I’m not approaching this from a moral standpoint, nor I am limiting myself to a particular genre, but I do mean villains in fiction (in particular movies and comic books). I’m not talking about the mistakes villains make, like connecting the doomsday weapon to a timer that when the timer is damaged shuts down the doomsday weapon. I am referring to evil as a career path. I am leaving out the path of psychopathic killer because one assumes a psychopath doesn’t have other options for a career path. I am also leaving out the path of someone who is evil for the sake of being evil. That’s really more of a lifestyle than a career. My thesis here is that from a purely pragmatic point of view, villainy, as a career path, just doesn’t pay. I’m going to discuss four general scenerios in which a villain might find themselves.
1) You, the villain, are in business for yourself. This really isn’t very likely unless you have awesome superpowers. And if you do have awesome superpowers, someone will try to get you to do what they want, and money is a good way of doing that. But if you do work for yourself, and are on the thuggery side of villainy, you are going to lack a lot of resources of a villain organization and will have to make sure you don’t run afoul of both the authorities or the abovementioned villain organizations who don’t like freelancers treading on their territory. Maybe you could make a go of robbing banks, but you are most likely going to get caught by the regular cops and be nothing more than an ordinary criminal, not a villain. Or perhaps you’re on the science side of the business and build weapons and/or gadgets and/or drugs that you sell on the black market to villains. Again, you have to avoid the authorities and you have the added problem of making sure you customers, once armed with your gear, don’t get the bright idea to rob you. And, really, if you’re so good at this, why not patent your stuff and sell it one of the many technology firms and make a legitimate fortune? But if you don’t work for yourself, this leads us to…
2) You, the villain, work for someone. This is the most likely scenerio by far. Whether you are a mook, a mad scientist who makes machines of destruction, the Big Bad’s trusted lieutenant, you need someone to pay you. And this puts you in one of two positions, generally speaking…
a) You are expendable – this is true of the low minion on the totem pole. Being low person on the totem pole is always the worst position, no matter who you work for. But if you are the low minion on the villainy totem pole, this is even worse. The low minion on the totem pole takes the greatest risk for the least reward. These are normal HYDRA or AIM agents or low-level mobster mooks. You get some guns, maybe some body armor if you’re lucky, and get told to steal technology or rob a bank or something similar. Unfortunately for you, you’re first in line when the heroes show up. That’s right, you’re the person who gets punched in the face first by Batman. Or Daredevil. Or if you’re really unlucky and decided HYDRA had the best benefits package, you get punched by Captain America. I’ll tell you what, you’re going to need that dental coverage. And don’t think just because you decided to go the route of science instead of thuggery that you’re insulated from such hazards. Labs get raided too and there you are with a gun and maybe a HAZMAT suit facing down Thor. It doesn’t take a genius to know how that encounter is going to turn out.
And when the chips are down, you’re going to be the one the higher level minions sacrifice so that they can get away. If you’re lucky, that means you go to jail. If you’re unlucky, that means they detonate the bomb before you get out of the building. If you go to jail, is the Big Bad going to shell out for your bail, or your lawyer? Very unlikely, so you’d better hope you got paid well enough to cover the legal fees. Or, if you’re a scientist, you’re probably working on illegal, unethical, and extremely dangerous experiments to begin with. Do you think your employer is going to care about OSHA regulations? That is a recipe for disaster. Combine that with heroes that are not always subtle about their entrance and well, you’d better hope your medical insurance is paid up. And even if you survive a heist or two, well, what happens when the trusted lieutenants or the Big Bad have a bad day? That’s right, they tend to maim and/or kill the minion standing nearest to them at the time the upset event occurs. Or, for you science villains, what happens when the experiment requires a human test subject and none are available? Oh, right, you’re standing there. If you’re lucky, you get a dose of super-human serum that works and start on the route of thuggery. If you’re unlucky, it doesn’t work, or worse, the lab was working on some horrible torture device. The cost-benefit analysis of this career path is simply not in your favor. But, you think, you can work your way through the ranks and become the Big Bad yourself. This is highly unlikely because, as mentioned before, you’re expendable. Also, before you become the Big Bad, you have to advance to the rank of lieutenant, and that puts you firmly in the next position of villiany…
b) You are a Threat – So you’ve managed to not get killed and/or jailed (or perhaps you’ve busted out of jail) and kept your wits and limbs to advance to a position of some authority. You’ve met the Big Bad. You may have fetched his/her coffee. You’ve maimed and/or killed a minion or two in the heat of your anger and rage. You get to plan the crimes and no longer need to be part of the petty thefts. Or you’re the one in charge of the latest doomsday science in the evil lab. You go along on the bigger jobs, or oversee the final stages of completion of the doomsday weapon, of course, because you are a trusted lieutenant. This means you are subject to all the hazards of being a minion, plus more. But haven’t you gotten beyond dealing with petty annoyances such as heroes? Oh, no, not at all. No, you are not the first villain to get punched in the face by Batman. But if you don’t get yourself out by the time heroes are done wading through your minions, you still have to go head-to-head with a hero. And if you’re up to the rank of trusted lieutenant, the hero is bringing their A-game. That’s right, you don’t just get punched in the face. You get hit with Batarangs or find yourself dodging repulsor blasts or Captain America’s shield. And this time if you go to jail, you’re not going to an ordinary prison. You’re probably going someplace a bit more heavy duty. Is the Big Bad going to shell out the legal costs for you? Well, it depends on how useful you are to the Big Bad. However, when I say you are a threat, I don’t mean to the heroes. You are a threat to other villains (and not just the minions when you’re upset). This is a bad position to be in.
Let’s face it, most if not all trusted lieutenants in your position want to be the Big Bad themselves. They are going to scheme and conspire against you so that you will not be the one to depose the Big Bad. You are a threat to their plans. They may ally with you, only to betray you at the last minute to the Big Bad to advance their position. They may dig up all sorts of blackmail on you, which there should be plenty because you are, after all, a villain. They will gladly sacrifice you in order to save themselves. This means you have to scheme and conspire against them, which makes it hard to do your job well. And if you get demoted, well, that’s no good either and possibly fatal. But, you think, at least you are immune from death by “Big Bad has a bad day.” Are you really? That entirely depends on who you’re working for, and chances are they aren’t entirely mentally stable. Do you remember Bob from the 1989 Batman movie? Bob was a great trusted lieutenant and near the end of the movie the Joker’s plans have fallen apart so he looks at Bob and says, “Bob, give me your gun.” Bob immediately obliges. The Joker promptly shoots him in the head. Consider this a warning.
Worse still, you are a threat to the Big Bad, and that is more hazardous position than facing any hero. You see, at this point you have proved you are not only competent, but also ruthless and ambitious. The Big Bad knows that you are scheming to be the Big Bad yourself. The Big Bad is not fooled. The Big Bad knows what you’re up to before your first and probably failed attempt to remove the Big Bad from power. As long as you are more useful than a threat to the Big Bad, the Big Bad will tolerate your attempts to take control yourself (you are now Evil-lyn). But make no mistake, the very second the Big Bad thinks you may actually be able to take control, well, your career is probably going to come to a very nasty end (you are now Starscream after Megatron got his upgrade to Galvatron, and let’s be honest, he really should have taken out Starscream a lot sooner). At this point you either do or die, probably literally. You either fend off the assassination attempts long enough or efficiently enough to convince the Big Bad you’re still a little too useful to be dead, or you actually succeed in your attempt to become the Big Bad yourself, which leads to the next scenerio…
3) Congratulations, you’ve done it! You are the Big Bad. This is also the least likely scenerio, as explained above, but the most beneficial for the villain. As the Big Bad, this means you either run your own criminal empire, or have terrible superpowers, or probably both. You are on top of the world, except for those pesky heroes, right? Well, not quite. If you are the Big Bad, that means you have minions, and this is where your trouble starts. As explained above, your minions are either expendable, or threats. Your trouble ends, of course, with accountants and lawyers.
a) Expendable minions – these are the easiest to deal with, but the most expensive. You have to pay for these people, and presumably offer some sort of benefits package. Or else you have them hooked on some sort of drugs, which are also not cheap. Scientists probably are more expensive, but the people you have working for you may work for less because they’re sociopaths. But that’s the price of running a criminal organization. Clearly good help is hard to find, so you need some sort of human resources personnel. Minions are expendable, but you don’t want to waste money on ineffective minions. You also don’t want some hero to infiltrate your organization to try to find out where your headquarters is, where your doomsday device is located, or what your master plan is. You also want to make sure you don’t let anyone in your organization who might reform and give the heroes valuable information about your operation. Recruitment is a concern as well, because if your organization doesn’t seem successful and give some benefit to the minions, no one will join you (unless, as mentioned before, you’ve hooked a large population on drugs). I mean, really, who wants to join an organization where one of the likely outcomes is getting punched in the face by Captain America? You need some serious hardcore recruiting and marketing to gloss over that sort of thing. Or you need a factory-grade cloning facility (which of course have their own huge expenses). And remember, it’s vital the minions don’t have enough information to incriminate you in a court of law.
b) Threatening minions – Ah, your trusted lieutenants. They are competent, ruthless, and ambitious. Trusted lieutenants come in two types – loyal and scheming.
I) Loyal trusted lieutenants are truly the rarity. Somehow you must convince someone else that your life is worth more than theirs no matter the consequences and no matter how much money someone else will pay them. Maybe they’re just so stupid you’ve convinced them of this. Stupid trusted lieutenants are unfortunately easily fooled by clever heroes. Or perhaps you’ve got some blackmail on them forcing them to be absolutely loyal to you. Well, that only lasts as long as you have the blackmail, or until the lieutenant thinks it’s worth it to take you out. Maybe you pay your trusted lieutenant more money than anyone else. However, loyalty that is bought is not worth very much.
II) But if they aren’t loyal, then they’re scheming, and they’re probably scheming against you. That’s right, they want to be the Big Bad and you know it. This means you have to spend a lot of your precious time watching your back and making sure you know exactly what your scheming lieutenants are up to. It takes a lot of time and energy not to be surprised. You also need to have a plan in place to get rid of the scheming lieutenant when it’s just no longer worth it to keep them around. You have to be careful how much of the plan you share with them. You want to make sure they have enough information to execute your brilliant plan (or build your doomsday device) but not so much they can sabotage the plan (or device). And it is vital, absolutely vital, you never appear weak to any of these scheming lieutenants, unless it’s part of some plan to draw them out and destroy them.
Well, now, Big Bad, you’ve got your minions well in hand. Now it comes to the accountants and lawyers. All plans have a cost, and not all plans go, well, as planned. Heroes tend to get in the way. You have to make sure that whatever you invest is going to come back, if not with a profit, or your villain organization will fold, or a scheming lieutenant will take you out in a perceived moment of weakness. You’ve got people to pay and supply lines to maintain. Chemicals, lab equipment, guns, ammunition, all the things have to procured and shipped, and all of it has to be untraceable. You can try to buy legitimately, which is probably cheaper but under more scrutiny, or you buy from the black market, which is more expensive and may not actually be under less scrutiny. And what about construction of your evil lairs? That’s another level of headache in the procurement department right there. And if the deals go wrong somewhere along the line, that’s why you need lawyers. Even if you’re a reclusive Big Bad who lives in a secret mountain lair, someone who works for you is in the public eye and that means lawyers, and lawyers who will work for a villain like you will expect to be well-paid.
So even when you’re at the top, you’ve got to watch your back and your finances very carefully. You’ve got all the problems of a big corporation compounded with illegal activities. And this is the pinnacle of villainy. Surely with all your ambition and drive you could have done nearly as well for yourself in some more legal career path. But you wanted the world. And you’ve got it, except it turns out you aren’t the only Big Bad on the block, and sometimes even you need some extra help for a very special plan, which brings us to scenerio number four…
4) Legion of the League of the Brotherhood of Evil Shadowy Doom – So you’re not the only Big Bad in the world. You and the other Big Bads are very annoyed by the heroes. Individually, they are a nuisance, and in groups, they are devestating to maintaining your criminal organization. So you’ve decided to join a team of villains. What could go wrong? You’re all evil villains who have proven successful in enough schemes to become a Big Bad. Yes, while you are all out for your own ends, surely you can put aside your differences just this one time to accomplish your grand plan. Of course you can’t! Now you’re essentially a club of scheming lieutenants, except you’re all several times more dangerous than an ordinary scheming lieutenant. And there’s no one on top to scheme against; you’re all scheming against each other. No one has your back, not even your own scheming trusted lieutenants. It’s just you and a bunch of other Big Bads. If you manage to keep it together long enough to accomplish your scheme, which isn’t likely given the size of your egos, your egos will promptly cause the group to completely fall apart, and possibly in a spectacular fashion which will undo all the work you’ve just accomplished. But more likely, one of the other Big Bads in the group will betray you all to advance his or her own ends. Heck, you may even be the one betraying. It just won’t work out. It never does. Here’s the sad truth, and you know it – heroes can put aside their differences and egos and work together for the greater good because they are willing to share in that greater good; villains can’t put aside their differences and egos to work together for the greater evil because they don’t want to share. If you were willing to share, you wouldn’t be a villain, would you?
In short, maybe you should have gone to graduate school, or law school, or medical school. Sure, it ultimately pays less, but you don’t have to worry about backstabbing by your own people or getting beaten up by heroes. Maybe you won’t get wealth, fame, or the world, but you’ll get pretty far with your ambition, drive, and ruthlessness. Heck, you’ll probably end up a CEO. And if other villains make fun of you for taking a legitimate career, you’ll be able to look back on all the experiences of your life and say to them, “Hey, I never got punched in the face by Batman.”