With super-heroes enjoying rebirths and reboots and new movies and renewed TV shows, I’ve been thinking about super-villains.
Take the Fantastic Four. The team’s most prominent opponents work on an epic scale. Doctor Doom is lord of Latveria, Namor is emperor of the oceans, the Mole Man sees himself as the enemy of the surface world, Galactus consumes planets, Annihilus has ruled the Negative Zone, the Super-Skrull has been the vanguard of interplanetary war.
To these overlords and would-be overlords, the Fantastic Four — a small handful of humans — is just something gumming up the bad guys’ grandiose ambitions and world-wrecking plots. The FF isn’t an enemy to grapple with as much as it’s an obstacle to kick away.
The FF does have villains who work on a smaller scale. They often tend to be less prominent in the team’s history, though. (Really, does the Puppet Master or the Impossible Man compare with Doctor Doom?)
By contrast, Superman’s top opponents — Luthor, Brainiac, General Zod, Doomsday, the Parasite, Cyborg Superman Hank Henshaw — usually go after him directly and personally. When he first encounters them, they may have other, bigger goals; but after he defeats them a few times (or even once), their top priority becomes killing him, hurting him physically or emotionally, or simply proving their superiority to him. They hate the guy in an almost tangible way, and often focus on overpowering him face to face and body to body (rather than, say, outwitting him).
Spider-Man’s opponents take him personally, too. Doctor Octopus and Venom, for instance, often go out of their way to make Spidey’s life miserable. (By contrast, can you imagine Galactus taking time out of his planetary ravagings to seek out and beat up the Fantastic Four? He wouldn’t bother.)
The personal feeling may explain why Spidey, more than most super-heroes, has a lot of enemies with numbers after their names. His opponents hate him so much that they pass their grudges on to family members and other successors. Spidey has met multiple goblins (both Green and Hob), Kravens, Venoms, and Vultures, all devoted to destroying him. They often care about other goals, too, but ruining Spidey is number one.
Then there’s Batman. While some people have said that Batman’s disturbing persona attracts the criminally insane like paper clips to a magnet, his opponents actually work indirectly.
When opponents such as the Joker, Bane, Two-Face, the Riddler, the Penguin, the Scarecrow, Catwoman, Harley Quinn, Killer Croc, and Poison Ivy return from prison, hospital, or exile, they don’t usually head straight into the hero’s face, as the opponents of Superman or Spider-Man frequently do. No, they prefer to attack Gotham City’s other citizens.
Of course, they expect their attacks to attract Batman’s attention. Often, they even set up death traps for him. But even the craziest of them rarely gets insane enough to hunt him down. He hunts them down.
I’m not sure why the villains’ approaches to various good guys have evolved as they have. And new stories and characters don’t have to follow the established patterns.
But I think it’s a good idea for writers to know about them.