Magneto, the Joker, and the Supervillain Sympathy Spectrum
(A version of article was originally written on December 18, 2013, in response to a question I received on Tumblr)
What’s your favorite superhero and supervillain? – donthidethescars
I’ll be honest, considering how much time I spend thinking about comic books and superheroes, I have a hard time pinning down a favorite supervillain. I think the main reason for that is how much the quality of a supervillain can depend on the writer; a talented writer can turn even the least interesting villains into genuine threats (Kraven the Hunter was a fun concept, but compared to most of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery he was fairly one-dimensional, until “Kraven’s Last Hunt” writer J.M. DeMatteis managed to make him an incredibly engaging villain). On the other hand, a terrible writer can ruin great villains (like when Brad Meltzer turned Dr. Light into a serial rapist in “Identity Crisis”).
However, I have noticed that most villains, especially in comic books, tend to break down into one of two categories – the Sympathetic Villain and the Monster.
Now, let’s start by defining our terms. When I talk about Sympathetic Villains, I don’t necessarily mean that the audience is rooting for them, or even agrees with their thought process. By that same token, the Monster isn’t necessarily a wolfman or a Dracula.
The Sympathetic Villain is the enemy the audience can understand on a human level. The Monster is the villain that defies rationalization.
The Sympathetic Villain is fairly straight-forward, and the type seen most often in fiction; these are the bad guys whose actions and behavior are justified by their backstory. These villains often have a moment in the story where the audience can say, “You know, I can’t say I agree with what he’s doing, but if I were in the same position, I might do the same thing…” These villains are often the ones I find the most interesting. I love analyzing how a character who seems evil – and in some cases, unambiguously IS evil – could be absolutely justified in their actions, at least in their own minds. In comics, some examples of the Sympathetic Villain include Magneto, Mr. Freeze and Loki (the modern version, especially post-MCU). Outside of comics, we have Darth Vader, Ben Linus in Lost (arguably), and Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in Blade Runner, among others.
And then there’s the Monster. The truth is, nobody in the world thinks of themselves as evil. Anytime you see a horrible wretched human being on the news, or in history, you have to realize that they think they’re doing the right thing… but we have all agreed to suspend that idea for the Monster villain. Those guys do horrible things for no good reason, or for reasons we can’t begin to fathom. In comics, examples for this category include the Joker, the Green Goblin and Darkseid, while in movies we find examples like Hannibal Lecter, Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, and Vincent (Tom Cruise) in Collateral.
It’s important to note that sympathetic villains can still be monstrous – in fact, a strong motivation can make them even more frightening as they carry out their horrible acts (a great example is Blade Runner, or Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Operative in Serenity). But the Monster refers to the villain who comes into the film already a dangerous menace, shows up apparently out of nowhere, and often does not have an origin.
In a college class on science-fiction films, a teacher once explained that the difference between “magic” and “science” in film is whether anybody bothers to try to explain why something has happened – for example, “This virus is animating recently deceased tissue and reviving the recently dead without their higher brain function,” versus “The dead are rising, we need to RUN!!!”
That’s sort of the difference between the Sympathetic Villain and the Monster, as well – i.e. the man who kills people because he was horribly abused as a child and has no other way to cope, versus the dude who eats people just because he wants to, full stop.
This doesn’t mean that every villain falls neatly into one category or the other – they all fall somewhere along what I call the Supervillain Sympathy Spectrum. This spectrum runs from Magneto (ultra-sympathetic) to the Joker (devoid of sympathy). And it’s no coincidence that, on opposite ends of the spectrum, we have these two characters who are arguably two of the greatest supervillains in comic book history.
Magneto, like many villains on the Sympathetic side of the spectrum, didn’t start out sympathetic at all. In his initial appearances, his motivations are clearly pro-mutant / anti-human, but none of the context is there yet. It wasn’t until later that it was revealed that Magneto had been a Jewish boy in World War II Germany, and had actually survived the death camps. And here he was, a member of another hated minority (mutants), and presented with the looming threat of a similar genocide. Only this time around, he has the power to do something about it.
That’s an origin that anyone can understand and empathize with. If I saw my family butchered, and then thought it was going to happen to me all over again as an adult, I’d say, “Oh no, I don’t think so.” Then I’d throw their giant killer robots back at the humans until they left me alone or died, whichever came first. My people would take over the world, and the homo sapians would get nothing and like it.
I absolutely understand Magneto’s motivations, and can totally get behind his actions as a result of them. His sympathetic nature is what makes him so compelling.
On the flip side, there’s the Joker.
You can’t empathize with the Joker. You can’t explain the Joker’s thought process. You can’t “see things his way” or “get inside his head” or “walk a mile in his shoes.” That’s how people get their faces burned off or get tossed into a pit full of hyenas.
The Joker is one of the few villains who, in my opinion, doesn’t work if you show who he used to be. One of my major gripes with Batman ‘89 is that it’s actually much more a Joker origin than a Batman origin. In all fairness, that approach works perfectly well for 99% of supervillains (just about every Spider-Man movie does it, usually pretty well), so unfortunately somebody had to make that mistake with the Joker before we could learn that it didn’t work for him specifically. He’s much more frightening if his origin is unseen.
The fact is, the Joker absolutely does have an origin. Even before the Batman knocked him into a tank of acid and bleached his skin, there was some moment in the Joker’s past that set him down the path to becoming a completely irredeemable psychopath. The point of the character is that it doesn’t matter what it was. Maybe it was the origin Alan Moore presented in “The Killing Joke,” or maybe it wasn’t. The point is, something terrible happened to him, and he did not react the same way Batman did; in fact, he literally had the complete opposite reaction.
Batman experienced a horrible trauma as a child, and dedicated his life to ensuring that the same thing would never happen to anybody else. The Joker, we can safely assume, had a similarly horrible experience at some point in his life, but he universalized it. If he was going to experience pain, then screw it, everybody else was going to share. And then he started laughing, like, a lot.
Whatever gets you through the day, dude.
Now, obviously I just talked about how the Joker can't/shouldn't have an origin story, so how do I reconcile that with Joker? But that's not a film about a supervillain, it's a Scorsese riff about a man with some severe mental issues that go ignored for too long. And I would argue that it's not trying to create a villain at all; the film wants you to empathize with Arthur Fleck's, because he is our protagonist. Even when Magneto is at his most sympathetic, in X-Men: First Class, he's fighting another villain, but the film still ends with Magneto going too far and becoming a villain, betraying our other protagonist Charles Xavier. The Arthur Fleck version of the Joker has a completely different goal, because there is no other protagonist to take his role once he crosses over into villainy. Plus, he doesn't really defeat the true villain of the piece, because his enemy is Society (or arguably Thomas Wayne, but Wayne is more of an avatar of Society as a whole). Joker wants to hang the whole film on Arthur, so he's not really the version from the comics; he's his own creature.
As I said before, most villains fall somewhere between the two sides of the spectrum. Many villains in movies have an established motivation, but that doesn’t necessarily make them sympathetic. For example, Dennis Hopper’s character in Speed has a backstory, but it doesn’t really get the audience on his side – it only serves to provide just enough motivation to justify his existence as a movie villain, and to offer some explanation of how he knows so much about bombs.
It’s also important to note that, as was the case with Magneto, Mr. Freeze, Ben Linus, or Sylar from “Heroes,” lots of villains start out monstrous and later gain characterization and backstory and pathos. The difference, and what separates them from the Joker or Hannibal Lecter, is whether or not an attempt to “justify” the characters with sympathetic backstory actually reduces their effectiveness. I am not interested in a story about Joker's tragic childhood, and nobody wanted a movie about Hannibal Lecter’s really lonely childhood. Those characters are monsters because, at the end of the day, giving them an origin story dilutes their effectiveness. The sympathetic villains, on the other hand, are the ones where the added details help to provide texture and richness, and make the characters more engaging and effective.
But at the end of the day, Magneto and the Joker are the alpha and the omega of supervillains. They’re the two best examples of the dudes we love to hate.
As for my favorite superhero? That would probably be Daredevil.
That dude rules.