Tag Archives: Lex Luthor

The Future Of Villains And Villainy

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What is happening to villains these days? That’s an entirely reasonable question to ask. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a remarkable shift in how we approach villainy in movies, TV, comic books, and video games. I’m not just talking about the superhero media, either. However, that happens to be the most visible manifestation of this change.

As a long-time fan of both superheroes and quality villains, I welcome this change. At the same time, I’m curious about where it’s leading and what it means for the future. Villains are as old as storytelling itself. From the Bible to “Star Wars,” these stories work best when there’s villainy to oppose the unfolding narrative. Villains have always evolved alongside the heroes that oppose them, but that evolution seems to be accelerating.

I’ve discussed the unique journey that villains undergo and how they set themselves apart from heroes. Traditionally, a villain’s primary purpose was to both oppose the hero and highlight how heroic they are. The sheer malice of characters like Lex Luthor help contrast the pure selflessness of characters like Superman. It’s easier to appreciate those heroes knowing they have to deal such malicious opponents.

Then, something remarkable happened. Audiences began demanding more of their villains. It wasn’t enough to just have a villain oppose a hero. People began wanting villains who were understandable and even relatable to some extent. Ironically, they wanted a villain they could root for.

That helped lead to characters like Walter White from “Breaking Bad.” His impact was so profound that I even called his influence the Walter White effect. However, I think there were others who paved the way for Walter White. If I had to pick one villain that helped kick-start this trend in villainy, it would be Heath Ledger’s Joker from “The Dark Knight.”

From this portrayal of villainy, the emerging state of villains emerged and it may very well set the tone for the future. On the surface, this version of the Joker wasn’t too different from the one who had existed in the comics for years. He’s dangerous, destructive, murderous, and callous, like many villains. Unlike most, though, he does what he does with a laugh and a smile.

What made this version of the Joker so memorable was the principles behind his madness. To him, society is corrupt and people aren’t inherently good. As such, he seeks to point out how laughable it is when others try to save it. Batman’s crusade against crime is the biggest joke of all, which helps drive their rivalry.

It’s a philosophy that few other than terrorists and extreme nihilists would buy into, but it’s one that’s understandable to some extent. We don’t have to agree with them or their methods. We just have to see their twisted logic. They can’t just be standard James Bond villains whose motives are indistinguishable from fascists, communists, or terrorists. There needs to be something more personal at work.

We saw plenty of that in 2018’s biggest movies. From “Black Panther” to “ Avengers: Infinity War” to “Incredibles 2,” the villains all had something personal at stake. Erik Killmonger saw his villainous actions as heroic. He wasn’t out to just take over Wakanda. He had a vision in mind that felt justified to some extent, especially to those familiar with real-world historical injustices.

Thanos raised the bar even more in “Avengers: Infinity War.” He never tries to come off as a hero, but he never sees his actions as villainous, either. In fact, when heroes like Dr. Strange call him out, he frames his desire to cull half the population in the universe as mercy. For him, it’s simple math. Half a population is better than no population at all.

These motivations, as devious they might be on paper, have some semblance of merit to it. Both Thanos and Killmonger think they’re doing the right thing. That significantly impacts how the heroes in their stories go about thwarting them, although I would argue that one story was more complete while the other remains unresolved.

In “Black Panther,” T’Challa doesn’t just stop at defeating Killmonger. He actually sees some of his enemy’s points and takes steps to address them. He doesn’t revert things back to the way they were. Wakanda doesn’t return to the same isolated state it had been at the start of the movie. Instead, he seeks to find a middle ground. That, I would argue, is the new template for how heroes defeat this kind of villain.

The resolution in “Avengers: Infinity War,” however, is not as clear. That’s largely due to the story not being complete. There is a sequel planned, but at no point in the three-hour spectacle did the Avengers attempt to prove Thanos wrong. They only ever tried to stop him. That oversight has not gone unnoticed by audiences.

This, in many ways, sums up the new dynamic between heroes in villains. It’s no longer enough for heroes to just defeat their adversaries. It’s not even enough for villains to be exceptionally devious. There have to be larger principles at work. It can’t just be reduced to general greed, ego, or bullying.

Thanos seeks to kill have the population because he believes that it’ll prevent the complete extinction of all life.

Erik Killmonger seeks to empower oppressed minorities to right past injustices.

Dr. Doom seeks to conquer the world because a world under his rule is the only one free of suffering and want. That’s actually canon in the comics.

It’s makes crafting compelling villains more difficult, but at the same time, it opens the door to more complexity. On top of that, it demands that audiences think beyond the good versus evil dynamic that has defined so many stories, going back to the days of fairy tales. It’s a challenge that some are certain to fail. Some already have, sadly.

It also sets the tone for future forms of villainy. How that villainy manifests is impossible to predict, but given the current trends, I think there’s room to speculate. At the heart of this emerging villainy is the idea that the current system just isn’t working. It’s so bad that the only viable option is to destroy and rebuild it. There’s no room, whatsoever, for reform.

This is where the heroes will have to evolve, as well. They can’t just play “Super Friends” and save the day. They have to actually make meaningful changes to move society forward. King T’Challa did that at the end of “Black Panther.” Other heroes need to be as willing. Otherwise, they won’t be able to call themselves heroes. They’re just defenders of a status quo may not be working as well as they think.

It’s an ideological struggle that parallels many real-world struggles. People today have less and less faith in established institutions. As a result, more people are falling sway to populist rhetoric that promises to break down the current system entirely. By and large, people today aren’t content with just preserving things as they are. They seek more meaningful change.

That presents a serious problem for heroes and a golden opportunity for villains. Historically, heroes haven’t been able to effect change beyond a certain point. Some of that is for logistical reasons. A hero can never create a functioning utopia without ending the story completely, which is something major media companies cannot have. There’s too much money to be made.

Logistics aside, the future of villainy will have plenty of raw materials to work with and plenty of societal angst to draw upon. Heroes who save the day, but do little else won’t be able to call themselves heroes in the world currently unfolding. Villains who have a real vision with understandable motivations will find themselves with more supporters than before.

It’s no longer taboo to root for the villain, especially when the heroes don’t confront the flaws in their rhetoric. In what seems prophetic now, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” may have put it best when Ultron stated:

“I’m sorry, I know you mean well. You just didn’t think it through. You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change.”

That’ll be the key to the future of villainy, change in a world that resists too much of it happening at once. It’ll make for some complicated villains, but it will definitely make the struggle of heroes even harder. However it plays out, I believe it’ll be worth watching.

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Understanding (And Learning From) Lex Luthor’s Hatred Of Superman

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As a lifelong fan of superhero comics and someone who enjoys shows like “Breaking Bad,” I’m genuinely fascinated by villains. Specifically, I’m intrigued by what makes them tick and why they walk the villain’s path. Their journey is distinct from that of a hero, but one that can be just as compelling.

In many cases, these villains have capabilities that allow them to solve many of the world’s problems. I’ve cited Dr. Doom as one of those villains who blurs the lines of villainy because of his intentions. Characters like Dr. Doom genuinely believe that their villainous actions are justified because it will lead to a better, safer, more prosperous world. Heroes also believe that too, which helps fuel their epic battles.

For a character like Lex Luthor, though, the line isn’t that blurry. He’s a villain, plain and simple. He’s selfish, callous, arrogant, cruel, and narcissistic to an extreme. If he existed in the real world, he would check every box for narcissistic personality disorder. In terms of personality, he’s the polar opposite of his nemesis, Superman.

That goes a long way towards giving Superman an enemy who stands against his heroic ideals. I would even argue that Superman couldn’t be the iconic kind of hero he is without Lex Luthor. At the same time, I also think Lex reveals something critical about humanity, morality, and superheroes in general.

That’s difficult to see because for much of Lex’s early years in comics, there wasn’t much depth to his motivation. He just wanted to dominate the universe and Superman was in his way. It’s basic and bland, but that was typical for the early era of superhero comics. Villains like Lex were mostly just obstacles for the heroes to overcome in their journey.

That changed in the late 80s and early 90s with the modern era iteration of Lex Luthor. Finally, Lex got more backstory and depth. He was still no Walter White, but these details helped set the stage for the kind of villain he became. It also helped establish why he hates Superman so much.

Whereas Superman landed on Earth and was adopted by loving parents, Lex grew up in a rough part of Metropolis called the Suicide Slums and was raised in an abusive household. Right off the bat, Superman gets lucky by having the best parents a child of any species could ask for while he’s unlucky enough to be born with the worst.

As a result, Lex had to be ruthless, manipulative, and cunning. Unlike other villains, though, he didn’t need much tempting. He didn’t agonize over his moral decisions, either. He just did it and didn’t feel a shred of guilt. That includes the role he played in the death of his parents.

That alone establishes Lex Luthor as the kind of ruthless villain who would oppose Superman for any number of reasons. However, as evil as that act was, it’s important to note the motivation behind it. Lex didn’t just kill his parents because murder makes him happy. He did it because they were an obstacle and an opportunity.

They were holding him back, but their deaths meant insurance money that he could use to strike out on his own and build something worthy of his genius. To him, the morality of his decision didn’t matter. Only the results mattered. That’s a critical detail and one that puts Lex Luthor’s villainy into a unique context.

Lex, being one of the smartest characters in the entire DC universe, doesn’t care much for things that are esoteric and obscure. He’s all about results that are tangible and measurable. That means things like truth, justice, and the American way are empty concepts to him. Superman champions those ideals, but for Lex Luthor, they’re just hindrances.

That kind of cold, callous approach to the world gives a unique substance to Lex’s behavior. He’s certainly not the first person to take such a materialistic approach to reality. Rick Sanchez of “Rick and Morty” does the same, but rather than misanthropic despair, Lex Luthor sees it as the key to producing the results he seeks.

Moreover, he has to produce those results without the god-like power that Superman wields. If Superman wants to move the Earth out of the way or destroy an oncoming asteroid, he doesn’t have to build anything or learn anything. He just has to flex his muscles, fly up into the sky, and destroy it with a single punch. There’s no tangible reason to his actions beyond it being the right thing to do.

To Lex Luthor, that’s not just an affront to someone who had to work for everything he ever gained. It’s an insult to his egocentric, results-focused worldview. Just saving the world because it’s the right thing to do doesn’t achieve anything. It does nothing to move humanity forward because nobody had to produce something of merit. It just allows them to continue in the same, unaltered state.

This gets to the heart of why Lex Luthor hates Superman. The extent of that hatred was fully articulated in one of the best modern Superman stories ever told, “All-Star Superman” by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. If you only read one Superman comic, make it this one because it perfectly encapsulates the pure heroism of Superman and the cold villainy of Lex Luthor.

In one critical part of the story, Lex tells Clark Kent, who he doesn’t know is Superman, what it means to actually work for his power. Superman, for all his idealism, did nothing to earn his abilities. He just happened to be an alien who landed on a planet with a yellow sun.

It’s like winning the lottery as opposed to working hard for a fortune. One is built on hard work and skill while the other is just dumb luck. Beyond basic jealousy, though, Lex makes another critical point about the ideal Superman sets.

From his perspective, that lofty ideal diminishes the entire human race. By being this other-worldly savior who achieves all these impossible feats, Superman reveals how inept the human race is. More importantly to Lex and his massive ego, it shows just how feeble his achievements are, despite all the work he put in.

Being the extreme narcissist he is, Lex takes that as the ultimate insult. In terms of the bigger picture, it establishes that neither he nor humanity can achieve their full potential. In that context, it’s understandable why Lex dedicated so much time and energy to killing Superman.

I won’t get into all the ways Lex has tried and failed over the years, although one of his plots did involve him becoming President of the United States. Whatever his methods, I think there’s a larger lesson to learn from Lex’s hatred and for once, it goes beyond his ego.

A big part of what turns someone into a villain is this sense that the world isn’t fair, but could be made better with the right guidance. Lex believes he’s capable of providing that guidance and not just because of his ego. He is, objectively, one of the smartest and most capable human beings on the planet. However, it’s Superman who keeps Lex from making the world less unfair.

Superman believes in the merits of truth and justice. He inspires others to uphold these ideals, even without his vast power. That’s a problem for Lex, who builds much of his power on lies and treachery. To him, though, he doesn’t see that as wrong. He just sees that as the most efficient way to get results.

To uphold truth and justice, in his brilliant mind, is to prevent the world from progressing. Granted, progress in Lex Luthor’s mind means him being in charge, but that doesn’t necessarily undermine the implications.

Like Dr. Doom, Lex is ambitious in that he doesn’t just want to save the world like Superman. He wants to fundamentally change it and he’s willing to cross any line to achieve that. Killing Superman is part of that change, but so is becoming a billionaire and a future President of the United States. If a billion people die in the process, then that’s acceptable because it means humanity is stronger because of it.

There have been times in the comics where Luthor’s vision has manifested. In another critically-acclaimed Superman story, “Red Son” by Mark Millar, Lex has a chance to lead the world into a brighter future. By and large, he succeeds. He’s still an unapologetic narcissist, but he still gets the results he seeks.

Like all great conflicts between superheroes and their arch-nemesis, the dichotomy between Superman and Lex Luthor is stark. They’re two extremes on opposite ends of a spectrum delineating heroism and villainy. By being on those extremes, though, it’s easier to see the inherent shortcomings of both.

While Lex’s shortcomings are easier to identify since he’s an outright villain, he does help identify an important flaw in Superman’s idealism and one that extends to superheroes, as a whole. Superman is willing to save the day, but he’s not willing to cross any lines. He will only ever do the right thing and that means not sacrificing innocent lives or usurping individual freedom.

Those heroics will keep the world turning, but they won’t move society forward. Superman believes in inspiring humanity rather than doing it for them, but Lex Luthor believes his heroism achieves the opposite. It just makes people complacent and dependent on heroes like him rather than crossing the lines that he’ll cross to get things done.

At the end of the day, both in the real world and the world of comic books, we have to determine how much we’re willing to pay for the results we seek. Lex is willing to pay any price. Superman isn’t willing to pay a cent beyond doing the right thing. Most reasonable people, including other superheroes, fall somewhere in the middle.

In the pantheon of super-villains, Lex Luthor is probably the easiest to despise and the hardest to understand. Like Superman, he exposes another side of an ongoing struggle between doing the right thing and achieving more. As society continues to progress, achieving abilities rivaling that of any superhero, it’s a struggle we’ll have to confront.

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Heroes, Villains, And The Forgotten (But Relevant) Message Of “Megamind”

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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.

You can’t argue with THAT kind of appeal.

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.

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Why Lex Luthor Is The Ultimate Villain

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What makes a villain truly evil? It’s a question with many answers that apply to both the real and the fictional world. History is ripe with real people with villainous tendencies on par with that of any mustache-twirling villain in fiction. The world of fiction is just as vast, full of all sorts of cruel, sadistic, greedy beings that range from alien conquerors to psychotic killer clowns.

Then, there’s Alexander Joseph “Lex” Luthor. What Superman is to heroes, an ideal and a standard to which others aspire, Lex Luthor is to villains. Think back to the question of what makes a villain evil. Lex Luthor checks every box and even a few others you probably didn’t think of.

In the spirit of celebrating Superman’s 80th anniversary, which I went out of my way to honor, I think it’s just as important to appreciate the other, less heroic side of the spectrum. Superman occupies the extreme end of that spectrum, namely the side that embodies truth, justice, and the highest of morals. Lex Luthor, conversely, is at the other end, one where the depths of greed, hatred, and outright cruelty are at their worst.

To that end, it’s impossible to appreciate the values Superman stands for without also appreciating the villainous traits that Lex Luthor personifies. I’ve noted the major differences between the journey that a villain takes, compared to that of heroes. I’ve also singled out characters like Walter White, who have given a new level of complexity to modern villains. However, the villainy of Lex Luthor is as basic as it is profound.

Lex Luthor doesn’t need the same complexity as Walter White, nor does he need the tragic circumstances that help forge villains like Magneto. Lex is a villain to his core. He needs no catalyst or motivation. He is, by his own nature, an arrogant, selfish person who will go to any length to get what he wants and/or deserves, regardless of cost or ethics.

Despite that simple, if not inelegant approach to villainy, Lex Luthor still finds a way to elevate himself above the many other villains that occupy the real and fictional world. It’s not just because he’s Superman’s primary adversary either. At his core, Lex represents something that highlights the breadth of true villainy.

Like most iconic villains, Lex Luthor’s status was closely tied to that of the hero he opposes. He first appeared in Action Comics #23 in 1940, a full two years after Superman debuted. Like most villains in those days, he didn’t get much development or backstory. He was simply the extra devious bad guy who tested Superman more than most.

Over the years, Lex Luthor’s story has evolved, but the extent of his villainy has never waned. The modern version of Lex Luthor, which became canonized after the big 1986 event known as Crisis on Infinite Earths, is defined largely by his greed, ego, and extreme xenophobia. He became less a mad scientist and more heartless narcissists.

Through that evolution, Lex establishes a blunt, but powerful method to his villainy. He is, at his core, a selfish egotist. There isn’t an altruistic cell in his body. Everything he does is for one purpose and that’s to profit and/or glorify himself. It doesn’t matter whether he’s battling Superman or creating a community of low-income housing. It’s all to serve him and his interests.

In the same way you can assume that every decision Superman makes is in the name of truth and justice, you can also assume that everything Lex Luthor does is in the name of benefiting Lex Luthor. Even by Ayan Rand standards, Lex’s motivation are extreme. At the end of the day, he’s out for himself and no one else.

To some extent, though, that’s what makes him even more devious. In his endless crusade to serve himself, Lex will portray himself as less a villain and more a hero who is out to use his unrivaled genius to make the world a better place. He has even become a hero on multiple occasions within the annuls of DC Comics.

Lex Luthor will save the world. He’ll even work with Superman every now and then. However, such efforts are never in the name of doing the right thing. It always comes back to Lex serving his own agenda. He understands, at the end of the day, that no one can glorify him if the world is destroyed.

Even with those circumstances, though, Lex still finds a way to set himself apart from other villains. Characters like Dr. Doom, Thanos, and Darkseid definitely fit the mold of a villain, but even they have motivations that go beyond their ego. You could even argue that villains like Dr. Doom often blur the line because their actions sometimes align with what most consider the greater good.

With Lex Luthor, though, there are no blurred lines. He is not Dr. Doom in that he feels he needs to rule the world to ensure that it’s free from want and suffering. From Lex’s point of view, ruling the world and destroying Superman are simply a means to further glorify his ego and fuel his narcissism.

That’s what makes him so dangerous, but it also reveals something profound about villainy itself. It’s not always simply a product of being greedy and sadistic. To some extent, it’s a byproduct of being entirely self-serving and having no inclinations for selfless acts.

Whereas most people would feel some level of guilt for that level of selfishness, Lex feels nothing of the sort. That’s not to say he’s a sociopath on the level of some serial killers. He just feels that he rightly deserves all the power and aggrandizing he wants. It’s not a matter of morals. It’s a matter of him just being better than anyone else.

It’s in that domain where Lex’s rivalry with Superman becomes truly adversarial. Unlike Superman, Lex is human. However, he also happens to be the smartest human in the world, as well as one of the smartest beings in the entire DC Universe. That means he doesn’t just think he’s better than anyone else. He can actually prove it.

That’s how he’s able to craft insanely advanced technology. It’s also how he managed to get elected President of the United States at one point. It’s not enough to have a massive ego. It’s that he’s smart enough and ruthless enough to outwit anyone into serving him. There’s simply no way for any other human to match him on an intellectual level.

That’s where Superman enters the equation. That’s also what fuels Lex’s unparalleled hatred of him. From his point of view, the very existence of Superman undermines his ability to establish himself as the most superior person in the world. More than that, though, he see’s Superman’s presence as a degrading force to the human race as a whole.

It’s a sentiment that isn’t often touched on in the comics or recent movies, but it is perfectly articulated in the animated feature, “All-Star Superman.” If ever you want a perfect demonstration of Superman’s heroism or Lex Luthor’s villainy, this movie is the current gold standard.

Beyond the condescension, the bragging, and the insufferable ego behind his words, Lex Luthor makes some uncomfortably valid points. In light of Superman’s impossible ideal, every human being falls short. Even him, the smartest human being of them all, can’t hope to match it.

From Lex’s point of view, that’s not just profoundly insulting. It undermines the entire human species. The existence of an alien god-like being reduces humans to a bunch of ants under the boot of a titan. By relying on that being, looking up to him as an ideal, people can only ever hope to be better ants and nothing more.

Even if that thinking is valid on some perverse level, Lex takes it even further by making it the ultimate excuse. By establishing Superman and heroes like him as affronts to his rightful place at the top of humanity, he can basically justify anything. Read into his history and you won’t find any shortage of atrocities.

It’s for that same reason that Lex rejects any notion of truth, justice, and the American way. As he also articulated in “All-Star Superman,” he sees those concepts as inherently flawed. They’re just vague concepts that can’t be touched, measured, or quantified in any meaningful way. In Lex Luthor’s world, all that matters is what he can do with the forces around him and how they can be used to glorify him.

As a villain, Lex Luthor doesn’t live in a world of abstracts, ideals, or faith. His world is cold, calculating, and deterministic. Much like Superman, he puts a face and a name on a particular archetype. Unlike Superman, though, he doesn’t evoke hope or inspiration. He inspires fear, hatred, and mistrust.

By standing against Superman, challenging him in ways that even other god-like beings can’t, Lex Luthor demonstrates just how far someone can take true villainy. In his world, nothing is ever given. It’s either earned, taken, or stolen. Things like compassion, empathy, and love are weaknesses and not strengths. They are barriers to overcome and not strengths to embrace.

Even by the standards of Rick Sanchez from “Rick and Morty,” that kind of extreme callousness is excessive. At least under Rick’s nihilistic outlook, there’s a context to his action. For Lex Luthor, though, the only context that matters is the one that serves Lex Luthor.

Superman is a beloved heroic icon and for good reason. He represents the best to which a hero can aspire. However, the extent of those aspirations and the power of that heroism is hard to appreciate without also acknowledging the villainous side of the struggle.

Superman is the hero he is because he has a villain like Lex Luthor to battle. Lex Luthor is the villain he is because Superman pushes him. However, even in the absence of Superman, Lex would still be the kind of villain who hurts, exploits, and deceives anyone and everyone to serve his agenda. That, more than anything, is what makes him the ultimate villain.

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Doomed Superheroes And The Paradox Of Heroism

thor-defeated-fear-itself

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.

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The Hero’s Journey Vs. The Villain’s Journey

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.

The concept was somewhat formalized in 1949 when Joseph Campbell described it in his book, “A Hero with a Thousand Faces.” In its simplest, most basic form, he sums up the formula like this:

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.

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