It’s Good to Be Bad

As a society, we’ve been fascinated by villains in literature and drama for thousands of years. Greek playwrights gave us the concept of protagonists and antagonists, good versus evil.  Every good guy needs a bad guy to provide “moral dissonance.” But not all villains are purely true evil. Many classic villains have been molded by adversity in their lives. Great examples are Victor Frankenstein, Javert from Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, Spider-Man’s Doc Ock, and even Darth Vader (okay, so maybe we can’t feel too bad for Darth Vader). What happened to turn them into villains? Chance meetings, life experiences as youngsters, personal tragedies, being misunderstood, poor life choices, and, quite possibly, poor personal hygiene molded them in their formative years.

The same is true for two of the dastardliest villains to plague Gotham City: The Penguin and the Riddler.  The Penguin entered the world as Oswald Cobblepot; The Riddler as Edward Nygma. Ed’s parents obviously had a twisted sense of humor. The name E. Nygma was too good to pass up.  With a name like that and an obsessive love for puzzles, little wonder that Edward chose Riddler as his nom de la criminalité. Twists of fate and circumstance caused these Gotham residents to turn to lives of depravity. Yes, I realize depravity may sound a little harsh, but come on! Riddler has tried every way under the sun to kill Penguin after being practically blood brothers, to which Penguin promptly responded by turning Riddler into a block of ice. Sorry, spoilers.

The early years of Oswald Cobblepot of “Gotham” fame are somewhat shrouded in mystery. What is known is that he was raised by a seriously over-protective mother. Adding to young Oswald’s difficulties, he inherited his father’s short, stocky stature, and something his mother lovingly called “a Roman nose.” Actually, it looks more like a beak. Turns out PeeWee Herman is his long-lost dad. I can’t help but think, poor Oswald. But I digress.

His physical features surely caused him no end of problems on the schoolyard. His classmates teased him and called him “a stupid puffin.” “Oh, Oswald dear,” his mother would say trying to comfort him, “if anything, you look more like a penguin.  An emperor penguin at that.”

Experiences during his adolescence honed his cunning nature and hurried his development toward acts of unbridled malfeasance. He would open his school locker and find it filled with fish. After serving at the feet of some of Gotham’s true villains, Oswald discovered that revenge soothed a lot of his ruffled feathers…no pun intended. Okay, so maybe it was a little bit intended. At any rate, the point being he decided that a life of crime brought him great joy.

Penguin’s ex-friend, Edward Nygma, followed a somewhat similar path, although his metamorphosis occurred somewhat later in life than Oswald’s. There is an old saying that goes, “There’s a thin line between genius and insanity.” Edward was living proof.

After graduating from Gotham University, Ed was no doubt recognized for his brilliant work in criminal science writing essays such as “Just the Facts Ma’am!” He worked closely with the Gotham Police Department to help solve crimes, often giving them clues in the form of riddles. Indeed, his brilliance is unparalleled. But things went off the rails for Ed when he fell for a woman who worked for the department, and, oddly enough, after his friendship with Penguin began.

I’m not too shy to say that Riddler and Penguin are my favorite characters on Gotham. They remind me a bit of Loki. Oh sure, they’re evil…but also maligned and misunderstood. Who knows what they would be like if they had only been accepted by those around them? If society had been nicer to them, would they still have gravitated to a life of crime and underhanded devilry? Would their cunning and brilliance have been contained to the side of good instead of forwarding their goals of petty revenge or feeding their delusions of grandeur and dastardly ambition?

Being a villain, however, is not all bad. They get to do bad things, which seem a lot more exciting and fun than the hero’s lot in life. Comic book villains often take great pleasure in performing their wicked villainy…often laughing as they do it. I mean, hey, at least they enjoy their jobs, right? We should all be so lucky.

Thanos, Red Skull, and their genuinely malevolent ilk aside, villains are terribly underrated and underappreciated. AND they perform a valuable service. Do you think Batman and Superman would be considered superheroes if all they did all day was to act as crossing guards and pick up dog poop in Gotham City and Metropolis? No. They need villains to fulfill their life’s work as superheroes. Their very status in the world relies on the Penguins and Riddlers of the underworld. Villains on the other hand don’t need anyone to be…well…villains. So, who’s the better character now, hmm?

Heroes for Humanity

I love my superheroes. Batman, Superman, X-Men (past, current, and future classes), Deadpool (okay, well maybe he’s more of an anti-hero), and pretty much the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. I geek out over these characters on a regular basis and take my appreciation of them pretty seriously. Which is why when I stumbled across the article “Superheroes Don’t Exist to Solve Problems, They Exist to Punch Bad Guys” (link here…although I am slightly against sending more internet traffic to this guy’s site), I felt like it was a personal attack on what I look at in my life as positive allegories on ways in which we should all strive to make the world better (did I mention I was a geek?).

The superheroes of popular film have little in common with the heroes of the real world.” This, shockingly enough, is the very first line of the article. Already I get a sense that the author has trouble understanding the definition of fiction as well as entertainment; how both of those mediums can be combined to mirror our reality without being bound by the same rules.

He continues by writing, “The archetypal superhero is a hands-on vigilante clad in form-fitting Lycra. Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, and The Flash all assert their heroism by busting small-time street criminals and delivering violent sermons on the importance of law and order.”

I really am at a loss for where to begin because I am getting a sense that this person doesn’t actually read any comics or even do as little work as to sit through any of the various two-hour movies out there before writing his article.

One viewing of the last Captain America movie The Winter Soldier would dispel his assertion. Yes, Captain America runs around with a shield and has a star on his chest, but his goal is not to put thugs in the hospital. He’s been disillusioned by his own government (one that up until now he has held in high regard) and is seeking a way to ensure that the privacy of the public is protected lest the country slip into a culture of distrust from illegal phone taps and email tampering. Sound familiar at all? On his quest to make sure millions of lives are saved from an international security agency cloaking their ascension to monarchy by weeding out the weaker links, Captain A runs into some resistance and has to take them out. Heaven forbid he has to get into a few fights. It’s more than clear he’s not some brute looking to get his jollies off by punching some noses. If there’s one thing Captain America stands for, it’s the “people” of the world.  He’s out to make a difference and to see that good wins over evil whether evil happens to be a man with a red skull for a face or his own national government.

Then there’s this: “Batman’s stated goal is to rid Gotham City of crime, but he rarely undertakes the actions that can tackle the causes rather than the effects of criminality. Bruce Wayne could use his lofty social standing to lobby for more education funding, tighter gun control, and a social safety net that would prevent young people from resorting to a life of crime. His wealth could be used to support drug clinics and foster prisoner rehabilitation programs to reduce recidivism. Instead, he puts on a black mask and a husky voice and goes to pound hapless street thugs in the night.”

First off, Bruce Wayne does use his lofty social standing to lobby for positive community initiatives (it’s a big thing in the comics actually). Sorry the comics don’t focus solely on that, but we’re looking for flights of fantasy and 22 pages about a new rec center breaking ground isn’t as thrilling as a car chase with The Penguin. It’s not that Bruce Wayne doesn’t do anything for the community; it’s just not the main focus because it’d make for quite a boring comic.

Stark Industries consistently works towards harnessing clean and renewable energy sources among other things. Superman/Clark Kent works at a damn newspaper so the public won’t be left in the dark on what their leaders are doing. Pretty much every superhero out there has a back story that is rich in these types of offerings, whether it’s a protective type of job (such as military), or a teacher helping young people, or a scientist who strives to help mankind or a philanthropist who strives to help everyone.

I could keep railing on and on trying to disprove every point the author made in his poorly researched attempt at trolling the “superhero fad” but this blog would end up being a book with how many examples exist out there.

The point is there’s more to every superhero than their power. It’s their conscience that drives them, not their ability to crush their enemy. In the end they do exactly what we do…they try to make a difference in the world around them using all of the tools at their disposal. Labeling them simply “pugilists” is a vast, vast underestimation. And it certainly does the writers of the stories a grave injustice.