From Heroes to Villains

By | Tuesday, January 03, 2023 Leave a Comment
When Michael Keaton was first cast as The Vulture for 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming, it seemed like a lot of people brought out a quote from 2008's The Dark Knight: “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” I think people felt it was clever because Keaton most famously played Batman in the 1989 movie, even though the dialogue is from Harvey Dent, not Batamn. The dialogue itself is fine and works within thr context of the movie, but I thought trying to attach some additional meta-context to it seemed trite. It's not uncommon, after all, for actors to play both heroes and villains over the course of their careers, often in that order because we frequently associate heroism with youth and villainy with age. So if you're an actor with any longevity, you're likely going to be playing more heroes earlier in your career and more villains later in your career.

This sat in the back of my mind for a few years and I saw it crop again in relation to I-forget-which movie not that long ago (Thor: Love and Thunder maybe? In reference to former Batman Christian Bale playing Gorr the God Butcher?) so I decided I would try to prove my point about how common a trope it really is. What I started doing (originally on Twitter, but I migrated it over to Mastodon) was to create a thread of actors who have played a hero from a comic, followed by a villain from a comic. Two pictures of the same actor, in two very different roles. Both characters had to have originated in a comic, and the actor had to play the hero first and then the villain. The comic could be a newspaper strip or a graphic novel or a webcomic... doesn't matter, as long as it was something we'd commonly recognize as a comic. The story itself doesn't have to come from comics, just the character. And I'm not concerned if the portrayal is in movies or television or on stage.

I also put in a somewhat more arbitrary caveat that at least one of the two roles had to be a live action portrayal. The way voice-acting and radio works, you can often find one actor playing multiple parts in a single story, so you could basically cite every professional voice actor who's ever worked on a comic-originated IP as qaulifying for the list. I am more lenient in my definitions of "hero" and "villain" though, as many stories don't even have a hero or villain per se. I went with a rubric that basically identified a character as "generally good" or "generally bad" within the story they're presented in. (So Rocket Raccoon goes in the hero column, even though he's not above stealing prosthetics from people who are using them.)

There are plenty of well-known folks that show up in the list, as you might expect. Michael Keaton, Christian Bale, Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, etc. And there's some names on there that you might not think of immediately but aren't surprised to see just because they've done so damn much and so many different things, of course they'd show up on a list like this! David Warner, Tim Curry, John Hurt, James Hong, etc. But I think there are plenty of others you wouldn't think of. Actors who you didn't know had a small role years before they became famous (e.g. Joaquin Phoenix appeared in an episode of the 1980s' Superboy TV show when he was 14), shows you forgot were taken from comics (e.g. We Bare Bears was based on a short-lived webcomic), and adaptations you didn't even know existed (e.g. there was Broadway musical version of Doonesbury that ran from 1983-1984). Not to mention the idea of IP-farming comics to live-action production goes back over a century -- we've got documenation of people portraying the Yellow Kid dating at least as far back as 1897!

Again, my point here is that while the actual “you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain” quote is relatively new, the concept is as old as anything and you can easily pick out literally hundreds (I stopped counting somewhere around 225) of examples even if you limit yourself to comic book characters.

If you're interested in reading through the list I've generated so far (and I keep adding folks to it!) you can check it out over on Mastodon:
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