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Reel Heroes & Villains



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What makes a good movie hero? Which kinds of villains are the best — or the worst?

In Reel Heroes & Villains, we present a new way of understanding movie heroes and villains. Inside this book you’ll find:

  • A new innovative model of heroes & villains in the movies
  • The key to good characters in the movies: Transformation
  • The Eight Great Arcs of transformations in heroes and villains
  • How heroes and villains transform morally, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically
  • How the hero’s journey differs from the villain’s journey
  • 52 reviews of movie heroes and villains in 2014

Reel Heroes & Villains is now available.amazon-bestseller

Here’s what people are saying:

“Allison and Smith have deftly crafted THE premier text of heroes and villains in contemporary cinema. A shiny portrait that brilliantly dissects the hero-villain dichotomy through a dense mixture of passion, knowledge, and humor to offer profound insights into the hero-villain relationship.”

— Jason Roy, The Hero Construction Company


“A daring model of heroism and villainy. Allison and Smith’s analysis forever changes the way we view movie characters.”

— Dr. Robert Giacalone, Professor of Business Ethics, University of Denver


“A must-read for all fans of heroes and villains in the movies.”

– Dr. James Beggan, Professor of Sociology, University of Louisville


“Those mad geniuses, Allison and Smith, are back. Here are the secrets of the villains you love to hate, by the writers you love to read. Cinema’s worst villains are no match for Allison and Smith.”

— Rick Hutchins, Author of The RH Factor


“A dive into the minds of those you love to hate. Allison and Smith examine the shadowy reflection of heroism.”

— Jesse Schultz, Author of Alfheim


“A revolutionary way of understanding heroes and villains in the movies. This book is Allison and Smith’s tour de force.”

– Dr. James Beggan, University of Louisville


Best Movies of 2014

Scott, it’s time to look back at the best movies we saw in 2014.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

There was much to admire in the movie industry in 2014. Let’s compare our individual top 10 lists.

For me, I listed my favorite films by how badly I wanted to see them again. I also ranked them based on how much I was entertained. Here’s my list:

Greg’s Top 10

10: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
9: The Hunger Games: The Mockingjay: Part 1
8: The Fault in Our Stars
7: Maleficent
6: Jersey Boys
5: Interstellar
4: Gone Girl
3: Nightcrawler
2: Whiplash
1: Selma

I based my list on the depth of the story and the quality of the filmmaking. Also factored in, of course, was the juiciness of the heroes and villains in the movie. Here’s my list:

Scott’s Top 10

10: Boyhood
9: The Fault in our Stars
8: American Sniper
7: The Imitation Game
6: Unbroken
5: Whiplash
4: St. Vincent
3: Gone Girl
2: Selma
1: Birdman

That’s a great list. I see a few there that were just outside my top 10. It would take too long to go into detail on all 20, so let’s just compare notes on each of our top 5.


You selected Whiplash as your #5 pick, which was my #2. I was captivated by the intensity of J.K. Simmons’ performance as the perfectionist villain/mentor. It was a complex film all about the strength of the commitment of the lead (Miles Teller) to stand up to the unrelenting bullying of his teacher. I was totally sucked in and would definitely see this film again.

Whiplash is a fascinating coming-of-age tale with a dark edge to it. A beastly mentor figure attempts to hurl our hero toward destruction, but with love and encouragement from his good mentor, our hero musters up the strength and courage to outwit his evil foe.

Let’s now turn to your #5 pick, Interstellar. This movie didn’t crack my top 10 list but as a science fiction buff I enjoyed it immensely, Greg. Interstellar made me think, not just feel. We are treated to fabulous CGI effects, but more importantly we are compelled to ponder deeply about our place in the universe and what lengths we would go to save our planet. The integration of love and gravity as the glue that binds us all together is an inspiring take-home message.

It’s true, Scott, this movie was a technical marvel. And it held itself up to high scientific standards. It was made with the best understanding we have today of what interstellar travel would look like. Plus, it was mind-bending in the ways of time distortion and time travel. But for me the clincher was the bond between father and daughter. As the father of two girls, that hit home for me more than anything else. And that’s why Interstellar was in my top 5.


Appearing at #4 on my list is Gone Girl. This was a surprising film, especially if you went in without having read the novel. It starts out looking very much like something out of the tabloids where the husband is a suspect in the disappearance of his wife. Then at the halfway point, we learn that it was the controlling wife who was framing her husband for her own death. The movie takes a sharp turn and the villain and victim are reversed. That made for a thrilling roller coaster ride.

Gone Girl is #3 on my list of Best Movies of 2014. This film is a stylish portrayal of love, treachery, and murderous revenge. It drags us through the muck of human relationships and the nadir of human conduct. I enjoyed this movie despite the fact that afterward I was left feeling alarmed and ashamed of the human race. The film also features one of Hollywood’s most formidable and memorable villains we’ve seen in years. I believe her level of malevolence rivals that of Hannibal Lecter.

Our next movie is St. Vincent, which occupies #4 on my top-10 list. This film packs a powerful emotional punch toward the end — I found myself shedding a tear or two while Vincent’s heroism is being honored by Oliver and others. It’s a poignant tale of an unlikely pairing of people who save each other. St. Vincent is also a great buddy hero story, with young Oliver mentoring Vincent, his mother, and his entire school about the definition and complexity of sainthood.

I liked St. Vincent, too, but not as much as you did. Bill Murray starts out looking like a slob and ne’er do well. But in the end we peel away the onion skin to reveal a sweet core. As much as I liked this film, I didn’t think I’d get anything more from a second look, so it didn’t make my top-10.


At the number 3 spot on my list is Nightcrawler which fascinated me (much more so than it did you, I think). We’re introduced to naive yet unsavory Louis Bloom who wants to get into the video news business. We follow him as he becomes more and more corrupt, staging events so that they become newsworthy – even the death of his partner. It was a wicked anti-hero story that was crafted so well that I want to see it again to watch Louis’s descent into villainy and to see how it was accomplished.

Greg, I was just as fascinated as you were by Nightcrawler. The film was impeccably made but I could not bear to honor a movie that shows us two relentless hours of the devil in human form at work on the streets of Los Angeles. I was disturbed by the main character — notice that I cannot call him a hero — and his wanton disregard for human life. It was disheartening that no heroic character in the film could even come close to combating him. Our main character is pure evil running roughshod over everyone in his path. Like a cancer, he just grows and grows in his size and power, and he is shown flourishing in the end. The absence of any hero story here motivated me to omit this film from my top 10 list.


Our next movie is Selma, which I ranked as the #2 movie of the year while you gave it top billing. Never have I seen a better demonstration of the need, rationale, and effectiveness of nonviolent demonstration. It could be an ideal instruction manual for those wanting to emulate King’s (and Gandhi’s) model of bringing about peaceful sociocultural change. The heroic mentorship of Martin Luther King, Jr., is shown in fabulous detail here. King was miles ahead of everyone in his moral understanding of the world, and he also had the strength and charisma to move mountains.


Yes, Scott, all that is true. But the reason I gave Selma my #1 spot is because it echoes the problems we still see today. We still have voter obstruction through the imposition of unbalanced voter identification requirements. And we still see the brutal beating and killing of people of color by police – without due process of the perpetrators of that violence. Selma reminds us of the battles that have been won and the battles we have yet to fight.

And that brings us to your #1 pick for the year: Birdman. It didn’t make my list of the ten best because I really didn’t want to see it again. It was a skillfully made movie with a lot of subtext and art. But it was a very huge wink to itself and the Hollywood community. It was incredibly self-indulgent and I felt that it wasn’t made for me, the average movie viewer, but made for the Hollywood elite. It wasn’t even released to the general public until the new year so that “everyman” could see it. Despite its technical achievement, I felt alienated and I won’t be going back for seconds.

Greg, my number 1 choice, Birdman, reminded me so much of one of my favorite novels, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. This film is a complex and gripping piece of cinematic art. It is exhilarating, thoughtful, and complex. We are treated to intelligent character exchanges and nimble camera direction. Most notable about Birdman are the extraordinary performances from the cast. Keaton and Norton deserve Oscar nods for their portrayal of two men attempting to overcome powerfully neurotic, loveless lives. These are men who dive into the acting profession because it is a reprieve from the facade of reality. The themes of authenticity and flight to freedom sustain our attention and (for me) encourage a second visit to the theater.


So there you have it. Our top 10 lists overlap somewhat but there are some key differences, too. Overall, I would give the movies of 2014 a rating of 3 and a half Reels out of 5. The quality of films started out poorly but finished fairly strong. I believe 2013 was a slightly better year in the movies; I’d give 2013 a rating of 4 Reels out of 5. You can read our reviews of the films of 2013 in our first book: Reel Heroes: Volume 1.

Scott, I think your summation matches the industry assessment as well. The 2013 domestic box office receipts tipped the scales at $10.9 billion. Whereas the 2014 income figures are around $9.8 billion. While we had a crop of good films this year, many of them didn’t arrive until Oscar season. The 2014 crowd of summer popcorn films had less staying power than in 2013, as well.

We’ll be collecting our reviews of 2014 (plus our insights into what makes a great hero and villain) in our upcoming book Reel Heroes: Volume 2: The Villains (due out in March). Until then, follow us as we review the movies of 2015 which will focus not only on heroes and villains, but also on supporting characters. And look for our review of the Best Heroes of 2014 and Best Villains of 2014.

Our Reel Heroes Book is an Amazon #1 Best Seller


Some good news — our new book, Reel Heroes: Volume 1, has just been released and is already a Best-Seller at Amazon.com. In the book, we describe the elements of the classic hero journey and describe why heroes are psychologically important to us all. Inside you’ll find:

* A new classification scheme identifying movie heroes as Lone Heroes, Duos, or Ensembles.

* A review of 75 movies released in 2013, showing you which movies excel in portraying the hero’s journey and which movies fall flat.

* Our choices for Best Movies and Worst Movies, along with the year’s amazon-bestsellerBest Movie Heroes.

* Our analysis of Five Great Truths about movie heroes.

Matt Langdon, the founder of The Hero Construction Company, introduces the book with a thoughtful Forward in which he discusses the link between movie heroes and the hero journey in classic myth as outlined by Joseph Campbell.

Reel Heroes: Volume 1 is now available for purchase at Amazon.com.

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“Bravo! Film analysis at its finest. Smith and Allison have done a masterful job in providing a challenging yet insightful critique that goes right to the heart of the hero’s journey in contemporary cinema.” – Jason Roy, The Hero Construction Company

“Smith and Allison offer a refreshingly robust analysis of heroes and heroic action, showing us what we should have known all along, namely, that the hero journey makes the movie. Their innovative work is a must-read for all fans of heroes in the movies.” – Dr. James Beggan, Professor of Sociology, University of Louisville

“Smith and Allison get to the heart of the matter, and show us that it is the heart that matters. They go beyond the CGI and the 3D and drag the enduring human values out into the light of day.” – Rick Hutchins, Author of The RH Factor

“You can get more from movies than just a couple hours of fun. You can also learn how to be a hero and how to help others become more heroic. Let Scott and Greg take you deeper into your favorite movies and show you hidden lessons in heroism that you might have missed. Their humorous and thoughtful writing style is almost as entertaining as a summer blockbuster and their book costs less than one trip to the theater.” – David Rendall, Author of The Freak Factor

“A must for movie buffs.” – Jesse Schultz, Author of Alfheim.

“I applaud Smith and Allison for continuing ‘the hero’s journey’ by giving all of us the opportunity to apply movie scenes to the our own personal journeys of being a hero for others!” – Mike Dilbeck, Founder of RESPONSE ABILITY Revolution

“An ingenious approach to understanding effective storytelling in movies and literature.” – Dr. Robert Giacalone, Professor of Business Ethics, University of Denver

“If you want to see movies that will stay with you long after you leave the multiplex, then taking advice from these two on ReelHeroes.net is a great start. If you want to get a sense for what’s important in a successful story, read this book.” – Matt Langdon, Founder of The Hero Construction Company

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