How we love our power fantasies and the heroes that go along with them. It seems we cannot get enough of watching the really bad guys meet their demise at the hands of the really good guys. From the earliest of times, people have needed heroes — real or imagined — to confront the darkness in their world. They needed to witness that darkness could be defeated. All it required was that one person — one extraordinary human being, half mortal, half God — meet the darkness on a battlefield.
Ultimately, the hero was the representative that society sent into battle on behalf of the “good” people of the world to defeat the “bad” people of the world. The battle of good versus evil has been waged since time began and will continue until time is no more. Good and evil are the polar opposites that govern our world. Deep in our spiritual DNA is an archetypal belief that when society gets too dark, when evil seems to rise up in some form threatening to destroy all that good has created, a cosmic force inherent to the life system itself will send a hero, or a group of avenging heroes, to defeat the aggressors. It never occurs to us that good will be defeated. It cannot be defeated. After all, the myth of good versus evil assures us that good is always victorious. And no matter how vicious or clever evil has become through the decades — from swords to spaceships — good has saved the day.
We in the Western world have a very particular Hero archetype that we have come to idolize. Though this Hero archetype has evolved through the centuries, from Robin Hood to the Lone Ranger and Batman, still we expect our heroes to remain true to very specific characteristics. Likewise, our villains — that is, those who wear the costumes of evil — follow particular patterns of behavior as well.
What this says about us is that we like good and evil to be consistent. And you know what? They are. They represent a type of “fantasy theology.” That is, they are a manifestation of gods and demons on Earth doing battle over who controls the landscape of humanity. Whether a hero or a group of heroes arrives just in time to save an individual or an entire metropolis, they are unconsciously or archetypally recognized as invincible semihuman gods that can fly off buildings, survive endless explosions and nonstop gunfire, and walk away after six men have beaten them to a pulp. Through it all, it never occurs to us that any of these brutal assaults could destroy them, or even do them serious harm. In fact, we expect some of them to heal before our eyes.
We rely upon the myth that we will always be saved from evil by a divine force that exists somewhere “out there” in the celestial realm. We have an inherent need to believe that some form of “divine intervention” is in play within this human experience of ours, but as such actual intervention is vague, spiritual, and comes at the cost of living a far more spiritually conscious life so far as ethics, morals, and financial integrity are concerned, people prefer the intervention of earthly heroes. These require admiration but not adoration, respect but not reverence, gratitude but not grace.
In short, our fantasy heroes fulfill our need to acknowledge the existence of evil but allow us to still dwell in the illusion that we are personally immune from its diabolical influences. We can remain content in the observational role, viewing the villains of the world as the evildoers while we remain innocent victims waiting to be rescued by the great, big good guys who are destined to arrive from “somewhere out there,” because that’s the way the myth is written.
Villains and heroes, particularly heroes, are not allowed to dwell among ordinary mortals. We do not mingle with demigods, or rather, they do not mingle with us. Perhaps it compromises their power, or their purity. Or is it because we cannot bear to see their flaws? Who really wants to see Batman with indigestion? We need to keep our image of them godlike. We need to, in other words, keep them in costume.
So, let’s explore the archetypal conventions our heroes and villains have always followed, because even though they have evolved through the centuries from riding horses and rowing ships to manning spacecraft, they remain fundamentally the same good guys battling the same bad guys.
The Hero Archetype
–Our heroes need to be loners with serious, if not melancholy, personalities. They are, after all, fighting evil and taking on the suffering and burdens of the innocent. It is unimaginable that they would be lighthearted when their job is to save us.
–We love our heroes to be disguised or to have secret identities. Robin Hood was among the early figures with this trait, hiding his true status as the Earl of Huntingdon from his fellow forest dwellers. The Lone Ranger was known as the “masked man,” but perhaps the most dashing of all masked heroes was Zorro, whose impressive equestrian skills made him a wondrous spectacle. Superheroes such as Batman, Superman, Spiderman, and Iron Man have kept up the tradition of secrecy and disguises, suggesting that the source of their power is intimately tied to an inner or true identity. Good, in other words, has an interior identity, a soul identity, that needs to be kept hidden from public view. The hero’s true identity can only be revealed to his most-trusted allies, who are few and far between.
–Some of our heroes give the impression of having loved but lost their true love. The broken heart makes them more romantic. William Wallace (Braveheart) is one such hero. Whether the story of the brutal death of his bride at the hands of a British officer is truth or myth is irrelevant; it became the fodder of his myth. Robin Hood was tied to Maid Marian, but his story does not go on to tell of his life with her. Batman’s love life is a disaster, as is Spiderman’s. We cannot bear to share our heroes with any romantic figure.
–Heroes have to be strong and invincible for men and available — that is, single — for women. Men dream of being heroes, of being able to “go it alone” on their own hero’s journey, returning from battle exhausted but honored. Women dream of being rescued by an invincible man. Heroine figures such as Wonder Woman will never be more than second-rate figures, as neither men nor women fantasize about being saved at the last minute by an Amazon woman, no matter how attractive, clever, or powerful she is.
–We need our heroes to be good guys through and through. They are free to master all weaponry and create the most astonishing technologies to transform their physical nature into superhuman form; however, we cannot allow them to cross the Evil Rubicon. That is, our heroes do not mindlessly kill, if they kill at all. Rather, their ultimate weapons are wit and genius. We need evil to be defeated by the strategic capabilities of the human spirit. We need to see again and again that evil is not as clever as good, for if that was not so, what purpose does suffering serve? Life would be meaningless if all the pain that comes with the human journey did not, in some way, assure us that we would survive to thrive in better times.
The Villain Archetype
–We love to hate our villains. They intrigue us because evil intrigues us. Villains do what we can never imagine ourselves doing, or perhaps what we would like to imagine ourselves doing but would never do in actual life (although many people have imitated villains; copycat killers, for example.).
–Fantasy villains are evildoers in the extreme. Batman’s adversary, the Joker, or Spiderman’s nemesis, the Green Goblin, can wipe out entire cities if not half a country. Evil has gone nuclear because we as a global society are “living with our finger on the button.” Although we have fantasy adversaries that we pay to watch at the movies, deep in our unconscious, at the archetypal level in us, we grasp that we really are living in a time of far-reaching evildoers. We call them terrorists. We don’t know where they are. They could be anywhere, living amongst us, even sitting next to us in the theater. This is our new world.
–Our villains are social misfits. They are damaged goods, outcasts. Rather than donning masks that make them look dashing or intriguing, villains show their gruesome faces. The Joker’s is hideously slashed. The Green Goblin, Spiderman’s best friend’s father-turned-villain, is exactly what his name suggests: a horrific-looking creature.
–Villains are rich. And today’s supervillains are superrich. In fact, many are billionaires who have nothing else to do with their resources than create destructive toys and weapons.
–Supervillains share a contempt for society, but especially for the “little guy.” They embody the disdain so many people actually feel for “ordinary mortals.” The truth is, one of the deepest, darkest fears people carry within them is that they might be “just ordinary.” Parents, for example, project “extraordinary” onto their children as a way of compensating for their own feelings that they are living an inadequate life. The fear that one might be ordinary connotes that one is not protected from ordinary disasters, that one has no power to determine his or her fate, that one is subject, in other words, to the whims of chance. By having the power to destroy or punish ordinary mortals, the individual declares himself to be the destroyer and in so doing challenges the greater “powers of the universe” to battle. The villain-destroyer will wipe out all ordinary mortals, and if successful will reign supreme over all creation, never again to fear being reduced to “ordinary ashes” by the ultimate cosmic governing structure: The cycle of life and death itself.
–Villains have no conscience and no limit to what they will wreak. They are capable of igniting a nuclear war; of destroying millions of people; of destroying a planet, even one which they inhabit.
–Villains know that evil is a far more seductive power than good, because evil relies upon the tactile elements of the physical world, whereas good is often not tactile, sensual, or immediate in its consequences. In this, evil has a type of five-sensory advantage. A person can get addicted to evil; rarely does a human being get “addicted to good.”
–Finally, we need our villains to fall on their swords in some way. We need to witness their plans failing. We need to see that all their money, minions, and preparation fail again and again to defeat the power of one hero, one good guy, one true, righteous, demigod who shows up just in time from out of nowhere. And, just as mysteriously, evaporates after his work is done.
Though you may not be one for fantasy heroes or villains, I can assure you that you have that spiritual DNA running through your veins, which pulsate with an archetypal belief in “divine intervention.” You can’t help it. You were born with that impulse. Everyone was. The moment you are in trouble, your eyes turn upward, as if to ask for an inspirational thought or a gift of soothing grace to calm your anxiety.
We created our heroes and villains not because we like make-believe but because somewhere deep in our collective soul we know that there is a struggle for good and evil going on in life itself and not just “out there.” We struggle within ourselves, and when we make right choices in our lives, we don’t just feel good; we feel really good, as if we’ve won a battle. Why? Because we have.