The next essay in “Supervillains and Philosophy” is “Making the A-List” by Galen Forseman. This essay examines what makes a truly good, er, bad villain, and thus what makes a villain, well, villainous. Unfortunately, it seems to get caught up in defining villains as bad and then deriving all sorts of negative qualities from that, including a hint that the best villains fail a lot and so part of what it means to be a villain is to, well, fail a lot. This is a much stronger take on the “bad is good to us, and good is bad to us” line that I referenced previously, except that where I used it as a rhetorical tool to summarize the argument, Foresman seems to be using it as the argument. Which leaves this essay as being entertaining, but philosophically shallow.
So, let me highlight what I think are the two main qualities that make a villain a good villain philosophically, and not necessarily from a literary perspective or even a fan perspective. Let me start from his list of the top 5 villains:
3) Lex Luthor
4) The Joker
The entry that I’d quibble with is the last one. I don’t see why he was chosen over someone like, say, Darkseid, or Mr. Sinister. And since this is a philosophical discussion where we’re trying to see what qualities they all have in common, it is important to get the right list, especially if degree matters (ie you’re not just looking for good villains, but instead for the best villains). So you can’t just generate your own list and go from there. That being said, the top four are ones that some might argue should be higher or lower on the list, but are ones that are clearly among the best supervillains in comics, so we can safely use them as examples.
Now, for me, the two main qualities of a good villain are:
1) They either have heinous goals, use heinous means, or both have heinous goals and pursue them by heinous means.
2) Their power level — through various means — means that they are difficult to defeat, and so need a proportionate amount of power to overcome.
Most of this list fits that. Apocalypse holds a strong survival of the fittest notion that ensures that many mutants will die so that only the strongest survive. Both Magneto’s goals and his means result directly in the enslavement of non-mutants. Lex Luthor uses shady tactics and his goals waver from potentially admirable to incredibly selfish and short-sighted. The Joker’s main goal is his own warped sense of humour, which never works out well for anyone. As for power, Apocalypse and Magneto are normally opposed by full teams of superheroes, with sometimes team-ups being necessary. Lex Luthor is a consistent foe of the most powerful superhero in the DC Universe despite not having any inherent powers (generally). The only exception, really, is The Joker. Generally, he can be brought down by Batman working alone, who is a careful planner and exceptionally prepared but doesn’t have a lot of powers beyond that. He’s one of the big three, but he’s fighting a clown. That being said, The Joker’s chaotic nature does make it difficult to foil him, and only Batman has the abilities to do so, and so perhaps he does fit here after all, with a notion of power that ties more into mentality than into raw power. The Joker needs the world’s greatest detective to ferret out and foil his schemes.
We can also see how these, then, compare to some villains that are seen more sympathetically. For example, Galactus has massive power and has heinous means, but the fact that he needs to eat life-bearing planets to survive and generally doesn’t choose his path makes him more sympathetic, along with many of his heralds (who end up becoming heroes in and of themselves). Others like Doctor Octopus are less of a threat, as they can be opposed by one web-slinging hero, for example. But if we look at the tops of the list, we’ll see that the top villains all have very heinous goals and/or methods, and are constant and consistent threats to the heroes they oppose.
Which explains why they fail so often. It’s not part of being a villain to fail, but the top villains will be opposed by the most and the strongest heroes. Batman will drop almost anything else to stop The Joker from doing what he wants to do, just because it’s likely to be so terrible. The X-Men constantly bring out the whole team the instant they catch Apocalypse doing something. Strong villains are the ones who are the most able to achieve their goals and whose goals are so devastating that they cannot be allowed to achieve them. The only fail because they absolutely cannot be allowed to succeed.
So, good villains are strong and strongly evil, whether they consider themselves evil or not. So if you want to be a villain, you have to try to achieve that. If you can’t, then maybe you should stay at home. You wouldn’t want to have your plans consistently foiled by Frog-Man, after all …