Stories detailing a hero’s epic journey and a villain’s ultimate undoing, most often at the hands of the hero, make a persistent appearance in popular American films. From the heroic cowboy, whose brave but isolated character is frequently found in classic John Ford westerns, to today’s ever-popular comic book movie superheroes, these traditionally white, heterosexual, and able-bodied men work to bring “order” to society, often by defeating a perceived enemy who will not or cannot fit into that “order.”

In this course, we will examine the complex, changing, and ever-present representations of heroes and villains in American film. Beginning with a foundational understanding of how heroes and, conversely, villains have been defined through classic Hollywood film, we will explore how these definitions have shifted throughout the 20th and 21st century in various narrative genres, including westerns, war films, film noir, fantasy, science fiction, and, of course, superhero movies. In particular, we will be focusing on how the hero and villain maintain or disrupt specific cultural ideologies concerning race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and ability. This course will examine how these various ideologies have evolved throughout the 20th and 21st century, impacting the ways in which heroes and villains are both represented in American film and perceived by diverse audiences. Finally, we will examine our own complicated and sometimes troubling identification with these heroes, even when they might stand in stark contrast to our cultural values and identities.

Through the close study of this popular medium and a range of scholarly texts concerned with film and cultural studies, students will develop critical viewing/reading and analytical skills, interrogate dominant ideologies and formulate their own arguments about what the various manifestations of heroes and villains in film reveal about American culture. Students will learn how genre studies, feminist and psychoanalytic film theories (among others), film history, and even an understanding of a film’s production and audience may be used to explore the relationship between film and culture. Upon completion of this course, students will be able to critically analyze films using terminology appropriate to the field of study and understand many of the ways in which American film speaks to and about our diverse society.