Darth Vader a villain or a tragic hero? Do the means justify the ends? Is the greater good only an excuse for wrongdoings? What is the greater good exactly? Does the need of many outweigh the needs of the few… or the one? What do you think?

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Suggested readings:

Some books on pop culture’s philosophy:

Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul

Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant

Star Wars and Philosophy: More Powerful than You Can Possibly Imagine

Some articles:

What is a tragic hero?

Hannibal Lecter: A Psycho with an Unlikely Soft Spot

A forum discussion about the villainy or heroism or tragedy of Watchmen’s Ozymandias – just to see how opinions vary and the arguments are sometimes pretty solid.

In this article here at IGGPPC, you can see how some heroes are actually amongst those who killed even more than some villains. Enjoy!