In a previous article, I spoke about the Symbolism of Superheroes. If you haven't read the article, please do. Today, however, I am going to be talking primarily about villains and how they are truly what defines the heroes we all know and love.
The greatest protagonists of literature would not be what they are without the antagonists who oppose them. For instance, who would the Three Musketeers be without Cardinal Richelieu or Peter Pan without Captain Hook?
The inspiration for this article actually comes from one such character: Dustin Hoffman played the titular villain in Disney's Hook alongside Robin Williams's Peter Pan. Near the end of the film he looks at Peter and says:
"What would the world be like without Captain Hook?"
In truth, we do not get a chance to see what Pan's or the Lost Boys' lives were like without the Captain.
That brings me to the point of this article: Every hero has his #villain, and in comics, most heroes have an entire gallery of villains. Today, we will look at some of the standout villains — how they define our heroes and why they stand apart so much that we love to hate them.
Who Are These Villains?
- Professor Moriarty
- Lex Luthor
- Red Skull
- The Joker
How Do They Define Their Opponents?
So let me first say that there is a plethora of villains I could have chosen. The likes of the Green Goblin or Doc Oc from the tales of Spider-Man do not escape me, nor have I forgotten such great literary characters like Captain Hook (who is mentioned above).
Professor Moriarty is a character who has long been considered the equal and antithesis of Sherlock Holmes. His first appearance is in The Adventure of the Final Problem, and he has been depicted many times in film and television. Moriarty is called many times the "Napoleon of Crime," and that name comes from his brilliant mathematical and strategic skills. He is never seen as one who gets his own hands dirty; that is, until he decides to take on Sherlock Holmes.
So how does Moriarty define Holmes? To understand that, you must understand Holmes. He is a brilliant deducer whose favorite line has always been:
Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, therefore must be the truth.
Because Moriarty never gets his hands dirty, he becomes the ultimate challenge for the great Sherlock Holmes; for Holmes must follow every clue, no matter how small, right back to Professor James Moriarty. Ultimately, he defines Holmes because Holmes's entire premise is the power of deduction. So, if Holmes cannot defeat Moriarty, he's not really much of a detective.
Lex Luthor is the defining villain for Superman. Now, at first, Lex seems like he is one of the good guys; and, in fact, his goals in the beginning are not all that bad. Superman is an alien to the planet Earth. He comes here, and his powers are given to him by his DNA and the yellow sun. His teaching is given to him by some down-to-earth, old-fashioned, country folk in Kansas and his birth parents through advanced crystal technology. Everything is literally handed to Kal-El (or Clark Kent or Superman), and that is the thing that Lex hates most about the Big Blue Boy Scout.
Lex was basically kicked out of his house, forced to fend for himself, and made to acquire his own wealth and genius. Lex has one of the most brilliant minds in the entire DC universe and he has one of the biggest bank accounts. All of this he has had to earn on his own. Every single bit of knowledge, power, and wealth that Lex has, he has fought hard to get.
Lex defines Superman by being everything (almost) that Clark is not. Where Superman is alien, Lex is human; where Superman was given knowledge, morals, and a sense of duty by his family, Lex was disowned by his family; and where Superman inherits power simply through DNA, Lex has had to scratch and claw for every bit that he has using his wealth and genius.
Red Skull has long been known as the Nazi protégé of Adolf Hitler in comics. He and Captain America fought against one another until they were caught in stasis, (conveniently) at the same time, and awakened in the present day. In film, the two are presented as complete opposites. Dr. Erskine tells Steve Rogers the super-soldier serum enhances everything about a person: the brain, the brawn, and the character of a person. If a person has a strong moral and ethical code, that will only become better with the serum, but if the character of a person is bad, then it becomes much worse.
In summary, Steve Rogers was already a good man (morally) when he took the serum, so he became a great man with a clear sense of right and wrong afterwards. However, Red Skull was made much worse when he received the serum. One stands for freedom and justice, the other stands for oppression and tyranny. It is clear that these two characters were created when America had a better sense of where the moral lines were drawn, and it is clear why the Red Skull is the defining villain for Captain America.
The Joker almost deserves his own article on this subject. I have always loved this character since I first saw him on Batman: The Animated Series. His motives are almost as mysterious as his past is, and that has made him such a great character.
The character of Bruce Wayne/Batman is mostly cut and dry comic book history: born into a wealthy family, parents killed before his eyes at a young age, and driven to see that no other child has to experience his pain. The Joker's origin is almost completely obscured, which made the "how I got these scars" stories in The Dark Knight so enjoyable to watch. We know next to nothing about his past, and even less about what causes him to do all that he does.
He defines Batman by being so stinking unpredictable. Batman has seemed to be the man that can predict any scenario, find the root and the cause of any problem; but the Joker defies all logic. Just like the reference made by the wise Alfred Pennyworth in The Dark Knight:
"Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied or reasoned with. Some men just want to watch the world burn."
It is a character like the Joker that we love so much to hate. He is the spurn of all that we believe in, yet his evil is so enjoyable that we find ourselves pulling for someone like him instead of our heroes.
Why Do Some Villains Stand Apart From Others?
Obviously this was not an exhaustive list of defining villains. There are some other great ones out there from film, literature, and comics that were left out. I could have brought in the likes of Loki from Thor comic book stories, #DarthVader from the Star Wars saga, or even Captain Hook from the Peter Pan stories.
So how is it that every villain does not define the opponent they face? Well, for starters, many villains in the comic book world face more than one hero. Other villains just don't seem to define the hero of their story for a number of reasons. One example would be the Dark Lord Sauron of The Lord of the Rings fame. Sauron doesn't really define our hero because the story features many heroes.
What about the villains that are reserved for (mostly) one villain? If you read Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, or Flash comics, you know that these heroes have an entire rogues gallery of villains. Many of these villains just don't stack up, and that has a lot to do with the way the character is written and what their motives are.
If you're looking to write a book anytime soon and you need a great villain, make sure they represent all that the the hero does not. Whether you first create the hero or the villain, break down the character and determine what they are all about, then proceed with crafting the other side of that coin.
Please don't use create a whiny, emo hero or villain like we saw in Sam Raimi's Spiderman 3 or J.J. Abrams's Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Seriously, no one likes a whiny brat — whether hero or villain.
So what would our lives be like without the obstacles that we must learn to overcome? What would our fantasies be like without the villains our heroes face and defeat? How would we learn to pick ourselves up when we were knocked down, if we did not have heroes to look up to?
Check out this list of some of the creepiest villains of all time:
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Who do you think is one of the greatest villains in film or literature?