What makes a Supervillain?

What is Supervillainy? What is evil? Why is someone like Lex Luthor a villain while the remarkably similar character of Tony Stark is a hero?   Both are humanitarians and philanthropists, both have exclusive and lucrative military contracts. Both are quite questionable public figures.

A true Villain: Snidely Whiplash
A true Villain: Snidely Whiplash

We all know the real answer is also in this case the simplest: that Lex Luthor is a Supervillain because he unabashedly commits acts of evil and depravity; regularly tries to kill Superman and occasionally tries to take over the world. Whereas, Tony Stark is considered a Superhero (his actions during Civil War aside.) because regularly saves the world as part of the Avengers.

For a dictionary-like definition: The villain usually is the antagonist, the character who tends to have a negative effect on other characters. Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines villain as "a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel; or a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot."

Let’s look at Lex Luthor from another angle. It could be argued that he is a humanist and feels this creature calling itself “Super-Man” from the distant planet of Krypton is infecting the people of Metropolis is his alien platitudes and is merely the first step in an invasion.   In that way, he could be viewed as a hero as being the only voice of discord against the alien threat. He tries to take over the world to save it from just rolling over and surrendering when the invasion finally comes. If the story were to be written from Luthor’s perspective (which I’m sure it has by now at one point or another.) we also might come to see the alien who calls himself “Super-Man” as the villain.

Of course, with Tony Stark, historically speaking, he rarely does anything but defend the interests of Stark Industries, making billions off of SHIELD defense contracts, or having string after string after string of one night stands with gorgeous super-models when not palling around with the Avengers. He strikes me as a little too selfish to be characterized as a hero. But he has great Public Relations. At the other end of the spectrum, Spider-Man selflessly does everything he can to fight crime in and around New York City, never asking for anything from anyone and through his adult life has been shit on almost daily, very rarely catching a break. And with the Daily Bugle has some of the worst PR in comics.

Tony Stark: Superhero?
Tony Stark: Superhero?

In the case of Magneto, here’s a survivor of the Holocaust who has vowed that his people will never again fall under the yolk of oppression or genocide for the crime of being different. Magneto is a sort of exaggerated Malcolm X for mutants, and he’s considered a terrorist for the lengths he will go to protect mutantkind. He’s an elitist to be sure, and more than willing to kill Homo sapiens when members of Homo superior are endangered. Course, it could be argued that Magneto is a true villain because he has a very good reason to do what he is doing and there is nothing Homo sapiens can do to cause his resolve to waver. If it means the death of a million humans to save one mutant, Magneto will save that one mutant every time. Even so, you understand why, and you sympathize with him.

Likewise, Ra’s Al Ghul is a villain because it’s his dream to see a world in perfect environmental balance. Which is a lofty and admirable goal in and of itself, however he believes that in order to reach his goal he must eliminate most of the population of humanity. This quite automatically puts him at odds with most people. Strictly speaking, I agree with Ra’s’ goals and some of his actions. Do I consider him a villain, personally? Yes. But only in that he is willing to commit genocide to attain his goals. I mean, we’re about due for a major event which will thin the herd that is humanity by quite a bit. Be it a pandemic, our planet being struck by an object from space, or any other means. We are just as likely to do it ourselves as anything. Ra’s Al Ghul is around 500 years old and nearly immortal. He can afford to be patient rather than a villain.

Does this make Galactus a villain?
Does this make Galactus a villain?

It wasn’t that long ago I was debating with Cracks whether or not Galactus should be characterized as a villain. I’m of the mind that near omnipotent cosmic entities should not be judged by the likes of mere mortals. Really, all he does is kill to survive. Yes, he is capable of committing genocide by consuming our own planet. But, I put forth the idea that he is no different than a farmer who slaughters cattle for beef without first safely redistributing all of the varied life forms that made that particular cattle home. Yes, to Galactus even the most important of us would be no important than a flea or a tick, does that make Galactus evil? No, not anymore than the farmer is evil. They are people with families who live off the land and make their livings by making life easier for the rest of us. Sure, that comparison probably does little to comfort the memory of the Archeopians, the Skrulls, or the Korbinites.

What about your favorite character? Could they be characterized as a villain, should they be?    

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