Batman vs. Joker, Harry Potter vs. Voldemort -- the kings of pop culture mirror our times

By Jeff Jensen
Updated March 27, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

Heroes and villains have been with us since…well, day one, when God and the devil emerged donning the original white and black hats. Good guys and bad have been around since the birth of pop culture, as well: The first official movie blockbuster was something of a Batman-versus-Joker superhero saga, a provocative, reflection-of-its-times epic about caped crusaders who wore horned masks and a mad rogue who wore makeup. It was D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Ku Klux Klan-centric Birth of a Nation, a Titanic-like phenomenon of its time that is now regarded as a major (if cringingly racist) cinematic milestone.

Nearly a century later, stories about heroes and villains have never been more popular. Kids and parents alike have been mesmerized by the literary and cinematic clashes between Harry Potter and his nemesis, Voldemort. And then there’s Spider-Man, Batman, Pirates of the Caribbean, 24, Lost…even American Idol. (Dream-squashing Simon Cowell = Jedi-killing Darth Vader. Come on!) At a time when nebulous terrorist threats and pending environmental catastrophe have left our country profoundly rattled, we should logically be drawn to tales of strong, valiant souls who can control their destinies and bring an easily definable fiend to justice. And yet, so many of our heroes these days are unheroic: Showtime’s Dexter is a vigilnte who kills criminals, because he happens to be a serial killer. Jason Bourne is a cipher to himself who can’t understand why he reflexively snaps people’s necks. 24‘s Jack Bauer often acts like a terrorist so he can catch one. Do drastic times make for drastic heroes, like Christian Bale’s Batman — or was Heath Ledger’s Joker correct in arguing that ”good” and ”evil” are meaningless concepts? ”The line between heroism and villainy has become blurred,” sums up Stephen King. ”We’ve come a long way since The Rockford Files.”

Getting to the point where we can’t accept pure good or evil has been a 50-year evolution. Or devolution, depending on your point of view. Start with 1960’s Psycho. Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark thriller, suffused with trendy pop psychology, imploded traditional hero-driven stories to showcase a more complex kind of deviant than Dracula or Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. Norman Bates was mad and mundane, random yet explainable. He also minted the slasher/serial killer, paving the way for Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger. When James Bond first appeared on film in 1962’s Dr. No, he created the modern mold for the cool, quippy action hero, and his license to kill gave him an edgy amorality, conferring upon him a coldhearted ruthlessness antithetical to conventional white-knight do-gooding. That same year, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko revolutionized the superhero with Spider-Man, an alienated young man for whom the mantra ”With great power must come great responsibility” was a lesson to be painfully learned, not innately understood. ”I wanted to write characters that I thought readers would find interesting,” says Lee. ”And the only way I could do that was to write characters I could relate to. And I couldn’t exactly relate to Superman.”

Neither could the filmmakers of the Vietnam/Watergate era. Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Godfather (1972), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) turned criminals into heroes and justified the flip-flop by painting the Powers That Be as hypocritical, corrupt, and controlling. In 1971, Dirty Harry told us that our justice system was a joke. The Exorcist (1973) questioned God’s goodness by infecting a girl with Satan and a priest with doubt. Things swerved back to the simplistic in 1977, when Star Wars seemingly chased off negativity with its high-tech gloss on swashbuckling and gunslinging. (And yet, with all due respect to Luke and Obi-Wan, it was the self-preserving Han Solo and the charismatically fearsome Darth Vader who captured our imagination.) Old-fashioned escapism continued into the ’80s with Indiana Jones, adventure incarnate. But as the blockbuster decade progressed, heroes got slicker, glibber, and more cynical. The Planet Hollywood triumvirate of Sly, Arnold, and Bruce were urban cowboys who packed catchphrases, huge guns, and a ”by any means necessary” ethos. Meanwhile, in the comics, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns replaced Superman with a grim Batman as DC’s dominant superhero archetype.

Indeed, by the end of the ’80s and into the ’90s, heroes regularly co-opted villainous traits (nihilism, sadism, indifference to rules). In comic books, ”grim and gritty heroes became all the rage, and that’s a shame,” says author Neil Gaiman. ”Everyone stole all the wrong riffs [from The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen]. The idea was to become more ambitious and sophisticated, not more cynical.” With this twisted sameness pervading heroes, villains started stealing the show: They were bad with flair, and put heroism on the run. (Literally: The Fugitive.) Wall Street‘s Gordon Gekko and The Silence of the Lambs‘ Hannibal Lecter were charismatic, quasi-enlightened human vampires who feasted on naiveté, ignorance, and idealism. This led into the jaded, alt-culture decade of grunge and Tarantino, ”I am not a role model” superstar athletes, and Slick Willie politicians — the latest (and not the last) in a long line. Selling heroism to the public wasn’t impossible — especially if Harrison Ford and Toms Cruise and Hanks were involved — but it often needed to be served with irony (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) or nostalgia (Apollo 13). The noble docs of ER lost as many patients as they saved, while the truth-seeking agents of The X-Files mostly lost. By the end of the century, The Matrix depicted reality itself as the ultimate villain, one requiring a machine-gun messiah to vanquish it.

The current state of heroism can be summed up in a word: Lost. Like the castaways of ABC’s mystery drama, today’s would-be heroes are so flawed or messed up, they need to be saved from themselves before they save anyone else. Some succeed, like Iron Man‘s ethically murky Tony Stark. But many others — Anakin Skywalker; the meth-cooking cancer dad on Breaking Bad; almost anyone on HBO, Showtime, or FX — find it more empowering to embrace the dark side. These characters reflect a culture that feels powerless and pissed: We desperately want good to triumph over evil, but we can’t staunch our doubts that good is up to the task. ”We want heroes to know the difference between good and bad, and we want them to be strong,” says Lost exec producer Damon Lindelof. ”However, it’s hard for such a person to be accessible unless they’re also extremely effed up…because only a seriously disturbed individual would want to be a hero.”

The decade’s plague of monolithic fantasy villains are just as tortured. Voldemort and Magneto are timeless and timely embodiments of evil: intolerant, fanatic, corrupted. Yet like so many morally iffy heroes, these scarred rogues have world-saving ambitions, albeit warped by hateful worldviews. The Joker and Saw‘s Jigsaw Killer are psychotic vigilantes persecuting society for failing to live up to their potential or ideals. We need more from pop culture than just seeing good guys and bad guys in action — we need to see how they’re made. Case in point: Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling’s seven-book saga took us deep inside the boy wizard’s trial-and-error transformation from a world-wounded young boy to a young man who saves the world without compromising himself or his values. We believed it, because Rowling — and Harry — did the hard work of proving it.

The era of the reconsidered hero will continue this year with a succession of high-profile flicks that aspire to reboot old favorites with new relevance: Wolverine, Star Trek, Terminator Salvation, Sherlock Holmes. Hollywood clearly knows that we are not only fixated on heroes and villains, but deeply familiar with their whole history, too. In our heroes and villains photo galleries, you will find the ones who have best captured our imaginations, and below, the results of an poll asking for your picks. (Judging from your No. 1 good-guy choice, old-school heroism isn’t totally dead. Now if only they could re-create a movie franchise worthy of him.) You will also find a gallery celebrating four of the most dastardly villains ever to appear on screen. They’re nice people, as it turns out, though the one with the hungry eyes just might make you fear for your liver…

Readers’ Poll

The top 10 heroes, as voted by readers at

1. Superman
2. Batman
3. Buffy
4. Indiana Jones
5. Harry Potter
6. Jack Bauer
7. Han Solo
8. James Bond
9. Luke Skywalker
10. John McClane

The top 10 villains, as voted by readers at

1. The Joker
2. Darth Vader
3. Voldemort
4. Maleficent
5. Benjamin Linus
6. Hannibal Lecter
7. Hans Gruber
8. Lex Luthor
9. Emperor Palpatine
10. The Wicked Witch of the West