And potentially the greatest Disney villain of all time, and yet she didn’t even make my list of Disney villains. Why?
So I was wondering what I could rant about for my next blog entry when I was subjected to numerous viewings of the latest Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice trailers. This actually sparked two subjects in my mind, but since I was recently thinking about what makes a good villain, I realized I forgot (or need to expound on) one criterion – credible threat.
Actually, this criterion is broader than just the superhero genre. If the obstacle or antagonist standing between the protagonist and his/her goals is not credible, then the drama falls flat. I say “obstacle” because in some stories is no antagonist or the nature of the antagonist isn’t as clear as a villain as such but the principle still applies. A couple of those examples:
There have been a lot of complaints about the MCU‘s lack of really interesting villains. The only one with any real depth is Loki, and that’s because Loki has had the most exposure. Due to the blockbuster convention, nearly all other villains have been summarily terminated. That’s a pity too because with comic book adaptations especially, villains should be allowed to return. There are exceptions, of course, in which the story requires the villain to be terminated (Jessica Jones is one). So, then, what makes for a compelling villain?
First, it is important to remember that a villain and antagonist are not necessarily the same, just as a hero and protagonist are not the same (at least not to me). In most comic book stories that is the case. To me, though, the difference between a protagonist and hero (and antagonist and villain) is that the stakes are between good and evil. Broadly taken, I suppose, that could apply in say, a mystery novel in which the detective is the hero and the murderer is the villain. But in general that is not how I’m using the terms.
I’ve written before on how badly written villains will sink comic book movie adaptations like the Titanic hitting an iceberg. I’ve also written about how a “cartoon villain” isn’t necessarily a badly written villain. So, then, what does make for a good villain?
I’m gearing up for “Age of Ultron” but have been bombarded with advertisements for DC movies. Apparently the data tracking cookies lump all comic books into one category. I actually had no intention of watching the new teaser-trailer for “Batman v. Superman” because 1) the movie doesn’t even come out for a year and 2) I saw Man of Steel and was less than impressed, to put it mildly. But a friend of mine did watch the trailer and told me, “It reminds me of ‘Alien vs. Predator.’ That is not a compliment.” That was pretty much the opposite of a ringing endorsement, but my enjoyment of bad movies was well-known to my friend (and to my regular readers) and I watched the trailer as well. This, combined with the other teaser-trailers and articles I’ve read on the WB/DC plan for their movie universe leads me to the titular question.
So you’ve chosen a career in villainy. Are you at the top yet? Maybe, maybe not, but if not soon you will be. And then what? Or, if you are the Big Bad, now what? It turns out that your dark, dark heart is just a wee bit lonely. Who knew? So, what are your options? Well, be careful. After all, love is a battlefield and love can break your heart. But when love calls, even a villain will occasionally answer.
1) Dating Lois Lane – By which I mean dating a non-villain. This has two different scenarios.
a) She Doesn’t Know – The love of your life has no idea about your criminal enterprises. Sure, she knows you are wealthy/quirky/genius/keep odd hours, but she has no idea why. This does present some difficulties. Obviously without her knowing about your criminal empire, she can’t share in the joys and miseries of running said empire, although she, like everyone else, will benefit when you take over the world. Still, until that day comes, she is blissfully ignorant of your true intentions. But if you’re comfortable with hiding a part of yourself, then kudos to you. However, the odds you can hide this secret forever are pretty slim. Secrets, especially ones like this, tend to get out. And love don’t come easy, after all.
b) She Knows – The love of your life does in fact know about your criminal enterprises. Whether she found out or you told her, there are two likely scenarios.
I) Tears and Recriminations – well, it turns out Tess Trueheart is totally not cool with you being a villain. Maybe that love potion #9 you gave her worse off. She’s angry and betrayed because you give love a bad name. The best case is the Tess decides to just forget she ever knew you and your love gone bad. But she might try to reform you. This, of course, won’t work because you’re a villain. This puts her back at forgetting you, or, worst case, trying to turn you in. Uh-oh. How you deal with a potential threat to your criminal empire is up to you, but there are really no good options at this point. You may just have to “take care of” her. Hey, sometimes love kills.
II) Much Rejoicing – well, it turns out Bess Blackheart is totally cool with you being a villain. Maybe she’s upset you didn’t tell her in the first place (if you didn’t), but yeah, it turns out her sense of morality is as broken as yours. Maybe she’s damaged by love. Maybe she’s just crazy in love. As long as she doesn’t get any ideas about being a better Big Bad then you, or breaks up with you and tries to get revenge, well, then, here’s to your everlasting love.
2) Dating Harley Quinn – By which I mean dating a villain who works for you (you’re the manager). This seems like a good idea. You already know your potential sweetie has no good intentions. She knows about your organization and some of the ins and outs. Surely she’ll understand all that you go through. Well, maybe. This has all the pitfalls of an office romance, plus a few more, depending on how devoted/psychotic and crazy in love your Girl Friday is. As an evil overlord, you do have some leeway in how you manage your minions, but there’s probably going to be some clear favoritism that may not sit well with the rest of your workers. But maybe you can get past that.
But what if it just doesn’t work out? What if your love is on the rocks?
In high concept rom-coms or dark thrillers, the spurned woman could try to get revenge. Love bites, love stinks, and love hurts, and sometimes in more ways than one. If this happens to you, well, she already knows your organization and lairs so hiding will be hard. She could try to turn you over to the heroes. On the less extreme end of revenge, perhaps your Dragon won’t try to kill you but may try to find another job which would be a great boon to your villainous enemies. Obviously you could fire her or turn her over to the heroes (although it’s almost a near certainty she will betray you to them if you do that). What you really need to consider is whether a relationship outweighs the possibility of losing a good henchperson. After all, good help is hard to find. Maybe it’s just easier in this case to say goodbye to love.
3) Dating the Baroness – By which I mean dating a villain who works for your organization and with you, but not for you (you are on equal footing). This has a lot of the same problems as dating an underling, but in this case, if you break up, you can’t fire your ex. Depending on how mad she is, and how clever, you might be one who ends up getting fired. In fact, if she’s really clever, you may be lucky if you only end up fired (love never dies, but right now the same can’t be said of you). This relationship is probably going to be more dangerous, but hey, if that’s what you really want, go for it. Love is indeed a many-splendored thing.
4) Dating Catwoman – I actually don’t mean this trope whereby a hero dates a villain. I mean dating another villain outside your own evil organization. This bypasses the complications of office romances, so to speak. This is also probably still pretty dangerous. After all, if Catwoman was an easy villain to win over, she’d already be working for you, or you would have already “taken care of” her. But you just can’t help yourself. It was love at first sight. Maybe. Even if you are dangerously in love, she’s not in as good a position to get bloody vengeance on you as someone who actually works for you or with you. Sure, she could try to turn you into the heroes, but you could also try to turn her in without compromising your human resources. All in all, this is a better option than dating someone you work with.
5) Dating Spider-man – This is actually a variant of the “dating Catwoman” trope. In this case, I refer to dating a hero whose secret identity you do not know, nor does he know yours. Black Cat did this for a bit in Spider-man before they eventually broke up and he got married and then it got erased and yes I am *still* bitter about that. So anyway, you’re dating a hero. If this is not the most dangerous game, it’s probably the second-most dangerous game. You can’t hurry love, of course, and it’s encouraging to find out the hero has a someone flexible view of morality, especially if it turs out you can’t help falling in love. How can this end? Will love tear you apart?
a) You’ve said too much – If the hero finds out too much about your misdeeds, his morality may be stronger than his emotions and he’ll have to break up with you. Or worse, he’ll have to try to turn you in. At this point, he knows some of your secrets and thus is a much greater threat to you than before. Now we ain’t talkin’ about love; we’re talking about surviving as a villain. Hopefully you’re all out of love so you can “take care” of business.
b) He’s said too much – Now you know much more about the hero than you did before. It would be so very easy to dispose of him and allow you to make greater progress with your plans. Such an opportunity doesn’t come along every day, and may never come along again. What’s a gal to do? You’ll just have to “take care of” him, chalk him up as a casuality of love, and hope for better love next time.
c) You see the light – Of course you don’t believe love conquers all, but what if it does? The power of love is a curious thing. Love changes, and love has been good to you. What if you fall so hard for the hero you decide to reform? Will you do anything for love?
d) He sees the darkness – So it turns out there is a dark side to love, and he’s realized if he wants to be with you he must give up all that he is and was. He’s not your enemy anymore, but your devoted Dragon. Is this true? Do you believe in love and that he will do anything because of love? That’s not so bad, although there are potential problems. Now your relationship falls back to “Dating Harley Quinn” and he’s a prisoner of your love.
6) Dating Batman – another variant of “dating Catwoman.” This time you’re accidentally in love with a hero who knows your secret identity (if you have one) and you know his. This is likely to be more difficult than the other relationships because it’s quite possible you developed feelings for him, and you him, before you knew each other’s secrets. Love is a hurtin’ thing, after all. Love may even be a losing game in this case. This is a variant of the outcomes of “dating Lois Lane,” except the stakes are much higher. A civilian can only cause you so much harm if a relationship goes bad. But a hero that knows your secret identity could cause even more harm. Love is pain. Of course, you know his secrets, but there’s no way to know if that’s sufficient blackmail to prevent him from turning you in to the authorities. While this is a dangerous, thrilling relationship, this is probably the top one to avoid (along with “dating Spider-man”). There are few potential positive outcomes and a whole lot of negative ones, as detailed above. In the end, love is lost and you may be too.
7) Dating your Creation – by which I mean building an android or creating a synthoid or otherwise trying to design your perfect mate. Don’t do this. This is all too likely to end up the same way as creating a superweapon with additional emotional entanglements. Love is strange, true, but love lies too. Frankly, this can only end in tears.
So what’s a villain to do? You want somebody to love; you need somebody to love. You’re waiting to be love struck. But there are so many ways the love game turns into a bad romance. Do you just say bye-bye love? No. You’re going to have to face it, you’re addicted to love. Should you just stick with a one-night love affair? Just be patient. After all, you can wait for your evil plans to come to fruition so you can rule the world. As they say, love will find a way, and love will get you.
Or, which came first, the superhero or the supervillain?
This has been a philosophical point of contention in comic books since, I don’t know, close to the beginning when fans sat down and thought about it. Namely, would supervillains be so dangerous if there were no superheroes to challenge them so? It’s a never-ending arms race and the question of “who started it” is often brought up. That also brings a related argument, which is whether or not a city is actually better off or not with a resident hero. While superheroes are a great asset to a city, it’s impossible to deny the amount of collateral damage caused by any super on super fight is pretty much the same as a natural disaster, if not sometimes worse.
The Flash comic, around issues 120-130 or so, had a good deconstruction of this idea. The mayor got it in his head that the Flash was bringing villains to Keystone City and eventually got him tossed out. So the Flash took the job of being the resident hero for another city. I’m not actually sure the writer made the point that the city was better with the Flash or not. A bunch of villains attacked while Flash was away but they probably would not have done so had he never been there.
For a while, Marvel had a group called “Damage Inc.” that was a construction company, with a bit of super-powered equipment, that was paid to fix up New York City after super fights. In the FF not so long ago, after the Baxter Building had been blown up yet again, the City sued Reed Richards for damages and he lost all of his money. Thankfully the Thing’s money was managed in a different account, so they got enough money back to continue to be the FF. However, Marvel never really answered the question of whether having superheroes was worth the trouble either.
Many heroes on their own do try to minimize collateral damage. Superman (before the wretched movie) in particular is careful about this considering if he sneezes he could accidentally knock down a building. His fights are incredibly destructive, even compared to super fights, and he does his best to get the fight out of populated areas. On the other hand, Reed Richards uses nanobots to rebuild his headquarters and says boo about it to the rest of the bashed city. What a guy. In the Marvel RPG, characters gain karma (to buy powers and stuff) by doing good things and lose karma by doing bad things, or failing to stop bad things, or by doing property damage. That means if my characters stops a villain by throwing someone’s car at him, I gain karma for defeating the villain but lose karma for wrecking someone else’s car. I might lose less karma for wrecking my own car, but damage is damage.
So where do I weigh in on this debate? Well, I think that the question itself is somewhat moot. Once there are superheroes and supervillains, who came first is not as relevant as stopping the villainy. But that’s not a fun debate at all. So here’s where I weigh in – humanity as a whole is capable of both good and evil. Good can exist without necessarily fighting evil; for example, someone who saves another person from a burning building is a hero and there’s no deliberate evil involved (assuming of course there’s no arson). But, in theory, evil can’t be stopped without good fighting it. Indeed good must actively fight evil, for as the saying goes, all it takes for evil to win is for good men to do nothing. So in a perfect world with no evil, goodness and heroism could certainly still exist. In that sense, heroes come before villains. But I would say it is the existence of evil, and therefore villainy, that would really drive the rise of heroes.
Does this mean a city is better off with a resident hero? I suppose it depends. If you live in the city of Townsville, which is near Monster Island, then you are definitely better off with a resident group of superheroes. That’s sort of like living in an earthquake zone; there will be a monster attack. But let’s take a generic example that’s less straightforward than the above. Assuming a city has a normal crime rate, a resident hero could be a great asset. A resident hero would definitely tip the scales to good and the villains would be more likely to go jail. I’ve always been surprised at the number of villains who are completely willing to go up against a hero that completely outclasses them, get their butts handed to them, and come back for more (many of the Flash’s villains fall into this category). If the villains were content to admit they were outclassed, then the city is better off with the resident hero. But if the villains feel they have something to prove, then they up their game and try again, and thus the damage escalates.
However, that’s a problem with the villain; clearly the villain is psychologically damaged in some way or else why would they continue to take such punishment? Did the hero damage them? Perhaps, but probably unintentionally. Does this mean the hero is responsible for the villain? No! People are responsible for their own actions. Sure, the hero may inspire fear and loathing in a lot of people, and odds are one or two may be powerful enough in their own right to turn to villainy, but they made that choice. If not inspired by the superhero to be a supervillain, I assume that the supervillain still would have been at least a villain. Again, the villain is making the choice to do wrong.
Sometimes I find the whole question of whether or not a city is better off with a hero or not to be as moot as which came first, the hero or the villain. To me, the hero is not to blame in a general sense for the collateral damage. Oh, sure, a careless hero shouldn’t be let off the hook, and a hero who is capable of cleaning up the damage should (that’s part of being a hero, Reed…), but the hero didn’t bring the villainy to a city. So that’s my answer – whether or not the city becomes worse is not dependent on the hero at all, but on how the villains react. A hero will be there to get cats out of trees and help little old ladies cross the street or whatnot, but it’s the presence of villainy that creates superheroes.