The New Heroes in Movies and TV Shows? Villains.

The New Heroes in Movies and TV Shows? Villains.


A funny thing happened on the way to the end of the latest season of “True Detective.” After all of the law-breaking, bullying, and killing, left and right, in the series dubbed “Night Country” this winter, the show’s two detectives (Jodie Foster and Kali Reis) caught up with the guilty parties responsible for a half dozen deaths and … let them go. True, by letting the culprits walk scot-free a version of justice was achieved, but it was a twisted one at best, especially given that the case turned both of the police officers’ personal and professional lives utterly upside down.

In many ways though, such actions by the two main characters, Liz Danvers (Foster) and Evangeline Navarro (Reis), were not surprising in the least, given that throughout the course of the miniseries, these cops hardly lived up to their oaths to serve and protect. Come to think of it, the entire police department up there in Ennis, Alaska was almost wholly corrupt.

Amongst the crimes that Danvers and her cohorts committed in the course of the show? Multiple murders, coerced confessions, torture, breaking and entering, trespassing, kidnapping, forging evidence, destroying evidence, threatening witnesses, starting fights, and covering all of it up.

With cops like these, who needs criminals?

And as far as mass entertainment goes, this season of “True Detective” solidified a very disturbing trend that’s been building for some time now in narrative films and TV shows—that of the protagonist wholly exemplifying antagonistic character traits.

That’s right, the villain is now the hero.

You could find this trend on display in this last season of “Fargo” where almost every main character trafficked in corruption and the only differences tended towards just how deep one was up to his or her neck in corruption versus the others.

Shows like “The White Lotus” have trotted out wholly abysmal people for two seasons running. We laugh because they’re so awful, but while they may be rich, they’re generally impoverished when it comes to any sense of human morality.

The big screen has seen similar trending as well. Superman and Batman may pledge to keep from killing, though both have done so repeatedly in their filmed adaptations. Even the MCU has been blurring the line between hero and villain with the likes of the Scarlett Witch, Thor, and even the Guardians of the Galaxy shown to be acting as judge, jury and executioner in many of their actions. Hell, even Disney made the villainous Loki into the hero of his own TV series while not straying all that far from his deceptive and diabolical personality.

It's becoming more and more of a thing—villains becoming the heroes—without changing their spots in most instances.

Why is this such a trend? Is writing heroic characters that difficult? Are screenwriters, or audiences for that matter, bored with goody two-shoe protagonists? Or is evil simply sexier? Ask most actors whom they prefer to play and they’ll instantly offer up the antagonist roles being far more attractive to them. Sigh.

Grant you, the idea of bad guys becoming good guys has been a shift at play in our culture for decades now. The most popular cop show was “Columbo” when I was a kid, and what made it so interesting was that each episode’s mystery was a non-starter. We knew whodunnit because the first act showed the criminal committing their murder. Because of that usurped narration, the audience was asked to relate to the killer as for the first 20 minutes of the show, that was the main character on screen. Only after did the intrepid police investigator enter the picture. Thus, we as an audience were instantly being placed in an accomplice role.

Is it any wonder we started to welcome villains as heroes?

Additionally, in the era of the 60s and 70s, anti-establishment ideology took hold of everything as institutions waned in their standing, prestige and influence. The U.S. presidency was corrupted by Watergate; our military by the fiasco in Vietnam; American business took hit after hit with rising inflation and their pollution of our natural resources; the urban blight in city after city; and even a generation gap that pitted youth against their parents. No wonder Hollywood dove in and mirrored such times. Plus, there was money to be made in cultivating such angst.

Thus, in landmark films from that time period, like Dirty Harry, The Wild Bunch, The French Connection, and The Godfather, Americans were asked to relate to very compromised heroes, often the kind involved in acts of horrifying violence. Audiences ate it all up with a spoon.

From there, in the coming years and decades on both the big screen and small, it wasn’t uncommon to find audiences now rooting for the kinds of characters that no one would have dared put there as heroes before: vigilantes (Death Wish), drug dealers (“Breaking Bad”), even serial killers (“Dexter”). The zenith may have been when “The Sopranos” became HBO’s biggest hit series, and arguably the greatest television show ever, asking audiences each week to not only relate to, but sympathize with Tony Soprano, a man who was a mobster, killer, thief, bully, rapist, serial adulterer, and general miscreant. (And here we are, 20 years later with a former president running again who checks a number of those Tony Soprano boxes. No wonder black is white and up is down.)

So today, the Danvers’ and Navarro’s of the world feel almost old hat in their way. The fact that these compromised and corrupt characters are women, in many ways, gives their standing its only true novelty. Most Americans probably expect female characters to be presented with a bit more moral certitude, but then again, wasn’t it playwright Wendy Wasserstein who once remarked that women taking men’s jobs and roles in the world often felt like a betrayal as they strived so hard to imitate the men in those positions who came before them?

We could pity Hollywood, too, as they’re just trying to live up to the ever-rising bar. (Or is it a “lowering bar”?) Getting a fractured audience’s attention is getting harder and harder. There are too many channels, too many forms of entertainment, and it’s all costing too damn much to create.

Then consider that by 18 years old, most U.S. citizens have witnessed over 16,000 simulated murders throughout the world of film, TV, and video games, not to mention over 200,000 acts of violence within such mediums. The more we see, the more desensitized we become, and the more numb we become, the more the powers that be in Hollywood will try to seduce our eyeballs with stories and characters that feel fresh or different, even shocking.

Villains as heroes? Hell yeah, bring it on.

You say you’ve seen every kind of villain before, from psychopaths to hitmen to Nazis, well, then we’ll have to turn some of those bastards into the heroes. Betcha’ haven’t seen that before. And that’s why the Suicide Squad is currently brutally murdering their superhero nemesis’ in their latest video game.

It’s all about changing things up to get noticed.  

There is a form of laziness, too, in all this, of course, but it’s called “show business,” not necessarily “show art.” Will writers tell you that writing good guys is difficult because such characters are vanilla or bland? Sure, but then the characters Superman and Wonder Woman were sexy in their earnestness, at least while being played by Christopher Reeve and Gal Gadot. And God knows, Amy Adams has made sweetness and virtue into an A-list career, so I’m not sure that it isn’t really a question of trying harder to come up with heroes that have nuance, yes, but aren’t giving the villains a run for their money.

Might “True Detective: Night Country” have been even better if at least one of the two main protagonist in the story had demonstrated greater personal discipline in either their professional or personal lives? Perhaps. It was challenging just trying to understand why both seemed so hellbent on being rude, surly and dismissive to all comers. Danvers couldn’t even have casual sex with her boss (yikes) without it disintegrating into vicious arguments, and Navarro was so surly, her everyday expression wasn’t a resting bitch face, it was more of a f**k you scowl, one with brass balls embedded in her cheeks.

Maybe the trend will swing the other way in the coming months or years. Like most things, even storytelling is cyclical. But for right now, it’s a discombobulating, crazy mean world we’re living in, one full of too much tribalism, too much hate, and too much violence.

And for the foreseeable future, it looks like the entertainment world will be pummeling us with it.

*Feature illustration by Jeff York

Jeff York is an optioned screenwriter, film critic, illustrator, and ad man. He’s also a member of the Chicago Indie Critics, SAG-AFTRA, and a cat lover.
More posts by Jeffrey York.
Twitter icon Twitter Facebook icon Facebook Pinterest icon Pinterest Reddit icon Reddit
Click here for our recommended reading list.

An Invitation

To a global community of creatives.

All Pipeline Artists members are eligible for monthly giveaways, exclusive invites to virtual events, and early access to featured articles.

Pipeline Artists
Thanks for Subscribing