As one of our picks in this week’s Roundtable explains, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” While Dark Phoenix flies into theaters, let’s look at some other famous examples of characters making a heel turn from the light to the dark.
A heel turn should be distinguished from an antihero. A character who undertakes a heel turn makes a decided (whether conscious or not) switch from good to bad, whereas an antihero is a mix of both those qualities from the beginning.
Does Jesus Christ Superstar count? How about Anakin Skywalker, that kid who was so wizard zooming around in his podracer and poking fun at Sebulba? Was Jack Torrence a “hero” for taking care of a hotel? Okay, let’s just go with Harvey Dent, that white knight twisted to become vengeful and sociopathic in The Dark Knight.
The easiest genre for characters to fall from grace seems to be superhero stories. One of the reasons for that is the clear delineation between good and evil. In romantic comedies, by contrast, we tend not to be presented with good guys and bad guys, saviors and scoundrels. In order for the hero to literally become the villain, he or she needs to be a hero in the first place.
One of my favorite superhero-adjacent films with this pivot is 2012’s Chronicle. If you haven’t seen the movie, definitely check it out and don’t be scared away from the fact that it’s both found-footage and about a group of teenage boys. The arc from good to evil is quick, and shows how toxic power can be to someone who feels underappreciated and wants that recognition. It’s also the film that brought Dane DeHaan into a recognizable profile within contemporary film. Even though I don’t love all of the films he’s been in, it’s hard to deny that, as an actor, he takes risks that not everyone would take. Interesting guy.
M. Enois Duarte
Ugh! Taking the top spot for the absolute worst hero-turned-villain character is easily Anakin Skywalker of the Star Wars series. Granted, fans and moviegoers all around the world knew the fate of this child slave of Tatooine from the moment Qui-Gon found him in The Phantom Menace. But what makes him the cringe-worthy worst is the boy’s journey to becoming the iconic Darth Vader. Ignoring the silly Christ parable plot and the stupid Midichlorian nonsense, it all starts going bad in Attack of the Clones, with the bad acting of Hayden Christensen and a preposterously unwarranted romance.
In the sequel, we’re meant to start seeing our hero’s slow demise and the rise of one of the greatest screen villains of all time… when he explains that he hates sand because it gets everywhere! Actually, his change has more to do with his child-like fears of death while acting like a whiny, juvenile brat to everyone around him for the majority of Revenge of the Sith. Despite the 180-degree turn being expected, the turnabout was ultimately disappointing and felt unjustified. It may have ruined the Anakin Skywalker character, but thankfully, the legend of Darth Vader remains untouched and as iconic as ever.
A quick perusal of my hard media collection has gifted me with two answers for best heel turn. One is a questionable take from an evergreen source, and the other more recent. First up is Gaff from Blade Runner (Edward James Olmos). Although introduced as the pushy extension of Deckard’s old boss, Capt. Bryant, Gaff is ostensibly on the right side of the light, a LAPD officer who assists the replicant-hunting blade runners. This status doesn’t really change, and the talented origami practitioner can be interpreted in any number of ways, including the 2049 way. But by the end of Blade Runner, in all variants I can think of, Gaff seems to have been wise to what would happen next in the hunt for Rachel and Deckard. He does of course allow Deckard a head start, but he seems pretty confident in how things will end. (Trust me, if you look more into Gaff, you’ll find a benevolent but nevertheless scary character.)
More recently, and this may be spoiler territory for The Lego Movie 2, I think Rex has a nice arc into darkness. What’s also crazy about Rex is that, although I have seen Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 several times and felt like the father/son pairing of Kurt Russel and Chris Pratt was just OK, after seeing (and hearing) the very Kurt Russell-like Rex character, I really want another movie where Chris Pratt plays Kurt Russell’s son, just probably not a comic book one.
Film noir “heroes” who are willingly transformed into sympathetic villains by seductive, evil-to-the-core femme fatales have always been fascinating figures to me, and one of my favorite examples is William Hurt in Body Heat. As a small-time lawyer who falls under the wicked spell of scorching hot society matron Kathleen Turner and agrees to bump off her husband so he can continue screwing her, Hurt personifies the easily manipulated male who allows sensual pleasures to influence his behavior against his better judgment and lead him down a path of destruction. Lawrence Kasdan’s electrifying homage to Double Indemnity and other 1940s film noirs brims with style and features one of the best climactic plot twists in film history.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
As seminal a story of love, betrayal, and death as The Dark Phoenix Saga is, I’ll confess to preferring its equivalent from the Distinguished Competition: The Judas Contract. It too has been adapted for television and movies, including the second season of Teen Titans as well as a recent direct-to-video release.
Terra – a teenager with the ability to manipulate the earth beneath our feet – had been an established presence in the pages of the New Teen Titans for a year and a half by then. She was the daughter of a European monarch. Her half-brother led another team of superheroes, The Outsiders. While not an official member of the Teen Titans for most of her appearances, Terra had proven herself to be a powerful and trustworthy ally. That is, until it was revealed that she was a mole, revealing their secret identities and exposing their weaknesses to their arch-nemesis, Deathstroke.
The Dark Phoenix Saga didn’t resonate with me quite as much because it was so cosmic in nature. That an entity could obliterate entire worlds is so massive in scope as to be meaninglessly abstract, and then you have the X-Men navigating alien politics in its wake. C’mon, its most defining moment takes place on the moon!
Terra isn’t corrupted by an immortal, omnipotent entity. She instead is tortured by mental illness. Terra spurns the affection of a teammate, too consumed by Deathstroke’s machinations and manipulation that she mistakes for love. That relationship between the two is darker and more depraved than anyone could ever have guessed. The stakes are more relatable, as is the underpinning of acceptance and belonging. Terra’s actions and anguish are more impactful because they feel more grounded… more real.
So, blow off Dark Phoenix this weekend, and pick up a collection of the original Judas Contract comics or the animated movie from a couple years back instead.
Is it too soon, while the fan outrage over the final season of Game of Thrones still burns, to defend Daenerys Targaryen? Not that I want to defend her actions in flame-broiling thousands of innocent bystanders to prove a point about what a hardass queen she’d be, of course. Rather, I find most of the viewer shock and dismay over the “too sudden” nature of her turn to the dark side ridiculous, considering that it had been foreshadowed since the series’ first season and discussed within the show countless times before she finally snapped.
How many times had Daenerys threatened to wipe out an entire city or kingdom, only to be pulled back and told to resist her instincts by the counsel of Tyrion, Jorah, or other important advisors? How frequently had characters close to her fretted about the fearful potential of Daenerys going full Targaryen like her father, the Mad King? We spent an entire season in Meereen learning that Daenerys didn’t care for the mundane business of being a ruler and really just wanted to be a conqueror.
Daenerys becoming the Mad Queen wasn’t a last-minute gimmick plot twist. It was an inevitability from the very beginning.
For better or worse, what are some character heel turns that stick in your memory?