Villains are notoriously hard to write, and perhaps none more so than comic book Supervillains. Suffering from the larger problem of consequence negation, villains have gone from threatening antagonist to monthly punching bags. Even world-shakers and cosmic level threats lose their luster after getting their butt’s kicked for almost 50 years.
This is one of the biggest pitfalls comic book writers are forced to navigate around. How do you establish any real sense of danger or urgency without breaking the cardinal rule of the comic book industry: Don’t Kill the Money. After all, who’s going to make the villain that kills Spider-Man?
Nobody at Marvel is going to kill Spider-Man and yes I mean actually kill him. No going back in time, no alternate time lines, no dreams, no warped reality, no “this is just one possible future”, no clones, no “dude pretending to be spider-man”. I’m talking straight up, Peter Parker, Spider-Man Earth 616 completely and utterly and permanently dead. The villain who pulls that off is going to hold a place in every comic fan’s heart as… The villain that ended their favorite series. That writer would need to be able to justify killing off Marvel’s poster-boy, and flagship character that has in turn generated billions of dollars for the company. It’s just a stupid move from a business stand-point.
Protected by consequence-immunity and legacy, it’s really not fair for super-villains. How are they supposed to stand a chance against an enemy who is completely immune to death? How do you create a sense of danger and panic in your foes when your latest world conquest is brushed aside so effortlessly? We have villains who have been around for over 40 years who have a track record of being defeated for just as long and we’re still looking to our writers to create danger for our protagonist.
Do writers need to keep rehashing Dr. Doom’s master plans for readers who have the full knowledge and certainty that whatever Victor does it’s just going to fail anyways? Even if we’re going to introduce an entirely new villain (note that all of your favorite supervillains are at least 30 years old) and invest in them as a recurrent characters, they’re eventually going to go through the same cycle and ultimately face the same fate. Even if their debut does something heart-stopping and incredibly wicked they all meet the same destiny of being used over and over again until their appearance generates little more than a sarcastic, “oh no, what are they going to do now…”
Don’t get me wrong. Certain writers have taken this restriction and have done incredibly innovative takes on the villain. They recognize that super-villains are much more than just “the bad guy” They have written them with a level of sympathy and have blurred the fine line of morality far more than anyone gives them credit for.
Furthermore, writers know that mortality is a jagged mountain face that no one can really climb but simply hope to hang there for a few moments. With that in mind, they’ve had to substitute “death” for other forms of danger; other ways to invoke urgency and fear in their readers. Some have done this by killing off family members, friends, and innocent bystanders. Others have done this by attacking the hero’s mental state or appealing to their vices. In many ways the restrictive nature of the medium has prompted writers to push the genre to incredible depths. There’s no denying that over the years comic writers have managed to maintain our fear, and our sense of danger in super-villains despite all this.
No other form of writing calls on its creators to write compelling canonical storylines for anywhere near the amount of time, or consistency. While there have been series in other mediums that have run for decades, none of them are held to the same standards of established story arc, strict character guidelines, frequency and fan backlash like comics. We’re looking for that never-ending story.
I think that’s part of what makes comic books so compelling. They appeal to a childlike reassurance that “everything is going to be okay, your hero will be there for you.” Questions of quality and craft aside, could we really stomach removing the “immortal and invincible” complex that protects our heroes? That’s precisely what writers need to do if they want villains that don’t eventually become a diminishing and irrelevant threat.
Writers have the monumental and often times paradoxical job of making everything new but staying exactly the same. And that’s one of the issues with villains. Honestly, I want to keep seeing Magneto, the Joker, Lex Luthor etc. etc. for years and years to come but I’m also bored to death of them. I want to see new villains, but at the same time I’d much rather read a comic with Magneto doing his thing than “New Super Badguy” that I’ve never heard of or really care about. I want there to be lasting consequence… but I don’t want there to be lasting consequence. Good luck trying to make me happy comic writers.
What do you think? How do you feel about comic book villains today? Do writers need to step up their game in writing compelling, interesting and threatening villains or do they have it right? What are some examples of villains that you believe have transcended this problem? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.