The first essay in “Supervillains and Philosophy” is entitled “The Wandering Unwanted” by Ben Dyer. Dyer talks mainly about the main character of the “Wanted” comic series, a downtrodden man who has been the butt of life, basically, for his entire life, who suddenly discovers that he has inherited the mantle of “The Killer”, one of the main members of the “Fraternity”. Suddenly, Wesley Gibson is transformed from a loser whom everyone took advantage of to a person with the power to make them all pay.
As outlined in the essay, Gibson doesn’t actually take to this well. After an incident where he decides to slaughter an entire precinct of police officers, he breaks down, and the woman who introduced him to his power, Fox, has to repair his psyche. He asks if being evil all the time is becoming forced, and Fox replies:
You don’t have to rape, kill and mutilate all the time, baby. Your dad wasn’t trying to turn you into the biggest sociopath that ever walked the Earth. He just wanted you to do what you really wanted with your life and sometimes that means watching TV in bed all day long and other times it’s murdering some f***er. The whole point of this exercise was to bring a little choice into that sad, pathetic thing you used to call your life.
Dyer responds this way:
Did you catch the sleight-of-hand? Fox’s [sic] doesn’t even answer the question. Instead, she bribes Wesley to kill off the last embers of his conscience by presenting him with a choice. It’s not a choice between good and evil, but between the free pleasures of his new life and the self-loathing conformity of his old life. When she puts it that way, Wesley’s ambitions blind him to the fact that it’s a false dilemma. You can be certain that if Fox thought that Wesley’s ideal was neither of those things, but (oh, for instance) to start standing for Truth, Justice and the American Way because of the great responsibility that came with his great power, she’d ice him without a second thought. Fox’s ideal is the enjoyment and the maintenance of the supervillains’ secret empire, and she murdered her conscience in its service long ago.
The problem is that this great power does indeed come with great responsibilities, and those are what Fox is going to hold Gibson to. The responsibilities just aren’t the sort of responsibilities that someone like Spider-man adopts. Gibson’s problem is that he, — like Dyer, I submit — sees this as a sharp distinction between good and evil, the helpful and the hurting, the servant of society and the sociopath. So, now, being a villain, surely his obligation is to act like one, killing anything on the side of Truth and Order and generally being cackling, insane evil. And he simply can’t do that; he’s forcing himself to be “evil”. Fox, here, points out that that isn’t what evil is, and isn’t what it means to be a villain. He’s been given power, the power to do whatever he wants and satisfy all of his selfish desires, no matter what they are. If he wants to go out and kill a precinct of police officers, he can do that. But he isn’t obligated to want that. All a villain needs to do is act on and achieve their own desires regardless of how they impact other people or how immoral they might be. A villain can have a code of honour, or not have one. Can be a psychopath or not. All they have to be is selfish.
Thus, Fox is really simply telling Gibson to stop being Stupid Evil, in the D&D sense. If he’s doing things that he doesn’t want to do because he thinks that’s what it means to be evil, then he doesn’t understand at all what it means to be evil.
However, Gibson can’t simply do anything he wants. After all, that power was given to him by the Fraternity, a secret empire of supervillains that now rules the world. Because they’re villains as well, they aren’t going to give that to him out of altruistic desires, but because it benefits them to have “the Killer” around and on their side. Thus, he gets the power to do what he wants … in exchange for giving the Fraternity his services when they need it. As long as he keeps up his end of the bargain, he gets to keep his power to do whatever he wants.
A similar situation is set up in Season 5 of Angel. For his own selfish reasons — mainly to prevent his son from becoming a murderous psychopath — Angel accepts an offer to run the Los Angeles office of Wolfram and Hart, the main villains through the entire series. The public justification is that having those resources will allow him and his team to do a lot of good and take their fight against evil to an entirely new level. However, this power, again, comes with a cost, and one that is likely too high for them to pay. As Eve puts it to him, sure, he could use all his power and money to kill off all his clients and run Wolfram and Hart into the ground … but then Wolfram and Hart won’t be there anymore, and he’ll lose the resources that he was using to fight evil. Thus, Angel has to keep Wolfram and Hart running, which means making money and that means making money by helping evil people, at times, escape justice. Because if the evil people stop getting away with the evil that Wolfram and Hart used to let them get away with, they won’t pay Wolfram and Hart anymore … and Angel won’t have the power to do what he might consider the greater good.
Thus, I think Dyer is wrong about Fox and Gibson. If Gibson wanted to stand up for Truth, Justice and the American Way, Fox wouldn’t care … as long as he didn’t oppose the Fraternity. So, they’d have no problem with Gibson going out and stopping murderers and muggers and making himself into a hero … as long as he didn’t mess with members of the Fraternity and gave him his services when they need him. Because, after all, Gibson only has his power because the Fraternity graciously gave it to him, but if he’s planning on taking them out then he’ll find that what they have given they can also take away.
Gibson, in the end, accepts the deal, and ends up with everything he wants. Angel also accepts the deal, but the consequences, even at the end, make it seem like it probably wasn’t worth it. But Angel is a hero, and Gibson is a villain. And the difference, mainly, is that even having his son saved — and then broken again, kinda — isn’t enough to salve Angel’s conscience; in a sense, he got what he wanted, but what he wants also includes what others want, and he sees that slipping away from him. Gibson, on the other hand, gets what he wants, and so the price is worth it.
So you might be able to argue, in line with Angel, Wanted, D&D, Star Wars, and other examinations of villains that the first step in becoming a villain is not, in fact, wanting to hurt people, but is instead thinking that you ought to get what you want. Once you start down the selfish path, forever will it dominate your destiny.