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Hollywood Insider Hero or Villain Paradox

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Where Is The Line That Separates Good From Evil?

When the sun rests and the streets fill with darkness, our younger selves have been trained to imagine the undeniable fears that lie beneath the shadows; however, as we grow older, we come to see that the ones we had feared in the shadows were really the ones we have come to know in the light. 

When I was little, I was deathly afraid of the dark, fearing the possibilities of who lingered in the shadows; however, as I morphed into the darkness caused by the brutality the world reveals as you grow older, I realized that I was afraid of the light all along. Those who show themselves in the sunshine are some of the scariest and ugliest of them all. Nowadays, the villains are lurking within your workplace, your boss, and most terrifying of them all is that they are the ones who stand beside you and rest their head on the pillow beside you. The ones we need to fear the most might be the one you’re married to or the one who tells you that they would forever protect you. 

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The origin of heroes is quite difficult to nail down as the act of storytelling has been around since the beginning of time, as was proved through cave paintings found 44,000 years ago. One might argue that heroes were invented from the ideology of good vs evil; however, you have to consider that what one person views as good could be regarded as evil to another. According to Merriam-Webster, the first definition of a hero is “a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability.” This definition alone argues that heroes can only exist in the realm of imagination rather than our real world. Others have defined heroes as someone who shows courage, which is the most common definition when it comes to entertainment, news broadcasts, military recognition, and more when they acknowledge someone who has shown a great deal of courage. 

As children, we saw the world through the lens of juvenile innocence, which made us believe that heroes were the good guys and that villains were the ones we should run away from. Filmmakers describe heroes’ characteristics with their murdered parents or lack thereof and their heroic persistence to bring justice to their past and others by incriminating those who had done bad things. On the other hand, villains will be marked with a lack of childhood or one so traumatic and indescribable that the thought of an innocent child in that situation would churn your stomach and rot your teeth. It would be the villain’s choice of justice to murder those who caused them trauma. Almost always combined with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, these villains are never excused for murdering even if those they murdered were the ones who were truly evil. 

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Hero Characters Over The Years

For some, you might go into your attic at this very moment and find plastic toys, remarking that your favorite childhood heroes inspired you to be so courageous or righteous. With heroes such as Superman, Batman, Obi-Wan Kenobi, or any of The Avengers, these heroes are causing children to believe that their actions are the ones that are correct and “good.” Although, there seem to be exemptions that audiences draw when determining who is classified as a hero versus a villain. 

An exemption for murder in heroic characters can be found in Maximus Decimus Meridius portrayed by Russell Crowe (‘A Beautiful Mind’) from ‘Gladiator,’ the righteous Roman general in command whose wife and son are brutally murdered. Maximus is then expected to have been murdered himself but instead becomes a Gladiator seeking vengeance against the man who ordered his family to be murdered. He continuously and brutally murders other gladiators throughout the film. Still, as an audience, we do not classify this as evil behavior because he is merely doing what he can to murder and bring vengeance against the origin of “evil.” So, as an audience, we excuse these acts of murder because Maximus is doing it for righteous vengeance; however, in other cases, the audience chooses not to dismiss murdering, so where is the line drawn? 

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An exemption from evil acts that are later on forgiven can be found in Randle Patrick “Mac” McMurphy, portrayed by Jack Nicholson (‘Chinatown’), who would earn an Academy Award for Best Actor in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ Mac was found guilty of battery, gambling, and statutory rape. Only given a short prison term, Mac declares himself insane and is transferred into a mental health institution. Mac uses his time in the institution making alliances and friends with those who are clinically insane to protect them from the classified evil character, Nurse Ratched, whom I will discuss later in the article. Mac is declared a heroic figure for his domination of and sacrifice against Nurse Ratched for the men’s protection and freedom in the ward. Throughout the film, Mac is a physically abusive character who acts with violence; in this case, his violence towards Nurse Ratched is excused because we are trained to feel for the men. 

In ‘Alien,’ Ellen Louise Ripley, portrayed by Sigourney Weaver (‘Avatar‘), might discuss whether it was justified to murder the aliens because they were murdering the humans. The humans were on their territory, trying to go beyond what they already had in science, and found a species of alien that was not quite a fan of humans. So, in a way, the aliens defend their world just as the humans had been defending their earth in ‘War of the Worlds.’ While Ripley shows a momentous amount of courage, she is still murdering a living creature. 

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There are also heroic figures in films that have been based on a true story, such as Erin Brockovich portrayed by Julia Roberts (‘Pretty Woman’) in ‘Erin Brockovich.’ Erin, an environmental activist and strong woman went against all odds to build a case against California’s Pacific Gas & Electric Company in 1993. This story, like some others, is entirely heroic as we have come to identify with. There are no exemptions or justifications, just a real woman who shows courage when it was not easy to do.

Villain Characters Over The Years

Villains, the souls that embody people or figures that have vicious endeavors that are inexcusable and require a heroic figure to combat their choices. More often than not, villains and troubled pasts go hand in hand with the lack of a parental figure, death of a loved one, poverty, and more specifically, mental health instability. As filmmakers and storytellers, we create villains and evil characters to create drama or adrenaline for the audience; however, there is a part of us that feels the need to combine reasons as to why someone might be evil instead of having them be pure evil.

In reality, this is, in fact, the truth when it comes to good and evil. A baby is born with a clean slate of innocence with no direction for good or evil. While there may be inherited mental health issues that might cloud the baby’s mind, the focus of action is not there. That is until someone or something leads this innocent baby to its direction of good or evil, which leads filmmakers and storytellers to write and conjure up pasts filled with the trauma that would show these souls down these paths or mental health that might cloud one’s mind into lacking empathy or values. 

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Villains with troubled pasts include Michael Myers from the ‘Halloween‘ franchises whose family abuses his innocence with drugs, sex, and early introduction to violence. Rob Zombie’s take on the Michael Myers character includes a strong representation of Michael’s upbringing and the emotional trauma from having the one person he adored in the world, his mother, committing suicide. Michael then escapes from the asylum and finds his baby sister, whom he loves just as he had loved his mother. That is, until his baby sister turns on him because he had killed her loved ones. Rob Zombie demonstrates humanity in Michael’s character we might not have seen in the others with his trauma and desire for a small dose of kindness. 

Freddy Krueger from ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street,’ whose mother worked as a nurse at an asylum only to be kidnapped and raped repeatedly by the clinically insane men ending up giving birth to Freddy. From then on, Freddy would be the son of a hundred homicidal maniacs,” only to be rejected by his mother and have an alcoholic father who abused him. When Freddy was caught murdering children, the parents of those children locked Freddy in a boiler room and burned him alive. Becoming a spirit who comes out in people’s dreams, he spends his existence going after the children of the parents who burned him alive. 

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Norman Bates from ‘Psycho,’ Darth Vader from ‘Star Wars,’ Pennywise from  ‘It,’ all characters with troubled pasts, are proven to be malicious, evil, murderous villains. Personally, my favorite villain is Bane, portrayed by Tom Hardy in ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ who entirely breaks my heart with his background as a child and grew-up learning by the evil that surrounded him in the cell walls. As a child, Bane was locked for a life sentence from his father in the Peña Duro, spending his days educating himself and building his strength. While in prison, Bane’s only friend is his teddy bear. In ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ Bane’s character is genuinely impactful with his admiration for innocence. As said by Bane in ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ “I am necessary evil.” 

In some cases, there are villainous characters that are not a single person but rather an entity with characters such as The Shark from ‘Jaws,’ or the Martians fromWar of the Worlds.’ How are we, as storytellers or as people, allowed to mark these entities as evil? Sharks are fish who hunt for food and are proven to lack compassion as their brains are not configured to understand, so because the shark is hunting, it is marked as this villainous character. While murderous, the Martians are from another planet that had become inhospitable, meaning their kind was dying. The Martians had children, women, and others at risk, so where does the line cross in defining if their actions were malicious or if they were acting on survival? 

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Beaten up and abused his entire life, the Joker depicts someone inexcusably abused beyond repair with mental illnesses such as pseudobulbar effects, a condition that causes uncontrollable laughter or crying, a possible diagnosis of a psychotic illness, and hallucinations. So, when the Joker decides to conjure a group against the system that has failed him to the fullest extent, how are we supposed to claim him as evil? Or Thanos, from ‘Avengers: Endgame‘, who makes the most challenging choices to battle against over-population, enough to murder the one person he loves; is he still the bad guy? As said by Thanos and Gamora in ‘Avengers: Infinity War,’ Thanos: “Going to bed hungry. Scrounging for scraps. Your planet was on the brink of collapse. I was the one who stopped that. You know what’s happened since then? The children born have known nothing but full bellies and clear skies. It’s a paradise.” Gamora: “Because you murdered half the planet!” Thanos: “A small price to pay for salvation.” 

Some things in life are not made to be entirely understood or separated from one another, and that might be the way to see heroes vs. villains. I think that mental health, household stability, and financial situation should be separated from evil characters. As I have grown up, I have witnessed that it is, in fact, the opposite types of people that cause the most damage to others. That maybe, just maybe, the evil that lies within these characters was made by those who claim themselves to be heroes

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Women As Villains

For villainous women in film, their characters mark leadership rather than men who find themselves in alleyways. With characters such as Miranda Priestly portrayed by Meryl Streep (‘Sophie’s Choice’) in ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’ Serena Joy portrayed by Yvonne Strahovski (‘Dexter’) in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ or Cersei Lannister portrayed by Lena Headey (‘300’) in ‘Game Of Thrones,’ women characters are characterized to be feared in leadership roles.

If not leadership, you might have cunning and rightfully villainous characters such as Amy Dunne, portrayed by Rosamund Pike (‘Die Another Day’) in ‘Gone Girl,’ whose character acts out against her adulterous husband. In other situations, female villains will be presented as unlikely or unknowingly evil such as with the character Nurse Ratched portrayed by Sarah Paulson (‘Carol’) in ‘Ratched.’ As opposed to male villains who are strong, vengeful, and aggressive; females are always combined with intelligence in their actions rather than by force. 

When villainous women use force, they are presented in skimpy outfits with characters such as Catwoman or Harley Quinn portrayed by Margot Robbie (‘I, Tonya’) in ‘Suicide Squad.’ Used as a sort of accessory to the lead male role villains such as Batman or the Joker. The women who play these characters have spoken about their discomfort with the wardrobe choices as they are trying to fight battles or save the world. Margot Robbie had this to say about her wardrobe for Harley Quinn, “As Margot, no, I don’t like wearing that. I’m eating burgers at lunchtime, and then you go do a scene where you’re hosed down and soaking wet in a white T-shirt, it’s so clingy, and you’re self-conscious about it.” Harley Quinn’s wardrobe choice in the female-directed ‘Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey‘ is vastly different, with much less exposing wardrobe choices and more emphasis on female empowerment. 

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Yes, as women, we have incredible intelligence in planning the murders/imprisonments of our adulterous husbands or tackling the fashion industry; however, we can also fight battles with strength while wearing at least a pair of pants. 

Humans Can Be The Most Inhumane

As children, we learned that it was our kind that we should fear the most as we watched Bambi’s mother’s death caused by man. Our world, our life, can and is the most magical thing, but there are genuinely evil souls that hide in the light. They do not come from trauma, they do not come from pain, but they come from enjoying the pain that comes from inflicting it upon others.

Most days, I try continuously to embody that little girl who used to hold my soul with such innocence to believe that the ones we trust are, in fact, the good guys. Still, I cannot help but be tainted by the amount of pure, disgusting evilness that resides in the unlikely ones in our world. I used to keep the light on while I slept, but now I live in the darkness because it is the single place where I can feel safe and accepted. 

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As a film lover, I always argue that if a person can write or create a novel/film, why can it not be done in real life? People will classify me as a hopeless admirer of fiction because life is nothing like the movies, but if people can understand and create a world where people treat others with kindness, why can we not do that in real life? However, I understand that films are curated for entertainment most of the time, so heroic figures will have flaws to entertain the audience. I believe that the same admiration that goes towards your heroic figures might be the same admiration that should go towards the villains in understanding their position. As we grow older, the world’s colors become more transparent, and the people we saw as courageous might be the ones we should fear. 

By Isabella Brownlee

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