America's Hero Problem

Why are we are making more and more heroes out of villains?

The conflict between a villain and a hero is at the very fabric of a good story. Thanks to this summer’s film lineup—as well as in major we can look forward to watching our favorite superheroes overcome their adversaries and restore peace in troubled times. But it's not just movies, it's also the stories that capture our attention. In the Zimmerman trial, the Boston Marathon bombings and and even abortion legislation, we all feel the need to find one person to elevate as a hero.

However, sometimes we take more of an interest in the villains than in the heroes. Audiences flocked to see Despicable Me 2, a movie centered around a super villain named Gru and his minions. Though Gru is a reformed (and rather unthreatening) villain, his story’s popularity still speaks to our shift to making the antagonist the focus of the story.

It seems sometimes we are confused about who is the victim, who is the villain and who is the hero.

Even outside of the theater—regarding real tragedies—it seems sometimes we are confused about who is the victim, who is the villain and who is the hero.

The Boston Marathon Bombings. Columbine High School. Virginia Tech. Aurora Colorado. Sandy Hook Elementary School. And so many others in-between. After each mass shooting, experts analyzed and related their deductions to the general public about what would trigger such violent behavior. The question became “why,” and as a sickening amount of similar incidents occurred, the causes were boiled down to such things such as treatment by peers, psychological problems, a breakdown in the family or even video games and media.

As the weeks and months following each shooting passed, a subtle shift began to occur. A fascination with the antagonist, his motives and even his own victimization became the nucleus of the discussion.

A message began to emerge that we should seek to understand people's stories. We were told to give consideration to those accountable for their actions. We were told to see the situation as a full picture and to have a thoughtful analysis toward all parties involved.

And it is true that in this imperfect world no one is perfect. In the Christian worldview, this world is fallen and we are offered redemption. Grace is our only hope in the midst of the judgement we deserve.

However, it is being taken a step further than merely having compassion, understanding or grace for the guilty. The roles are in some twisted way reversed, and the victims have become, in part, responsible for their own massacres.

In essence, the gunman who shoots innocent victims is only reacting to what society has done to him. For he has felt excluded, perhaps even made fun of. His natural reaction would, in fact, be to lash out, and if he had only been loved a little more, treated a little better, had a bit of a better life, this would never have happened.

Yet, contrary to all of this, there have been many people who have endured similar, painful pasts. They have been homeless, mistreated and poor. These same people have not gone into movie theaters or schools shooting others at random. In fact, they have lived upright, commendable lives in the face of much opposition.

Yet, somehow, while the funerals were still going on, the antagonist—the perpetrator—stole the stage from his victims.

In his book, Orthodoxy, G.K Chesterton writes about the difference between the hero in the modern psychological novel and the hero in the fairy tale:

“...ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining about the dullness of life. This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the fairy tales endure forever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the center is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of today discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world.”

And this change can be seen in the media coverage of every school shooting, terrorist attack and even in popular crime dramas. The ideas of personal responsibility and consequences for evil actions are overridden by compassion and understanding for those answerable. In fact, an allowance seems to be made at times, as if their circumstances were so hellish that their only choice was to act in such a way. Suddenly it is not their fault.

The ideas of personal responsibility and consequences for evil actions are overridden by compassion and understanding for those answerable.

The murderer's story has taken precedence over those killed. For it is always our leaning to favor the “underdog.” Maybe some of those killed were rich. Maybe some came from good families. If we are astute, we will perceive that the antagonist wants to punish his victims for being good. Every super hero's nemesis is motivated by envy. Instead of asking what he can give to society, he is after what he can take. Instead of rejoicing in other's accomplishments, he is wallowing in self-pity for his own middle-of-the road life. Instead of being thankful and reaping the benefits of the other's knowledge and skills, he is quick to look for ways of bringing the hero to ruin.

It used to be that we would support this hero. Just like the everyday, hard-working citizens who were thankful for his protection.

But the focus has been switched. While the hero—an upright and commendable character—is saving the princess from the dragon, we have become focused on the dragon who would not hesitate to kill thousands with fire from his breath. For the modern story tells us the dragon was never loved.

Folk artist Antje Duvekot's song “Judas” illustrates this shift in frame of mind.

Jesus, he was the schoolyard martyr/
Was every mother's perfect son/
Not like Judas In the back of the schoolbus/
Invisible to everyone

Well, there was lots of love in between
Joseph and Mary/
Joseph was the head coach at the high school/
And they were living down on Judas' street/
They'd be pitching Sundays in the grass/
And usually Judas' father would be drunk...

The song goes on to say that Judas gets a gun and bullets and walks into the school, making it clear why in the chorus, Jesus is considered the “schoolyard martyr.”

You Might Also Like

Without even getting into the song's shocking exclusion of society's reaction to Jesus (which included mockery, anger, resentment, hatred and his being crucified), the ideas here are disturbing at best.

Judas has taken center stage. He is the main character, and our fascination with something different moves our focus onto him, his problems and his motives. It seems it was not his fault to act in the way that he did. In fact, his envy is justified.

Yet, even more alarming than Judas's move to prominence is this: Jesus—the one who sacrificed his life for those who hated him—is no longer the hero.

The dragon has become the hero.

And Jesus—the rescuer of the world—has become the villain.


Lindsey Miller


Lindsey Miller commented…

But Bane doesn't upstage Batman (okay, Joker maybe sorta does at least in The Dark Knight-- but I would argue that is more to do with Ledger's performance than the character himself). He just gives us another arc to follow and thus makes a better, more comprehensive story. It makes us uncomfortable because once we get to know "the other" they are less of an other and more like, well, ourselves. As the saying goes, it's difficult to hate up close. And I would argue that is actually a GOOD thing in our culture what with our pervasive distrust of those who are different or labeled this or that by the media "fundamentalist" "racist" "misogynist" "democrat" "conservative" etc. That when we are given the opportunity to peer into the "other side" we get to see part of the bigger picture. Certainly, a clearer one.

I stand by my assertion that at the very least, it makes for more compelling storytelling. (Which, as an aside, I'm a fiction writer and I get really uncomfortable when people want to jump from trends in fiction to real life incidents. The Adam Lanzas/ David Koreshs/Hitlers etc of the world are not "villains" because despite what USA network would like to think, they aren't *characters.* They are REAL people. There is a literal world of difference between Dexter Morgan and John Wayne Gacy and extrapolating from the way we interact with fiction and applying it to real life is rather disingenous to say the least).

Personally, I don't think by identifying in some way with a villain means we are "exchanging a truth for a lie." Rather, we're accepting the fact that human truth is inherently murky.

You may want to make the case that "our culture's change in focus can take us farther than having a balanced view," but that wasn't my takeaway from the article. And in my opinion (which, frankly, is just one opinion) your argument is not supported by evidence (either anecdotal or empirical). Of course, I don't agree with GK Chesterton's quote either, so there you go. ;)

A look at HBO's or Showtime's recent-- and by that I mean like the last 10 years-- line-up reveals almost nothing but flawed anti-heros, those who very often look quite a bit like the "villains" they pursue. This is hardly a brand new trend.

But the really interesting question, to me anyway, is are filmmakers setting the pace? Or are they addressing their audience members' desires to see anti-heros and complex villains? What do the showrunners want us to get from such characters? Or can they control that bit at all?

That's the peskiness of making a film (or say, writing) FOR an audience-- its members may take away something wholly different than what you intended.

Alexander Jeans


Alexander Jeans replied to Lindsey Miller's comment

First off I would like to thank Mary for this highly insightful article. As someone who writes fiction with real villains as well as grey characters I think it is vital for Christians to ponder what exactly they believe concerning moral responsibility and evil. With that I would like to comment on Lindsey's views. "Personally, I don't think by identifying in some way with a villain means we are "exchanging a truth for a lie." Rather, we're accepting the fact that human truth is inherently murky."

Hello Lindsey. I agree with you up to a point, but what perplexes me is this last statement you made. Am I to understand that you believe "truth" itself to be murky, or do you mean a certain "type" of truth, i.e. human views on truth?

In large part I agree with Mary in that popular culture has to an extent removed personal responsibility from the characters, trying to portray them as determined or even predestined by their past. As Mary points out, the fact is that not everyone acts according to what they've been through. There are thousands of people who live in absolutely horrible cesspools of human depravity, and yet they have the courage and the insight to understand that they themselves determine their own choices, not the circumstances or atrocities they see around them.

Certainly there are people in the world who have not decided whether to follow follow their consciences or not. These are, as I see it, the grey characters. But it is simply false to say that we are all "grey" in our outlook on life. Most people have a moral compass that they prefer to follow, even though they much of the time fail in this. But "grey characters" are no more believable for their divided loyalties or lack of conviction. I agree that it makes for good entertainment, but as for its being more "true to life" I would say it is more of a caricature of life.

he problem with so-called "hero fiction" is not necessarily that the heroes have very firm convictions. As I've noticed, most people find heroes unconvincing because they follow their rules "to the letter". Since no one does this in real life, in fiction it doesn't come off as very relatable. Other writers have then taken it a step further, saying that no decided characters exist, which if anything is a complete lie or misunderstanding. Even George Martin has heroes in his novels. As I see it, Ned Stark was a hero, and Rob Stark shows many of the same qualities. To say that these characters are grey is, I think, a mistake in definitions, if one wants to get picky. The shows writers, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss said they wanted to create a world "with no heroes" (paraphrasing). Come again? I would feel prompted to say.

Paul Hjellming


Paul Hjellming commented…

Mary, first, thank you for writing this article. Though I don't agree with the position you put forward in it I appreciate the discussion and intellection that it has catalyzed.

You say that the orchestrators of terrible acts have their stories emphasized over the victims of their acts and that they are turned from villains into victims themselves.

First, I think we're all victims and we all act in ways that are partially determined or influenced by a mix of our thinking, our past decisions and the hurt that has been inflicted on us. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we act in ways that are harmful to ourselves, others or both. Ask any addict. They may hate their addictions but there are times when they indulge them without properly considering the consequences. That doesn't excuse their behaviors, but until someone is willing to reach into those messes and try to understand the reasons that they do the things they do the likelihood of preventing pain, sin and loss is not very high.

Further, I think it's natural for anyone, victim or bystander, to respond to heartbreaking events with "Why?" There's no logical reason the Sandy Hook shootings happened. People aren't meant to do things like that. I think, specifically, that it's helpful for healing to take place. It would be easy for the families of the victims to dismiss Adam Lanza as an evil person and harbor bitter feelings towards him forever. But to understand the circumstances he was in, the events in his life that led up to his decisions means the beginning of empathy and forgiveness. I can't imagine that step being an easy one for those families to take, and no one should ever try to force that step onto them. But I think if reconciliation is to ever take place, a connection must be made between victim and perpetrator.

Also, I think in some ways, the media's focus on the perpetrator in these tragic situations is to avoid overwhelming the victims. Can you imagine if Headline News had run nonstop coverage, trying to get in touch with the victims' families? It would have been reprehensible. But the events are still news. So journalists turn to the perpetrator. I don't say that to excuse the metaphorical beating some individuals have had to endure at the hands of Headline News or other organizations in the name of "journalism," just to say if they must cover the story, the perpetrator is probably a more honorable subject than the victims.

Chad Pittman


Chad Pittman commented…

What Lindsay said^.. I second that. You're way off friend...

Chad Pittman


Chad Pittman commented…

Also.. have you even seeeeen Dispicable Me? cuz you missed the point of that too.



MariJean commented…

Hey thanks for this article. This topic of deconstruction and postmodern thought in literature has been something I've researched quite a bit over the past years - it fascinates me and I'm still not sure exactly where I stand. Honestly, three years ago I would have written an almost identical article as yours (using, ironically, some of the same references!); but now, I'm not so sure. I think the biggest thing that has started to change my mind is to see the villain side from up close. It makes it much harder to draw black and white lines when someone you love is struggling with decisions that utterly destroy others - just like a villain - and you watch and say, "but...but they're my [friend/father/daugher/whatever!] You have seen their struggle too, and how they used to be capable of so much love. You have seen the other factors (childhood/abuse/etc.) that "made" them the way they are. I still totally agree with you that each is responsible for their own actions before God and towards others - I just think that perhaps - while flawed - our society is at least hitting on one aspect that former literature missed.

Please log in or register to comment

Log In