Dark Reflections: Our Love Affair with Comic Book Villains

We all know that feeling– our excitement builds as we see a sinister grin materialize in a dark shadow, we swoon over a splash page that reveals the full hideousness of a monster, we eagerly lap up the twisted monologue of a grand scheme. We know a fight is coming. Limits will be tested. Blood will be shed. Oh, it’s on.

Why do we love villains? Why are we drawn to the morally corrupt criminal, the bloodthirsty monster, the self-aware psychopath? When film producer/writer Scott Devine asked me this question during the production of a documentary that would put the spotlight on DC Comics super-villains, my immediate answer was about the hero. Yes, I love a good baddie. But one of the reasons we’re excited by villains is that they bring out the super in superheroes. The villain will draw out the intelligence, power, physical and emotional strength from a hero. They embody a hero’s full potential. Villains are the true test of courage.

In fact, DC Comics is capitalizing on the universal love of villains. With Villains Month being celebrated in September, the Forever Evil arc continuing through October, and the film Necessary Evil: Super-Villains of DC Comics out on Blu-ray and DVD today, the franchise has been “taken over by villains.”

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To celebrate its debut this week, Warner Brothers held a screening and Q&A of the film and asked me to represent the psychological aspects of fictional villains.  Necessary Evil is a feature length documentary that explores the stories, personalities, and motivations of some of the most influential evildoers of the DC Universe. All types of baddies– from the back-breaking monsters to the intellectual “mad” scientists to the corrupt dictators to seductive temptresses– are dissected in this film by comics writers, creators, voice actors, and film directors. In the film, I’m interviewed to discuss some psychological features of these well-loved comic book villains. 

1396492-croc_hushProducer/Writer Scott Devine revealed on the Q&A panel that he had originally titled the documentary “Dark Reflections” to highlight the idea that villains represent the sinister, mirror-opposite side of heroes. The Joker is the chaos and anarchy to Batman’s need for control and justice. Lex Luthor is the narcissism to Superman’s selflessness. Sinestro’s manipulation of fear is the opposite of Green Lantern’s willpower. Captain Cold is the atomic-level paralysis to the Flash’s hyper-movement. Cheetah’s deception is a stark counter to Wonder Woman’s loyalty and truth. Black Manta’s vengeance is opposite to Aquaman’s…err, whatever Aquaman’s guiding principle is.

character_bio_576_jokerThe lure of a villain can tell us a lot about ourselves, too. The Joker is unpredictable, irrational, chaotic. We never feel like we truly know him. My profession is one of order and evidence-gathering. With standardized testing, comprehensive assessment, and clinical conceptualization I try to unwrap a puzzle and put the pieces together meaningfully to explain human behavior. With the Joker, the pieces fit together, but they just don’t make sense. I’m drawn to him because of his unpredictability. I love the Clown Prince. But that doesn’t, in turn, make me sick. That makes me determined.

Reading comic books, playing video games, and watching movies or television series about villains allow us to explore topics that would otherwise be morally and socially unacceptable. It is a shared cultural experience, equally conformist and subversive. Villains, by design, are gutsy, greedy, and sloppy enough to say things we’re not allowed to say and do things we’re not allowed to do. We’re supposed to look away, but we can’t. We can step a little closer with safe curiosity and begin to ask important questions, like how does a person get to this point of desperation and destruction? The why’s of villainy are incredibly important to our understanding of human capacity.

A villain’s origin story often helps us understand the motivations of their actions. If we were tortured in a basement during childhood, forced to face our most horrifying fears, wouldn’t we want to take control of fear the way Scarecrow does? If Killer Croc is manipulated to do something violent, and someone with a higher level of cognitive functioning would know better, is it really his fault? If Mr. Freeze confessed that all he wanted was to keep his terminally ill wife alive, would his quest for vengeance be understandable? If we understood Poison Ivy’s connection and love for all living things–including plant life– would her environmental mission not be rational? What happens to a person when they are horribly disfigured, manipulated intellectually, tortured, betrayed, enslaved? We understand that a path toward destruction is always wrong at the moral level, but at the psychological level there is always an unmet need driving the behavior: A warm hand to hold for Victor Fries, a sense of community for Oswald Cobblepot, stability for Basil Karlo, wholeness for Harvey Dent.

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For more on my thoughts about villains, pick up Necessary Evil: Super-Villains of DC Comics, narrated with the chilling voice of Christopher Lee and featuring insights by Jim Lee, Geoff Johns, Len Wein, Scott Snyder, Andrea Romano, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Dini, Zack Snyder and many, many more. It was truly an honor to be a part of this project that takes such a thoughtful path to understanding the psyche of the villain.

 

3 Responses to “Dark Reflections: Our Love Affair with Comic Book Villains”

  1. Just be careful you don’t turn out like Harley Quinn! I don’t want to see psychiatrists/psychologists become criminals.

    I do think that villains intrigue us because they reflect human beings as a whole, even moreso than a majority of superheroes. We often do choices that are somewhat immoral/unethical and try to justify our actions as the “right” thing to do.

    • Jason says:

      You touch upon an interesting thought. How real is the possibility of a psychiatrist or therapist contracting a patient’s insanity, so to speak, after having sessions with them? You see it with Joker and Rorschach and in movies like The Departed or 50/50 show therapists bending their ethics to appease a patient. Is this a real thing or just a runaway trope about the profession?

      • Andrea says:

        Mental health service professionals like clinicians, psychologists and social workers certainly are impacted by their patients but we all receive specialized training to ensure our own wellness during the process of intervention; while the media might show therapists “contracting” their patients’ illness, that rarely happens in real life. Therapists are certainly not IMMUNE to mental health problems, however, and are just as likely to suffer from some of the same conditions our patients deal with.

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