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CSBG Archive

Lorendiac’s Lists: 14 Motives for Becoming a Supervillain

Here is the archive of the lists Lorendiac posts here, and here is his latest!- BC.

Given that some characters find themselves with extraordinary powers, weapons, scientific genius, or other skills and gimmicks, why do so many of them choose to use their advantages for criminal purposes?

Last year I cranked out a long list of possible motives for becoming a superhero (it’s linked at the bottom of this post). As I was working on that, it occurred to me in passing that someday I might want to follow up with the flip side of the equation — a list of motives for pursuing the lifestyle of the supervillain. As I recall, I initially rejected the idea, because (I said to myself): “After you’ve mentioned greed, sadism, megalomania, and general insanity, how many other motives are there?”

Several more, actually, as I eventually realized when I reexamined the idea much later! Here’s what I came up with, thinking about various villains from comic books (and other forms of fiction) who came to mind as prime examples of people with one motivation or another. (Granting, though, that in some cases a villain may have multiple reasons for doing the nasty things he does, and sometimes different writers will appear to contradict one another over the years as they present different takes on what “really” makes a certain character tick.)

14 Motives for Becoming a Supervillain

01. Greed
02. Sadism
03. Seeking Vengeance
04. Power Trip (including Megalomania)
05. Sheer Insanity
06. Fanatical Reformer
07. Patriotism
08. Survival
09. Wrongfully Accused
10. Undercover Good Guy
11. Brainwashed
12. Ignorant Obedience
13. Action Junkie
14. Family Tradition

01. Greed

“Knocking over a bank is a faster way to make money than anything honest I could be doing!”

Many villains appear to be motivated by Greed more than anything else. If they are fortunate enough to be endowed with superhuman abilities (by mutant genes, or by radioactive accidents, or whatever), then they start thinking they ought to cash in on what they’ve got while they can, and accumulate as much loot as possible until they can retire to live a life of ease! (To be fair about it: Some villains intend to provide for their immediate families as well; so they aren’t just being completely self-centered about this.)

Granted, not all of the villains with this motive will approach the problem by literally attempting anything so high-profile as bank robbery. Consider Wilson Fisk, The Kingpin, who had no true superpowers at all. He was as greedy as the next bad guy; he worked his way up from poverty by combining cleverness and ruthlessness until he dominated the largest organized crime outfit in New York City. He certainly wasn’t afraid of getting a little blood on his hands in the course of his rise to the top, but I don’t recall hearing that he ever personally cleaned out a bank vault in the middle of the night when he was just another ambitious young mobster. (But if he ever did, then I’m sure it was a very carefully planned job which he knew the FBI would never be able to pin on him.)

02. Sadism

“There are some awfully anal-retentive laws against torturing people — so I’ll just have to wear a mask to make it harder to track me down!”

It’s not the money, or at least not entirely. The villain salivates at the thought of having a victim completely helpless within his clutches, squirming and screaming and pleading for mercy. . . .

In Gail Simone’s take on the Crime Doctor, this was the main motive he had for developing a secret life as a costumed criminal. (However, the way the Crime Doctor was presented in his original appearance, in a two-part story written by Michael Fleischer almost thirty years ago, went along different lines. He actually blew his cover once, when heavily disguised and on the run, because he felt the strictures of the Hippocratic Oath nagging at his conscience when a man nearby was collapsing from a heart attack. The Crime Doctor in those days was basically an Action Junkie (see entry further down on this list) who nonetheless didn’t want anyone around him to get seriously hurt or die for lack of expert medical care in a crisis.)

As I pointed out in yet another of my lists (about Deathtraps), many villains exhibit this psychological weakness whenever they are fortunate enough to capture a real live superhero. Instead of just ripping off the captive’s mask, taking photos of his face for future reference, and then blowing his brains out before any unforeseen factors can ruin the moment, they fiddle around with excessively elaborate deathtraps in an effort to stretch out and savor the experience of watching the hero frantically try and fail to find a way out of it. If the villains are really lucky, the hero may even break down and cry, begging for mercy and all that sort of thing . . . before finally dying an agonizing death. (You know and I know that it almost never works out that way, but a supervillain who has succumbed to the lure of sadism is constantly telling himself that “next time will be different!”)

03. Seeking Vengeance

“The end justifies the means, and that man deserves to die, so anything I do to cleanse the world of his presence is fair game!”

This is different from having “sadism” as a fundamental character flaw. The Sadist could get his thrills by causing and savoring the suffering of any of a wide range of potential victims. The Vengeance-Seeker has a deep personal grudge against a particular person or group; he doesn’t particularly want to see anyone else suffer. However, some Vengeance-Seekers are far less fussy than others on the subject of “collateral damage,” such as the incidental maiming or killing of any strangers who “just happen to get in the way” during the Vengeance-Seeker’s pursuit of his primary target.

In his earlier days the Punisher was usually presented as a sample of the “restrained Vengeance-Seeker” category of villain — and he was definitely supposed to be seen as a villain in his first appearances, albeit a fairly “sympathetic” one. He didn’t hesitate to kill mobsters and the like, but he was bound to never deliberately kill or cripple any “honest citizens” who just happened to disagree with his agenda. (Spider-Man and other superheroes, for instance. Or cops who tried to arrest him. Or innocent bystanders.)

04. Power Trip (including Megalomania)

“What good is it, having all this power, unless you can exercise it to the fullest possible extent to reshape the world around you?”

Lex Luthor and Victor Von Doom spring to mind as a pair of “mad scientist” supervillains who have frequently been written this way. Each man knows he is one of the most brilliantly inventive scientific geniuses on the planet; each man knows his IQ is much higher than practically anyone else’s; each man knows he is capable of making tough decisions without being unduly swayed by such trivia as the latest polls of popular opinion; each man knows he could do a much better job of running a city, state, nation, or global civilization than most of the current crop of “political leaders.” Victor has frequently been, off-and-on throughout his career, the ruler of the nation of Latveria; Lex was actually elected President of the United States once (although I never could swallow the premise that Superman wouldn’t tell the American people what he knew for a fact about Lex’s moral shortcomings); both men have had times when they exercised, or worked hard to achieve, considerable political power over even larger areas (such as entire planets).

Those two are extreme cases. Some villains revel in flaunting the power they have somehow achieved (whether it be actual superpowers, or unique technology which gives them a huge advantage over their adversaries, or some other type of “power” entirely), but they aren’t actually trying to settle down in one place as the new dictator of a nation or other large political unit; hence my suggestion in this category’s title that a “power trip” doesn’t always include full-blown “megalomania.” And frankly, while Victor and Lex have actually demonstrated considerable executive ability in the past, some of the other villains who rant and rave about taking over a city, nation, planet, etc., are written as if they would fall miserably short of being able to carry that administrative burden if they ever got to settle down into the role of “chief executive” in the first place. Naturally they don’t see it that way when they look in the mirror and try to gauge their own potentials!

05. Sheer Insanity

“It wasn’t my fault, your honor! Ever since the unfortunate acid bath ruined my complexion and twisted my sense of humor, I just haven’t been myself!”

Obviously I’m thinking of The Joker first and foremost when I ponder this “motive” for going bad. (Please don’t break my heart by telling me you couldn’t even guess that from the sample dialogue I offered!) And of course many of Batman’s other “usual suspects” are routinely confined in Arkham Asylum after each crime spree because they have long since managed to convince the courts that they are not legally sane, and thus not fully accountable for their own actions. (I occasionally see complaints to the effect that over the years, some of Batman’s writers seem to have lost track of which members of his Rogues Gallery show clear symptoms of legal insanity and which ones are just colorfully-clad criminals who “ought to” end up in a regular prison cell, but that’s a different problem.)

06. Fanatical Reformer

“Obviously it’s my destiny to reshape the world the way it ought to be! And if a few people (or a few thousand people, or a few million people) have to die along the way to a new world order, then so be it! You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs!”

Or, to put it another way, the late humorist Finley Peter Dunne offered this definition: “A fanatic is a man who does what he thinks the Lord would do if only He knew the facts of the case.”

Shortly before I began working on this post, I read the first volume of the manga series “Death Note.”

The basic premise that gets the series up and running is that Light Yagami, a teenage boy in Japan, finds a magic notebook which can be used to kill people while leaving no shred of forensic evidence for the police to trace back to the perpetrator. If he just writes a person’s name, while focusing his thoughts on that person’s face (he must know both in advance, and this helps avoid such catastrophes as killing everyone in the world named “John Smith” at the same time), the target soon dies of an apparently natural heart attack. Or Light can write out a much more detailed description of the time and other desired circumstances of a person’s death, and that person will probably die exactly as described — if it’s possible for that scenario to happen in the real world without too many miracles taking place. (If the precise combination of circumstances in the handwritten entry is virtually impossible to achieve in the “real world,” however, then the victim just keels over from a heart attack by default.)

Light showed some degree of self-restraint at first; he told himself he was using the notebook to further the cause of justice and punish the obviously guilty. (His father was a senior police officer, and Light’s lifelong ambition had been to follow in his father’s footsteps after finishing his college education.) He scoured the news for names of notorious murderers and the like (even though most of them, I gathered, were already behind bars and not likely to commit many more murders in the near future), and started killing them off in batches. His initial idea appeared to be: “Hey! If I kill off all the nastiest violent criminals, in a way that makes a big media splash, then perhaps other people will realize that crime really doesn’t pay and will clean up their own acts and the whole world will become a much better place!”

While I disagreed with his methods, I could at least sympathize with the utopian results he hoped to achieve (even if I didn’t expect it to work). But fairly early on, a noted but very secretive freelance detective, usually known by the initial L, makes a television broadcast in which he sternly lectures the mysterious vigilante killer (somehow dubbed “Kira” for lack of a better name) on ethics. (By this time, law enforcement agencies around the world were already taking it for granted that someone, somehow, must be the common cause behind these “spontaneous heart attacks” of dozens of notorious hardcases which were happening so fast and furious in recent weeks, although they would have been hard put to prove in court that any specific case was a murder.)

Instead of just shrugging off this lecture and saying, “Well, I suppose this L guy is entitled to his own silly opinions — sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” Light gets so angry that he writes what he believes to be L’s full name into his trusty notebook (the “Death Note” of the series title) and waits for the “inevitable” heart attack. (L knew nothing about the notebook, but he had anticipated some sort of supernatural attack and had a few extra aces up his sleeve which served him very well, but that’s not the point right now.) Anyway, that was the part where I consciously decided that Light was not just an “antihero,” but a “hot-tempered fanatical villain who’s a threat to everyone and needs to be taken down as quickly as possible.”

(Okay, okay! I probably should have reached that conclusion a tad sooner, but since he was obviously the main character in this story, I was initially inclined to give him some benefit of the doubt while I was still getting my bearings regarding what sort of person Light was and how the author wanted the audience to view the guy. After that scene, there was no longer any doubt that Light was ready to kill anyone who got in his way, or even just annoyed him sufficiently by committing such blasphemies as criticizing his use of the power of life and death, whether those critics were antisocial violent criminal types or not.

07. Patriotism

“I regret that I have but one life to give for my country in a worst-case scenario. And if I first have to sacrifice your life for my country, that’s just tough.”

Some “villains” are not just doing whatever it is that they do for “selfish” purposes (such as satisfying their personal Greed or taste for Sadism) — they are doing it because some “legitimate authority,” such as senior officials of the government of the person’s beloved homeland, has ordered them to do these things! However, since the hero of the story is loyal to some other nation or other cause, we end up with

In his book “Doc Savage: An Apocalyptic Life,” Philip José Farmer pointed out that while the criminals whom Doc Savage and his band of friends fought in the 1930s were frequently just very selfish mad scientists and the like, their fights in the pulp novels of the 1940s were frequently with spies, saboteurs, assassins, etc., who were in the service of one or another of the Axis powers and were presumably only killing people, setting off bombs, stealing scientific secrets, etc., because that was how they could serve the best interests of their beloved homelands in time of war — just as Doc & Co. were carrying deadly weapons and fighting and killing their adversaries in an attempt to serve the best interests of their beloved homeland in time of war! As I recall, Farmer claims that there was no particular acknowledgement, at the time when the war was raging and was being reflected in contemporary pulp novels, that there might be any fundamental difference between the morality of a man who kills several Americans in order to make himself rich and powerful on the one hand, and a man who kills several Americans because he is a patriot fighting a war in plainclothes, on the other hand. Farmer had read all of the Doc Savage pulp novels, which I haven’t, and presumably knew what he was talking about when he indicated that the writers were presenting everything in terms of simplistic black-and-white morality at the time, rather than risk confusing young American readers (or upsetting the editors) by ever suggesting some agents of Axis powers might personally be pretty nice people who just happened to be fighting hard for the wrong side. (Farmer wrote his book in the 1970s, about three decades after the war ended, and sensibilities had already shifted quite a bit since then. Most Americans probably still felt that fighting and winning World War II had been a worthy achievement at the time, but there was a greater willingness to openly recognize that just because someone else had fought against your nation’s armed forces, once upon a time, didn’t automatically brand him as the scum of the earth.)

It occurs to me that I have actually read very few Golden Age comic book stories of costumed superheroes fighting Axis agents during that same era — a few reprinted Superman stories, a few reprinted Captain Marvel stories, that sort of thing — but I imagine the same basic point would apply. I haven’t heard much (if anything) about any German or Japanese or Italian villains of that era who were presented in a sympathetic light. (I know that DC’s Enemy Ace was presented sympathetically from the moment he made his debut in the comic books, he being a German aristocrat who flew a fighter in World War I, but those stories only began in the mid-60s, two decades after WWII had ended and almost half a century after the war in which the Enemy Ace was supposed to have fought.)

On a similar note, for decades after WWII, a fair number of villains who fought American heroes were supposed to be loyal servants of one communist nation or another in the Cold War era. For instance, Natasha Romanoff was the pride and joy of the KGB when she debuted as the Black Widow in the 1960s (although she later switched sides). Many other characters, at both Marvel and DC, began along similar lines. However, since the USSR per se ceased to exist in 1991, it gets harder and harder for “modern” audiences to see a youthful-looking costumed character as “a relic of the Cold War, who was already an adult operative in the bad old days.”

Note: A few years ago I saw someone on a discussion forum cleverly suggest that in the DCU it’s quite possible that the notorious “sliding timeline” effect, which lets the famous superheroes (Superman, Batman, etc.) age so slowly, always in prime physical condition in “the present day” no matter how long it’s been since they debuted from our perspective, may also mean that the Soviet Union perpetually is something that ceased to exist “just a few years ago” from those characters’ point of view, instead of having collapsed at the same time it did in our own timeline! As far as I am aware, no one at DC (or Marvel) has ever “firmly established” that there is a huge gap between the “actual history” of the end of the Soviet Union and the “in-continuity chronology” of the same event, but it would certainly help explain a lot about why Black Widow at Marvel, Red Star at DC, and various other “former Communist agents” still look pretty darn youthful, without requiring that their origin stories be entirely rewritten to remove any hint of ever working for a Communist government in the long-ago days before Boris Yeltsin ever served as President of the Russian Federation.

08. Survival

“I know what I’m doing is against the local laws, and I know it’s probably immoral to boot, but I’m not ready to die just yet!”

Consider, for instance, various vampiric characters who have been willing to feed upon (and kill) regular people in order to satisfy their supernatural craving for fresh blood. (Granted, some vampiric characters have worked very hard to avoid killing anybody — DC had Andrew Bennett and Marvel had Hannibal King.)

On a much larger scale: Galactus goes around draining the energy out of entire planets, about one per month, in order to sustain his own life. Frequently the planet was inhabited by an intelligent species before he arrived — and those denizens are no longer among the living after he leaves. Although I don’t know if the parameters for a suitable planet have ever been clearly defined in dialogue, I get the strong impression that gas giants, such as Jupiter or Saturn, completely lack whatever cosmic nutrients he requires. Planets of a generally “Earthlike” nature appear to suit his needs much better. As one notorious example: The entire population of the Skrull Throneworld died when Galactus dropped in for dinner in the mid-80s, although zillions of Skrulls were still alive and well on other worlds of their Empire.

Galactus doesn’t do this out of any particular malice against other sentient species; it’s just that he figures his survival takes priority over theirs. (I like to think that in his situation I would just grit my teeth and curl up and die in the name of preserving my self-respect if I couldn’t find a suitable non-inhabited world every single time, but who knows?)

09. Wrongfully Accused

“Why should I rot in a prison cell, or maybe even face the death penalty, for something I didn’t do? No matter what the judge and jury said?”

Sometimes the character was a reasonably honest citizen until he was horribly mistreated by the justice system — with the result that he becomes extremely bitter and sees no reason to abide by “society’s laws” afterwards, now that the legal system has already branded him as a vicious criminal anyway, leaving him with very little to lose by becoming exactly what they called him. However, this will differ significantly from the “Seeking Vengeance” motive if the villain has not specifically dedicated himself to hunting down and killing (or otherwise severely punishing) the people who were directly involved in his unjust arrest and conviction.

The best example I could remember comes from a story that is not a comic book. The bestselling swashbuckling novel Captain Blood, by Rafael Sabatini.

As the novel starts in 1685, Peter Blood is a physician with some military experience who currently lives quietly in a village in England. James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, is claiming to be the rightful heir to the recently deceased King Charles the Second, and is raising an army in this part of England to support his claim by force of arms. Blood is not particularly political; he has no faith in Monmouth’s claim and feels no need to take up arms for either side. He sees most of the able-bodied men of the town marching off to fight with the rebel army, and thinks they’re being pretty stupid.

However, after the battle (which Monmouth and his rebels lost), Blood answers a summons to rush to a local farm to treat a wounded nobleman — a friend of his — who had been serving Monmouth’s cause. Then British soldiers came along and arrested every man they found on the farm, including Blood and his patient, as “traitors.” A few months later Peter Blood is convicted of high treason. His argument that, as a doctor, he had very little interest in judging a patient’s politics, is rejected as outrageous by the judge. (Hippocratic Oath? Who cares about some silly Hippocratic Oath?)

Meanwhile, the patient himself was never convicted of anything — his family apparently bought his freedom from the government, even though the patient had been shooting at the king’s soldiers on the battlefield, whereas Blood had been strictly a noncombatant.

Peter Blood is facing a death sentence, but instead he becomes one of hundreds of convicts who are shipped to the West Indies to work as plantation slaves for the next ten years. If you survive the decade of forced labor, you’ll be set free, having paid your debt to society. Blood somehow develops a very jaundiced view of the British legal system as a result. When he and some new friends (other convict-slaves) see an opportunity to seize control of a ship and go into the pirating business, they do so, with Blood becoming their leader, “Captain Blood,” and spending the next few years as the terror of the Caribbean. He was written in a way that made us sympathize with him, but there was no getting around the fact that he was doing villainous things for self-centered reasons in the ongoing effort to steal treasure from those who already had it. (Although he was eventually pardoned by a new monarch and ostensibly “rehabilitated” for a romantic happy ending at the last minute.)

Incidentally, this was the swashbuckling novel which made Rafael Sabatini a bestselling author after many years of toiling in obscurity. Later, a movie adaptation featured Errol Flynn as the title character, in what became his first big role in Hollywood.

Ater I typed out all of the above, it belatedly occurred to me that Bane’s motivation was similar when he debuted as a Batman villain in the early 1990s. He spent his entire childhood, from the moment of his birth, serving what was supposed to be a “life sentence” in a prison in Santa Prisca because of something his absent father had allegedly done. He grew up to be very tough and determined, and also showing complete contempt for the concepts of “respecting the legal code, rules made by other people, as your social duty.” (If I had grown up in a miserable prison through no fault of my own, I’d probably feel much the same way — “Justice is a myth. It’s a dog-eat-dog world and I have to find a way to break out of here and make myself rich and powerful, by any means necessary.”)

10. Undercover Good Guy

“I have to make noises like a villain in order to complete the mission, but it will all come right in the end.”

Sometimes we learn that an obvious villain is actually just playing a role, for unselfish motives. He’s fooled practically everyone, but the endgame is meant to justify anything that happened along the way.

As an example of where this roleplaying had occurred mostly in the past, before the plot of the story really got rolling: In the novel The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum (vastly superior to the movie with Matt Damon), the hero — sometimes known as Jason Bourne — spends much of the story feeling very worried that he may have been (before getting amnesia some months ago) a notoriously cold-blooded professional assassin. We eventually learned (long before he did) that Bourne had spent the last few years of his life working for a special unit within the CIA, passing himself off as a high-priced freelance assassin without actually murdering anybody as he went along. The general idea was that if someone very high-profile — such as a controversial politician or powerful gangster in the Far East — got himself killed, and if it wasn’t immediately obvious who had done the deed, then members of the special unit would start planting clues and rumors to encourage the authorities (and the world of organized crime, and so forth) to believe that this had been another brilliant job by the deadly freelancer codenamed “Cain,” who, as usual, had made a clean getaway before anyone on the scene recovered from the shock. This way, as Bourne tried to infiltrate the underworld of organized terrorism and murder-for-hire and so forth, he’d be able to point to an impeccable resume if anyone challenged his credentials. “How could I be an agent of Interpol, or the CIA, or any of those other agencies, when I’ve already killed so many important people in so many different lands? You don’t really think any of those stuffy Western bureaucracies would take such horrible risks, do you?”

The problem was that the CIA had done such a great job of building his cover story that even Bourne himself tended to believe it after he developed the amnesia! This made it highly unlikely that he would feel inclined to simply walk into the nearest police station and beg for help in sorting out his personal history . . . meanwhile, what with his having gone for months without making contact with his handlers, and then behaving very oddly when he started being spotted in various European cities again, Bourne was judged by the CIA to have “gone rogue,” so they eventually put out a contract on him. He had never really been a cold-blooded villain, and he didn’t want to be one from now on, but he thought he had been, and his former employers assumed he had finally been corrupted by the role he had previously played so long and so well!

I am told that Ed Brubaker has recently explored a similar theme in his series “Sleeper” (without the amnesia angle?), but I’ve not yet read any of it.

11. Brainwashed

“I couldn’t help myself! My thinking had been twisted inside out by the real villain, and I thought I was doing the right thing!”

This is different from simple Insanity, the way I see it, because this time the serious glitches in the “villain’s” thinking processes have been deliberately inserted by some other party in pursuit of a certain agenda. (In contrast, Two-Face’s mental problems seem to have stemmed from various unpleasant things which happened to Harvey Dent, including being abused by his father as a child (in at least one version of his origin) and being hideously scarred by Boss Maroni’s acid in the middle of a trial, but neither Harvey’s father nor Boss Maroni were deliberately trying to turn Harvey into a case of “split personalities”; it just happened to work out that way.)

One example would be DC’s second Red Tornado, an android created by T.O. Morrow who was programmed to infiltrate and destroy both the JSA and the JLA. Having a computerized brain which has been programmed to do nasty things strikes me as the functional equivalent of having been “brainwashed” into acting as a supervillain . . . although Reddy was eventually able to shake off that conditioning as his thought processes became sophisticated enough to let him develop free will. (A few decades later, Grant Morrison wrote a story in which an android called “Tomorrow Woman,” a joint venture by Morrow and Professor Ivo, went through much the same routine, successfully infiltrating the JLA, but ultimately choosing to commit suicide rather than destroy the rest of them as her programming would have required. )

12. Ignorant Obedience

“Villainy? What villainy? I’m no villain!” (I’m a hero?)

Sometimes the character is brave, patriotic, unselfish, and feels he has good reason to see himself as pretty darn heroic. Except that there are things he simply doesn’t know about the real circumstances, with the result that another hero might justifiably look at this person’s actions, and superior officers, and so forth, and see the guy as an “obvious villain.”

Of course, just about any veteran superhero you might name has been the victim of bad information occasionally.. Kicking down the wrong door, hitting and arresting the wrong suspect, thinking he’s being helpful by returning “stolen property” to its “rightful owner” when he’s actually stealing it from the proper owner and handing it over to a very smooth liar . . . that sort of thing. But such instances are usually just quick plot gimmicks to be resolved by the end of an issue, or of a longer story arc. Spending months or years at a time doing the wrong things for the right reasons — because you’ve been systematically deceived in a very big way — is rarer.

The “Alias” TV show started out with this premise. For several years before the main action of the pilot episode, protagonist Sydney Bristow had been working for SD-6, which she (and many of her co-workers) honestly believed to be an ultra-secret division of the CIA, sending its field agents out on all sorts of mysterious black ops in accordance with the needs of the national security of their beloved United States of America. But it turned out that SD-6 actually had nothing to do with the U.S. government, and thus “national security” was quite irrelevant to the real agenda behind the orders Sydney had been faithfully carrying out all this time. In effect, she had been acting as the very talented and effective stooge of a villainous conspiracy, over and over again, without having a clue that such was the case!

13. Action Junkie

“Oh, yeah! Another chance to hack and slash and dodge bullets and leap from rooftops and outwit security systems and outrun cops and prove I’m the roughest and toughest operator in the business! If I couldn’t do this three times a week, I think I’d blow my brains out from sheer boredom!”

I also listed “Action Junkie” as a motive for being a superhero in the relevant list. I offered the example of Wolverine — in his early years with the X-Men, he seemed to hang out with them, as much as anything, because it was a “socially acceptable” way to find one slugfest after another in which he could test himself to the limits and slash at enemies with his claws and still be regarded as a rather “heroic” individual, instead of just getting branded as a mad dog.

By the same token, there have been villains who seemed to be in it for the quick thrills, testing themselves against all sorts of danger and enjoying the regular adrenaline rushes, rather than pursuing a burning desire to make a million dollars as quickly as possible, or a strong taste for sadism, or a burning need to seek vengeance upon a particular target, or anything like that. Catwoman’s apparent motives have fluctuated considerably in the decades since her first appearance, but sometimes she seems to have a lot of this element in her personality. Testing her skills against “state-of-the-art” security systems, and even against Batman, is a lot more challenging and exciting than it would be to hold down a job on the “legal” side of society.

14. Family Tradition

“I’ll do this by the book, the way my parents taught me!”

Childhood upbringing is very important in shaping personality. In real life, there are people who become cops, firemen, soldiers, etc., in large part because that’s what Dad did, and Grandpa, and maybe even Great-Grandpa, and various uncles and great-uncles and so forth. And by the same token, there are people who are born into Mafia families (or the functional equivalent by other names, involving people from other ethnic backgrounds) who grow up absorbing the attitudes of the senior members of the family and feeling that doing things the family way is far more important than respecting such abstractions as “the law of the land” in such areas as gambling, drug running, prostitution, loan sharking, protection rackets, and the occasional murder.

These family traditions carry over to the superhero comic books, of course. Many heroes at Marvel and DC are “legacy” characters following in the footsteps of more or more previous heroes (sometimes their parents, grandparents, foster parents, or other family members), and the same applies to some of the villains they face. Jack Knight, son of the Golden Age Starman, had a lot of trouble with two of the offspring of the Golden Age Mist (one of them killed his brother David at the beginning of James Robinson’s “Starman” series), even though he personally would have been willing to live and let live if the Mist’s family had simply shown his family the same courtesy. Captain America has had to deal with such people as the son and heir of the previous Baron Zemo and the daughter of the original Red Skull.

On a similar note: In “The New Teen Titans #20″ (first series of that title), Marv Wolfman and George Perez introduced us to a new villain called The Disruptor. His real name was Michael Beldon; by the end of the story it was revealed that his father was “Brains” Beldon, a criminal mastermind who had fought Batman in one old Silver Age story and then had promptly been forgotten by DC for about the next twenty years, until reappearing this one as he tried to earn a high position in the administration of the H.I.V.E. It appeared that he had spent the intervening time raising his son by setting ridiculously high expectations and then making Michael try (and fail) to win his approval. Michael was really a pathetic case by the time we met him, repeatedly knocking Titans for a loop with the powers of his fancy suit and then hoping his father would pat him on the head and tell him he was a good boy. (Didn’t happen.) It was painfully clear that Michael didn’t care about money, or have any particular reason to seek “revenge” on the Titans in particular, or anything of the other motives I’ve listed; he was just trying to be a “worthy son” to his brilliant father.

That’s it for the 14 Motives I came up with on my own. As always, I take it for granted that my first attempt to analyze a complicated subject is less than perfect. If you can think of any motives I completely overlooked, or you see any flaws in my explanations and examples for the ones I included, then please say so! If you want me to consider adding another motive to future drafts of this list, however, it will help immensely if you mention at least one specific example of a villain whom you feel illustrates your point. Then I can double-check his origin story (and/or other appearances) and judge for myself whether or not you have a strong point!

Meanwhile, here are some links to many the previous posts I’ve done over the last four years, in what I have come to think of as my “Numbered List” series. Every once in a while it amuses me to think about some odd aspect of the superhero genre, and to try to list and explain all the different approaches I can remember for that sort of thing.

12 Motives for Killing a Comic Book Character
17 Excuses for Bringing Back a Dead Character
16 Types of Retcons
19 Ways to End a Superhero’s Romance
22 Ways to Show a Superhero Killing Someone
9 Categories of Continuity
5 Types of Superhero Team Members
Secret Identities: 10 Ways to Unspill the Beans
Superhero Finances: 10 Situations
13 Reasons to Use a Deathtrap
14 Functions for a Superhero Costume
10 Types of Superhero Successors
14 Ways to Rehabilitate a Disgraced Hero
14 Motives for Becoming a Superhero
12 Tricks for Keeping Superheroes Young
13 Reasons to Quit the Superhero Racket
12 Rationales for a Hero-Versus-Hero Slugfest on the Cover
What To Do With a Supervillain After You Catch Him: 12 Options

36 Comments

Nice job, as always.

How about if the villain is just trying to save somebody? Like Mr. Freeze?

Mr. Freeze, as mentioned above, is an example of a type of supervillain BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES used repeatedly — the guy screwed over by life.

B: TAS repeatedly did revised origins for villains that painted them as good (or at least talented) people who were driven to crime after a gangster or corrupt millionaire blackmailed them, stole their invention, etc.

This has often found its way into both comic and film/TV. In the first Spider-Man film, Norman Osborn tests the Green Goblin chemicals on himself in a desperate attempt to save his company, then wipes out his competition, his treacherous board, etc…it’s presented as a parallel to Spider-Man, in the sense that Peter creates an irresponsible alter-ego who must become a responsible hero, while Osborn creates this villainous alternate personality, but refuses to take responsibility for his actions.

This type of villain tends to show up more and more in TV/movies — possibly to provide actors with a deeper character to play. But it does seem to be a trend, the character who, like the hero, is beaten down by bad luck — but instead chooses to fight back by taking what he wants, or out-and-out vengeance (see also: Harvey Dent in THE DARK KNIGHT).

where would Clayface fit? i know of one version at least that was doing what he did because he didn’t want to be a monster anymore. Would that be like the first example? for selfish reasons?

I’m sure a couple of villians have motives of “I was bored”… does that come under “Action Junkie”?

Oh, yes, I re-read it… sorry.. :-(

Bernard the Poet

August 18, 2008 at 11:01 am

What about simple straight-forward economic neccessity. In the Killing Joke, the Joker adopts the Red Hood identity, because he needs to pay the rent and he has a baby on the way. You could probably stick him into either your ‘Greedy’ or ‘Survival’ category, but I’m not sure that it would be an entirely comfortable fit.

Can I also second Zack Smith’s ‘screwed over by life’ entry. In a lot of Will Eisner’s Spirit stories, the antagonist is often a decent person who just seems to get overwhelmed by events.

And finally, there was a Marvel Team Up in the mid-eighties with Iron Man and Spiderman. In that issue, we see Whiplash trying to go straight. Unfortunately no one believes him, he can’t get a job and his family won’t talk to him. In the end, it is just easier to go back to being a supervillain. I don’t know what you’d call that category, maybe, ‘too lazy not to be a supervillain’.

A couple of notes and suggestion for two new categories:

— The Crime Doctor is a Golden Age villain; Fleischer’s version hews rather closely to the original’s motives as an honest, caring doctor with a sick compulsion to crime. The GA Crime Doctor was initially captured because he stopped to help an injured person.

15. The “Necessary” Evil Some villains don’t just do evil things or have evil motives: they are, in some sense, evil itself (or at least something humans perceive as evil itself). Mephisto, for example, has been explained in some appearances as a being who exists because evil exists, a sort of abstract representation of the concept of evil. When Franklin Richards destroyed him at one point, Dr. Strange solemnly intoned (as solemnly intoning is his primary reason for making guest appearances) that Mephisto would be recreated forever so long as humans have evil in their hearts. Similarly, at times Thanos has supposedly been a necessary agent of Death in a universe where those pesky superheroes save too many people and unbalance the scales of mortality.

16. Insentient Evil These guys aren’t brainwashed; you need a personality and a mind to be brainwashed. They have no motivations of their own, but run on simple instinct or programming that doen’t quite reach the level of an intelligent mind. The original Sentinels are arguably like this: they aren’t bigoted or sadistic or power-hungry, they’re just programmed to protect humans from mutants and follow that program to its logical conclusion. Ditto such foes as HYDRA’s Dreadnaughts. Some supernatural villains, like zombies, are essentially mindless things running on order, the magical equivalent of insentient robots. Remove the programming or the command and they just stand there or fall over, inanimate.

Similarly, the various feral beasts and monsters might fit here. The Mole Man’s creatures, for example, or Dormammu’s Mindless Ones, or the X-Men’s adversary the Wendigo are not directed by any motivation beyond pure animal instinct. Similarly, Bruce Banner’s various turns as the mindless Hulk are essentially this sort of villain (or at least antihero).

The line can get blurry here. The Super-Adaptoid started out as a machine programmed to kill Captain America. Next it developed a megalomania for conquest, which seemed to put it in the Power Trip category. Eventually, Dr. Druid worked out that event he Power Trip was just part of the original program, and the Adaptoid itself had no idea what to do after achieving total power. Captain America then used its original programs to imitate and kill to trick it into “adapting” and demonstrating the ability to die. Since then, the S-A has vacillated between genuine sentience and Power Tripping and turning up as a mindless weapon aimed at whoever it was last programmed to attack.

Oh, and to Matthew E: Mr. Freeze has pretty much never been about saving his wife Nora outside of one movie and one animated movie. In the comics, he started as simply greedy and has proceeded through various iterations of simple Sadism and Sheer Insanity. In the Animated continuity, he stayed evil even after saving his wife because he realized he still couldn’t be with her, and simply started “sharing his pain” by destroying what others held dear. In the comics, he’s gotten loopier and loopier. At one point during the “City of Crime” arc in Detective Comics, he was abducting random women, calling them “Nora,” and trying to “marry” them while they froze to death in his refrigerated sanctum. Basically, Freeze really isn’t out to save anybody the vast majority of the time.

Omar: Well, okay, but it’s still a motive.

I would add “Amoral thirst for knowledge” typified by Daedalus and Faust in classical literature and the High Evolutionary in comics. These people are not seeking riches world domination but they consider themselves exempt from the moral constraints society in their pursuit of their studies.

Hmm, I think I’d put most of the Flash’s Rogues in the Action Junkie category. Most of them could have made far more money by licensing their technology than they ever do by knocking over jewelry stores, but they just can’t seem to stop playing the game. Come to think of it, the setup for Rogues’ Revenge is that they’ve finally gotten tired of the game and just want out.

Of course, then there’s Zoom, a very focused Fanatical Reformer.

If you were Galactus and you had the choice of (a) consuming the life-energy of a planet which harbored a sapient race or (b) saving your self-respect by lying down and dying, you probably wouldn’t lie down and die, unless something was wrong in your head. Your DNA programs you to survive, and Galactus had something like DNA once.

Is “Fanatical Reformer” the same as “Misguided Motives”?

An example of “Misguided Motives” might be one of the many FORMER portrayals of Lex Luthor. Lex has gone through a lot of them, and they’ve been dropped, revised, etc. with regularity, but its fair to say that for a time Lex was portrayed as someone who on some level genuinely thought opposing Superman was some kind of sacred duty to protect humanity from growing weak by over-reliance on this alien.

Later that was “undone” as his motive when it became implied that this was just an excuse he used to cover his own selfish thirst for power, but I believe that the people writing him during the earlier period genuinely wrote him with that other motive, and the change was a “retcon”.

Ozymandius from Watchmen would fall into “Necessary Evil”…

His good intentions in the long term require evil events to get there…

But that really is encompassed by “Fanatical reformer” – it doesn’t matter how you get tehre, it’s the end result that counts…

Galactus isn’t really a villian… He’s more a cosmic force…

Vincent Paul Bartilucci

August 18, 2008 at 3:39 pm

How about the Sphinx?

If I’m remembering correctly, he sort of had the flip side of Survival. He became a villain in an effort to end his immortal life. Or am I misremembering?

@Blackjack

I don’t think “Necessary Evil” means that a guy feels like he has to do something bad in order to get a good result. i think it’s more meant to denote one of those guys that are explained as being some core component of “cosmic balance” or whatnot. You know, someone that usually sparks a long soliloquy or lecture about how we need the bad to recognize the good, etc, etc.

It’d be a good addition to the list, I think, even if there are a relatively small number of them out there. Like you said, I think Ozymandias is a pretty clear case of fanatical reformer. You could make that argument for the High Evolutionary, Apocalypse, and the like, too, but you would really have to stretch the category a bit.

Heey, nice work, Mr. Lorendiac! (and thanks to Brian for bringing this to my attention.) I’ll bookmark these links for future reference. :)

Re: Action Junkie — Check out Roxy Rocket from Batman: TAS and an early Dini Detective Comic issue for a perfect example of that.

Have a good day.
John Cage

One more motive I could suggest; Respect. “I just want my props, man!”

Some guy just wants to gain a rep for being tough, and decides that taking down a superhero is the way to go. In some ways, the original Thunderbolts fell into that category. They turned to crime out of greed, but all they wanted was attention, a rep, respect. While Zemo was devoted to his plan of conquest, the others realized that being heroes gave them the respect they craved.

I’d add good old-fashioned Jealousy to the list. Sometimes this can be classified as Power Trip or Vengeance, but villains like Doom and Luthor are often motivated (or at least claim to be motiated) simply by the desire to prove that they are better than a chosen rival. Doom doesn’t so much want to rule the world, but wants people to acknowledge that he’d run the world better than Reed Richards. For another example, Flintheart Glomgold specifically wants to be richer than Scrooge McDuck, and not necessarily just richer.

How about “Obsession” as a motive? This would be for villains who want one thing so badly that they’re willing to do anything to get it, and have run out of legitimate avenues. Some of these would overlap with insanity, like Paper Doll from a recent Amazing Spider-Man arc (obsessed fan stalking an actor and killing anyone who she considered a threat to him or to their “relationship”) or Gollum from the Lord of the Rings books, who are both clearly insane, but their insanity isn’t the driving force behind their evil acts (e.g., when Gollum fights the ring’s influence and “becomes” Smeagol, he’s not as evil, but still crazy).

There are also obsessed characters who aren’t (generally considered) insane. Any of the “insatiable thirst for knowledge” (like Krona, the scientist whose need to see the origin of the universe set off the first Crisis, or Mr. Sinister for that matter) or “unrequited love” (Namor in the early days when he would periodically kidnap Sue Storm, or Maxima) villains act out of an overriding desire for something other than money, survivial, revenge, etc.

You know, if “Sadism” is a possible motive, it occurs to me that in certain cases “Masochism” could be too. It’s kind of a variation of the “Action Junkie”. In some cases it could also be something like “Drama Queen”.

Basically it would be someone who does it to get attention. The “Masochism” sub-variant might actually enjoy the negative aspects of the attention, while the straight up “Drama Queen” would just be looking for attention at any cost.

“You know, if “Sadism” is a possible motive, it occurs to me that in certain cases “Masochism” could be too. It’s kind of a variation of the “Action Junkie”. In some cases it could also be something like “Drama Queen”.”

Or the guy in Watchmen who likes tro be beaten up – “Rorshach dropped him down a lift shaft!” Can’t remember his name..

Rorschach gave the shaft to Captain Carnage. (Not like that! Rorschach’s straight, er, sorta!)

R. J. Sterling said:
If you were Galactus and you had the choice of (a) consuming the life-energy of a planet which harbored a sapient race or (b) saving your self-respect by lying down and dying, you probably wouldn’t lie down and die, unless something was wrong in your head. Your DNA programs you to survive, and Galactus had something like DNA once.

On the one hand: When I wrote that side comment about what I believe I would do in Galactus’s position, I considered adding a wry acknowledgment that in real life I know perfectly well I will never be in Galactus’s position, so it’s easy to talk bravely about what I might do in those circumstances! But I didn’t bother to add that bit. (I probably decided it was an unnecessarily redundant statement, since all my readers would know that without being told.)

On the other hand: Your sweeping assertion about what I would “probably” do, and why, really surprises me. Throughout history, many human beings have chosen to die because of the principles they believed in, when it might have seemed a lot easier to break those principles for personal convenience. Religious martyrs, for instance. I am a big believer in free will. I don’t think DNA automatically overrides the free will of a sentient person when that person is facing death in the near future because of a moral decision he has recently made.

Bernard the Poet

August 19, 2008 at 11:51 am

Sorry to break it to you Lorendiac, but there is no such thing as free will. Every decision we make is governed by our desire to gain pleasure and/or avoid pain.

Religious martyrs etc, get there pleasure from adhering to their faith/principles etc, but their brain is still basically wired the same way as everybody else’s brain.

Look at any history book or problem page or work of fiction and you won’t see many examples of free will.

‘Why did Hitler invade Russia?’ Because of his hatred of Communism, desire for living space, oil, etc, etc, etc. But no historian has ever written it’s because he had free will.

You’re mistaking free will with motivation. Free will is merely exercising a choice. It does not require that such a choice not have motives behind. Whether or not a person gets some sense of pleasure or self satisfaction from a difficult choice does not mean they didn’t choose freely. Also, that feeling does not negate that the person knows he/she may be giving up a long and happy life if he/she acts for self preservation. Free will is a conscious decision, not an unmotivated one.

Bernard the Poet

August 19, 2008 at 1:02 pm

“Free will is a conscious decision, not an unmotivated one.”

But if all decisions are motivated by a desire to increase pleasure and/or avoid pain, it amounts to the same thing.

Bernard the Poet —

Usually when someone says “sorry to break it to you,” I figure that means approximately the following: “You probably don’t know this yet, and I suspect it’s going to make you unhappy to hear it now, but I feel I ought to tell you anyway.”

If that was roughly what you meant, then let me take a load off your mind: There was nothing you needed to be “sorry” about in this case, because your basic position on free will was one to which I’d been exposed many times before, and seeing it summarized once again did not cause me any mental anguish! :)

I do not know just how many science fiction stories I have read in my lifetime, but it’s certainly up in the thousands. A fair number of them have dealt with such questions as predestination vs. free will, “shaping the course of history” or “being trapped in the history that can’t be altered,” calculating mathematically what will happen in the future or perhaps having “precognitive visions” by some other means, failing or succeeding in “changing the future” once you have good reason to know what it’s supposedly “destined to be” if things go on as they have been doing, and many other related related questions. Naturally different authors take different positions on the answers to these questions, such as how much “free will” (if any) their characters “really” seem to have . . . and some authors seem to stay officially neutral on the weighty questions they are examining; not clobbering us in a heavy-handed fashion with their personal beliefs on those points, but merely allowing some of their characters to argue such points vigorously without reaching any sort of consensus on the significance of whatever it was that just happened to them, and what it might or might not prove!

So, while I firmly believe that I have free will, I don’t scream in terror at the “shocking discovery” that some people firmly believe I don’t!

P.S. Incidentally, I have some trouble with your sweeping assertion that no historian has ever asserted Hitler exercised free will in his decision to invade Russia . . . for one thing, how can you make such a firm statement unless you’ve read every page of every book ever written by any historian, in any nation on Earth, who ever examined the subject and wrote something about it? And if a historian said, for instance, “It appears that Hitler chose to invade Russia because [fill in the blank],” does “chose” indicate an implicit assumption that Adolf had “free will” in the matter, to some degree, even if the historian doesn’t bother to use the exact phrase “free will”? Or would you only count it if that exact phrase did get used?

Jealousy and Obsession are interesting suggestions; worthy of further study. While some of the more obsessive crooks passed through my mind as I was working on this (Two-Face and his obsession with two, twins, doubles, matched pairs, binary compounds, etc., springs to mind), I suppose I probably thought of the examples I remembered of “obsessive villains” as just falling under the umbrella of the vaguely defined “Insanity” motivation. That may have been short-sighted of me. And now that I think on it, an awful lot of villains in literature have started down the wrong path because of love triangles or some other form of jealousy which they weren’t mature enough to control when it became clear they weren’t going to be the “big winner” for whatever prize was originally at stake (a beautiful woman, a throne, a promotion, public recognition as the person “chiefly responsible” for a great achievement, or whatever).

But if all decisions are motivated by a desire to increase pleasure and/or avoid pain, it amounts to the same thing.

But as far back as the 18th century (and likely before it), people were arguing quite convincingly that we make choices regarding what gives us pleasure or pain. Kant called them judgments of taste; De Sade saw no line between the two; and a century later, Sacher-Masoch claimed an inverse relationship between them.

I think the lack of any universal aesthetics — see the bitter debates within comics fandom, among other examples — point to some degree or realm of choice even with respect tot he expression and presentation of seemingly basic neurological-biological cues.

What about people who are just in it for the paycheck? Like, they may not necessarily like being a villain, but they might be good at what they do, and a job’s a job? Hitmen, assassins, and henchmen, for instance.

If these fall into an already established category, I apologize, but they don’t seem to me like they do.

What about people who are just in it for the paycheck? Like, they may not necessarily like being a villain, but they might be good at what they do, and a job’s a job? Hitmen, assassins, and henchmen, for instance.

Isn’t that just greed?

I think criminals who collect steady paychecks from other, more successful criminals, are still just samples of the “greed” motive. They just aren’t doing anything so high-profile as stealing a few million bucks from a bank vault and trying to become independently wealthy in one fell swoop.

I cited Wilson Fisk as an example of a greedy gangster who started out dirt poor and rose to the top of the criminal pecking order in New York City — and on a lesser scale, I would say that all the rank-and-file thugs who filled niches in his organization, doing criminal deeds on a daily basis in exchange for guaranteed incomes which were probably better than they could make in legal jobs (especially if they hadn’t bothered to pursue higher education), were also motivated by greed. They didn’t have the same combinations of extreme greed, cleverness, and ruthlessness which served The Kingpin so well, but basically they were ignoring the law of the land whenever it would interfere with making more money, same as he was!

Thought of one last night… While reading Sinestro Corps war…

Suicide. Cyborg Superman wants to die. He can’t kill himself, so he hopes that by committing more and more atrocities, finally someone will be able to grant him his reward: Oblivion! Whether it be Superman or the Anti-Monitor…

I think there have been a couple of others over the years, but he’s the only currently active one I can think of at the moment…

Awesome!!!!
Helped me a Lotttttttttt!!!!!!!

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