When I was growing up and watching the shows that went on to influence me, the villains were mostly cartoony. And not just by the fact that they were animated but also that their plans were quite out there. Think of The Joker in Batman The Animated Series, his plans were almost always just to ruin Batman’s day and maybe hurt a few people and rob a bank or two. Even Dr. Doom’s plans for Marvel weren’t huge, he just wanted to be left alone and rule his made up world. The villains all had tangible goals and their plots were usually just an inconvenience to the hero. It’s one of the reasons the egotistical Loki of the first Avengers movie was such a trip for me: I’m used to comic book Loki who rather just steal Thor’s underwear or something.
But as you’ve seen during this magical adventure we’ve had this year discussing framing, villains and villainy: you’ve likely noticed a theme. That theme is that the current bad thing of the era is genocide. And I don’t mean that hyperbolically. It’s literally the aim of most evil dudes in movies recently.
A Buzzfeed article recently discussed that the theme of the last 10 years of movies has been animals overtaking humans as dominant species as a social commentary for our misuse of the planet. But I think the real theme of current movie bad is the systematic or sudden removal of a large amount of people. You’ve seen me mention it over and over again as I rant about framing.
And it continues to bother me each time because I get more and more angry that the prospect of hundreds, thousands, millions of people can die in a narrative and we still side with the villain. So in today’s post I want to talk about when that shift seemed to occur in comics and movies and why it’s so terrible.
Earlier I mentioned the motives of comic book villains during the Gold and Silver age. Most of them had pretty small goals or mostly non-lethal lofty ones. There was a lot of desire to enslave a population or take over a planet or rob a bank. Many of the Gold and Silver age villains barely even had a body count back in the day. It wasn’t until the 70s or so that comic villains got more intense about wanting death as part of their domination. This actually starts to appear around the first introduction of Thanos in the comics during the 1970s. Thanos’ goal in the comics was to woo Lady Death and the only way to do that is to send her souls. She’s impressed by numbers (the O.G. size queen) and so Thanos does all he can to add to his body count to please his mistress. We didn’t get a shift in his goals being objectively genocidal until much later in the comics. Then his motivation becomes the weird meditation on resources we get in the Infinity War movie. We’ve seen comic book characters go down this route before. Parallax wants to eat the Galaxy in Green Lantern, Galactus wants to do…whatever his motivations are and that usually involves a ton of people dying.
The first mark in the shift of genocide as plot point can be seen in a comic that means a lot to me but I don’t get to discuss enough: Watchmen. Moore’s brilliant graphic novel tackles this issue incredibly directly with Ozymandias’ terrible plan being spelled out quite clearly: killing millions, to save billions. There, there’s the shift. Suddenly, the madman isn’t mad, he’s just an extremist looking for the most rational solution to a major problem. And I adore Adrian’s plan. His motivations to stop the war by zapping in a psychedelic interdimensional space squid to wipe out most of New York is flawed but that’s the beauty of Moore’s prose: you can sort of see where he’s coming from. But even though the framing tells us Ozymandias’ plan is rational for that universe, the way everyone else treats him after the reveal of his plan reminds us that this is terrible. The movie is a hot mess but the film also does a great job of demonizing Ozymandias’ dumb plan even though he uses Dr. Manhattan nonsense to vaporize a bunch of folks rather than the space cephalopod.
The only mass death in comics that could possibly rival death toll mounted by Ozymandias was House of M for Marvel. This storyline saw the end to mutants in the decades long run of Marvel comics and in a simple phrase more than half of the characters that made Marvel great simply vanished. It was a heartbreaking event in the comics and we considered Scarlet Witch to be a villain for years after her fateful choice: even if we could empathize with her grief that lead up to the choice to utter that powerful phrase, she’s still a monster for wiping people off the face of existence.
DC Comics did have Crisis on Infinite Earths and there were many many deaths as a result and Blackest Night which is a crisis entirely created by Booster Gold because he wanted to be the hero, dammit. But as we’ve discussed, no one considered Booster Gold to be a hero of anything.
Most of the genocidal villains we get in comics and movies are framed as bad guys because that’s what bad guys do: they suggest that removing an entire section of population is expendable. Think of Star Wars: Darth Vader wipes out an entire planet and we know he’s a bad guy for it and earlier when Vader is still just annoying Anakin, he slaughters a bunch of children and Tusken Raiders and it is firmly shown that he is a bad guy for that. And even though Vader is ultimately a very sympathetic character, we don’t ever forget that he’s still a mass murderer.
Speaking of the 2000s, it’s around this time that genocide seemed to be less of a taboo. By this time, I was watching a ton of anime and several series flirt with this idea: you’ve heard me discuss Death Note frequently but also Bleach flirts with a subplot of wiping out souls and Soul Reapers for the sake of a goal, Trigun hints at this with Knives’ subplot and even if it isn’t straight up death as the goal, several anime focus on purity or a unique group rising to the top. Japan is very eugenics-friendly, which should terrify everyone. Media be it Western or eastern has a ton of focus on Chosen Ones and more pure people and if any part of that sounds scary to you, good. We’re on the same page.
Here is the problem with romanticizing genocide and eugenics: we’ve had actual genocide happen in the world. Hitler wanted to remove Jews and other “undesirables” from Germany, Pol Pot wanted to forge a new future by eradicating the past, ethnic minorities all around the world face persecution and death simply for being a little bit different. This is a real thing with real consequences and our continual sugar-coating of the slippery slope nonsense logic that continues to minimize the dangers of racism, misogyny and homophobia only makes those problems worse. When Thanos’ idea in Infinity War doesn’t sound so crazy, that’s a problem. When Killmonger’s Reconquista sounds logical, that’s a problem. We live in a world that is full of natural disasters, terrorism, racism, homophobia, sexism, hatred, bigotry and population concerns: these are real problems and to far too many people the idea of simply poofing some folks out of existence sounds like a great way to solve all of these complex problems.
I think it’s a sign of the times that genocide seems to be our main macabre obsession as was slavery and colonialism were the macabre obsessions of the Gold and Silver age of comics. We have to confront that if eugenics, social Darwinism and wiping out parts of the population for a “clean slate” ticks any box for you, you are on a dangerous path. I’ve had to confront that in myself and it’s made me infinitely more critical of the media I ingest.
I hope you enjoyed this discussion on the deaths of too many fictional characters.
I promise the next topic will be lighter.