Overthinking the Bad Guys

January 15th, 2008 by | Tags: , , , , ,

It’s interesting when you look back at some of Marvel and DC’s big villains from over the years. Having characters written by a hundred different writers over several decades and style eras lead to a ton of contrasts in character definition. It’s hard to see the humbled Magneto living in the ruins of Genosha as being the same dude who would go to a gas station just to brag about his awesome gasless car. Or that the Joker would go from fighting Batman and Robin on a giant piano to cannibalism for the sake of his own sense of grim hilarity.

I don’t know about you, but when you read enough stories with these villains, you get an idea of what you think they are really all about. You can’t just say that they’re simply evil. That’s lazy. You have to have an idea of what makes them tick. Why are they evil assholes?

I’m not saying I’m right on these or anything like that. This is just me making sense out of fictional characters based on stories and key moments.

Doctor Doom

A year or so ago, there was a comic where Reed Richards was a guest at Doom’s home in Latveria for a holiday dinner. Since it’s rare to not be at each other’s throats, Reed suggested to Doom that he should use his resources for the betterment of mankind. Doom’s simple rebuttal was that he and Reed would likely disagree towards what the betterment of mankind means.

There are a lot of things that define Victor Von Doom, such as his drive to push himself to his full potential, mostly in terms of intelligence. There’s his unshakeable willpower. Most importantly here, there’s his hatred of Reed Richards and his intent on taking over the world.

With his desire to kill and humiliate Reed Richards, I don’t even blame the facial scarring all that much. Doom should know better than to blame that. He just needs something, anything, to use as an excuse to oppose Reed. The two of them are like Superman and Lex Luthor in that they aren’t meant to coexist, possibly on a cosmic level. There are few realities where I’ve seen Reed and Doom on the same side on a permanent basis. The What If where Doom becomes a hero shows them as friends, but it also involves the two of them going on different paths and never meeting again. That Inferno What If has them working together, but under demonic mind-control, so that hardly counts. The only time they’ve ever truly gotten along together like this is in the Last Avengers Story, where a physically handicapped Reed spends his days playing board games with a lobotomized Doom. Even here, they’re just shells of their former selves.

Doom has a way of picking up the slack for Reed too. In stories where Reed becomes evil or even fails to become Mr. Fantastic in the first place, Doom becomes a heroic figure in response. This all ties in with world domination.

Doom has taken over the world several times before. Usually, it’s shown that he takes good care of his people, even if it means having to kiss his ass on an hourly basis. It just doesn’t last. One time he gave it up due to boredom. One time he ruled the world and then gambled it away in a battle against Magneto. He does want to take over Earth, doesn’t he? Actually, no.

Doctor Doom doesn’t want to rule Earth. He just doesn’t want Reed Richards to rule Earth. If you look at the current Fantastic Four storyline, Fantastic Four: The End and stuff like that, you see that Reed wishes to make the world a utopia. Sure, we all wouldn’t mind something like that, and I’m sure other super-smart heroes like Tony Stark and Hank Pym would love a utopia, but only Richards has a real chance at making it work. If Doom really wanted to, he could help out Reed and easily make a utopia a reality. The reason he doesn’t do it is because he doesn’t believe in it.

Reed Richards’ utopia would mostly involve Reed coming up with ways for humanity to thrive. That’s all well and good, but it mostly means that one guy would be running things for us like a parent spoiling its children. You might be thinking that that’s no different from what Doom would do if he had the reigns to the planet, but that’s never been Doom’s true point.

Doom is what he is via conflict. He became one of the smartest men on Earth because of conflict with his kingdom, conflict with another super-genius and conflict with the devil himself. In a Reed Richards utopia, there could never be another man like him. Hence, Doom tries to help humanity by causing his own conflicts.

All his plans for world domination are dares for heroes to come forth and stop him. He wants to lose. He wants people to find their potential against him. Many times, even if they fail, he’ll still give them a mulligan.

There was a character back in the 70’s named Prince Rudolfo. He was the son of the man who ruled Latveria before Doom took over. Initially, Rudolfo tried to retake the throne and was suggested to be just as bad, or even worse a ruler than Doom. Although he failed, Doom let him live like a fish sent back into the lake. Rudolfo would try again and again, only he’d become smarter and wiser. Towards the end, he was shown to be serious about being a good leader in comparison to the evil he felt Doom represented.

Later, the Red Skull momentarily took over Latveria. Rudolfo realized that in comparison, Doom is a saint. Red Skull would hold everyone under his thumb, but at least Doom will give you the possibility of beating him. Red Skull ended up killing Rudolfo and Doom didn’t take an ounce of joy out of it.

If anything defines him to me, it’s that.

The Joker

The Joker can seem tricky at first. He’s been written in so many ways that many would say you can’t try to understand his train of thought. He’s not only completely insane in a way man was never meant to be, but he just may be pure evil.

I tend to disagree. The Joker can be explained away quite easily. I think back to the famous scene towards the end of the Killing Joke. Joker admits to Batman that the flashbacks we saw earlier in the story may or may not be the truth. Joker jokes about how he likes to keep his backstory multiple choice. He’s joking to cover up the true pain of his existence.

The Joker is weak. He’s a coward, too afraid to truly look at himself in the mirror.

While the Killing Joke origin may be wrong, it’s accepted that what really happened to him is at least thematically similar. His life messed up for reasons beyond his control and it drove him mad. Ironically, becoming insane was the only rational way the Joker could deal with his problems. To dwell on the reality was too much.

Sometimes you can lie to yourself to help get through your troubles. If you do it enough, you may believe your lies yourself. Then, when you have to deal with the truth, you’ll add on the lies. Eventually, the ramifications will catch up to you. It’s like drinking heavily and having a huge hangover, so you keep drinking to make it go away. Then you have a more painful hangover, so you keep drinking. This is both unhealthy and irresponsible. It’s also the best metaphor I can come up with for the Joker’s mentality.

I’ve said he’s weak and a coward, but a lot has to be said for the Joker’s will. He goes nuts and kills a couple people. Rather than sit there and ponder his conscience like most would, he blocks it out by acting even crazier. When it’s time to deal with his conscience, he still ignores it through insanity. He’s been doing that for years and it’s worked. It’s really impressive, but he’s still going a long way to refrain from dealing with his own horrors as a human being.

A couple times, Martian Manhunter has mentally forced the Joker into sanity. Each time, the Joker becomes absolutely horrified at what he’s done and at one time has become suicidal over it. There was even a time where Manhunter took the Justice League and the Spectre into Joker’s own mind to show that despite how dark and nightmarish it is as a whole, there’s still a dorky family man sitting around in there, smoking a pipe and listening to the radio with his wife.

The Joker is the way he is because there’s that tiny piece of good in him that he can never truly rid himself of, so instead he buries it with evil and chaos. The fact that he does it so well makes him scary.


Magneto’s problem is the opposite of Doom’s. With Doom, he knows that if he helped Reed, they could realize Reed’s dream, except he doesn’t believe in it. Magneto really would like for Xavier’s dream of peace to be a reality, but doubts that even the two of them combined can pull it off. It’s not that he doesn’t believe in Xavier’s dream because it shouldn’t happen, but because as far as he can tell, it can’t.

Magneto’s solution to the war between humans and mutants isn’t something he especially takes pleasure in, but he does it because at the end of the day, it’s still a solution. It shows that Magneto is uncomfortable with complications. Normally, he lacks the strength to go the high road if it leads to uncertainty. He seems to be unaware that this only leads to more problems.

I look at all the alternate universe stories with Magneto and notice a common thread. If Magneto fights the good fight, he usually goes through some hard and tragic experiences, but his side comes out winning. If he plays it as a mutant supremacist, his own closed-mindedness leads to his downfall. One example that comes to mind is a What If issue from the 90’s called What If Magneto Ruled All Mutants. It wasn’t very good, but I always liked the very end.

The story deals with Magneto ruling Asteroid M with much of the mutant population residing there. As far as Magneto considers, since they’re all separate from humanity, mutants can finally reach their golden age. That’s not what happens. Mutants are still human, so they continue to war with each other over dominance. Magneto is able to hold things down every now and again, but knows it won’t hold for forever. Elsewhere, the first baby is born on the asteroid. Beast reads some test results and reveals that this child is not homo-superior, but homo-ultima. Once the kid reaches puberty, he’ll be able to choose his power. A bunch of scared mutants get together and kill the baby, swearing to band together in case this homo-ultima threat shows itself again. In the end, we find out that the baby was really a mutant and Magneto faked the test results in a way to keep all the mutants together. Huge Watchmen ripoff, but it was pleasing to see how even though Magneto is victorious, he’s tortured and humbled by his own hypocrisy.

Bottom line: Magneto is ultimately a good man in potential who just doesn’t have the guts to be a hero. Straying away from that path makes him a colossal failure.


You can talk about the horrible childhood Sabretooth had, even if it wasn’t just a bunch of memories Weapon X implanted into his brain, but none of that really matters. Sabretooth is the mirror of Wolverine. Wolverine went through some hard shit and is now a great hero. The real question isn’t why Sabretooth is evil, but why isn’t Sabretooth like Wolverine? I mean other than the fact that Wolverine still has a pulse.

Like Wolverine and even Deadpool, Sabretooth has done plenty of horrific, irredeemable acts throughout his life. Wolverine and Deadpool have each made the conscious decision to better themselves. Sabretooth didn’t. The sad truth is, Sabretooth never had a reason. But he did have a couple in the Age of Apocalypse timeline.

First off, there was the overkill. Sabretooth loves to maim and slaughter people. He’s addicted to it and it’s part of his feral nature. It’s seemingly biological. Maiming and slaughtering innocent people is against the law and very much looked down on in most places, so there’s always the resistance. That only makes him want to do it more. In the Age of Apocalypse world, he instead gets free reign. Since Apocalypse runs the show, Sabretooth is urged to kill as many weaklings as he can. With that kind of freedom, Sabretooth soon becomes like a child who ate too much candy. There’s only so far you can go until you realize this isn’t a good idea.

Then there is his relationship with Blink. In AoA, Sabretooth has someone worth fighting for. Someone to keep him from freaking out and biting a baby’s head off. He never did have something like that in regular continuity. All he had was a wife whose entire relationship was a lie and a son that grew to hate him.

Sabretooth remained feral all these years because it’s easy and going in the other direction is both difficult and, as far as he was concerned, led to nowhere.


I’ve mentioned this before on the site, but what separates Juggernaut from guys like Hulk and Thing is that Juggernaut is about strength. Hulk and Thing are tortured, tragic heroes who happen to be strong enough to juggle tanks. Juggernaut is unstoppable and his character comes second.

Cain Marko grew up with only one real skill: bullying people around. He wasn’t smart or socially competent or talented in any helpful way, but when it came to shoving around people smaller than him – which is a long list – he excelled. And what does a bully love more than self-proclaimed vindication for what he does? His father beat him, so more reason to bully Charles. Charles used his mind control to attack him, so more reason to hate Charles. Considering how much of an unheroic coward he was in the Korean War (or whatever war his origin has been retconned into), he more than likely used his soldier status as an excuse to continue his bullying ways.

Of course, the reason Juggernaut made for such a great X-Men villain was because he was the opposite of Xavier. Hell, it’s not just his physical perfection, mental weaknesses and his running gimmick, but that he lacks the proactivity of his brother. Xavier moves forward with his plans all the time. He created the X-Men and Cerebro and all that other stuff. All this without using his powers aggressively. Juggernaut is one of the strongest men on Earth and what has he done with his power?

He made for such a good avatar for Cyttorak because Cyttorak gives him orders. Juggernaut needs direction because the best he can come up with is “murder Charles”. Then what? Prior to becoming a good guy, Juggernaut’s only real friend was Black Tom Cassidy. You look at their relationship and you wonder how much of it is based on actual friendship and how much is Black Tom using Juggernaut and Juggernaut being okay with it because he wants to be used. Not only does Black Tom accept Juggernaut being an asshole, but he gives him orders, direction and more excuses to be a bully.

Prior to his redemption and X-Men membership – which I really hope isn’t completely tossed out the window due to World War Hulk: X-Men – Juggernaut’s own existence was a living Hell. Maybe not yet, but eventually. Imagine having to live forever, knowing that no matter how powerful you are physically, you’re just an alienating and one-dimensional idiot that never did anything of importance. How long can you blame others for your own failures as a human being?


He’s so mean that he had a dream that he beat himself up. Imagine that. Bluto isn’t just angry, he’s angry at himself. If you ask me, his plus-sized appearance leads him to hate how he looks and pity himself. Everyone is so afraid of speaking their mind and he believes that they all want to make fun of his weight. Whether they do or not, he believes them to be lying through their silence. This low self-confidence, mixed with unnatural strength leads him to project his hatred out at others and he… um… what I’m trying to get across is… Oh, to hell with it. You know what I mean.

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7 comments to “Overthinking the Bad Guys”

  1. There was an interesting line recently in, um, maybe the Messiah CompleX one-shot where Xavier runs into Sebastian Shaw who remarks that they plus Magneto were supposed to be the leaders of the mutant race, but all they do is fight each other. I’d kind of like to see a What If? where they actually live up to that destiny. Of course, being a What If? they’ll all get killed because their happy mutant utopia isn’t able to stop some threat or something.

  2. Man, Magneto really is an asshole there.

    Is that Ed Asner doing his voice? It sounds just like him.

  3. It’s always interesting to see varying interpretations of these long-standing characters. They’ve become complex simply because there’s so much history behind them (although sometimes that makes them very schizophrenic). Very rarely are they completely defined by one writer, and it’s not necessarily the original creators (it wasn’t until Claremont that Magneto was given some degree of depth, for example). That’s one of the benefits of continuity, writers can pick the bits from a character’s history that they feel are necessary to define the character in the story they want to write. Wether that causes the character to act “out of character” then often becomes debatable. Hell, I’m all for interesting new interpretations of established characters.

    Interesting that you bring up Stark and Pym alongside Reed of course, since there’s a lot of people that would argue they’ve become villains at this point (while I would largely argue against this).

    By the way, Bluto’s attitude is clearly the product of his repressed homosexual urges. He’s gay and he hates himself for it, using his unrelentingly macho attitude to try to cover it up (this includes his literal beard as a metaphore for the “beards”, aka fake wives that some gay men adopt to mask their homosexuality). He fights Popeye not because he hates him, or because he wants Olive Oyl, but because he’s frustrated by his feelings for him. Popeye might be gay too, in fact, and they both just use Olive as an excuse to fight out their feelings. I mean think about it; why would anyone want to date Olive Oyl?

  4. If Popeye were gay, he wouldn’t be closeted. After all, he’s known for saying “I yam what I yam, and that’s all I yam.”

  5. But don’t you know, every time Popeye says it, he feels worse inside. He sets limits on himself by saying it, and inside it breaks his heart every time, because he really wants to dance ballet. (Not that ballet is gay. No sailors are :-p )

  6. Now, wasn’t it in Arkham Asylum where the Joker was described as the “perfect human.” That he was constantly reinventing himself to survive in a fast-paced world. My sources might be off.

    That said, I suppose we should have a moment for Heath Ledger…

  7. zero democracy:

    I would wager that that’s John Stephenson, who did a lot of voices for Hanna-Barbera and Sunbow cartoons from the 70s-90s. He played Alpha Trion on Transformers, Prof. X on the “Pryde of the X-Men” pilot and Captain Murphy (whose first name eludes me, but it wasn’t “Hank”) on Sealab 2020. He does sound like Asner at the very beginning, but as the clip goes on he sounds more and more (to me anyway) like Stephenson.