There’s a thin line between hero and villain

The trailer for the upcoming (at the time of writing) Batwoman series came out recently (click here to watch it yourself), and I’ve found myself watching a lot of reaction videos. Most of the reactions are pretty negative (don’t think I’ve come across any that are positive), but there’s one (on the ‘Heel vs Baby Face’ channel) that goes deeper into the trailer’s problems This video argues that, rather than portraying Batwoman as a hero, the trailer actually shows her as a villain. It’s wonderfully argued, by someone who clearly understands character arcs in stories, and I recommend you take a few minutes out to watch it. In fact, stop reading this and watch it right now.

The video makes a great deal of sense (and I love his reimagined version, where Batwoman has to be encouraged to take up the mantle of the Bat). But what struck me is how the difference between hero and villain can be so small.

Both strive to get what they want, often against huge odds (even the ‘cartoon villains’ of Bond films have spent years building up their money and power, often weaving complex deceptions to get their own way). However, we want the villain to fail, and we want the hero to win‌—‌and the reason for this comes down to sympathy.

We also feel sympathy for a hero because of their flaws. A character who is strong in every way is hard to relate to‌—‌flaws make a character more human, more like us, especially when their imperfections threaten to impinge on what they are trying to achieve. This is why we love the ‘everyman’ hero, the average person who is thrust into unimaginable dangers‌‌—‌because we can relate to these characters, we can imagine ourselves in their shoes.

This is why Harry Potter works as the hero‌‌—‌he might have innate magical ability, but the whole wizarding world is new to him, and he struggles with so much of it. Then there’s Ripley, just another worker who finds herself battling an alien as it kills off the rest of the Nostromo’s crew. There’s Katniss, taking her sister’s place in the Hunger Games and being thrust into a whole situation she is totally unprepared for.

The list goes on and on.

Motivation comes into play here. The hero’s struggles are often down to the battle between what they want and what they know is the right thing to do. Where the villain is consumed by entitlement and superiority, the hero constantly battles with doubts, and has to push hard to do what they feel they must. They put their lives on the line, or their reputation, or their own happiness, because they know, deep down, that there are higher stakes.

And this is why we root for a hero. They might have similar doubts and imperfections as us, but they don’t give in. They fight for what is right, just as we want to imagine we’d do in the same situation. They don’t have everything handed to them, or take whatever they want.

In the trailer, it does appear that Batwoman simply takes everything Batman has built up, and demands credit for it‌—‌and so it’s hard to sympathise with her. But it’s worth pointing out that this is only the trailer, and might not be a fair representation of the series itself. It’s always possible to pull scenes and lines of dialogue out of context, and to create the illusion of an alternative story (as the Scary Mary video demonstrates so well, trailering Mary Poppins as a horror film, or the ‘happy’ trailer for The Shining).

Or maybe this trailer shows highlights of the first act of a redemption story, where Batwoman initially allows her internal villain to take over, but as the series develops we’ll see her forced to confront this. Maybe she’ll fight through as she learns what made Batman who he was, and in the final act we’ll see Batwoman helping others for their sakes rather than her own ego, finally becoming the superhero Gotham needs.

There’s a thin line between hero and villain.

3 thoughts on “There’s a thin line between hero and villain

  1. Excellent article and I enjoyed reading it. I was also a bit impressed to have Batwoman who appears to strut in and use all of Batman’s things. If he had left her instructions or there was a tradeoff/sacrifice for her to put on the cowl, I think we’d sympathize with her character more.

    Like other heroes, I expect this new Caped Crusader to go through trials. Heroes have to fail, to be brought close to death, and/or give up something valuable to them along their quest. As you said, Ripley’s crew is all sacrifice for the alien, which heightens her sense of panic and vulnerability when she realizes she’s alone. Heroes also have to apologize or confess when they’ve done wrong; I think of Sarah’s quest in “Labyrinth” when she realizes how lost she’s gotten and has to get back on her path to save her baby brother.


    • Absolutely agree. Failure’s so important to heroes – we don’t want someone to win just by being better than everyone else, we want someone to win because they face up to their weaknesses and persevere despite all their setbacks.


      • Ah, but then Batwoman would have to face a weakness. Dare to make her vulnerable or wrong? If she’s 110% awesome then there’s nothing within her to fix. And unfortunately, that means pointing a finger at everyone else in the story. It isn’t her fault she isn’t succeeding; it’s everyone else in society keeping her down.

        But I consider that a superficial setback. Regardless of what the hero must face on the outside, a good Hero’s Journey involves a change/transformation from within. I’ve read in Christopher Vogler’s book “The Writer’s Journey” how great stories give the hero an outer conflict and inner conflict to deal with. Bruce Wayne wrestled with his ongoing rage and guilt over his parent’s death. Dick Grayson struggled to become his own man and move out of the Batman’s shadow, which he did as Nightwing. Barbara Gordon was paralyzed by the Joker yet remade herself into the legendary Oracle.


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