I’m in the process of writing a script for a graphic novel. I’ve devised my main characters and have gotten stuck around writing the story for them. I got to thinking about the role of antagonists in stories. I decided it was time to bring on the bad guys, and as such I thought about popular comic book villains and heroes.
If you think about any good story you’ve read or watched it has a good villain. A good series has good villains. Batman has interesting and challenging villains; the Joker, Riddler, Penguin, Bane, and Rhas al Ghul. Superman on the other hand has some lame villains; Lex Luthor, Mr. Myxlplyx, and the Toymaster. However, Brainiac, General Zod, and Doomsday are great Superman villains.
Luke Skywalker had Darth Vader. Sherlock Holmes had Professor Moriarty. Neo had Mr. Smith. The Yankees have the Red Sox.
What makes a villain compelling is how he (or she) relates to the main character. Villains and heroes tend to want the same thing, but each desires a different outcome. In Star Wars, Darth Vader wanted a clean and tidy well run galaxy. He wanted peace at a price. The price was people’s freedom and civil liberties. Follow the Empire or get crushed. It was the Emperor’s way or the highway. Luke on the other hand wanted to defeat Vader and the Empire. I’m guessing we’re lead to believe the Rebellion wanted democracy of some sort. In retrospect, it is kind of unclear, but we’re pretty darn convinced Luke is the guy we’re rooting for. Luke, and the audience, are for freedom and liberty. Vader is clearly not.
Looking at Superman and his villains, Lex Luthor is his most popular adversary. In my opinion, he is also the lamest. Lex Luthor is probably as smart as Superman, but he’s not a physical match and has to use his genius toward the end of destroying Superman. I think the current incarnation of Lex is simply out to destroy Superman because he has a skewed sense of protecting the world from godlike superhumans.
The only thing that keeps Superman from totally eliminating Lex Luthor is his sense of morality. Superman has a supersense of justice. He does not feel it’s his place to be judge and jury over Lex Luthor. He continues to let Metropolis’ justice system do what it will with Luthor once Superman thwarts him in his latest sinister scheme.
As a storyline it works a couple of times. Over time, it gets very repetitive. Lex Luthor can’t win against Superman otherwise the comic series comes to an end. Superman continues to thwart Lex repetitively.
Superheroes need supervillains. Superman fighting regular humans, even sinister genius humans, gets boring fast. Superman is a godlike being who’s only weaknesses are kryptonite and his friends repeatedly getting captured and used to bait him into traps. Superman is at his best when fighting godlike beings. Darkseid is a great villain for him. He’s truly the opposite of Superman with godlike powers. Brainiac and General Zod give Superman a run for his money. If Superman has to break a sweat and work hard to defeat his adversaries, his audience will be gripped to their chairs wanting to know what happens next.
Superman is a great hero. He represents the best in all of us and what we all strive to become. He is a champion for truth, justice, and fairness. He’s loaded with compassion for humans and Earth. He is the best friend anyone could ever want.
So what about poor Lex? Lex Luthor would make an excellent adversary for Batman/Bruce Wayne. He’s truly the opposite of Bruce. Each want similar ends but with different agendas. Bruce wants to make Gotham City safe for its citizens, he’s a shrewd and moral businessman, and prone to taking the law into his own hands.
Lex on the other hand is a heartless businessman, would do everything he could to wipe out WayneCorp, and take out the Caped Crusader. He’s like the dark shadow version of Bruce Wayne. Bruce is about justice and fair play while Lex is about achieving a goal by any means necessary, even ruthless means. Lex is a wolf while Bruce is a guard dog.
Each are mortal and control high tech multi-billion dollar businesses. Bruce invests money in crime-fighting gadgetry in his Batcave. Lex develops technology and gadgetry to take out crime-fighters and to implement global domination. I think Lex squaring off against Bruce Wayne would produce a great series of battles that would be a constant chess match between the two. Add the Joker to Bruce’s life, and he’s got some issues to contend with for quite a while in Gotham City.
The key to good villainy in storytelling is that a villain must have the ability to destroy the hero. Yes, Lex can wear a kryptonite suit, or simply carry a chunk of the green rock on his person, but it’s a deterrent and not proper villainy. It becomes gimmicky and cheapens the storytelling aspect between Superman and Lex.
Ultimately its a balancing act. Storytelling is an art, not a science. Finding that balance is part of the game of writing good fiction. If you find that a story isn’t working, look at the villains. Are they a match for the hero? Can they beat the hero? If a hero has to sweat to win, there will always be an audience for such stories.