Villains are awesome.
I mean yes, they are all very bad men and women, but in the realm of fiction, the villain of the piece tends toward being all-around one of the most compelling characters. They get to act while the heroes react, they often get much cooler clothes, and if they’re in a medium and genre that allows for songs? Watch out because they’re going to rock the house.
Also, if they’re really lucky, they’ll be voiced by Tim Curry.
And while we know that in reality, the real monsters who stalk our world are rarely any more cool, exciting or glamorous than any other person, we tend to romanticize fictional villains. Often, we do so to the point that we try to ‘explain away’ their evil deeds.
This, I think is a shame. Not necessarily the romanticizing villains because as long as we keep some perspective and understand that this person is fictional, there’s no harm done. No, the shame is in trying to pave over the core of the character: the reasons why they’re evil in the first place and what they’re plans are.
Personally, I think those are the most interesting bits of villains. That other stuff; the black leather, the spikes, the goose-stepping hyenas…
In lieu of images, I’m basically going to post villains song videos. You’re welcome.
…it’s all superficial when you get down to it. If it wasn’t for marketing deciding that audiences need color coding and other ‘tells’ to know who is good and who is bad, anyone can be wrapped in a leather burrito regardless of their alignment. In fact, if you look at a lot of more modern movies like The Matrix, Equilibrium, and X-men, the heroes are wrapped up in plenty of black leather because villainous black leather is badass and we all know it now.
But what you can’t just staple on to just anyone is that drive to do evil; to go after what that character wants with maximum ambition and minimum damns given about the lives of anyone between them and their goal. If you try, you end up with one of the abominable antiheroes from the Dark Age of Comics who were basically villains anyway, like The Punisher, The Authority or god forbid Azbats.
So let’s not go there. Instead, let’s talk about some of the motivators villains can have and interesting twists that can be added to them. Motivations like…
The inspiration I had for writing this post came from finishing Descendants #69: Crashers, which is the first encounter the Descendants have directly with the Interstate Psionic Bounty Agency. If you’re an avid reader, you’ll recall that the IPBA was described in Descendants Annual #5 as the commercial arm of a hate group that has bounced around for seventy years, adapting from one hated group du jour to another.
That might not make a lot of sense from the outset. It just stands to reason that is someone hates a particular group hates them for a particular (awful) reason and that won’t magically change with the times. But the thing is, there are different kinds of hate.
There’s the kind of obsessive, focused hate that groups like the KKK has for black people (for one) that is static and won’t change. That’s the kind of hate people think of when they think ‘hate’. But that’s just the one kind.
Another is mistrust and blame. The obvious example would be the treatment of Muslims and people from the Middle East in the US, which I’ve expounded upon before, but that’s in an ‘active’ state right now and it’s hard to explain to people after twelve years of vicious rhetoric that there was a time when people spouting hateful shit about Muslims was universally understood to be a racist and not made a syndicated columnist.
So instead let me ask you about the time that US citizens hated the Japanese.
Are you thinking about World War II? Because you should have asked ‘which time’? You see, aside from the atrocities we visited upon Japanese people then, there was another time when a brooding mistrust of Japanese people got to the point that is colored the entire culture. That time was the 1980’s.
You know how Die Hard took place in Nakatomi Plaza? Or how the idea of ‘street samurai‘ and yakuza in general became such a big part of cyberpunk? Yeah, that’s because as the tech boom took off n that time period, Japan was quick to hop on that shit and made it big in business, expanding into the world—especially the US.
So naturally, they were made into the boogieman that we had to watch out for, lest they take over the world. Takagi said it best in Die Hard: “Pearl Harbor didn’t work out so good, so we got you with tape decks.”
Yeah… being good at making technology was as bad as Pearl Harbor. And you better believe people were making hay off it. ‘You need our products for your business’ they would say, ‘Or else the Japanese will get you! Ooh boogie boogie’.
And that’s how it works. They pick someone a large number of people are scared of, perpetuate those fears by telling people that they’re totally right, and then they try and sell them something. Oh, you can’t trust those people. And we’ll tell you all about why if you watch our news channel. It’s called confirmation bias and it is worth billions of dollars annually.
It works exactly like this.
I think of this sort of deal as ‘The New Hate’. Part of why a lot of the villains in X-men comics bother me (and there are enough things that I wrote a whole other blog post on it) is that the risk/reward ratio is way off there. Beating up a black guy (like me) or a gay guy doesn’t put you in that much danger and nor does trying to make it so the black guy can’t vote or keeping the gay guy from getting married. When you’re doing it to people who can make you explode however, you start to wonder what they’re getting out of it that’s valuable enough to justify that.
Thankfully, real life provides with the emergence of The New Hate. It’s become clear now that you can make money and garner political power from using hate. Not only that, but you don’t even have to hate those people to manipulate people who do.
Crashers is the first leg in the IPBA arc that will drive this home. In Crashers, we see the rank and file, the truly hateful, true believers who see a group (in this case, descendants) as a threat to their way of life and are willing to destroy them to ‘protect’ it. As we move forward, we’ll see the upper echelons who are profiting from this mistrust and blame (those prisons and the Braylocke laws are based on for-profit prisons that exist right now) while varying in their actual commitment to the ’cause’ (hurting people for being different). To some, the people who are the target changing is no different from changing market demands.
And speaking of profit…
To paraphrase a line I heard watching Castle: There are only three reasons to commit murder; anger, to cover up a crime and money. It’s an oversimplification, but a useful one. Money makes he world go ’round and sometimes you have to step on a couple of people to get paid.
Well if he puts it that way, screw my fellow man!
It’s a tried and true motive. From the lowliest burglar with his black and white striped shirt and bag with a dollar sign on the side, to the porkulant, blustery robber baron, crime or at least things that should be crimes in a fair and just world is one of the easiest ways to make mad bank fast. Hell, Lex Luthor’s gloriously supervillainy plan in the very first Superman movie was nothing more than a way to make quick money… while killing California.
And since we now live in a world where people actually thought Gordon Geckko was the hero of Wallstreet, there’s plenty of people that really don’t understand that the ‘profit at all costs’ attitude of, you know, sociopathic.
It’s the sociopathy that makes these guys interesting villains and one that isn’t often examined in depth. We all get the shorthand, sure: bad guy wants money, will stop at nothing to get it. And we just accept that. But what we (and the media we’re reading/watching/having thrust into out brains by telepaths) should be asking is why do they want that money?
Everyone has their lottery fantasy. Mine starts with rocking an all-white suit like the goddamn Kingpin because big dudes look awesome in white suits, but I digress. And we all imagine what we would do if we had so much money that we could giggle at the gross of most blockbuster movies.
And to be honest, I would have sympathy for a bad guy who used their money to make their dreams come true and make sure their kid has a good future. Except that’s not what they do—in real life and in fiction.
Let’s take the modern incarnation of Lex Luthor. Instead of his humble roots as a mad scientist, the Bald One now spends his days as the evil CEO of Lexcorp, a position that makes him wealthy beyond measure. Despite this, he feels the need to do things like sell arms on the black market, or to instigate wars to sell more arms. Because he’s evil and greedy, you see.
What does Lex spend his money on? Well… that’s a good question. Even ‘killing Superman’ would be something, but most of the time it seems as if Lexcorp actually has a budget item for trying to kill Superman because he builds all his evil devices in Lexcorp facilities with Lexcorp material. I don’t even think I’ve seen him take any trips that don’t have something to do with business. He just… accumulates wealth like a message board acquires trolls.
Maybe we should try someone else. Well I already mentioned Kingpin. He’s a mob boss and antagonist to Spider-man and Daredevil. Depending on the continuity, he might actually secretly be getting a ct of ll the crime in New York, or simply be a crimelord—on top of his legitimate business holdings.
So just like Luthor, he doesn’t actually need any more money, but he does some crime on the side just to get extra to… You know, except for a single high quality chocolate bar in Joss Whedon’s delay plagued run on Runaways, I have never—NEVER—seen Kingpin indulge in any awesome rich guy stuff ether.
At best, he uses his vast wealth to fund attempts to kill Spider-man or Daredevil in order to protect his criminal enterprise (IE his money source that he doesn’t need because he has a legitimate business).
Sadly, the bad guys in real life aren’t much better. I know I said I was going to post nothing but villains song videos, so here’s a link to Lewis Black explaining the situation. No seriously, click it, it’s funny. And enraging.
Regardless of what happens in real life though, it is an important and worthwhile facet of a villain’s motivations when it comes to profit to know why they want the money in the first place. Sure some of them are just greedy and want to curl up on top of it like a dragon, but they can’t all be like that, can they?
I think not. Even if it’s petty, it would be nice to hear what the bad guy dreams of doing with the cash they’re willing to destroy fellow human beings to get.
And from the crass avarice of the profit motive, we turn to the high minded, but just as bonkers cause of…
The love motive in villain rarely turns out positive, does it? There almost always jumps right off the edge of the slippery slope into ‘creeptastic obsession’ in the first ten minutes.
This is not a healthy way to express your attraction. Trust me, I know from experience.
I think it turns into that so often and so quickly because love is strong story mojo (as you’ll recall form my Bad Romance article) and if the audience buys into the ‘purity’ of the villain’s love too much, it humanizes them and makes it hard to hate them as we’re supposed to.
Writers take advantage of that too. If you, like me couldn’t afford to pay a man to excise it from your memory, you might recall Spider-man 3 pulled this with Sandman. The simple fact that he was being a bad guy for his little girl makes it completely okay in our minds that Sandman will never pay for his crimes.
Oh, you can have a villain who feels love and even on who is loved in return. Even evil couples aren’t that uncommon. Even Power Rangers, which isn’t known for its innovation, hat Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd getting together. It’s more that it’s very rare for a villain to do what they do because of love without them being thrust into the stalker role, even if the love in question isn’t romantic.
And yes, stalkers and complete crazies like this exist in real life, even on epic scales like that astronaut that drove cross-country to try and kill her romantic rival (though sadly, she wasn’t actually wearing a diaper the whole time).
I think it’s possible to keep a villain evil and motivated by love without making them ax crazy stalkers. For one, maybe the loved one is also evil and that’s why they’re compatible.
My immediate thoughts jump to a non-romantic near-example: John Q. If you’re not familiar with the film, it involves a father whose son is diagnosed with a condition that requires a heart transplant or he’ll die. His insurance won’t cover the operation (because the money saved by not saving a little boy is worth way more to them), and even after selling everything the family owns, he can barely afford to keep the boy in the hospital, much less get the surgery.
Left with no options (because standing back and letting your kid die is never an option. Just ask Liam Neeson), he takes the hospital hostage in order to force them to do the transplant. Now, no matter how totally justified he is, this is borderline at best and would certainly be evil if he killed someone– except [SPOILER ALERT] it turns out that he never intended to kill anyone, except maybe himself if they could use his heart for his son. He even only took on bullet for the job. [/SPOILER ALERT]
Now imagine a real villain who does try to go through the correct channels only to be dicked around like John Q was. Just because he loves his son doesn’t make him any less evil should he start icing people in search of a compatible heart and capturing the doctors’ families to ensure they do the surgery.
For a lighter version, maybe the bad guy is just plain inept at showing their feelings:
I too am unsure of the correct ratio of monkeys to pony.
And that’s all we have time for this week. Next week is a Rune Breaker Friday (and as a special note, it will be the last Rune Breaker Friday for a while, as Rune Breaker will be moving into the first Wednesday spot once Generations Aflame finishes up and will be there until I have a buffer done for the next miniseries. And that won’t be until Rune Breaker 3: The Path of Destruction is published sometime in June.
Until next time, folks!
You can follow Vaal’s ramblings about what he’s writing on Twitter @ParadoxOmni and specific series with hashtags #TheDescendants and #RuneBreaker.
You can also pick up the latest Descendants book, The Descendants Vs. Project Tome as a Kindle ebook, and find all of Vaal’s books on his Amazon Author page.