The line between hero and villain seems cartoonishly drawn in superhero stories. The bright, shiny hero starkly contrasts the gloomy, overbearing villain and ultimately defeats them for the good of all. But who gets to decide what “good” really is? Both parties use violence as their main form of communication, and they both tend to leave behind a trail of decimated cities. How are audiences led to decide which is which? The answer lies in the camera’s perspective. A villain is only a villain if the story is told from the hero’s point of view. What happens when the villain gets a chance to tell their own story?
One of the most widely-loved “villains” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is none other than the God of Mischief himself, Loki (Tom Hiddleston, “Crimson Peak”). He is first introduced in “Thor” as a selfish, conniving trickster before becoming a full-blown bloodthirsty antagonist in “The Avengers.” His desire to take over Earth, starting with New York, results in about 80 civilian casualties and a few toppled buildings, but who’s counting? Every one of his misdeeds is paired with his signature smirk and a clever comment with a few sanctimonious speeches about his inherent superiority. He is far from one-dimensional; his jealousy of Thor and his need to win his father’s respect create a tragic backstory that makes his pain compelling enough to earn audience sympathy. But his presentation — the flair, swagger and unabashed confidence in his every step — is the reason he was able to garner such a large, devotedly fan base. It is not in spite of his villainous status that fans love him, but because of it and his shameless pursuit of his goal at any cost.
Loki’s audacious actions also, coincidentally, led to the creation of the Avengers, a heroic team with the goal of stopping his rampage. He exists as a conduit for the self-actualization of the story’s heroes. Even in his own spin-off series, Loki is told that he exists to bring “pain and suffering and death … all so that others can become the best versions of themselves.” As the villain, that is all he has been allowed to do. Only a fraction of himself has been let shine on screen (albeit an entertaining part), limiting his character depth. It is only after reframing the story from his point of view that the true depth of his anti-hero status is revealed. An anti-hero lacks the conventional morality of a hero, maintaining the smug wrongdoing of a villain, but they are not relegated to the sidelines or admonished for their tactics. On the contrary, the story shows its audience the most intimate parts of the character and frames them as someone we should root for.
When Loki is allowed to lead his own story, he doesn’t automatically lose his hedonistic tendencies or selfish urges. On the contrary, these aspects are central to Loki’s character; the only difference is their framing. In the “Loki” series, the titular character is pulled directly from New York after his rampage into the Time Variance Authority, an organization determined to set him back on the predetermined path of defeat. The cards are stacked for Loki to defy his perceived villainy and forge his own path as an anti-hero. Rather than admonish his tendency to go too far, the “Loki” series uses it as a workable character flaw. In a scene where Loki interrogates the rogue TVA agent Brad (Rafael Casal, “Blindspotting”), he goes on a long tangent about so-called evil and hurts the agent to save the multiverse. The situation is not as black and white as it would be in stereotypical hero or villain terms; Loki resides in shades of gray as he resorts to dark means in order to achieve noble ends.
Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen, “Love and Death”), another fan-favorite villain-turned-anti-hero, embarks on a similar journey in “WandaVision.” When she is first introduced in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Wanda is a magical soldier working for Hydra, an MCU terrorist organization, as revenge against Tony Stark for destroying her home country. She quickly moves away from this persona and offers her skills to the unequivocally heroic Avengers team, although she has significant challenges convincing the Marvel world of her character change. Every mistake she makes as she attempts to save those in need, including accidentally toppling a building full of people, turns the tide of public opinion against her. The unquestioned hero team of Avengers is admonished for the damage Wanda caused, despite their intentions of bringing safety. This once again begs the question: What is there to separate hero from villain?
The audience still roots for Wanda, especially in “WandaVision” when she constructs an elaborate magical hex to reunite with her deceased love, Vision. In this hex, she lives out her dream sitcom life with the family she has always wanted, but it comes at the cost of enslaving the entire town against their will. Although Wanda unknowingly causes pain to the population of Westview, the audience still anxiously hopes for her to maintain her family as outside forces work to tear her away from them. While the story is securely framed from Wanda’s point of view as the protagonist, government agents still try to paint her as a villain despite their own conniving. There is humanity and desperation in her selfish but nobly intentioned actions; however, the complexity of these actions does not negate their impact on the people around her. Her perspective simply allows her to tell her own story without being scapegoated as the villain.
When she does fall back into the stereotypical villain role in “Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness,” she does so out of the same need to be reunited with her family. Unwilling to allow anything to get in her way, Wanda effectively massacres the sorcerers’ hideout in a horror sequence that likens her to a demonic monster. Still, despite being blatantly framed as an evil killer, she brings up a good point: Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, “Sherlock”) breaks the rules and becomes a hero, but when she does it she becomes the enemy. This demonstrates the nonexistent line between the two characters; there are no heroes or villains, simply winners and losers with competing interests.
This is also learned from the iconic Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, “Barbie”). For years, the character has been relegated to a two-dimensional erratic clown villain who causes chaos simply for the fun of it. In her spin-off film, “Birds of Prey,” she does cause chaos simply for the fun of it, but she is far from two-dimensional. Finally free to explore the world on her own, she chases after her goal of becoming the biggest name in crime Gotham City has ever seen. Despite outwardly identifying with the villain label, Harley also falls under the anti-hero umbrella upon examination of her motivations. Yes, causing harm to the civilian population is high on her priority list, but so is using that harm to protect the young Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco, “A Friend of the Family”), who has come into her care.
Protecting Cassandra is one of Harley’s main objectives in this film, even if it comes about for selfish reasons and is a heroic act that she accomplishes through villainous means. Harley is beloved as a stone-cold villain for the unique flourish she brings to the world, and she doesn’t lose this once more layers of her personality are peeled back to reveal the multifaceted character beneath.
At the core of every comic villain is an anti-hero yet to be sufficiently explored. Their misdeeds are not a deterrent to fan enthusiasm, but a means of showcasing their confident, unapologetic individuality. Their style may win hearts on the surface, but the substance of their pain and motivation garner the unyielding devotion of long-time fans. Humanizing them from the cartoonish label of villain toward the gray area of an anti-hero not only makes them more compelling but also sheds insight into the duality of man.
Daily Arts Writer Mina Tobya can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.