So last week I talked about a handful of stock villain origins. For the most part, these were the variety I’m not a fan of, but that have workable alternatives.
This week, I’ll be discussing the other side of the coin: the villainous origins I tend to like, but which have their own unique pitfalls. Without further ado, let’s kick things off with one that actually got mentioned in the comments from last week:
The Dark Hero/Fallen Hero
This one is actually two types of origin, but they’re intimately linked to the point that separating them would lead to me rehashing the same points twice.
First, we have the Dark Hero, the logical conclusion to the old writing advice ‘everyone is the hero of their own story’. In this case, the Dark Hero is someone attempting to do something ostensibly and classically heroic: protecting, saving, uplifting, restoring, or even preventing some greater evil. The problem is that they’re largely only heroic in their twisted view.
Traditionally, this comes in the form of them doing terrible things in pursuit of a nominally noble goal. To go for the leading example here: Magneto. In the context of the Marvel Universe as the readers understand it, Magneto is right. Humans will never accept mutants and human governments are a constant and active danger to mutants. He is at war and the Marvel public in general all deserve to die for their evil and stupidity. Hell, given the fact that just being nuked (like Magneto initially tried to do) is a damn sight more preferable to being eaten by your father/having a lizard man for you to rape everyone around you, being crushed into a singularity inside your powered armor, or being turned into a giant spider then being eaten by a monster, which are some of the fates your average Marvel citizen can look forward to (the Marvel Universe is basically a saw movie if your best friend isn’t super. Then they’re Final Destination). The thing is though, that Erik always goes too far and wants to play the genocide card on humanity, or seeks to hurt the good people who get in his way, which makes him a villain.
Less traditionally, the Dark Hero type villain’s actual cause is in and of itself evil. In these instances, the people they’re trying to protect could be villains themselves he’s protecting from justice, or the freedom she’s fighting to gain is the freedom to hurt people without opposition. The key is that it’s a good thing in their eyes.
Poison Ivy in some portrayals is a good example of this. She is effectively a plants rights activist in the same way the ALF is an animal rights group—except she makes plants into mutant destructive plants. Ignoring the fact that the new mobile and carnivorous plants would crowd out or be crowded out by the natural plants, she views these things as her ‘babies’ (whether she thinks that literally, or the way someone say their dog is their ‘baby’ depends on the writer) and she will kill the crap out of anyone who threatens them, whatever place she’s chosen as their habitat, their food supply (often people), or her ability to make me. To her, she’s protecting the only innocents that matter. It doesn’t matter that to everyone else she’s crazy and needs to go down.
The other side of this is the Fallen Hero. This villain was a hero. A genuine one. But somewhere along the way, they became corrupted in some form or other and strayed from the path. Whether they’ve become a Dark Hero, doing right the wrong way, or have turned away from righteousness varies, but the theme of what they see is right remains.
For example, take Sinestro, probably the best-known villain of the Green Lanterns. He used to be a Green Lantern and in fact was partnered with Hal Jordan (in some continuities). Very early on though, we find out that he’s set himself up as a local strongman in the sector he’s meant to protect and thrown in with criminals despite being a space cop.
Now granted, the bosses of the Green Lantern Corps, the Guardians of the Universe (not to be confused with The Guardians of the Galaxy), are incompetent boobs who have unleashed more horrors on the universe than they’ve stopped, Sinestro is abusing his power and the people who look to him for protection. At some point, he was a good guy, but those days are long passed.
One problem with the sort-of heroic villain type is in actually making them seem villainous . I mean, how do you call most modern portrayals of Magneto villainous when a much more successful murderer, Frank Castle, (aka The Punisher) is considered an anti-hero? Magneto is at least fighting to save his species from the most evil public since those guys that booed the idea f not letting someone die because they couldn’t afford a doctor. Punisher is just killing people because it fits his sense of justice.
Well Marvel solved this but flipping Magneto and making him part of the X-men. In fact, he’s trying to keep Cyclops from being the same kind (or worse) extremist these days.
Still no admission that Punisher is the most successful supervillain in Marvel comic though. Oh yes, I am going on this tangent. Punisher has killed more people and been brought to justice fewer times than any admitted villain. There have been times where he was being portrayed as having mental breakdowns or being possessed of otherworldly influence and has killed people for jaywalking, but has never even had to pay lip service to what he’s done. The man is, at best a serial killer, at worst a terrorist, running what he calls a war against criminals and slaughtering even nonviolent offenders with neither trial nor proof.
Hell, his origin story is the same traumatic transformation that made Clock King et al. And as far as I can tell, only Spider-man and Captain America notice this and want to take him in. And Steve Rogers thinking you need a dose of vitamin jail means you need to get your ass put in jail. That guy is Superman in (basically) badass normal form.
But I digress. Apparently, it’s heroic to murder people if they’re drug dealers or higher.
The point is, as less and less heroic heroes enter the mainstream, the Dark and Fallen Heroes become more difficult to manage. It’s hard to argue someone had the best intentions if they’re eating a baby to make sure they’re credibly evil when viewed beside the Frank Castles of the world.
The other danger is making them too right. I highly suspect this is the reason DC made the New 52 Mr. Freeze’s origin story so shallow and petty. For those of you no familiar with the character, when the creators of Batman: The Animated Series decided to use Victor Freis, aka Mr. Freeze, they made him a poignant, tragic villain. You see, Victor was transformed into Mr. Freeze in TAS because he was using the cryogenic tech he developed for a company to preserve his wife. The CEO of the company ordered her disconnected (because he owned Freis’s research and considered this theft), and Victor fought back, ending up exposed to the cryogenic gasses that would render him unable to survive at normal temps.
Audiences and critics agreed that this was the best retelling of the Freeze origin and it was incorporated into the comics. However, the problem that soon emerged was that Freeze’s motivation is always to revive his wife, Nora, in some fashion. So every time Batman stops him, no matter what awful thing ol’ Vic was doing, he’s dooming an innocent woman to cryo-hell.
Fast-forward to the New 52, where its been revealed that Vic is actually crazy and Nora isn’t his wife, but some chick he saw in cryo who he’s become obsessed with. They took away any sympathy you can have for him to make sure you’re on Batman’s side as well as to make him look more evil when compared to murder-happy psycho Jason Todd (the Red Hood) who is supposed to be presented as a hero, but who enjoys killing enemies and sleeps with the amnesiac friend of his predecessor without batting an eye.
Moving on though, we have a much more unique villainous origin:
Some baddies are made not born and for that, we have the Created.
No doubt, you instantly thought of evil robots, because there’s the most common instance of this. But there is a stupid way of doing this and an intruiging way of doing this.
Stupid is a subtype I call ‘The Malfunction’. Here, the robot or other artificial entity becomes evil because of a random glitch. You know this one: they get hit by lightning, dunked in water, or the ever-popular, get stuck in a logical paradox and they go nuts and thus evil. Errors always make them evil. It never breaks them, or changes their core personality much. Damaging a robot’s programming always seems to affect their alignment and their love of killing humans and only those.
The problem of course is that this origin gives the Created no motivation. They’re just evil because… evil! They’re usually omnicidal maniacs with no plan for after they murder everyone. To wit: they’re boring.
A step above this is the scenario where to robot decides that doing something evil is the logical means of following its programming. As much as people razzed the movie, the Will smith vehicle, I, Robot, provided a good version of this that feeds back into the Dark Hero. Spoiler warning, but the main villain robot got it in their head that in order to protect humanity, it would need to take over—and kill anyone who could stop it from doing so.
The quality of this version is heavily dependent on the skill of the writer. Often it turns into pretty standard ‘dur humans are evil’ dreck. I think The I, Robot version was a decent enough treatment, as the robot in question actually did thing it was helping us rather than deciding we needed to die.
My personal favorite version of the Created, however is when they’re actually doing exactly what they were created to do and turn out to be way better than their creator. For my favorite implementation of this, I turn not to classic comics Ultron, but instead to Young Justice and the episode Humanity.
In this episode, we learn the history of TO Morrow and his succession of robots designed to infiltrate the Justice League. Red Torpedo became despondent at being a robot, Red Inferno proved to be too heroic and threw away her cover by ‘sacrificing’ herself for another, and Red Tornado joined the League and fought against him.
So TO builds Red Volcano (notice a pattern forming) who is meant to skip the infiltration and kill the JLA. He is aware of all this and also of his ‘father’s’ disgust of the ‘become a real boy’ tendencies of his predecessors. In his own words ‘no more Pinnochios’. He decides, of course that killing everyone is a much more efficient task before going on to build new Reds to repopulate the Earth and sets off to do just that.
I like this because it’s mostly about another villain’s expectations and variety of evil. The mad scientists who create these kinds of villains usually are not seeking to destroy everyone. Like TO Morrow, they have specific goals in mind and don’t think through the twisted results when they bring into being something more powerful but just as malevolent as them.
And as a personal bonus in my eyes, it puts the fault of this on the person using the technology, not the technology itself. I’m not a fan of stories where the apparent default of science left to its own designs is evil. Science is about discovery and expanding understanding. It’s only where people exploit the products of science that things go wrong.
That’s it for this week. Like I said, I’m trying to get my writing back on track (and get So I Married a Supervillain going again for you guys), so lighter, faster blog posts are the order of the day.
Don’t worry though, I’m all about pleasing the people. Next week, I’m going to do what so many of you have been asking for: This Old Monster: The Gnome.
That’s right, I’m taking on the goliath task of making gnomes interesting. Pray for me.