Trope Talk: Trickster Heroes

Overly Sarcastic Productions
3 May 202414:30


TLDRThe video script explores the complex concept of heroism, particularly focusing on the 'trickster hero' archetype. It challenges the traditional notions of heroism, which are often associated with bravery, unselfishness, and nobility, by highlighting the morally ambiguous nature of many ancient Greek heroes and the feudalistic roots of the term 'noble.' The script delves into the characteristics of trickster figures in mythology and folklore, such as Coyote, Raven, Anansi, Loki, and Sun Wukong, who often use cunning and deceit for the greater good. It discusses how trickster heroes, like Spider-Man, are reactive, using their intelligence and resourcefulness to overcome more powerful adversaries. The narrative also touches on how these heroes can appear more heroic by protecting the innocent and manipulating villains into their own downfall. The script concludes by emphasizing that a hero's worth is not determined by their appearance or methods but by their actions and the good they achieve, even if those actions involve deception and trickery.


  • 📚 The concept of 'heroism' is culturally dependent and lacks a strict definition, often associated with bravery, unselfishness, and nobility.
  • 🤔 Traditional hero archetypes, especially from Ancient Greek narratives, may not align with the modern understanding of unselfishness and nobility.
  • 🏰 The principle of nobility in heroism has historical roots in feudalism and the divine right of kings, influencing our perception of social rank and virtues.
  • 🧐 Defining an 'antihero' is challenging due to the vagueness of the concept of a hero, which leads to a lack of clarity for its opposite.
  • 🌐 Trickster figures are prevalent in worldwide folklore and mythology, often serving as culture heroes despite their manipulative and cunning nature.
  • 🦊 Examples like Coyote, Raven, Anansi, Loki, and Sun Wukong illustrate the dual role of tricksters as both problem-causers and heroes in various mythologies.
  • 🔥 Trickster heroes often use their cunning to help humanity, sometimes inadvertently, as seen in stories like Prometheus stealing fire or Raven teaching humans to wear clothes.
  • 💡 A trickster hero's approach involves outsmarting a more powerful antagonist, as they typically face insurmountable odds if relying on brute force alone.
  • 🎭 The personality and motivation of a trickster hero should be sympathetic and aligned with a good cause, ensuring their actions are perceived as heroic despite their deceitful methods.
  • 🕷️ Trickster heroes are reactive, using their skills to counteract the actions of a villain, which can make their behavior more palatable and justified.
  • 🕷️ Classic trickster tactics involve manipulating the villain into causing their own downfall, as seen in the Brer Rabbit stories, using the enemy's strength against them.

Q & A

  • What is the main challenge in defining 'heroism'?

    -The main challenge in defining 'heroism' is that it lacks a clear-cut definition and is heavily dependent on cultural context. It is an ideal and a standard that is not strictly defined but rather felt as a 'vibe'.

  • Why is it difficult to apply the moral standard of unselfishness to archetypical Ancient Greek heroes?

    -It is difficult because many Ancient Greek heroes did not necessarily embody unselfishness, often displaying traits that were more self-centered or aligned with personal glory.

  • How is the concept of nobility related to the historical context of feudalism?

    -Nobility as a core precept of heroism is a remnant from the feudalism era when the divine right of kings was a foundational belief, linking social rank with moral worth.

  • What is an 'antihero' and why is it difficult to define?

    -An 'antihero' is a character that lacks conventional heroic attributes, often displaying flaws and vices. It is difficult to define because the concept of a hero itself is not clearly defined, making its antithesis equally ambiguous.

  • How do trickster characters typically achieve their goals?

    -Trickster characters achieve their goals through manipulation, lying, stealing, and sneaking, using cunning schemes to deceive others into giving them what they want.

  • Why are trickster gods and culture heroes often seen as both antagonists and heroes?

    -They are seen in this dual role because, despite causing problems or acting as antagonists at times, they often use their cunning to achieve positive outcomes, contribute to the world's creation, or help humanity, aligning with heroic traits.

  • What is a common trait among mythological tricksters?

    -A common trait among mythological tricksters is that they often use their tricks to help humanity, either deliberately or accidentally, showcasing a duality of mischief and beneficence.

  • How does the trickster hero's approach to conflict differ from that of a traditional hero?

    -A trickster hero uses cunning and manipulation to overcome more powerful antagonists, rather than relying on brute force or physical strength. They are often reactive, responding to threats with strategic trickery.

  • Why is it considered heroic for a trickster hero to fight unfairly?

    -It is considered heroic because the trickster hero is typically facing an antagonist in a situation that is already unfair. Using trickery is a way to level the playing field and protect the innocent or achieve justice.

  • How does the trickster hero's playbook often involve the villain causing their own downfall?

    -The trickster hero manipulates the villain into actions that lead to their own problems or undoing, leveraging the villain's own strengths or desires against them.

  • What is the role of smugness in making a villain more detestable and a trickster hero's victory more satisfying?

    -Smugness in a villain makes them overconfident and arrogant, which the audience resents. When a trickster hero defeats such a villain, it not only stops their villainous actions but also serves as a comeuppance for their smugness, making the hero's victory more gratifying.

  • How does the character of Lieutenant Columbo from the TV show 'Columbo' exemplify the trickster hero archetype?

    -Lieutenant Columbo uses a combination of deception, misdirection, and keen observation to solve cases. Despite his deceptive tactics, he is shown to be compassionate and dedicated to justice, which makes his methods acceptable and his character heroic.



🤔 The Ambiguity of Heroism and the Trickster

This paragraph discusses the elusive nature of heroism, which is often associated with bravery, unselfishness, and nobility. However, these traits are historically contingent and culturally variable. The text points out the difficulty in defining a hero, especially when comparing them to the often manipulative and cunning trickster figures found across various mythologies and cultures. Trickster characters are known for their deceitful tactics to achieve their goals, which contrasts sharply with traditional heroic ideals. The paragraph also touches on the complexity of creating a 'Trickster Hero,' a character who embodies both heroic qualities and trickster traits, such as Loki from Norse mythology or Sun Wukong from Chinese legend.


🦊 The Reactive Nature of the Trickster Hero

The second paragraph delves into the characteristics of a trickster hero, emphasizing their reactive nature. Trickster heroes often find themselves in unfair situations, facing more powerful adversaries. Unlike traditional heroes who might rely on physical strength or social status, trickster heroes use cunning and deceit to overcome their opponents. The paragraph highlights that these heroes are fundamentally motivated by a desire to protect or help, even if their methods are unorthodox. It also discusses how trickster heroes often manipulate villains into causing their own downfall, a strategy that aligns with the concept of using an enemy's strength against them. Examples include Spider-Man's tactical use of his environment and the classic Brer Rabbit story, where the trickster hero outsmarts his captor.


🕵️‍♂️ The Role of Smugness and Protection in Defining a Trickster Hero

The final paragraph explores additional elements that justify the actions of a trickster hero. It discusses how a trickster hero's fight on behalf of a sympathetic character can make their manipulative tactics seem more heroic. The text also highlights the importance of the villain's smugness, which can make their defeat more satisfying for the audience. The paragraph uses the example of the TV show 'Columbo' to illustrate how a trickster hero can use deception and misdirection to solve problems and bring justice. The character of Columbo is portrayed as a compassionate and dedicated individual whose dishonesty is a tool used exclusively against villains. The key takeaway is that a trickster hero is defined not by their skills or appearance, but by the good they do and the cleverness with which they achieve it.




Heroism, as discussed in the script, is a complex concept that traditionally involves bravery, unselfishness, and nobility. However, the script challenges this definition by pointing out that many ancient Greek heroes and characters from folklore do not always align with these standards. The theme of the video revolves around the exploration of heroism, particularly in the context of 'trickster heroes' who may not fit the conventional mold but still embody heroic qualities in their actions and intentions.

💡Trickster Hero

A trickster hero is a character who employs cunning, deceit, and manipulation as their primary means to achieve their goals. Unlike traditional heroes who may rely on physical strength or nobility, trickster heroes often use their intelligence and wit, especially when facing more powerful adversaries. The script explores the duality of such characters, noting that despite their unorthodox methods, their actions are often in service of a good cause, which is a key aspect of their heroism.


Unselfishness is a quality often associated with traditional heroes, implying a selfless act that benefits others over personal gain. The script questions the relevance of this trait in the context of heroism, especially when examining characters from various mythologies and cultures who may not exhibit unselfishness but are still considered heroic figures. The concept is used to challenge the rigid definition of a hero and to argue for a more nuanced understanding.


Nobility, in the context of the script, refers to the state of being noble, which historically has been linked to the idea of a 'divine right of kings' and social rank. The video suggests that the concept of nobility as a core principle of heroism is outdated and culturally specific, and it does not necessarily apply to all forms of heroism, especially when considering trickster heroes who often operate outside of traditional social structures.

💡Cultural Context

Cultural context is emphasized as a critical factor in understanding the concept of heroism. The script suggests that what constitutes a hero can vary significantly across different cultures and time periods. This concept is central to the video's argument that heroism is not a fixed, universally agreed-upon standard but rather a 'vibe' that is interpreted through the lens of cultural values and norms.


An antihero is a character type that is the opposite of a traditional hero, often embodying more morally ambiguous or flawed traits. The script mentions the difficulty in defining an antihero since the concept of a hero itself is not clearly defined. This term is used to further illustrate the fluidity and subjectivity inherent in characterizing figures as heroes or antiheroes.

💡Manipulative Schemers

The term 'manipulative schemers' is used to describe trickster characters who achieve their goals by deceiving others. In the context of the script, these characters are often the protagonists but do not fit the typical hero archetype due to their methods. The video discusses how these traits can coexist with heroic qualities when the intentions and outcomes of their actions are considered.


An underdog is a character or competitor who is at a disadvantage or is considered unlikely to succeed. The script uses this term to describe trickster heroes who face more powerful antagonists and must rely on their cunning rather than physical strength or social status to overcome challenges. The underdog's use of intelligence and resourcefulness is a key aspect of their appeal and heroism.

💡Foil Dynamic

A foil dynamic refers to a narrative technique where a character's qualities are contrasted with another's to highlight differences. In the script, this concept is used to describe the relationship between the trickster hero and their more powerful antagonist. The trickster hero's cunning and resourcefulness serve as a foil to the antagonist's brute force or social power, emphasizing the hero's unique strengths.


The term 'reactive' in the script describes the nature of trickster heroes who respond to the actions of a villain or antagonist. Their deceit and trickery are portrayed as reactions to the problems created by the antagonist, which helps to justify their unconventional methods. This concept is important in establishing the hero's motivations and making their actions feel necessary and justified.


Selflessness is the quality of being concerned more with the needs of others than with one's own. In the script, selflessness is presented as a foundational tenet of modern heroism. Trickster heroes can appear more heroic when their actions are aimed at protecting innocents or serving the greater good, rather than personal gain, which aligns with the script's exploration of unconventional heroism.


Heroism is a soft-edged concept heavily dependent on cultural context

An alleged hero can quickly lose goodwill if they don't align with current moral standards

Being a hero has standards, while being a protagonist just requires being in focus

Trickster characters are manipulative schemers who deceive to get what they want

Trickster gods and culture heroes often play an antagonist role but also contribute to the world through cunning

Trickster figures like Coyote, Raven, Anansi, Loki, and Sun Wukong are prevalent in worldwide folklore and mythology

Many mythological tricksters use their tricks to help humanity, either accidentally or deliberately

Trickster hero's primary skillset is manipulating situations to their advantage through cunning, not brute force

Trickster heroes often face more powerful antagonists, acting as underdogs

A trickster hero's personality and motivation need to be decently heroic, using their tricks for a good or sympathetic cause

Trickster heroes are reactive, their deceit driven by responding to a powerful adversary causing problems

The classic trickster superhero is Spider-Man, who uses creativity and cunning to outsmart stronger enemies

Trickster heroes often stop the bad guy by convincing them to cause their own downfall

In trickster stories, the villain's smugness and overconfidence can lead to their defeat

Columbo is an example of a trickster hero who uses lies and misdirection to bring down smug, powerful villains

Trickster heroes are defined not by their skills, but how they use them for good

A hero is defined by the good they do, not how closely they fit a hero archetype



"Heroism" is one of those really annoying things that doesn't have a clear-cut definition


in any meaningful sense, but so much of our understanding of storytelling and characterization


is built on it.


The current dictionary angle highlights bravery, unselfishness and nobility as the principles


embodied by a hero, which sounds fine and dandy until you (a) try to hold any of the


archetypical Ancient Greek heroes to the moral standard of unselfishness and (b) notice that


nobility as a core precept of heroism is a holdover from the feudalism days when the


divine right of kings was more foundational to most people's worldviews than gravity.


There's no other reason the word for "inheriting social rank" is the same word as "traits that


make you the best kind of person" - or, for that matter, why the word for "common peasant"


is "villein".


I once went down an unhinged rabbit hole trying to cleanly define an antihero, because it


turns out if a concept doesn't have a definition, neither does its antithesis.


Heroism is an ideal, a standard, a soft-edged concept heavily dependent on the snapshot


of cultural context it forms in.


It's not something we can lay strict parameters on - it's a vibe.


And because it's a vibe, people are pretty good at feeling out when a character trait


doesn't fit that vibe.


An alleged hero can lose their goodwill and dessert privileges very quickly if they don't


check all the boxes on the current edition of the moral absolutism rubric.


It's easy to be a protagonist - all you need for that is to keep the camera on you.


Being a hero has standards.


Which is why it can be kind of complicated to make a Trickster Hero.


Trickster characters in general are pretty simple.


They're manipulative schemers who get what they want by fooling people into giving it


to them.


Typically their favored strategies include lying, stealing, sneaking and generally doing


everything in their power to not be wholly perceived and understood, because if that


happens it gives the game away and makes their plans eminently thwartable.


Which is a pretty complicated  set of characteristics 


to give… to a hero.


Now again, part of this is because of my perennial nemesis, the fact that "hero" does not actually


have a solid definition.


For instance, while trickster traits might feel fairly antithetical to an america-centric


cultural concept of what heroism looks like, there are a metric buttload of trickster gods


and culture heroes that maybe spend a slice of their time playing antagonist causing problems


for the rest of the pantheon, but the bulk of their time is spent as the hero, winning


personal victories or contributing to the creation and shaping of the world through


cunning schemes.


Tricksters are such a staple of worldwide folklore and mythology that there's whole


swaths of study dedicated to conspiracy-boarding why they're like that.


For an easy handful of examples, various versions of Coyote and Raven crop up as trickster figures


in several indigenous North American cultures, Anansi originated in West Africa and gets


up to a lotta hijinks that later got blended together with other trickster figures like


Brer Rabbit, Loki is obviously  a pretty archetypical 


trickster and schemer in the space of Norse


mythology with the interesting twist that he gets his ass kicked a lot and the secondary


twist that chief god Odin is also a trickster figure while also being 100% the boss, and


then you get powerhouses like Sun Wukong who, despite having the power of god and anime


on his side, continually has to use sneaky tactics and shapeshifting to outwit the opponents


he can't just punch through a mountain or two.


There's a lot of interesting threads through various mythological trickster stories that


we're not even gonna try to fully unpack here, but do have some interesting implications


for the discussion of trickster heroes.


For one thing, a lot of these mythological tricksters have a tendency to use their tricks


to help humanity, either  accidentally or deliberately.


One of the most iconic examples of that is Prometheus purposefully stealing fire from


the gods and giving it to humanity, which is an unconditional positive that he is very


harshly punished for.


You also get things like the Inuit story of frequent sneaky trickster Raven being the


first teacher of humanity, getting everyone up to speed on the whole "wearing clothes"


and "dying less" thing.


A lot of Diné folklore about Coyote is pretty negative, but there's at least one story where


he saves humanity from a child-eating giant by convincing him that letting Coyote break


his leg will be great for his long-term  


child-eating career.


So clearly, trickster traits and heroism - or 


at least protagonist status  bundled with do-gooding


- go hand in hand a lot.


But I'm not presently qualified to delve into folkloric tricksters any deeper than I already


have, and besides, we don't need to caveat heroism itself to justify the existence of


trickster heroes.


There are ways to make a protagonist heroic while still letting them get their scheme


on, and that's a very interesting duality I'd like to explore.


A trickster hero's primary skillset is in manipulating a situation to their advantage


through cunning and trickery rather than brute force.


Generally they are in some way an underdog facing some sort of more-powerful antagonist,


and if they fought that antagonist on the terms the antagonist defined, they would 100%




This is a classic foil dynamic, where the protagonist and antagonist have contrasting


qualities instead of being very similar to one another.


A villain who is extremely strong and durable might get pitted against a hero who's fast


and sneaky.


A villain with a ton of money and political power - like a noble of some kind - might


go up against someone without much of either.


A villain with access to a powerful weapon will probably find themself dealing with heroes


that are hard to hit with it.


You may note, this isn't so much a battle of equals as it is an overwhelming antagonistic


force facing heroes that need to work pretty hard to not just be flattened.


Brute force can take a lot of forms, whether it's physical strength or social capital or


political power or technological supremacy.


In contexts where the villain is well-situated to just bulldoze their enemies, the heroes


will need strengths and strategies that make them much more un-bulldozable.


Which is 100% a word.


Merriam and Webster told me themselves.


Now because "trickster" basically just describes a skillset, there's no real restrictions on


a trickster character's personality or motivation.


But in order for them to qualify as a trickster hero, that personality and motivation needs


to be decently heroic.


They need to be using their sneaky trickster-ness for a good cause, or at least a sympathetic




And again, because heroism is a vibes-based value judgment, their sneaky trickster-ness


can't be so over-the-top as to outweigh their good-guy qualities.


It's frequently considered heroic to be honorable and fight fair, but of course a trickster


hero facing a powerful enemy is in a situation that is already unfair and blatantly skewed


against them, and if they try to fight "fair" under those conditions, they're just going


to lose.


The number one trait most trickster heroes share is that they're fundamentally reactive.


All their lying and scheming is done in response to some powerful jerkface rocking up and causing




This already goes a long way towards making trickster qualities feel more heroic, because


the target of their wrath is the instigator of the whole situation.


Bugs Bunny doesn't start causing trouble until Elmer Fudd pokes his shotgun where it doesn't




This is also how most trickster superheroes work - their very motivating origin stories


are the result of bad guys causing problems in their presence, inspiring them to stand


up and do something about it.


Superheroes exist to solve problems, and if a superhero's powerset doesn't just let them


hit the problem til it goes away, they need to be sneakier and more creative about it.


Probably the most classic trickster superhero is Spider-Man.


He's smart, quippy and creative with his powers, but most of his enemies are physical tanks


like Rhino or Sandman or Venom.


Spider-Man may be strong, but he's not Superman.


He can't just punch people into orbit if they're getting inconveniently rowdy.


Instead he typically has to use the terrain to his advantage, luring his opponents into


environmental hazards or exploiting some flaw he's noticed in their powerset - like the


first time he fights The Rhino in Spectacular 


Spider-Man, he realizes  Rhino has a huge overheating


problem and lures him into the steam tunnels to knock him out with super-heatstroke.


The fact that this isn't exactly honorably chivalric combat doesn't do anything to diminish


Spider-Man's heroism - it just makes him seem smart, and everything he's doing feels necessary


because the extremely destructive bad guys he's stopping are very, very hard to stop.


And there's another interesting element to a trickster hero's playbook.


Usually a trickster hero stops the bad guy, not by doing things to the bad guy until they


stop being a problem, but by convincing the bad guy to do things themselves that turn


out to have undesirable outcomes.


The agency is all on the villain, which is of course the problem the hero is facing when


the story starts - the antagonist turns up to cause problems, and the protagonist doesn't


have access to the kind of raw power that would let them just make the villain stop,


so instead they have to shape the villain's actions until they either choose to stop causing


problems or physically can't continue.


The villain in this scenario isn't suffering anything they didn't literally bring on themselves


- the only twist is that they didn't think it was going to affect them.


It's a classic case of using the enemy's strength against them.


An extremely textbook demonstration of this is an old Brer Rabbit story, where Brer Rabbit


finds himself seized by his perennial nemesis and local carnivore Brer Fox.


Faced with the prospect of being straight-up eaten, he begs and pleads with Brer Fox to


please oh please don't throw him into that briar patch over there.


This wasn't something Brer Fox was previously considering - he was just gonna torture him


a lil bit and then eat him - but the more Brer Rabbit begs him not to throw him into


that briar patch, the more Brer Fox wants to, just to make him suffer.


In the end he succumbs to temptation and yeets Brer Rabbit into the briar patch, only for


Brer Rabbit to expertly navigate the briars without a scratch and vanish into the underbrush


where Brer Fox can't follow.


As he explains from a safe distance, Brer Rabbit was born and raised in a briar patch.


This is a very classic con.


A trickster hero faced with a cruel antagonist can convince them to do almost anything if


they think it'll hurt somebody they want to see suffer.


And more broadly, to generalize off this model, the number one way a trickster can get an


antagonist to do what they want is to figure out what the antagonist wants and convince


them that they can get it by doing this one thing.


If they wanna hurt people, oh this would hurt me sooo much.


If they want power, oh this would make you so strong!


If they want money, oh I have so much cash and absolutely no street-smarts it'd be a


shame if somebody scammed me out of it!


Leverage, being a con-of-the-week show, always starts with our crew of heisting heroes figuring


out what the villain of the week wants most and then building a scam about making them


think they're gonna give it to them.


And Leverage is a good segue into another way a writer can make a crew of schemers and


scammers seem heroic by contrast: beyond making them fundamentally reactive, give them somebody


completely sympathetic to protect.


A trickster fighting on their own behalf is in a slight gray area no matter how terrible


their enemy might be, since they're still putting their enemy through hell because of


some personal slight - but a trickster fighting on behalf of a helpless innocent without a


dishonest bone in their body is tapping directly into the foundational tenet of modern heroism:




Now their unheroic, manipulative strategies are just a means to a very good end, and the


more helpless and honest the victim, the more justified our hero's scheming will appear.


This is also a very useful strategy a writer can use to make the antagonist more threatening,


since if we only ever see them face off against a trickster hero that knows exactly how to


run circles around them, they're gonna come across as bumbling or even downright comedic,


which is frequently the intent.


But if the writer really wants to convince the audience that this overwhelmingly powerful


bad guy needs to be taken down and they're too powerful for anyone to do it openly, it's


very helpful to demonstrate what their villainous brute force looks like.


So they'll dash an innocent person's dreams, gloat about how untouchable they are, taunt


their victim to just try and make them face consequences and march off with the local


police force in their pocket, overall making it clear how absolutely on top of the world


they are.


These guys are trickster bait.


They are so unbelievably awful that the audience 


wants to see them taken  down, but so well-established


and well-connected that the existing systems of authority that are supposed to stop that


sort of thing are barely more than suggestions in their presence.


Like with most cases of trickster bait, the only thing powerful enough to destroy them


is themselves, and the trickster just needs to convince them it's a really good idea to


do the things that make that happen.


And this ties into one more thing that can make a trickster hero feel completely justified:


if the villain is smug.


Smugness is a very dangerous thing for a villain to indulge in, because villains are, by their


narrative nature, set up to fail, and a villain confident in their victory to the point of


gloating about it is baiting the audience into seeing them defeated.


Plenty of villains get a dignified defeat where they acknowledge a worthy opponent,


or they get in one little token victory that keeps their downfall from feeling absolute.


You can even defeat a villain in a way that does absolutely nothing to disprove their


worldview if you've got a fondness for ambiguity or disappointment.


A strong villain who gets defeated by somebody stronger than them might be like "wow I didn't


know anyone was stronger than me, this defeat reaffirms my might-based values system and


makes me want to get even stronger."


A strong villain who gets defeated by somebody totally weak who did nothing but outsmart


them is the kind of  worldview-shattering experience 


that might leave them rethinking their entire




When a villain is smug, it means they're confident that they're untouchable in every way that




It's not just about whatever their villainous goal is, it's about making sure everybody


knows how powerless they are to stop it.


We don't just want to see villains lose: we want to see them proven wrong.


And when the villain is smug, that means we want to see them utterly fall apart.


This writing strategy comes up in several episodes of Columbo, an unusual detective


show with an unusual trickster hero.


It's kind of an inside-out whodunnit where every episode starts with the audience seeing


the villain of the week committing a murder and flawlessly covering it up.


They're almost unilaterally ridiculously rich and powerful, and they all very cleverly construct


a scenario that looks like a perfect murder.


Not only are they sure they'll never be caught, most of the time they're sure they'll never


even be suspected.


And when the cops roll up in the opening of the episode, they typically take in the scene


as presented and immediately  come to the conclusion 


the killer wanted them to reach.


All, that is, except for Lieutenant Columbo, a small, jovial man in an extremely rumpled


coat who only ever seems to  be half-paying-attention.


Columbo is an interestingly opaque character, because for the bulk of any given episode


he is being 100% dishonest.


He'll lie about why he's turned up somewhere incriminating, he'll lie about not suspecting


the villain of the week, he'll lie about how he totally buys their bullshit explanation


covering over some flaw he pointed out in their alibi, he'll lie about his wife or his


boss pushing him to spend more time with the villain even though obviously he'd like to


get out of their hair.


This is so extreme that, through the entire run of the show, the audience never sees his


often-referenced wife and for the  first few seasons we never receive  


any evidence that she exists at all,  and we never even learn his first name.


We know almost nothing about this guy, and everything we learn is usually something he's


telling the villain of the week that therefore can't be trusted.


He usually favors softball lies - lies of omission or deflection rather than outright


falsehoods - and most of the time it's still pretty clear to the audience when he figures


something out and broadly what he's planning.


But in general, the first time in any given episode where Columbo even indicates that


he thinks the villain of the week did the murder is at the beginning of the final scene


of the episode where he reveals how they did it - when he starts saying what the audience


already knows he's been thinking the whole time.


He almost never makes an accusation if he doesn't already have the evidence to completely


shred their alibi.


Alongside all the lying, the trickster part of his character is mostly dedicated to hiding


in plain sight.


The bad guys never know exactly how much he knows, how much he suspects, and how much


he can prove.


He won't even give them the satisfaction of knowing for sure that he thinks they did it.


The reason this level of dishonesty works without making Columbo feel in any way bad


or unheroic is because of the context in which he uses it.


On the occasions we see Columbo hanging out with peers or innocent bystanders he's just


as friendly and jovial as ever, showing that that part of him isn't an act to off-balance


the bad guys.


He's kind and compassionate to grieving survivors, whenever a villain of the week tries to frame


somebody he's always very reassuring to them - and every once in a while we get a real


glimpse at how he's honestly feeling, and see a man who is profoundly dedicated to the


pursuit of justice.


We don't get his backstory, we don't get personal angst, we don't get any sort of character


arc - just a guy who's ridiculously good at his job methodically sneaking his way through


a web of lies and misdirection until he can take down a smug murderer in a single stroke.


Trickster heroes aren't really defined by what they're good at.


They're defined by how they use what they're good at.


A hero isn't defined by how much they look like a hero, but by the good that they do.


Or by how funny it is when they tie a shotgun in a knot and let Elmer Fudd blow himself


up with it.


So… yeah?

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Related Tags
HeroismTricksterStorytellingCultural ContextCharacterizationMythologyFolkloreAntiheroSpider-ManColumbo