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?    

23 Comments

23 Comments

Avatar image for the_ghostshell
Posted By The_Ghostshell

Luthor was a villain long before Superman came into the picture. Early Magneto was portrayed as a classic villain but has gone through several major changes overtime and now I wouldn't think many people would consider him a villain at all. I dont know much about big G, but doesn't he enslave creatures/characters to do his bidding? Kind of hard to advocate slavery. Cool blog though. I think I see the point you are trying to make. That some heroes and villains straddle that grey line between good and evil.

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Posted By Emperor Gonzo Noir

I humanize Luthor to demonize Superman
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Posted By Satyrquaze
@Gambler:
 Lex Luthor's first apperance was in an early issue of Action Comics IIRC. Yes, he's a villain, but does he see himself as a villain? Could the story be flipped over to make Superman the villain? Depending on how you look at it, they both walk that grey line. 
 
In my mind, I can think of a few Military/Government officials in the MU that consider Magneto a terrorist at best. 
 
In regards to Galactus, I think enslave or slavery are strong words. Norrin Radd joined Galactus by choice, I don't recall him forcing anyone into anything.
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Posted By morpheus_
@Satyrquaze said:

" @Gambler:  Norrin Radd joined Galactus by choice, I don't recall him forcing anyone into anything. "

 

You would be correct. Radd travelled to Galactus' spaceship and asked him to spare Zenn-La, his home world, and offered to become Galactus' herald after Galactus introduced the notion that, had he a herald to find uninhabited worlds for him, consuming populated planets would be unnecessary. 

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Posted By The_Ghostshell
@Satyrquaze said:
" @Gambler:  Lex Luthor's first apperance was in an early issue of Action Comics IIRC. Yes, he's a villain, but does he see himself as a villain? Could the story be flipped over to make Superman the villain? Depending on how you look at it, they both walk that grey line.  In my mind, I can think of a few Military/Government officials in the MU that consider Magneto a terrorist at best.  In regards to Galactus, I think enslave or slavery are strong words. Norrin Radd joined Galactus by choice, I don't recall him forcing anyone into anything. "
I wasnt really referring to his first appearance. More to the fact that in recent issues (in the 90's and so on) they show flashbacks to when Luthor was young. Although never actually said, its indicated that he killed his parents. He also hired a man to assassinate a mayor, and then turned around and murdered the assassin. These are just a couple examples showing that Luthor's evil goes well beyond his hatred for Superman. I'm going to have to disagree about Superman walking a grey line. He's the poster boy for heroes. He's sacrificed more then any human has in order to save Earth. Being from a different planet doesn't make you a villain.
 
One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.
 
Like I said, I dont know much about big G. Didnt Norrin Radd join him in order to save his planet? And haven't they had huge battles simply because Surfer no longer wanted to serve him? I'm asking cause I dont know. Can the Heralds of G simply walk away whenever they feel like?
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Posted By MajinBlackheart

Norrin Radd offered himself to save him planet. When he fights with Galactus, he usually disagrees with something Galactus is doing and in the end convinces Galactus to stop.
 
All the others accepted to be a herald for power or adventure. None of them have actually asked to be finished with the job, most either eventually prove to be unreliable or bloodthirsty and Galactus dismisses them, or they die.

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Posted By DeathinFire

Favorite character is the Punisher.  Something I've come to realize over the years is that the origin of a villian is usually just a really sad story.  Tragedy strikes them in one form or another and they persue evil out of anger or desperation.  Punisher's origin sounds like a textbook villians origin to me.  Although I still consider him a hero, if he were here he would disagree with me.  So would many of the users on this site.  So I guess I agree with you that many heros and vilians can be perceived as their opposites if you look at it from a different point of view.  A good example of this is Scalped by Jason Aaron from Vertigo.

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Posted By AtPhantom

What makes a supervillain? The writers do. Because apart from that, everything is relative. 
On a level, no decently written character considers himself evil (Apart from the mentally unbalanced ones, like the Joker). Even if they have done unspeakable deeds, they find a way to rationalize it claiming that it's  for the greater good or by adhering to their own philosophical views which they believe are right. This is true for Luthor, Magneto, Doom, Black Hand, Nekron, Thanos, Red Skull and even Galactus. Despite each and every one of them performing villanious acts, ifyou ask any of these people if they are evil, they will deny it, forging some excuse to justify their behavior, both to you and to themselves. 
This is why I always found group names like Secret society of supervillains or Brotherhood of evil mutants silly to the extreme.
 
Ultimately, I think the only thing that makes a villain is the willingness to cross the lines others aren't willing to cross. Because apart from that, it's about in the point of view. We might consider them evil, but they themselves don't, and have the arguments to prove it.
 
 
An interesting exception to this is Darkseid, in a point made in Seven Soldiers and Final Crisis which was lost to many. Darkseid is the God of evil, and he has no illusion that he is bad to the bone. But Darkseid is also a God, and as a God, he is the one who dictates what is right and wrong. He would impose order on the universe through Anti-Life Equation, an action he very well knows is evil, but a a God he still has every right to do so. He doesn't break our laws and rules by attacking us, we are the ones breaking his laws by existing and thinking for ourselves. 
This is IMO a rather nice twist on the whole point of view thing. Rather than the villain coming up with excuses for his deeds, we are the ones in need of excuses for standing up to him. But of course, this is only his own opinion. There are other good Gods who would beg to differ.

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Posted By Satyrquaze
@AtPhantom:
Maelstrom is another good example of a villain who point blank considers himself EVIL. He wants to destroy the universe. End all life. I recall several points during Cosmos in Collision where someone (notably Mephisto of all people!) descibed him as evil. 
 
What about the Red Skull? 
 
At this point I'm not sure if who i consider more questionable as a hero or villain between Tony Stark and Magneto. I'm almost tempted to assign alignments to them just to see where they stand.
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Posted By Satyrquaze

For the record, I think it should be noted that given the right story Captain America could be exposed to be the penultimate villain and someone like Toad could be revealed to be a great hero... okay, maybe not the second one there.

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Posted By MajinBlackheart
Asteroth is a true villain, although I don't know if she considers herself evil. Same with the Hunger.
 
Another one to point out is Doom. I think he falls into the Ra's Al Ghul category, although he doesn't want to kill everyone, he wants to rule everyone.
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Posted By Satyrquaze
@jloneblackheart: 
 
I don't think Doom has a lofty goal like seeing the entire world in ecological harmony... Doom wants to see the entire world held under his iron-clad fist. 
 
Doom has always fallen under the same heading as Magneto for me. Not evil, but feels he has the right to decide who lives and who dies.
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Edited By The_Ghostshell

@Satyrquaze

said:

" For the record, I think it should be noted that given the right story Captain America could be exposed to be the penultimate villain

 How so? I mean anybody could be a villain if their character is changed/written as such. But I'm not seeing how Cap could be exposed as a villain.
 
 Also the notion that some of these characters do not view themselves as evil is somewhat laughable. As the reader, we are afforded the luxury of seeing their inner monologue(s). Like Norman Osborn for example. To the people of the World (not the real world) he is the hero of the Secret Invasion, and not the Green Goblin. But we on the other hand know better. Not so much because of his actions, but because we get to read whats truly going on in his head, as well as whats going on behind closed doors.
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Posted By Satyrquaze
@Gambler: 
 
I was thinking a country like Russia during the height of the Cold War would have seen Captain America as a villain of sorts. To Japan and Germany, he exemplified everything they hated about the the Allies forces during WWII.
 
These days, you'd have to look at groups like the Taliban or Al-Queda, possibly North Korea (but a story written from their POV would be little better than propaganic diatribe), but then as i said with my examples of Magneto and Ra's Al Ghul, you don't have to be evil in order to be seen as a villain.
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Posted By The_Ghostshell
@Satyrquaze said:
" @Gambler:  I was thinking a country like Russia during the height of the Cold War would have seen Captain America as a villain of sorts. To Japan and Germany, he exemplified everything they hated about the the Allies forces during WWII. These days, you'd have to look at groups like the Taliban or Al-Queda, possibly North Korea (but a story written from their POV would be little better than propaganic diatribe), but then as i said with my examples of Magneto and Ra's Al Ghul, you don't have to be evil in order to be seen as a villain. "
Interesting. But I think it takes more then the way countries, or specific organizations, with opposing ideologies view you to make you a villain. Also, I'm sure not all of Germany and Japan agreed with their governments policies during WW2. The Taliban and Al-Queda would be better equated to specific groups of WW2, like the Nazi's. Not the entire country.
 
I see what you are going for though. That the term "villain" could most likely be applied to heroes as well as traditional villains. That it all depends on the point of view. I just dont entirely agree. There were, or are, people who think Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders were evil. Doesn't make it true.
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Posted By Archetype

I'll try to say this as easily as I can.
 
The lengths to which they are willing to go and the motivations behind their criminal acts.Also whether they know what they are doing or if they are delusional.

Avatar image for jack_daws
Posted By Jack Daws

Supervillains are superheroes who face superheroes, thus they are necesserally supervillains. 
Superheroes are supervillains who face supervillains, thus they are necesserally superheroes. 
Don't make me say it again... :)
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Edited By Stellar

Doesn't being considered a villain basically come down to how the general public views you? Regardless of how the villain views them self?

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Posted By Satyrquaze
@Gambler: 
 
I know it doesn't make it true in most cases, not just Civil Rights leaders. Though I did directly compare Magneto to Malcolm X in the blog. 
 
I realize that the general populous of Germany and Japan don't agree with the wartime policies of their countries during WWII. It's been 60 years. Hell, I know Americans that vehemently disagree with some US' policies during WWII, and I'm included in that. But bear with me, You're a German soldier (with no direct connection to any aspect of the Nazi party, you're just a good German citizen) that is part of a platoon holding some otherwise meaningless strip of land in eastern France, when Captain America shows up with a group of marines. Nevermind that Germany was the aggressor, nevermind that the US would never allocate Cap for such a mission at a meaningless locale... disregarding all of that, is he not the enemy, and therefore an antagonist, adn therefore a villain from your perspective? 
 
As Obi Wan says: Luke, you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.     
 
Despite that Cap is just doing his job, he was likely directly responsible for the inadvertant deaths of hundreds of Germans (through ricochets and exploding rocket factories), and most German soldiers towards the end of the war were little more than kids no older than most of the people who use this site. I'm not trying to demonize Cap, it was war. And Captain America is the closest thing we have to a Knight or Paladin in modern mainstram comics, I'm just saying there are people out there historically speaking who don't have particularlly good recollections of Knights or 'Paladins'. 
Avatar image for satyrquaze
Posted By Satyrquaze
@Archetype said:
"I'll try to say this as easily as I can.  The lengths to which they are willing to go and the motivations behind their criminal acts.Also whether they know what they are doing or if they are delusional. "

And don't forget about Public Relations.
Avatar image for the_ghostshell
Posted By The_Ghostshell
@Satyrquaze said:
" @Gambler: 
 
I know it doesn't make it true in most cases, not just Civil Rights leaders. Though I did directly compare Magneto to Malcolm X in the blog.  "
I was just using Civil Rights leaders as an example. Marvel (I believe Stan Lee) made this same comparison back in the day. Prox. X = MLK Jr. And Magneto = Malcolm X. 
 
@Satyrquaze said:
" I realize that the general populous of Germany and Japan don't agree with the wartime policies of their countries during WWII. It's been 60 years. Hell, I know Americans that vehemently disagree with some US' policies during WWII, and I'm included in that. But bear with me, You're a German soldier (with no direct connection to any aspect of the Nazi party, you're just a good German citizen) that is part of a platoon holding some otherwise meaningless strip of land in eastern France, when Captain America shows up with a group of marines. Nevermind that Germany was the aggressor, nevermind that the US would never allocate Cap for such a mission at a meaningless locale... disregarding all of that, is he not the enemy, and therefore an antagonist, adn therefore a villain from your perspective?  "
No, I wouldn't consider either one (German soldier in this scenario, or Captain America) to be villains. A villain is cruel. A deliberate scoundrel or criminal. The only reason Cap is there in the first place is to help a country and its people who can not help themselves. No matter what, Germany would still be the antagonist in this situation. Being the enemy does not make you a villain, your actions do. How you conduct yourself, your admission and acceptance of guilt, your treatment of other living things, these are things that make you a villain or hero. Not how someone else views you (in my opinion).
 
@Satyrquaze said:
"   Despite that Cap is just doing his job, he was likely directly responsible for the inadvertant deaths of hundreds of Germans (through ricochets and exploding rocket factories), and most German soldiers towards the end of the war were little more than kids no older than most of the people who use this site. I'm not trying to demonize Cap, it was war. And Captain America is the closest thing we have to a Knight or Paladin in modern mainstram comics, I'm just saying there are people out there historically speaking who don't have particularlly good recollections of Knights or 'Paladins'.  "
My history isn't all it should be, but I hadn't heard that the Germany army was little more then kids by the end. But I do know that the real Germany army, and the German army Cap fought in comicbooks were two different things. I also don't believe the inadvertent death of people during war makes you a villain. Whether or not you'd accept responsibility for it would. If Captain America ever found out that he had inadvertently claimed the life of a child he would most likely never recover. His own guilt would likely consume him and he would lay down his shield. Now can you say the same thing about the Red Skull? Course not. He wouldn't care or even pause. Nights and Paladins are religious based, which opens up a whole new discussion. Captain America's never killed anyone in the name of his god. He's a character who's core values have been established. They are qualities that are universally looked at as good and heroic.
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Posted By The_Ghostshell
@Satyrquaze said:
" As Obi Wan says: Luke, you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.       "
Obi Wan was a racist and closet homosexual lol. Never married, never had a girlfriend, and hated Sand People :P
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Posted By Archetype

On Galactus:
 
I wouldn't necessarily classify him as evil or a villain but he is an aberration that should be stopped from consuming planets with sentient life.I understand why Marvel would want to play him up as a force of nature however I disagree.Sure forces of nature take life(time,weather,etc...) but they don't feed on it.He should be stopped but if Marvel acknowledged that then they would have to kill him or maybe they are saving him for some future event who knows? I mean I like Galactus he is awesome and I know he doesn't want to devour planets but yeah were I a superhero I would certainly focus my attention on the thing that destroys planets and countless lives.I don't agree with your analogy cows don't have any higher brain function they contribute nothing to society or the universe in general whereas the people Galactus kills are more like us or are even more advanced.