The following is a review I wrote on Fantastic Four #1 for PopMatters. Enjoy!
Every now and then, a movie comes along that was unremarkable in its time, but gained greater meaning years later. It’s one of those unspoken challenges of movie making that doesn’t involve dealing with difficult actors. Sometimes, a movie is either ahead of its time or too late to make much of an impact. Like cooking the perfect steak or good fart joke, timing is everything.
That brings me to “Megamind,” a very well-done, but often overlooked animated movie from Dreamworks. Since it’s not Pixar and doesn’t involve “Shrek,” it had a lot working against it before it came out. However, it also had plenty more going for it and not just in terms of quality 3D animation at a time when “Avatar” finally made that gimmick viable.
The movie boasted an amazing voice cast that included Brad Pitt, Will Ferrell, Jonah Hill, Tina Fey, and David Cross. It also did plenty to leverage that star power. Will Ferrell even famously dressed up as the titular character at the San Diego Comic Con to promote the movie. I’m not saying that, alone, would’ve made that movie a success, but Will Ferrell is one of those rare talents who can make anything more appealing.
In addition, the movie told a compelling story in a way that was concise, enjoyable, and appealing for adults and children alike. It showed in the favorable reviews it received from critics and the high scores it earned from audiences. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite show in the box office totals. The movie did well, but it fell short of the high bar that both Pixar and “Shrek” have set for animated features.
The reason for the movie’s shortcomings are numerous and varied. It came out in 2010, just in time for titles like “Toy Story 3,” “How To Train Your Dragon,” and “Tangled” to steal the show. It also came out at a time when superhero movies were just starting to ascend. “Iron Man” had just come out and the scars from “X-men Origins: Wolverine” were finally starting to heal.
However, “Megamind” really jumped the gun in terms of timing. We were still a few years before “The Avengers” cemented superhero movies as ultimate box office gold encased in vibranium. As a result, the remarkable concept that “Megamind” introduced went forgotten, but I believe it’s worth remembering.
The plot of “Megamind” is simple on paper, but complex in its implications. It tells the story of a self-proclaimed super-villain named Megamind, who was voiced by Will Ferrell. His persona is essentially a comedic parody of every super-villain trope that ever existed. He’s a mad genius bent on conquest and domination, but is constantly thwarted by an overly-powerful, overly-handsome hero.
That hero, appropriately voiced by Brad Pitt, is Metro Man. Like Megamind, he’s also a parody of every superhero trope. He’s part Superman and part Captain America, grossly overpowered and so morally pure that it’s laughable. As such, the movie never attempts to frame Metro Man’s heroism or Megamind’s villainy in a serious sort of way.
That approach is key because the way the story plays out essentially flips the script on the standard narrative surrounding superheroes, super-villains, and what motivates both of them. It conveys a message that didn’t really have much impact in 2010, but if it came out just five years later, its themes would’ve been much more relevant.
At its core, “Megamind” asks what would happen if an over-the-top villain like Megamind actually defeated an over-the-top hero like Metro Man. How would he react? How would the society around them react? These are questions that often have simple answers in other superhero movies. “Megamind” dares to add an extra layer of complexity.
Early on in the movie, Megamind achieves what Lex Luthor, Dr. Doom, and every other mustache-twirling villain failed to achieve. He defeats his heroic nemesis. He takes over the city he seeks to rule. There is no longer anyone or anything to stand in his way. He is, for all intents and purposes, the most powerful being in Metro City.
That’s not the end of the story, though. That’s just the beginning. Shortly after this achievement, which caught Megamind himself by surprise, he has an existential crisis of sorts. Suddenly, there are no more plots left to hatch. There are no more battles left to fight. He has everything he ever wanted, but it still leaves him feeling empty inside.
It leads him on a path that reveals some unexpected insights into the whole hero/villain dynamic. At first, Megamind doesn’t know how to handle his new situation. It’s so unfamiliar and so jarring that it causes serious distress. Even for a super-genius, sudden change and unfamiliarity can be very difficult to handle.
Megamind’s first instinct, which is usually the same instinct most ordinary people act on in such distressed states, is to return to something familiar. He attempts to recreate the status quo as he knew it, which led him to create a new hero in Titan, who is voiced by Jonah Hill. He says outright that without a hero to fight, he has no purpose. Since he happens to be a super-genius, he just decides to create one.
In doing so, he learns as well as everyone else in Metro City that creating a hero is not as easy as just giving someone heroic abilities. On top of that, he also learns that it’s not always possible to go back to that comfortable status quo. In fact, attempting to do so could only make things worse.
Without giving away the entire movie, which I encourage everyone to see, “Megamind” presents some pretty insights into what it means to be a hero and a villain. At a time when more complex villains like Walter White and Erik Killmonger are gaining greater appeal, I believe these insights are more critical now than they were in 2010.
A great deal of what drove Megamind early on was his assumption that he’s the villain and Metro Man is the hero. As such, they’re destined to fight each other with the hero always triumphing. He never stops to question that assumption, nor does he contemplate his goals for after he succeeds. It’s not until he actually succeeds that he realizes how flawed those assumptions were.
Metro Man realizes that even sooner. In one of the main twists of the story, “Megamind” shows that even idealized heroes aren’t immune to this inescapable dynamic. Like Megamind, Metro Man does what he does because he assumes that’s his role. He doesn’t question it until it becomes untenable.
By breaking that classic hero/villain dynamic, both Metro Man and Megamind reveal that the nature of the struggle between a superhero and a super-villain is often incomplete. They may think they know what they want. Heroes want to save the day. Villains want to conquer and rule. Beyond that, though, there’s no other vision. It’s just an endlessly repeating cycle that eventually goes nowhere in the long run.
In a sense, the entire story of “Megamind” is a reflection of the paradox of superheroes. Heroes may save the day and defeat the villains at every turn, but they never go beyond that struggle. They never attempt to change the conditions that allow the villains to instigate conflict, nor do they do anything to prevent new villains from emerging. They save the world, but don’t do anything to change it.
This shortcoming is a big part of “Megamind” from the beginning. No matter how many times Metro Man defeated Megamind, he always ended up back in jail. From there, he always escaped. He never changed or reconsidered his actions until he actually succeeded. To some extent, Metro Man does exactly what keeps Spider-Man and Batman from effectively achieving their heroic goals.
Ultimately, the resolution that “Megamind” offers in the end is something that undercuts the hero/villain dynamic completely. In the end, both Megamind and Metro Man stop making assumptions about their roles and actually make choices of their own, for once. In Megamind’s case, his choice conveys something that no other superhero movie has dared to attempt.
He takes the same traits and abilities that make him a villain and uses them to become a hero. More importantly, though, he doesn’t do so because of a role based on an assumption. He does it because that’s what he chooses. When finally given a choice to do something with his abilities, he chooses to do good. That’s not just uplifting, even for an animated movie. It speaks heavily to the forces that shape our identity.
In the context of modern superhero movies, “Megamind” both parodies and subverts the foundation of the genre. It doesn’t just ask the question as to what would happen if a villain actually beat the hero. It asks whether those who identify as villains are capable of doing heroic things, if given a choice.
Even with more complex villains like Walter White, most superhero movies and superhero media, in general, still follow the same dynamic that trapped Megamind. They have a villain, put them in a particular role, and keep them in that role by locking them into a cycle.
For some inherently villainous individuals, like Lex Luthor, that cycle isn’t necessary. For others, though, it poses interesting questions that rarely get answered. The villains have their roles. The heroes have theirs. The story plays out and the heroes triumph, but does that have to be the end of the story?
“Megamind” dared to expand on that story and while it may have been ahead of its time, those themes are still relevant. As superhero movies continue to set new box office records, they will likely become even more relevant and “Megamind” will get the appreciation it was just too premature to achieve.
If you’re a “Star Wars” fan in any capacity, then these are truly exciting times. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got the blueprints of the Millennium Falcon tattooed on your back or just think porgs are adorable, this is basically your Mardi Gras. Another new “Star Wars” movie is set for release and, by all accounts, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is set to give Disney a fresh pool of money to swim in.
Now, I love “Star Wars” as much as anyone who grew up on a healthy diet of sci-fi and comic books. I’ve seen every movie in theaters. I had more than my share of “Star Wars” toys as a kid. I do intend to be in line to see “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” on opening night. Like X-men and football, I’m that passionate about the things I love.
It’s because of that passion that I often find myself coming up with strange, if not eccentric, interpretations of the story. Part of that stems from my love of fan theories and my inclinations to create my own. “Star Wars” has such a rich, vibrant mythology surrounding it. Naturally, it’s going to inspire more theories than most.
However, in getting my mind one with the Force in anticipation of the release of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” I found myself contemplating some unexpected ideas. In doing so, I came to a realization that isn’t so much a fan theory as it is an observation, and one that will probably incur the wrath of every adherent of the Jedi Order, which is a thing by the way.
I’m willing to take that chance, though. I don’t know whether the Force will be on my side after this, but in the name of digging deeper into the “Star Wars” mythos, I want to put this out there. If you’re prone to Sith-level outrage, you might want to put up your deflector shields because I’m about to make a statement that strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Jedi. That statement is this.
Dr. Doom is the perfect embodiment of the Jedi.
I’ll give “Star Wars” a moment to stop seething and Marvel fans a moment to stop laughing. Take all the time you need. I know this sounds like something a man only comes up with after he’s had a few too many glasses of whiskey while re-watching “The Empire Strikes Back” one too many times. Make no mistake. I’m dead serious about this.
By every measure, Victor Von Doom, the same character who is regularly regarded as the greatest villain of all time, represents the values of the Jedi Order better than any other character. Given Doom’s villainous nature, which I’ve discussed before, that sounds like the equivalent of claiming that Jar Jar Binks was a Sith Lord. Actually, that might be a bad example.
However, I do believe there is an argument to be made here and not just because the designs for Darth Vader might have been inspired by Dr. Doom. To understand this argument, we must first understand the core tenants of the Jedi Order. According to the official Star Wars wiki, the Jedi Code is built around these principles.
There is no emotion, there is peace.
There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.
There is no passion, there is serenity.
There is no chaos, there is harmony.
There is no death, there is the Force.
Anyone who has watched at least two “Star Wars” movies can probably see plenty of examples of these tenants. In every movie, in some form or another, the Jedi espouse principles of non-attachment, harmony, knowledge, and an overall understanding that death is neither the end, nor the beginning.
Those who have studied philosophy and theology in any capacity will probably recognize that these concepts are very similar to major principles of Taoist philosophy. In fact, the whole Sith/Jedi dichotomy nicely reflects that of Yin and Yang, which is probably the most well-known Taoist principle.
With those concepts in mind, you might instinctively believe that Dr. Doom would more closely align with the tenants of the Sith. Like the Jedi, they too have their own unique code. Again, according to the official Star Wars wiki, that code is as follows:
Peace is a lie. There is only Passion.
Through Passion I gain Strength.
Through Strength I gain Power.
Through Power I gain Victory.
Through Victory my chains are Broken.
The Force shall free me.
While those tenants may sound like something Dr. Doom embraces, a closer examination of how Doom conducts himself reveals something else. You don’t even have to dig too deep to see just how much Doom embodies the ways of the Jedi.
One of the most distinct differences between a Sith and a Jedi is how they approach passion. Sith, as Anakin Skywalker so nicely demonstrated in “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith,” are fueled by their passions. Their anger and hate fuels them. Jedi see those emotions as temptations that send Force-wielders down a dark, selfish path. Anakin’s descent into the dark side nicely documents that fall.
However, while Dr. Doom can become annoyed and frustrated, he rarely demonstrates Sith-level anger. In fact, most of the time, Doom’s emotional state is one of cold, callousness. When he donned his famous, obscenely overpowered armor, he did so with the intent of shedding the passions that he believed had held him back.
As a result, Dr. Doom is largely devoid of the kinds of passion that would make him a Sith. If anything, that lack of emotion, along with the immense intelligence that makes him one of the smartest minds in the Marvel universe, grants him two of the key Jedi tenants by default.
The Jedi Code also focuses on tempering chaos, promoting harmony, and achieving serenity. In a sense, these are all perfectly in line with Dr. Doom’s goals. Stan Lee himself, the guy who co-created Dr. Doom, went so far as to say that Doom isn’t a villain in that he seeks to rule the world because he believes he can do a better job.
In a sense, Doom sees the same thing the Jedi sees. The world around him is full of chaos. People, in general, are consumed with chaos. Nothing but destruction will come from that chaos and they both seek to temper it. The only difference is that Doom does more than just attack it with a light sabre.
Dr. Doom’s desire for order are even reflected in the crossover event, Doomwar. It’s in that event that Dr. Doom learns from Bast, the Panther God, that the only future in which mankind is free from suffering, want, and chaos is one where he rules. In a sense, Doom see’s ruling the world as his destiny. Given how often the Jedi and the Sith make a big deal about destiny, Dr. Doom fits right in with those principles.
Even in matters of life and death, Dr. Doom aligns himself with the Jedi, albeit in more overt ways. For him, death is hardly a barrier. Whereas Sith fear and dread death, as Anakin Skywalker did in trying to prevent the death of his loved ones, Dr. Doom basically brushes it off. He doesn’t just cheat death with his army of Doombots. He has actually become a god on more than one occasion.
Whereas a Sith like Anakin will lament the loss of his mother and wife, Dr. Doom will sacrifice the woman he loves to a demon without batting an eye. Like the Jedi, he does not care for personal attachments or petty passions that might hold him back. He sees himself as too smart and too capable for such things. It’s not that he sees himself as a god among men. He’s just smart and powerful enough to prove it.
In a sense, Dr. Doom is the ultimate endgame for a Jedi. He is the ultimate extreme of what happens when you take the Jedi Code and push it beyond the limits of frail human minds. It leads someone to becoming numb to their passions, empowered by knowledge, and driven to forge harmony out of chaos.
With that in mind, I want to acknowledge that there are other intricacies to the Jedi Code with which Dr. Doom is inherently incompatible. Unlike Doom, Jedi don’t seek to rule whereas Sith Lords do. Also unlike the Jedi, Dr. Doom can be pretty damn selfish and arrogant, which are hardly in line with the selflessness championed by the Jedi.
However, when evaluating the code of the Jedi and the Sith, Dr. Doom still checks more boxes with the Jedi. Her certainly wouldn’t get along with the likes of Yoda, Mace Windu, or anyone on the Jedi Council, for that matter.
Then again, Dr. Doom doesn’t get along with anyone and that’s kind of on purpose with him. He doesn’t care whether or not anyone gets along with him. He only cares that they honor his authority and superiority. Like a Jedi, he is beyond petty emotions or blind ignorance. His strength, knowledge, and abilities speak for themselves. He needs no passion or anger to fuel him. He just needs to be Doom.
In writing this, I imagine I will upset and/or anger many “Star Wars” fans whose knowledge of the franchise is far greater than my own. There may even be a few details that effectively nullify my claim about Dr. Doom’s status as the ultimate Jedi. I welcome those discussion, provided they’re not on par with a Sith-level temper tantrum.
Given the upheaval in the Jedi order so artfully promised in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” I just felt as though this observation was worth sharing. It’s impossible to know whether Dr. Doom would make for the perfect Jedi, the ultimate Sith, or something in between. It’s just interesting to see how the ideals he embodies fits into this iconic sci-fi mythos.
This past weekend was a magical weekend for comic book fans, like myself. It was the four-day, fanboy and fangirl orgy known as the San Diego Comic Con. For comic book fans, it is the perfect combination of Christmas, Halloween, and Mardi Gras, all rolled into one. To say it’s kind of a big deal would be like saying boobs are kind of awesome.
I’ve been to comic book conventions before. I’ve talked about my experience and given advice on how to maximize the experience. I’m a regular attendee of the New York Comic Con, which is essentially the low-calorie version of the San Diego Comic Con. It’s still awesome, but if you want to be on the front lines of the greatest spectacle in all of comic book fandom, you go to San Diego.
One of the things at the very top of my bucket list, right up there with getting a kiss from Jennifer Lawrence, is to attend the San Diego Comic Con one year. I haven’t been out there yet, but I’m hoping that if my novels are successful enough, I’ll be able to buy myself some VIP passes and spend four days taking in the glorious spectacle.
I may very well meet my future wife there. Chances are, she’ll be dressed as Wonder Woman, Jean Grey, or Starfire. I don’t know what I’ll be wearing, but I hope it’s something that wins their heart.
Until that day comes, I’ll settle for watching news feeds and live-streaming. I spent a good four days effectively glued to my phone or anything with an internet connection, taking in every bit of news, sexy and otherwise. There’s always so much to take in. Some of it involves comics. Some of it involves movies. Some of it just involves celebrities dressing up in crazy shit to get a laugh.
This past weekend, though, there was one bit of news that really stood out. For an event that involves a lot of women dressed up as Sailor Moon characters, that’s saying something. As it just so happens, it involves someone that I’ve been talking about a lot lately, Dr. Doom.
I don’t know if this is the universe trying to tell me something. I don’t know if Fox secretly hacked my brain or some intern just read my blog on a coffee break. Maybe it’s just one big coincidence and my caveman brain has convinced me these internet ramblings are more influential than they could possibly be.
Whatever the case, the news got everyone buzzing and not necessarily in a good way. Fox, despite their craptacular failures in all things Fantastic Four related, are developing a Dr. Doom movie.
Now, this is big news to comic fans. The idea that Fox would do anything involving the Fantastic Four should be enough to induce a migraine in anyone who thinks the world already has too many shitty movies. I’ve joked about it before, but for comic fans, this is no joke.
To date, Fox’s track record with Fantastic Four movies sucks. There’s just no nice way to say it. They have butchered, bungled, and failed so miserably that they’ve become a case study, of sorts, in how not to do a superhero movie. If you’re not sure whether or not the movie you’re making sucks, just go watch 2015’s “Fantastic Four.” If what you’re doing is too similar, then you’ve fucked up.
As frustrating as Fox’s history with the Fantastic Four is, it’s also completely understandable as to why they’d want to make a movie like this. Unlike the Marvel Cinematic Universe or any movie in DC’s movie universe, Fox can’t just take it’s time and be careful with a Fantastic Four movie. They can’t even wait for fans to forget about their previous failures.
That’s because, due to a legal clusterfuck that goes all the way back to the early 90s, Fox has to keep making Fantastic Four movies or they lose the rights. It doesn’t matter how awful they are. It doesn’t even matter whether or not they release it. They have to make these movies or Marvel and their Disney overlords get the rights back and Fox gets nothing.
By failing to continue that franchise, the rights lapsed back to Marvel and they immediately showed up Fox by creating a critically-acclaimed Netflix series. I’ve seen it. The first 10 minutes of the first episode is more entertaining than the entire “Daredevil” movie.
That’s why Fox needs to keep doing something with the Fantastic Four. Otherwise, they’ll have to sit back and watch as Marvel humiliates them again by succeeding where they failed on multiple occasions. Given all the egos in Hollywood, it’s totally understandable that they’d keep throwing good money at bad just to avoid that kind of pwning.
Now, if it sounds like I’m being overly pessimistic about a movie that may or may not even get made, I apologize. I hope I’ve made clear in previous posts that I’m as passionate about my comics as I am about sleeping naked. Dr. Doom is one of my favorite characters and, by a wide margin, one of my favorite comic book villain.
Fox has had multiple chances to make Dr. Doom the alpha and omega of villainy. First, they tried making him some charming, egotistical sweet-talker using the guy who played the asshole from “Nip/Tuck.” Then, they tried making him some disgruntled blogger. From a comic fan’s perspective, that’s akin to making chocolate fudge taste like dried horse shit.
Fox clearly doesn’t have a damn clue on who Dr. Doom is and how to capture what makes him so iconic. It’s not like they don’t have suitable reference materials. There’s an entire series called “Books of Doom” that show how Dr. Doom came to be. There are also cartoons that do, in a few minutes, what Fox couldn’t do with two movies.
Now, after all their failures, they still want to make a Dr. Doom movie? Not only would that give them yet another opportunity to undermine the greatest comic book villain of all time. It would also ensure that Dr. Doom never finds his way to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Given how big a menace he’s been to pretty much every Marvel hero, that’s just tragic.
It’s hard to say just how serious Fox is with this. This is the same company that tried everything it could to stop the “Deadpool” movie and has been dragging its feet on a “Gambit” movie. However, they have way too many reasons not to pursue this.
It’s not just that Dr. Doom is one of the most iconic villains of all time. It’s not even that they’ve botched him horribly through multiple movies. We’re currently living in an era where villains are starting to gain just as much prominence as heroes.
The success of TV shows like “Breaking Bad” and the success of movies like “Suicide Squad” show that there is a market for a villain. I’ve talked about the heroes journey and the villains journey. Few could walk the villain’s journey better than Dr. Doom. At a time when people are turning to villains to fix problems, this may very well just be the best possible time for Dr. Doom to get a movie.
Unfortunately, it’ll still be Fox that makes that movie. Their track record leaves a lot to be desired. Despite this, there are some signs that they aren’t just trying to cling to the movie rights by throwing a couple million dollars at Roger Corman. They’re putting Noah Hawley, the man who made “Legion” a successful show this year, on the job. He’s got credentials, far more than Josh Trank ever did.
That said, I doubt you’ll find many comic fans who are excited about the prospect of Fox doing anything Fantastic Four related. Even fewer fans will have faith that Fox can get Dr. Doom right. They thought turning Doom into a disgruntled blogger was a good idea. What hope does this movie truly have?
I’m going to keep an eye on this so expect me to talk about this again, as I do with many topics involving superhero movies. Until then, here’s a quick fan film I found does with an $11,000 budget what Fox couldn’t do with millions. It shows that, villain or not, Dr. Doom is a character who deserves better.
When I wrote my post on Dr. Doom being the perfect ruler, I expected that a follow-up would be unnecessary. Dr. Doom is one of those characters who gets the point across, regardless of how fictional he might be. When Dr. Doom makes a point, it doesn’t need to be made again. That’s just how he rolls.
Then, someone on a message board brought up an interesting point that I didn’t cover, one that highlighted some even larger implications to Dr. Doom’s character and superheros as a whole. That’s pretty remarkable since a lot of discussions on comic book message boards tend to devolve into arguments about Thor’s hammer and the Hulk’s penis. As such, I feel it’s worth discussing.
Whenever I do a blog post about comic books, whether it’s a movie review or why Spider-Man sucks at his job, I often post links in message boards, such as the one run by Comic Book Resources. For the Dr. Doom article, I posted it in the Official Dr. Doom Appreciation Thread. Yes, that’s a thing.
That’s where one of the regular posters of that thread replied to my link. This is what he said.
Regardless, the existence of Doom in the Marvel Universe does raise an important point, that few Marvel stories actually deal with ruling. It’s been said that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ but in many ways Marvel’s superheros are dangerously irresponsible. They fight to save the day and defeat evil but they draw the line at actually trying to change society or assume any real positions of authority. Instead, they hand power back to the same short-sighted and corrupt officials, allowing the whole cycle of violence to perpetuate itself. That ultimately, Marvel’s superheros can’t truly save the world, it all ends in ruin eventually as Marvel’s endless crisis and civil wars attest. Only Doom’s leadership has ever been able to bring a measure of stability to the Marvel universe.
Those bold parts are the ones I highlighted. They’re also the parts that stood out to me most because it speaks to a much larger issue about superheroes, one that Dr. Doom reveals just by being what he is.
It’s an issue I’ve touched on, in part, before on this blog. A while back, I wrote about how most superheroes are incompetent by design. They kind of have to be incompetent to keep the story going. If a hero ever became too competent, the world would have too little conflict and no interesting story to tell. At that point, the comics would stop and there would be no new material for billion-dollar superhero movies.
That’s why Superman will never defeat Lex Luthor. That’s why Batman will never defeat the Joker. That’s why the Avengers will never beat Thanos. However, that’s just a matter of publishers and movie studios not wanting to throw away good villains. The problem is that this inescapable flaw in the system creates a paradox, of sorts.
Superheroes, be they in comics or movies, can save the day and stand for all that is good and noble in the world. They can save countless innocent lives, stop every major threat, and embody the greatest qualities that we humans value. However, in the long run, they do nothing to actually fix the flaws in the system that makes their heroics necessary.
It’s like fighting the symptoms, but never attacking the disease. In the real world, that’s a problem because it means someone will think they just have the flu when they actually have something much worse. For superheroes, everything is the flu. There’s no real effort to find another ailment. As such, they never change their tactics.
The approach of most superheroes is fairly standard. It varies in scope, scale, and personalities involved. However, it tends to follow a few major themes.
A dangerous threat emerges
A superhero, or team of heroes, respond to that threat
A battle ensues, complete with setbacks, losses, and personal growth
The heroes win the battle, throw the villains in prison or exile them, and go back to the way they were before
Granted, that’s a very basic and general assessment of how superheros work. However, it’s the first and last parts of the process where the flaw emerges.
For the most part, superheroes aren’t very proactive. They only react to threats. In fact, some major superhero conflicts are built around the idea that being too proactive is evil and working with the authorities will turn you into a villain. Anyone who has ever read Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” or just played any real-time strategy game in the past 20 years knows that’s a losing strategy.
It’s the end of that process, though, where the paradox really takes hold. Whenever a conflict or story ends for a superhero, they usually go back to their lives and nothing really changes. In fact, it’s somewhat of a running joke among comic book fans that every major change is subject to a “retcon” eventually. That’s not always the case, but it happens so frequently that most comic fans aren’t shocked by it anymore.
As a result, the heroes never really learn from the conflicts. They never attempt to change anything about the system they live in. Bruce Wayne spends much of his vast fictional wealth fighting crime as Batman. However, he never uses any of that wealth to reform the government, create major social programs, or fund projects that actually reduce crime. The same can be said for someone like Iron Man.
With Superman, the potential for change is even greater. Superman isn’t just a paragon of virtue. He has access to advanced alien technology, which he keeps at his Fortress of Solitude. That alien technology could probably solve every major global issue by the end of the week. Technology that advanced could cure cancer, eliminate pollution, and provide clean, safe energy for everyone.
However, Superman never shares this technology with anyone. He never gives a reason for it. In the first “Superman” movie, his father, Jor-El, claims sharing such technology goes against Krypton’s highest laws. He never fully justifies those laws. Keep in mind, though, there are many major laws that have since become obsolete. That makes Superman’s inaction all the more egregious.
By not at least trying to use that advanced alien technology to improve the world, heroes like Superman, Iron Man, and the Fantastic Four effectively doom the planet to the same ills it has always had. At the moment, many of those ills are impossible to fix. With alien technology, they’re not just fixable. They’re basically an afterthought.
Beyond the technology, Superman and other heroes like him never attempt to get involved in the process of actually managing human affairs. They never try to improve the laws, governments, and regulations that effect peoples’ lives far more than an occasional alien invasion. They leave all those ills and flaws untouched.
In a sense, the inaction of many major superheros constitutes a crime in and of itself. If Superman ran for President of any country, he’d win in a landslide. If the Avengers campaigned to take over the United Nations, most average people who aren’t overpaid government bureaucrats would be for it. The fact they don’t do these things means they’re dooming the world to a brutal cycle of conflict that it need not suffer.
Even when they do, which happens from time-to-time, they end up getting corrupted. They become cruel, heartless tyrants. It happened with the Justice League. It happened to Tony Stark. When heroes try to rule the world, they just become evil asshats. That says a lot more about them than it does the villains they fight.
That brings me back to Dr. Doom, a man who doesn’t give half a cow fart about heroic ideals. In a sense, heroes only ever go halfway towards saving the world. Sure, they’ll stop it from being blown up, but they’ll do nothing to fix the cracks.
Victor Von Doom never does anything half way. Hell, he actually became God at one point. He never stops at simply keeping the world in one piece. He seeks to change it in a huge way. Sure, change is scary, but who’s to say those changes wouldn’t be better?
People resisted major changes like same-sex marriage, the abolition of slavery, and not beating children. Some people still resist those changes, some more than others. However, these changes did lead to improvements in the human condition and a reduction in overall suffering.
Superheroes may be willing to confront that suffering, but Dr. Doom is willing to go ten steps further and actually change the conditions that led to it. Sure, he’ll be ruthless about it, bullying and killing anyone who dares get in his way. However, villainous rulers have, historically, inspired positive change.
Since Dr. Doom has no equal in the real or fictional world, he might very well inspire more positive change than any superhero. In that sense, he has the potential to be a greater hero than anyone. Conversely, the deeds of superheroes will always be empty in the long run, their potential squandered by their unwillingness to do more.
Essentially, superheroes are doomed, if that’s not too fitting a word, to be villains through their sheer inaction. Conversely, villains like Dr. Doom have the potential to do the most good. It’s tragic, but painfully pragmatic in the grand scheme of things.
There aren’t a lot of official rules on this blog. I try not to micromanage the what, how, and why of the content I talk about, beyond my sexy novels. However, there is one rule that might as well be a law of physics . If a particular topic can apply to comic books, then I will apply it to comic books.
I’ve already done it so many times on this blog, from sex-positive superheroes to showing why Magneto is the original Walter White to using an X-men comic to explore concepts of a balanced romance. While I love writing and talking about erotica/romance, I’ll still use every opportunity to tie it into comics.
For the past few days, I’ve been talking about fascism and repressive government. It’s a somewhat relevant topic, even after the 4th of July, because everybody seems to be throwing that word around these days. Liberals think conservatives are fascist. Conservative think liberals are fascist. At this rate, even anarchists will call each other fascist and fail to see the irony.
The concept of fascism is pretty complex. It has a dictionary definition, but that definition tends to get obscured by anyone who thinks a different political opinion is a threat to their own. Major conflicts like World War II have conditioned us to associate all the evils of the world with fascism. If your ideology seems bad, greedy, or evil in any way, then it must be fascist.
While that is a very childish approach to political rhetoric, relatively speaking, it also underscores the reason fascism and authoritarian governments exists in the first place. As George Orwell explored in “1984,” these kinds of systems emerge anywhere people seek security and peace in the midst of war and conflict.
We see it happen all the time throughout history. There are many occasions where a repressive regime has arisen out of bloody conflict. Some of those regimes are still around and frustratingly contentious. At their core, thought, the dynamics are the same.
In times of chaos, conflict, and scarcity, people seek power and influence. Once they have it, they seek to maintain it at all costs. They’ll try to control anything and everything, from the amount of bread everyone gets to how they conduct their sex lives. It manifests in many different ways, but the underlying principles are the same.
At the end of the day, the biggest problem with the systems surrounding fascism and repressive governments is that they still depend on flawed, petty humans with caveman brains. Sometimes, the rulers themselves are mentally unhinged. Sometimes, the people around them are petty, corrupt, or just plain incompetent. Often, it’s a potent mixture of the two.
In some sense, we can thank our own inherent flaws as humans as the ultimate weapon against a fascist, authoritarian state. George Orwell may have highlighted the darker elements of humanity, but he grossly overestimated peoples’ ability to manage others competently.
That leads me to Victor Von Doom, the alpha and omega of Marvel’s long list of iconic villains. In any list of the top villains of all time, Dr. Doom usually ranks near the top. A series of sub-par “Fantastic Four” movies have routinely failed to do justice to the breadth of Doom’s villainy. However, once you understand his roots, you understand why he is the ultimate counter to George Orwell’s dystopian fever dream.
There are too many details about Dr. Doom’s life and history to do him justice in one post. WatchMojo does a fairly good job of summarizing where he came from, but for the sake of this post and how he relates to my discussions on fascism, all you need to know is that Dr. Doom is the perfect ruler.
I don’t just mean that in the sense that he has the power, charisma, and resources to rule a country. I mean that, by almost every objective measure, Dr. Doom is the perfect ruler. Put him at the top of any government, be it a democracy or an authoritarian state, and he’ll make it work. Moreover, he’ll do it in a way that’s terrifyingly efficient.
That’s because Dr. Doom isn’t just some evil sadist who just wants to control people for the fun of it. He’s one of the smartest human beings to have ever lived. He didn’t just master science as a kid. He mastered science and magic. Even Lex Luthor can’t make that claim. He just mastered science. Compared to Dr. Doom, Lex is an underachiever.
Beyond just being smart and mastering things few can ever hope to master, Dr. Doom is extremely driven and makes no bones about it. He doesn’t just think he’s superior to every other human being on the planet. He knows it. If anyone dares question it, he won’t just prove them wrong. He’ll do so in the scariest, most intimidating way possible.
This isn’t just someone you respect. This is someone that scares the hell out of you, but for all the right reasons. As arrogant as he is, he doesn’t see himself as a villain either. Even Stan Lee, his co-creator, doesn’t see him that way. In an 2016 interview, he said this about Marvel’s greatest villain.
“Everybody has Doctor Doom misunderstood,” Lee said. “Everybody thinks he’s a criminal, but all he wants is to rule the world. Now, if you really think about it objectively, you could walk up to a policeman, and you could say, ‘Excuse me, officer, I want to tell you something: I want to rule the world.’ He can’t arrest you; it’s not a crime to want to rule the world. So […] it’s unfair that he’s considered a villain, because he just wants to rule the world. Then maybe he could do a better job of it. So I’m very interested in Doctor Doom, and I’d like to clear his name.”
Therein lies the greatest irony of Dr. Doom’s villainy. Sure, he wants to take over the world and he routinely clashes with Marvel’s most iconic heroes in the process. However, it’s why he does it that makes him stand out.
In one iconic story from 2010 fittingly called “Doomwar,” his true motivations for conquering the world come to light. In that story, Dr. Doom encounters a god-like being named Bast, also known as the Panther God. In that encounter, Bast reveals something critical about the future of the world.
As anyone who has ever followed Marvel comics for any number of years will tell you, there are a lot of alternative universes and timelines. Some are dystopian, even by George Orwell standards. Some are just different in a few minor details.
However, the Panther God saw all these universes and timelines and came to one inescapable conclusion. The only timeline in which humanity was free from suffering and want was a timeline in which Dr. Doom ruled the world. In a sense, that almost makes Doom a hero. Then again, he’s still the same guy who once sacrificed the woman he loved for more power.
Beyond those overtly villainous details, there’s a lot of merit behind that vision and not just because it came from the Panther God. Dr. Doom already knows how to run a country and a government. For much of his history, he’s run his fictional home country of Latveria and, by all accounts, he’s run it very well.
He ran it so well that, when he took over the country, every soldier and citizen that had been fighting for the previous ruler just stepped aside and let him take over. He didn’t force his people to love or respect him into submission. He proved himself. He did such a good job that nobody in Latveria besides the previous rulers wanted to stand in his way.
He didn’t just stop at taking over his home country either. Dr. Doom helped it prosper. In another iconic line of Marvel comics, Dr. Doom turned a country of bankrupt peasants into one of the top 10 economies on the planet within a couple years. That’s the kind of growth that even hardcore libertarians have to respect.
Doom does this because, and this is worth emphasizing, he’s extremely smart. He’s not just smart in that he can outwit gods and cosmic forces. He’s smart in that he knows how to manage a country, a people, and everything in between.
He does this largely through an army of loyal robotic minions, including specialized robots called Doombots. They’re not just ordinary killer robots either. These robots actually think, behave, and act as though they’re the real Dr. Doom. It’s kind of a running gag in the Marvel universe. Every time Doom is “defeated,” it’s often revealed that they just defeated a Doombot.
Beyond being a clever plot device, it also ensures that Dr. Doom’s government never has to worry about insubordination, betrayal, or corruption. His robots, gadgets, and ability to use mind control ensures he maintains perfect control of his government from top to bottom.
Unlike the ruling party in George Orwell’s “1984,” there’s no need for a massive professional class of bureaucrats that need to be constantly monitored. There’s no need to set up a kind of thought police to ensure nobody even thinks about undermining the party. For Dr. Doom, that would be redundant. No matter what any of his citizens think, he knows he’s smarter and more resourceful than any of them.
In addition, the party in “1984” didn’t care much for the welfare of the people. They only cared enough to ensure the stability of their rule. Dr. Doom, on the other hand, does express a genuine concern for the well-being of his people. He will go out of his way to make sure that his people are free from suffering and want. Sure, they’ll still fear Dr. Doom’s wrath, but that’s the only thing they fear.
That, more than anything, is what makes Dr. Doom the perfect ruler. He’s so smart, so capable, and so resourceful that no other human in his home country or any other country could come close to matching him. On top of that, Doom actually produces results. The things that are typically impossible for a government to do, such as providing prosperity for all its people, are easy for someone like Dr. Doom.
Thanks to Dr. Doom’s expertise, cunning, and willingness to cross any line, anyone under his rule will be safe and prosperous. They won’t have to fear anyone harming them because they’d have to go through Dr. Doom first, a man who one-shot the Incredible Hulk and battled a race of space gods. With him, a border wall is both unnecessary and redundant.
Under Doom’s rule, you are as safe as it’s possible to be without locking yourself in an adamantium cage. You’re also probably as free as you’ll ever be. While Dr. Doom is a despot, he’s never shown an inclination to micromanage his citizens’ lives. He doesn’t tell them who to love, how to love, and what to do with their free time. So long as they acknowledge his authority, they can do as they please.
He doesn’t get involved in his peoples’ sex lives. He doesn’t try to run the economy. Near as anyone can tell, he doesn’t even demand that certain words be censored from TV and movies. In that sense, Dr. Doom is less tyrannical than the FCC.
Sure, his citizens are still at Doom’s mercy. If, at any point, they become a threat to Doom, he’ll kill them without a second thought. However, Dr. Doom is not obsessively paranoid like the Stalins and Kim Jong Uns of the world. He’s too smart, too cunning, and has too many Doombots on his side to worry about such trivial things. He is, for all intents and purposes, a benevolent despot.
There is no real-world, or even fictional, equivalent to Dr. Doom. However, much like Superman, Dr. Doom presents an ideal of sorts. He is everything people want in a ruler. He is smart, charismatic, imposing, strong, capable, resourceful, logical, and fair. He has the means, vision, and drive to do everything that people want their government to do.
In that sense, it wouldn’t even matter whether a system is fascist or democratic. So long as there’s someone like Dr. Doom at the top, it’ll work. There are still many parts of his character that make him undeniably villainous. However, it’s hard to deny his ability as a ruler. To live under his authority is to live in perfect freedom and security.
Remember that the next time you get into a debate about fascism or democracy. In the end, the only truth path to perfect governance is through Dr. Doom. That’s enough to make both the Avengers and the Justice League cry.
Let’s face it. When we find a winning formula, we like to follow that formula as closely as possible for as long as we can. Why wouldn’t we? We like winning. We like things that work. Who goes out and buys a broken car just because they’re tired of buying one that works?
In terms of winning formulas in pop culture, few are as tried and true as the so-called “Hero’s Journey.” It’s a formula that’s been around since the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” a story so old that the bible may have ripped it off to some extent. For something to have worked for that long, it must be doing something right.
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Read over this simple summary, think back to some of the most iconic heroes of all time, and you’ll find it applies to a lot of characters. From King Arthur to Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter, the formula of the Hero’s Journey is so tried and true that any fiction without it is akin to a cake without frosting.
Then, Walter White came along. Suddenly, the “Hero’s Journey” just wasn’t enough for people anymore. They’ll still gladly embrace that narrative, so much so that they’ll make superhero movies a billion-dollar industry. However, audiences now show that they’re in the mood for something different. What else explains Bryan Cranston’s multiple Emmy awards?
Enter a different journey, one that has played out before, but never got the same attention or Emmy consideration as the Hero’s Journey. I’m talking about the “Villain’s Journey” now. The name may be unoriginal, but its formula is just starting to evolve.
So what exactly is that formula? Is it just the complete opposite of the Hero’s Journey? Well, it’s not accurate to say it’s completely unique to that narrative. It’s also not accurate to say it’s a mirror image that would warrant full-blown plagiarism like those practiced by certain presidential candidates.
To understand this formula, we still need to understand the particulars of the Hero’s Journey. Since this journey has been so studied and belabored, most of those details will be pretty familiar. Anyone who saw Star Wars, Harry Potter, or followed any superhero created by Stan Lee will recognize these details.
Familiar or not, the crux of the journey is that it’s a cycle of sorts. It takes a character down a path that establishes them as a hero archetype. So if we’re going to create a similar journey for a villain, let’s follow this same cycle.
Since I’ve been referencing it in multiple posts, I’ll use “Breaking Bad” and Walter White as the primary example. However, I’ll also cite other famous villains like Lex Luthor, Dr. Doom, and Flavor Flav when necessary. I’m not trying to recreate the entire breakdown that Joseph Campbell did. I don’t have the time, energy, or alcohol supply to do that at the moment. I’m just going to highlight the steps of the journey.
Step 1: Ordinary World (With Extraordinary Flaws)
This step is similar to that of the hero, but for the villain, the ordinary world shouldn’t be ordinary. He or she sees that state as a flaw. Walter White certainly did. He was a grossly overqualified high school chemistry teacher who’s run of bad luck and poor decisions put him in a horribly flawed situation. For a villain, that’s just untenable.
Step 2: Answering One’s Own Calling
This is where the villain starts to go in the opposite direction of the hero. For the hero, there’s a call that they must respond to. Whether it’s the murder of their parents or the destruction of their home world, something calls upon them to be heroes.
A villain decides to skip a couple steps. A villain answers their own call. Walter White didn’t need someone telling him to get into the meth business. He saw something he knew he could do and he did it. That’s all there was to it.
Step 3: Gaining Minions
Since the villain is the one making the call, there’s no refusal. There may be reluctance, but the villain doesn’t refuse their ambition, nor do they temper it. It’s a step they don’t have to take when compared to the hero. It’s a shortcut of sorts.
That shortcut gets even shorter once minions get involved. By minions, I don’t mean the kind of throw-away thugs that ever James Bond villain employs. I mean partners that the villain can use, manipulate, or persuade in aid to his goal. For Walter White, he found a minion in Jesse Pinkman. This partnership, while productive, wasn’t always healthy and Jesse certainly suffered at times.
Step 4: Tasting Their First Triumph
This is where the villain gets their first taste of what it’s like to win. It sometimes requires pain, sacrifice, and cunning, but there’s one important theme. They like it. They like it enough to want to do it again. Walt’s first triumph over Tuco, as well as his memorable reaction to it, shows that he’s starting to embrace this world.
Step 5: Beating Out Rivals And Gaining Influence
Once the villain has that taste of triumph, they seek more. They seek it like crack addict in withdrawal. This is where lines are crossed, friends abandon them, and the ambition gains a more selfish undertone.
This is where Walter White starts to ascend from small-time meth cook to full-blown kingpin. Lex Luthor and Dr. Doom underwent a similar journey, crushing anyone who stood in their way, often brutally. Gus Fring can attest to how brutal it can be.
Step 6: Accumulating Rewards (and Wanting More)
At this point, the villain is on top of the world. They’ve beaten their rivals. They’ve vindicated everything their ego has told them. They feel they’ve earned this success. They make any excuses for the lines they crossed or the people they’ve hurt. They reached the top and they’ve since stopped giving a damn about how they got there.
In Season 5 of Breaking Bad, Walter White reached this stage. It was no longer about making money for his family. He said it himself. He wanted an empire. He eventually got it, so much so that he had acquired actual piles of money. Even so, it never seemed to be enough.
Step 7: Hitting A Limit and/or Encountering A Rival
This is the part of the journey where the villain crosses paths with the hero. This is when Lex Luthor encounters Superman. This is when Dr. Doom encounters the Fantastic Four. It’s the proverbial wall that every villain reaches, one in which their endless ambition can go no farther. They can’t get any more and that pisses them off.
For Walter White, this was the point when his meth empire started crumbling. Enemies, including old partners like Jesse Pinkman and friends like Hank Schrader, turned against him. No matter what he did from that point on, his ambition and reward never went further.
Step 8: Endless Struggle and/or Self-Destruction
This is the final step in the journey, one in which the villain has long passed the point of no return. They cannot be redeemed, nor do they want to. They effectively accept their role as a villain. They lose more than they can ever regain. Lex Luthor loses his influence. Dr. Doom loses his power. They never stop and blame themselves either. They just keep fighting others who deny them.
For Walter White, he took the self-destruction route. While he did try to redeem himself to some extent, he never apologized for it. He even admits to his own wife that he did what he did for himself. In the end, it left him alone, but he still fulfilled his ambition. He still succeeded on many levels.
This marks the end of the Villain’s Journey, at least according to my formula. I’m not saying it’s definitive. I’m not even saying that it applies to all villains. There are parts of this journey in which it’s kind of a stretch to apply it to Walter White. There are times when he’s more anti-hero than villain. However, the theme remains the same.
The ascendance of Walter White within pop culture, as well as a growing emphasis on giving villains as much depth as heroes, will likely bring greater scrutiny towards the Villain’s Journey. For now, I’m just looking to get the conversation going. I’m a cook in the kitchen fooling around with the ingredients.
I don’t doubt that there are more skilled chefs who will come along and improve upon this formula. I also don’t doubt that we’ll see more characters go on this journey. They may or may not result in more Emmys for Bryan Cranston, but they will help bring greater balance to the never-ending narrative that guides heroes and villains alike.