The substance and nature of good and evil...how to define and recognize each...is a question as old as time. To a writer, especially in the genres of fantasy and larger-than-life melodrama, the question manifests in the design of heroes and villains. What are their core motivations? What drives them? What do they stand for?
The hero's mission is usually a direct reaction to what the villain does. As in classic mystery, the detective's job is to maintain the status quo of society, which the villain would disrupt. So it was with Sherlock Holmes vs. Professor Moriarty. As it was all the way back to Dante's Inferno. Lucifer, the first villain, was the rebel, the one who rejected authority. His adversary Michael was the loyalist, the one blindly adhering to the established order. Lucifer was driven primarily by selfishness, pride, envy, ambition and perhaps a feeling of abandonment by a father who no longer considered him his favorite son. Michael represented good because he was apparently selfless, blindly following the commands of a higher power. Hmmmm....good offers a blank check, it seems.
And while I'm still on Dante's Inferno...anyone see "Inferno", the latest film adaptation of the works of "DaVinci Code" author Dan Brown? Tom Hanks is back as another great intellectual investigator, Professor Robert Langdon, racing the apocalyptic clock as he travels through exotic locales, deciphering ancient clues, this time to save the world from an Armageddon virus which would substantially reduce overpopulation on a global scale, killing billions, turning Earth into a real-life Dante's Inferno. The virus is the brainchild of an old familiar type of villain: The mad scientist. The villain who creates the virus is not some mustache-twirling fiend in a black cape, obviously motivated solely by power-lust or cruelty. He is, like Langdon, a brilliant academic who has perceived (not without justification) that humanity is over-populating, polluting and destroying a fragile eco-system. A modern-day plague of biblical proportions is necessary, he reasons, to cull the herd and usher in a bright new day, as the Black Death ushered in the Renaissance. His reasoning seems perfectly sound (as members of the audience jokingly declare as they leave the theater), albeit cold, reducing humanity to a bacterial culture on a microscope slide. False promises the villain uses to deceive his followers? Or, a truth too terrible for most of us in our short-sighted selfishness to face? In fighting to save the world from the pure-hearted fanatical zealots who would kill half the human race, Professor Langdon makes an emotional appeal which is, frankly, less than inspiring. "Kill half the world to save the other half? These are the promises of tyrants." Okay, so humanity is destroying the world? "So, scream, lead, effect change." He says this, but after saving our sorry, polluted world, he goes back to his safe university gig, his life unchanged. Good lacks imagination and commitment, it seems. Evil takes decisive action. To be good is to accept mediocrity.
As in another contemporary fantasy adventure film, "Dr. Strange." Benedict Cumberbatch (who looks like he was born to play the role) brings the Marvel mystical hero to life in another battle to save the world (such as it is.) This particular hero is interesting in that, unlike many heroes, he isn't static; he changes and grows. From a selfish fop who uses his medical genius to advance his own wealth and glory rather than out of any genuine sense of caring for his patients. An accident leaves his manual dexterity impaired, taking away the source of his fame and glory, destroying his life. He seeks magic only out of a selfish desire to restore what he has lost. His great awakening comes only through learning that there are dangers out there. Great evils. That which would...you guessed it...change the world. This time, the villain, the wizard Kaecilius (played by Mads Mikkelson of Hannibal Lecter fame) seeks not to destroy half the world. Just the opposite. He wants everybody to live forever. The price, however, is free will. To achieve immortality, we must blindly submit to a dark god who would bind us to his uncompromising will. (I guess Kaecilius is Michael, then.)
Heroes don't always reject change, though. Some heroes are rebels, like Luke Skywalker, making the decision to change the dark status quo of a repressive galactic empire and fighting to overthrow a dictatorial regime. In trying to tempt him, the villain Darth Vader offers him a chance to "restore order to the galaxy." "Your kind of order," Luke scoffs. But then, Darth Vader started out as a rebel, too. He rejected the status quo that required his loved ones die at the hands of common savages. He raged against that status quo, ruthlessly slaughtering his enemies. He craved a stable universe under a strong leader (two days to election time, folks) and his longing for swift, easy answers was his path to darkness. Luke is really trying to restore the old order that the empire had previously supplanted through its own earlier rebellion.
Every villain starts out by rejecting the status quo, it seems. The villain, in his genesis, rejects what is, insisting he can do better. He may be motivated by envy, arrogance, grief, perhaps even compassion for the suffering of others. He believes, perhaps with the arrogance of a child believing he knows more than his forbears that he can do better than the established order, so he takes what he wants. The American Revolutionaries did that. Women and oppressed minorities have had their own rebellions, from chaining themselves to fences, starving themselves, even blowing things up. At the time, they were (and, are) denounced by advocates of the status quo as the villains of the piece. Later generations recognized them as heroes.
So, what is the defining criterion? What distinguishes the good rebel from the bad rebel? The stage coach robber in the western, we see as the villain. Robin Hood stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, we see as the hero. It all depends on whether we see the status quo as good or evil, how good or evil, and what lengths we are willing to go to effect change.
In real life, many may think our world is heading "in the wrong" direction and we may long for change. Even to the point of bombing the s**t out of half the world. I suppose defining our heroes and villains should come down to defining their core values. More often than not, it comes down to perceiving their outward selves in whatever form we need to satisfy our own ill-defined values and desires. Life is a story we're all still writing. But, it's always the later generations who decide who were the villains, and who the heroes.