Hello friends! It’s been a while hasn’t it? How have all of you been? I’m back after my biggest gap in posting (6 months), and was going to blame it on school, but really I was feeling uninspired and stuck in a reading slump, and looking at everything I was behind on, it became a vicious cycle.
But because I love my baby blog and you all, and admittedly finding fresh motivation from stumbling into the whirlwind that is book twitter (come find me!!), I couldn’t resist popping back in to publish this post which has been sitting in my drafts for a few months, and one that’s getting me excited about storytelling again.
So I made a promise to myself and posted a poll a long time back, about expanding the kind of content I write about. It’s been staunchly book reviews and wrap ups for a while, and I’m hoping to shake up the monotony with more discussion based and recommendations post!
To start it off, I’m here with a little discussion post (more so, thought dump) about one of my favourite devices in storytelling: heroes and villains and anti-heroes. (see: my constant recommendation of the genius that is The Poppy War, and also the latest Dr Strange movie !!)
Without further ado, let’s talk heroes and villains!
In an era where film is dominated by Marvel, a film franchise that specialises in “superhero” films, we may have accustomed ourselves to the distinctive archetypes of hero, villain, sidekick, comic relief on screen.
But it’s never so simple isn’t it? Humans are complex, multi-faceted beings who are more often than not, selfish, instead of the pure altruism we see. I do agree, for the most part, that movies give heroes huge flaws, which they in turn overcome and we see solid character arcs. But, they ultimately still are seen as the hero.
In real life, the lines are often blurred, the roles of hero and villain are often interchangeable in my opinion, and hence through these novels and films, I want to explore the questions of: What makes a hero a hero when people have their “dark sides”? Is villainy truly a label we can place characters that at the end of the day have merely a different (albeit self-serving) agenda, and are they truly different from our heroes?
This is a topic, I believe, that doesn’t have a firm answer cast in stone. I don’t have a degree in psychology or anything to do with the mind, but what I can bring to the table is having watched nearly the whole MCU and read countless antihero arcs, and in turn bring more questions to ponder.
(Also, inevitably, there will be spoilers. And I will mark the sections specifically so don’t worry.)
Here is our gang of morally ambiguous folks that we’ll be discussing today! Don’t worry if you haven’t seen the films (yeah I don’t watch much films except Marvel sorry!!) or the books, I’ll indicate spoilers!
FANG RUNIN (RIN)
from The Poppy War series by R.F. Kuang
Rin is a war orphan and peasant from the south, who becomes a student at Sinegard, a prestigious military academy. She’s ruthless and ambitious in fighting against stereotypes to get to the top. Through the series, her anger defines her path and her power, and her desire to win the war leads her to unforgivable choices and irreversible consequences.
STEPHEN STRANGE (DR STRANGE)
from the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Dr. Stephen Strange is an arrogant surgeon turned into a still arrogant sorcerer (? wizard? idk tfatws messed me up) who after a terrible accident destroys the use of his hands, turns to magic.
VICTOR VALE & ELI EVER
from the Villains duology by V.E. Schwab
Victor Vale and Eli Ever are both terrible people you do not cross. Started off as college roommates, when their research of death and ExtraOrdinary people becomes experimental, the trajectory of their lives are changed forever: one a murderer, and one a betrayer, both intent on vengeance.
MATT MURDOCK (DAREDEVIL)
from the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer who moonlights as our friendly (not really) neighbourhood vigilante at night (Daredevil), feels a huge sense of responsibility in protecting his city, but is also a self-righteous catholic who finds catharsis in pummelling people into a state of unconsciousness.
BACKSTORIES & MOTIVATIONS
From young, I’ve been taught that the way to craft stories and characters was through 5Ws and 1H: When, Who, Where, What, Why and How. And of these 6 perspectives, “why” is the most important, wouldn’t you agree? “Why” gives us insights as to the reasons, to the motivations, to the intentions. Why we do what we do – isn’t that what shapes us as a person?
Is anyone inherently bad? Do “villains” simply cause havoc and wreak destruction because they feed off suffering? Even if they do, there is a reason that compels them to do so, and more often than not, we know it as The Tragic Backstory.
A Tragic Backstory is when one has a dark and troubled past, that has led them to think, behave and feel a certain way. As cliche as this trope may be (especially when dramatised, see: Dr Doofenshmirtz), I argue that it could be applied to nearly every person, hero, villain, in between. Our memories shape who we are, don’t they? With regards to the nature-nuture debate, I firmly believe that our experiences and interactions mould us into the people we are today.
But, we can’t really control what happens to us, we can’t control what we experience, so does that mean, heroes can’t control becoming heroes as a result, and villains can’t control becoming villains as a result?
I really don’t know.
But anyway, let’s go back to talk about the motivation itself, starting with our favourite literary archenemies: Victor Vale and Eli Ever.
(START OF SPOILERS FOR THE VILLAINS DUOLOGY)
Under his calm, cold and collected exterior, Victor Vale revels in his ability to cause pain in others, and also struggles with his obsession with his best friend: teetering between jealousy and admiration, and finally, ten years down the road landing on vengeance. Eli believes that the existence of ExtraOrdinaries are a sin against God, and finds it his duty to eradicate the earth of them. Ten years later, Victor is still the villain, and Eli the hero.
For Eli, his intention is a moral duty, and as he reasons it out, as he justifies his actions, you can’t help but think that what we’s doing is right, despite it being outright murder. For Victor, on his path of revenge, you can’t help but, through the intricate backstory of him and his parents and blackout poetry, root for him, and want him to gain the power and control he never had, despite outright murder.
“The paper called Eli a hero. The word made Victor laugh. Not because it was absurd , but because it posed a question. If Eli really was a hero , and Victor tried too stop him , did that make him a villian?”
Both of them out to be villains, but one is portrayed as one and the other a hero, but we as readers root for both of these twisted, jaded, corrupted characters. As we question their morality, we question our own morality too.
(END OF SPOILERS FOR THE VILLAINS DUOLOGY)
PRINCIPLES & ETHICAL THEORIES
Something else that is intricately linked to one’s motivations and experiences, would be their principles: a set of values they live their life and make decisions based on.
As established, decision making based on what is “right” or “wrong” isn’t realistic because the lines are often blurred, and hence I want to talk about a few ethical theories we unconsciously use as frameworks to make decisions in our lives.
Deontologist Theories – Moral Duty
This brand of ethics focuses on what people do. Essentially, doing the right thing (moral thing) because it’s right, and not doing wrong things (immoral) because they are wrong.
Take Dr Li Wenliang as an example, one of the first doctors who encountered Covid-19, and became a whistle blower despite the local authorities brushing it off as a rumour.
And honestly, it was such a controversial decision, and this case is an example of both how deontologist theories are used in the making of decisions, but also how they clash, and hence no 100% right answer exists.
While he has a duty as a doctor to save lives and hence have to bring this medical problem to the public eye, he would not be able to care for his wife and newborn baby, which is the duty as a father.
Consequentialist Theories – Outcomes
These include theories that aim to maximise the happiness and well-being. One of the more famous ones would be utilitarianism, in simple terms: “doing things for the greater good.”
In Dr Li Wenliang’s case, a utilitarianism choice would be whistleblowing as it will do more benefit than harm, and help the world prepare for the pandemic.
One of the most prominent thought experiments would be The Trolley Problem: There is an incoming train and no way to stop it, and it is headed for a track with five people stuck on it. However, there is an option where you can pull a lever such that the train heads for another track with one person on it. The question is: Would you kill one to save five?
If so, it is an example of a utilitarian point of view. But like all things, it’s not always so simple. Certain variations of this thought experiment also include the option of you pushing a bystander in front of the train to stop it, thereby killing one to save five. But this is when the utilitarian theories lose weight, and many people are at a loss. Truly such an introspective and interesting experiment, definitely worth reading up on!
(START OF SPOILERS FOR INFINITY WAR, ENDGAME, DOCTOR STRANGE MOVIES)
Without the grief and the disruption to our lives, if you think about it, Thanos’ intention of killing half for the other half to flourish with more resources and what not, is quite noble, in a utilitarian light. Yet, he is labelled as on of the biggest antagonists of the MCU, because through a deontologist lens: killing people on purpose is bad.
(which leads to the irony of heroes killing people to fight bad guys, and they are labelled heroes?)
Okay, so fine, but what I can’t let go off is Dr Strange having the same morals as Thanos and being hailed an Avenger. He sacrificed the time stone leading to the death of millions but to ultimately defeat Thanos (Infinity War), he opted to send all the villains back to their deaths to keep their universe safe (No Way Home), and even wanted to kill America, a teenager, so he could harness her powers to fight a bigger bad guy (Multiverse of Madness).
Dr Strange is consistently characterised as one who makes the hard, utilitarian choice, making quotes like:
“In the grand calculus of the multiverse, their sacrifice means far more than their deaths.”
“There was no other way.”
Hence, what I really appreciated about Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, was how it showed the different versions of Dr Strange, how the same person could be proclaimed a hero in one universe, and regarded a villain in another. It emphasises that we all are capable of good and evil, and lends to the idea that we all have a bit of hero and villain in ourselves.
And the fact that these “good” and “bad” parts of ourselves are based on the same set of values we have (like how Dr Strange’s utilitarian mindset both helped him save the universe and led him to Dark magic) chills me to the bone.
(END OF SPOILERS FOR INFINITY WAR, ENDGAME, DOCTOR STRANGE MOVIES)
To take a little detour: I don’t believe anyone’s inherently bad, but I do believe one can be corrupted. (lol I mean look at our world)
To branch off the Tragic Backstory trope that I was expounding a bit on just now, I often find portrayed villains to be more convincing with well-executed corruption arcs, for the simple matter of: Who is born with a knife in their hands?
I think that corruption arcs are important in showing us the journey of self-growth/decay of our antagonist, they remind us of their humanity, and we get glimpses into their psyche, and see them not as a bad guy, but rather as one led astray or with motivations opposing the general populace.
And what better way to illustrate how corruption arcs shape complex antiheroes than with our favourite dictator: Fang Runin!
(START OF SPOILERS FOR THE POPPY WAR SERIES – ALL 3 BOOKS)
How do I start forming words about a character that so profoundly changed the way I view antiheroes and storytelling as a whole?
Rin never started out corrupted. She started off determined to get out of her life in the South, determined to excel against her classmates’ discrimination. And then ambitious after tasting power for the first time. In book 1, despite the power that she welded, her first kill wasn’t something that was normalised, there was shock, numbness, but also necessity (a huge milestone in Rin’s desensitisation). In fact, one of the most important things of the series would be how war is never sensationalised nor romanticised.
He’s dead, she thought numbly. I’ve killed him.
For all her combat training, Rin had never thought about what it would be like to actually take someone’s life. To sever an artery, not just feign doing so. To break a body so badly that all functions ceased, that the animation was stilled forever.
For all their talk and theory, they had not been trained to kill/
She registered nothing. Just a temporary shock, then the grim realisation that she needed to do this again, and again, and again.
Slowly, insidiously, driven by desperation and instinct, morphing into obsession and power-obsession, you can see how Rin shines, how Rin decays. She becomes obsessed with Atlan, a fellow Speerly, who is as broken as she is, but innately it’s because of her desire to have hope of meaning something, rather than “that dark-skinned war orphan”. She becomes obsessed with Vaisra, wanting to be his tool in conquests, blinding herself to reality, because of her desire to want to belong. She becomes obsessed with beating Daji, she becomes obsessed with beating the Hesperians, she becomes obsessed with total power, because of her desire to be in control, because everything that has happened to her had come at a great price, and there was no time for regrets or turning back.
Her voice, thin and reedy, faded without echo into the frigid air. But she screamed it again, and then again, and then again. It felt so good to say that she’d survived, that she’d fucking finally come out on top, that she didn’t even care that she was screaming to corpses.
But at the end of the day, despite how irrevocably and inevitably weathered and changed Rin is, we are reminded of her humanity, reminded that she was merely a girl, alone, thrust into a harsh, cruel and unforgiving world. Like Kitay and Nezha and Venka and the rest, she was forced to grow up, to harden herself. She is just a young girl, shaped by war. Admist the corruption, there still lies vulnerability, and we’re reminded that even those of great power, have heart and are not infallible. That they are capable of love, of agony, and of sorrow. . With so much layering, Rin was one of the most complex antiheroes I’ve had the honour of obsessing about.
(END OF SPOILERS FOR THE POPPY WAR SERIES – ALL 3 BOOKS)
ATTITUDES TOWARDS DEATH
Complete elimination of a threat, they say. Ah, you mean killing.
Taking another’s life, I think that in the general public’s perspective, would be considered the most heinous of all crimes. Murderers are condemned, sentenced, and for good reason. Honestly, the most convenient way to make your villain villainous is make them kill people.
But what messes me up is when heroes themselves kill bad guys to stop them for good, when heroes wreak destruction to get to bad guys that civilians are killed? How does that make them different from villains? (And don’t even get me started on the moral argument of killing sentiment robots taking over the world)
Aren’t heroes, at their core, symbols of hope and justice, supposed to save lives and give second chances? This leads me to our next morally ambiguous friend: Matt Murdock.
(START OF SPOILERS FOR DAREDEVIL)
Daredevil is my favourite MCU hero and show. Period. I could ramble for days about the symbolism, cinematography, chemistry, themes of the show, but I’ll save that for another time.
For now, we’re talking about how Matt Murdock is the most confusing hero-villain ever.
So let’s get this straight: Matt Murdock finds catharsis in beating up people, and yet he has a strict no-killing code.
And what I loved about the show is that it doesn’t flinch from showing how Matt gets drunk with adrenaline and revels in the violence, in the satisfaction of the bloodied fists. The show also understands that we have the capacity for both good and evil inside of us, and under the violent facade, Matt is scared and lets rage take over, and tries to compartmentalise smart and kind Matt Murdock with Daredevil who will not hesitate to beat a bad guy to crap (not death).
Daredevil is a character that shows the true struggle of not becoming the very monsters you fight. In fact, in Season 3, Matt Murdock is driven to desperation that he nearly breaks his own code and vows to kill Wilson Fisk.
But in the end, he doesn’t. And this powerful quote says it all, and stuck with (and still sticks with) me:
NO! God knows I want to, but you don’t get to destroy who I am, you will go back to prison, and you will live the rest of your miserable life in a cage knowing you’ll never have Vanessa, that this city rejected you, IT BEAT YOU! I BEAT YOU!
Matt Murdock finally realises that he is a hero because he refuses to kill Fisk, and why he refuses to kill was illuminated during the conversation about morality with Frank in Season 2.
“Redemption, Frank. It’s real and it’s possible. The people you murdered deserve another chance.”
“To kill again, rape again, is it?”
“No Frank, to try again.”
(END OF SPOILERS FOR DAREDEVIL)
SO… WHAT’S THE VERDICT?
The verdict… is that there is no verdict.
Sorry to be annoyingly inconclusive, but in reality I’ve been ambivalent when writing this post, because for such a complex topic, you could never touch all bases (there’s still so much to talk about like the acknowledgement by the character, tragic heroes and villains — shakespeare! and so much more) and come to a definite definition.
To quote Oscar Wilde: “To define is to limit.”, and thus it is impossible to give a rigid framework of how a hero is clearly defined from a villain. At the end of the day, morality, I believe, is a spectrum, and it’s an integral part of our identities, which makes this topic so much more introspective and fascinating.