“It is not our abilities that show what we truly are. It is our choices.”– Prof. Dumbledore,Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Columbus, 2002)
Every Hero needs a Villain. More than just an ordinary antagonist, the Villain exists as an example of what the Hero could have become if he had decided to use his powers selfishly for his own ends instead of selflessly using them to protect the public. The Villain provides a dark mirror for the Hero, a warning of what he must never become.
The Villain is a dark example of what the Hero could be. The Hero gets his abilities and decides to use them for good, while the Villain takes those same abilities and uses them for evil. This shows that it is not the powers alone that make the Hero a force for good; it is how he chooses to use those powers that sets him apart. When the Villain so closely resembles the Hero, it becomes clear how easily the Hero could have gone down the same evil path and how difficult it is for the Hero to resist that path.
Villains do not always have powers or abilities, however, and the contrast with the Hero can be achieved in more subtle ways. Many Villains simply oppose the thing that the Hero stands for. The X-Men are as much a political group as they are a superhero team. They fight for mutants and humans to be treated equally, while their Villains see mutants as superior or inferior to humans. In rare cases, the Villain can even be a dark mirror to the Hero’s civilian persona. For instance, Max Shreck in Batman Returns and Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2 are each billionaires like Heroes Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark, but they use their money for more nefarious purposes.
Without a Villain, there is no one to compare the Hero to. This is one of the reasons why Hancock was rather ineffective. There was no true Villain in the film, so there was never anything to definitively anchor Hancock on the side of good. Superhero Films need to have Villains in order to really show how good the Heroes are.
Villains also do not typically keep to any kind of moral code and have no qualms hurting innocent people. At some point in every Superhero Film, the Villain will hurt or kill someone; after all, that’s what evil people do. Conversely, many Heroes are given a moment to show mercy at some point in their story and will never kill anyone. It is not uncommon for the Hero to show compassion to the Villain himself. The Hero does this so that he does not sink down to the level of the Villain, and the moment becomes a reminder of the strength of the Hero’s moral character.
Villains only uses their powers to further their own agendas. They have absolutely no concern for anyone other than themselves and ignore the responsibility that comes with having great power. Heroes, on the other hand, know that they cannot use their powers to their own personal benefit. Some Heroes, like Peter Parker, may try to use their powers selfishly at first, but when they do, they learn quickly how damaging that can be. Peter’s Uncle Ben died as a direct result of Peter being too self-minded to use his powers to stop a common thief. If Villains ever learn the error of their ways, it is only because the Hero has shown them the way.
One of the most interesting Villains is Lex Luthor in Smallville. Smallville provides a much different take on Lex, as it does on every other aspect of Clark Kent’s life. Instead of simply relying on the brain/brawn dichotomy that has defined the relationship between Lex and Supes for decades, Smallville introduces a new factor: fathers. The main reason that Lex is evil is because of the way his father, Lionel, raised him; likewise, Lionel is the source of his power (intelligence and money). Similarly, Clark is the product of his two fathers. His adoptive Earth father, Jonathan Kent, is the source of Clark’s strong morals, while his Kryptonian father, Jor El, is the source of his powers. Thus, the factor that connects these two characters is that they were both shaped in their fathers’ image. Since the point of the show is to show Clark and Lex’s formative years, it is quite appropriate that the thing that connects them so strongly is their relationships with the men who raised them.
Recently, this point was driven home even further in the episode “Luthor”, which shows an alternate reality in which Clark was raised by Lionel Luthor instead of the Kents. Clark Luthor is an extremely corrupt and evil character. He shows none of the compassion and heroism that Clark Kent is so well known for. This demonstrates quite bluntly that both Clark and Lex are products of their upbringing, and that each could have easily been a completely different person just by having a different father. In addition, Clark uses a Kryptonian mirror-box to visit this alternate world, making it abundantly clear that Clark Luthor is literally Clark’s dark mirror. This is the exact purpose of Villains in Superhero Films, to provide an example of what the Hero could have become under different circumstances and driving home the point that not going down that dark path shows how ‘good’ the Hero truly is.
The Villain is the opposite of the Hero, ignoring the responsibilities that come with having great power. However, the Hero may not accept those responsibilities immediately either, and often it is the Mentor who points them in the direction of right.