Think of your favourite villain. One that truly affects you, the protagonists and the story. Chances are, they are a foil. A true test to the longevity and power of an antagonist can be tied to this common trope, and it’s effective. Of course, there are multiple ways to implement this character type into a story, and even ways to subvert and ignore the trope.
Just what is a trope? What is a foil?
A trope, for the uninitiated, is a term used to categorise reoccurring elements and themes that we see in unconnected media. Often used for Films and TV, however this term can be used in other creative writing mediums. In terms of characters, a trope tends to reference a type-cast, such as underdog-down-on-luck hero, manic-pixie-girl-love-interest and so on and so forth.
A foil is one of these tropes, and is used to categorise a villain, usually, but not always. It is a trope designed to challenge our hero, often by encompassing traits and strengths our protagonist lacks. “Foil makes the gold shine brighter”- Is allegedly where the term comes from. A foil’s purpose within the story is to highlight obstacles our characters must overcome to achieve their arc, something out of their comfort zone, something they are not initially good at,
Possibly the most classic and obvious of examples to highlight, would of course be the Joker as a foil to Batman. First let’s examine Batman’s strengths; Trained in martial arts, peak of physical condition, multiple gadgets, highly tactical and scientific mind, A vigilante who operates in the shadows and uses fear to keep criminals in line, but limits himself with a strict moral code. The Joker on the other hand, is not physically able, and although methodical, it would be a stretch to call him tactical. He has his own gadgets, but most are meant purely for physical harm and are not as versatile in most situations. His intensity comes from his complete lack of moral code, pure disdain for human life.
This is obviously in stark contrast with Batman’s, who will not kill, and is selective with his targets. The Joker however, is chaos personified, there are no target selections, just targets, he is ruthless and remorseless. his plans are occasionally complex, and aim to maximise human casualty. His point in Batman stories, then, is for our hero to overcome an unpredictable, amoral menace. For all of his gadgets, technical mastery and physical mastery, we instead have to experience him overcoming what is essentially, a normal person driven to the brink of insanity and excess. We love watching these conflicts as they are the perfect example of what a good foil should be; a mirrored version of our hero, and the true test of his moral compass.
Another great and famous example of a foil, would be Darth Vader. The obvious representation of darkness in the Star Wars saga, down from his black, mechanical appearance, to his fear-inducing tendency to force choke any who displease or insult him. He also acts in direct contrast to our protagonist Luke Skywalker, the embodiment of light, and, dare I say it, a new hope for the galaxy, who is so often dressed in light colours, with a peppy and ambitious attitude. The two don’t end up truly interacting face-to-face until the seminal Empire Strikes Back, where the conflict between the two really begins.
It’s during these confrontations where the character shines, not only as a spiritual foil, but a physical one; Luke is fast, young, inexperienced, and Vader is the perfect counter to all of those traits, which makes both encounters so entrancing to watch. We see Vader as a powerhouse who overcomes our protagonist, and then Luke’s journey to become stronger through his own means, utilising his own force powers and techniques. Darth Vader serves as a perfect villain, because he is not only a complete contrast to Luke, but also a perfect reflection of what Luke could become if doesn’t stay on his own path.
To look at the complete opposite of a foil, we need only look at a Marvel Film. Pretty much any Marvel film. While the MCU has a few entertaining and well-written antagonists, many of the villains are just visions of “What-the-hero-would-look-like-if-he-was-bad”, and as such, many fall flat because of this, even if the individual character is quite interesting, such as Erik Killmonger from Black Panther. The character has credible motive, an interesting look, obviously a very skilled combatant, and is played by Michael-goddamn-B-Jordan, and has deep roots in the source material, and should be a clear-cut, excellent villain. Well, he was for about half of the movie. Then they stuck him in an almost identical suit to T’challa, and all of his unique individuality was replaced by a shell of nothingness.
Similar offenders in comic book movies are Ant-Man, Venom, Iron-Man, Man of Steel, Aquaman, and a whole other host of examples, where the abilities are the same, it’s just the motivations and temperaments that are different. The problem with this, is that there is a lack of individuality, and also challenge. It’s a metaphor of sorts that the protagonist has to be able to overcome themselves, and again, to show themselves what would happen if they took a different path. While the climatic fight scenes might well be some of the best parts of the aforementioned film, it just amounts to two similar looking characters hitting each other in the same way until the hero wins, because of plot.
These characters can be used with good intentions, such as the whole reflection/metaphor thing, but it has a lazy feeling to it. Two copies of the same character in conflict, as opposed to two sides of the same coin. Why would we want to watch two amorphous-grey-symbiotic-blobs fighting each other, or two invulnerable-Kryptonians massacre a city, when we could see villains that undermine our characters abilities with opposite skills that allow our character to think and act differently. That’s a journey, and that’s worth experiencing.
Do you agree foils are better than copies? Are there any examples of either you think deserves mention? Let’s talk about it!