Either Die a Hero or...

By | Monday, April 11, 2022 Leave a Comment
In The Dark Knight from 2008, Harvey Dent relays the line “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Although he was ostensibly talking about Julius Caesar, many viewers picked up on the fact that Dent's character, while Gotham City's honorable District Attorney at the time, would eventually become the villanous Two-Face, making the line a bit of foreshadowing. Interestingly, while it was intended to be fairly self-contained to that specific movie, fans brought it out again almost a decade later when Michael Keaton took up the role of The Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming. With Keaton being very well-known for and still strongly associated with the Batman movie franchise he helped kick off back in 1989, for him to go from playing the heroic lead to the primary villain within two of the largest superhero properties, it's not surprising that it drew a fair amount of attention.

Couple that with the ongoing popularity of "comic book movies" led by the Marvel and DC superhero characters, it's also not surprising that some high profile actors get cast in multiple roles for characters that originated in comics. Folks like Chris Evans has gotten enough of them now that his schedule has literally overlapped their filming schedules -- he's somewhat famously hiding his face in the schwarma restaurant in the end credits scene of Avengers because he was in the middle of filming Snowpiercer.

But, as someone who's something of a historian of comics and comic-related stuff, I'm actually a little frustrated that people keep trotting out the same handful of examples of actors who've played multiple characters that originated in comics. There have been a lot more comic-related movies and TV shows than most people realize, and a lot more actors who've played multiple parts too. So on Friday, I took a cue from the Harvey Dent line and started a Twitter thread highlighting actors who played a comic book hero and, sometime later in their career, played a comic book villain. It didn't take me long at all before I got north of 50 actors and I stopped counting.

Each post is simple. The Harvey Dent line, the actor's name, and one photo each from their hero and villain roles. "Hero" and "villain" are bit fuzzy in places, of course, particularly when it comes to non-superhero stories. I also made the 'rule' that at least one of the two roles had to be a live-action performance; I know many voice-over actors are asked to play both heroes and villains so regularly that sometimes they do both within the confines of a single TV episode. (So you won't find Frank Welker or June Foray in the list!) Here's the start of the thread if you're interested...

I wasn't surprised to find so many actors who played a comic-based hero before a comic-based villain, but I was surprised how few seemed to do the reverse. Many actors seem to "front-load" their careers with more heroic roles and save the villainous ones for later. I think there's actually two, not mutually exclusive, things at play here.

First, I think younger actors tend to gravitate towards the heroes more because, frankly, it makes them look better. They understand that many viewers ascribe the traits of their characters onto them (rightly or wrongly) and they'd no doubt prefer to have the positive attributes of a hero than the negative attributes of a villain. We all do that to some degree, I think; we are the heroes of our own stories after all. That's why everyone else's social media feed looks so much better than your life; you're just seeing their curated highlights while you're stuck with all of your own crap. So it's no surprise that they want to play Superman instead of Lex Luthor.

As they get older, they realize there can often be more to do with villains. Heroes can be boring; they do the right thing and have a level of predictability because of that. Villains can have all sorts of motivations, and can take their characters in unexpected directions. Think of Heath Ledger's Joker or Jonathan Majors' Kang -- both were highlighted performances not just because their were different than just about anyone (including the directors!) expected but also because to come from actors so young is highly unusual. Those types of performances tend to come more from older actors who have done the hero thing much longer and are expressly looking to do something different.

The second thing at play is that I think there's a subconscious visual many people have about what a hero and villain look like. A hero is young, attracive, and vibrant, while villains are older and less attractive. Even scarred or disabled. We associate external traits with internal ones -- the imperfections of life act as a reflection of our souls, as it were. While there's some validity in using this type of idea as a storytelling shorthand, it's also frequently used as a crutch. That's not always the case, of course, but that's what Killmonger is covered with scars and Klaw is missing an arm. And it's why we, as an audience, aren't meant to fully trust Nick Fury either.

I'll keep adding actors to my thread as I think of them. It makes for an interesting study, both from strictly the historical side, but also the visual narrative side as well.
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