Villainous Breeds 3: Motivations and Agendas (Part 2)
Last blog, I talked about motives for villains, both in terms of tapping real life for them and in coming up with slightly more fresh takes on them. I also populated the entire deal with videos of villain songs because those are the best songs in whatever movie they appear in.
Well, I wasn’t done. It turn out, I can ramble on and on for a very long time with just three bullet points. So here we go again: more bullet points! More songs!
I always crack up when she says ‘Body Language’
This is going to sound odd coming from me. After all, I am an established foe of cynical bullshit and all the media it festers in. But ‘Justice’ as a naked concept and motivation is just about the most empty thing you can saddle a character with.
Hear me out here and try this very simple ‘justice’ test. Tell me what you think justice is. To it? Okay, now go read the definition. Wait. Let me get that for ya:
1. the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness: to uphold the justice of a cause.
2. rightfulness or lawfulness, as of a claim or title; justness of ground or reason: to complain with justice.
3. the moral principle determining just conduct.
4. conformity to this principle, as manifested in conduct; just conduct, dealing, or treatment.
5. the administering of deserved punishment or reward.
Notice something? Again, I’ll help you out: It doesn’t say who gets to choose what is just, morally right and what punishments are ‘deserved’. Someone clearly does, but that’s going to vary from place to place. The same crimes (if you can even call them that) can get you a ten dollar fine in one country and a beating in another. And don’t get me started on drugs. Did you know that marijuana is legal in two US States as of this posting and yet still illegal in the US? Because sure.
So what ‘justice’ is someone standing for here? Is it just to enforce things like California’s drug laws that are overcrowding prisons until they’re both dangerous for inmates and causing actual bad men to get released early?
This is why the Descendants are explicitly about protecting people and not about upholding the law or ‘justice’.
As for villains (and anti-heroes from the 90s—oh wait, I said villains already), ‘justice’ typically means ‘vengeance’. Shockingly, these are not the same thing, but nobody cares (See also Cry for Justice [Link goes to Atop the Fourth Wall’s very apt video review]). My favorite example here is Batman: The Animated Series’s version of Clock King:
Templeton Fugate is a man who lives by a schedule and owns a business. One day, the future Mayor of Gotham, Hamilton Hill advises him to take a break from his schedule and, because strangers on the train have the best ideas, Fugate does so. Predictably, this winds up ruining Templeton’s entire life and years later, her returns as Clock King. His plan: murder the hell out of Hill for giving him good advise the went wrong in unforeseen ways.
It’s really kind of beautiful seeing just how disproportionate his revenge is. And that’s really how ‘deep’ villainous justice goes.
Much like Frollo in the last post, this guy things killing teenaged girls is the answer to EVERYTHING.
It doesn’t matter how in the right they are either. General Hummel in The Rock is one hundred percent totally right that the US government should pay for their black ops guys who died in the line of duty. Too bad he deals with this by way of hire psychopaths, murder gas, hostages, and a raft of dead special forces guys.
So By the way, this has nothing to do with corrupt lawmen (they exist in real life too). That’s the next entry.
So how do we freshen up this concept? How about a bad guy that understands exactly how justice actually works opposed to heroes who don’t? We’ve all seen bad guys that are untouchable by law, but what if they’re only able to be a villain because of the laws.
Maybe they’re a hitman that makes use of Castle Laws and Stand Your Ground (read: gun advertisement laws) to murder with impunity? Maybe they understand real estate codes so well that they can easily trick families out of their homes without an ounce of fraud involved? How do you take down a villain like that? I’d like to see a writer show me.
And if REVENGE! Is an old saw, then so is…
Ah, power. A classic. This is one of the reasons you want money in the first place.
Power is why humans rock so hard by animal standards. We don’t really adapt to our environment, we change it to suit us. That’s how we took over this planet from those smarmy monkeys.
This smarmy monkey.
For a villain, this can range from control over a single person to political power, to literal cosmic power that controls reality itself. No matter what kind of power they’re after, it all comes down to control. Control of circumstance, environment, or people around them.
For simplicity’s sake, I’m just going to touch on political power here. Simplicity and this:
You all knew it was coming.
In the immortal words of a guy who made a deal with the devil so save his ancient aunt, ‘with great power, comes great responsibility’. This is way, way more apt with political power than super ones because the whole reason you’re given political power is because people are depending on you not to ruin their lives.
By the same token, once you have it, you can totally ruin people’s lives if they piss you off (or for money). Also people will hurl all the other stuff I’ve listed as motivations at you if you just ‘happen’ to use your power in a way that benefits them or hurts people they don’t like. This is typically called bribery and it is totally okay if you have a PAC in the United States.
Villainy based on political power comes in three flavors. Scar up there commits villainy in search of that power, murdering his brother, trying to murder his nephew, and allying himself with goose-stepping hyenas to gain leadership of the pride. He’s then shown to be a crappy ruler, but not so much because he’s evil as much as he’s bad at it.
Others abuse their power once they have it. Maybe they started out good, but once they have the ability to get what they want, they can’t seem to turn off the hose. Suddenly they can ‘disappear’ their enemies and use their position for that Revenge thing up there. For them, power is a mean, not a motivation.
Finally, we have those who are villainous in order to preserve power they already have. When you hear about corrupt politicians, you usually think they’re in it for the money, bust usually, that money is there to keep them in power. This can come in the form of paying mercenaries and all-female security details, bribing the right people, or paying for your next political campaign (remember what I said about PACs up there? Yup, that’s what they’re for).
Sometimes they really are totally in it for the stuff though, like my state’s governor and the guy that wants to be the next one. Those instances are probably due to the fact that our governor’s office has a hard term limit, meaning they don’t get to hold on forever and thus must loot everything while they still can.
Also, it isn’t always about money at all. Sometimes it’s about serving masters with more power than you. Recently, the US Senate killed a bill that pretty much everyone that wasn’t a conspiracy theorist or who makes their fortune on the backs of conspiracy theorists wanted to pass. Why? Because there’s a lobby with a lot more muscle than ‘the American people’ literally and figuratively holding a gun to their heads, that’s why. They don’t do as they’re told, they get a ton of money and clout arrayed against them next election.
Which brings me to the new idea I have for this one. Why not have a bad guy who has this as their MO. They aren’t a direct threat, but the fact that they can and do corrupt parts of the system at a whim to get what they want is what makes them dangerous.
Sort of like Kingmaker the sadly under-used NXM villain, but with politics instead of superpowers. Imagine a guy who doesn’t have to commit crimes because as long as they’re not hugely blatant (but they can be hugely harmful), he can simply make them no longer a crime? Like the Justice guy above, but far more proactive. This one doesn’t need to learn the law, they just write them and pass them down to their pet politicians.
By the way, I have a One-shot on the chocks right now called Politics and Usual that has this going on in the DU.
And for my third trick…
Let’s face in: there’s a lot of joy in being bad.
You get the best songs, obviously, and you dress way cooler too. Not only that, but chances are you’re richer and inherently more classy than you adversary.
But not always…
It’s no wonder that sometimes villains are villains because it is just so damn fun. Not necessarily in the sense that they’re aware that they’re evil and take joy in it, but more in the way that doing what gives them joy is what makes them a villain.
The poster boy for this is, of course, the Joker.
True, in some stories, he’s trying to make money off his crimes (like in the legendary The Laughing Fish storyline), but most of the time, actually profiting is secondary to stirring things up with his brand of Jokery chaos. He robs, kills and vandalizes not because of things he wants, but because he likes breaking stuff and tweaking Batman.
It isn’t about the ends for Joker, it’s about the act itself. He is all about creating chaos and he doesn’t care much at all about aftermath. He’s even completely cool with Batman killing him in The Dark Knight as long as he knows that he’s going out having screwed with the Bat.
I’m not going to use any real life entries here because the real life versions are either petty trolls, not worthy of being called villains, or complete monsters who are responsible for the sadistic deaths of a lot of innocent people.
The deal with this kind of villain is just how difficult they are to do well. There are many Joker expys, but few of them really capture the spark that makes Joker so good. They either fall into ‘silly idea corrupted’ like modern takes on Toyman and Dr. Light, who may personally might be having fun, but are too horrible for any of the joy they feel to translate to the minds of normal human readers; or the ‘complete cartoon’, like Senior Senior Sr. from Kim Possible (Don’t let that fool you, Triple S is my favorite villain from the series, you’ll just never take him seriously.)
Not Triple S, but hilarious nonetheless.
You may have noticed that I don’t try these kinds of villains in any of my current work and that’s because I’ve yet to crack the code myself. Joker is one of the rare characters that benefits from being subject to so many different interpretations, so he can be a monster and then he can be a cartoon.
But that’s not where I got to love Joker as a villain. That all came from Batman: the Animated Series. If I had to guess (and for the purpose of this article, I do), I would say that it’s because TAS!Joker never, ever gets serious. He is always having the time of his life or is comically angry. Even when he’s being menacing, it is still clear that he is taking childlike glee in making someone fill their drawers.
Somehow, this allowed him (and the writers) to get away with a LOT that they couldn’t with a ‘normal’ villain. TAS!Joker is one of the scariest bastards ever in a cartoon. He abused his girlfriend, forcibly transformed people with poison, electrocuted a man on television, and stalked a man for years. And that’s just my volume 1 DVD. If he was any other character, he would give kids nightmares and the PTC violent censor-boners lasting more than five hours.
But he’s such a silly bastard that it flies right under the radar.
This would be where I suggest a fresh way of doing it, but damn,just trying to do it right without going too far to either side s a good enough challenge on its own.
And that’s about it for villains of a bit. Next week, we’ll be going back to the Fantasy well again. But to tide you over, I leave you with this:
Sweet dreams, children.
One last thing: Jim Zub, creator of Skullkickers and Makeshift Miracle, and who is a fellow poster on my go-to general geek forum, has his first mainstream writing effort coming out today: Legends of the Dark Knight #49. It’s only 99 cents on Kindle and you should get it, if not for Zub, then for the fact that it has Harley Quinn.
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