Tag Archives: Lex Luthor

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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