Difference between a villain and an anti-hero – the concept of grounding in superhero movies/shows10 min read
Grounding a villain doesn’t necessarily make him/her an anti-hero – Or does it ?
Who doesn’t like a good villain ? Villains serve as sensual cores of a superhero movie teaching the protagonist/hero things that he was naive to before. A villain according to the internet refers to “a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot.” That means a villain is necessary to move on with the plot. One who signifies the presence or absence of the hero – by being the other side of the coin. Light – Dark , good – evil etc.
But things gets more complex when we introduce an anti-hero in the equation. An anti-hero according to the internet refers to “a central character in a story, film, or drama who lacks conventional heroic attributes.” So that indicates towards a person caught between good or bad or rather a fallen or discouraged hero.Now here in lies the question : Does grounding a villain or making him more relatable turn him into an anti-hero ?
The answers has a much deeper root than a mere yes or no. Lets break it into simpler parts to get to a reasonable answer – Context , grounding and finally the judgement. We will keep using comic book examples so that the entire article stays within the realm of comicbooks and superheroes.
Punisher is ideally an anti-hero but one can easily view him as a villain hell bent on murder and revenge. But one needs to understand why he is doing what he is doing and if there is any piece of goodness left in him. By the definition he is a fallen hero…a fallen soldier rather.
Speaking of context , a story can easily create or alter viewpoints. Most of the MAX story-lines especially “Punisher : The Slaver” is representative of the problems of our real world. A world where only the principles of an anti-hero will be deemed as necessary , not of any conventional hero or villain. Similarly , all that Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke required was a bad day to turn one of the greatest villain into a really workable anti-hero.
In the bigger picture , Lucifer , the devil himself can be argued to be the greatest anti-hero of all time. Most of the memorable villains in pop culture are surprisingly anti-heroes : Anakin Skywalker , Norman Bates , Dr. Hannibal Lecter and several others.
And the others generally have a reason to do what they are doing and has an extent to which he/she is ready to go for the desired purpose. Depending on how well that thing resonates with the viewer , a villain becomes weak or strong.Scar wanted the throne in Lionking , Voldemort was the initial resultant of his childhood , Nurse Ratched was a frustrated and dominating head in the mental hospital and the list goes on and on.
Similarly , a weak villain is someone whose intention is forgettable but not forgivable. Most of the MCU villains with the exception of Loki , Toomes , Zemo and Killmonger are weak based on the context of their back story. Thus , context is the first filter process you need to pass your thoughts through , to make the contrast between the villain and anti-hero more prominent. But is it sufficient ? Most of the time , it isn’t !
“Hey , did you see how awesome Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger is in the new Black Panther ?”
“Oh , why ? what’s so special about him ?”
“He is not a generic villain , his arc is both grounded and relatable.”
“So is he grounded or he is an anti-hero ?”
“Aren’t those two the same thing ?”
Does grounding a villain necessarily make him/her an anti-hero ? And is an anti-hero always necessarily better than a villain ? The question should be taken some time to answer.
If it is superhero movies we are talking about , a viewer generally resorts to his emotional part to judge the difference between a hero and a villain. The same applies to an anti-hero . How can you possibly expect one to find an anti-hero in a villain if he/she is not relatable on a ground where one can sympathize him/her ? How would you perceive Elijah Price (Mr. Glass) from M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable , for example ? Villain or anti-hero ?
Unfortunately ,nowadays sympathizing is regarded as grounding , but it isn’t so actually. It is obvious why the thinking among audience has been so. There is a frail line on which one can make a character grounded , yet not necessarily making him/her an object of sympathy.
And there is a huge risk involved in that process.Taking evil to a point where he is relatable to the majority is a huge creative risk. Something comic book movies , which try to uphold the inherent goodness among its audience , are not willing to take yet ; willingly. Sympathizing is a just a part of grounding but what about the other methods of grounding ?
“If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” , with this line Alan Moore tried to bring in a sense of ambiguity to the Joker ,to whom the audience has related with sympathy up-till that point. Christopher Nolan adapted this concept throughout The Dark Knight with Heath Ledger’s Joker narrating different origins at different points in the movie. One of which was The Killing Joke’s context.
You can not sympathy towards a character who you do not know whether he is lying about his past or not. That coupled with the phenomenal acting charisma of Heath Ledger is what made his Joker grounded , yet not an object of sympathy. While this required the altering of the lore , the creative risk paid off.
Thus , you can figure out by now what I mean to convey to you.Though grounding does indeed enrich the story-telling view-point of a villain , it doesn’t essentially make him an anti-hero because grounding is not JUST a dramatic or sympathetic arc. Wrapping a character with ambiguity or relating him/her with evil characteristics present in our society along with making the character shine in a sympathizing light builds grounding and makes him/her a three dimensional . The entire concept though may seem thought provoking initially is very simple to get over with.
But how many other superhero movies can you point out that has taken that risk ? Upcoming movie Avengers : Infinity War is a definitive culmination to a decade of storytelling by Marvel Cinematic Universe. The trailers and information tid-bits looks forward to introduce a dramatic arc for the Mad Titan , Thanos. While this might sadden some comic book enthusiasts , would sure to satisfy general audience ; if done right. Though that is not necessarily a bad thing again questions what we perceive as grounding in superhero movies ?
Wilson Fisk was just another master criminal lord in the Marvel lore often bringing nuisance to the likes of Spider-man , Daredevil , Punisher and more. But D’Onofrio’s portrayal of the same character in Netflix/Marvel’s Daredevil forced the audience to look beyond the one dimensional Kingpin history they had set in their minds about the character. Some even consider the portrayal to bear an uncanny resemblance to the “master-builder” of the 20th Century New York , Robert Moses.
Thus , the final judgement of how a viewer choose to picture Netflix’s Wilson Fisk in his mind , is dependent on the grounding provided by the writing of the show and acting skill of Vincent D’Onofrio. A villain , most of the times , is a hero in his/her own respect and justifies his actions by his own judgement. Whether the judgement resonates well with the audience’s , decides how good a villain he/she is to us. Judgement is just how a particular viewer relates with the context and grounding nature of a particular on-screen character.
Now coming to the most important part , was this article helpful in making you any bit wiser ? You can check it out right now. If you are yourself confused with how you perceive a particular character , hold him/her for consideration in your mind. Now try applying the “Context-grounding-judgement” treatment to the character at a particular point in movies/comics. If you have been paying attention , you should definitely have a more precise and clearer picture of how you view that character.
This article was mainly crafted for the prevalent misconceptions between anti-heroes , villains and the concept of grounding in superhero/comic book movies and TV shows. I hope the contrast is much clear to you now after reading the article. And before you leave , here is a check up list for you. Let me know which of this characters you consider an anti-hero and which one a villain ; in the comments section below. The context and character are given ; it is up to you to decide the grounding and come out with the final judgement.
Elijah Price (Mr. Glass) from Unbreakable
Thanos from Infinity Gauntlet series
Dr. Doom in Secret Wars
Roberto “Robbie” Reyes (Ghost Rider) in Agents of Shield
Lex Luthor in Birthright
Batman in Superman : Red Son
Superman in Injustice : Gods among us
Dr. Zander Rice in Logan