Tag Archives: anti-hero
What is happening to villains these days? That’s an entirely reasonable question to ask. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a remarkable shift in how we approach villainy in movies, TV, comic books, and video games. I’m not just talking about the superhero media, either. However, that happens to be the most visible manifestation of this change.
As a long-time fan of both superheroes and quality villains, I welcome this change. At the same time, I’m curious about where it’s leading and what it means for the future. Villains are as old as storytelling itself. From the Bible to “Star Wars,” these stories work best when there’s villainy to oppose the unfolding narrative. Villains have always evolved alongside the heroes that oppose them, but that evolution seems to be accelerating.
I’ve discussed the unique journey that villains undergo and how they set themselves apart from heroes. Traditionally, a villain’s primary purpose was to both oppose the hero and highlight how heroic they are. The sheer malice of characters like Lex Luthor help contrast the pure selflessness of characters like Superman. It’s easier to appreciate those heroes knowing they have to deal such malicious opponents.
Then, something remarkable happened. Audiences began demanding more of their villains. It wasn’t enough to just have a villain oppose a hero. People began wanting villains who were understandable and even relatable to some extent. Ironically, they wanted a villain they could root for.
That helped lead to characters like Walter White from “Breaking Bad.” His impact was so profound that I even called his influence the Walter White effect. However, I think there were others who paved the way for Walter White. If I had to pick one villain that helped kick-start this trend in villainy, it would be Heath Ledger’s Joker from “The Dark Knight.”
From this portrayal of villainy, the emerging state of villains emerged and it may very well set the tone for the future. On the surface, this version of the Joker wasn’t too different from the one who had existed in the comics for years. He’s dangerous, destructive, murderous, and callous, like many villains. Unlike most, though, he does what he does with a laugh and a smile.
What made this version of the Joker so memorable was the principles behind his madness. To him, society is corrupt and people aren’t inherently good. As such, he seeks to point out how laughable it is when others try to save it. Batman’s crusade against crime is the biggest joke of all, which helps drive their rivalry.
It’s a philosophy that few other than terrorists and extreme nihilists would buy into, but it’s one that’s understandable to some extent. We don’t have to agree with them or their methods. We just have to see their twisted logic. They can’t just be standard James Bond villains whose motives are indistinguishable from fascists, communists, or terrorists. There needs to be something more personal at work.
We saw plenty of that in 2018’s biggest movies. From “Black Panther” to “ Avengers: Infinity War” to “Incredibles 2,” the villains all had something personal at stake. Erik Killmonger saw his villainous actions as heroic. He wasn’t out to just take over Wakanda. He had a vision in mind that felt justified to some extent, especially to those familiar with real-world historical injustices.
Thanos raised the bar even more in “Avengers: Infinity War.” He never tries to come off as a hero, but he never sees his actions as villainous, either. In fact, when heroes like Dr. Strange call him out, he frames his desire to cull half the population in the universe as mercy. For him, it’s simple math. Half a population is better than no population at all.
These motivations, as devious they might be on paper, have some semblance of merit to it. Both Thanos and Killmonger think they’re doing the right thing. That significantly impacts how the heroes in their stories go about thwarting them, although I would argue that one story was more complete while the other remains unresolved.
In “Black Panther,” T’Challa doesn’t just stop at defeating Killmonger. He actually sees some of his enemy’s points and takes steps to address them. He doesn’t revert things back to the way they were. Wakanda doesn’t return to the same isolated state it had been at the start of the movie. Instead, he seeks to find a middle ground. That, I would argue, is the new template for how heroes defeat this kind of villain.
The resolution in “Avengers: Infinity War,” however, is not as clear. That’s largely due to the story not being complete. There is a sequel planned, but at no point in the three-hour spectacle did the Avengers attempt to prove Thanos wrong. They only ever tried to stop him. That oversight has not gone unnoticed by audiences.
This, in many ways, sums up the new dynamic between heroes in villains. It’s no longer enough for heroes to just defeat their adversaries. It’s not even enough for villains to be exceptionally devious. There have to be larger principles at work. It can’t just be reduced to general greed, ego, or bullying.
Thanos seeks to kill have the population because he believes that it’ll prevent the complete extinction of all life.
Erik Killmonger seeks to empower oppressed minorities to right past injustices.
Dr. Doom seeks to conquer the world because a world under his rule is the only one free of suffering and want. That’s actually canon in the comics.
It’s makes crafting compelling villains more difficult, but at the same time, it opens the door to more complexity. On top of that, it demands that audiences think beyond the good versus evil dynamic that has defined so many stories, going back to the days of fairy tales. It’s a challenge that some are certain to fail. Some already have, sadly.
It also sets the tone for future forms of villainy. How that villainy manifests is impossible to predict, but given the current trends, I think there’s room to speculate. At the heart of this emerging villainy is the idea that the current system just isn’t working. It’s so bad that the only viable option is to destroy and rebuild it. There’s no room, whatsoever, for reform.
This is where the heroes will have to evolve, as well. They can’t just play “Super Friends” and save the day. They have to actually make meaningful changes to move society forward. King T’Challa did that at the end of “Black Panther.” Other heroes need to be as willing. Otherwise, they won’t be able to call themselves heroes. They’re just defenders of a status quo may not be working as well as they think.
It’s an ideological struggle that parallels many real-world struggles. People today have less and less faith in established institutions. As a result, more people are falling sway to populist rhetoric that promises to break down the current system entirely. By and large, people today aren’t content with just preserving things as they are. They seek more meaningful change.
That presents a serious problem for heroes and a golden opportunity for villains. Historically, heroes haven’t been able to effect change beyond a certain point. Some of that is for logistical reasons. A hero can never create a functioning utopia without ending the story completely, which is something major media companies cannot have. There’s too much money to be made.
Logistics aside, the future of villainy will have plenty of raw materials to work with and plenty of societal angst to draw upon. Heroes who save the day, but do little else won’t be able to call themselves heroes in the world currently unfolding. Villains who have a real vision with understandable motivations will find themselves with more supporters than before.
It’s no longer taboo to root for the villain, especially when the heroes don’t confront the flaws in their rhetoric. In what seems prophetic now, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” may have put it best when Ultron stated:
“I’m sorry, I know you mean well. You just didn’t think it through. You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change.”
That’ll be the key to the future of villainy, change in a world that resists too much of it happening at once. It’ll make for some complicated villains, but it will definitely make the struggle of heroes even harder. However it plays out, I believe it’ll be worth watching.
What makes a villain truly evil? It’s a question with many answers that apply to both the real and the fictional world. History is ripe with real people with villainous tendencies on par with that of any mustache-twirling villain in fiction. The world of fiction is just as vast, full of all sorts of cruel, sadistic, greedy beings that range from alien conquerors to psychotic killer clowns.
Then, there’s Alexander Joseph “Lex” Luthor. What Superman is to heroes, an ideal and a standard to which others aspire, Lex Luthor is to villains. Think back to the question of what makes a villain evil. Lex Luthor checks every box and even a few others you probably didn’t think of.
In the spirit of celebrating Superman’s 80th anniversary, which I went out of my way to honor, I think it’s just as important to appreciate the other, less heroic side of the spectrum. Superman occupies the extreme end of that spectrum, namely the side that embodies truth, justice, and the highest of morals. Lex Luthor, conversely, is at the other end, one where the depths of greed, hatred, and outright cruelty are at their worst.
To that end, it’s impossible to appreciate the values Superman stands for without also appreciating the villainous traits that Lex Luthor personifies. I’ve noted the major differences between the journey that a villain takes, compared to that of heroes. I’ve also singled out characters like Walter White, who have given a new level of complexity to modern villains. However, the villainy of Lex Luthor is as basic as it is profound.
Lex Luthor doesn’t need the same complexity as Walter White, nor does he need the tragic circumstances that help forge villains like Magneto. Lex is a villain to his core. He needs no catalyst or motivation. He is, by his own nature, an arrogant, selfish person who will go to any length to get what he wants and/or deserves, regardless of cost or ethics.
Despite that simple, if not inelegant approach to villainy, Lex Luthor still finds a way to elevate himself above the many other villains that occupy the real and fictional world. It’s not just because he’s Superman’s primary adversary either. At his core, Lex represents something that highlights the breadth of true villainy.
Like most iconic villains, Lex Luthor’s status was closely tied to that of the hero he opposes. He first appeared in Action Comics #23 in 1940, a full two years after Superman debuted. Like most villains in those days, he didn’t get much development or backstory. He was simply the extra devious bad guy who tested Superman more than most.
Over the years, Lex Luthor’s story has evolved, but the extent of his villainy has never waned. The modern version of Lex Luthor, which became canonized after the big 1986 event known as Crisis on Infinite Earths, is defined largely by his greed, ego, and extreme xenophobia. He became less a mad scientist and more heartless narcissists.
Through that evolution, Lex establishes a blunt, but powerful method to his villainy. He is, at his core, a selfish egotist. There isn’t an altruistic cell in his body. Everything he does is for one purpose and that’s to profit and/or glorify himself. It doesn’t matter whether he’s battling Superman or creating a community of low-income housing. It’s all to serve him and his interests.
In the same way you can assume that every decision Superman makes is in the name of truth and justice, you can also assume that everything Lex Luthor does is in the name of benefiting Lex Luthor. Even by Ayan Rand standards, Lex’s motivation are extreme. At the end of the day, he’s out for himself and no one else.
To some extent, though, that’s what makes him even more devious. In his endless crusade to serve himself, Lex will portray himself as less a villain and more a hero who is out to use his unrivaled genius to make the world a better place. He has even become a hero on multiple occasions within the annuls of DC Comics.
Lex Luthor will save the world. He’ll even work with Superman every now and then. However, such efforts are never in the name of doing the right thing. It always comes back to Lex serving his own agenda. He understands, at the end of the day, that no one can glorify him if the world is destroyed.
Even with those circumstances, though, Lex still finds a way to set himself apart from other villains. Characters like Dr. Doom, Thanos, and Darkseid definitely fit the mold of a villain, but even they have motivations that go beyond their ego. You could even argue that villains like Dr. Doom often blur the line because their actions sometimes align with what most consider the greater good.
With Lex Luthor, though, there are no blurred lines. He is not Dr. Doom in that he feels he needs to rule the world to ensure that it’s free from want and suffering. From Lex’s point of view, ruling the world and destroying Superman are simply a means to further glorify his ego and fuel his narcissism.
That’s what makes him so dangerous, but it also reveals something profound about villainy itself. It’s not always simply a product of being greedy and sadistic. To some extent, it’s a byproduct of being entirely self-serving and having no inclinations for selfless acts.
Whereas most people would feel some level of guilt for that level of selfishness, Lex feels nothing of the sort. That’s not to say he’s a sociopath on the level of some serial killers. He just feels that he rightly deserves all the power and aggrandizing he wants. It’s not a matter of morals. It’s a matter of him just being better than anyone else.
It’s in that domain where Lex’s rivalry with Superman becomes truly adversarial. Unlike Superman, Lex is human. However, he also happens to be the smartest human in the world, as well as one of the smartest beings in the entire DC Universe. That means he doesn’t just think he’s better than anyone else. He can actually prove it.
That’s how he’s able to craft insanely advanced technology. It’s also how he managed to get elected President of the United States at one point. It’s not enough to have a massive ego. It’s that he’s smart enough and ruthless enough to outwit anyone into serving him. There’s simply no way for any other human to match him on an intellectual level.
That’s where Superman enters the equation. That’s also what fuels Lex’s unparalleled hatred of him. From his point of view, the very existence of Superman undermines his ability to establish himself as the most superior person in the world. More than that, though, he see’s Superman’s presence as a degrading force to the human race as a whole.
It’s a sentiment that isn’t often touched on in the comics or recent movies, but it is perfectly articulated in the animated feature, “All-Star Superman.” If ever you want a perfect demonstration of Superman’s heroism or Lex Luthor’s villainy, this movie is the current gold standard.
Beyond the condescension, the bragging, and the insufferable ego behind his words, Lex Luthor makes some uncomfortably valid points. In light of Superman’s impossible ideal, every human being falls short. Even him, the smartest human being of them all, can’t hope to match it.
From Lex’s point of view, that’s not just profoundly insulting. It undermines the entire human species. The existence of an alien god-like being reduces humans to a bunch of ants under the boot of a titan. By relying on that being, looking up to him as an ideal, people can only ever hope to be better ants and nothing more.
Even if that thinking is valid on some perverse level, Lex takes it even further by making it the ultimate excuse. By establishing Superman and heroes like him as affronts to his rightful place at the top of humanity, he can basically justify anything. Read into his history and you won’t find any shortage of atrocities.
It’s for that same reason that Lex rejects any notion of truth, justice, and the American way. As he also articulated in “All-Star Superman,” he sees those concepts as inherently flawed. They’re just vague concepts that can’t be touched, measured, or quantified in any meaningful way. In Lex Luthor’s world, all that matters is what he can do with the forces around him and how they can be used to glorify him.
As a villain, Lex Luthor doesn’t live in a world of abstracts, ideals, or faith. His world is cold, calculating, and deterministic. Much like Superman, he puts a face and a name on a particular archetype. Unlike Superman, though, he doesn’t evoke hope or inspiration. He inspires fear, hatred, and mistrust.
By standing against Superman, challenging him in ways that even other god-like beings can’t, Lex Luthor demonstrates just how far someone can take true villainy. In his world, nothing is ever given. It’s either earned, taken, or stolen. Things like compassion, empathy, and love are weaknesses and not strengths. They are barriers to overcome and not strengths to embrace.
Even by the standards of Rick Sanchez from “Rick and Morty,” that kind of extreme callousness is excessive. At least under Rick’s nihilistic outlook, there’s a context to his action. For Lex Luthor, though, the only context that matters is the one that serves Lex Luthor.
Superman is a beloved heroic icon and for good reason. He represents the best to which a hero can aspire. However, the extent of those aspirations and the power of that heroism is hard to appreciate without also acknowledging the villainous side of the struggle.
Superman is the hero he is because he has a villain like Lex Luthor to battle. Lex Luthor is the villain he is because Superman pushes him. However, even in the absence of Superman, Lex would still be the kind of villain who hurts, exploits, and deceives anyone and everyone to serve his agenda. That, more than anything, is what makes him the ultimate villain.
Greetings, and wubalubadubdub! If you have no idea what I just said and worry that I’ve suffered some kind of traumatic head injury, then calm down. It’s nothing like that. If you happen to know what that word means, then congratulations. Your life is inherently richer because you’ve watched a show called “Rick and Morty.”
For those of you who think “South Park” is too polite, “Rick and Morty” is right up your alley. It’s crude, lewd, callous, crass, vulgar, obscene, and pretty much every other word you would use to upset a typical PTA meeting. It’s also one of the most hilarious, insightful, smart, and wildly entertaining shows on TV right now. Unless you find shows like “Family Guy” too harsh, a show like “Rick and Morty” will appeal to you.
Why do I bring this show up? I usually don’t do post just to lavishly praise a particular TV show or movie without making a larger point. While I may make exceptions to movies like “Wonder Woman,” I usually try to tie it into a larger discussion. This time is no different. At some point, I was going to use “Rick and Morty” in a discussion. It was only ever a matter of time and topic.
In this case, the topic is both relevant and revealing. It once again ties into my ongoing exploration of boredom, an inescapable facet of modern life and a potential plague of the future. I cited DC Comics character Vandal Savage as a super-villain who is defined by boredom. He’s even said outright that boredom is what motivates him.
As compelling as Savage’s case might be, Rick Sanchez would probably still roll his eyes and call it stupid. He would also probably find a way to kill Savage, spit on his corpse, and do it all while exceedingly drunk. That’s the kind of man he is. He’s not a hero by even the greatest stretch. He’s also not a villain either, although he has been known to carry himself like a sociopath at times. He is, at his core, an anti-hero.
I’ve talked about anti-heroes before and how they’re neither heroes nor villains. They exist on a different spectrum of sorts, from tragic characters like the Incredible Hulk to truly brutal souls like the Punisher. In respect to this spectrum, Rick Sanchez exists on a nebulous, yet extreme end.
He rarely goes out of his way to save the world or do good. He also regularly traumatizes his friends, family, and his cohort, Morty Smith. His dimension-hopping, universe-spanning exploits often put everyone around him in danger. He’ll also show little reservation about participating in various acts of debauchery, violence, and general douche-baggery.
There’s no such thing as a typical episode of “Rick and Morty” in the sense that it follows a formula. In a sense, it defines itself by essentially taking the formula of traditional adult animation and shitting all over it.
As a general rule, though, an episode of “Rick and Morty” usually revolves around Rick getting his side-kick/grandson, Morty, caught up in something crazy. Morty, being young and innocent, tries to help him out and do the right thing. More often than not, though, Morty’s idealism gets crushed and/or backfires horribly. Rick, being a genius inventor, usually finds a way to fix everything and he does it while rarely being sober.
Why he does what he does, getting Morty caught up in his antics in the first place, is what makes him relevant to the discussion about boredom. Throughout the first two seasons of the show, there are various teases about what truly motivates Rick Sanchez. At times, it seems like he really loves his family. At other times, though, he gives the impression that they’re just a means to an end.
At every turn of his antics, regardless of context or motivation, Rick and the plot of nearly every episode tends to trivialize everything. Think of any cherished tradition, be it family, religion, culture, love, or friendship. To Rick Sanchez, it’s all pointless crap. It’s only important because people make stupid excuses to justify it. These are some of his soul-crushing quotes, which he often says in the presence of loved ones, no less.
“What people call love is just a chemical reaction that compels people to breed.”
“Listen, I’m not the nicest guy in the universe, because I’m the smartest, and being nice is something stupid people do to hedge their bets.”
“Don’t break an arm jerking yourself off.”
This is where the boredom aspect comes in. In addition to being a high-functioning drunk who has a very crass view of the world, he’s extremely smart. He’s a genius who is at or above the likes of Vandal Savage.
He creates portals to other dimensions with the same ease of changing the channel on a TV. He creates inter-stellar spaceships in a garage, complete with a super-intelligent AI that will obey orders in disturbingly literal ways. He’s so smart that he actually outsmarted an entire army of alternate-reality versions of himself. It’s even more messed up than it sounds.
Keep in mind, he does all of this while often being intoxicated. He almost always has a metal flask of hard liquor in his pocket. He’ll gladly gorge on harder drugs, even if it inspires his own dance. The fact he can do so much of this while being such a drunk is a testament to the sheer breadth of his genius.
Like Vandal Savage, though, genius does come at a cost. Having such a high intelligence means you tend to get bored easily and are constantly in need of new challenges. Rick Sanchez is so smart that there’s pretty much nothing he can’t do.
With his gadgets, he could become the world’s richest man. With his understanding of reality, he could win every Nobel Prize and get every major university to name a building after him. He could do all of this without breaking a sweat, but therein lies the problem.
Rick could do all these things, but it wouldn’t be a challenge. It would be too easy and provide a fleeting distraction at best. It would also get bureaucratic and tedious too, which only bores Rick even more. It’s why he can outsmart the devil himself, get bored, and burn down a building all in the same episode. I swear there’s no part of that last sentence that’s made up.
In trivializing anything and everything that other people hold dear, Rick Sanchez often brings up boredom. He even looks bored, as well as drunk, when talking about it. Whenever Morty asks him about some terrible, traumatic, morally reprehensible issue, be it doing business with a hitman or the purge, his response is always dispassionate and crass.
Like Vandal Savage, Rick is often frustrated by how easy things come. He’s so smart, even while drunk, that nobody can really challenge him. No matter what he does, his gadgets and his utter lack of regard for ethical considerations ensure he wins easily. He rarely experiences the thrill of overcoming a challenge, which is part of why he’s so dispassionate and crass.
Unlike Vandal Savage, though, Rick’s exploits also have him traveling across the universe and into different dimensions. This does more than highlight just how smart and resourceful Rick is. It effectively affirms just how trivial his actions and existence is in the grand scheme of things.
In one particular episode, his exploits with Morty lead to the complete and utter destruction of the world. Rick’s solution is as crass as it is anti-heroic. He just takes Morty to another universe where they both died and take their place. He even digs his own grave. He does all of this and then goes back to drinking beer and watching TV while Morty is horrifically traumatized.
In a sense, this understanding that nothing he does matters makes the boredom even worse. It means that even if Rick finds something meaningful to do, it really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things because there are literally infinite universes where the same thing was done in any number of ways. Whether he succeeds or fails doesn’t matter. Nothing he does matters.
Despite all this, Rick doesn’t become a full-fledged villain like Vandal Savage. He probably could conquer the world if he wanted. He already defeated an intergalactic empire of insect humanoids with relative ease. Again, not a word of that last sentence is made up. Unlike Savage, though, he doesn’t do that. He’d get bored with that too and understand that it doesn’t matter in the long run.
That doesn’t stop him from protecting Morty and the rest of his family. When they’re in trouble, he usually goes out of his way to help them. At times, he seems to do it out of sheer boredom, but he still does it. It’s not very heroic, but it’s not at all villainous.
It would be a stretch to say that Rick Sanchez is entirely driven by crippling boredom. The show is somewhat erratic in the things that drive rick. The first episode of the third season indicated that Rick is almost entirely driven by his love of a discontinued promotional dipping sauce from the late 90s. I swear I’m not making any of that up. I know I keep saying that, but it really is worth saying.
On paper, Rick Sanchez and Vandal Savage don’t have much in common. However, one trait they do share is that they are distinctly human. They have human weaknesses and human drives. They are very much at the mercy of human limits, both mentally and physically. That’s why boredom effects them so profoundly.
That’s also why they are both cautionary tales about the power of boredom. Rick Sanchez, through both boredom and extreme nihilism, is plagued and frustrated by boredom. It keeps him from using his genius to achieve a meaningful good. It also keeps him drunk, miserable, and constantly in trouble with killer insect people.
While Rick Sanchez is by no means a role model, he still manages to do a lot with his brilliance and he can do it while drunk. He may be a callous, dispassionate anti-hero, but he gets the job done and he does it in a way that’s wonderfully entertaining. For that, he deserves respect, although he’d probably say respect is an idiot thing.