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The bizarre moral code of super-villains

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I’ve been reading comic books since I was a wee sprite.

While my breadth of knowledge isn’t in the same stratosphere as WFTC’s resident comic guru Ricky Sprague, I’ve been following the medium long enough to spot weird patterns and trends.

Here’s one that continues to trouble me:

The barely believable moral code of super-villains.

Ever notice that — whenever a villain has a chance to kill his super-hero nemesis — the villain declines, offering such questionable logic as “I cannot kill Super Guy this way. It would be too clean, too easy. There would be no honor.”

Sure. Whatever.

I think we can all translate the proper meaning here. “The publisher cannot afford to kill this top merchandising brand right now, or ever.”

Exhibit A.

In this panel (a flashback to a previous issue), notorious crime lord Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. the Kingpin, a longtime foe of Spider-Man, saves Spider-Man from certain death at the hands of the Hobgoblin, another storied nemesis of the web-slinger. Why? It’s “simply good business” says Fisk.

Really, Kingy? Suddenly, you decide that keeping Spider-Man alive is “good business“? What about all those times you plotted to kill him, hired someone to kill him, or fought him yourself in hand-to-hand combat? All those memories are just erased to ensure that the publisher’s title and current story arc trudge onward? I am not a fool, Marvel. Take this back to the chef. (I love the John Romita Jr. artwork though.)

Exhibit B.

Another implausible scenario. Dr. Doom has the Fantastic Four – his greatest enemies — trapped inside his kingdom, Latveria. He even has an “inhibitor ray” on them to mute their powers. So what does he do? He lets them go. Naturally.

Now, perhaps I’m being too cynical. As my pal Ricky points out, Doom is a notoriously sentimental super-villain. He cried after 9-11, for instance. And he was college buddies with the Fantastic Four’s leader, Reed Richards. (Below is the 9-11 panel in question).

Exhibit C.

Ricky found this stellar example. It’s from Captain America No. 133. The villain in question is MODOK, a levitating guinea pig.

The strangeness of MODOK, particularly his female permutations, deserves a post all its own. But that’s a story for another day.

One last example of super-villains’ contradictory and/or esoteric moral codes is the super-group Masters of Evil. Great name, right? How’d you think of that one, guys? Sat around a conference table and threw suggestions into a hat?

Anyway, look at this pic. It has more diversity than a United Colors of Benetton ad.

You have Thunderball, an African American, on the far upper right. You have Baron Zemo, a Nazi, addressing the group. You have Mr. Hyde, a mentally challenged villain, kneeling. You have Tiger Shark, who’s basically a fish. You have three (count ‘em, 3!) women.

And we fans are to believe that these individuals, from such diverse and even divergent social groups, all gather for the sake of…what, exactly? Evil?

In essence, super-villainy trumps petty social differences. Or super-villains are incredibly tolerant people, behind the curtain of evilness. We are asked to suspend disbelief and follow this logic.

OK, fair enough. I’ve read prisoners’ accounts of their time in the Big House, and one recurring theme is that the skinheads and black prisoners “get along” fairly well — mostly because they are so upfront about their group solidarity. There is no moral ambiguity, no grey area — if push came to shove, each would slit the other’s throat, and neither makes an attempt to conceal this. Therefore a strange sort of respect emerges.

It’s more plausible than Dr. Doom saying “Leave my kingdom, Fantastic Four! I don’t feel like killing you right now. There would be no sport in it.”

Anyway, if you’re looking for a more challenging and complex interplay between super-villain and super-hero psychologies, I recommend Daredevil No. 180, in which Daredevil forges through the sewers of New York to find the Kingpin’s long-lost wife, Vanessa.

It’s one my all-time faves. At one point, Daredevil, hobbling around on a crutch, gives the crutch to a damned, legless soul, who proceeds to mock him for his generosity.

When I was busy reading that at age 10, I’m sure my parents thought I was knee-deep in innocuous “Whap! Bam! Pow!” mindlessness.

If only!

P.S. Here is a good analysis of the Batman/Joker psychological interchange by Erik Henriksen at the Portland Mercury.

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11 Responses to “The bizarre moral code of super-villains”

  1. Call me cynical, but I think this all boils down to money. The supervillains are not motivated by a pure emotion, like evil; they’re motivated by the much more base emotion, greed. These guys are making just as much off the marketing and merchandising as the heroes, and if they kill them, then what are they?

    They’re just jerks running around in silly outfits. But if Spider-Man is still around, then they’re an ARCH VILLAIN.

  2. Money makes them thugs4life.

  3. Spider-Man completes them.

  4. If the power inhibitor ray is still
    on, as Dr. Doom says, why is Reed
    able stretch his arms in front of his
    team-mates?

  5. I think the inhibitor ray diminishes their powers, but doesn’t completely nullify them.

  6. The panel depicting a crying Doom is the most maudlin kak ever written/drawn.

  7. re: Doom Tears

    I thought it was pretty over-the-top, even for Marvel.

  8. That panel is a violation of all that is decent in the world.

  9. Thinking that a MODOK post might be on the front burner. I would love to see MODOK with long hair.

  10. MODOK is quite awesome. Always been very partial to Batroc Ze Leaper, however.

  11. Basil Elks was good too, and his civilian name conveniently gave way to his villain moniker:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilisk_(comics)

    And Leland Owlsley too:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owl_(Marvel_Comics)

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