There have been so many great comic book villains created over the past seventy five years, but what makes a great one?
When you look at the typical comic book villain, there is often a clear cut case of black and white. Hero and Villain. This is never clearer when it comes to the Joker, or (up until recently) Sabretooth, or any number of other classic villains that I won’t list here. However, if you look toward a few of the other comic book villains it can get a bit murkier, some villains tend to inhabit much more of the grey area; sometimes a villain’s motivations can, whilst not exactly relateable, almost seem understandable.
Stan Lee has said about Dr. Doom that “really, the only thing he wanted to do was rule the world. And I got a kick out of that because I’ve always felt you could walk up to a policeman in Los Angeles right here, or in New York, or anywhere and you could say, ‘officer, I intend to rule the world.’ He can’t arrest you for that. Anybody could want to rule the world. So he wasn’t even– to me, he wasn’t even a villain. And I got a kick out of Dr. Doom.” Although wanting to rule the world may not be an uncommon goal for many, or even necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, Dr. Doom’s methods aren’t exactly innocent and harmless. Some of the best villains have, if not excusable reasons for doing what they do, at least reasons that are a bit deeper than hatred of the hero, motivations that go beyond evil for evil’s sake. Those are the villains that tend to stick around.
But what happens when you find yourself sympathizing with the villain?
I’ve written before about whether Magneto is really a villain, and I genuinely think that he isn’t. Oh he’s done some awful things over the years, but his primary motivation has always been to prevent a mutant holocaust; can you honestly say that you wouldn’t do the same after walking a mile in his shoes – even if your methods may be a little different?
Perhaps it’s because I’ve been to the remains of Dachau, where even sixty years after the end of the War the sense of horror was still very palpable in the bricks and mortar of the place. I wasn’t emotionally capable of processing the horror of the concentration camp when I was there, but even today – nearly two decades later – I can still feel the despair and horror that I felt when I toured the place. As I’ve gotten older, and I’ve thought about that place in it’s relation to the young Magneto I’ve come to understand what the character has done in the name of protecting his people.
How could you not?
Some of the best villains in any story, whether it be literature, comics, movies or television, are ones that you can see yourself becoming if the same thing had happened to you (and you had super powers). I suppose you’d call them more of an anti-villain than a true villain, really.
The greatest of the comic book anti-villains, the ones we love to hate, are the ones we are able to understand their reasons for doing what they do. That doesn’t necessarily mean we agree with them, but rather their motivation is at least clear. There’s really only one character I can think of who’s a successful and popular villain who has no clear motivation, and that is the Joker. This is a character that has evolved over decades of story telling, taking on so many different incarnations, but when you boil down is motivation it’s simply that he likes to watch the world burn. Joker is the perfect counterpoint of chaos to Batman’s order, and maybe that’s all the motivation we need as an audience to enjoy the character’s struggles against the Dark Knight.
But characters like the Joker, those who simply like to watch the world burn, are seldom as successful – or as interesting – as those with a compelling motivation.
So when is a villain not a villain? When they’re the hero of their own story.