What Makes A Great Hero? – Flawed Saviors

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A few weeks ago we took a look at what makes a great villain. That seemed to be a fruitful discussion and since I’m still slightly traumatized from my bad movie series, why not look a what makes a great hero?

While it’s usually the villain that steals the limelight, great stories require a great hero. Not necessarily an unbeatable incredible awesome hero, but some kind of relatable figure with generous amounts of goodwill and personality. Unlike the villain, the hero is person in the story that the audience is supposed to sympathize and agree with. The hero is our window to the world of the story. You are supposed to like them. On some level, you actually wouldn’t mind being them.

However nobody likes always successful, always happy, always perfect people. They are annoying. They bug us with their immaculately cleaned toilets and wrinkle-free clothing. And we know that deep down nobody can be thatperfect. They might hide their flaws with precise, but we know they’re there somewhere.

Thus when it comes to a hero of a story, we want someone flawed. Deeply flawed. We want them to have struggles (because we have struggles and so they should too). Ultimately we want them to succeed but we think it should be a constant challenge. Life is full of constant challenges so naturally we expect the same for a hero. And oddly enough, through seeing them overcome constant challenges we grow to like them even more.

A good hero must have a personal obstacle, some overarching problem that humanizes them and creates sympathy for the character inside the audience. There are really only three main sources of the hero’s obstacle that I can think of:

  • a personal vice
  • alienation
  • unwillingness to be a hero
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    Vice is a moral problem. Alienation is a circumstantial problem. Unwillingness is an internal problem. Usually a hero majors in one of these obstacles. Effectively these different problems humanize the hero and lets us in to their personal journey via the universal experiences of trial and temptation.

    From these three kinds of obstacles emerge three hero archetypes:

  • The Cocky Hero has some kind of vice that prevents them from being wholly ethical or socially acceptable.
  • The Solitary Hero is alienated from those around them for reasons beyond their control
  • The Unwilling Hero does not want to be a hero and is defined by their personal struggle to take up a hero’s mantle.
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    A good hero should fall into one of these categories and really own it. I suppose you could have a cocky solitary unwilling hero, but I doubt they would still qualify as a hero and end up being more an anti-hero. A hero might have multiple issues yet should always focus on one tangible problem at a time. After all, in our own lives we find it hard to tackle more than one major problem at a time.

    Let’s look at some examples.

    The Cocky Hero

    The Cocky Hero carries around an easily detectable flaw. Like in real life, most of the time this flaw cannot be completely erased but only minimized and ultimately compensated for by other virtues. Even though they have good intentions, they are often willing to do ignoble things along the way. The audience may root for them to succeed yet at the same time consider themselves morally above them. A major challenge for the Cocky Hero is too overcome their personal flaws in order to complete their sacred heroic task.

    James Bond

    Obstacle: detachment

    007 is the classic Cocky Hero. He’s arrogant, unconcerned with what his superiors’ think of him, and good at his job. He is Britain’s best spy and he always finishes his mission. But he has a vice: he’s emotionally detached. Bond uses women like toys and although its presented as hyper-masculine spy mojo, few people would really want to live a life of empty one night stands and total interpersonal detachment. Despite his prowess with a gun, Bond is made partially inhuman by his inability to connect deeply with or commit to women.

    James T. Kirk

    Obstacle: risk-taking

    In 2009 J.J. Abrams introduced us to a total revamp of the iconic Captain Kirk. Like Bond, he sleeps around with women but his deeper character flaw is risk-taking. Kirk trusts his gut over sound logic, doesn’t care about Starfleet regulation, and leaps headfirst into situations that put himself and his crew in grave danger. Although we admire his confidence and resourcefulness, his unnecessary brashness proves him to be seriously flawed human being along with the rest of us.

    Korra

    Obstacle: impatience

    The Legend of Korra is an amazing television show anchored by its chipper teenage Avatar-in-training. She is strong-willed and eager to use her powers on behalf of others. It is clear that Korra is both courageous and compassionate. Yet she is held back by a singular character flaw: impatience. Korra tends to rush into battle before she’s fully ready or even knows what she’s getting into. Instead of remaining diligent and devoted to learning air-bending, she takes on life-threatening challenges before she is ready.

    Tony Stark

    Obstacle: self-reliance

    Tony Stark is highly intelligent, charismatic, and surprisingly ethical in his use of his Iron Man suit. Frequently he is willing to lay his life down for others, the mark of a true hero. However in public he makes clear that of unique intelligence and prides himself above all. Underneath all that hubris, his real issue is self-reliance. Tony believes only he can handle the world’s threats and takes offense at anyone who tries to help him. In other words, he doesn’t play well with others.

    This brand of hero must work on overcoming their vice. If they refuse to change, they become a sort of self-parody eventually. Bond must get out of his hotel bed and get back to work. Kirk must take more measured risks. Korra must learn to have more patience. Tony must compromise and work alongside others.

    Since the Cocky Hero tends to be the most immoral or unsympathetic of the archetypes, it helps if they are really good at other things like saving innocent civilians or water-bending or hand-to-hand combat. Even if we don’t admire their personality at least we can admire their skill and the dedication required to learn that skill. If the hero has to be a jerk, at least let them do important heroic things (I’m looking at you, Green Lantern).

    The Solitary Hero

    The Solitary Hero’s obstacle does not come from a personal vice like the Cocky Hero but rather from an external reality that divides them from the people they love. This alienating force is something the Solitary Hero must live with against their will with little hope of having it removed. They may never get to live a normal life so they must make the best of what they have.

    When this hero archetype is called to action, they usually arrive with a strong level of intensity that others heroes tend to lack. Because they are already isolated from those closest to them, they have less to lose. Often their heroic acts grant them the solace and purpose they were looking for all along.

    Logan

    Obstacle: attachment

    The Wolverine is a tragic figure, able to completely heal from any wound yet unable to form lasting attachments with those around him. His long lifespan not only causes him to outlive everyone he love/s but also forces him to carry around the memories of violence and war from his past. It is no accident that Logan is often found in the wilderness apart from the rest of the X-Men and that he is such a volatile force to reckon with.

    The Hulk

    Obstacle: self-control

    Bruce Banner’s isolation does not stem from attachment but from self-control. Unable to control his transformations and the brutal rage of his alter ego, he must separate himself from others for their own safety. Even after learning to master his emotions, Banner can never really be sure if he can fully tame the mighty Hulk inside of him. When the beast explodes, Banner is helpless to protect people from himself.

    Batman

    Obstacle: identity

    After surviving a traumatic childhood, adult Bruce Wayne rejects his billionaire identity and dons the Batsuit. Effectively Bruce dies and Batman is born. Batman is the real Bruce while Bruce becomes his true mask. This personality split makes it impossible for Bruce to live a normal life or maintain authentic relationships. Fighting crime ultimately consumes Bruce’s entire identity.

    Superman

    Obstacle: belonging

    The last known survivor of his planet, Kal-El is a man apart. Despite being near indestructible and having the power of flight, Superman can never fully belong with the humans he protects. He is alien. He is an orphan. These truths separate him from the rest of us and make his full integration into society nearly impossible.

    Since they are effectively on their own, Solitary Heroes are usually quite capable of handling things by themselves. Logan has adamantium claws. Hulk is an unstoppable juggernaut. Batman is a stealthy ninja. Superman can bend steel. Although they are clothed with immense power, these heroes still lack one of the most basic of human needs: deep loving connections to other people.

    Balancing their need for social connection against their need to use their unique station in life for the greater good, Solitary Heroes are them most tragic of the bunch. Their happiness will always be limited by a constant external reminder that they are, to some degree, all alone.

    The Unwilling Hero

    Unwilling Heroes are distinguished by the fact that they don’t want to be heroes or at the very least are not ready to do what it takes to become one. Their reluctance keeps them from fulfilling the heroic task required of them. Since we as the audience have all sorts of things we don’t want to do, we can easily relate to a hero who suffers from the same dilemma.

    Ideally the Unwilling Hero should still have some admirable qualities about them. They may not want to be a hero, but they should be worthy in other ways. If they are both unwilling and unlikeable, that’s a problem. They just need some time but the seeds of heroism should already have started to sprout and manifest themselves in smaller ways.

    Neo

    Obstacle: confidence

    Despite gaining the faith and trust of Morpheus, Neo doesn’t feel like a hero. He doesn’t see any evidence that he is the One that was prophesied. The Oracle doesn’t give him much reassurance either. He has no confidence in himself yet through his devotion to Morpheus and timely courage, he finally proves himself the hero he never thought he was.

    Frodo Baggins

    Obstacle: physical strength

    As the only volunteer to carry the One Ring into Mordor, Frodo becomes the de facto guardian of Middle Earth. However he is hobbit, small in size and inexperienced in combat. He is physically too weak to even make the arduous journey. But as the Fellowship crumbles, his moral resolve allows him to push through his physical limitations toward his destination.

    Katniss Everdeen

    Obstacle: power

    Katniss is at the mercy of a corrupt regime, forced to fight for her life. She has no control over her situation and yet refuses to kill other tributes except in the case of self-defense. She is powerless to change her situation. By choosing to maintain an ethical stand in spite of her lethal environment, Katniss manages to emerge the deadly Hunger Games as a national hero and a symbol of a mounting resistance.

    Luke Skywalker

    Obstacle: training

    Luke is not interested in joining Obi-Wan and taking up his father’s lightsaber. After his family’s murder, he finally does decide to join him but he is over eager to enter the fight. Obi-Wan reminds Luke that he is no Jedi. Impatient to complete his training, Luke is not prepared to fully learn the ways of the Force and thus stands no chance against Darth Vader. It takes him two whole movies before he is finally ready to be the hero that he needs to be.

    Just because Unwilling Heroes are unwilling does not mean that they can put off their responsibility forever. Even if the situation is beyond their control they do not stand around and do nothing. Perhaps they try to find another way to solve their problem, like Luke becoming a pilot instead of a Jedi or Neo entering the Matrix for a quick rescue. Despite their aversion to being heroes eventually their circumstances, experience, and inner qualities collude to transform them into great heroes.

    Flawed Saviors

    Heroes of all kinds must be relatable and giving them an obvious flaw is the fastest and best way to do that. However they also have to be likable. If a hero has too many flaws, they become unpleasant. If a hero’s flaws are too cliche, they become bland. Ultimately a good hero needs to have a consistent personality that is also balanced by their unique flaws and limitations as well as personal growth.

    We should like heroes and admire them on one level, but yet also be aware of their flaws. We should see them as equal to us in human failing and weakness. In some cases, we might even see ourselves as morally superior. Hey if I treat people better than Bond or Batman, that makes me feel pretty good, right?

    But lest we forget, a hero must not exist as a theoretical possibility or live in the realm of good intentions. They must vanquish evil and save other humans. At the very least they must actively care about others and work toward their wellbeing.

    A hero absolutely cannot be idle, even if they are wrongheaded and misguided at times. What they do defines them. Not a cape or a reputation or an idea, but their actual behavior. Their actual deeds. We will forgive a multitude of crimes and misdemeanors for a hero who is simply willing to act.

    In part two, we’ll look at the other half of a great hero: great character motivation.

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    From Vader to Zod, What Makes A Great Villain?

    These days we are blessed with a glut of movies across superhero/sci-fi/adventure/robots-vs-kaiju movies. They all have one thing in common: all the good ones feature a memorable villain, a terrible foe, a cunning opponent, a vile scourge. The presence of a worthy villain makes not only for a good story, it tells us about the quality and nature of our hero.

    99% of the time just having an excellent foe will yield an excellent story.

    But what makes for a great villain? What’s the secret to making an impression as an agent of evil?

    Let’s look at some of the top villains in recent memory, and maybe a few not-so-good ones, and see what we can dig up. Because if you ain’t got a villain, son, you ain’t got a movie.

    And what better place to start than at the top with the sultan of Sith himself.

    1-Darth

    Darth Vader vs. Darth Maul

    Darth Vader is iconic in a way that actually justifies the use of the word iconic (rare, I know). He is thoroughly evil (well, at least until Return of the Jedi and his total deconstruction in the prequel trilogy). Overthinking It has a superb article on why you should never show the villain’s backstory (reason: it makes the audience too sympathetic and takes away their villainous edge).

    Vader wants the rebels and he wants them dead. He wants their base. He wants their fledgling Jedi leader, and he wants it all now. Loss of life is no concern. He will blow up the economically strategic planet of Alderaan just prove a point: he is evil!

    Whether he is deathgripping his admirals or slicing off the hands of his progeny, Darth Vader is a villain we love. Cunning, ruthless, and pretty good at TIE fighting to bat, he’s a villain we want to root for despite the reality that he would probably just maim us with a lightsaber on the spot.

    If Vader is the prototypical ideal of villainy, then Darth Maul is his opposite.

    Who is Darth Maul? We’re not sure. He wears a cloak, he follows orders from another dude in a cloak, he looks like Satan but with more horns. Darth Maul is the opposite of what a villain should be: a total mystery.

    As I mentioned in my Jack the Giant Slayer post, a mystery cannot also simultaneously be a character. To be a fully rounded character, we need to know their motivations, aspirations, desires, needs, flaws, and personality. They have to have quirks. But a shadowy figured mired in shadows moving silently in the shadows behind more shadows? That’s not a character, that’s a mystery.

    How does Maul feel about serving Sidious? Just why does he hate the Jedi? What made him choose the Dark Side over the Light Side of the Force? Does he prefer his coffee black or with cream?

    Of course, Clone Wars eventually gives us some of these answers in a fairly satisfying way. But let’s face it: Vader intrigued us as a character from the very beginning. His mask, his weird breathing, even his gait, all added to his ruthlessness and imperial leadership. We don’t need a shadow ninja assassin. We need a villain with some personality.

    Let’s take the villains of the two most recent Batman/Superman movies.

    2-DC

    General Zod vs. Bane

    General Zod was a pretty good villain who provided a huge physical threat, up until he abandoned his own twisted logic to become a genocidal maniac. Interestingly, Zod is a product of a planet-wide genetics experiment. Krypton literally breeds its soldiers, its scientists, and presumably its internet bloggers. Natural birth is outlawed, and pre-determined societal roles are enforced through genetic manipulation.

    Zod is born and bred to be a warrior and to defend his people at all costs. So far, so good.

    Since the Kryptonians do not update the genes of their political leadership to be able to deal with global catastrophes, their leaders are suffer from obstinate anti-scientific apathy. Brawny scientist Zor-El wants to save their race through practical and ethical means, while uber-militarist Zod wants to take control of the planet and save Krypton through Machiavellian determination . Zor-El jettisons the Kryptonian gene pool with his son, and Zod vows to hunt him down.

    Zod’s whole motivation boils down to find Kal-El, retrieve the codex from his hot dead body, and retrofit the earth to make way for New Krypton. But wait, that’s not quite correct. First, he offers Kal-El a chance to join him. You see, he’s not quite that bloodthirsty after all. Sure, humans can be exterminated but let’s give Superboy a chance to join us.

    General Zod will protect anything and everything Kryptonian, but do nothing for other forms of sentient life even ones that happen to look exactly like them.

    One thing I do really like about Zod is how he is temporarily weakened during his initial fight with Superman. His sensory overload at being exposed to Earth’s atmosphere and yellow sunlight actually works in favor of the character. We know what Zod wants, but now we see his struggle in getting it. It’s a great story technique, usually used on the hero but here effectively used on the villain.

    Unfortunately, as much as I actually enjoyed and love Man of Steel, I don’t think Zod quite passes the great villain test. How can I possibly sympathize with a villain who cherishes his people dearly, offers an olive branch to Kal-El, and at the same time is happy to wipe out another planet? As one of the few survivors of a planet that was wiped out, how could he not see that he is duplicating the same pain and suffering he has himself experienced? Oh right, genetics.

    Vader killed his own men without remorse, but somehow I get the feeling Zod cries whenever he loses one of his men. He does everything “for his people.” It feels inconsistent. It’s a weird mix of compassion and psychotic ruthlessness that doesn’t quite work.

    When Zod’s terraforming plan is defeated, instead of moving on or surrendering or figuring out some other way to deal with it, Zod goes all rampaging bull on us and targeting random civilians. He’s like the bully at school who beats up smaller kids just because he can’t get what he wants. Is it his warrior DNA? Is it a psychological breakdown? I couldn’t tell you.

    Now in contrast, let’s look at Bane.

    Born in the dark, raised by animals, a vicious mercenary with a sinister plan, Bane has something that Zod lacks: control. Bane is 100% in control of his actions and demeanor and how he comes across. He imposes.

    In one scene Bane puts his hand on the shoulder of John Daggett, one of the evil conspirators in his plan. It’s clear that Bane is about to do something very terrible to him. But Bane is patient, he is not wildly emotional like Zod. He will enact his punishment, but at the right time.

    A good villain is thorough, logical, precise. They know when to strike and where it will hurt the most. They not only have a goal, but they know the best way to accomplish it.

    When Batman and Bane face off underground, the masked mercenary is completely in control. He has lured Bruce there, he knows his identity, and he outclasses him both mentally and physically.

    Bane is powerful, smart, and calculated in his approach to taking over Gotham. However, we do need to take into account the revelations at the end of the movie. Bane is not the true mastermind of the plot to destroy Gotham, though he does play a huge role. Although we can’’t ever know for sure, knowing how well he pulls of his role,  how well he commands his men, and his sheer commitment to his ideology, it’s very likely that Bane is no mere servant of Talia. He is her equal. Bane is just as central to the master plan as Talia, he is still just as evil (he made all of Gotham’s reckoning possible), and he shares a deep villainous bond with Talia.

    He was the front villain, while she was the shadow villain. Both are good villains but Talia’s true motivations are revealed only at the end of the film. She is a surprise villain, a plot twist, not the real villain for most of the movie.

    Does that take away from the full emotional impact of Bane as a villainous villain to be remembered for all time? Sure, it definitely does. But had Chris Nolan and company decided to go another route with Bane, I think he would have perfectly fit the mold of a well motivated and fully realized villain.

    But what happens when you take a fully realized villain and multiply?

    3-Smith

    Agent Smith vs. Agent Smith 2.0

    The Matrix, cult classic and eventual international phenomenon, features a great villain. In the first film we watch as Neo slowly unravels the secrets of the Matrix, all the while chased by the infamous Agent Smith.

    Mr. Smith wears sunglasses, speaks slowly and deliberately, and has his facial expression set to grimace at all times. Also, he can dodge bullets, respawn, and kill you to death without even trying.

    Sure, Smith likes to pontificate and give lengthy villain speeches about how humanity is a disease that needs to be wiped out, but he’s vintage awesome. Everyone likes Smith so much that we still cringe whenever we see the Fellowship of the Ring and imagine Elrond busting out with a hearty “Mr. Anderson.”

    So imagine our surprise when the Matrix Reloaded pops out of the toaster and lo and behold, Mr. Smith 2.0.

    Gone is the fearsome unbeatable menace of Agent Smith. Nope, Neo can just beat up 500 of him and fly away. Seriously. The villain is now a self-replicating punching bag. There are several major problems with this.

    If the hero can just beat up the villain whenever he wants without a scratch, that is not good. If he can fly away at anytime without breaking a sweat, that is not good. The villain should always be a problem, a huge problem. Smith 2.0 is just self-indulgent, not scary.

    Another issue is that it breaks the Rule of Few. Less is always more. At the end of Iron Man 3, the audience is supposed to be wowed at the 30 Iron Man suits flying around punching bad guys. We’re not, we’re confused.

    Why has Tony kept all these suits to himself? Why are there so many? Are suits like single use items good for one battle and then thrown away?

    In the case of Smith 2.0, having two or three Smiths is better than 500 Smiths. Two Smiths can have a relationship. They can be two places at once. They can surprise you. They can work together. They can be turned against one another. But 500? It’s just a undifferentiated mass. You can’t care for a crowd, only individuals.

    The Matrix Revolutions finally admits this by having Neo go back to battling just one Smith. It just doesn’t make any sense to battle a huge army of Smiths because they are just cheap facsimiles of the character we used to know and love.

    Speaking of characters we know and love, let’s talk about Star Trek.

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    Nero vs. “John Harrison”

    Boy am I sick of people writing “John Harrison.” If you care about Star Trek at all and don’t live in an underground bunker cut off from the rest of civilization, you should definitely know by now that there is no John Harrison, only KHAAAAAAAAAAAAN.

    J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek reboot film had a fairly interesting villain, a vengeful Romulan named after the oppressive and incompetent Roman emperor Nero (Romulus = Rome, get it?)

    Contrary to popular belief, Nero did not sit around for 20 years waiting for Ambassador Spock. In deleted scenes we find out that Nero was captured by Klingons and stuck rotting in prison for 20 years. Nero is a brooding, angry, and particularly troubled Romulan.

    He actually has a backstory that is explained on screen. Hanging out in his simple mining vessel, he watched as his planet imploded, along with his wife, evidently due to the gross incompetence of a senile future Spock. I would be angry too.

    As decent a character setup he gets, Nero then pulls a General Zod and goes off the deep end, blowing up every Federation planet he can get his hands on. Clearly this is an unbalanced individual with no real goal except to multiply pain and suffering across the galaxy until someone stops him.

    But wait, maybe that is what he wants. Maybe he is hoping someone will come and stop him so that his own personal misery can come to an end. Maybe his true goal is to find some kind of inner resolution for him and his crew, the last of their kind.

    Nope, he’s just evil. Even when Kirk offers him the chance to live, Nero would rather die in agony. He doesn’t care about his personal pain, he just wants to inflict it on others.

    Nero is a functional villain, but he’s just so over the top. His blind rage makes him an easy target, it makes him predictable. He’s a huge threat, but nothing a brash cadet and straight-thinking science officer can’t handle.

    Instead of going further in exploring his deeper psychology and some  further motivation for blowing up the Federation, instead we get campy shouting. At least some villains want to, you know, take over the world or something.

    Star Trek Into Darkness definitely ups the ante with Khan. Now here is a villain with some personality. Although his identity and motivations are shrouded in mystery, it’s very obvious to everyone how truly formidable an opponent he is. In fact, that’s part of what makes him so effective. He’s better than everyone else and he knows it. He can outwit you, outsmart you, outmanipulate you, outpunch you, outanything you.

    Even when he’s locked up in a Starfleet cage, he makes you believe that he can break out and stab you in the back at any moment if he so pleases. After all, he’s got those piercing Benedict Cumberbatch eyes.

    The story ends up in an odd situation where the crew needs Khan’s help in taking out the evil-but-for-good-reasons Admiral Marcus. They know Khan is bad. They know he will probably betray them. They know conventional weapons and use of force has no effect on him.

    Making the heroes work together with the villain is a good way to build tension and up the ante. It’s not so much IF they are going to backstab but WHEN will they backstab. Nero would never play along because he’s been dumbified by his rage. Khan holds in his rage and saves it for lengthy monologues. At least it’s a step in the right direction.

    Where Khan falls short is his motivation. It’s a secret for so much of the movie that even though I’ve seen it twice I don’t really remember what it is. To rescue his people? To start a war with the Klingons? To heal sick children with his magic blood?

    The downside to making Khan a mystery is that we don’t really know what he wants. But I’m sure it was important or whatever.

    5-tdkr

    Loki vs. the Joker

    When I first heard Loki was the primary antagonist of the Avengers, I was a little shocked. I never really considered Thor either a first class superhero or superhero film. I thought even less of his main villain. Surely we’d seen enough Loki in the first standalone film.

    In the words of Thorin Oakenshield, I have never been so wrong.

    Loki makes a fine nemesis. And it’s not because of his powers of illusions or fighting skills. It’s not even because he has an army of CVS brand aliens at his disposal. Loki is a great villain because of what’s in his mind. His power is pure belief, a belief in his own vast superiority over others.

    We totally get why Loki is madly jealous of his brother. Le’ts face it. Thor is not the sharpest tool in the realm, blessed with more testosterone than tact. It is absolutely clear that Loki is the more gifted of the two. But Loki is cursed with bad blood: he’s a blue-faced Frost Giant and sworn enemy of Asgard. Laden with divine daddy issues, Loki must look on while his meathead of a brother inherits the throne. What would you do in his place?

    Loki has a decent backstory but that’s not what makes him great. Where the story really gets good is when we see what a truly viable threat he is to a team of superpowered Avengers. Like Khan, he is a master manipulator. He knows how to get into their heads. Getting captured doesn’t stop Loki. It’s just another vantage point from which he can get exactly what he wants. He uses getting locked up to exploit his enemies’ weaknesses and advance his plan.

    How do you stop an enemy that wants you to stop him? How do you out-think someone who is already five moves ahead of you? It’s maddening. And it makes for fantastic villainy.

    Like some of our other villains that we’ve examined, Loki is calculating. He is smart. But since he has an agenda, that means he can be stopped. His ultimate weakness is his pride.

    Loki believes he is better than puny earthlings. He feels slighted at being denied the right to rule. And that is his downfall. Prevent Loki from accomplishing his goals and he is beaten.

    But what if there was a villain who could not be beaten so simply?

    What if a bad guy had no plan and no agenda?

    What if a villain  just wanted to run circles around society and the reveal the dark underbelly of  human nature?

    The Dark Knight brought us a compelling vision of the worst kind of villainy: the kind you can’t understand. The Joker has a plan, lots of them in fact. He robs banks, gains leverage over the mob, targets key Gothamites, and aims his crosshairs at Batman. But he is not motivated by normal desires. He does not want revenge or power or recognition. He wants chaos. He wants anarchy. He wants to show us the effects of moral entropy.

    Chaoos is his means and chaos is his end.

    Turn ordinary citizens into murderers. Upend the bonds that hold society together. Trash our so-called morality and expose its deep hypocrisy.

    Why? For no reason at all. Because dogs chase cars. No reason, just for fun.

    Although the other villains we’ve discussed probably couldn’t be reasoned with either, the Joker stands alone as a special villain. He is not clouded by emotion or personal stakes. His backstory is neither straightforward nor  important. How he arrived at his current mental state makes no difference.

    He is a time bomb, a living weapon aimed against society itself. He is a one-man war against law and order. He has no purpose, needs no purpose. He makes a mockery of purpose.

    The Joker is not a person; he has no name like Jack Napier. He is an avatar, like Batman, a symbol for something larger. He embodies cynicism in its most extreme form. He transcends our tidy categories of what makes a good villain and becomes something else altogether: the force of anti-humanity. This is a Grim Reaper wearing green hair and white make-up.

    Most villains attempt to break the hero, but it takes the rarest of villains to actually succeed.

    Ok Let’s Recap

    So what have we learned today?

    A great villain doesn’t come around too often. Even ones I thought were pretty great like Khan and General Zod and Bane actually have some serious flaws that hurt their shot of making the list of “Greatest Villains of All Time.” The truth is a good villain is hard to find.

    Here is what we have learned about great villains:

    • Villains show they mean business (Darth Vader)

    • Villains don’t hide in the shadows (Darth Maul)

    • Villains stay consistent in their moral outlook and demeanor (Zod)

    • Villains maintain absolute control of themselves and their environment (Bane)

    • Villains provide an imminent physical threat to the hero (Agent Smith)

    • Villains remain distinct, not a faceless army (Agent Smith 2.0)

    • Villains have an underlying psychology that is consistent with their actions (Nero)

    • Villains have a clear motivation and goal (Khan)

    • Villains get inside the hero’s head (Loki)

    • Villains go beyond physical victory to earn a psychological victory as well (The Joker)

    This is just the beginning of a start of some initial observations we could make about great villains. There is plenty more that could be said. But perhaps what is more interesting is the why.

    Why do we gravitate so strongly to these devious foes?

    Why are we so intrigued by the dark nature of villains even at the expense of the heroes who oppose them?

    Why do they make us reconsider our very humanity?

    Villains at their core are much more interesting than the somewhat bland heroes who rise up against them. Villains are the primary catalytic force for the stories they are in. Somehow they tell us something about the Dark Side, about human nature itself.

    In a future installment coming to a blogosphere near you, I’ll take a deep breath and ask, “What makes a great hero?”