What Makes a Good Villain? Part 2 – When the villain and hero are the same

Lets look at villainy again. We know from part 1 that believable ideology , ideology we can empathise with, can make a good villain. But what else? For me, one of the effective hallmarks of a villain is when the villain  fundamentally mirrors the hero, simply willing to go considerably further to achieve their goals. That is to say, they either have the same capabilities as the hero, or they have the same ultimate goal.  Both have a slightly different impact on the story.  Magneto is  such a villain whose ideals are s similar to Charles Xavier to make them almost indistinguishable, aside from his willingness to commit evil acts.  Since I have basically covered that in part 1 of this series, I am going to focus more where the villain’s capability mirrors the hero, and to achieve this goal I am going to use  Batman and the Court of Owls for my meanderings.

Court_of_Owls
People take solace in the difference between themselves and the villains, looking at the most compelling villains and enjoying their tales, knowing all the while it could never be them. They are just too different. And of course, the hero is there to stop them. With an appropriate arsenal of skills and tools, akin to James Bond always having the Goldielocks number of gadgets to defeat his enemy. Batman has his superb training, his city knowledge, his gadgets, his resources and his legend. It is not hard to understand why Gotham’s lowest don’t really stand a chance against him. This is what makes the Court of Owls an ideal villain for him. Everything he can do, they can too. And in some respects, they have considerable other advantages.
Their story is about a shadowy cabal of Gotham’s elite who have set themselves up as a secret ruling class over the city,  made up of the elite, they have access to considerable wealth that can easily match that of Batman, they have allies (or employees) giving them access to a broad range of skills and they have their Talons; assassins as well trained as Batman and augmented beyond physically normal.
The most powerful similarity that they have is their status as a myth in the lore of Gotham, much like Batman. This is introduced to the reader in the form of a poem, telling the tale of the court, their omnipresence and their sinister motives. Of course, details are lacking as with legends, less is more. As with Batman, those who fall prey to the Court of Owls are terrorised by the unknown. Their own paranoia fills in the blanks with the most terrifying ideas imaginable. Similar to the way Batman scares his opponents.
This certainly makes the entity an interesting villain. Rich, brutal, ubiquitous and sinister, the reach of the Court of Owls extends even into the life of Bruce Wayne. But why is the similarity, the reflection, an important part of their narrative?
First and foremost, heroes are presumed to have some sort of advantage. This is not necessarily in resources, training or ability, but they have something that gives them the edge. A villain that is a reflection, and I do not mean opposite, removes  their advantage. More than that, the nature of the advantage itself may have something to do with it. Batman uses superstition and theatrics to become an impenetrable illusion of half truths, rumours and lies. The net result, he becomes more than just a man to his foes, he cannot be fully fathomed. The Court of Owls have this exact same illusion surrounding them; they are to Batman what he was to Gotham’s lowest. Where he hunts criminals, they hunt Bat.  Everything that makes the hero special, that makes the hero enjoyable, his villain can do too.  It makes the ending somewhat less certain, and this can only be beneficial to the narrative as the crux of a good story is the need for the protagonist to overcome an ordeal.  A villain that can do the same as the hero robs the hero of advantage, making their ordeal more challenging, reminding the reader, if only for a moment, that they might fail.  Of course, any failure by the hero undergoing this ordeal is a symbolic death, only for them to be reborn and rise from the ashes, phoenix-like, better equipped to deal with the villain, a better person., pushing them to the end of their story, often victorious.   A villain who mirrors the hero’s ability forces them to evolve, to grow.
I am just briefly going to touch on the mirrored mindset and pose you a question, if hero and villain have the same mindset, the same goal, how can we tell who is hero and who is villain?  This really isn’t an in issue so much in the Court of Owls. They are a bunch of ruthless, brutal sadists hoarding their power as a miser hoards gold.  Their goal is not a crime free Gotham, so much as a Gotham they control.  I mentioned Magneto back at the start as an example of a villain with a similar goal to his opponent. Magneto and Charles Xavier both fight for mutant rights, however, Magneto is demonised as a terrorist as he is ruthless in pursuit of those goals. But there is a thin line between terrorist and freedom fighter. From Magneto’s perspective, he is fighting a war, against a society that oppresses his kind.  And given that in his story, a huge number of the general population do repress mutants, or support the repression, it poses a moral question :  ‘Does that make them legitimate targets?’  If the answer is yes, these people repress mutants, then Magneto stops being a terrorist and becomes a soldier, fighting against enemy combatants, at the very least bullies that he stands up to.  And if the humans he punishes, the humans that Charles Xavier seeks to work with, are legitimate targets then it doesn’t take much of a shift in perspective to see Charles Xavier as not the saviour, but a collaborator.  The reader is forced to make a decision based on their particular world view, their experience and preferences as to who is hero and who is villain, which adds to the experience.

I hope that made you think.  I realise the Magneto paragraph more appropriately belongs in part 1, but that cannot be helped.

All the best for now

John

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