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Good Guys and Bad Dudes

  As the more astute of you have noticed, I have kind of a thing going on with heroes and villains. I enjoy discussing them, writing about them, and reading about them. This really isn’t saying that much, seeing as how most of the world’s fiction deals with ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ out-punching/out-thinking/out-dancing each other in a desperate bid for supremacy. But I also thoroughly enjoy reading way too much into things, so I think this is a topic that will warrant some analysis.

  First and foremost, though, you have to understand that I firmly believe one man’s hero is another’s villain. Media, especially fictional media, filters a lot of the ambiguity out of discerning who is and isn’t deserving of swift retribution. Usually, bad guys are unapologetic assholes and heroes and morally upright goody-two-shoes. Even a flawed hero tends to be more relatable than a sympathetic villain, and for the most part, creative people are perfectly fine with that. It takes an extremely bold author to muddy the waters enough to make every party equally heroic or villainous - and someone incredibly talented to do so in an engaging way.

  Today I’d like to take a look at several characters from different media and discuss what traits make them iconic or, at the very least, in the category they exist in. This certainly is not a definitive list, but it will contain an equal number of representatives of the hero and villain category.

  Here’s how this works: each person is judged to be in a category depending on just how the author intended them to be read. The only description that matters here is whether they are hero or villain according to the source material. That being the case, we may end up questioning or outright rejecting their official classification. Why? Because I can, dammit.

Mr. Freeze (DC Villain)

  Since the Batman comics have been around since before anyone was even alive, Mr. Freeze has gone through some minor changes in his origin story. And by that, I mean he’s been everything from a petty thief to head-in-a-jar-with-spider-legs to creepy guy obsessed with a frozen woman he’s never met. Clearly, Batman has the best villains.

  Anyway, the version I want to talk about is from the good 90's animated series and, to a limited extent, the Mr. Freeze one finds in Arkham City. Freeze’s wife is dying of something horrible, and he froze her in order to keep her alive to find a cure. Something bad happens, he becomes a humansicle, and in order to keep getting funding for research, he picks up a life of crime. A life of crime punctuated with getting his shit wrecked by Batman.

  The thing I really don’t like about Mr. Freeze is that I think he’s an incredibly sympathetic character that’s being pigeonholed into a villain role because Batman’s an asshole. Why doesn’t Bruce Wayne give Mr. Freeze a job, a research facility, and use the man’s incredible knowledge to better humanity? Because, simply put, Bruce Wayne can only get an erection if someone’s bleeding - bonus points if that someone is an ailing near-widower.

  If you took Batman out of the picture, Mr. Freeze is essentially a slightly more selfish version of Robin Hood - a good guy doing bad things for a noble goal. But then again, isn’t Batman, too? But that’s beside the point - this is about Mr. Freeze. He really doesn’t make a good villain because he makes the hero look like a jerk. Check out this video where a helpless Mr. Freeze is threatened with death by the good guy just because the guy in pajamas is impatient.

  Yes, the dude has a freeze ray. Yes, he’s held the city hostage. Yes, he’s a criminal and blah-dee-blah. So what? If Bruce loses his parents to a random thug and proceeds to break countless bones for the sake of “justice”, I can look the other way when a despondent scientist goes a little bonkers and steals money to save his dying wife. Hell - most juries would probably give the guy some community service as opposed to a severe pummeling from some guy in a gimp suit.

The Punisher (Marvel Hero)

  Alright kiddos, you say you like Batman, but want more bloodshed and death? Then Marvel Comics has a guy for you!

  Frank Castle’s entire family is murdered for various reasons, depending on which comic you’re reading/movie you’re watching. However, they unintentionally make the mistake of not finishing off the military veteran and all-around ass kicker Frank Castle, who becomes the Punisher. Because while he may know six thousand ways to kill a man with a plunger, he’s not the most creative type.

  Anyway, there’s something I love about the Punisher, even if he is a deranged maniac. I mean, seriously, the second paragraph on the Wikipedia page reads a touch like a serial killer’s “Turn Ons” if they were posing for Play Murderer. He’s a lot like Batman, only without the whole bullshit “I can’t kill” hangup. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating wholesale murder, but it’s nice that he can stick to his convictions.

  I think the Punisher is appealing because he is so starkly monochromatic in his world view. You’re either a good guy or a bad guy. If you’re a bad enough guy, you get to find out what your intestines look like. There’s none of that silly “Look who broke out of the asylum again” crap. Instead, it’s “Look who somehow didn’t die enough the first time - let’s fix that.”

  Sadly, I can’t really say that the Punisher is all that great of a hero. He’s basically a hobo with bloodlust. And looking back on it, seeing as how First Blood was published two years before Castle showed up to menace Spider-Man, I can’t help but assume that John Rambo’s angry hobo is the proto-Punisher. He’s about as deep as a puddle - in all the versions that I read/watched, he usually ends up avenging his family right off the bat. After that, he’s just going through the motions. And, really, if I want to watch someone go off to a job they feel they need to have, I’d watch Office Space. At least there’s some humor there.

  I think there’s a lot to be said about the Punisher and its place in the pantheon of 70's mega-violence. I mean, the comic is a similar product to movies/books like Death Wish, but there isn’t the obvious undercurrent of ethnic fear-mongering the latter so unabashedly represents. Or maybe there is, and I just haven’t seen it. Long story short, it’s an empowerment fantasy, only the guy behind the guns has the personality of a dried squid.

  But, damn it all if I don’t still love the Punisher. He’s just so certain about everything. I mean, there’s this scene where Bruce Wayne kills dozens of people all because he doesn’t want to kill one guy. That’s not cool, that’s him being a hypocrite. When Frank Castle kills people, he really, really, means it. So not cool in real life. But in a world of easy-to-identify bad dudes, he’s pretty keen.

Galactus (Marvel Villain)

  He’s a big dude that eats planets for sustenance.

  Wait... we live on a planet!

  Yeah, that’s really the long and short of Galactus. He’s on at least one top ten villain list, which allows me to place him here. The problem being, of course, that Galactus isn’t a bad guy. He’s a “force of nature” who just happens to only be able to acquire nutrients by devouring planets. That sucks, but let’s not be a dick here. Would you call a starving lion a villain because it happens to eat a tourist? No, of course not. Unless you’re a child, then you clearly shouldn’t be on this website.

  The point I’m making is that, just because Galactus eats a lot of sentient life forms and the fact that his peculiar diet makes us potential entrees doesn’t mean he’s a villain. That’s like declaring war on a hurricane, trying to sue an earthquake, or having a small town sheriff vow to arrest a tornado. These are natural disasters, potentially dangerous ones at that, but there’s no real way to hold them accountable for their actions. Galactus happens to look like a giant dude - that’s really the only reason he’d be classified as anything other than “Ragnarok’s a comin’”.

  If - and really, this is a huge if - one was to claim him to be a villain, he’s an incredibly terrible one. After all, he’s constantly being beaten by the Fantastic Four, Marvel’s official Q-Listers, ranked below the Girl Scouts but still above Dazzler in America’s lines of defense.

  So, yeah. This guy? Totally not a villain. Sorry. As a consolation prize, he did inspire one of the best episodes of The Tick, and for that, I will salute his purple-and-blue Mayan/Aztec/Incan/Drunken-Halloween-Party outfit.

Wolverine (Marvel Hero)

  Full disclosure: when I play video games that have Wolverine in them, I always choose him. Even if he’s the worst possible choice, Wolverine kicks so much ass that I blindly hope my love for the character will overwhelm the programming and fix any shortcomings my favorite canuck may have. It may be that my brother’s favorite super hero was Wolvie and this is a side effect of wanting my brother’s approval, but if you don’t like the short dude with claws, science has proven you’re a terrible person.*

  Anyway, there’s no real overwrought origin story for Wolverine. I mean, there is some dark and mysterious background to the guy, but at his most basic, he’s a permanent grump who just wants to be left alone. Eventually, someone will pester him enough or he’ll get angry enough to start killing the bad guys - well, usually the bad guys. Unlike the Punisher, Wolverine’s code of ethics certainly dips into the grey-zone. Which I guess is why he’s the more compelling character.

  Compared to Frank Castle’s unstoppable onslaught, Wolverine is a bit more reigned in. Maybe not quite subtle, but definitely less murderous with a side of mutilation. He’s still objectively a killer, but that fact also seems to weigh on him some. In fact, compared to the Punisher, Wolverine is a bundle of barely suppressed rage and emotions. He has, after all, lived several lifetimes. That fact by itself would justify why he wants to be alone.

  I guess what I’m saying here is that the bone claw sporting, metal-coated skeleton having, pointy-haired, indestructible and ageless comic-book Canadian is more relatable than an ex-army veteran taking the law into his own hands. Which, interestingly enough, was a sentence I never thought I would type.

  *It included owls. It was all very scientific, I assure you.

Magneto (Marvel Villain)

  A man who somehow manages to bemoan the discrimination against mutants while calling his criminal organization The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants is either insane or has huge balls. You should honestly read the silly mental loops writers had to go through to justify having “Evil” in the name - it reads like a drunken hipster philosophy major got into an argument with his cat about morality.

  Anyway, the story of Magneto is pretty interesting - at least when they got around to actually making it not be “I’M AN ASSHOLE!”. His family was murdered in the Holocaust, and he wants to make sure that such horror never repeats itself. Granted, he does it through violent and extreme means, but it isn’t exactly like society was super-cool with mutants to begin with and Magneto wanted a bigger piece of pie. In the reality of the comic books, society was already building killer robots to hunt down humans who happened to be born genetically different and Magneto was responding to that very obvious genocide attempt.

  So, really, Magneto is only a sometimes-villain. We can really find ourselves sympathizing with his goals. We may not agree with how he is determined to see that dream come true, or even when that noble goal turns into something more kill-tastic, but he’s someone whose knowledge and past makes him unwilling or unable to see the magnitude of his own crimes. That’s the ultimate tragedy of the Magneto character - he can dip into Nazi territory pretty easily and he’s oblivious to it.

  I think this even makes him a more effective villain than Mr. Freeze. In at least one incarnation, I could see the ice-man as the star of his own film, fighting to save the wife that he loves so much at the cost of his humanity. Magneto as the protagonist/central character would suffer from a noble goal, but an almost intolerable method of reaching that goal. It would be tragic, but much harder to relate. It’s the glimpses we see that humanize Magneto. Spending too much time with him makes him into the very same monster he claims to be fighting against.

Superman (DC Hero)

  I really, really don’t like Superman. He’s boring. After all, he’s essentially God Man, with all the powers the writers feel like giving him with only one significant weakness. Most of his villains have to be extraterrestrial or extradimensional in order to even stand a chance. And even then, our dull-as-dishwater hero swoops in and wins just because.

  I know I’m selling Superman short. But I can’t get myself interested in anything involving the curly-cued idiot. The joy of Spider-Man is watching him outwit his foe. Wolverine is a powder-keg with a tragic past and can potentially kill allies as well as friends. Batman is the “world’s greatest detective” thanks to plot-convenient bat-themed deus ex machinas. There is potential for drama in all these stories. With Superman, it’s usually just biding his time until the reader’s patience is exhausted and he rolls out a super power.

  Superman always seemed like a 5 year old’s idea of an awesome guy. I mean, go up to a child (don't steal one- kidnaping is widely understood to be a very bad thing) and ask them to draw their very own hero. And then ask what that hero can do. If the answer isn’t “everything” or a laundry list of super powers, then that child has a severe lack of childhood. But that’s another article. The point is, Superman’s comes across like this kind of conversation. You know, great for keeping the young ones amused, but not all that stimulating.

  But, I suppose he does appeal to something in us, as he’s been around since... well, longer than Batman. Which (if you remember) was longer than anyone has been alive, making Superman older than Zeus or something. In any case, Superman is the ultimate American success story, which has certainly been written about endlessly before. He is, after all, an immigrant (an illegal one, at that) who rose up to be the paragon of the United States.

  But even that doesn’t really tell us much, other than he’s “like us”. After all, the United States is a pretty big nation, full of people at varying places on the political and sanity spectrums. If he fights for “Truth, justice, and the American way,” what American way is he fighting for? Liberal? Conservative? He slapped around the “Clan of the Burning Cross” at one point, but the writers had to be careful to avoid the wrath of the very real and very violent Klan. So, while he hates intolerance, the invincible guy doesn’t really want to piss off a bunch of angry bigots. But where was he during Selma? What was his stance during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980's? I do know he teamed up with Muhammad Ali at one point, which means he... um... punched things... with Muhammad Ali, I guess.

  The point is, the American way is personal. If you could get 100 different Americans of all kinds in a room to fully agree on more than 10 identifying traits of “the American way,” I’d be shocked. In fact, if they could not start screaming at each other as soon as politics is brought up, I’d probably die of a heart attack. This is in no way a condemnation of anything. It’s simply an observation that Americans are a pretty varied lot, and choosing one person to represent the country as a whole is ambitious, a touch silly, and results in a guy so bland saltines routinely suggest adding a bit of pizzaz to his personality.

  But that’s probably one of the reasons that he has such lasting power. Because no matter what particular bent the American reader, Superman represents them. It’s clearly effective, and certainly helps to make the alien-immigrant-god-man-thing relatable to the average comic fan. So, despite the fact that he may not be a good hero, he’s an effective hero. At the very least, from a slightly-manipulative standpoint.

  Because, seriously, he’s got as much character as wicker. Then again, at least the furniture adds accent to a room.

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