In literature, foiling what happens when a character contrasts another (usually the protagonist) in order to highlight an attribute that character shares. If you went through Danny Phantom, I’m sure you could find a lot of characters that foil one another, but there is none more poignant than the way that Vlad Masters foils Danny Phantom. Vlad foils Danny in two important ways: he highlights Danny’s manipulative streak, and Danny’s heroics/morals. Let’s dig into why that’s important.
We’ll start with a similarity both Danny and Vlad share: a manipulative streak.
“Using your opponent’s weaknesses against him – I am teaching you something after all.”
-Vlad Masters in Bitter Reunions
From his introduction, it’s clear that Vlad Masters is a chess master of epic proportions. Who else arranges a high school reunion so that he can win back the woman he feels was “stolen from him” and murder his best friend all in one go? He manipulates Danny on a regular basis – and from the start of the show, in fact. Remember those ecto-pusses that show up in the first few minutes of the pilot, when Danny’s father is talking to him and his friends about ghosts?
If you don’t, here’s a picture for clarification:
What you might not remember is that Vlad sent those, to test Jack’s skills in ghost hunting – which led to him discovering Danny’s existence:
DANNY: Skulker? The ectopusses? I don’t understand!
VLAD: Of course not! You’re, what, fourteen? Too young to drive and not in college yet! I sent those ghosts, and others, to test your father’s skills. Imagine my surprise when I find *you*; the second ghost hybrid his foolishness created! (Bitter Reunions Transcript)
The dialogue implies that Vlad knew about Danny before he arrived at the manor, and there’s a familiarity in his dialogue when they first fight (“Danny Phantom, right?”) that suggests he has continued to send ghosts to test not Jack, but Danny. Considering this is 7 episodes in, a lot of Danny’s early ghost encounters are likely Vlad-generated, which means he’s been manipulating Danny since the beginning in a way. That’s creepy.
Vlad’s chess master antics continue throughout the show. He gives Valerie ghost-hunting gear in Shades of Gray as a means to cause Danny trouble – and later uses her to his advantage to get a hold of Danny’s DNA to clone him. In Maternal Instincts, he arranges a fake scientific convention, and then crashes Danny and Maddie’s plan, stranding them in the woods with him to get his hands on them. Reign Storm is essentially a master game of manipulation, where he uses both Valerie and Danny to manipulate his way out of the mess he’s made by angering the Ghost King – he gives Valerie a ring he stole so that she’ll be targeted instead of him, and ends up getting Danny to imprison the Ghost King for him. Danny almost loses his life in the process. There are probably like a million more examples I could give, but I think these two encompass how manipulative Vlad can be, and how he’s willing to use people and situations to get what he wants.
So you’re thinking: “Okay Mel, we get it, Vlad is a stinky manipulative cheesehead. But how does Danny fit into this? Isn’t he the hero?”
Well yes, Danny is the hero. But Danny is just as manipulative and underhanded as Vlad, and what’s telling is that Danny’s most manipulative moments come out when he’s in direct combat with Vlad. Vlad even comments on this on multiple occasions, such as this one:
Take Bitter Reunions, for example. Vlad has overshadowed Danny’s father, and later tries to kidnap Danny’s mother. Danny realizes that the only way he’s going to get Vlad to scram is to threaten something Vlad values, which leads to this lovely exchange:
DANNY: (as Jack) How’s it going, V-man?
VLAD: (mocking) Ooo, you overshadowed Jack. Ooh, I’m so scared. Now what’s next? A card trick?
DANNY: (as Jack) Listen to me. I swear I’ll walk out of my dad right now and expose us both, unless you agree to a truce.
VLAD: …You’re bluffing.
DANNY: (as Jack) No I’m not! My parents will accept me, no matter what. But if I expose *you*…Well, heh, what would my *mom* think of you?
Vlad makes a face at the thought of that. Danny sets Vlad down.
DANNY: (as Jack) You’ll be miserable and alone for the rest of your life, unless you call a truce.
VLAD: (amused) Using your opponents weaknesses against him. I am teaching you something after all. Very well. Truce. (Bitter Reunions Transcript)
This is especially wonderful because earlier in the scene, Vlad gives Danny the idea inadvertedly when he tells Danny that he would never expose him, because exposing Vlad would mean exposing Danny’s own powers. Danny challenges his assumptions with his ploy, and while he impresses Vlad (which I don’t think he intended to do), it shows Danny’s character. He’s being manipulative, but also honest. He knows that his parents would be more likely to accept him, because even though they’re a bit extreme, they love him unconditionally. He would reveal his existence to them in a second if it saved them from Vlad, because he knows it would be worth the risk. Danny’s trust in people is something that Vlad doesn’t share. That trust and faith in the people he cares about strengthens Danny and weakens Vlad.
Another great example (and one of my favorites) is in Maternal Instincts. Vlad spends a lot of this episode getting the upper hand: luring Danny and his mother right where he wants them, zapping Danny clear of his powers long enough to scare him and stop him from interfering in his plans, and seems to be (in his mind) nearing victory. However, Danny takes a lesson from Vlad.
Earlier in the episode, Vlad takes great pleasure in bragging about one of his inventions, the Plasmius Maximus, which can incapacitate ghost powers for about four hours at a time. He demonstrates by using it on Danny and then sending wild ghost creatures after him.
Vlad brags a little too soon, because Danny proceeds to pull a similar ploy on him later on, with an invention of his mom’s called the Specter Deflector:
Danny: But first– [going to the clock, he pushes the hands so it looks like it’s 15 until 12:00, then approaches Vlad, still reading his book.] Hey, um, Uncle Vlad?
Vlad: Oh, please, Daniel, don’t try to butter me up. Especially with your powers shorted out [glancing at the clock] for another fifteen minutes. You’re barely a threat to me with them. Without them? [Laughs, then his eyes gleam red] Well I wouldn’t need fifteen seconds, would I?
Danny: [innocently] How can you say that? You think my mom made the decision to come back on her own? We’re a family. We both talked about it last night, and I want to stay here with you too.
Vlad: [Brightening, his eyes tearing up] Really? You don’t mean…
Danny: Yes, I do. Come on, give me a big hug, new Dad!
[Vlad goes in for the hug, and Danny locks the Specter Deflector around his waist.]
Vlad: [screaming] You little rat! You tricked me! You know what this will mean for you, don’t you?
Danny: [looking at his watch] Oh, yeah. [The clock goes to 12:00, and Danny transforms to ghost mode.] A much fairer fight! (Maternal Instinct Transcript)
By fiddling with the clock and lowering the time, Danny lowers Vlad’s defenses by letting him think his powers aren’t back yet, then preys on Vlad’s very personal motives by pretending to apologize and offering him exactly what he wants, only to proceed to incapacitate him in a way that allows Danny to overpower him and win the battle. How very Slytherin – or Vlad Masters, I suppose – of him.
But there’s something important to note. While Danny is manipulative, his reasons for being manipulative often have heroic intentions: in both of these cases, he’s trying to stop one of Vlad’s plans, and protect his family. His morality is very different from Vlad’s, which we’re going to explore next.
[Vlad wakes up. He sees Danny and Valerie both out cold. And his first thought?]
Vlad: The ring! [Close-up on Valerie’s hand.] It’s gone! (Reign Storm Transcript)
Later on, shortly after above scene:
Danny: All of my enemies. Everything I thought I could handle, but couldn’t.
Tucker: Dude, you can’t blame yourself for this. It’s not your fault.
[Danny’s expression changes from worried and guilty to angry.]
Danny: Maybe not. But it is my responsibility. (Reign Storm Transcript)
As evidenced in the quotes and images above, morality sets Danny and Vlad apart as two different very people. How and why they use their powers is very different.
Vlad uses his powers for personal gain: to achieve wealth, to achieve power, to try and murder his best friend so he can ‘take back’ the woman he loves…the list goes on and on. This is established early on in Bitter Reunions, when Jazz asks about his overzealous Packers styled manor:
JAZZ: I don’t understand. You have billions of dollars. Instead of buying this stuff, why don’t you just buy the team?
VLAD: (irritated) Because the Packers are owned by the city of Green Bay and they won’t sell them to me! (Bitter Reunions Transcript)
He later straight up confirms this when he goes on his ‘join me’ rant to Danny, telling him how he has experience, and “the money and power attained through using those powers for personal gain.” Later on in the show, we discover that he’s overshadowed prominent businessmen to get them to sign over their companies to him, that he’s used his powers to commit robberies, and he even uses them in Eye For an Eye to overshadow his way to being mayor. Whenever we see Vlad using his powers, it’s for his own personal gain, or to further his motivations. Even when he’s on Danny’s side, like during their reluctant alliance in Reign Storm, it’s because he’s trying to save his own skin, and realizes siding with Danny is his best bet for success.
Danny’s motivations are very different. While Vlad’s are selfish and self-centered, Danny’s tend to be selfless. While he does have brief moments of selfishness – as most people do – Danny overall motivation is using his powers in order to help people. He wants to save the day. He stops ghosts from attacking his town time and time again, even though for a large chunk of the show, Amity Park as a whole seems to really hate Danny Phantom.
It’s worth noting that Danny could’ve easily been Vlad. They started out very similar: smart teenagers with a love for science, who have two fantastic best friends. The triad of Danny-Sam-Tucker and Vlad-Maddie-Jack is a great reflection of how once upon a time, Vlad was a bit like Danny. Danny could’ve easily resented his parents for his ghost powers, because it was their portal that caused it, much like the proto-portal caused Vlad’s powers back in the day. Vlad is a cautionary tale: he’s the path Danny very well could’ve taken, had things been different.
However, whereas Vlad loses himself in resentment and his lust for power, Danny begins to become more moral and empowered as he learns to use his ghost side to help people and make a change. While Vlad isolates himself, Danny grows closer to Sam and Tucker, relying on them – and later Jazz –for help. Where Vlad sees people as pawns he can use and manipulate, Danny sees the people in his life as friends and allies. Vlad forces people into alliances under false circumstances, by lying to them and manipulating them (ex: Valerie, Dani). Danny helps people, like Wulf and later Dani, and gains their alliance because he helps them out of the tough situations they’re in. It’s a really great contrast, and Vlad’s villainous actions help to showcase Danny’s heroics and morality.
There’s actually a great visual example of this in Maternal Instincts: what I like to call ‘the mirror scene.’
Now, mirrors in media and literature tend to be very symbolic. They show us the truth. Often in supernatural shows, they show us the monster behind their façade. A great example of this is in The Little Mermaid, when Scuttle sees ‘Vanessa’ in the ship singing, and sees that her reflection is Ursula, revealing Ursula’s plan to pose as Vanessa and force Eric into marriage to ruin Ariel’s quest.
In Maternal Instincts, the mirror scene shows Danny and Vlad in both human and ghost forms. But we also get a sense of who they are deep down inside.
The initial view in the mirror is Vlad, standing tall and confident, with a superior smirk on his face, with Danny behind him, curled into himself on the chair. It shows who they are at the start of the show. The Danny we get at the very start of the show isn’t confident in himself: he’s clumsy, struggling with his powers, and has a lot of self-esteem issues. The Vlad we get from the start is manipulative, cunning, and arrogant: all traits we can see in his appearance. He’s confident in his powers to the point of being egotistical about them.
Then the mirror flashes and we get a different scene: purple flames, from a fight. This Danny is confident, with his fists out, ready for a fight. In this scene, he’s our force of good, because he looks appalled at Vlad’s actions. This Vlad is more sinister – he’s taller, grins wickedly at his opponent, and is sure of his victory. I think it’s important that Vlad is the one looking in the mirror in this scene, because he’s seeing himself as victorious. He takes up the majority of the space in the image, while Danny is relegated to the background. It shows Vlad’s ego, and how his own self-interest is most important. Everything else comes second.
If Danny were the one looking in the mirror, I’m sure we’d get a very different image.
Vlad’s foiling of Danny accomplishes two things: he highlights his manipulative side, and contrasts Danny’s heroics and selflessness with his villainy and selfishness. The two different paths these characters take, despite how similar their origins are in some ways, is really quite interesting. Character makes all the difference here.
Who are your favorite animated foils? Can you think of any other characters who foil each other in fascinating ways on Danny Phantom? Let us know in the comments.
Bitter Reunions Transcript. (n.d.). Retrieved July 10, 2015, from Danny Phantom Wiki: http://dannyphantom.wikia.com/wiki/Bitter_Reunions/Transcript
Maternal Instinct Transcript. (n.d.). Retrieved July 10, 2015, from Danny Phantom Wiki: http://dannyphantom.wikia.com/wiki/Maternal_Instinct/Transcript
Reign Storm Transcript. (n.d.). Retrieved July 10, 2015, from Danny Phantom Wiki: http://dannyphantom.wikia.com/wiki/Reign_Storm/Transcript
The majority of my screencaps were from this wonderful site: http://dannyphantomscreencaps.weebly.com/