Good Versus Evil. It’s an archetype known so well that it barely evokes anything from that vacuous pit you call a soul despite being a fundamental concept in storytelling, moral development, and basically everything else in life. But it’s precisely because it’s so ingrained that it often fails to inspire.
That’s one of the more interesting parts of the history of comic books. As an art form, they’ve been around for centuries, but even the modern take of serialized, interconnected tales has existed since the 1930s. This offers an intriguing problem worthy of solving: how do you keep the base narrative conflicts fresh after being rehashed over and over again through publishers, characters, and reboots?
The answer, it turns out, is rather simple, though the execution can be quite complex (the recipe for most things worth pursuing). Comics have taken to regularly flaunting and questioning what it means to be good and bad—what it means to be a hero and what it means to succeed—by exploring internal and external struggles simultaneously.
Spoiler alert: this will contain discussions regarding Marvel’s Daredevil and slight tie-ins with some Marvel and DC comic properties and their past stories, so be wary if you haven’t seen the show or read the respective timelines.
If you pay attention to Netflix’s Marvel’s Daredevil, it’s easy to see where showrunner Drew Goddard went for this tack. From the outset, either from prior knowledge or just the way the show presents the two characters, you perceive Matt Murdock as the protagonist and Wilson Fisk as the antagonist.
And why not? One is both a nighttime crime fighter and a defender of smalltime justice and the other is a wealthy, powerful, and pretty unsettling fella that outsources murder. However, they both have the same goal. They both just want to save Hell’s Kitchen, a city ravaged by the fallout from The Avengers‘ climactic alien invasion battle.
It turns out just want to rid their hometown of rampant, deadly crime, but they both go about it in very different ways. It’s all a matter of perspective. To Daredevil, the villain of his quest is the man behind the scheme to kick out tenants, enable a Russian drug ring, and back a human trafficking ring. All of that is straight from the stock list of Bad Guy Hobbies along with The Good Guy’s Guide to Stopping It.
But from Kingpin’s perspective, by reigning in the unregulated nature of the crime he’s inserting his organization into, he’s taking the first step to preventing his city from descending into complete despair. And he’s not wrong. Structure would go along way to stopping innocent people from dying.
If you consider it instead by swapping the tactics of the two men, where Daredevil would use physical intimidation and Kingpin would manipulate a system for regulated coercion—oh wait, those are already both true. You see Daredevil torture a man in his second outing and Fisk run for office, mirroring Murdock’s attorney career and Kingpin’s penchant for excessive pugilism.
Perhaps Murdock’s only saving grace is that he doesn’t willfully kill, but that doesn’t make him any better than Fisk. When he describes his first attempt at vigilante justice, he tells Foggy how he beat a man so bad that that man had to eat from a straw. And Murdock’s response? “I never slept better.” He thrives off of the violence.
But with each time Fisk loses it and beats a henchman down to the ground or something, it is always accompanied by regret and a deep, disturbing sorrow for doing what he considers is necessary. You can tell that Fisk is anchored to a single principle in his choice of cufflinks, a pair worn by his father so he can remember to “not [be] cruel for the sake of cruelty.”
Murdock, however, holds no reservation. It’s debatable if he even holds a glimmer of emotion. He’s stoic and unmoved at Ben’s funeral. He sheds no tears at Elena’s corpse. Only when faced with the realization via Foggy’s discovery of his secret that he’s a cold, mechanized tool in the city’s hands does he finally break.
If so inclined, this freshman saga could easily be aimed at a setup where Murdock is the antagonist and Fisk is the hero. It’s a lesson of objectivity; it doesn’t exist when it comes to heroes. To accomplish any great task against a great foe, you have to be willing to challenge your own preconceptions.
This exercise in trading traditional values comes out fairly well in the new Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer. It, in and of itself, is not a particularly good trailer, but it does force one very particular question from the less comic-inclined. “Why would Batman fight Superman?”
The trailer frames Superman as the villain, even going so far as to include a sound bite regarding “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s more common, however, for Batman to be the villain. Not only that, it’s more interesting that way.
Batman is aggressively doubtful of Superman’s intentions while fearful of what the alien’s existence means for his role in keeping the peace in the world. He seeks out a conflict with Superman to settle up on these—and a few other—questions.
Superman, however, has only ever tried to live by the ethos commanded by his ostensibly altruistic father before sending him to Earth. He wants to save the world because he believes they are a people worth saving, whereas Batman believes they need to be saved from themselves because they are insufferable and ultimately irredeemable.
But the easy way and a possible alternative interpretation is that Batman represents our viewpoint into an unknown and seemingly impossible power, one that actually (and recently) resulted in the near total destruction of several small towns and one big city. This naturally sidles our prejudices up against a villainous Batman.
This is because putting Batman as the antagonist forces our hand into lumping ourselves (by way of Batman representing our Greek choral opinions) into the bad guy camp. Now, instead of outright cheering for justice, it feels far more confused and uneasy and encourages us to empathize with Superman’s seemingly unwanted struggle for peace.
As it turns out, it’s never just Good Versus Evil. It’s more just one person versus another person, either by way of physical struggle, conflict ideologies, or anything else that throws two perspectives into stark relief. It’s the contrast and accompanying viewpoint that makes both good and evil, not any one objective pool.