Superhero Villains and their Struggle with Morality
In a superhero movie, the hero is considered moral while the villain takes on the role of immoral. Let’s first define what is moral in this particular context. A proper definition would be “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.” Being moral here stands for protecting the people under your authority, whether they like your vigilance or not. Essentially, the superheroes have to distinguish between the right and the wrong. We’re talking about fictional characters here so we can freely look at things from a moviegoer’s perspective and not an absolutist perspective. So what is morality? Well, whatever is right from the point of view of the audience. If a villain is setting up an explosive charge under a bridge at peak traffic to mass murder — it’s immoral. A superhero discharging the explosive and saving everybody is the right thing — it’s moral. If we just stress from the moviegoer’s perspective then we can clearly define what sort of emotion we’re discussing here when echoing the word morality.
In contrast, a fully developed superhero villain has internal struggles; they constantly battle with right or just behaviors. The pathos of the superhero villain is not considered virtuous; their behavior is questionable to say the least. Let’s explore some familiar villains and their struggles with morals and then take a look at villains who possess the tendencies of a sociopath and psychopath.
- Avengers: Age of Ultron: The Avengers destroyed the base of Hydra but the Hydra leaders still have a never-ending motivation for accomplishing their aims. They’re just like, “We’ll just make another one. What’s the big deal, lol”.
- Batman v Superman: Batman and Superman triumph over Lex Luthor multiple times, yet it feels like he has no obstacles for his goals.
- The Dark Knight: The Joker is perhaps the biggest example of this phenomenon. He’s motivated to the point of insanity. He has a blind faith in his objective.
For valid reasons (but sometimes not so valid), they have an unending desire to accomplish their evil deeds. The opposite isn’t true however. The superheroes often experience setback and it causes them to become temporarily unstable both emotionally and physically.
This pattern of the superheroes experiencing setbacks, their questioning the beliefs, and their desire to make sure that what they’re doing can be justified is what makes them heroic. This piece is about villains, so we won’t be covering superhero examples about how they show morality. Because all superheroes do that and if we discuss that too, it’ll quickly bloat the article.
So what are the reasons behind the villains not struggling with morality? Let’s figure that out first.
Sociopathic and Psychopathic Tendencies
One reason for this behavior of superhero movie villains is that sometimes they have sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies. These tendencies block any chance of telling what’s moral apart from what’s not. Their sense of emotionally judging morality is lost.
But there seems to have a little problem.
Sociopathic or psychopathic behavior would, as a side-effect, trigger a lot of violence and disorderly actions leading to extreme antisocial actions, desperate acts of violence, abnormally destructive behavior, etc. And this happens, say in the case of Batman’s enemy Joker or Spiderman’s enemy Electro, both of whom try to create extreme violence. And here’s the problem: Amid all this, a person cannot possibly concentrate on a single motive wholeheartedly. But the villains manage to do that, which seems quite strange.
Here’s what I mean: Suppose you’re under the influence of a highly destructive power and an extreme psychopathic behavior. Would you have enough consciousness to have a domination aim, make intellectual strategies, stay one step ahead of a superhero with equally destructive powers, and yet remain cool even when facing the FBI or military, let alone a loved and respected superhero?
Yes, if you have too much power you might think that no one can stop you from wreaking havoc. But I don’t think that in a situation like that you would be able to make strategies, hold up to your intellectual ideology, and yet have a complicated road-map of how to accomplish your domination and/or victory aims.
Insanity is another arguable reasoning. But the same opinion applies here too — an insane person would experience substantial instability and thus would lack the concentration required to be a villain with a set of big evil plans.
Now, we’re strictly discussing morality and not the origin of the motives behind the violent nature of villains. The origin of the motives are always well-defined and acceptable to a certain degree. Like Electro became evil because of distrust and lack of recognition, or Sandman in Spider-Man 3 also had a very strong case for his motives.
Director’s Perspective: Bonding the Audience with the Hero
Not everything is decided by the characters. While telling a story, a director or a writer has to make sure there are certain elements that work together for it to play out coherently. The superheroes need to have struggles. They need to have real life problems. They need to experience hard times where they question their beliefs and the beliefs of those they love.
All this works together systematically to give the audience a feel that the superheroes are also humans. They can be loved; they stand for something. The superhero is essentially meant to be someone the general moviegoers can connect with, show empathy towards, and feel for.
Let’s take an analogy. If superheroes would’ve been like proud, near-perfect, all-powerful Greek gods — they would lose the human touch. And that’s the reason there’s no Greek mythology movie led by Zeus, but there are many led by demigods like Perseus and Hercules because they naturally inherit a portion of the “human touch.” So even if Superman is godlike, he still needs to have a significant human portion.
This human touch defines heroes. The heroes always struggle. Superman in Batman v Superman even reached a state where he thought his powers and authority were of no use and he should abandon his heroic efforts. The theme of Civil War is similar, it questions what’s moral and what’s not, too, just like how Superman wondered. Peter Parker also became confused at a point where he abandoned his superhero persona to normalize his life. But in the end, they all come to realize what’s really moral and what’s right. Their struggle bears fruits. And they become ideologically better than they ever were before.
In contrast, the role of a villain is fairly limited to being an obstacle for the hero, or to give a platform to the hero for proving the triumph of the correct ideology. The villains more or less look for self-interest and they naturally don’t get set back by their disbelief or hindrances.
The villain is the opposite of a superhero. He’s not meant to be bonded with the audience. They’re inhuman to the point of hating everyone else and that’s what makes them so evil. However, this is only true for mainstream villains like Ultron or Ronan the Accuser from Guardians of the Galaxy. For example, Ultron has a sane reasoning. Hell, life does need a giant refresh button every eon or so. But he was scripted in a different way. How do I put it: It’s like he was disposable, an expendable unit.
Anyway. I’m saying that there are non-mainstream villains too. They are meant to be bonded with the audience. Not for too long, and probably in a way where you actually just pity them, but there are such villains. For example I actually liked General Zod’s ideology over Jor-El’s in Man of Steel.
There are some villains who are simply ensnared by one of the seven deadly sins: Greed, lust, wrath, etc. Superhero movie villains under this condition cannot be perceived to have a solid reason behind their unending motivation. When they’re affected by a sin that drives them towards an evil goal — it’s really hard to think that they have any level of sanity left.
Such villains are not rational and don’t think clearly. They’re complete opposites of intellectual villains like Joker or General Zod. It’s not impossible to imagine rational villains admitting their defeat or changing their ideology, or even developing a certain kind of invisible respect for the superhero. However, sinned villains are irrational and thus cannot be argued in favor of.
So basically these villains are motivated for the sake of motivation. It’s their sin that drives them, and not a (flawed) intellectual theory. Some examples would be Galactus, Doomsday, Red Skull, Venom, etc.
Choosing the Wrong Path
Sometimes both superheroes and villains become good and bad simply because of the circumstances. If a character experiences a harsh childhood (Green Goblin or Joker) or a troubled relationship with someone they actually worshiped who later fails them (Electro or Syndrome from The Incredibles) — they can
become negative and that would mean they no longer struggle with morality. They can become delusional to the point of causing destruction. They think everything their pride stood for is nothing and that’s why they must resort to evil to prove how meaningless the thoughts of justice and good deeds are. Or, they make their own skewed version of morality.
Some other villains start off on equal footing with a superhero. The circumstances both experience change them. The villain material questions the path of righteousness while the hero material likes it. And finally they make the choice of becoming who they were meant to be — a villain or a superhero: The former having abandoned the idea of morality, while the latter always employing it as one of their values, and becoming its emblem.
The circumstances of growing up and some accidental event misleading them to have their faith lifted from the system is another reason. The best example would be Megamind, who literally started off on the same footing as Metroman. One space-pod clash made all the difference.
Finally, there are some villains who do have morality in them. We’ve come across many villains who love nature, animals, and even care for humans. Harvey Dent, Electro, Loki — all of them have some sort of morality in them. You might wonder that which villain ideation is right: Moral or immoral? Well, there’s no “right” way to craft a villain. Moral, semi-moral, and immoral — all of them make for interesting villains. It’s just that this change feels good. A villain who actually has a strong reasoning, a villain who is otherwise highly moral, a villain who wreaks havoc mindlessly, and so on. We need all of them.
The filmmakers make sure that the villains who become evil due to circumstances and the corruption or inefficiency of the system are a chance fluctuation. Their ideology that the system is wrong derives its essence from some reality. But it’s made sure that in the end, the conception of the system being evil or inefficient is a false assumption. It’s shown that merely the circumstances were misleading. It is also implied that the superheroes also experience harsh situations that are quite similar to those of the villains. However, they keep their faith in what is just and right and therefore overcome their weakness to fall in the dark side. Their elevated sense of righteousness makes them different.
Before wrapping this up, I would like to say that ideally a villain is meant to have a certain internal struggle or a fight with immorality. A fully developed villain should have some sort of inner struggle that should also create pathos for the villain on the part of the audience. Marvel villains are mostly completely opposite of it.
What do you think? Leave a comment.