Villains, they’ve been coming up considerably in my last few days, from the friendly discussion I had on another unrelated post, about why I consider Lex Luthor one of my top DC Comic Heroes, to this great short article/thread regarding Killer Frost, and passing by that wonderful line that Captain Cold says at the end of the Arrow/Flash Cage fight promo, “Just remember, without us you guys would be out of business”, and this got me thinking about villains in general, and their importance.
I’ll get the conclusion out of the way right now; I won’t monologue my plan and then slowly torture the hero to a certain escape: A great villain makes a good hero; they are the salt in food, the silence in the library, the wind that makes the leaf soar, the arrows in the quiver, the vworp woosh in the TARDIS. Without a good villain, heroes are nothing.
(Whoever wants to bypass the rest and jump straight to the comments, this is your chance, my point has been made already)
Still with me? Cool, thank you.
We could think that sometimes the hero would still be great without a proper villain, and some of the cases I will describe below, or some that can come up in the comments would be very close to that, but in the end, we all have to admit that heroes would never have reached that level without them. (I say them, because it could be one entity, or a team, or a civilization, I’m sure that there are cases like that). The important issue here is that we are only as strong as our best adversary, without a proper force to fight we can only go so far on our own, our resolve diminishes, we hit a plateau… but a proper adversary makes us push harder, makes us do the most unimaginable tasks, they make us go further.
Want to go through some examples?
Manga and anime:
Rurouni Kenshin, also known as Samurai X, is my favourite manga of all time (Yes, it beats *insert manga that you are thinking*by a longshot) and as much as I love Kenshin and his support characters, it’s the villains of Rurouni Kenshin that make him great. Although I could digress on Udo Jin-E, Shinomori Aoshi, or Yukishiro Enishi, it is Seta Seijuro and Makoto Shishio that deserve the title of best villain in the series. They are the ones that, no matter how or why, pushed Kenshin to the limit. The books follow a beautiful crescendo up to the fight with Shishio. Without that battle with Shishio, (and I mean the full Kyoto arc not just the final fight) Kenshin would never have gotten to be who he is. He wouldn’t have evolved in terms of technique or mentality, nor would the others, Sanosuke would never have gotten to learn the Futae no Kiwami, Yahiko would not have the chance to show how much he improved, without Shishio Makoto, it would not be the same, it would be a shadow of what it is.
Naruto for instance, is a stupidly one dimensional character up to the end, and although I like the manga, it is the enemies that make the story, it is not the child with the nine tailed fox spirit inside him, it’s Orochimaru, it’s the Akatusuki and Uchiha Madara that hold the true interest of the series. (And the support characters, but that is something else for me to write about.)
Here we have two royal examples, firstly Prince Humperdink from the Princess Bride. Let’s think a bit about this guy. He is not brilliant, neither excels in any particular skill or trade, other than being a prince, but without him, there would be no adventure for Westley and Buttercup. Westley would have returned as the Dread Pirate Roberts, Buttercup would be happily surprised he wasn’t dead, and boom, marriage, kids, story over. Without Humperdink to set his unnecessarily complex and fun plan, we would never know that someone called Inigo Montoya was looking for a six fingered man to say “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die” , we would never hear the description of what a fight to the pain is, and what a description it is. We wouldn’t know who would be the next Dread Pirate Roberts… maybe Westley wouldn’t even return to Buttercup and give her the kiss that surpassed all kisses in history.
The second example is Joffrey Baratheon.
Oh… And also Ramsey Bolton, that literal and figurative bastard! Do I really need to explain why they are great villains we love to hate?
Here I’ll have to go to my Doctor. I love the Doctor, but although he is great in every way it is his villains, especially the recurrent ones that make him better. It would still be a good show if he was just traveling through space and time, in his little blue box, meeting people, seeing things, you know… Time Lord business. But it’s the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Master that make the Doctor incredible. This is actually painful to write, but I don’t think that I would love this series so much if he didn’t have that amazing opponents. The fact that the Daleks, the Cybermen and the Master are opposites of the Doctor, that they want to destroy, assimilate and/or conquer while he wants to preserve, assist and help is what makes the Doctor even better, it is what elevates what he does. Defeating and army would be easy for him. But defeating a single Dalek or the Master? Not everyone can do it.
Star Wars. Let’s have a show of hands, not counting Han and Chewbacca, who thinks the rebellion members are good characters? No one, of course!
But who thinks that, in different degrees, the Emperor and Darth Vader are the engines of the whole action of Star Wars? That without them, there would be nothing there? I’m sure I am not alone in this.
I could be here for days, with all the examples in the world of comics but I will keep them to a minimum.
The Flash, for me it doesn’t matter if it’s Barry, or Wally or Jay or even Bart. The Flash would be one of the most boring characters in comic books if it wasn’t for the Rogues. And a certain mind controlling Ape. But mainly Captain Cold and the Rogues. Imagine the Flash without Snart and the others? Can you picture how tasteless it would be?
Batman, the almighty, undefeatable normal super human, also will always depend of his villain’s gallery. Not only because he would be a lesser character without them, but because he is the one that created most of them. It’s an interesting paradox that without the Batman, there would be no Joker, but the Batman would be a lesser being if there was no Joker. They need each other.
Lastly, Lex Luthor against that villainous alien Kal-El.
I’m just kidding, I know that for everyone Lex is a villain, but I also know that he is what drives Superman to be who he is. They are two sides of the same coin, although at any point one could kill the other, they won’t. Yes, Lex could save the world with his resources any time he wanted, but if he did he would become what he hates about Superman, a pseudo-god that looks on down the little people and makes them lazy and won’t let them develop themselves, and Superman could also kill Luthor, he’s killed sometimes, not many but he has. However he won’t. I will even use Lex’s own words to finish my argument. “You could have crushed me any time you wanted. And it wasn't the law or the will of the people that stopped you - it was your ego. Being a hero was too important to you. You're as much responsible for this as I am! So go ahead, fix it somehow. Put me on trial, lock me up - but I'll beat it. And then we'll start the whole thing all over again.”
There are so many other examples I could use for this that I can’t even count. What would be of Charles Xavier without Magneto; Holmes without Moriarty; Beast without Gaston; Athena without Hades; Neo without Mr Smith; John McLane without Hans Gruber; Link without Ganondorf; Emmet without Lord Business; Bart without Sideshow Bob?
So, let’s open the discussion: Are villains what make a good hero? Who are your favourites and why?