Thursday, October 12, 2017

Villainous Motives

Supervillains generally aspire to destroy or conquer a realm, whether a country, a continent, the planet, or even an entire solar system or galaxy. In a kids' cartoon series current when our children were little (I don't remember which one it was), the league of villains had one goal, "to destroy the universe for their own gain." To me, a drive for conquest purely for the sake of power makes no more sense than that. Why would anybody bother? Who'd WANT to rule the world?

In the new Marvel TV series INHUMANS, there's a society of people with Inhuman powers living secretly on the moon. The antagonist, Maximus, stages a coup to depose his brother, the king, and become the ruler himself. Maximus has several plausible reasons for this goal: As a child, he wanted the kingship, while his brother, the destined heir, had no great desire for the crown. Maximus grew up without Inhuman powers, so others looked down on him; therefore, he's driven to seize power in compensation for his "inferiority." Also, he seems to hold a sincere belief that his brother's policies are bad for Inhuman society and his own rule would benefit their people.

A three-dimensional villain needs plausible motives, especially supervillains with fantastic powers and global or cosmic ambitions. According to an often-cited principle, every villain is the hero of his own story. Why would he or she want to conquer a country, a continent, or the world? A sheer maniacal lust for power isn't enough of a motive to make a credible antagonist. Maybe the character truly believes himself or herself to be the only one who can rule wisely for the good of the country or world. Maybe the character perceives an outside threat to his or her people and preemptively expands his or her dominion before the "threat" can strike first. Or perhaps the antagonist craves power in compensation for some personal hurt suffered in the past or from a secret fear of his or her own inadequacy. If the ruler of the "threatening" country or planet happens to be a relative of the antagonist (as many of the European royal families at the time of World War I were related through Queen Victoria), family jealousies and resentments could contribute to the villain's drive for conquest. On a smaller scale, why did the evil King Ahab (in the Bible) have a neighbor framed for a fictitious crime and executed in order to seize the neighbor's vineyard? Why would a king feel the need to commit such a petty theft? Could it be that Ahab did this BECAUSE he was king and, perhaps, feared for his position when constantly challenged by the prophet Elijah? Maybe Ahab wanted to prove, "I'm the king, so I can have anything I want."

To me, a drive to become a multimillionaire doesn't feel any more credible as a motive than a craving for absolute power. One person can usefully possess only a certain number of houses, cars, or boats. Even at the most rarefied levels of wealth, there has to be an upper limit to the amount one can spend on food, drink, clothes, jewelry, or collectibles. After a certain point, money probably becomes just a means of keeping score. Billionaire Roarke in J. D. Robb's Eve Dallas series—a good guy (although a former crook) rather than a villain—seems to enjoy acquiring more money on the scorekeeping principle, as a move in a game. Also, he does productive things with his wealth; when he buys a building or a company, he makes it better. Maybe a supervillain driven by a craving for money has personal reasons to value the "score" and therefore wouldn't be satisfied even by infinite wealth. Or maybe, deep inside, he's insecure, seeking wealth to make him feel safe, and never able to accumulate enough to fulfill that need. In effect, it comes back to using money as a means to power.

Along the same line, why do rich, powerful men sexually prey on their employees, when they could find any number of women who'd gladly welcome their advances without being forced? Probably because it's the display of power in itself these men crave. It's all incomprehensible to me, so to believe in a power-hungry villain of any kind, I need to know what underlying drive produces this kind of motivation.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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