So Sayeth the Odinson: What Motivates a Super Villain?

Greetings from the Odinson,


What motivates you?


It’s a simple question, really, but not so simple to always answer.  Different people are motivated by different things.  Competition, the need to be the best there is at what we do can be a motivating factor.  The need to provide for others, for family and friends.  Deadlines can be very motivating.  Motivation can be as simple as a song, that driving rock ballad from that one movie soundtrack that helps you get through your workout.  It seemed to help the protagonist get over his mountain, why not you?


Motivations play a huge role in storytelling. Motivation is a key factor in character development.  It can mean the difference between good storytelling and not so good storytelling.  For instance, Batman v. Superman and Captain America: Civil War have essentially the same exact plot.  One movie is riveting, edge-of-your-seat drama with twists and turns that keep you engaged until the climax of the film, the other however is a dour, overstuffed toy box mess with very little positive elements.  The major differences between the two films are the motivations that drive the characters in the films to action.  I’ll leave it up to the fans to decide which is which.


This path of thinking got the Odinson thinking about villains and their motivations.  Heroic motivations are easy to understand.  Uncle Ben was murdered by the very crook Spider-Man could have stopped earlier and Perter Parker learned the costly price that with great power there must also come great responsibility.  The parents of Bruce Wayne were murdered right in front of him and this terrible moment motivated Wayne to become the world’s greatest detective, a physical dynamo, and Gotham City’s Caped Crusader.  But, what motivates an evildoer?  Performing evil acts just for the sake of evil itself can serve a purpose but ultimately that becomes shallow and frankly quite boring.  Motivations for our antagonist can be as simple as a lust for power.  What do the powerful want?  More power!


The classic villains of 80s cartoons were driven by this motivation.  Skeletor wants the secrets kept away inside Castle Grayskull, secrets that will bestow upon him the power to become the true Master of the Universe.  Mumm-Ra wants to unlock the secret to the power of the Eye of Thundera which resides on the hilt of the mighty Sword of Omens, the only weapon capable of keeping his evil in check.  Cobra Commander wants the world under his thumb and to accomplish this he surrounds himself by Cobra, the most powerful terrorist army the world has ever seen.  Venger wants the magical weapons in the possession of time-displaced children in order to add their infinite power to his own and allow him to challenge the invincible dragon Tiamat.  And, Megatron wants to suck planet Earth dry of all its natural resources and convert them into energon cubes for consumption by his warmongering Decepticons.


In film, we have Darth Vader, Agent Smith, Hannibal Lecter, and the shark from JAWS, the Mount Rushmore of cinema villainy.  What motivates these cinematic icons of evil?  Yoda clearly defined the motivations that led Anakin Skywalker down the path toward the dark side of the force.  “Fear is the path to the dark side.  Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering.”  Agent Smith started out motivated by purpose, he was a cog in the machine that is the Matrix and served as a guardian of control.  However, upon his destruction at the hands of Neo, he became motivated by desire, a desire to understand, a desire that led to his ultimate motivation, all consuming power.  Lecter and the shark’s motivations are easy.  They’re hungry.


The truly great villains have great motivations.  Which got me thinking about my favorite villains in comic books.  So, I thought I’d take a look at some of my All-Time favorite comic book super villains and examine just what it is that motivates them.


Anti-Monitor/Annihilus – Motivations: Complete and utter annihilation.  Profile: Even though these two cosmically-charged monsters reside in different planes of existence they both are motivated by a singular goal to eradicate everything and everyone in their path.  In Crisis on Infinite Earths, the Anti-Monitor attempted to destroy the multiverse and came darn close to doing just that.  He systematically wiped out world after world until only one remained.  His campaign was brought to an end by the most Herculean efforts by the last surviving super heroes of the DCU, but their victory came with great cost.  Annihilus’ big push came in the form of the Annihilation Wave.  The first to fall was the universal police force the Nova Corps.  Then, like an unstoppable juggernaut, the Lord of the Negative Zone’s wave of destruction swept across the galaxy.  It took a coalition of the Marvel U’s entire galactic pantheon to even slow the Annihilation Wave down, and the improbable feats of a small band of heroes and anti-heroes to bring the threat of Annihilus to an end.


Apocalypse – Motivations: Survival of the fittest.  Profile: He is the oldest and one of the most powerful mutants to ever walk the earth.  With inconceivable mutant abilities and access to Celestial technology, Apocalypse seeks to remake the world in his own image, a world where only the strong can survive and the weak are trampled underfoot.  This mighty despot has mounted several attempts to achieve this goal – Fall of the Mutants, Age of Apocalypse, The Twelve, The Apocalypse Wars – but each time, fortunately, the mutant heroes the X-Men have always risen to the occasion to stop him.  But, will the X-Men always be strong enough to stop the coming of Apocalypse?


Galactus – Motivations: Sustenance.  Profile: He is the Devourer of Worlds and Galactus hungers, he always hungers.  I know Galactus is more of a force of nature rather than a villain but I’m pretty sure this distinction means very little to the inhabitance of the next world he plans to devour.  Empowered by immense cosmic energies, this galactic titan must constantly replenish these energies and to do that, he must consume the life force of entire planets, a process which ultimate destroys that planet.  If he does not consume these planets, Galactus will wither and eventually die, but this can never be allowed to happen.  Galactus serves a greater purpose in universal order.  The planets upon which he feeds just so happen to be the incubation chambers for the space gods known as Celestials.  The numbers of these enigmatic giants of unimaginable power are kept in check by the hunger which drives Galactus to seek out the worlds he consumes.


Lex Luthor – Motivations: Greed. Ego.  Profile: He is one of the smartest, riches, most influential, and politically powerful men in the world, and it is not enough.  How can it be when he plays second fiddle to an alien from another world in his very own city?  Whether he is a mad scientist, ruthless business man, real estate mogul, or scheming armored villain, Luthor is always motivated by his own self sense of worth and the need to be the best and most important man in the room.


Doctor Octopus – Motivations: Ego.  A desire for respect and recognition.  Psychosis.  Profile: He is a diminutive, overweight man whose insanity has amped up his self-loathing insecurities to the Nth degree.  Oh, and he just happens to be a genius, a real genius, like one of the smartest men alive.  He would be the premiere expert on radiation research in the world if it were not for Bruce Banner.  He would probably be the best engineer and inventor if it were not for Tony Stark.  He is constantly forced to take a back seat to others.  His master plans are constantly thwarted by that confounded Spider-Man.  And, even when he replaced his foe, he set out to prove he was a Superior Spider-Man.  Unfortunately for ole Otto Octavius, it’s the very things that motivate him that will always keep him from achieving his goals.


Darkseid – Motivations: Control.  Profile: There is no will other than Darkseid.  This dark god from the far side of the universe will never rest until all bend to his will, and, without remorse or conscience, he will crush anyone or anything that stands in his way.  To obtain his goal for universal control, Darkseid seeks to unlock the secrets for the Anti-Life Equation, a universal formula that can enslave all life in the cosmos and bend it to the will of one being.  Darkseid is.


Thanos – Motivations: Oblivion. An unconscious self-loathing and admission of unworthiness.   Profile: This nihilistic mad god is obsessed with the entity known as Death.  He worships Death.  He seeks to please his dark mistress by eradicating life on a universal level.  He has attempted this macabre feat on several occasions including the Cosmic Cube, Infinity Gauntlet, and Designate sagas. His ultimate goal is to stand at the side of his mistress in the afterlife, but being an immortal despot makes that a very difficult goal to obtain.  On a few occasions he has actually witness true oblivion and the end of all existence – Marvel: The End and The Infinity Saga.  It is in these moments of ultimate victory that an unrecognized seed of self-aware unworthiness, which had remained buried deep inside his subconscious until oblivion stared him in the face, emerges and forces him to save the universe rather than destroy it.  Jim Starlin really broke the mold when he created this complex antagonist.


The Joker – Motivations: Chaos.  Anarchy.  Profile: As Alfred Pennyworth once so aptly put it, “Some people just want to watch the world burn.”  The Clown Prince of Crime is not motivated by money, greed, or power.  Chaos, disorder, disharmony, these are the pretty girls he desires.  He wants to prove that laws and societies have no place in a world that does not make sense.  His perfect foil is Batman, a crime fighter of logic and discipline.  They are opposite sides of the same coin and probably destined to do their tango forever.


Magneto – Motivations: The survival and accession of his people.  Profile: On one hand, Magneto fights for the most noble of causes, the survival of the mutant race.  In a world that hates and fears the mutants, Magneto is that force for justice that stands between his people and enslavement, or worse.  On the other hand, Magneto has a superiority complex the size of Everest.  He truly believes that mutants are the next stage in human evolution and are the heir apparent to inheriting the world.  The inferior humans must not only accept this truth, but bow down before it, or be squashed and erased from the history books.  Juxtaposed against the dream of Charles Xavier for humans and mutants to coexist in peace, and Marvel has one of the most complicated and delicious sources for drama that has driven sales for decades.


Doctor Doom – Motivations: Power. Control. Ego. To rule, to conquer.  Jealousy.  Profile: This is a very complicated man.  He seeks ultimate power, and has obtained in on several occasions – Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars and Secret Wars.  He will seek out power by any means necessary.  We are talking about a guy who in Unthinkable sacrificed the only woman he ever truly loved to obtain more power.  He wants to conquer the world, yet another goal he has accomplished on several occasions – Super-Villain Team-Up and Emperor Doom.  Sometimes the pettiest of motivations can be the strongest.  Doom cannot abide that Reed Richards just may be smarter than him.  No man is greater than Doom.  No man is even the equal of Doom.  DOOM will not allow it!


Whether the reader agrees or disagrees with a character’s motivations, it is through these reasons that the reader is able to understand and in some cases even relate to the character.  Their colorful costumes and super cool powers and gadgets make them good villains, but their motivations make them great villains.


This is Odinson bidding thee farewell


About Odinson

I am a lifelong comics fan and pop culture enthusiast. Comic books, novels, games, television, movies, I love it all. From fantasy to science fiction, drama to comedy, as long as the writing and execution are interesting, I love it, and I want to talk about it.

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