Heroes vs. Villains: Perspectives Changed
Killmonger, Doctor Doom, Magneto, The Joker, even Thanos. What do these characters all have in common? The answer is not that they are bad guys. Each of these villains have similar motivations in multiple adaptations. The answer is that they represent unwanted change in an imperfect society. Quite often, when the villain is not a blind madman out to destroy the world, the villain is someone that people can identify with. If not for their conveniently evil personal flaws, many people feel that they would be right about a lot of things, which begs the question: why are the villains so identifiable?
The truth is that the concept of the villain has changed drastically over time. Back in the 1930s, when Superman first took flight, the stereotypical bad guy was different. Bank robbers and madmen were originally corrupt bankers, rich men, and corrupt prominent figures in society. Villains like Lex Luthor (corrupt businessman) and Dr. Hugo Strange (unethical asylum doctor) were commonplace. In a lot of ways, superheroes were the fantasies of the people; they took down the bad men people wanted to see taken down. Of course, that was before McCarthyism came into play.
Comic books were accused of being communist by McCarthyites in the U.S Senate, and things changed. The stories transformed from social statements to fun adventures. Villains that were once representative of a corrupt, capitalist society became bank robbers, terrorists, and other, socially acceptable miscreants. All political depth was stripped from comics because they were critical of systems common-folk perceived as corrupt.
It wasn’t until Marvel Comics published Spider Man, The X-Men, and the Hulk in the 1960s that depth returned to comic books. Once again, comic books could explore society unacceptable themes of society such as racism, bullying, and militarization. But, once again, the tides have turned in modern society. It became obvious when Magneto, the X-Men’s worst enemy, was implied to be a parallel for Malcolm X. The heroes now represent the systems they stood against in a lot of the popular media about them.
For example, the movies and cartoons depict heroes such as The Hulk or Spider Man as government employees that fight crime on behalf of the government, and the rich. Villains such as the Vulture, Mysterio, Baron Zemo, and even Loki have changed to represent the opposite of what they once were as well. Each of these villains were, for the most part, wealthy or affluent people that behaved selfishly in ways that jeopardized society. Now, they are the ones who have been jeopardized, and they fight for change.
By giving the villains comically evil actions, the moral arguments villains may make against social injustices are rendered silent. Killmonger can’t be a man looking to end racial injustice in the United States, he must be a mass murderer. Magneto can’t be a man looking for social equality, he must be an evil man looking to destroy society. Doctor Doom can’t be the man looking to revolutionize science, he must be the evil conqueror. The stories portray the message that wanting change in society means that you are a villain.
The changes in comic-based properties send a different ideological message than what the creators intended. No longer is the bad guy the representative of the system, the bad guy is the person that wants to change the system. The good guy is not the individual doing the right thing, legal or not. The good guy is the person that fights on the side of the law, moral or not. The heroes of yesteryear have become the villains of today and are now no longer communist threats.