Hello again, Readers! This is Tyler. Today I want to talk about the (uncomfortably) thin line between heroes and villains.
The Killing Joke is one of the most popular and acclaimed of all Batman comics (and if my facebook feed is to be believed one of the most hated of Batman animated movies). The plot of the comic revolves around the Joker attempting to prove something to the world: that all that separates us from him is one bad day. One bad day could turn any one of us into the Joker.
There are countless examples in our society of people, good people, who turned to crime when they felt they had no other options left. What that meant, what pushed them that far, was at least slightly different for each person. But there was a point where they lost that moral battle. They experienced the Joker’s bad day.
Take, for example, Superman. He is the quintessential boyscout. He is the embodiment of all that is good in the American experience, often even more so than Captain America. This is why so many Superman fans are unhappy with the Man of Steel Superman. We see Superman as an incorruptible good, the perfect counter to the Joker’s hypothesis.
Except that he’s not. In the two part Justice League episode titled “A Better World” we see an alternate reality version of Superman who is pushed beyond his limits. Lex Luthor is elected President of the United States and manages to kill the Flash. When Superman confronts Luthor, Luthor says that Superman has been his greatest accomplice. At any time, the Man of Steel could have killed Luthor and ended his evil schemes, but instead he just kept throwing Lex in jail knowing that it was only a matter of time before he escaped to continue his plots. The Flashes death was Superman’s fault for not truly stopping Luthor a long time ago. Faced with this argument and filled with rage over the death of his friend, Superman kills Luthor and goes on to change the Justice League into the Justice Lords, a totalitarian group that turns the world into a 1984 style dystopia in the name of stopping crime. Superman definitely becomes the bad guy.
Now, our timeline Superman and the Justice League stop the Justice Lords, and it’s implied that this Superman wouldn’t do the same thing. But really, the only reason for that is that he isn’t put in the same situation. Superman himself admits that he can see how his alternate reality self came to the decisions he did. It was not some other Superman who turned evil. It was our Superman, put through a sufficiently bad day.
Point to any fallen hero type villain and you can trace what it was that was enough to push them over the edge. For Anakin Skywalker it was the Jedi deciding to kill the one man he thought could save his wife. For Harvey Dent in The dark Knight it is the death of Rachel in what seemed like a pointless and cruel whim of fate (helped along by a little prodding from the Joker). For Sauruman the White the dawning fear that Sauron could not be defeated caused him to turn to evil to try to survive.
There are two interesting questions to be asked here. The first is this: if (nearly) anyone can be pushed to evil by circumstances bad enough, how accountable are your villains for their actions? How much of the blame is on the villain, and how much is on the circumstances that pushed them to be who they are?
But the more important question, I feel, is what would it take to topple your heroes? Whenever you write a story with a hero, ask yourself what it would take to drive them over the edge. What is their bad day? Of course, your answer might be “they couldn’t fall”. I suppose that’s possible. But it’s also less likely and, frankly, makes for a much less interesting character. Because if you know what could push your character over the edge, if you know where that thin line between hero and villain lies, you can push your hero as close to that line as possible and watch the wonderful, complex stories that can result. Much more interesting to me than the boyscout who can do no wrong is the hero who confronts their dark side and comes out on top. It makes them feel much more real, and ultimately more heroic. If you aren’t tempted it’s easy to do what’s right. I want to see a hero who could fall make the decisions and choices that will let them continue to stand.