Tag Archives: super villains

Vandal Savage: A Super-Villain Forged By Boredom?

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Boredom can sometimes drive you to do crazy things. Give someone a bunch of paperclips, some sticky notes, and too much free time and wonderful things will happen. It can also inspire some truly horrible acts. I’ve already mentioned the horrific murder of Christopher Lane, who was murdered by three bored teenagers. That’s an extreme rarity, for the most part, but it’s an egregious act that helps highlight the power of boredom.

As is often the case with various human quirks, some of our most iconic characters of fiction are built around the extremes of these innate human traits. Heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman embody the noblest ideals for men and women alike. They set the highest of standards for the best of what humanity can be in terms of heart, compassion, love, strength, and charity.

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Conversely, the villains that heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman face highlight the worst of the worst when it comes to human depravity. These characters are manifestations of the darkest parts of the human psyche. They show us just how bad humans can get if you give them enough incentive, hatred, and clown makeup.

That’s what makes characters like the Joker, Lex Luthor, and Apocalypse so terrifying. They are personifications of blood-lust, chaos, narcissism, and pretty much every personality disorder associated with Kanye West. They bring out the worst in people. Their conflict with other heroes mirrors the inner conflict many of us deal with.

I’ve talked about the varying differences between the classic hero’s journey and the more nuanced villain’s journey. Thanks to the success of characters like Walter White, Dexter Morgan, and the cast of “Suicide Squad,” there’s been a surge of interest in super-villains and what makes them tick.

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Being a noted comic book fan, I can talk for hours about various villains, how they came to be, and what makes them so evil. I’ve already talked extensively about Walter White and comic book villains like Magneto. These characters embody a certain type of villainy, each driven by a set of motivations that highlight a villainous aspect of our human mind.

Most people are familiar with the villains driven by greed, narcissism, vengeance, or hatred. They’re usually the characters getting punched, shot, or blasted on lunch boxes or posters. Some of them often get compared to real-life politicians. So if villains can embody so many of these defining traits, can one embody the dark side of boredom?

Well, I can say as someone whose love of comics is only matched by his love of nudity that there is. There is actually a character, a major villain no less, whose motivations and evil is very much a product of boredom. Granted, it’s an indirect kind of boredom, but it’s every bit as devious. Ladies, gentlemen, and those of unspecified gender, I give you Vandal Savage, the poster boy for the evils of boredom.

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Some may be confused. I imagine that even some of my fellow comic book fans are confused. Bear with me, though. There is some twisted logic behind this and boredom is a big part of it.

Vandal Savage is one of the most notorious villains in DC Comics. He’s not as well-known as Lex Luthor or the Joker, but then again, very few villains are. While he may not be an evil all-star, he does show up a lot whenever DC’s heroes need a daunting villain to face.

If you’ve watched shows like “Arrow,” “Flash,” or “Legends of Tomorrow,” then you’ve probably seen him show up in both minor and major roles. He’s also been a major villain in the old “Justice League” cartoon. In terms of sheer reach, Savage’s resume is pretty impressive, but his notoriety is not. There are many reasons for this, but some of it has to do with his origin.

Vandal Savage is not exactly on par with Walter White in terms of the journey he took to become a villain. In fact, it’s kind of mundane in terms of substance. He’s actually a real caveman who lived way back in the hunter/gatherer days of 50,000 BC. He would’ve been nothing more than a fossil sample to frustrate creationists had he not encountered an exotic meteor that crashed near his home.

That meteor, which is basically one of DC’s many mystical McGuffins, transformed Savage from a simple knuckle-dragging caveman to an immortal, super-intelligent being. He’s been running around, causing problems for humanity ever since. That means he’s been in the super-villain business for over 50,000 years. He has a lot of experience being an asshole.

There are a great many events throughout the history of DC Comics that highlight just how big an asshole Savage is. He has such a low regard for human life that even Lex Luthor finds him crass. Most of the time, he’s either trying to conquer humanity or destroy it. It’s basically typical super-villain antics.

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However, what sets him apart and what makes him a potential warning sign for us, as a species, is what motivates him. Throughout his history, he’s given any number of typical excuses. He’s a big, mean bully who thinks he deserves to rule the world because he’s smart and immortal. There’s nothing about that to really set him apart from every other Biff Tannen wannabe.

Like many villains, though, writers have given him other motivations. One of the most recent and, by far, the most relevant occurred in major DC Comics event called “Final Crisis.” It came out in 2008 and it had Savage join an army of super-villains in a plot that would’ve essentially undid creation and remake it. Many villains had their share of reasons for joining this plot, but Savage had one that set him apart.

He joined this universe-ending plot for with simple purpose, to end his boredom. That wasn’t an indirect, off-the-cuff comment. That’s what he actually said to Lex Luthor when they talked about it. He wasn’t trying to conquer humanity this time. He just wanted his boredom to end.

Regardless of how Savage’s motivations and presence affected the plot, it’s an idea worth contemplating. Just think about it from his perspective, if you can, and try to get around all that wanting-to-conquer-humanity crap. Vandal Savage is over 50,000 years old. He’s seen, done, and mastered so much that what else can he do with himself?

He doesn’t age. He doesn’t decline, mentally or physically, in any way. As far as he or anyone else knows, he can’t die. He can be shot, stabbed, punched, buried, and everything else that David Blaine pretends to do to himself and he just brushes it off. Nothing about his condition ever changes.

On top of that, he’s super-intelligent. It’s been documented to some extent that very smart people are often prone to crippling boredom. Being so smart, it’s easy for a genius to master a task. Once they’ve mastered it, they get bored with it and look for another challenge. In a sense, idiots have an edge when it comes to killing time. If they’re always struggling with something, they have something to focus on.

It creates a perfect storm of boredom for Vandal Savage because not only is he a genius, he has unlimited time to kill. Being a genius, he can master pretty much any task. In the comics, he’s described some of the jobs he’s had. He’s been a poet, a priest, a laborer, a scholar, a king, a warrior, and pretty much anything a man could’ve been before 1850.

No matter what he does, he’s mastered every single skill and overcome every challenge he’s ever faced. Even if it’s not through sheer genius, the fact he has unlimited time ensures he’ll always figure it out. Given enough time, he could’ve built the pyramids by himself. He could’ve painted every great masterwork in history on his own. He could’ve done all this multiple times, but it the outcome is the same. He still gets bored.

It’s hard to imagine for anybody who still struggles to use a microwave. No matter what Vandal Savage does, be it advanced calculus or conquering a planet, he still has too much time to kill. He can read every book. He can watch every movie. He can solve every crossword puzzle. He can even do it all multiple times and it still wouldn’t matter. He’d still get bored with it. At what point does he get bored with everything?

In a sense, it’s easy to understand why he keeps clashing with DC’s mightiest heroes. That’s one challenge he’s yet to overcome. He still tries to fight them, but they keep beating him. That’s just one of those skills he hasn’t mastered yet. It leads to pain and frustration, but it also leads to intense awareness, arousal, and exhilaration. When you’re that bored, you’ll get it however you can.

The fact that Savage is still a man, an actual caveman no less, also highlights the painfully human component of his struggle. He’s not some advanced machine or alien that has no concept of boredom. He’s still a man. He still feels all the things other humans feel, including boredom. The problem is, after 50,000 years, he’s got nothing left but boredom.

He can’t create meaningful relationships with other people because other people get old and die. He can’t have a family or fall in love because they’ll get old and die too. At a certain point, everybody around him just becomes another corpse-in-the-making. The fact he has such a low regard for human life is not surprising. If anything, it’s remarkable that he shows as much humanity as he does.

It’s impossible for anyone to truly relate to Vandal Savage and that’s part of what makes him a great villain. At the same time, his circumstances and motivations can act as a warning of sorts. Give a caveman unlimited time and unlimited brilliance and what will happen to him? What does a man do when he’s done pretty much everything a man can do to a point where everything seems boring?

As our medical technology improves at fighting disease and enhancing our bodies, more people will be able to live longer, healthier lives. At a certain point, we may be able to live so long that our only real challenge is filling the hours. Living that long turned Vandal Savage into a cold-hearted super-villain. What will that mean for us? Ironically enough, only time will tell.

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes

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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