That's right, I hold the controversial opinion that heroes and villains are, in fact, not the same thing. Crazy, I know, but I stand by it. Let's step back a bit. Recently, I've come across a few writers and commentators saying something along the lines of "who the hero or villain is depends on who's telling the story". This sounds provocative, I guess, but it disregards a lot of standard terminology surrounding storytelling
Let’s talk about four types of character.
First, you have your protagonist and antagonist. The protagonist, obviously, is the main character. The antagonist is the character who works against the main character. Wikipedia puts it rather eloquently: "The protagonist is at the center of the story, makes the key decisions, and experiences the consequences of those decisions. The protagonist is the primary agent propelling the story forward, and is often the character who faces the most significant obstacles," while "an antagonist is a character in a story who is presented as the chief foe of the protagonist".
It is true that who the protagonist and the antagonist are depends on who’s telling the story. If Les Miserables were from Javert's perspective, then Valjean and all the revolutionaries would be antagonists. If there were a book series starring Draco Malfoy and his two cronies, then Harry, Ron, and Hermione would be the antagonists. And, yes, in these two instances, I think you could call Javert and Draco heroes; the first has a classic Greek heroic flaw, while the second goes through a long redemption arc.
Let's look at another example. If L were telling the story of Death Note, he would be the protagonist. And yes, the hero. Unlike in the other examples, he already was the hero. If you're unfamiliar with Death Note, it features a high school student, Light Yagami, who obtains the book of a Grim Reaper. If you write the name of an individual in that notebook, that person will die. Light, deciding to rid the world of horrible criminals, goes to town with it. But lest the audience see him as some tragic hero who goes down a dark path, it's made clear early on that he has a god complex—assuming the name "Kira"/"Killer"—and is willing to murder anyone who gets in his way, including the famous detective, L, who has been brought on to catch Kira. L is the antagonist to Light's protagonist, specifically, his villain protagonist.
That's why the idea that the villain and the hero are just the same thing from different perspectives is so confusing to me. We have villain protagonists. That is the other perspective. Though I feel like the insistence on heroes and villains being the same stems from our relativist culture, I think it also comes from a misunderstanding of what "hero" and "villain" mean.
A hero is a character who, generally speaking, struggles with some flaw or conflict. Their main arc deals with either overcoming this conflict or eventually capitulating to it. Greek tragedies are built around a "heroic flaw" that undoes the hero no matter how much they struggle against it. Modern superhero stories do the opposite, where the hero fights against internal vices or external foes, eventually winning the day, proving that virtue wins out over vice.
And that is the important thing about heroes: virtue. Whether or not a hero follows the path of virtue to its conclusion or ends up failing and falling off it at the end, they are at least seeking it. They are trying to be good. This is why you can essentially say that a hero is the Good Guy. The Good Guy might fail at the end, but that doesn't mean he wasn't trying his hardest until that point.
What makes a hero different from a villain? Well, obviously, the villain is the Bad Guy. No, really. A villain is "a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot", “a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel; or a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot". While a hero concerns himself with trying to lead a virtuous life, even if they fail, the villain doesn't. Maybe they actively pursue selfish and evil ends. Maybe they just don't care. Maybe they do think they're the hero (a popular idea in writing circles that will get its own blog post later), but are willing to do evil actions to achieve those good ends. The point is, while the hero pursues the good, a villain pursues evil.
So, with these as our criteria, let's look at a recent example: the 2019 film, Joker. Is this protagonist a hero or a villain?
I'll go ahead and say spoilers, but I actually don't think spoilers matter for this movie. I watched about two dozen reviews of the film before seeing it myself—to see if it would be too intense for me—so I knew every plot point going in. It was still amazing! The way those plot points were presented made them intriguing and fresh. Nevertheless, if you want no spoilers, I would bow out now.
Joker is the story of a man beaten down by society and circumstance. Arthur Fleck, as he is named at the beginning of the story, is a mentally ill man working a low-paying job at a clown-for-hire agency. His life is pretty awful: he gets beat up by teenagers, his coworkers don't respect him and even fear him due to his illness, he lives in a somewhat shabby apartment with his elderly mother, his therapist doesn't listen to him, and so on. All this pressure and anxiety finally come to a head when three jerk businessmen on a subway start assaulting Arthur while he is still in his clown costume. He shoots two of them in self-defense, then runs down the final one and shoots him in the heat of the moment.
Due to the swirling unrest in the city—there's a garbage strike going on, the social service budget has been cut, businesses are closing down, and so on—this nameless clown striking out against three rich men starts a movement. The unhappy masses don clown masks. Then they start protesting. Then they start rioting. While all this is happening, Arthur soaks it in. Though he states that he’s not political and doesn't believe in anything, he clearly likes seeing people imitate his look. He likes seeing the story of the killings in the news.
Eventually, through several more dark turns in the plot, he learns that his mother has lied to him about who his father is (maybe? The story kind of suggests that maybe his birth certificate is forged? And there's the writing on the back of that photograph? I don't know...), and that she allowed him to be mercilessly abused as a child. He makes a speech here, about how he has never in his life been happy, but that he realizes his life is not a tragedy, but a comedy. Then he smothers his mother with a pillow.
This is truly the moment he throws away "Arthur Fleck" and becomes the Joker, underlined by him dyeing his hair green and donning an orange and purple three-piece suit. He kills again, on television nonetheless, then basks in the rioting and burning he has caused. He thinks it's funny. Now, we not only have Arthur Fleck turned into the iconic Joker, but we have the city turned from an admittedly grimy and unjust place into the mask-clad-murderer infested burning hell hole that is the Gotham we know.
So, is the Joker a hero or a villain? Does it matter how you look at it?
One of the reasons this movie was so popular—aside from being about the most famous comic book villain ever—was that different sides could see what they wanted in it. Those in favor of movements like Antifa could point out the economic injustice that led to the riots; the movie makes no attempt to hide how unjust the society in Gotham is. People who see such movements as dangerous can say that, even if there were reasons for the protesting, at the end of the movie innocent people were murdered and the city is literally on fire, which the film also presents as a pretty bad thing. Maybe if Arthur was helped to get proper medication and counseling, he wouldn't have felt so hopeless, and thus wouldn't have become the Joker. True. Maybe if Thomas Wayne or child protective services had stepped in—since they both apparently knew Arthur was being abused as a child—and removed him from his mother, his life would have had a totally different trajectory. Yep.
No matter what particular political message you want to take from it, the fact is that Joker, the movie, is about the failure of society to address wrongs and about the chaos that comes when no one does anything about it. Remember, at this time in Gotham, there is no masked vigilante looking out for the little guy. Not yet, at least.
It's also a movie about one of the most iconic villains ever. The fact is, Arthur does not care about starting a movement. He likes that he did, because at least people are noticing him, but he doesn't care. He doesn't care that people are rioting and that the city is on fire, but he likes that the rioters look up to him. He doesn't care that he killed three businessmen on a train, or smothered his mother, or hacked up a colleague and got covered in the guy's blood, or that he shot a talk show host on live TV, or murdered his doctor at the end of the movie, because he liked doing it.
Yes, he does have a motive beyond that: revenge, for being lied to, or made to take the fall, or for being made fun of. As he says: What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a system that treats him like garbage? You get what you deserve. He has a point, and he's bitter, but he also really likes killing people. Throughout the movie, he laughs uncontrollably at inappropriate times— almost always when he is nervous or uncomfortable with the situation. But what does he do after he kills? He dances. Because he likes it. He may not be happy, but he still thinks he's in a comedy.
And that is why we can say that he is not the hero of his own story nor the hero of a Batman movie where it's told from the Joker's perspective. Because as sad as Arthur Fleck's story is, he's never trying to be virtuous, he's just trying to get by. In the end, the way he chooses to get by is through murder. It's tragic, but, as he himself says, it's not a tragedy. He's not a tragic hero. He's a comic villain. The only thing that depends on who’s telling the story is whether or not you get the joke.