Bring on the bad guys.

§ September 28th, 2022 § Filed under dc comics § 17 Comments

I’m going to jump ahead and address a comment from Monday’s post — DK’s, to be specific, in which he talks about the relative lack of motivation for DC’s various villains.

It’s funny, this topic had sort of crossed my mind the other day, but along the lines of “what makes a villain an arch-nemesis.” Superman is easy, as it’s Lex Luthor: world’s strongest man versus the world’s smartest man. Batman, it’s the Joker: a man trying to impose order on a chaotic world versus a man who creates chaos. Wonder Woman is a little more difficult, as while thematically it’s Ares (a woman representing peace versus the God of War), I don’t know that this pairing showed up a whole lot until the latter half of Princess Diana’s existence.

I mentioned the word “thematically,” and that’s what these match-ups are, battles of opposites. It doesn’t say much in terms of characterization so much as plot considerations. Why (aside from the hair thing) does Luthor hate Superman? What compels the Joker to spread chaos? …Wonder Woman and Ares I’m willing to give a pass on possible internal motivations, as, well, Ares is the God of War, there’s no real subtlety here.

I tried to spread this out to Marvel characters, like Spider-Man, but that’s harder to nail down. Like, why would it be the Green Goblin? Is an octopus the natural enemy of a spider? And so on. I came to the conclusion the Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis is the irresponsible use of power, especially that gained through scientific mishap. Yes, the ol’ “intangible quality” trick. But I think it fits…Peter Parker got his powers from science gone awry. and used them for good. Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, the Lizard gained theirs the same way and used them for eeeeeevil. Granted, not sure Venom fits into this entirely neatly, but I was just pondering, not laying down law here.

But again, like I said, this doesn’t dive into specific character motivations as opposed to the thematic/plot-oriented purposes to which these characters are utilized.

That said, let’s go through DK’s list:

“Luthor: He’s basically Trump, but actually rich.”

I am not even sure what Luthor’s exact deal is right now. Post-Crisis, he’s a power-hungry dude pissed that there’s someone more powerful around, who has also continually got the better of him. As time wore on, he became more of a mix of the Silver Age Luthor and the Byrne/Wolfman-era Luthor, a rich businessman who just freely uses advanced science to do…I don’t know, whatever. Join the Justice League, that sort of thing.

His modern motivation is still his hatred of Superman’s apparent superiority, but he couches it (as he does in this week’s Action, in fact) in his desire to remove “alien influence” on Earth. And that it would get rid of the guy who always makes him look bad, well, that’s just a happy coincidence.

“Joker: Murder clown, haven’t even given him a real name for 75+ years.”

I sort of go into it above…the Joker doesn’t really need a specific motivation beyond wanted to wreak a little havoc, and it just so happens it’s usually Batman there to stop him. As to a specific motivation as to why he would do that…well, I guess The Killing Joke is now just straight-up officially the origin of the Joker, all that built-in ambiguity in the original story just jettisoned for the purposes of current comic-booking.

As such, I suppose the Joker’s motivation is…well, basically what I said above, causing chaos And with Killing Joke now canon, the death of his wife, among other things, is what drove him to this point, lashing out at a world that destroyed his life.

Oh, and I did write a bit about DC finally, weirdly, giving the Joker an official real name, but frankly I won’t believe it ’til I see it in black and white in whatever the next iteration of Who’s Who in the DC Universe will be.

“Sinestro: Power corrupts (just this one dude, not the 10,000 others with rings)”

I mean, that’s good enough I think. Sinestro fell out with the Guardians like (here we go) Lucifer rebelling against God and being cast out of Heaven. Sinestro hates his former bosses and their Green Lantern force, and especially the face of that authority, their arguably greatest member after Ch’p, Hal Jordan. I know that (I think) Gerard Jones added emphasis to the whole “Sinestro is obsessed with maintaining order” element, which I think is still a part of the character’s drive.

“Reverse Flash: Admit it, lazy AF concept. Can’t even be bothered to give him a real supervillain name.”

Ah yes, the “bigger, badder version of the hero” trope we all know so well from most of the Marvel movies. But to be fair, his full moniker was “Professor Zoom, the Reverse-Flash,” which, c’mon, that’s pretty cool. Now I’m just talkin’ the original dude here, don’t get me started on all these other Reverse-Flashes that turned up.

What I do like about Reverse-Flash is that his deal was that he was a dude in the future who thought the 20th century Flash was awesome, replicated the accident that gave the Flash his powers, and then discovered he was going to come the Flash’s enemy, which drove him mad, turning him into the Flash’s enemy. It’s this weird, sci-fi time loop thing that I happen to like.

During Waid’s run on the Flash comic, he altered the origin slightly by having RF (sorry, tired of typing that out), still a big fan, go back in time and discover that not only was he going to be a villain, but that the Flash would kill him. Anyway, that’s a whole thing that I won’t get into here, but I think this provides a nice, unusual motivation for the character. Yes, it’s “he hates him because he hates him,” but the background is interesting enough to support it.

“Gorilla Grodd: Kill All Humans, as I am not a human and I am better than them.”

Look, evil telepathic superpowered intelligent gorilla has got to be motivation enough, right? I’m going entirely from memory here, but Grodd was trying to take over Gorilla City from its leader, Solovar, and Flash interfered, and now the Flash is also on Grodd’s shit list? I’m pretty sure that’s right. Anyway, c’mon, he’s a gorilla villain, let’s cut him some slack.

“Deathstroke: I get paid to be Evil. I have no idea why Bruce Wayne doesn’t just pay me to be good.”

I mean, assassin-for-hire who goes after superheroes, that’s good, I think. Admittedly he’s not very successful against them, which makes me wonder how he makes any money (“okay, sure, you haven’t killed any of the Titans yet, but maybe the 20th time’s the charm, do you take personal checks?”). I suppose in the Teen Titans’ case, it’s more “personal vendetta” as time went on, but I think being a hired gun who keeps getting hired despite being almost entirely ineffectual by necessity kinda works.

“Per Degaton: This secret dies with Roy Thomas.”

Ah, Per Degaton. The would-be dictator who used his boss’s time machine to rampage through history, screwing around with time, and also bother the Justice Society of America, all in his attempts to become, as I said, a dictator.

When he was reintroduced into DC Comics in the 1980s, DC also reprinted his (I believe) first appearance from the Golden Age in one of their reprint digests, so anyone new to the character (like I was) could get his deal. And his deal is that whenever his plans get undone, he’s thrown back into the normal timeline as a lab assistant:

I love that this seems to be his eternal fate (with one or two exceptions over the years)…just sent back to where he was, frustrated by the memory of what was undone.

“Brainiac: I am the smartest being in the universe but I want City Funko Pops for some reason.”

He collects cities either to study, to preserve them, to put on his own planet so he could rule them…he had a few reasons for doing what he did. End result of any of these reasons: he came to your planet to grab a city and take off. Kinda like Galactus, only he just stole a city instead of eating a planet.

I do like the animated series origin, where he’s an embodiment of Krypton’s artificial intelligence network that survives the planet’s explosion, and he goes on collecting data (i.e. planets) which puts him in conflict with Krypton’s last son. Whatever version seems to come down to “Brainiac does evil science stuff and Superman tries to stop him.” Plus, it’s nice to have a regular (and powerful) alien nemesis for Supes, in contrast to his vast array of Earthbound bad guys.

Anyway, those were my thoughts on those particular DC villains. Again, just some off-the-top-of-my-head ideas, so I’m sure I got a fact wrong here and there. You know where to correct me!

17 Responses to “Bring on the bad guys.”

  • King of the Moon says:

    Growing up on comics in the late 70s and through the 80s, part of my usual open mic three minutes is “I am in a mixed marriage. My wife’s religion has a Prince of Peace, my holy books taught me that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’”
    It’s a great joke, but I really do believe the motivations of the characters in those printed pages distilled down to: “heroes use their special skills to help others, villains use them solely for personal gain”
    Which kind of draws a straight line towards my work in nonprofits

  • Cassandra Miller says:

    If I remember correctly, a version of Ares (WMM used the name “Mars,” I think?) was a villain in Wonder Woman in the early years. He was the Duke of Deception’s boss.

  • MisterJayEm says:

    “Sinestro: Power corrupts (just this one dude, not the 10,000 others with rings)”

    I always figured this admirable success rate was due to the Guardians’ top-notch HR department.

    — MrJM

  • ADD says:

    My favorite in-story villain motivation moment of all time is in 1976’s Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man, when Luthor and Dr. Octopus team up and Ock turns on Lex when he realizes Luthor actually wants to destroy the world and Otto freaks out, because, you know, HE LIVES THERE. Blew my 10 year old mind and showed levels of thought put into the plot that I had never before realized were even possible.

  • Allan Hoffman says:

    Terra-Man = evil space cowboy. That’s all you need.

  • DK says:

    I am deeply honored to make it to the front page! I’d like to thank the Mikecademy…

    Now let’s look at the bad guy motivations that I think are REALLY GOOD:

    General Zod (in Man of Steel): The movie has flaws but this isn’t one of them. He has one job, to protect his race and his planet. Now both are gone, but when an opportunity arises to restore them there is ONE ANNOYING KRYPTONIAN ASSHOLE LEFT who keeps getting in his way, and to add insult to injury he picks the humans over his own kind!

    Magneto: We must secure the existence of our people and a future for mutant children.

    Ozymandias: I’m not a Republic serial villain, Daniel. I’m an Outer Limits/Twilight Zone villain. The pinnacle of “every evildoer thinks he is doing good”. Least heroic hero ever. Oh sorry, spoiler warning.

    Brotherhood of Dada: No the Joker isn’t chaos, he’s terror, which is different. The Joker’s “pranks” always wind up with a pile of corpses, that’s not funny but is suitable for a Murder Clown(tm). These dudes are CHAOS. There is nothing you can bribe them with, they don’t want anything other than to be tripping balls, they don’t technically hurt anyone or anything but boy do they cause problems.

    Captain Boomerang: Work with me here. Started out as a one-note Flash gimmick villain and the Suicide Squad made him just utterly selfish and loathsome, a real insight into “what kind of moron robs banks and throws boomerangs at a guy who can move at the speed of light.” He is a SOCIOPATH through and through, even on a certain death suicide mission he will take time to betray his teammates. More than once! It’s a more real mental defect than a Silver Age ‘well he’s obsessed with rowboats so he became the villianous Paddle Man.’

    Granny Goodness: Even from the first appearance she was more than “mean old lady ha ha”. As the only woman in Darkseid’s Elite court, notable she does not use her sexuality to get ahead but instead uses her cruelty and her ability to intuit what the ultimate Fascist boss wants at every turn. “What’s it like to work for Putin at a top level”, one of the realest villains out there.

    Mojo: Chris Claremont predicted TikTok and internet celebrities in 1985.

  • DK says:

    I did enjoy your thoughts on my thoughts and will happy concede that Gorilla Grodd should get a (go go checked) pass, but will up the ante that Monsieur Mallah is not only a talking Gorilla but also is in love with a Brain in a jar which provides a much needed romantic angle.

  • Chris V says:

    No, the Joker and the Brotherhood of Dada both represent chaos. They just represent two ends of the spectrum.

    The Joker is a representative of chaos because there is no reason for any of his actions. He faced a world without any certainty, where he lost everything for no apparent reason, now he wants to show the world how meaningless everything is, seemingly for his own amusement. It’s not funny, except to him, but a random, chaotic universe doesn’t tend to favour frivolity (just as HP Lovecraft). So, you’re going about your business and you happen to enter a building only to get blown up. Why? Just because the Joker chose that day to randomly plant a bomb in that building. It is terrifying because the world is chaotic. We want answers. If the Joker plants a bomb, it must be for a reason, because someone at the office did something to upset him. The Joker must operate with a purpose, this is what we want to believe. Our minds want rational explanations, it doesn’t like chaos. The Joker has no reason, there is no meaning, it is random and chaotic.

    The Brotherhood of Dada are challenging the status quo. They want to show humanity that the universe is chaotic, but not to hurt others or for their own sick entertainment, but because they want everyone to see that the rules humans put in place to try to make civilization less chaotic are meaningless. They want to challenge the limits placed upon humanity by society and embrace the anarchistic.

  • DK says:

    Chris V, I think you make a well argued point about the Joker but I’m not sure the text supports it completely.

    If the Joker was really a completely random terrorist that would indeed be terrifying and also make him a perfect foil for Batman- what use is the worlds greatest detective if the criminal has no motive and no plan?

    But that’s not what the Joker does. He kills Jason Todd and becomes the Iranian Ambassador as part of a thorough plan to hurt the Batman, and it works.

    Most of what we see the Joker do is part of a larger plan, what Batman would refer to as a “product of a sick mind.” He’s like Batman’s other villains in that he has perverse fixations that also entrap him and let Batman thwart his plans. Where he differs from Ra’s Al Ghul is that his plans do not lead to personal wealth or power, but he does seek gratification- “I will make them understand the world like I do.”

    In The Killing Joke, he WANTS Commissioner Gordon to finally understand and to experience what he did (one bad day revealed the world is chaotic). Harming his daughter is a thought out plan, he doesn’t pick a random Gothamite because why would Gordon have an emotional or intellectual connection?

    The Joker is a teacher but he’s not teaching chaos (he could do random acts of kindness to really mess with peoples heads) he is teaching suffering. Chaos without pain is meaningless to him, the only truth is pain.

    What the Joker doesn’t know/understand is that Batman is Batman because he already had that bad day “where the world only makes sense if you make it” but it didn’t break him, it made him stronger.

  • Snark Shark says:


    And we’ll never know WHY silver age DC “Gorilla covers” sold so well!

    “Per Degaton… he’s thrown back into the normal timeline as a lab assistant”

    I thought he was a nazi villain this whole time!


    Too bad he never got his own theme song.

    “He’s a Brainiac, Brainiac on the floor! And he’s stealing cities like he never has before!”

    Allan Hoffman: Terra-Man = evil space cowboy.”

    Some CALL him a Space Cowboy. Some call him a Gangster of Love!

  • Sean Mageean says:

    Snark Shark:

    “Time Trapper keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’
    into the future…”

    “Cat’s foot, iron claw
    Neurosurgeons scream for more
    Paranoia’s poison door
    Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man”

    “And if the cloud bursts thunder in your ear
    You shout and no one seems to hear
    And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes
    I’ll see you on the Darkseid of the moon”

    “She comes on like a rose but everybody knows
    She’ll get you in Dutch
    You can look but you better not touch
    Poison Ivy, Poison Ivy
    Late at night while you’re sleepin’
    Poison Ivy comes a-creepin’ around
    She’s pretty as a daisy but look out man she’s crazy
    She’ll really do you in
    If you let her under your skin”

    “I’ve just seen Clayface
    I can’t forget the time or place
    Where we just met”

    “There must be some kind of way outta here
    Said the Joker to the Shadow Thief
    There’s too much confusion
    I can’t get no relief”

    “It’s the eye of the Bronze Tiger
    It’s the thrill of the fight
    Rising up to the challenge of our rival
    And the last known survivor
    Stalks his prey in the night
    And he’s watching us all with the eye of the Bronze Tiger
    The eye of the Bronze Tiger
    The eye of the Bronze Tiger
    The eye of the Bronze Tiger
    The eye of the Bronze Tiger”

    “He’s a Weather Wizard
    There has got to be a twist
    A pinball wizard’s
    Got such a supple wrist”

    Q:What’s Brainiac 5’s favorite Radiohead album?

    A:”OK Computo”

    Q: What’s Cyborg Superman’s favorite Kraftwerk album?

    A: The Man-Machine

    Q: What’s The Calculator’s favorite Kraftwerk song?

    A: Pocket Calculator

    Q: What’s Calendar Man’s favorite Beatles song?

    A: Eight Days a Week

  • Sean Mageean says:

    More Villainous Tunes…

    “Anarky for the USA
    It’s coming sometime and maybe
    I give a wrong time stop a traffic line.
    Your future dream is a shopping scheme
    Cause I wanna be Anarky,
    It’s in Gotham City”

    “God save the Queen Bee
    We mean it man
    We love our Queen Bee
    God saves”

    “Doctor Light, my eyes
    Tell me what is wrong
    Was I unwise to leave them open for so long?”

    “Does anyone know the way, did we hear someone say
    (We just haven’t got a clue what to do)
    Does anyone know the way, there’s got to be a way
    To Blockbuster”

    “You couldn’t be bad
    Magneto was mad!
    Titanium too!
    And the Crimson Dynamo
    Just couldn’t cut it no more
    You were the law …”

    Red Skull at night
    Red Skull at night
    “Red Skull at night
    Red Skull at night

    Should have taken warning, it’s just
    People mourning
    Running, hiding, lost
    You can’t find, find a place to go, so it’s

    Red Skull at night
    Red Skull at night”

    “All I hear is Doctor Doom and gloom
    But when those drums go boom, boom, boom”

    “I guess you didn’t know it but I’m a riddle teller too
    And if you’d care to take a dare, I’ll make a bet with you
    Now you tell a pretty good riddle, boy
    But give the Riddler his due”

    “All our times have come
    Here but now they’re gone
    Seasons don’t fear the Grim Reaper
    Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain
    We can be like they are
    Come on, baby (don’t fear the Grim Reaper)
    Baby, take my hand (don’t fear the Grim Reaper)
    We’ll be able to fly (don’t fear the Grim Reaper)
    Baby, I’m your man”

    “Hey ho, let’s go! Hey ho, let’s go!
    Hey ho, let’s go! Hey ho, let’s go!
    They’re forming in straight line
    They’re going through a tight wind
    The kids are losing their minds
    The Baron Blitzkrieg bop”

  • Snark Shark says:

    Ha-ha-ha! nice!

  • Scott Rowland says:

    Sean deserves a medal, or a gig writing the Maniaks.

  • Sean Mageean says:

    Snark Shark & Scott Rowland:

    Thanx! Actually, it would be fun to do a Maniaks mini-series…bring in Scooter, Super-Hip, The Inferior Five, Angel & the Ape…and more! I’d want to set it in the “Groovy Age” of comics, however! Maybe have cameos by The Kinks or The Troggs…

    I’ve had this classic Ray Davies earworm on repeat lately:

    Anyway, here’s my Villainous Encore:

    “Thanos on the streets of London
    Thanos on the streets of Birmingham
    I wonder to myself
    Could life ever be sane again?”

    “Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout the new war
    Funny, but it’s still Kree and Skrulls to me”

    “By the time I get to Dark Phoenix
    She’ll be rising
    She’ll find the note I left hanging on her door
    She’ll laugh, when she reads the part that says I’m leaving
    Cause I’ve left that girl, so many times before”

    “You can catch her all the time, just gettin’ her kicks now
    (Go Granny Goodness, go Granny Goodness, go Granny Goodness, go)
    With her four speed stick and a four-two-six now
    (Go Granny Goodness, go Granny Goodness, go Granny Goodness, go)
    The guys come to race her from miles around
    But she’ll give ’em a length, then she’ll shut ’em down”

    “I’ll be your Mirror Master
    Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know
    I’ll be the wind, the rain and the sunset
    The light on your door to show that you’re home
    When you think the night has seen your mind
    That inside you’re twisted and unkind
    Let me stand to show that you are blind
    Please put down your hands
    ‘Cause I see you”

    “Clowns to the left of me
    Three Jokers to the right
    Here I am stuck in the middle with you”

  • Allow me.
    Lex Luthor. Vanity and Insecurity.
    The Joker. Vanity and a twisted sense of humor.
    Sinestro. Fear of restraint.
    Reverse-Flash. Envy.
    Gorilla Grodd. Alpha dominance instinct that comes with his force of mind.
    Deathstroke. He’s just a goober.
    Per Degaton. He’s the gamer who wants to crack the code for ‘beating the game’ (defeating the JSA/ruling the world), no matter how many restarts it takes.

    P.S. The Joker doesn’t stand for chaos. The Joker doesn’t stand for anything. The Joker isn’t trying to make a point to Batman or to anyone else, because he doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. He’s just easily bored and enjoys outwitting the people, stealing things, and murdering people along the way. THAT’s what actually terrifying; there is no ideological battle against him to be won.

  • […] I got a soupçon of disagreement over my reducing the the Joker’s motivation to “causing chaos.” And…okay, none of you are wrong, and there’s a lot of […]