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Movie Heroes and Villains Naturally Mirror Life’s Realities

Movie Heroes and Villains Echo Life

‘Hero’, ‘star’, ‘celebrity’ are devalued words, but a true hero is valiant, brave, selfless; a villain is evil. But in film, it’s not all black and white.

While the world is not full of stereotypical good/bad, evil/righteous people, nonetheless, a struggle between the light and dark sides of life and the supernatural have been inspirational in the film industry.

In Christian belief, God/Jesus versus the Devil/Satan/Lucifer is at the heart of faith. All good drama needs and feeds on clearly defined conflict. Perhaps an example of the perfect hero is Gregory Peck’s portrayal in To Kill a Mocking Bird (1962) and the ultimate villain is Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs (1991).

In the words of the Brian Wilson song by The Beach Boys, Heroes and Villains (1966/67): ‘heroes and villains, just see what you’ve done’. But way before that, stereotypical ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, the ‘white hand/black hat’ of the westerns, have dominated movies, stories, comic books and popular thinking. The baddie needn’t even be human (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968, or Terminator, 1984).

Boundaries were blurred with The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, 1968’s epic spaghetti western directed by Sergio Leone, in which definition of rogue and honest guy are far from clear cut. However, that didn’t detract from the stereotype being the normal Hollywood staple, sitting alongside the mad/eccentric professor (Back to the Future, 1985), the sympathetic mum (ET, 1982) or bag-lady (Home Alone, 1990), the incompetent/scheming official/cops (Gotham PD in Batman) and the unlikely hero born from cowardice/fear (Cape Fear, 1962; 1991).

The Stereotypical Villain

A villain is a downright bad person, especially in fictionalized creation. In the early movies before sound, the baddie had to be seen to be evil or sinister, and this gave added momentum to the stereotype: dark, cloaked, sneering, relishing the misery of the innocent, pushed to its limit by Darth Vader in the Star Wars (1977-83).

Given a good airing in melodrama andcommedia dell’Arte, villains plotted against the hero/heroine or the innocent victim, and are usually the main protagonists turning the plot. They are characters audiences love to hate. They might be a creature, alien, or animal (Jaws, 1975). By contrast, the hero merely follows the villain’s agenda.

In Latin, a villanus was a serf bound to the soil of somebody else’s villa, which in French became villein. Such a person would have had to work his way up society’s ladder, and gradually the word came to mean someone seeking advantage at the expense of others, using skills and deceits that spring from a flawed personality. In comic books, super-villains were needed as realistic counterbalance to superheroes.

People have often found the villain to be more interesting than the hero. Some actors prefer to play baddies on stage and screen. In Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), readers found Satan the most appealing character; the Biblical temptation of Eve by Satan as a serpent is often understandable to a modern audience.

Ray Wise in Reaper (2007/9), Devil (2010), Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate (1997), Robert de Niro in Angel Heart (1987), John Glover in Brimstone (1998/9), Viggo Mortensen in The Prophecy (1995), Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick (1987), Peter Stormare in Constantine (2005), Gabriel Byrne in End of Days (1999), Norman Bates in Psycho (1960) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) are a handful of different screen incarnations of evil and/or terror. That’s without listing the obvious horror, horror-thriller, chiller, slasher and related categories of movie with an evil intent usually thwarted by heroic goodness: Halloween, Poltergeist, Friday 13th, Blair Witch, Nightmare, Saw, Alien, Hostel, I Know What You Did Last Summer and a host of similar fare.

The Archetypal Hero

Obvious heroes might include James Bond, Indiana Jones, Rocky, the Washington Post journalists in All The Presidents’ Men (1976). Unlikely Heroes (2004) was a documentary narrated by Ben Kingsley about unsung individuals who took action and made impacts on lives during the Nazi era. The Chinese epic Hero (2002), Imaginary Heroes (2004) and Outlaw Hero (2006) about Jesse James were some films using widespread understanding of what is a hero. Superman, Spiderman and Batman revel in their comic book origins of super-charged heroes.

Dr William Indick of Dowling College writing in Journal of Media Psychology, November 2004, said: ‘as the central figure in the film experience, the hero is the integral archetype in the collective unconscious of American culture. He is at once a collective and personal encounter, as each individual in the audience identifies personally with the hero’s story, while the hero simultaneously embodies the collective hopes and ideals of the culture that creates him’.

The personal identification with the hero is what Carl Jung called ‘the transcendent function of myth and dreams’. Myths express goals, wishes, anxieties and fears; dreams are personal myths, said Indick. Young children playing want to be the heroes; every parent wants to be the hero to his/her children.

The theatre of the mind is a well-used psychological concept, a kind of personalized movie. In this context, it’s easy to see how the notion of a universal hero experienced vicariously by ordinary people took off and gained hold in the collective psyche. Indick believed that the modern superhero derived primarily from comic book combined classical Greco-Roman traditions with Judeo-Christian ones to make heroes empowered with ‘super’ abilities, yet flawed with human frailties.

Females of the Species

Some clear heroine examples included Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Ellen Ripley in Aliens (1986), Marge Gunderson in Fargo (1996) and the eponymous roles in Norma Rae (1979), Thelma & Louise (1991), Erin Brockovich (2000), and Silkwood (1983).

Bonnie Parker, the female half of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was an obvious, baddie, killing while stealing, but under the influence of a charismatic man. Elizabeth Hurley as the Devil in Bedazzled (2000); Maddison Lee in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003); The Baroness in GI Joe (1987); Xenia Onatopp in GoldenEye (1995); Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin (1997); Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992); Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction (1987); Mystique in X-Men (2000); Jennifer Check in Jennifer’s Body (2009); and Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct (1992) are a selection of female villains, as varied, evil, scheming apocalyptic and manipulative as their male counterparts.

Male, female, animal, fabricated alien creature or a tortured creation of a troubled mind, evil personified as a villain coupled in battle with a universal, sometimes unimagined hero (or anti-hero) is the lifeblood of movie worlds. Without them, natural worlds would be the poorer.

First published on Suite 101, November 2010.

Photo: Jeblad

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One Response to "Movie Heroes and Villains Naturally Mirror Life’s Realities"

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