Not a Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy
When we were children some parents said comic books would rot our brains out.
I don’t know any of those parents. My dad was cool, he kept comic books in our camper for long trips. My dad wasn’t a comic book maniac, but he did pick up the occasional pocket-sized comic book collectible and recognized my love for comics. He actually bought me the giant-sized edition of Superman versus Spider-Man back when I was ten – Marvel and DC’s first crossover event.
Comic books have some decent themes in them. Man versus man, man versus god, man versus nature, and man versus self – are common themes. Characters are far from black and white. This is what we demand from higher literature. When I think about the characters, few villains are completely evil – just as few heroes who are completely good. Many work in shades of gray.
These themes are critical ingredients to a good story.
For example, depending on the writer, Superman’s arch nemesis, Lex Luthor, has been portrayed several different ways. When we first meet Luthor, back in the forties, he was a mad scientist bent on world domination. Early drawings of this villain were modeled after Allister Crowley – the world’s wickedest man. Luthor was an evil bald man who, unlike Crowley, worked his megalomaniacal plans through science and not sorcery. As a villain template, though, Crowley had everything short of the evil laugh.
However, as new generations of comic book writers made new stories, characters evolved. The Silver Age version of Lex Luthor became the new template for many villains. Luthor was now a childhood friend of Superboy. The two were as close as brothers. Things go awry when a lab accident is made worse, through Superboy’s intervention, making Lex permanently bald. Superboy’s actions creates a rift and establishes the brother versus brother theme – one which goes all the way back to Cain and Abel. Some would also argue that the accident also made Luthor psychotic. In any case, through envy, vanity, or psychosis, we find that some villains are not born but made.
Luthor’s character later became an engineering genius who made a fortune as a self-made businessman. Lex became one of the most powerful men in Metropolis – until Superman made his appearance. The theme became envy and pride which led to hatred. Luthor, as a human, stood at the pinnacle of success only to be outdone by a super-human from another planet. Luthor could not compete with such a man and so all of his energies were directed toward destroying Superman – the one man who stood between him and ultimate power – yet all the while remaining a philanthropist. He continued to employ thousands of people around the world and worked to make their lives better. Granted, he may have eventually used these employees for nefarious reasons, but his actions were still good and honorable.
While the Luthor we know is a murderous megalomaniac, there is still a good part of him the reader can relate to. How many of us have lost out to people bigger, stronger, or smarter? It pisses us off! Right?!
When we reach our physical and intellectual limits only to be beaten by someone who is just better, it frustrates the hell out of us.
That’s Luthor. That’s us.
Marvel’s Villains Are Complex
Ironically, I want to talk about the Marvel villains who have a human side. Most of them do. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did that by design with their early works. Call Stan’s dialogue hokey and Kirby’s art “over the top”, but the one thing they could do consistently well was create good villains.
This carried over into the Marvel shows produced by Netflix. We see many of our old favorites: Wilson Fisk (The Kingpin), Killgrave (the Purple Man), Electra, Frank Castle (The Punisher), Willis Stryker (Diamondback), and Cornell Stokes (Cottonmouth). Each of them presents a formidable force against our heroes. None of these characters, however, are completely evil.
Marvel likes to show us the villain’s worst side first. When we see Jessica Jones’ Killgrave, we see him through his actions. He programs a woman to kill her parents and say, “smile” to Jessica before his spell dissipates. On the outside, he’s a man who naturally gets whatever he wants – all the time. If he’s annoyed with any of his subjects, he’ll force them to either kill or maim themselves. The viewer naturally assumes this man to be completely evil. Then the show challenges us to see how this person became that way.
The man who reacts irrationally to people he can control was literally tortured and experimented on as a child. He never learned restraint. The ability to control other people is a powerful skill that requires responsible use – if it is to be used at all. Here we have power without responsibility in the hands of someone without maturity.
In the Daredevil series, Wilson Fisk is a cold introverted man. When the Russian crime lord barges innocently into Fisk’s legitimate world and ruins his date, Fisk’s reaction is maniacal. He kills a man whose crime was to invade his legitimate world and embarrass him. The murder itself is barbaric in the use of a car door decapitation.
Once again, we find the villain on the outside. When we take a closer look at the man, we see the abused overweight boy who only wanted to save his mother from being beaten by his father. He is told to face the wall and not to pay attention to anything else. When we see him view the white picture, we now understand the simplicity of the act and no longer see Fisk as an intellectual contemplating an abstract picture.
Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes from Luke Cage literally beats a man to death within minutes after we first meet him. Stokes is not a man who handles anger well. He knows how dirty his business is. Yet, when we learn more about the man, we find that he never wanted to be in the business to begin with. All Stokes wanted was to go to Julliard and become a musician. Instead of getting to follow his passion, he gets pulled into the family crime business at seventeen. The show’s writers show that point of no return when he makes his first teenaged kill.
Why does Marvel make villains with a soft side? Wouldn’t it just be easier to have a complete bastard who’s totally evil? Yes, but would they be better?
Even when Marvel does movies and creates a villain like Ronan the Accuser, from Guardians of the Galaxy, we see the dichotomy of a man who sleeps in a pool of his enemies’ blood yet still has to do things like run the Kree Empire. He might have lost his mind once he grabbed onto the power gem, but for the most part, he was working to further the Kree. As he went completely insane by the end of the movie, the audience felt no remorse with his demise. So it could be argued that the less sympathetic the character, the less likely he’ll be missed in an alien abduction.
When you see a sympathetic villain, he’s more interesting. Sure, we want to see seven different kinds of hell done to him – after all, he did decapitate someone with a car door or beat his victim so bloody that he had to convince his dry cleaner the bloodstains were actually spilled red wine. However, when the villain is a little more human, it shows a chink in his armor. It makes the character less predictable and somehow more likable.
Even Doctor Doom Can Be A Softie
Here’s a good comic book example.
Doctor Doom is one of the baddest villains in the Marvel Universe. There are few that can compete with his genius and obsession for world domination. Doom invented a device to rip the Baxter building out of its foundation and put it into orbit – all to kill only four people, with the collateral damage of everyone else in the building. That’s a bad guy. At the same time, we know Doom, the monarch of Latveria, is a contradiction to that. While he might rule with an iron fist, no child goes hungry in his kingdom.
Doom can be utterly without mercy, however, when the moment takes him, he can be quite magnanimous. He is just as likely to kill someone as he is to save a hero’s life from a complex condition that only his scientific genius (or possibly Reed Richards’) can solve.
Some villains’ soft sides are so well hidden, the reader needs to dig deep. The Red Skull, archenemy of Captain America, is almost completely without mercy. In practically every story he’s in there is almost no time when he’s shown any kind of compassion towards his enemies. Almost no time. The closest the Skull has come to mercy was for his own vanity. The Red Skull had gotten his hands on near godlike power with the cosmic cube. He used this power to reduce Captain America’s physical might to where he was before he’d taken the super soldier formula – making Cap a complete weakling. It was only through his own vanity that he found a victory against a weakling completely without merit. What good was it for his ego, if he didn’t beat Cap at his peak strength?
It’s hard to say whether the humanity of Marvel’s villains is their undoing. More often than not, it is. The flip side of that is the villain’s humanity can drive him to be so sympathetic, he’ll be likely to give the hero the “you and I are not so different” speech – where he’ll try to convince the hero how dark his own reserves are or that he’s actually “just a man responsible for others.”
Even Thanos, in his quest to gather all of the Infinity gems for his gauntlet, was reluctant to remove the time gem from the Elder of the Universe, known as the Gardener. In his attempt to take the gem, he could not help but admire the beauty of the garden grown from the time gem. He had genuine regret over destroying the garden with the elder’s defeat.
The challenge for any good writer is to write a good villain.
Why? Villains have to be interesting. It is the duty of the story’s antagonist to make trouble for the hero. Whether the villain has to cause the deaths of millions of people to achieve his end, we need to know the villain’s ultimate end is somehow justifiable. Terribly written villains do their crimes “just because” (unless you’re the Joker). The good ones – the ones that will have the reader not only turning the pages of every issue and buying ten or twelve issues in the series – are the ones that have legitimate goals the reader can relate to.
Who is going to blame the villain for stealing the endorphins of every teenage cheerleader after they discover he’s using the chemicals to cure cancer for an entire city in South America. It could happen.
It is part of the depth and the struggle the hero must endure when he, himself, believes in the villain’s cause and must stop him anyway – thus causing the hero to question his own motives for stopping him.
When the bad guys aren’t as bad as we think and the good guys aren’t as good as we’d hoped, the story told can’t help but be fantastic.