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. 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 vigilnte 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.”