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Five Things I Think I Know: "Bring On The Bad Guys" Edition

Written by ElijahSnowFan on Monday, June 27 2011 and posted in Columns

ElijahSnowFan lays out his rules for villains in the newest installment of Five Things I Think I Know!

"Good and evil. There never is one without the other." - MERLIN, Excalibur (1981)

"There is no good and evil. There is only power, and those too weak to seek it." - LORD VOLDEMORT, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)

Huh. OK, then.

While lesser columns would take a few steps back and give these two master mages a little room to work out their apparent differences in philosophy, "5 Things" has always been capable of overcoming great fear (and is patiently awaiting the time when Sector 2814 becomes mine to patrol. What?).

So, with that in mind, we step right in the middle and tackle this issue head-on.

And what issue is that, Faithful Reader?

Evil. Villain

You know. The guys wearing the black hats. Bad people doing bad things. The people we love to hate.

For those of you who aren't a billion years old, the phrase in the column title this week, "Bring on the Bad Guys," was the name of a collected edition of what my fading memory tells me Marvel used to call Treasury Editons. They were published in the 1970s, and in this particular case, "Bring on the Bad Guys" featured origin stories for Doctor Doom and the Green Goblin, among others. Again, you have to keep in mind that no matter how convoluted and aged some concepts feel today, back in 1976, Marvel had been publishing superhero tales roughly 15 years. Something like that would have been invaluable to a new reader, right?

No, I'm not old enough to actually have one of those; it was published in 1976. But what I did see was the cover to it, a couple of years later, and for more than 30 years, that phrase has always stuck with me. I use it all the time when I start thinking about supervillains.

So, without further ado, let's...Bring on the Bad Guys.

When I think of supervillains, I always judge them by one thing: Motivation. As in, "What the hell do you want, anyway?"

To my mind, the best villains, and therefore the best stories, have villains with clear motivation. Not only do they want something, they want something specific. Something that can be attained within the scope of their powers AND intellect, but not to exceed common sense. At some point during a story/arc, likely through character exposition, the bad guy tells you who they are, how they came to be or why they came back, why they're so damn angry, and why they're taking it out on the rest of us.

Again, for emphasis: The best villains want something specific, something that can be attained within the scope of their powers AND intellect, but not to exceed common sense.

This is important because, when applying that principle, it's easy to see how some villains have risen to the top of the heap in modern superhero comics, while others have floundered. It's just as easy to see how even some of the greatest villains of all can be written horribly: Usually, it's when what the villain wants, using basic internal logic, is beyond what they can grasp.

So yes, the Absorbing Man could very likely slap Thor around for an hour or two. But Crusher Creel just ain't smart enough to rule a country, like Doctor Doom does Latveria. And while Doctor Doom is smart enough to rule Latveria, he's still only one man, and as such there are limitations to what he can do -- yeah, within the confines of a story, Doctor Doom could design a device that can steal the Silver Surfer's power.

But that ain't gonna do you any good if you take on Galactus. Which is what Annihilus tried to do in "Annihilation," which only got his forces...annihilated. Because, see, Dirty Harry said it best, back in the day: "A man's got to know his limitations."

See what I mean?

With that in mind, the "5 Things I Think I Know" this week are taking a peek at the best of/worst of examples of villainy, through the prism of motivation...and whether reach exceds grasp. Now, who's with me?

5 Things I Think I Know

5. Prometheus was actually a cool concept, but...: Hey, during Grant Morrison's JLA run, let's be honest: A villain really needed to bring their A-game if they wanted to take that crew on -- just too damn much power on the side of the angels. So, in creating Prometheus, it was clear that Morrison wanted a new character to face the League and to tell an interesting story about how Batman's prep time could be reversed. The first time Prometheus appeared, even the second time, was interesting enough -- the motivation was there, if a little obtuse. But let's be blunt: The reach exceeded the ability to grasp. Rule of thumb: If the only way the villain can win is by the superhero being incompetent or stupid, then you don't really have that great a villain. The concept of Prometheus took that to the extreme: One normal human, with a compact disc player in his helmet, simply isn't wading through the entire Justice League in their headquarters. It simply isn't happening. Cool to visualize, but not cool to realize. Taking that character too seriously gives you "Cry for Justice." A classic case of reach exceeding grasp.

4. Ditto for Deathstroke: Yikes. I read the interview with Kyle Higgins where he discussed how he thought it was cool when Slade Wilson beat the Justice League like they stole something in "Identity Crisis." Another person sipping the Kool-Aid of the 90-plus percent of his brain. OK. I freely admit that the League that took on Deathstroke during that bit didn't have the Martian, Superman, and Wonder Woman there. That's fine. But here's the thing: You can't have your cake and eat it, too. You can't have Connor Hawke and the Atom kill Darkseid...yet have that same Atom taken down with a laser pointer. With a freaking Green Lantern there. And Zatanna. Again: We get it. Deathstroke carries guns and swords, so a hero or three just might get shot or stabbed. But if you're gonna have Deathstroke pimp-slap a road crew of The World's Greatest Super-Heroes, it's a little difficult for me to believe they're up to the task when, oh, I don't know: REALITY IS THREATENED WITH EXTINCTION BY NEKRON. So, take my word for it, Kyle Higgins: Identity Crisis is not where you want to draw your inspiration from for Slade Wilson. Because uber-Deathstroke is ridiculous.

3. What does Norman Osborn want, exactly?: OK. Norman Osborn's crazy. Great. I get that. But let's just say that tomorrow, Norman Osborn kills Spider-Man in the 616. Um, er, um...what does he do then? The reason I ask that question is because that is the biggest reason why I was, and still am, against Osborn returning to life -- there really wasn't any more to the character than his irrational hatred of Peter Parker. And he did great harm to Parker by killing Gwen Stacy, and the Hero's Journey meant they had their showdown, and Osborn lost. End of story. Anything else...well, I guess I'm baffled at what story you tell with Norman Osborn where his motivation makes a lot of sense over the long term, with the caveat of what his grasp can hold.

2. The Joker's a little too wild: The Joker was, and is, a great character when he's a) used less, and b) not killing every single thing he sees. Because, again, the Hero's Journey demands that, at some point, there will be a reckoning. In Kingdom Come, for instance, the Joker wipes out the Daily Planet building with his gas. Magog kills the Joker. See, that's how that works. When the Joker's scope grows too large, you invite what is known as "proportionate response." You go 75 mph in a 55 mph zone, you get a ticket. You attempt to kill thousands of people, you draw a hell of a lot more attention than that...and therefore, you ruin the ability to tell a good story within the restrictions of the medium and the hero the Joker faces most. Everybody still with me?

1. Nothing can stop the Juggernaut...except bad writing and lack of direction: Look, Marvel. We get it. The Juggernaut is a really, really tough character to write. He's just so freaking powerful, and everytime he's defeated, it lessens his credibility. But look. At some point, you gotta cut the cord. If the guy's a villain, he's a villain. And you gotta let him do his villainous thing, and then he's gotta face the day of reckoning with whatever hero he has wronged. But enough of the anti-hero. Either go all-in with Cain Marko, or get off the pot. Seriously. Define what Cain Marko wants, tell that one great story with him, and be done with it. It's time.

Written or Contributed by: ElijahSnowFan

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About the Author - Christian

Christian is the exasperated Abbott to the Outhouse's Costello. When he's not yelling at the Newsroom for upsetting readers or complaining to his wife about why the Internet is stupid, he sits in his dingy business office trying to find new ways to make the site earn money. Christian is also the only person in history stupid enough to moderate two comic book forums at once.


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