Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Villain Is the Villain of His Own Blog

The things that make a good supervillain aren't exactly the things that make a good superhero.

The superhero needs to be an appealing character over the long term. He or she has to have a good storytelling engine. It helps a lot if she or he has a good supporting cast. And, as a superhero, he or she needs to adhere to a well-understood if vaguely defined ethical code.

Supervillains aren't like that. They don't need to be appealing in the long term; they need to be interesting in the short term. Some would say they need to be more interesting than superheroes do. They don't need a whole engine; maybe just a... I dunno, what's part of an engine? A cylinder? Don't necessarily need a supporting cast, although it can sometimes be helpful. Don't need any particular ethical codes, although they do need something that'll put them in opposition to the superhero(es) in question.

The way I figure it, good supervillains, the kind that become classic recurring nemeses for their superhero counterparts, need four things. In no particular order.

1. Motivation - We need to know why the villain is doing whatever it is he's doing. And it has to be a believable reason. Look at, for instance, Lex Luthor. At first he was a mad scientist type, which was fine for the Golden Age, but eventually it became necessary to delve a bit deeper. So we got the motivation that he hated Superman for making him bald. Kind of silly, but it certainly was memorable, and appropriate for the Silver Age. But what we've got now is much better: he wants money and power, yes, but he's also got that very nuanced rivalry with Superman--he's got serious philosophical objections about Superman's role in the world, while being unaware of the self-serving nature of those nevertheless real objections, and he's so cynical that he doesn't really understand Superman, although he thinks he does.

There are a lot of classic motivations, like money, power and insanity, and those will always work. Occasionally there'll be a villain with something more exotic, like Zoom's desire to use tragedy to make the Flash a better superhero.

2. Formidability - the villain needs enough power to give the superhero a run for his or her money. If the villain doesn't have that, she or he isn't interesting. Too much power is also a problem, though; if it's too tough for the hero to beat the villain, it's implausible to make him or her try too often. This is why Darkseid should be left in the cabinet and only brought out for special occasions.

3. Reusable Backstory - this relates to the whole storytelling-engine thing. A villain doesn't need a whole engine, as I said, but he or she does need a combination of motivation and goals that doesn't expire in the villain's first appearance. If we've got a guy who's only committing crimes because terrorists are holding his daughter captive, then how can the writer reuse him if the superhero rescues the daughter in that first story? I mean, I'm sure the writer can come up with something, but forcing the issue on stuff like that doesn't always lead to a good story.

4. Style - very simple. If the villain has a cool name, a cool costume, cool powers, and/or an intriguing personality, he or she will go a lot further than if not.

With all this in mind, let's look at some Legion villains:

Mordru: Mordru has the classic motivation of power lust, and has nothing in his story to keep him from coming back again and again, so that's all workable. He's a little too formidable for everyday use, but that's not a big thing for a Legion villain. He falls down on style, though: he looks silly with his purple T-shirt and his powers are boring. Ooo, magic; never seen that before.

The Time Trapper: The Trapper has had various motivations, but at least some of them have been intriguingly entwined with the Legion themselves, and that keeps our attention. He's unusually reusable; every time you think you've disposed of him it turns out to be just another deceptive time-manipulation ploy. Like Mordru, he's too formidable to use all the time, or even more than once for almost anybody other than the Legion. And he has more je ne sais quoi than Mordru does.

Lemnos: His motivation fit in very well with the themes of the comic book at the time, and wasn't just the same thing all over again. His intelligence and organization made him formidable enough combined with his superpower; he certainly wasn't too powerful. It's hard to say how reusable he is until we know just what Brainy did with him. And he did have style: a cool superpower that he knew how to use very effectively, and a mature urbanity that contrasted well with the hotheaded youngsters he was antagonizing.

The Fatal Five: I've complained about how often these guys have appeared in the LSH31C comic book, but there's a reason why they have. They've got everything. They've got good motivations both collective (mercenary) and individual (Tharok's technological ambitions, Validus's Hulk-smash personality, Mano's environmental awareness, the Empress's megalomania). They're all tough in a fight, on or slightly above the level of your average Legionnaire. None are limited by their backstories. And they're all cool. 'The Persuader', how awesome of a name is that? Validus has a great look for a monster-villain. And the Empress's haughtiness is perfect.

Anyone else care to run your favourite villains through this scheme?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brainiac 4 had been a good villian of Reboot Legion. Her moviation was to feel emotions, trying all sorts of lives from one extreme to another. Her formidability was questionable though; mainly due to throwing everything away just to see how it effected her. I was disappointed we didn't see her once more before Reboot was axed, just to see if how the events with the Dark Circle had effected her; as well as seeing Brainiac 5 reacting to her second appearance compared to the last.

11:13 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I think I've only read that arc once or twice, but that is a good motivation. The more I look back on it, the more I think the reboot was discarded too quickly. There were still a lot of stories to tell about them.

2:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When it comes to villians in general, I think most fans seem to recall instantly the Fatal Five and Darkseid. That kind of is annoying the others are forgotten. Its a shame because there is quite a few of them.

Legion Lost's Elemental Lad was also a nice change as far as villians go and hhe was my other favourite Villian of Reboot. He didn't intend to be a villian he just ended up as one by the time the Legion found him. What moviated him was insanity and the belief he was all powerful, a "God".

And yeah, they did discard Reboot too soon. That reminded me how they said Legion of 3 Worlds is going to skip ahead of storyline and have Garth and Elemental Lad already seperated for the sake of 3 Worlds storyline.

2:09 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Actually, that's already done: if you check Infinite Crisis #6 (I think it was #6) for the one panel where the reboot Legion appears, you'll see Live Wire looking like his old self.

7:38 AM  

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