Thea Belak ‘21/ Emertainment Monthly Contributor
“You and me, we’re not so different, you know?” Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir) tells Luke (Mike Colter) in Luke Cage Season 2 Episode 11. The show’s hero and villain, standing side by side during a brief moment of truce. And while Luke quickly disregards the comment, it’s an undeniable fact. Each possesses superhuman abilities, each carries with them burdens from their past, and each believes it’s their duty to right the wrongs for their people and communities. For Bushmaster, that’s killing every last Stoke there is to avenge the deaths of his family and the innocent lives taken at Gwen’s. For Luke, it’s protecting the people of Harlem. Two similar goals, two similarly driven people, yet it’s only Bushmaster who can recognize this fact. For Luke Cage to recognise these similarities, the audience would be forced to rethink why they should be rooting for Luke to win instead of Bushmaster. Is Luke really the hero? The good guy? Or he just as much a vigilante as Bushmaster, and where does the law stop being the benchmark of justice and the actions of a vigilante take over? But these aren’t the question the show is trying to answer. All the producers want is to tell an exciting, fun, turn off your brain for a couple of hours show that gives you a set hero to root for and a set villain to root against. But how do you make the fight between these two figures interesting if the audience knows inevitably that the villain is going to lose? You make them get inside the hero’s head; you make them push the hero both physically and emotionally to their brink. You make the hero see themselves in their worst enemy.
Luke Cage wasn’t the only Marvel show to create this mirroring dynamic between the shows hero and villain. Daredevil did this in Season 1 with Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk. Matt served as the show’s hero, someone who sticks up for the little people, while Fisk was the high society villain, concerned with rebuilding the city and not caring who got hurt on the process. But the underlying thread of what drove both characters was the same, to clean up and reshape Hell’s Kitchen. The only problem was that each had an uncompromising vision of what it should look like and how to achieve it.
It’s not just Marvel using the trope, either. DC also presented this dynamic between their show’s hero and villain in their show The Flash, with the rather on-the-nose named ‘Reverse Flash’ serving as the show’s main villain for the first few seasons. But nowhere is this trope of mirroring hero and nemesis more often found than between DC’s Batman and Joker.
What makes the dynamic between these two characters so intense and interesting is their simultaneous hatred and need for one another. Both have their vision of what Gotham should look like, with Batman believing in justice, order, and the enforcement of the law on everyone from petty thugs to highly influential politicians, while the Joker believes in anarchy, a kill or be killed world, and the concept of order made unachievable and ludicrous. It’s the persistent threat of their counterpart’s vision of Gotham taking over that pushes both Batman and the Joker to constantly work to outmatch each other. It’s the Joker psychologically torturing Batman that continues to fuel the vigilante. It’s Batman’s refusal to kill the Joker, proving he still clings to his moral code, that pushes the villain to keep coming up with new ideas to break him. Each despises what the other represents, and holds a completely opposite view of the world. Yet Batman and Joker are alike in their determination to forcibly change Gotham, and need the other as a reminder of why.
As the Joker tells Batman in The Dark Knight Rises, “You complete me.” It’s that pairing of the villain and the hero as opposite sides of the same coin that so many comic book artists try to replicate. To psychologically challenge the hero as much as they do physically. To give the villain reasons for their actions that are just as powerful as the hero’s, while still assuring the audience that they’re rooting for the right person. After all, we don’t root for the Joker to win, we root for Batman. The Joker kills innocent people, takes pleasure in the pain of others, and hands out poisonous cotton candy to children. Batman may operate in the shadows, but we know he’s morally right and he wants to protect us. We feel safe in the shadow of his wings. Even though the two are similar, the line between who’s good and who’s bad is clear.
It is only in Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel Watchmen where the line between hero and villain gets completely dismantled, and the readers are forced into a world of ambiguity. The whole comic, while excellently written and arguably the best superhero comic ever, is largely a satire of the genre. The actions of Rorschach, our supposed hero, are those we would typically associate with a villain. He doesn’t abide by the law, kills easily and without regret because, by his moral code, it’s the right thing for him to do. He breaks a person’s fingers and we root for him. He breaks into people’s homes and we don’t question it. He thinks he’s the only one who knows what the right thing to do is, and we’re willing to agree with him. But what makes him different than a villain? Or more potentially, what makes him right as opposed to his perceived villain, Ozymandias. Ozymandias is willing to commit genocide and convince the world the attack is to be blamed on aliens in order to prevent nuclear war (remember, we’re talking about comics here, never mind one that also includes a levitating blue man with the powers of a God.), determining that the risk of killing millions in order to save billions is worth it. And he does, he commits an atrocity and successfully prevents nuclear war — it’s Rorschach who determines that this act cannot fall to the responsibility of Ozymandias. That one man cannot determine the fate of millions of lives and then lie to the rest of the world about what happened. So, with his dying efforts, he lets the world know the truth, risking the sacrificing of millions of innocent of lives taken by Ozymandias to be for nothing. Is what he does wrong? And who is he, a man just like Ozymandias, to determine what is best for the entire world — to know the truth versus being blissfully ignorant? Watchmen forces its readers to consider these questions. To ask themselves who the real villain and hero of the story was, or if there weren’t any and instead if it was just two heroes, so headstrong in their belief to do what they thought was right that they’re ultimately responsible for mass destruction of their world?
While Watchmen ranks as one of the best in the superhero graphic novel genre for addressing these questions, not all comic books are designed to pose such philosophical contemplations. The baseline of a comic book is to tell an exciting story with a hero that is likable yet humanly flawed, and a villain that is unlikable but sympathetic, so the mirroring of the hero and anti-hero has mostly been reduced to a stale trope of the genre. Yet the core concept of this idea, of presenting the two to be more similar than the hero wishes to admit, is rooted in some very thought-provoking questions viewers should ask themselves the next time they sit down to watch a show or read a comic. To challenge ourselves to ask, is the hero really a hero? Why am I unwilling to judge them as harshly as I do the villain? This question is important to ask in the medium as well as outside it. In the news, on social media, or just in our daily social lives, we need to make it a practice of stopping and asking, “Why do I think this? Is my opinion based on facts, or personal bias in how the situation has been presented to me?”. Because sometimes when the villain tells the hero, “we’re not so different, you and I” they’re asking, “Why do you get to be the hero?”.