Heroes and villains.
We like to think that the distinction between them is clear and simple. That is how most stories we tell go. Yet, we also like to play with what makes a hero and what makes a villain. We play with the ideals of good and the vices of evil, of light and dark, of black and white and gray. Many heroes fall, and many villains find redemption. And many are somehow just too cool to kill off.
Personally, I find myself lately fascinated by how sometimes there are villains who, while still remaining villains, do something quite heroic, whereas certain heroes, beneath their glorious veneer, can be as bad or worse than any villain, and yet still be heroes.
Take, for example, the flame-wreathed pyrokinetic warrior of My Hero Academia, Endeavor.
He is, by any measure, a hero to the public. He uses his abilities to protect the lives of civilians as well as the sanctity of law and order. He watches his comrades’ backs and wields his power with skill and precision. He risks his life on a daily basis, with such zeal that he is considered one the greatest heroes in Japan, and he has his own epic moments of triumph.
However, he has also failed in that one way for which there is no way to compensate: he has hurt his own family most terribly. On some level, he has lost himself to pride, envy, and an all-consuming drive to be seen as the very best there is. This desire manifested in a severely abusive relationship with his wife, whom he married only in the hopes of producing a child that could use both of their superpowers, controlling both fire and ice together. He saw this as his way to indirectly beat out his rivals, by creating a champion greater than any other, by the use of his own progeny. He drove his wife nuts, such that she maimed their son before she was institutionalized. He used her and thought to use their offspring like they were just tools for his self-aggrandizement.
Honestly, Endeavor is a bit of a scumbag like that. I don’t know if he ever comes to his senses, but he certainly takes it hard when he finally realizes that he never had a chance of surpassing the greatest hero in his country, not even when the man was at his weakest and practically on the brink of death for years on end. That was a mighty blow to his pride, which was what he defines himself by.
Contrast that with, from the same franchise, Stain, called the Hero-Killer. And with a name like that, it’s fairly natural for him to be a villain through and through, right?
As his aggressive title suggests, Stain’s particular passion is opposing the professional heroes of his society. He is very skilled and dangerous to any hero who crosses his path, and those he does not outright kill, he leaves maimed and crippled. This, he does with methodical precision, moving from place to place, striking down three heroes in succession anywhere he goes. It is a terrifying methodology, and he is something of the heroes’ bogeyman, the one they don’t want to meet in a dark alley somewhere. But they also hunt him, enraged at what he does, and so everywhere he strikes sees an increase, rather than a decrease, in heroic activity. Paradoxically, this may be what he actually wants to happen.
Stain is something of a riddle which is actually an overly-simplified answer to a much more complicated riddle, that of the unexpected complexity of heroism and villainy. He quite nearly worships one particular hero, and finds it offensive for “professional heroes” to depart from the ideology of that one. To this end, he strikes down three heroes in each place he goes, choosing targets who have committed some sin as he sees it, or who have some impure motive for their heroism such as fame, money, and status. And it must be said, he does have a point. Though, it also must be said, he would be something of an extremist, heretical disciple to the brand of heroism he praises.
So Stain is basically an edgy antihero, a villain with ideology, and his use of blades and blood give him a primal, visceral quality of attraction to go along with the force of his personality. Finally, to put the cherry on top, the last thing he does before he is finally defeated and captured is to save a young hero, one which matches even his own extreme standards for heroism. Small wonder, after all, since the boy is the direct disciple to and successor of the one hero which Stain worships above all.
Endeavor and Stain both see themselves as heroes, with one being publicly acknowledged as one and the other being condemned as a villain. Yet Endeavor’s heroic exterior seems a facade for something rotten lurking just below the surface, though hopefully not all the way to the core of his being. This, while Stain’s bloody brutality and the destruction he wreaks seem to conceal something far better within his own soul, something which simply gets very, very twisted by the time it shows itself externally.
Departing My Hero Academia, and moving over to another superhero anime, One Punch Man, we have another villain, Garou the Hero Hunter, who… well, he actually thinks of himself as a monster. As in, something which sheds humanity and is certainly not acknowledged as a hero.
Garou’s story is one that is simultaneously simple and complex. As a young boy, he was bullied for his peculiarities. At some point, he connected the handsome, popular bullies with the handsome, popular heroes on TV who always won every single fight. Why is the hero always human, always handsome, always popular, and always winning? Why is it always the ugly monsters who are beaten and cast out of society? He completely missed the part where the monsters were evil because they were hurting people, and the heroes were good because they were protecting people, and also the part where children’s shows are very oversimplified in order to teach life lessons.
Point being, Garou psychologically connects heroes with bullies and monsters with those who are always being ganged up on. He also sees himself as weak, being the one who was bullied, despite how he’s become a truly fearsome warrior. He hunts heroes, annihilating every one that crosses his path, with the intention of making the high and mighty feel a blow from the weak, as he puts it. While that would obviously be paradoxical, coming from him, he represents a very common human desire: to rip down the people who look down on us. In essence, it’s the need to prove that they are not greater than us, and we are not lesser than them. That desire has been justified in all sorts of ways throughout history, often to horrific results.
Yet, as Garou sees himself as one of the weak, he also has certain limitations. Though he crushes and destroys various heroes, it is later shown that several, if not all, of them are still alive in the hospital, so it would seem he doesn’t kill people. And he protects children at least twice in the anime.
The first time, he defends both the child, a young girl, as well as the battered hero he barely clashed with. The hero in question is utterly beaten, having faced both Garou and a huge insectoid monster in quick succession. Another villain, a monster, thinks to take advantage of the hero’s weakness, and probably kill the little girl, the hero’s sister, as well. Garou, however, puts a stop to that with one blow, without the hero or the girl ever noticing. Now, the girl, it is indicated, may be a good deal stronger than she looks, but the fact remains that Garou showed a brutal sort of honor in that moment.
The second time, he protected a young boy who had been dared by his classmates – a trio of bullies who promptly abandoned the boy to die in an ensuing conflict – to enter the remote building he was laying low in. A group of heroes showed up to take Garou down, and he was all too willing to engage them. However, he told the boy to stay in the building while he himself went out to face this superhero posse, and he asked politely if they might fight elsewhere, somewhere the building, and the boy, would not be caught in the crossfire. And then, when that request was declined, and when one of the heroes unleashed an onslaught in the wrong direction, Garou stood his ground and defended it. The building was destroyed, but that little corner which the boy was hiding in was protected. He went far out of his way, then, to keep a child safe.
Contrasted to that is Death Gatling, the hero who was leading this posse. Of course he was a hero, willing to risk his life for the public good, but when things went bad for him and his plans, he went nuts. That’s why he unleashed that barrage that nearly killed a boy, if not for Garou’s intervention, in a maddened, last-ditch attempt to kill Garou and claim the glory of his downfall. He wanted that glory as a means to upend the rigid, static hero classification system he had to work under, to prove that the higher-level heroes were not “higher” at all. It’s not entirely unlike Garou’s motivation, but much more self-centered and vainglorious.
Thus, we have a hero who is ultimately selfish, and a “monster” who protects children even at increased risk to himself. Yet, much like in My Hero Academia, there’s not really any question of who actually is the hero or the villain. It merely happens that the villains are doing something heroic at that moment.
It’s not a single choice, or a single act of good or bad, or even how pure or twisted one’s motivation is, which determines if one is a hero or a villain.
Perhaps it is simply that heroes and villains alike are defined by their own deep-seated issues. Heroes are imperfect, and yet have great power, and so when they get things wrong, it may well go very wrong. Villains are also powerful, and are usually getting things wrong, but when they get one thing right, it is quite firmly and immovably so.
I’m not too familiar with My Hero Academia or One Punch Man, but those sound like fascinating contradictions with the characters you mentioned. The thing is that in real life, everyone thinks they are the protagonists in their own lives. At worst, people think they are anti-heroes on their worst days. Not only that, but you have people who have been hailed as heroes despite doing horrible things or people demonized despite not doing anything evil. Thank you for making the point about how a lot of children’s shows often oversimplify everything (got to be brutally honest a LOT of Disney movies do this) and you could even have cases of protagonist centered morality as life doesn’t work that way in these shows and movies. This gave me something to think about here. Thanks for the well-written article.
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You are welcome! I am glad you enjoyed it and found it thought-provoking. 🙂
And yeah, kids shows, especially Disney, can be… *really* oversimplified. Oy vey. I haven’t seen their latest, Raya and the Last Dragon, but apparently they try to deliver a message about trusting and healing after betrayal and trauma. The way they deliver that message, thought, turns into something a bit toxic, like giving one’s abuser a second chance even when they aren’t showing any signs of change. Which is even more unsettling considering their target audience is children.
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Sure thing, Merlin. It was very interesting and I’m glad there are others who talk about morality of heroes and villains besides the obvious do-gooders or mustache-twirlers.
Oh, yeah…I’m glad you’ve noticed that even with our differing views on Disney. I haven’t seen Raya and the Last Dragon either, but I did hear about the concept of trust mentioned at some point of the plot. That does sound problematic with impressionable children around. As someone who has been psychologically abused in very subtle ways (gaslighting, racist dog whistle comments, low-key insults, etc.), I would not feel comfortable seeing anything like that if it was advocated in the movie.
Thinking about Accelerator in Certain Magical Index, though he has simply transitioned into an edgier hero now.
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