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.
Some things are worth waiting for, but when that wait spans nearly two years, that’s pushing it. Patience is a virtue, but after a certain amount of time, it becomes a test in how much you can tolerate frustration. For fans of “Rick and Morty,” the line between patience and frustration got real blurry for a while.
The last episode of Season 3, “The Rickchurian Mortydate,” aired on October 7, 2017. That might as well have been another lifetime and several universes ago. In that time, a lot happened behind the scenes. Show creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon explained in 2018 why it took so long and, delays aside, there was a legitimate reason for it, which hopefully helps the show in the long run.
That didn’t make the wait any less arduous. However, on November 10, 2019, it finally ended with the premier of Season 4, Episode 1, “Edge of Tomorty: Rick Die Rickpeat.” To say I was excited would be like saying Kalaxian Crystals help lighten the mood at a lame ass party. I built my entire day around it. I even cussed at the clock many times for not moving faster.
As frustrating as the two-year wait was, I can attest that it was worth it. This quirky, colorful piece of nihilistic sci-fi didn’t miss a beat. Everything in “Edge of Tomorty: Rick Die Rickpeat” is a testament to why the show is so awesome and engaging. By the end, I quickly forgot about how frustrating the wait was. I’m just glad the show was back.
There’s a lot to unpack with this episode. The premise is fairly simple by the eccentric standards of “Rick and Morty.” Morty joins Rick on a quick space excursion to harvest valuable death crystals. These crystals have the ability to show someone how they’re going to die, which makes them both useful and terrifying. From there, plenty of violence, hilarity, and jokes about fascism ensue.
Yes, the show jokes about fascism about a time when fascism is no laughing matter to some people. Then again, this is the same show that gave us Abradolf Lincler so I don’t see why anyone should be surprised.
However, it’s not the fascist jokes that really made this episode stand out for me. What I found more intriguing was how this episode furthered Morty’s story. It’s a story that has changed a great deal since the first season.
When the show began, Morty is a deer-in-the-headlights teenager who is constantly overwhelmed by Rick’s exploits. He often comes off as scared, inexperienced, and naïve. He tries to maintain some level of idealism in the face of Rick’s misanthropic nihilism, but it rarely pans out. Sometimes, it’s downright traumatizing.
Then, beginning with “Close Encounters of the Rick Kind” and really further escalating in Season 3, especially with “The Ricklantis Mixup,” the show began hinting that Morty had a dark side. The hints weren’t subtle, either. Rick once stated that an overly confident Morty is a dangerous thing, which has fueled plenty of fan theories about where Morty is heading.
This episode will likely add more fuel to those theories because it shows what Morty can do when he’s motivated. Season 3 already showed that Morty has become more and more capable. He has been able to utilize Rick’s technology and solve Rick’s life-threatening puzzles. If the first episode of Season 4 is any indication, he’s capable of going even further when he’s got a strong incentive.
In “Edge of Tomorty: Rick Die Rickpeat,” the incentive is simple. He wants to pursue a future in which he dies happy with his long-time crush, Jessica. It’s a simple desire and one most people can understand without the aid of portal guns or magic crystals. On the surface, it’s not the kind of thing that would lead someone to committing egregious acts that require military intervention.
However, true to the high-level absurdity that is “Rick and Morty,” this is exactly what where Morty takes things. He’s not content to just know that this future is possible. He’s willing to go to great lengths to make it happen, even if it means going against Rick, bullies, the police, the military, and anything else that gets in his way.
It’s scary, yet revealing to see Morty go this far. It’s certainly not the first time the show has explored his dark side. In “Rest and Ricklaxation,” we find out that when Morty is purged of his toxic side, which includes his limitations, fears, and poor self-esteem, he becomes an full-blown sociopath.
Conversely, in that same episode, we find out that when Rick has his toxic side removed, he becomes kinder, more understanding, and downright affable. He doesn’t even randomly burp without excusing himself anymore. It implies that the toxic parts of Rick are part of what make him so misanthropic and cynical. Behind that toxic shell is someone who does have a sense of humanity, albeit to a certain extent.
For Morty, it’s the opposite. Strip away that shell that makes him feeble, inept, and whiny, as was often the case in the early episodes of the show, and his core persona is very different. He’s darker and more self-centered. Whereas Rick’s motivations rarely go beyond petty self-interest, Morty demonstrates more high-level narcissism. He’s willing to bend the world around him to his will in order to get what he wants.
Beyond adding more fodder for the popular “Evil Morty Theory,” it hints that Morty has a dark side in the mold of Walter White. I’ve mentioned before how Walter White walks a unique path into becoming a villain. A key part of that path involves a villain revealing that he has a dark side of himself was always there, but never came out because there were no influences to draw it out.
In “Breaking Bad,” a number of events compounded over time to bring out Walter White’s dark side. It started with him claiming that he did what he did for the good of his family. By the end, he flat out admitted that he did what he did out of selfishness. While Morty’s circumstances are very different, the signs are there too.
When Morty is inclined to be selfish, he can be downright dangerous. He hasn’t completely broken bad yet, but if “Edge of Tomorty: Rick Die Rickpeat” is any indication, he can walk that path and he won’t always be able to blame Rick for it. These were ultimately Morty’s decisions and, given how the show has emphasized choice in the past, that’s a potentially relevant development.
Whatever happens with Morty, I’m just glad this show is back. I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out over the course of this season. I’m sure there will be controversy, debates, arguments, and outrage. That’s part of what makes “Rick and Morty” artifact in our cultural landscape.
Until then, wubba lubba dub dub!
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.
Not long ago, I dedicated several posts to the defining traits of villains and why Walter White was such a game-changer, beyond getting Bryan Cranston more Emmys than he’ll ever need. I could’ve done many more posts because quality villains are every bit as integral to any story as a quality hero. Just look at Batman’s rogues gallery, and the number of cos-players that dress as them, for proof of that.
In these discussions, I kept things fairly general and if I did, I singled out a specific character like Walter White or Magneto. Well, recent events and ongoing trends have inspired me to re-address the issue of villains from a different angle. Specifically, I’d like to talk a bit about female villains.
Quickly, take a moment and recall your favorite female villain of all time. Chances are it’ll take you a moment and not just because a great many female villains made us both scared and horny at the same time. It may also be difficult because some female villains don’t exactly carry themselves as villains. Catwoman may be a thief, a deceiver, and the subject of one of the worst comic book movies of all time, but she’s not an outright villain.
Female villains are one of those difficult concepts to flesh out and not just because men can’t resist turning female villains into sexy anti-heroes, some more egregiously than others. It’s just one of those elements that either gets under-used or overlooked.
Well, as is often the case with the ever-changing/insanely-erratic tastes of pop culture, that may be changing. At a time when a new generation of strong female characters, badass female superheroes, and women who just do more than give the male characters something to obsess over, it was only a matter of time before female villains caught up.
Now I generally suck at making predictions. I’m the same guy who was convinced that Cleveland Cavaliers would never win the NBA championship last year. I’m not proud of the things I had to do for the bets I made on that game, but it does show that everybody, including aspiring erotica/romance writers, can be dead wrong. With this, however, it’s not just a prediction. It’s based, in part, on an observation.
As most regular readers of this blog already knew, I love comic books and superheros. Specifically, I have a special affinity for X-men comics. So it should come as no surprise that I follow the events of the X-men comics very closely. Well, this past week, something pretty damn major happened in the X-men comics and it has to do with this woman.
Her name is Emma Frost. Trust me, she’s even sexier than her fan art would imply. She’s a prominent character in the X-men comics and has had numerous roles throughout the series for over 30 years now.
At times, she’s been a devious villainous vixen. At others, she’s been a cunning heroic vixen. In every role she’s in, she generally makes it a point to be sexy as hell. She doesn’t mind getting naked, she doesn’t mind having sex, she doesn’t give half-a-tortoise fart about what anyone things. In short, she’s a perfect blend of Regina George and Wonder Woman.
Now Emma Frost is somewhat unique in that she’s had so many roles, but she’s never defined herself completely as a hero or villain. She hasn’t even been an anti-hero. If you were to do the villain’s journey test I laid out in a previous post, she wouldn’t complete it, but she would come pretty damn close.
The same goes for the hero’s journey. She would check some boxes, but not all. She’d just look a million times sexier than anyone else on that journey.
Why is this important? Well, in a major X-men crossover event that just concluded recently, Emma’s role changed again. After a clash between the X-men and the Inhumans, one Marvel built up over the course of two years, Emma crossed a line that effectively sealed a new fate for her. She’s a villain now. However, she’s a very different kind of villain.
What do I mean by that? Why is that even relevant? Well, to answer that, think back to what I said about listing your favorite female villains. Go back to that list again. Exactly how many of those villains are refined, well-rounded, complex characters? Chances are your list will shrink considerably or outright disappear.
That’s because female villains have a history of being annoyingly flat. Going all the way back to the Wicked Witch of the West, they rarely had many compelling traits. Most of the time, they were just evil witches or devious vixens. Basically, just think of every evil female character in a James Bond movie. That’s the extent of the depth female villains usually get.
This is what makes the development with Emma Frost so intriguing. Emma Frost isn’t like Pussy Galore or the Wicked Witch of the West and not just because she looks better in a thong. As a character, she has a rich history. She even had her own comic series at one point. She has various layers as well. She’s not just out to be a total bitch and look good doing it, although she does make it look pretty damn easy.
Emma Frost has real, genuine motivations. They’re not always pure either. For a time, she was a stripper who didn’t mind using her sexuality to get ahead in the Hellfire Club, who have been major X-men villains for many years. When she was a teacher, she watched many of her students die in an attack that she had no chance to stop.
However, she has never been one to play the part of a victim. She never uses tragedy or excuses to justify her actions. She does what she thinks needs to be done and anyone who disagrees with her can just kiss her perfectly shaped ass. Hell, she could probably charge for that and it would be worth every penny.
The recent events in the X-men comics pushed her to extreme actions and for good reason. As part of the story that set up the clash between the X-men and the Inhumans, she lost someone near and dear to her. Cyclops, a character she had been romantically involved with, died in her arms. It affected her profoundly, which is saying a lot for someone who killed her own sister.
That effect leads her to do more than just lead a conflict. They put her in a position to become a hardened, but complex villain, both to the X-men and anyone else who generally pisses her off.
Her timing really couldn’t be better. Just as everyone from Disney Princesses to Taylor Swift prove that there’s a market for strong female personalities, she’s entering a domain that’s ripe for new energy. Emma Frost could very well be the first of a new push for better female villains to go along with the female heroes that every comic company and movie studio is pushing these days.
I feel like this is a trend that needs to happen. Women can kick ass as heroes. That much they’ve proven. Why not show they can do the same as villains? Emma Frost is unique in that she has the kind of complexity that allows her to be a hero when she needs to be and a villain when she wants to be. I believe there will be a market for that kind of complexity.
Sure, some parents would still prefer that their daughters dress up as Disney princesses rather than Emma Frost, if only to avoid any Honey Boo Boo comparisons, but having strong female villains still does something important. It adds balance to the greater narrative between heroes and villains as a whole.
Now I’m somewhat guilty myself of not fleshing out female villains. In my book, “The Escort and the Gigolo,” the main villain was a woman named Madam Felicity. While I did make an effort to give her some complexity, I admit she’s not more ground-breaking than a James Bond villain with boobs.
I’d like to change that in future novels. I just hope that by then, Emma Frost will have set the bar and set it high. As any X-men fan will tell you, Emma never does anything haphazardly. If she’s going to usher in a new wave of strong female villains, then she’s going to make damn sure she’s the best and looks damn sexy while doing that. For that, she’ll always have a special place in the hearts and pants of X-men fans everywhere.
Go to any message boards for comic books, movies, TV shows, or Twilight fan fiction and you’ll hear any number of twisted interpretations of certain characters. Everybody has their own opinions, but let’s face it. Some go out of their way to melt their own brain in an effort to interpret a character in a particular way.
Talk to certain Harry Potter fans and you’ll find takes on Voldermort that are creepier than all the clown makeup and anime porn in the world. As a noted comic book fan, I’ve certainly had my share of twisted interpretations, as well as heated debates on message boards. I understand that these debates are about as productive as spitting into the ocean in hopes of causing a flood, but it also reveals how broad our interpretations can be.
I bring this up because in my many discussions about evil, villains, and recent trends in villains, I knew there was going to be one major complication to this discussion that was sure to piss off certain fans of certain characters. Given how much time and effort some people put into dressing up as certain characters, that’s not an anger to take lightly.
For many of my discussions about Walter White from “Breaking Bad,” I referred to him as a villain. I even fit his narrative into the context of the “Villain’s Journey.” When I watch Breaking Bad and assess the story, I believe Walter White to be a villain.
I did this knowing that there’s a sizable chunk of Breaking Bad fans that refuse to label him as such. To these fans, and they’re not entirely misguided in their assessment, they see Walt as an anti-hero. They see what he did and why he did it as not being fit for a true villain. Never mind the problem with calling any villain “true” in the era of “alternative facts,” it’s not an unreasonable position.
Walter White is not Dr. Doom or Lex Luthor. He’s not Wolverine or Dirty Harry either. There are any number of debates fans can have, and there have been many, on this issue. I don’t want to have them all. My blog, if not the entire internet, simply isn’t big enough for that debate.
However, if I’m going to talk about villains like Walter White, Magneto, and Dr. Doom, I need to address the influence of anti-heroes. I hope to do another more in depth exploration of anti-heroes in a future post, but for now, I’ll keep it in the context of how they relate to villains.
First off, I think I need to make clear that villains and anti-heroes are not the same. Granted, they can be easy to confuse, but they are very different in terms of narrative, motivation, and personality. It’s possible for an anti-hero to be a complete asshat and still be heroic, as Wolverine regularly proves. It’s also possible for a villain to be endearing, as Freddy Krueger movies regularly prove.
So what’s the difference? What sets an anti-hero apart from a villain? Well, it doesn’t help that the definition of an anti-hero is somewhat vague. Even Wikipedia struggles to answer it. The simplest definition it offers is this:
It’s not overly ambiguous, but it’s lacking in that it uses what a character lacks to define them. Unless you’re diagnosing personality disorders, that’s just not sufficient. Anti-heroes are as old as Ancient Greece, Don Quixote, and a time when Clint Eastwood actually had a successful acting career. By any measure, this concept does have roots.
Being a comic book fan, there are plenty of anti-heroes occupying my list of favorite characters. Wolverine is probably the most notable, but there are many others like the Punisher, the Hulk, Deadpool, and John Constantine. Some of these characters, like Deadpool, go out of their way to make clear that they’re not a hero. However, they do have some distinct qualities that set them apart from villains.
Anti-Heroes, especially those in superhero comics, still battle injustice in a larger world, just like traditional heroes. They fight criminals. They protect the innocent. They’ll even save the world from an invading alien army. The main difference is they’re just more willing to be assholes about it.
While most sane people have an innate aversion to assholes, we are willing to overlook a certain amount of assholery if it serves the greater good. Aristotle might have been a racist, anti-woman, douche-bag by most standards, but his contribution to western civilization was pretty damn important for our progress as a species.
There is a limit to just how much douche-baggery we’ll tolerate for an anti-hero, but core sentiment of the character remains. They still want to help others. They still want to save the day. They still, and this is critical, will do the right thing even if it doesn’t serve their best interests.
It’s that last quality that helps unblur the lines between villain and anti-hero. When faced with a chance to do the right thing or do something that’s self-serving, an anti-hero will most often do the right thing. They may be a total dick about it. They may even kill, destroy, or cuss like a hung over Quentin Tarantino. They’ll still do the right thing.
A villain will, at the end of the day, mostly favor the decisions that serve their interests. At the moment in the comics, Lex Luthor is a member of the Justice League and Dr. Doom is the new Iron Man. It’s a long story as to how this happened, and some of those stories are pretty damn awesome, but the sentiment of the characters is still the same.
Lex Luthor and Dr. Doom are being heroes because it still serves their interests. It’s not about doing the right thing for them. They may claim they want to redeem themselves, but that’s really not that altruistic when you think about it. They want to be perceived as heroes. They want to have that kind of adulation. On some levels, it’s inherently selfish.
Compare that to Wolverine or Deadpool. They couldn’t give two whiffs of a wet fart about how they’re perceived. They still do things their own way and their decisions aren’t always self-serving.
By this standard, Walter White is far more in line with a villain. He let Jane, Jesse’s girlfriend, die rather than save her when he had the chance. He poisoned a little kid as part of an elaborate plan to take down a rival. There are all self-serving decisions. These are, by most measures, morally abhorrent. That’s what makes him a villain and that’s what sets villains apart from anti-heroes.
I understand there are still arguments to be made about Walter White’s status as a villain and an anti-hero. I’ll save those arguments for another post. In the end, it’s still somewhat easy to confuse villains and anti-heroes. However, when you break down their character and what motivates them, the line isn’t as blurred as we think.
There’s a place for villains. There’s a place for anti-heroes. I imagine there will be plenty of debates about which is which and who is who, but it’s these very conflicts that help bring out the best and, necessarily, the worst in these characters.
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.
It’s a common pattern in pop culture. Elvis and the Beatles didn’t invent rock music. They just made it mainstream. “The Godfather” didn’t invent the Italian Mafia. It just made it mainstream. The movie “Deep Throat” didn’t invent blowjobs. The human race figured that out centuries ago. The movie just finally got around to recognizing how amazing the concept would be.
These patterns often play out before our eyes without us really noticing. Nobody ever realizes they’re part of something greater, at least until they’re being played by Denzel Washington or Daniel Day Lewis in a movie. There’s always some strange revolution going on and I’m not talking about the kind that involves fad diets.
When I decided to break down the impact of Walter White on villains and antagonists in pop culture, I knew I was a bit late to the party. “Breaking Bad” has been off the air since 2013. In that time, the cultural impact of Walter White and how Bryan Cranston brought this character to life has spread. Many have already done far more thorough breakdowns of this character that are far more insightful than anything I could ever do.
At the same time, however, a part of me still looks at Walter White and sees the same pattern that has played out in music, TV, and even porn. Like Elvis, Walter White didn’t invent the complex antagonist/anti-hero. He just made it mainstream. However, I think there’s another character who accomplished this while Bryan Cranston was voicing bad Power Rangers villains.
Which character am I talking about? What kind of character could’ve possibly captured the complexities and depth that Walter White embodied without having his own show on AMC? This character actually pre-dates AMC, cable TV, Power Rangers, and even hippies. His name is Erik Lensherr, but he’s best known as the X-men villain, Magneto.
Yes, this is going to be another one of those posts. If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know I jump at the chance to relate anything I can to comic books, especially X-men.
I’ve already used X-men to highlight what I feel are relevant issues. I’ve cited an X-men comic as a prime example of a true relationship of equals. I’ve cited X-men as teaching valuable lessons in the importance of foreplay. I’ve even singled out one X-man in particular, Storm, as a more viable female icon than Wonder Woman.
That said, it should come as no surprise that I make another connection when the unapologetic comic book fan in me sees the opportunity. For Magneto, the opportunity is definitely there. Based on his story, his personality, and his actions, he can claim that he was Walter White before there ever was a Walter White.
That claim isn’t hard to justify to anyone who learned about Magneto from the X-men movies, specifically the first X-men movie in which he was played by Gandalf himself, Sir Ian McKellen, and the pseudo-reboot entitled “X-men: First Class” in which Michael Fassbender gave the character an uncomfortable amount of sex appeal.
Both these movies make it a point to emphasize one of the most important, not to mention traumatic, aspects of Magneto’s character. He’s a holocaust survivor. He didn’t just live through one of the greatest atrocities in the history of mankind. He lost his entire family in it. He literally saw humanity at its worst. Can anyone honestly blame him for being a villain?
Unlike Walter White, it wasn’t desperation or circumstance that made Magneto want to give a big middle finger to the human race and get the ball rolling on their successors. He’s always been a little pissed off at the world for allowing such an atrocity. When you’re surrounded by the greatest evils of humanity, is it any wonder why you would found a group called the Brotherhood of “Evil” Mutants?
Even if he does have a good reason for being evil, this justification alone doesn’t put Magneto on the same level as Walter White. A major aspect of Walter White and the concept he embodies is the complexity of his character. If Magneto were just another Dr. Doom wannabe who just happens to have a better reason for hating the human race, then this concept wouldn’t apply.
However, Magneto does have depth. He does have complexity. His history is rich with stories that has him navigating a vast gray area of morality. One day, he’s a reformed man who helps the X-men fight off killer robots trying to wipe them out. On another, he’s creating a giant mutant monster to unleash upon the human race.
This isn’t just a bitter old man who gets moodier than most. His shifting allegiances, as well as his efforts to walk that fine line between villain and anti-hero, doesn’t happen sporadically. Magical spells aren’t used to just make him a hero, although that tactic has been used on other characters in comics.
Magneto’s story, much like Walter White, follows him making hard decisions in difficult situations. The consequences of these decisions lead him down many paths, some of which get pretty damn dark. Just read Cullen Bunn’s 2014 “Magneto” series for proof of that. That series alone ensures Magneto deserves to be on the same level as Walter White.
What makes Walter White such a compelling character is that his struggle and his hard decisions feel so real. He’s a man struggling in a difficult situation, but those situations only serve to bring out the worst in him.
Magneto may live in a world of mutants, superheroes, and characters who ride cosmic surfboards, but what he endures is painfully real. He lived through a real atrocity that has scars that we, as a species, are still struggling to confront. Whether the evil within him was always there or influenced by these struggles, it still felt painfully real.
The X-men, and the mutant struggle that Magneto has always been a part of, embodies the struggles of minorities. Even X-men director, Bryan Singer, has cited these struggles as an important part of the mythos. The struggles of minorities and the atrocities they suffer is painfully real.
In the case of Magneto, the horror of these real events helped shape his fictional path as a character. Walter White can’t claim he endured such atrocities. He endured injustice, but not on the same level as Magneto. These forces shaped their respective stories and personas.
At the end of the day, it still leaves us wondering whether these forces actually made them evil or just brought out the evil that was already there. While it may involve a little of both in the grand scheme of things, it’s still a big part of what makes these characters so compelling. At least with Magneto, he can say he knocked first.