The following is a video I made for my YouTube channel, Jack’s World. It’s a video version of an article I wrote a while back. I added and removed a few details to the video. If necessary, I’ll do a follow-up. Enjoy!
We currently live in a golden age of villains. Between Thanos, Erik Killmonger, the Joker, and Walter White, there has been a veritable surge of complex characters who also happen to be compelling villains. While there’s still a place for the kind of pure evil that Disney villains have relied on for years, this trend in a more refined brand of villainy feels both refreshing and overdue.
I’ve written extensively on villains before. As a lifelong fan of superhero comics and movies, I’ve consumed, contemplated, and scrutinized hero/villain dynamics more than most. In doing so, I’ve noticed plenty of trends. Like most aspects of popular culture, it’s always evolving. Very few themes and details remain constant, especially when it comes to antagonists.
That said, there’s one trend in villains that has remained somewhat constant over the course of my lifetime. It’s also a trend that I see as intensifying, albeit in a subtle way. Some of it coincides with the growing complexity of villains in popular culture, but most of the trend precedes the current era of superhero-dominated media. If anything, superhero media helped accelerate it.
While most villains and heroes rarely identify with a certain political affiliation, it’s usually not hard to discern how most would vote in a contemporary election. I would even argue that it’s easier to surmise what a villain’s political leanings are compared to that of heroes. Take any villain from the past 10 years of movies, be they superhero or otherwise. Chances are a vast majority of them would identify as conservative.
Now, I understand conservatism is an exceedingly broad term. It has a dictionary definition, but as a political philosophy, there are many sub-sets, divisions, and variations. From fiscal conservatives to social conservative to neoconservatives, there are many wildly different ideologies that still identify as conservative. A few actively clash with one another.
Those complexities aside, there are some core tenants associated with conservatism and it’s those very tenants that make it such an effective basis for villains. Chief among conservative values is the idea that traditional norms, institutions, and values be maintained. Change isn’t actively dissuaded, but it is viewed with caution and suspicion. To be conservative is to affirm the status quo, to some extent.
That’s all well and good if the status quo is beneficial to everyone. It’s not so preferable for those who either fail to benefit or are actively screwed over by that same status quo. Since there has never been a society in history that has achieved perfect prosperity for everyone, regardless of their minority status, there’s bound to be people who get left behind.
In our own real-world history, we’ve seen people from those disaffected groups organize and fight the status quo to better their lives. That struggle has played out in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the movement for women’s rights, and the LGBT rights movement that’s still going on today. Those who oppose these movements tend to have, broadly speaking, conservative leanings.
Look at the groups that opposed the Civil Rights movement.
They all espouse rhetoric that would put them at odds with Superman, Captain America, and most other superheroes who value justice, truth, and peace. For some, their talking points sound like ideas that only villains in the mold of Lex Luthor would agree with. While not all of them identify as overtly conservative, the standard principles are there.
Anything too different from the status quo must be wrong or evil.
Anybody too different from the people everyone else in a society must be bad, evil, or devious.
Any idea, trend, or movement that is disruptive or deviant in any way is something to be opposed.
It doesn’t just manifest in superhero movies or underdog stories, either. Look at a movie like “Footloose.” In this story, the people who ban dancing are uptight, dogmatic, religious zealots who likely voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984 when this movie came out. They were the antagonists of that story and the kids, while not overtly liberal, dared to defy them.
It can even manifest subtly in other media. In kids shows like “Recess,” “Hey Arnold,” and “Rocko’s Modern Life,” the most common antagonists are uptight authority figures who have no tolerance for new ideas, big changes, or anything remotely fun. It’s hard to imagine any of these characters voting for someone who builds their slogan around change, reform, and reinvention.
They like things the way they are. Most of them benefit from the current system and will naturally seek to preserve their place in that system. While they won’t always see themselves as villains, it’s difficult for them to come off as heroes. You can only be so heroic when your side is closely aligned with predatory business practices, fun-hating religious zealots, and unabashed war-mongers.
That’s not to say it’s impossible for liberals to be villains too. It does happen and it can be done very well when done right. I would argue that Erik Killmonger in “Black Panther” was more in line with an extreme liberal revolutionary who didn’t just want to pursue change. I would make a similar argument for Ra’s Al Ghul in “Batman Begins.”
These characters didn’t just seek to change society from its current unjust state. They sought to violently destroy it and rebuild it from the ground up. That kind of liberalism exists in the real world and it can make for compelling villains.
However, the number of villains who align with the politics of Killmonger are far fewer than those who would align with the politics of Lex Luthor. In general, it’s easier to resist change rather than embrace it. It’s also necessary to some extent for those to resist change to be uptight authority figures who are okay with coercing others to maintain traditions. Logistically, the villains in many conflicts must be conservative.
Now, that’s not to say that villains will always lean conservative in popular media. What it means to be conservative changes over time. If you were to listen to conservative rhetoric 50 years ago, they would sound very different. They might even sound liberal by today’s standards.
The same goes for liberalism of previous eras. It hasn’t always been closely aligned with the politics surrounding minority rights, income inequality, or political correctness. The liberals of the 1920s would likely clash with the liberals of today. That’s just part of the ever-evolving nature of politics.
For the time being, though, being a villain in popular culture usually means being conservative to a certain extent. Conservatives are more likely to be the rich, greedy business people who would gladly burn down a rain forest or exploit slave labor to raise profits. Conservatives are more likely to be the rule-loving, fun-hating, curfew-enforcing religious zealots who wouldn’t mind electing theocrats with every election.
These types of individuals are far more likely to be villains in a story. At the very least, they’ll side or tolerate the villain. It’s easy to believe that those who side with the religious right and well-connected rich people will generally oppose a selfless, likable protagonist. From a narrative perspective, these kinds of villains are better in that we tend to root for heroes who oppose authoritarian bullies like that.
Again, it’s guaranteed that political and cultural trends will likely change what it means to be conservative, liberal, and everything in between. For the time being, if you were to bet on the political leanings of an antagonist, the odds are mostly in favor of that antagonist being conservative.
Every Wednesday, this crazy and chaotic world gets a bit more bearable when a new stack of comics enters this world. Some feature iconic superheroes. Others feature devious villains. Some dare explore the vast gray area in between. Of all the new comics this week, one book dares to stand out by staking a claim in that gray area.
“Black Cat #1” is one of those comics that probably wasn’t on many peoples’ radar. Felicia “Black Cat” Hardy is not one of those obscure comic book characters that only ardent Marvel fans know about, nor is she in that top-tier class occupied by the likes of Spider-Man and Captain America. However, whenever she shows up, she finds a way to leave her mark and looks dead sexy while doing it.
For years, Black Cat was a supporting character for Spider-Man who often fluctuated between being a sexy villainous, a volatile love interest, and a full-fledged anti-hero. At her core, she’s a thief who treats stealing as an art and a profession rather than a matter of necessity. She’s basically a female Danny Oceans with infinitely more sex appeal.
“Black Cat #1” doesn’t try to shake up those previous roles. Instead, it embraces Black Cat’s thieving persona. It even celebrates it in ways that rarely play out in a typical Spider-Man comic. It showcases just how capable, devious, and downright coy Black Cat can be when she’s at her best.
There’s no Spider-Man sub-plot here. The plot in “Black Cat #1” is entirely built entirely around Felicia Hardy organizing a daring heist. However, it’s not just for money or thrills this time.
Thanks to recent events in Amazing Spider-Man, she has a target on her back. In addition to the police and various other superheroes who don’t take kindly to thieves, she managed to piss off the Thieve’s Guild, an organization that tends to hold a nasty grudge, even by comic book standards.
Black Cat can’t simply rely on her cunning, skill, and sexiness to get out of her predicament. She also can’t do everything on her own, for once. As such, she has to exercise both her thieving skills and her ability to manage a crew of other thieves who don’t have a romantic history with Spider-Man.
It’s a simple heist that requires a complex effort. It’s not quite on the same level as “Ocean’s 11,” but it’s not as simple as just breaking the glass and sneaking through air vents. In fact, “Black Cat #1” avoids some standard thieving tropes, focusing instead on everyone who tries to stop Felicia.
I won’t spoil many of the details, but I will note that they fail. Whether they’re security guards, police officers, or ninjas attacking her car, they certainly make a concerted effort. True to her skill and persona, Black Cat fights back and smiles a lot in the process.
Writer, Jed MacKay, captures both the personality and spirit of who Black Cat is. For once, she isn’t pushed into a particular role, as is often the case when she shows up in a Spider-Man comic. He lets her be herself. He gives her a voice that feels distinct and appropriately sassy. The collective artwork of Mike Dowling, Travel Foreman, and Nao Fuji ensures she looks good every step of the way.
That’s an accomplishment because one of Black Cat’s biggest shortcomings is that it’s not always easy to root for her. While she never descends too deep into outright villainy, she can often come as crass and manipulative, even without Spider-Man. That never happens in “Black Cat #1.” She only ever seems confident, charismatic, and focused.
On its own, “Black Cat #1” is a solid, well-contained heist story involving one of Marvel’s most famous thieves. It shows Black Cat when she’s at her best, stealing things that are difficult to steal and navigating obstacles that frustrate even the more competent villains. There’s never a point where you feel like rooting against her.
What makes “Black Cat #1” even more compelling, as a comic, is how it sets up the next part of Felicia Hardy’s story. Unlike many other stories where she acts mostly as a supporting character, the one MacKay teases feels more personal. It doesn’t just present a new challenge. It adds a significant complication to a life that is already inherently complicated by being affiliated with Spider-Man.
Even if you don’t know much about Black Cat or haven’t paid much attention to her story in recent years, “Black Cat #1” is one of those rare comics that can sell you on a character. In one issue, you get a good idea of who she is, what she’s about, and why she matters in the larger Marvel universe. In that same issue, you also get a sense that there’s more to her story and it’s about to change in a major way.
Some characters need to be overhauled while others need to be reinvented. Black Cat needed none of that. She just needed a chance to show what she can do and how much fun it can be to see her work. That’s exactly what “Black Cat #1” delivers.
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.
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.
When I wrote my post on Dr. Doom being the perfect ruler, I expected that a follow-up would be unnecessary. Dr. Doom is one of those characters who gets the point across, regardless of how fictional he might be. When Dr. Doom makes a point, it doesn’t need to be made again. That’s just how he rolls.
Then, someone on a message board brought up an interesting point that I didn’t cover, one that highlighted some even larger implications to Dr. Doom’s character and superheros as a whole. That’s pretty remarkable since a lot of discussions on comic book message boards tend to devolve into arguments about Thor’s hammer and the Hulk’s penis. As such, I feel it’s worth discussing.
Whenever I do a blog post about comic books, whether it’s a movie review or why Spider-Man sucks at his job, I often post links in message boards, such as the one run by Comic Book Resources. For the Dr. Doom article, I posted it in the Official Dr. Doom Appreciation Thread. Yes, that’s a thing.
That’s where one of the regular posters of that thread replied to my link. This is what he said.
Regardless, the existence of Doom in the Marvel Universe does raise an important point, that few Marvel stories actually deal with ruling. It’s been said that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ but in many ways Marvel’s superheros are dangerously irresponsible. They fight to save the day and defeat evil but they draw the line at actually trying to change society or assume any real positions of authority. Instead, they hand power back to the same short-sighted and corrupt officials, allowing the whole cycle of violence to perpetuate itself. That ultimately, Marvel’s superheros can’t truly save the world, it all ends in ruin eventually as Marvel’s endless crisis and civil wars attest. Only Doom’s leadership has ever been able to bring a measure of stability to the Marvel universe.
Those bold parts are the ones I highlighted. They’re also the parts that stood out to me most because it speaks to a much larger issue about superheroes, one that Dr. Doom reveals just by being what he is.
It’s an issue I’ve touched on, in part, before on this blog. A while back, I wrote about how most superheroes are incompetent by design. They kind of have to be incompetent to keep the story going. If a hero ever became too competent, the world would have too little conflict and no interesting story to tell. At that point, the comics would stop and there would be no new material for billion-dollar superhero movies.
That’s why Superman will never defeat Lex Luthor. That’s why Batman will never defeat the Joker. That’s why the Avengers will never beat Thanos. However, that’s just a matter of publishers and movie studios not wanting to throw away good villains. The problem is that this inescapable flaw in the system creates a paradox, of sorts.
Superheroes, be they in comics or movies, can save the day and stand for all that is good and noble in the world. They can save countless innocent lives, stop every major threat, and embody the greatest qualities that we humans value. However, in the long run, they do nothing to actually fix the flaws in the system that makes their heroics necessary.
It’s like fighting the symptoms, but never attacking the disease. In the real world, that’s a problem because it means someone will think they just have the flu when they actually have something much worse. For superheroes, everything is the flu. There’s no real effort to find another ailment. As such, they never change their tactics.
The approach of most superheroes is fairly standard. It varies in scope, scale, and personalities involved. However, it tends to follow a few major themes.
A dangerous threat emerges
A superhero, or team of heroes, respond to that threat
A battle ensues, complete with setbacks, losses, and personal growth
The heroes win the battle, throw the villains in prison or exile them, and go back to the way they were before
Granted, that’s a very basic and general assessment of how superheros work. However, it’s the first and last parts of the process where the flaw emerges.
For the most part, superheroes aren’t very proactive. They only react to threats. In fact, some major superhero conflicts are built around the idea that being too proactive is evil and working with the authorities will turn you into a villain. Anyone who has ever read Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” or just played any real-time strategy game in the past 20 years knows that’s a losing strategy.
It’s the end of that process, though, where the paradox really takes hold. Whenever a conflict or story ends for a superhero, they usually go back to their lives and nothing really changes. In fact, it’s somewhat of a running joke among comic book fans that every major change is subject to a “retcon” eventually. That’s not always the case, but it happens so frequently that most comic fans aren’t shocked by it anymore.
As a result, the heroes never really learn from the conflicts. They never attempt to change anything about the system they live in. Bruce Wayne spends much of his vast fictional wealth fighting crime as Batman. However, he never uses any of that wealth to reform the government, create major social programs, or fund projects that actually reduce crime. The same can be said for someone like Iron Man.
With Superman, the potential for change is even greater. Superman isn’t just a paragon of virtue. He has access to advanced alien technology, which he keeps at his Fortress of Solitude. That alien technology could probably solve every major global issue by the end of the week. Technology that advanced could cure cancer, eliminate pollution, and provide clean, safe energy for everyone.
However, Superman never shares this technology with anyone. He never gives a reason for it. In the first “Superman” movie, his father, Jor-El, claims sharing such technology goes against Krypton’s highest laws. He never fully justifies those laws. Keep in mind, though, there are many major laws that have since become obsolete. That makes Superman’s inaction all the more egregious.
By not at least trying to use that advanced alien technology to improve the world, heroes like Superman, Iron Man, and the Fantastic Four effectively doom the planet to the same ills it has always had. At the moment, many of those ills are impossible to fix. With alien technology, they’re not just fixable. They’re basically an afterthought.
Beyond the technology, Superman and other heroes like him never attempt to get involved in the process of actually managing human affairs. They never try to improve the laws, governments, and regulations that effect peoples’ lives far more than an occasional alien invasion. They leave all those ills and flaws untouched.
In a sense, the inaction of many major superheros constitutes a crime in and of itself. If Superman ran for President of any country, he’d win in a landslide. If the Avengers campaigned to take over the United Nations, most average people who aren’t overpaid government bureaucrats would be for it. The fact they don’t do these things means they’re dooming the world to a brutal cycle of conflict that it need not suffer.
Even when they do, which happens from time-to-time, they end up getting corrupted. They become cruel, heartless tyrants. It happened with the Justice League. It happened to Tony Stark. When heroes try to rule the world, they just become evil asshats. That says a lot more about them than it does the villains they fight.
That brings me back to Dr. Doom, a man who doesn’t give half a cow fart about heroic ideals. In a sense, heroes only ever go halfway towards saving the world. Sure, they’ll stop it from being blown up, but they’ll do nothing to fix the cracks.
Victor Von Doom never does anything half way. Hell, he actually became God at one point. He never stops at simply keeping the world in one piece. He seeks to change it in a huge way. Sure, change is scary, but who’s to say those changes wouldn’t be better?
People resisted major changes like same-sex marriage, the abolition of slavery, and not beating children. Some people still resist those changes, some more than others. However, these changes did lead to improvements in the human condition and a reduction in overall suffering.
Superheroes may be willing to confront that suffering, but Dr. Doom is willing to go ten steps further and actually change the conditions that led to it. Sure, he’ll be ruthless about it, bullying and killing anyone who dares get in his way. However, villainous rulers have, historically, inspired positive change.
Since Dr. Doom has no equal in the real or fictional world, he might very well inspire more positive change than any superhero. In that sense, he has the potential to be a greater hero than anyone. Conversely, the deeds of superheroes will always be empty in the long run, their potential squandered by their unwillingness to do more.
Essentially, superheroes are doomed, if that’s not too fitting a word, to be villains through their sheer inaction. Conversely, villains like Dr. Doom have the potential to do the most good. It’s tragic, but painfully pragmatic in the grand scheme of things.
There aren’t a lot of official rules on this blog. I try not to micromanage the what, how, and why of the content I talk about, beyond my sexy novels. However, there is one rule that might as well be a law of physics . If a particular topic can apply to comic books, then I will apply it to comic books.
I’ve already done it so many times on this blog, from sex-positive superheroes to showing why Magneto is the original Walter White to using an X-men comic to explore concepts of a balanced romance. While I love writing and talking about erotica/romance, I’ll still use every opportunity to tie it into comics.
For the past few days, I’ve been talking about fascism and repressive government. It’s a somewhat relevant topic, even after the 4th of July, because everybody seems to be throwing that word around these days. Liberals think conservatives are fascist. Conservative think liberals are fascist. At this rate, even anarchists will call each other fascist and fail to see the irony.
The concept of fascism is pretty complex. It has a dictionary definition, but that definition tends to get obscured by anyone who thinks a different political opinion is a threat to their own. Major conflicts like World War II have conditioned us to associate all the evils of the world with fascism. If your ideology seems bad, greedy, or evil in any way, then it must be fascist.
While that is a very childish approach to political rhetoric, relatively speaking, it also underscores the reason fascism and authoritarian governments exists in the first place. As George Orwell explored in “1984,” these kinds of systems emerge anywhere people seek security and peace in the midst of war and conflict.
We see it happen all the time throughout history. There are many occasions where a repressive regime has arisen out of bloody conflict. Some of those regimes are still around and frustratingly contentious. At their core, thought, the dynamics are the same.
In times of chaos, conflict, and scarcity, people seek power and influence. Once they have it, they seek to maintain it at all costs. They’ll try to control anything and everything, from the amount of bread everyone gets to how they conduct their sex lives. It manifests in many different ways, but the underlying principles are the same.
At the end of the day, the biggest problem with the systems surrounding fascism and repressive governments is that they still depend on flawed, petty humans with caveman brains. Sometimes, the rulers themselves are mentally unhinged. Sometimes, the people around them are petty, corrupt, or just plain incompetent. Often, it’s a potent mixture of the two.
In some sense, we can thank our own inherent flaws as humans as the ultimate weapon against a fascist, authoritarian state. George Orwell may have highlighted the darker elements of humanity, but he grossly overestimated peoples’ ability to manage others competently.
That leads me to Victor Von Doom, the alpha and omega of Marvel’s long list of iconic villains. In any list of the top villains of all time, Dr. Doom usually ranks near the top. A series of sub-par “Fantastic Four” movies have routinely failed to do justice to the breadth of Doom’s villainy. However, once you understand his roots, you understand why he is the ultimate counter to George Orwell’s dystopian fever dream.
There are too many details about Dr. Doom’s life and history to do him justice in one post. WatchMojo does a fairly good job of summarizing where he came from, but for the sake of this post and how he relates to my discussions on fascism, all you need to know is that Dr. Doom is the perfect ruler.
I don’t just mean that in the sense that he has the power, charisma, and resources to rule a country. I mean that, by almost every objective measure, Dr. Doom is the perfect ruler. Put him at the top of any government, be it a democracy or an authoritarian state, and he’ll make it work. Moreover, he’ll do it in a way that’s terrifyingly efficient.
That’s because Dr. Doom isn’t just some evil sadist who just wants to control people for the fun of it. He’s one of the smartest human beings to have ever lived. He didn’t just master science as a kid. He mastered science and magic. Even Lex Luthor can’t make that claim. He just mastered science. Compared to Dr. Doom, Lex is an underachiever.
Beyond just being smart and mastering things few can ever hope to master, Dr. Doom is extremely driven and makes no bones about it. He doesn’t just think he’s superior to every other human being on the planet. He knows it. If anyone dares question it, he won’t just prove them wrong. He’ll do so in the scariest, most intimidating way possible.
This isn’t just someone you respect. This is someone that scares the hell out of you, but for all the right reasons. As arrogant as he is, he doesn’t see himself as a villain either. Even Stan Lee, his co-creator, doesn’t see him that way. In an 2016 interview, he said this about Marvel’s greatest villain.
“Everybody has Doctor Doom misunderstood,” Lee said. “Everybody thinks he’s a criminal, but all he wants is to rule the world. Now, if you really think about it objectively, you could walk up to a policeman, and you could say, ‘Excuse me, officer, I want to tell you something: I want to rule the world.’ He can’t arrest you; it’s not a crime to want to rule the world. So […] it’s unfair that he’s considered a villain, because he just wants to rule the world. Then maybe he could do a better job of it. So I’m very interested in Doctor Doom, and I’d like to clear his name.”
Therein lies the greatest irony of Dr. Doom’s villainy. Sure, he wants to take over the world and he routinely clashes with Marvel’s most iconic heroes in the process. However, it’s why he does it that makes him stand out.
In one iconic story from 2010 fittingly called “Doomwar,” his true motivations for conquering the world come to light. In that story, Dr. Doom encounters a god-like being named Bast, also known as the Panther God. In that encounter, Bast reveals something critical about the future of the world.
As anyone who has ever followed Marvel comics for any number of years will tell you, there are a lot of alternative universes and timelines. Some are dystopian, even by George Orwell standards. Some are just different in a few minor details.
However, the Panther God saw all these universes and timelines and came to one inescapable conclusion. The only timeline in which humanity was free from suffering and want was a timeline in which Dr. Doom ruled the world. In a sense, that almost makes Doom a hero. Then again, he’s still the same guy who once sacrificed the woman he loved for more power.
Beyond those overtly villainous details, there’s a lot of merit behind that vision and not just because it came from the Panther God. Dr. Doom already knows how to run a country and a government. For much of his history, he’s run his fictional home country of Latveria and, by all accounts, he’s run it very well.
He ran it so well that, when he took over the country, every soldier and citizen that had been fighting for the previous ruler just stepped aside and let him take over. He didn’t force his people to love or respect him into submission. He proved himself. He did such a good job that nobody in Latveria besides the previous rulers wanted to stand in his way.
He didn’t just stop at taking over his home country either. Dr. Doom helped it prosper. In another iconic line of Marvel comics, Dr. Doom turned a country of bankrupt peasants into one of the top 10 economies on the planet within a couple years. That’s the kind of growth that even hardcore libertarians have to respect.
Doom does this because, and this is worth emphasizing, he’s extremely smart. He’s not just smart in that he can outwit gods and cosmic forces. He’s smart in that he knows how to manage a country, a people, and everything in between.
He does this largely through an army of loyal robotic minions, including specialized robots called Doombots. They’re not just ordinary killer robots either. These robots actually think, behave, and act as though they’re the real Dr. Doom. It’s kind of a running gag in the Marvel universe. Every time Doom is “defeated,” it’s often revealed that they just defeated a Doombot.
Beyond being a clever plot device, it also ensures that Dr. Doom’s government never has to worry about insubordination, betrayal, or corruption. His robots, gadgets, and ability to use mind control ensures he maintains perfect control of his government from top to bottom.
Unlike the ruling party in George Orwell’s “1984,” there’s no need for a massive professional class of bureaucrats that need to be constantly monitored. There’s no need to set up a kind of thought police to ensure nobody even thinks about undermining the party. For Dr. Doom, that would be redundant. No matter what any of his citizens think, he knows he’s smarter and more resourceful than any of them.
In addition, the party in “1984” didn’t care much for the welfare of the people. They only cared enough to ensure the stability of their rule. Dr. Doom, on the other hand, does express a genuine concern for the well-being of his people. He will go out of his way to make sure that his people are free from suffering and want. Sure, they’ll still fear Dr. Doom’s wrath, but that’s the only thing they fear.
That, more than anything, is what makes Dr. Doom the perfect ruler. He’s so smart, so capable, and so resourceful that no other human in his home country or any other country could come close to matching him. On top of that, Doom actually produces results. The things that are typically impossible for a government to do, such as providing prosperity for all its people, are easy for someone like Dr. Doom.
Thanks to Dr. Doom’s expertise, cunning, and willingness to cross any line, anyone under his rule will be safe and prosperous. They won’t have to fear anyone harming them because they’d have to go through Dr. Doom first, a man who one-shot the Incredible Hulk and battled a race of space gods. With him, a border wall is both unnecessary and redundant.
Under Doom’s rule, you are as safe as it’s possible to be without locking yourself in an adamantium cage. You’re also probably as free as you’ll ever be. While Dr. Doom is a despot, he’s never shown an inclination to micromanage his citizens’ lives. He doesn’t tell them who to love, how to love, and what to do with their free time. So long as they acknowledge his authority, they can do as they please.
He doesn’t get involved in his peoples’ sex lives. He doesn’t try to run the economy. Near as anyone can tell, he doesn’t even demand that certain words be censored from TV and movies. In that sense, Dr. Doom is less tyrannical than the FCC.
Sure, his citizens are still at Doom’s mercy. If, at any point, they become a threat to Doom, he’ll kill them without a second thought. However, Dr. Doom is not obsessively paranoid like the Stalins and Kim Jong Uns of the world. He’s too smart, too cunning, and has too many Doombots on his side to worry about such trivial things. He is, for all intents and purposes, a benevolent despot.
There is no real-world, or even fictional, equivalent to Dr. Doom. However, much like Superman, Dr. Doom presents an ideal of sorts. He is everything people want in a ruler. He is smart, charismatic, imposing, strong, capable, resourceful, logical, and fair. He has the means, vision, and drive to do everything that people want their government to do.
In that sense, it wouldn’t even matter whether a system is fascist or democratic. So long as there’s someone like Dr. Doom at the top, it’ll work. There are still many parts of his character that make him undeniably villainous. However, it’s hard to deny his ability as a ruler. To live under his authority is to live in perfect freedom and security.
Remember that the next time you get into a debate about fascism or democracy. In the end, the only truth path to perfect governance is through Dr. Doom. That’s enough to make both the Avengers and the Justice League cry.
Let’s face it. When we find a winning formula, we like to follow that formula as closely as possible for as long as we can. Why wouldn’t we? We like winning. We like things that work. Who goes out and buys a broken car just because they’re tired of buying one that works?
In terms of winning formulas in pop culture, few are as tried and true as the so-called “Hero’s Journey.” It’s a formula that’s been around since the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” a story so old that the bible may have ripped it off to some extent. For something to have worked for that long, it must be doing something right.
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Read over this simple summary, think back to some of the most iconic heroes of all time, and you’ll find it applies to a lot of characters. From King Arthur to Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter, the formula of the Hero’s Journey is so tried and true that any fiction without it is akin to a cake without frosting.
Then, Walter White came along. Suddenly, the “Hero’s Journey” just wasn’t enough for people anymore. They’ll still gladly embrace that narrative, so much so that they’ll make superhero movies a billion-dollar industry. However, audiences now show that they’re in the mood for something different. What else explains Bryan Cranston’s multiple Emmy awards?
Enter a different journey, one that has played out before, but never got the same attention or Emmy consideration as the Hero’s Journey. I’m talking about the “Villain’s Journey” now. The name may be unoriginal, but its formula is just starting to evolve.
So what exactly is that formula? Is it just the complete opposite of the Hero’s Journey? Well, it’s not accurate to say it’s completely unique to that narrative. It’s also not accurate to say it’s a mirror image that would warrant full-blown plagiarism like those practiced by certain presidential candidates.
To understand this formula, we still need to understand the particulars of the Hero’s Journey. Since this journey has been so studied and belabored, most of those details will be pretty familiar. Anyone who saw Star Wars, Harry Potter, or followed any superhero created by Stan Lee will recognize these details.
Familiar or not, the crux of the journey is that it’s a cycle of sorts. It takes a character down a path that establishes them as a hero archetype. So if we’re going to create a similar journey for a villain, let’s follow this same cycle.
Since I’ve been referencing it in multiple posts, I’ll use “Breaking Bad” and Walter White as the primary example. However, I’ll also cite other famous villains like Lex Luthor, Dr. Doom, and Flavor Flav when necessary. I’m not trying to recreate the entire breakdown that Joseph Campbell did. I don’t have the time, energy, or alcohol supply to do that at the moment. I’m just going to highlight the steps of the journey.
Step 1: Ordinary World (With Extraordinary Flaws)
This step is similar to that of the hero, but for the villain, the ordinary world shouldn’t be ordinary. He or she sees that state as a flaw. Walter White certainly did. He was a grossly overqualified high school chemistry teacher who’s run of bad luck and poor decisions put him in a horribly flawed situation. For a villain, that’s just untenable.
Step 2: Answering One’s Own Calling
This is where the villain starts to go in the opposite direction of the hero. For the hero, there’s a call that they must respond to. Whether it’s the murder of their parents or the destruction of their home world, something calls upon them to be heroes.
A villain decides to skip a couple steps. A villain answers their own call. Walter White didn’t need someone telling him to get into the meth business. He saw something he knew he could do and he did it. That’s all there was to it.
Step 3: Gaining Minions
Since the villain is the one making the call, there’s no refusal. There may be reluctance, but the villain doesn’t refuse their ambition, nor do they temper it. It’s a step they don’t have to take when compared to the hero. It’s a shortcut of sorts.
That shortcut gets even shorter once minions get involved. By minions, I don’t mean the kind of throw-away thugs that ever James Bond villain employs. I mean partners that the villain can use, manipulate, or persuade in aid to his goal. For Walter White, he found a minion in Jesse Pinkman. This partnership, while productive, wasn’t always healthy and Jesse certainly suffered at times.
Step 4: Tasting Their First Triumph
This is where the villain gets their first taste of what it’s like to win. It sometimes requires pain, sacrifice, and cunning, but there’s one important theme. They like it. They like it enough to want to do it again. Walt’s first triumph over Tuco, as well as his memorable reaction to it, shows that he’s starting to embrace this world.
Step 5: Beating Out Rivals And Gaining Influence
Once the villain has that taste of triumph, they seek more. They seek it like crack addict in withdrawal. This is where lines are crossed, friends abandon them, and the ambition gains a more selfish undertone.
This is where Walter White starts to ascend from small-time meth cook to full-blown kingpin. Lex Luthor and Dr. Doom underwent a similar journey, crushing anyone who stood in their way, often brutally. Gus Fring can attest to how brutal it can be.
Step 6: Accumulating Rewards (and Wanting More)
At this point, the villain is on top of the world. They’ve beaten their rivals. They’ve vindicated everything their ego has told them. They feel they’ve earned this success. They make any excuses for the lines they crossed or the people they’ve hurt. They reached the top and they’ve since stopped giving a damn about how they got there.
In Season 5 of Breaking Bad, Walter White reached this stage. It was no longer about making money for his family. He said it himself. He wanted an empire. He eventually got it, so much so that he had acquired actual piles of money. Even so, it never seemed to be enough.
Step 7: Hitting A Limit and/or Encountering A Rival
This is the part of the journey where the villain crosses paths with the hero. This is when Lex Luthor encounters Superman. This is when Dr. Doom encounters the Fantastic Four. It’s the proverbial wall that every villain reaches, one in which their endless ambition can go no farther. They can’t get any more and that pisses them off.
For Walter White, this was the point when his meth empire started crumbling. Enemies, including old partners like Jesse Pinkman and friends like Hank Schrader, turned against him. No matter what he did from that point on, his ambition and reward never went further.
Step 8: Endless Struggle and/or Self-Destruction
This is the final step in the journey, one in which the villain has long passed the point of no return. They cannot be redeemed, nor do they want to. They effectively accept their role as a villain. They lose more than they can ever regain. Lex Luthor loses his influence. Dr. Doom loses his power. They never stop and blame themselves either. They just keep fighting others who deny them.
For Walter White, he took the self-destruction route. While he did try to redeem himself to some extent, he never apologized for it. He even admits to his own wife that he did what he did for himself. In the end, it left him alone, but he still fulfilled his ambition. He still succeeded on many levels.
This marks the end of the Villain’s Journey, at least according to my formula. I’m not saying it’s definitive. I’m not even saying that it applies to all villains. There are parts of this journey in which it’s kind of a stretch to apply it to Walter White. There are times when he’s more anti-hero than villain. However, the theme remains the same.
The ascendance of Walter White within pop culture, as well as a growing emphasis on giving villains as much depth as heroes, will likely bring greater scrutiny towards the Villain’s Journey. For now, I’m just looking to get the conversation going. I’m a cook in the kitchen fooling around with the ingredients.
I don’t doubt that there are more skilled chefs who will come along and improve upon this formula. I also don’t doubt that we’ll see more characters go on this journey. They may or may not result in more Emmys for Bryan Cranston, but they will help bring greater balance to the never-ending narrative that guides heroes and villains alike.