Jeff Jensen
March 26, 2009 AT 08:13 PM EDT

Heroes and Villains have been with us since… well, day one, when God and the devil emerged donning the original white and black hats. Good guys and bad have been around since the birth of pop culture, as well: The first official movie blockbuster was something of a Batman-versus-Joker superhero saga, a provocative, reflection-of-its-times epic about caped crusaders who wore horned masks and a mad rogue who wore makeup. It was D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Ku Klux Klan-centric Birth of a Nation, a Titanic-like phenomenon of its time that is now regarded as a major (if cringingly racist) cinematic milestone.

Nearly a century later, stories about heroes and villains have never been more popular. Kids and parents alike have been mesmerized by the literary and cinematic clashes between Harry Potter and his nemesis, Voldemort. (The sixth film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, opens July 17.) And then there’s Spider-Man, Batman, Pirates of the Caribbean, 24, Lost. Even American Idol. (Dream-squashing Simon Cowell = Jedi-killing Darth Vader. Come on!) At a time when nebulous terrorist threats and pending environmental catastrophe have left our country profoundly rattled, we should logically be drawn to tales of strong, valiant souls who can control their destinies and bring an easily definable fiend to justice. And yet, so many of our heroes these days are unheroic: Showtime’s Dexter is a vigilante who kills criminals, because he happens to be a serial killer. Jason Bourne is a cipher to himself who can’t understand why he reflexively snaps people’s necks. 24’s Jack Bauer often acts like a terrorist so he can catch one. Do drastic times make for drastic heroes, like Christian Bale’s Batman-or was Heath Ledger’s Joker correct in arguing that “good” and “evil” are meaningless concepts? “The line between heroism and villainy has become blurred,” sums up Stephen King. “We’ve come a long way since The Rockford Files.”

Getting to the point where we can’t accept pure good or evil has been a 50-year evolution. Or devolution, depending on your point of view. Start with 1960’s Psycho. Alfred ? Hitchcock’s landmark thriller, suffused with trendy pop psychology, imploded traditional hero-driven stories to showcase a more complex kind of deviant than Dracula or Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. Norman Bates was mad and mundane, random yet explainable. He also minted the slasher/serial killer, paving the way for Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger. When James Bond first appeared on film in 1962’s Dr. No, he created the modern mold for the cool, quippy action hero, and his license to kill gave him an edgy amorality, conferring upon him a coldhearted ruthlessness antithetical to conventional white-knight do-gooding. That same year, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko revolutionized the superhero with Spider-Man, an alienated young man for whom the mantra “With great power must come great responsibility” was a lesson to be painfully learned, not innately understood. “I wanted to write characters that I thought readers would find interesting,” says Lee. “And the only way I could do that was to write characters I could relate to. And I couldn’t exactly relate to Superman.”


Neither could the filmmakers of the Vietnam/Watergate era. Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Godfather (1972), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest(1975) turned criminals into heroes and justified the flip-flop bypainting the Powers That Be as hypocritical, corrupt, and controlling.In 1971, Dirty Harry told us that our justice system was a joke. The Exorcist(1973) questioned God’s goodness by infecting a girl with Satan and apriest with doubt. Things swerved back to the simplistic in 1977, when Star Warsseemingly chased off negativity with its high-tech gloss onswashbuckling and gunslinging. (And yet, with all due respect to Lukeand Obi-Wan, it was the self-preserving Han Solo and thecharismatically fearsome Darth Vader who captured our imagination.)Old-fashioned escapism continued into the ’80s with Indiana Jones,adventure incarnate. But as the blockbuster decade progressed, heroesgot slicker, glibber, and more cynical. The Planet Hollywoodtriumvirate of Sly, Arnold, and Bruce were urban cowboys who packedcatchphrases, huge guns, and a “by any means necessary” ethos.Meanwhile, in the comics, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns replaced Superman with a grim Batman as DC’s dominant superhero archetype.

Indeed, by the end of the ’80s and into the ’90s, heroes regularlyco-opted villainous traits (nihilism, sadism, indifference to rules).In comic books, “grim and gritty heroes became all the rage, and that’sa shame,” says author Neil Gaiman. “Everyone stole all the wrong riffs[from The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen]. The ideawas to become more ambitious and sophisticated, not more cynical.” Withthis twisted sameness pervading heroes, villains started stealing theshow: They were bad with flair, and put heroism on the run. (Literally:The Fugitive.) Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko and The Silence of the Lambs’ HannibalLecter were charismatic, quasi-enlightened human vampires who feastedon naïveté, ignorance, and idealism. This led into the jaded,alt-culture decade of grunge and Tarantino, “I am not a role model”superstar athletes, and Slick Willie politicians-the latest (and notthe last) in a long line. Selling heroism to the public wasn’timpossible-especially if Harrison Ford and Toms Cruise and Hanks wereinvolved-but it often needed to be served with irony (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) or nostalgia (Apollo 13). The noble docs of ER lost as many patients as they saved, while the truth-?seeking agents of The X-Files mostly lost. By the end of the century, The Matrix depicted reality itself as the ultimate villain, one requiring a machine-gun messiah to vanquish it.

The current state of heroism can be summed up in a word: Lost.Like the castaways of ABC’s mystery drama, today’s would-be heroes areso flawed or messed up, they need to be saved from themselves beforethey save anyone else. Some succeed, like Iron Man’s ethically murky Tony Stark. But many others-Anakin Skywalker; the meth-cooking cancer dad on Breaking Bad;almost anyone on HBO, Showtime, or FX-find it more empowering toembrace the dark side. These characters reflect a culture that feelspowerless and pissed: We desperately want good to triumph over evil,but we can’t staunch our doubts that good is up to the task. “We wantheroes to know the difference between good and bad, and we want them tobe strong,” says Lost exec producer Damon Lindelof. “However,it’s hard for such a person to be accessible unless they’re alsoextremely effed up.because only a seriously disturbed individual wouldwant to be a hero.”

The decade’s plague of monolithic fantasy villains are just astortured. Voldemort and Magneto are timeless and timely embodiments ofevil: intolerant, fanatic, corrupted. Yet like so many morally iffyheroes, these scarred rogues have world-saving ambitions, albeit warpedby hateful worldviews. The Joker and Saw’s Jigsaw Killer arepsychotic vigilantes persecuting society for failing to live up totheir potential or ideals. We need more from pop culture than justseeing good guys and bad guys in action-we need to see how they’remade. Case in point: Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling’s seven-book saga tookus deep inside the boy wizard’s trial-and-error transformation from aworld-wounded young boy to a young man who saves the world withoutcompromising himself or his values. We believed it, because Rowling-andHarry-did the hard work of proving it.

The era of the reconsidered hero will continue this year with asuccession of high-profile flicks that aspire to reboot old favoriteswith new relevance: Wolverine, Star Trek, Terminator Salvation, Sherlock Holmes.Hollywood clearly knows that we are not only fixated on heroes andvillains, but deeply familiar with their whole history, too. In thisweek’s EW, we will salute the ones who have best captured ourimaginations, as well as the results of an poll asking for yourpicks. (Judging from your No. 1 good-guy choice, old-school heroismisn’t totally dead. Now if only they could re-create a movie franchiseworthy of him.) You will also find a gallery celebrating four of themost dastardly villains ever to appear on screen. They’re nice people,as it turns out, though the one with the hungry eyes just might makeyou fear for your liver.

What do you think, PopWatchers? Who are some of your all-time favorite heroes and villains? Which hero-villain cinematic match-ups are you most looking forward to this year? How do you think the notion of what defines a hero has evolved over the years?

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