This is the third part of a five part series on the concept of identity viewed through the lens of comic books and superhero mythology that originally appeared on DethPaw.com.
In modern mythology the hero usually has three distinct components:
- The Hero Identity
- The Secret Identity
- The Nemesis/Archenemy
An interesting aside, during the 90’s there was a rise in popularity of The Antihero. Examples of the Antihero are characters like Deadpool, Wolverine, The Punisher, Catwoman and Spawn. A case could be made that the Antihero is a character that is the most well-formed psychologically, in spite of their moral and ethical relativism. However, that is a topic for a future post.
For now, I want to talk about the importance of the villains.
In particular, I want to start with the characters of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Henry Jekyll is a respected doctor and Edward Hyde is his evil doppelgänger, a repressed side of Jekyll’s personality that has come to the surface. Jekyll had found a means by which he could indulge in his darker, more sinister, vices by drinking a potion that transformed him into Hyde. Ultimately, he lost control over the transformations and took his own life to end the terrible reign of terror that Hyde had begun.
Hyde represents the Jungian concept of the “Shadow” self. The Shadow is that unconscious part of ourselves that we have usually reject or repress. When I say “unconscious” I’m referring to the parts of our personalities that our ego often doesn’t let us address. It’s not that we’re wholly unaware of the existence of our Shadow, but our minds tend toward looking the other direction. As such, wechoose to become ignorant of those parts of our personality.
What does any of this have to do with heroes? Quite a bit, because it technically has everything to do with villains. Often, due to the unconscious nature of the Shadow, what we don’t see in ourselves we project on to others. In mythology, as demonstrated in Jekyll & Hyde, we’re able to watch the drama of the human personality play out in real time. Thor and Loki, Batman and the Joker, Superman and Luthor, each of these characters is made more whole by their opposition. Without Joker, Lex, Magneto, Loki, Doc Ock, our heroes would be bland, meaningless. They would be little more than empty gestures, the comic book equivalent of clicking “Like” on an obituary posted to Facebook.
The villain is the projection of the Shadow. This is why Batman could never kill the Joker, and why Superman is often more effective fighting Lex as newspaper reporter Clark Kent than he ever could be with his fists.
To quote The Dark Knight, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Say what you will about the Nolan films, but that statement regarding the Joker and his motives couldn’t be more accurate. Where Batman is the height of personal discipline and control, the Joker is pure chaos. His motivation, in modern parlance, is simply “for the LULZ.”
Lex Luthor is the pinnacle of modern consumerist culture. He is a captain of industry, a beacon of achievement, a ruthless competitor. Yet, one thing he is not, is Superman. He can’t be because Superman isn’t human. No amount of money, cunning or business acumen will give Lex what Superman has. And, for Superman, no amount of strength, speed or ability will make him human. Lex represents a bastardization of everything Superman wants to be, and Superman represents everything that Lex can never achieve.
Control vs. Chaos.
Mortal Hubris vs. God-like Omnipotence.
Somewhere, along the spectrum of those warring factions lies real humanity. The process of individuation, per Carl Jung, is the maturation and balance between such polar opposites. Real people have real struggles, no one is always good all of the time. Our heroic mythology provides a means by which we can examine what it means to live a “good” life. We can test morals and ethics in fictional worlds and see how certain choices impact the world around us. This is how our villains define us just as much as our heroes. I contend that this is why these stories resonate so strongly after thousands of years.
In part four I’ll dig a bit deeper into the Shadow and the changing roles of villains in our modern myths.
Memories, Dreams, Reflections – By C.G. Jung