Did you know that there are people who, if gifted with superpowers in some way or another (radioactive spider bite, doused with radioactive chemicals, exposed to radioactive isotopes… really, comic land would be nothing without nuclear physics), would choose to use those powers not for good but for evil? That there are those who, when immersed in a hypothetical discussion regarding said powers, deny any wish to don a mask and/or a cape to save their fellow man from miscreants and ne’er do wells, but instead would use those powers to rob banks and create havoc and generally be the dark nemeses against which all our favorite secret-identitied, selfless vigilantes so valiantly campaign?
I suppose I always knew this intellectually, on some level. The sad fact is that there are people of questionable moral fiber in the world, a reality we are confronted with every night on the news: thieves and murderers, warlords and dictators, everywhere lawbreakers just as merciless and as egocentric as even the most maniacal of fictional criminal masterminds. It stands to reason, then, that those kinds of people would be quite taken with the notion of possessing superpowers, if only to enhance their own prestige and make the subjugation of others less bothersome. But that someone I know should hold this opinion; and someone, moreover, that I would have no hesitation in characterizing as one of my very best friends… Well, let’s just say, that came as something of a shock.
Do otherwise good, decent, thoughtful people really want to be the bad guy?
Oh, it’s not that I don’t understand the allure of the dark side. Ruthless Darth Vader is cooler than the whiny, sappy Anakin; unrepentant Angelus is funner than the tortured, brooding Angel; mischievous Catwoman is sexier than the terribly earnest Batgirl. But it is one thing to find assorted villains captivating and quite another to want to be one of them; it’s the difference between playing Grand Theft Auto and running down sex workers and assorted pedestrians in stolen cars and actually running down sex workers and assorted pedestrians in stolen cars. The former might be an enjoyable way to kill time living faux dangerously (or so I hear), but the latter is an anti-social lifestyle choice that can only reveal one as a homicidal psychopath unsuited to polite society.
So the fact that any fine, upstanding citizen would proclaim their desire to become a supervillain instead of a superhero, should the occasion ever arise, just doesn’t make sense to me—especially a fine, upstanding citizen who, I break no confidences in revealing, has a tattoo of Spider-Man secreted somewhere about his person. If supervillains are so utterly superior, why didn’t my colleague’s reckless younger self have the Green Goblin indelibly marked on his body? Or Doctor Octopus? Or Kangaroo? (Okay, I get why not Kangaroo… a dude who can just jump kind of high against a guy who can swing through the city and crawl up buildings? Worst Spidey villain ever.)
Now, further discussion of the issue revealed that when he said supervillain, what my formidable opponent actually thought he meant was super-anti-hero; he wanted to use his newfound theoretical strength to cripple irresponsible energy companies and the avaricious financial sector and rid us all of the menace of international copyright law. But the difference between an anti-hero and a villain – and especially a supervillain – lies not in their intent but in their utter lack of conscience, and given that the collateral damage such a campaign of anti-trust terror must necessarily engender bothered my adversary not at all, I would suggest that “supervillain” was indeed the correct nomenclature.
It could be said (and was said, also by my opponent in this debate) that superheroes operate outside the law as much as do villains, and as such it is difficult to differentiate between them in mere words; we simply know them when we see them. I disagree—I think the main distinction lies in one word: sacrifice. A superhero will sacrifice himself for any random other with barely a moment’s thought, but it is the rare supervillain who will endanger his own life/liberty/pursuit of happiness in favor of even a loved one, let alone a stranger dangling precariously from a collapsed bridge. (Which he probably collapsed in the first place.)
Sure, superheroes may, like their villainous counterparts, often do the wrong thing for what they perceive to be the right reasons, and they are just as often hunted by assorted law enforcement agencies as are their own dangerous prey – from Batman to The Punisher to Deadpool (only one of whom is usually depicted with actual superpowers, by the by), these heroes can be, and are, just as easily painted as villains. But despite their often dubious methods, each would without hesitation lay down their lives to Do the Right Thing; it’s doubtful the same could be said of any incarnation of The Joker, or Jigsaw, or… who the hell is Deadpool’s archenemy, anyway? T-Ray? He has so many.
The simple fact is, a superhero – however reluctantly – feels he or she must save the world, while a supervillain merely wants to take it over, and then make it over in his or her own image. As Dr. Horrible put it so concisely: “The world is a mess, and I just need to… rule it.” That is very much at the core of the supervillain credo. The difference between Professor X and Magneto is not in their ideas – they both want mutants to be safe and accepted by the population at large – but in how they choose to achieve their ends. The one campaigns for slow, steady change, ultimately bringing mutant and human together as one, with the strong protecting the weak for the good of all; the other wants to assert his own dominion, sure that mutants are a superior species and should therefore take their rightful place as humanity’s lords and masters.
When Superman collected up all the planet’s nuclear weapons and sent them into the sun in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, it was an act of villainy, because not only did it give Lex Luthor the opportunity to – somewhat farfetchedly – make his own super being to do battle with poor Supes, but it took away humanity’s right to make our own mistakes, imposing his Kryptonian will on ours just because he could. When, at the end of the movie, he realized that universal nuclear disarmament was a matter to be decided by nations and not by one man, he was returned to his superhero status. A superhero can make mistakes, but he acknowledges them, learns from them, is humbled by them—and often dwells on them ad infinitum until we’re all ready to scream at them: “Dude, okay, you got your uncle killed, like fifty years ago, get over it.” A superhero will blame himself; a supervillain will blame everyone else. Another key difference.
But to return to Superman’s usurpation of the UN and his grand larceny of WMDs: when my opponent says he would use his theoretical superpowers to destabilize our banking systems and rid the world of fossil fuels and who knows what anarchistic else, what he’s really saying is he believes it is one man’s prerogative to determine the course of all human history based solely on his own beliefs and doctrines, and he would impose his will on us all at the point of a laser eyebeam; might equals right. He doesn’t seek to save or protect on the micro level, as might, say, Daredevil stop a mugging or Wonder Woman thwart a kidnapping or The Authority prevent a planetary invasion by, uh, God. Instead, he seeks to compel obedience to his whims on a worldwide scale; the very hallmark of a supervillain.
Also, from a purely practical standpoint, deciding to be a supervillain is just pretty foolish, because eventually you will be brought to justice, though it may take decades worth of comics – or an entire movie – to do it, and even then you’ll probably escape from jail or be brought back from the dead because, hey, every hero needs his nemesis. And admittedly, a superhero’s lot is not always a happy one, always hiding your good deeds and staying one step ahead of the conventional law and not really getting to have henchmen. Henchmen would be fun.
Perhaps when it comes right down to it, being a superhero is less appealing than being the opposite, and I admit here and now, I would probably suck at it. Forget joining The Avengers or any of the X teams, I don’t think I’d even make the grade as one of the Mystery Men, and one of their members’ only power is being invisible when no one is looking at him. But the alternative just doesn’t bear thinking about. To quote Churchill: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” No one pretends a superhero is perfect or all-wise, and certainly being a superhero would have its challenges, and more than its share of frustrations. But to do anything else? To ignore your great responsibility when great power is thrust upon you, and instead become an egomaniacal, megalomaniacal madman letting power corrupt absolutely and intent on world domination, no matter how ostensibly noble the goals?
No. Hell, no. If for no other reason than the seemingly mandatory evil laughs have become just so passé.