Your Heroes Might Be Villains

By Isaac H.

Have you ever watched or re-watched a movie and thought to yourself “I see why the hero(es) needed to win, but was the villain(s) sort of right”? Alternatively, have you ever noticed that the goals of the hero could be seen as questionable or even villainous?  I’ve had these epiphanies after watching dozens of movies, some of which I consider classics and have loved since childhood.

Now there is a need for a few obvious disclaimers here. This is not the case with most movies. If you find yourself automatically identifying with the antagonist in most films, well, that could be something else. Almost certainly nothing good. Likewise, I’m not the first to posit these questions. There are countless pop culture blogs and newsfeeds that review movies under the merciless magnifying glass of the contrarian perspective.  I just want to highlight a few that have always irked me, even if I love the movie and cheer for the heroes every time.

Now, with that said I would like to offer a few examples of movies where either the hero’s motivation can objectively be seen as villainous, or the villain’s motivations can be seen as at least rational from a reasonable subjective position.

The Ghostbusters

Peter, Ray, Winston and Egon “ain’t afraid of no ghost”. But were the city officials, the Environmental Protection Agency and the ghosts of the benevolent deceased right to be afraid of them? Obviously, there were certain safety risks to doing things like toting active nuclear reactors around the biggest city in America. I imagine the threat of radiation exposure to be at least equal to the mild annoyance of a semi-transparent specter hovering about. More than that, what has always brought me cause for concern was their containment system. There might be a few ethical concerns to “trapping” ghosts in your containment contraption into perpetuity. Moving the ontological arguments on afterlife punishments and unjust justifications thereof aside, the punitive aspect of this seems a bit extreme.  Even putting extremity aside, the ghosts are only imprisoned until the next power failure, which is great for job security but at that point why even contain them?

Firefly

Mal, Zoey, Jayne and the crew live from job to job, dodging the nefarious Federal Alliance years after it crushed a rebellion by the freedom-seeking Browncoats. While the moral ambiguity of the crew was definitely part of the charm of Firefly, there are a few aspects of the “noble” Browncoats that imply they may not have been the underdog heroes Mal and Zoey believed them to be. Obvious analogies to the American Civil War and the browncoat similarities to the confederacy aside, the defeated Browncoat worlds seen throughout the show are mostly ruled by petty warlords. Their education system is undeveloped, informal and disdainful of educated outsiders. Their populations are subject to chattel slavery and caste feudalism. This doesn’t sound like a noble, benevolent society of freedom fighters to me. More like a collusion of agrarian failed states. It should probably be noted that the “evil” Federal Alliance is known to experiment on its own population and places bounties of those that escape. That said, it makes sense that they wouldn’t want psychic super soldiers roaming about the ‘verse.

The Wizard of Oz

One cannot criticize the Wizard of Oz without mentioning how so many other amazing works covered and explored the original tale from different perspectives. With that out of the way, it’s impossible not to question the intentions of Glinda “The Good Witch” in assisting in the demise of the only other witches in Oz. Not to mention unmasking the fraudulent “Wizard”, and providing for the emotional growth of 3 of her worshipers (Or underlings? Lackeys? Constituents?), the Tin-man, the Lion and the Scarecrow. While we can’t argue that either of the two deceased witches were well liked by many of their subjects, one stands to wonder what the wider political scenario was in Oz. Was there a need for infrastructure development requiring steeper taxes? An unpopular conflict requiring forced conscription? Candy rationing? We’ll never know. We can’t even describe the nature of the witches rule over the lands. What we can say is that thanks to a nice and tidy outside intervention (with the slightest encouragement from “The Good Witch”), Glinda is the only magical power left in Oz.

Black Panther

In the Marvel blockbuster hit, T’Challa, Prince of Wakanda, is usurped from the throne by his American raised cousin Killmonger. While T’Challa eventually wins and retakes his throne, many have questioned whether Killmonger’s motivations were objectively just and his claim to the throne rightful. Make no mistake, Killmonger is a villain by definition. When he isn’t physically attacking Wakandans who challenge him, he’s securing power by destroying Wakandan traditions (along with any chance of another to arise and challenge his authority). But his motivation is far less cut and dry. His initial scene has him stealing rare artifacts from a British museum, yet in the process he explains the items were wrongfully taken from their native lands. He isn’t returning them, of course, but that point resonates. In another scene, Killmonger explains how Wakanda’s isolationist policies allowed for the oppression of countless peoples on the continent and around the world. The causation element of this claim isn’t completely solid, but it is a subjectively valid point. Especially considering at the end of the movie (spoilers) T’Challa ends Wakanda’s isolationist policy. A stronger argument would be Killmongers claim to the throne. He defeats T’Challa in a fair, one on one combat ritual that their people accept as a valid method of ascent. In a somewhat classic storytelling theme (spoilers) the prince survives and returns, but only due to help from ingesting a magical plant that was banned during the challenge.  While Killmonger was definitely a villain, were his motivations and claim to the throne more legitimate than Prince T’Challa’s?

There are other examples that come to mind. The fact that The Karate Kid‘s Daniel LaRusso only wins the final tournament with a questionably illegal kick to Johnny’s face which the referee ignores. How Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets has shown time and time again that it is willing to break it’s most fundamental laws, violate it’s core values, and abuse the fundamental rights of it’s own people to achieve it’s goals. And I wouldn’t know where to start with Harry Potter‘s Ministry of Magic, or even worst, Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them’s Magical Congress of the United States of America. It’s a recurring question present in many movies and films loved by viewers everywhere.

 

Can you think of any villains that could be considered heroes, or vice versa? Let us know below.

 

 

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Comments

10 responses to “Your Heroes Might Be Villains”

  1. Jennifer Keirans says:

    I have many concerns about rooting for Morpheus in The Matrix.

    • Isaac H says:

      I completely agree Jennifer! When seen from an outside perspective, Morpheus from the Matrix is something akin to a cult leader, abducting converts plugged into program.

  2. Lisa C says:

    Ha, love this especially the inclusion of Ghostbusters. Fun movie, but the “heroes” just about destroyed NYC!

    • Isaac H says:

      Thanks Lisa! I hadn’t even gotten to how simply crossing streams could have destroyed the city, if not the planet. And here they were frustrated the EPA was worried about unregulated release of noxious fumes.

  3. Charlez says:

    In Star Wars, the rebels are trying to overthrow a democratically elected parliament and replace it with a hereditary monarchy.

    • Isaac H says:

      That is an interesting point Charlez. The Rebels seemed to want to re-instate the Republic, which included hereditary monarchies. While the Empire was fairly evil with it’s whole totalitarian regime and destroying whole planets, I always wondered about how the Old Republic’s system of government seemed to not work. Especially considering that one dark side fanatic could easily overthrow it in less than a single lifetime.

  4. Daniel from Karate Kid is another controversial protagonist that seems to live in a moral gray-area: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_Gz_iTuRMM.

  5. Joyeux Noel, Hacksaw Ridge – The decision to fight or not to fight. I am reading “Choosing Peace: The Catholic Church’s return to the Gospel of Nonviolence” it claims the institution of slavery has become obsolete; trial by combat gave way to trial by jury; dueling replaced by libel courts. What will restorative justice replace? Surely state-sponsored wars are obsolete in resolving national disputes. From a member of Veterans For Peace.

    • Isaac H says:

      Thanks for the comment Ramon! I haven’t read any of those yet but they sound like enlightening reading. Hacksaw Ridge has definitely been on my read and watch list for a while though.

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