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  1. #1
    Astonishing Member Tzigone's Avatar
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    Default Sympathetic villains - how do you feel about them

    It is something we've discussed before, but I just thought of it again because of this Reddit post.

    So, my questions with the audience:

    Do you think the sympathetic villain has become as much as trope as the mustache-twirler? I very much do. I practically roll my eyes when each new one is introduced now.

    Do you keep sympathy for villains with tragic long-term, no matter how horrible their actions? After a villain has been retconned with more sympathetic origins, do you like retcon their histories to make past actions less bad?

    Do you consider villains that believe they are serving some greater purpose, that they are righteous, to be generally sympathetic, even if nothing bad happened to them? Does it matter if you agree with that purpose?

    How much culpability/responsibility do you give villains for their villainous actions when you view them sympathetically?


    To what degree do you think heroes should keep giving them more chances, keep trying to redeem them, especially if they were former friends? This was something I believe came up when discussing Cheetah and Wonder Woman a while ago. At what point does it seem the hero cares more about or feels more sympathy towards the villain than the villain's victims? I mean, I get fans caring more - the villain is a recurring character, the victims are often just plot devices - but it's definitely something to shy away from in-universe. Though, of course, the hero sometimes does also have a strong (historical) bond with the villain than the victims, too.

  2. #2
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    Well, vilains have always had "sympathetic" backstories since the dawn of time. It's nothing new.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Tzigone View Post
    It is something we've discussed before, but I just thought of it again because of this Reddit post.

    So, my questions with the audience:

    Do you think the sympathetic villain has become as much as trope as the mustache-twirler? I very much do. I practically roll my eyes when each new one is introduced now.

    Do you keep sympathy for villains with tragic long-term, no matter how horrible their actions? After a villain has been retconned with more sympathetic origins, do you like retcon their histories to make past actions less bad?

    Do you consider villains that believe they are serving some greater purpose, that they are righteous, to be generally sympathetic, even if nothing bad happened to them? Does it matter if you agree with that purpose?

    How much culpability/responsibility do you give villains for their villainous actions when you view them sympathetically?


    To what degree do you think heroes should keep giving them more chances, keep trying to redeem them, especially if they were former friends? This was something I believe came up when discussing Cheetah and Wonder Woman a while ago. At what point does it seem the hero cares more about or feels more sympathy towards the villain than the villain's victims? I mean, I get fans caring more - the villain is a recurring character, the victims are often just plot devices - but it's definitely something to shy away from in-universe. Though, of course, the hero sometimes does also have a strong (historical) bond with the villain than the victims, too.
    The problem is that DC keeps the sympathetic villains as villains instead of redeeming them or try to 'redeem' the villains who don't actually deserve it.

  4. #4
    Boisterously Confused
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    I don't mind a villain to whose motivation a reader can relate. Most villains should see themselves as the hero or their stories, no matter how flawed their logic. I mind when superhero comics abandon their morality-play roots, and overindulge in relativism just so they can publish a title with that cool costume and powerset.

  5. #5
    My Face Is Up Here Powerboy's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tzigone View Post
    It is something we've discussed before, but I just thought of it again because of this Reddit post.

    So, my questions with the audience:

    Do you think the sympathetic villain has become as much as trope as the mustache-twirler? I very much do. I practically roll my eyes when each new one is introduced now.

    Do you keep sympathy for villains with tragic long-term, no matter how horrible their actions? After a villain has been retconned with more sympathetic origins, do you like retcon their histories to make past actions less bad?

    Do you consider villains that believe they are serving some greater purpose, that they are righteous, to be generally sympathetic, even if nothing bad happened to them? Does it matter if you agree with that purpose?

    How much culpability/responsibility do you give villains for their villainous actions when you view them sympathetically?


    To what degree do you think heroes should keep giving them more chances, keep trying to redeem them, especially if they were former friends? This was something I believe came up when discussing Cheetah and Wonder Woman a while ago. At what point does it seem the hero cares more about or feels more sympathy towards the villain than the villain's victims? I mean, I get fans caring more - the villain is a recurring character, the victims are often just plot devices - but it's definitely something to shy away from in-universe. Though, of course, the hero sometimes does also have a strong (historical) bond with the villain than the victims, too.
    It depends on the villain. Harry Osborn comes to mind.

    I wouldn't think of the Rhino as a sympathetic villain but there was a story where it was done fantastically well.

    There are some villains that I don't buy it for an instant like Doctor Doom. Oh, I might still find it well-written and entertaining but believing it is another matter.

    With Doctor Octopus and his background, I found it was done in a believable way.

    There was a series of novels called "Wild Cards" and a villain called Puppet-Man who was a ruthless monster. Then, just when he's being brought down, they tried to make him sympathetic. Not only did I not buy it but I hated it. This guy deserved what he got and they were trying to ruin him getting what he should get by trying to make him sympathetic at the last moment after several novels building up to this.

    Mind you, I think there is a big difference between making a villain truly sympathetic and merely showing that he's a human who has a good quality somewhere or letting you into his mind and allowing you to see his point of view.

    When William DaFoe was asked what the differences were, as a Method actor, between preparing to play a villain and a hero, he said, "Ain't no difference. Everybody's righteous in his own mind".

    All I can say is that it depends on the villain and on the writer and how good he is at pulling off such a stunt.

    Edit: I got into answering the question and forgot it was a DC forum. Sorry for all the Marvel examples. But I could as easily use Lex Luthor as Doom.

    Catwoman has usually been a sympathetic villain. The Riddler has at times been sympathetic, which is why I hated it when "Gotham" seemed to want all the villains to be psychopaths. When everybody might as well be the Joker, there's nothing special about the Joker. That's ironic in itself since he has, on rare occasions, been sympathetic without ever forgetting that he's a murdering madman.
    Last edited by Powerboy; 02-24-2021 at 12:32 PM.
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  6. #6
    Astonishing Member Riv86672's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DrNewGod View Post
    I don't mind a villain to whose motivation a reader can relate. Most villains should see themselves as the hero or their stories, no matter how flawed their logic. I mind when superhero comics abandon their morality-play roots, and overindulge in relativism just so they can publish a title with that cool costume and powerset.
    ^^^Same for me, basically.

    I take it on a case by case basis. Reading about a villain can be entertaining. Being force fed a villain is not.

    This reminds me of a thread about the upcoming Cruela DeVille movie, where the point was made as to how dumb itd be to try and make her sympathetic, like Maleficent. Because while Maleficent cursed a baby, it was after being used, lied to, maimed, declared war upon etc.
    Cruela on the other hand...is a puppy killer.

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    I don't mind sympathetic villains at all, but one thing I will say is that I wish DC didn't feel compelled to make every one of their female villains into sympathetic anti-villains and sometimes even anti-heroes. It seems like most comic book writers just don't think women can be evil in the same way that men can which seems to me like a weird form of infantilization

  8. #8
    ...of the Black Priests Midnight_v's Avatar
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    I'm a little burned out on every villain being sympathetic... NOT everyone is going to Doc Doom or whoever I don't expect that.

    What I would like is a human Villian who is evil without the idea of pause or redemption. I remember the description of the complete monster from the old tvtropes thing

    "I met him, fifteen years ago; I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding; and even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes...the devil's eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply...evil." Dr. Sam Loomis, about Michael Myers, Halloween (1978)

    Sometimes I feel like we need a bad guy to actually you know be EVIL. I would accept extreme selfishness as in "I'm a Conqueror ... You don't ask why a plague spreads or a field burns. Don't ask why I fight" so on.

    I mean in the end we learned that Anakin did it for love and iirc the emperor did it because he knew an even GREATER threat was coming, but its a lot more satisficing to occasionally have a villians motivation be someting closer to:

    Genghis Khan or Nobunaga Oda at their worst. They do it because they look the world and think it's 1. Needs to be tamed and 2 Is just like anything else they've ever wanted better of in their hand or destroyed than free or existing at all.
    Likewise....
    There was a serial killer named Carl Panzram who had this weird quote before dying something like: "I only have one wish. That the whole world had a single neck... and that my hands were wrapped around it.
    and yeah he had a tragic backstrory tbf so did Dahmer and most of those guys...

    But going with the theory of man: "Man hates what he's doesn't understand, and BREAKS what he can't conquer" I could easily see a non-sympathetic Villain existing and being a real threat to the JL.

    I'd thought that was the joker...but they made him about "chaos" ... and we kind of got something like that with the batman who laughs... I guess. I wish he wasn't... THAT.

    In the end I think it is a bit overdone what they're doing.

    I don't think a "mustache-twirler" has to be an idiot like we think of when that term comes up. Its just having motivations based on "true selfishness" is unusual to people and maybe hard to write, because dealing
    with someone like that with the morals off.... I think too often "Dirities" the nice clean heroes or shines a light on how preposterous some of the "no killing" rule seems in practice.

    Just my thoughts.
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  9. #9
    Extraordinary Member Lightning Rider's Avatar
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    I like sympathetic villains, but they probably are a bit overdone these days. In the thread you posted, that kind of "woe is me" posture is something that I think often detracts from the villain's competence and cool factor. For example, the childhood flashbacks in WW84 didn't do anything for me with respect to Lord's character. Lazy textbook bad childhood stuff.

    I actually liked when Snyder flipped Mr. Freeze's origin.

    I also think villains can have interesting motivations without being truly sympathetic. Misplaced feelings of bitterness and revenge are believable, but unlikeable. Some villains have twisted versions of noble causes, like Sinestro or Ra's or Ivy. Someone like Deathstroke probably thinks everyone's a hypocrite anyway so morality is useless - not unlike the Joker, I suppose.

    Redemption can only work if the villain hasn't crossed hard lines, or if they have a unique opportunity to save someone else.

    With respect to morality, I don't think anyone has much free will anyway, so I don't think too hard about that.

  10. #10
    Extraordinary Member Jackalope89's Avatar
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    There does come a point when a "sympathetic" villain can't really be sympathized with. Freeze has gone on killing sprees, Catwoman has left Bruce high and dry, the Flash rogues keep doing big crimes (with Cold being an on again off again killer), etc.

    Then you come across ones like Killer Croc. Started off irredeemable, then with something small (helping Roy with his drug addiction or June Moon with her self-confidence), he enters that gray area. And, oddly enough, has remained in that area. Generally keeps to himself, looks out for those that want his help, but has no qualms killing those that threaten those he swore to protect.

  11. #11
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    It really comes down to how empathetic the writer is not just with the villain, but with his victims and the hero, and what dramatic resonance they seek with their story. Everyone wants a Darth Vader, who can be “damned” but all too human even in his damnation, but a Palpatine is still useful for the sheer gleeful evil he brings, and you don't want to screw over heroes and background characters by going Kylo Ren on a villain and coddling him at the story’s expense.

    For instance, I personally don’t care for Mr. Freeze when he’s either played as just a sympathetic anti-hero nor as a remorseless and delusional psychopath - the character is cold and ruthless, so he’s rather flat if he’s just a psycho, but doesn’t work as a particularly warm anti-hero. A vengeful and seemingly monomaniacal husband trying to basically resurrect his innocent but most likely doomed wife feels like the way to go; a guy who may have some standards, but is still a terrifying force who you can guiltily relate to even at his worse because wrath and selfishness are familiar.

    But I don't care for any attempt to make Joker sympathetic - and I’m referring more to The Killing Joke’s suggested backstory than the movie, though I don’t care about the movie because that’s not what I want the Joker for. To be honest, the whole “evil clown” gimmick works better with blatant misanthropy and simple spite more than any deep seated psychological issues.

    Eobard Thawne works as someone who’s accelerated past simple fandom and selfishness so far it’s kind of hilarious just how self-involved he is, while Captain Cold being a ruthless but loyal redneck works very well. Ares almost shouldn’t be relatable or sympathetic ever, unless it’s in the “old soldier” way that *sometimes* shows up.

    Something like Deathstroke’s treatment shows where it varies and vacillates. The character can be a bastard and still be relatable in a darkly hummus kind of way, but going full “samurai” with him is just missing the point of how horrible he is. Dude wanted to avenge his son’s death, but is screwed up father who totally sexually exploited an underage Terra, whether she’s a sociopath or not.

    Overall... you want the villains to make enough sense for the story to work.
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  12. #12

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    Not all villains (or heroes) should be the same. I think having a variety between pure evil and bad just that one time makes for a far more interesting universe. If we can have pure heroes and heroes with wide ranges of gray, the the villains need just a broad a brush stroke.

  13. #13
    Astonishing Member Gaius's Avatar
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    Harley Quinn has largely killed the idea of a sympathetic villain for me. At least the way it's usually done in mainstream comics as a backdoor way of letting a villain get off scot-free for being an unrepentant monster.

  14. #14
    Extraordinary Member Lightning Rider's Avatar
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    That reminds me of a post I made a while back trying to divide comic-book villains (DC ones in particular) into broad categories.

    Quote Originally Posted by Lightning Rider View Post
    These are the categories I tried to come up with, just for fun, that in my opinion encapsulate pretty much all DC villains (and comic book or fictional villains in general).

    The Visionary Dictator

    This villain is someone who seeks to gain as much influence and control as possible in order to become a global leader, or substantially reshape the social order in their vision. They're typically extremely intelligent and have a deep-rooted ideological conviction that creates the conflict in the story. An "ends-justify-the-means" mentality is also typical of this villain, often in spite of a noble cause. Their personality is egotistical and disciplinarian.

    Examples: Lex Luthor, Sinestro, Black Adam, Ra's Al Ghul, Vandal Savage, General Zod, Gorilla Grodd, Ultra-Humanite, Oceanmaster, Count Vertigo, Poison Ivy

    The Cosmic Demon

    This character is an entity with power far beyond that of the typical comic book character. They have the ability to alter the forces of nature and the universe, and create threats on the grandest of scales. These villains tend to lack a human personality given their grandiose form of existence and single-mindedness.

    Examples: Darkseid, the Anti-Monitor, Despero, Black Hand, Nekron, Ares, Trigon, Neron, Mongul

    The Computer

    This list would be incomplete without including the many forms of robotic and digital threats faced by DC heroes. Whether designed to threaten the world or simply self-aware in their quest to dominate, computer threats are cold single-minded inorganic machines that have no motivation other than to follow their programmed objective.

    Examples: Braniac, Amazo, Red Volcano, Brother Eye & the OMACs

    The Revenge Seeker

    This villain has suffered some personal harm or tragedy at the hands of the hero, or a group of people the hero represents. This type of villain may have life goals of their own which do not involve defeating the hero, but their most prominent motivation is pure revenge. This revenge can be death, or the creation of tragedy in the hero's life.

    Examples: Reverse Flash, Zoom, Black Manta, Superboy Prime, Red Hood (Jason Todd), Toyman, Cheetah, Mr. Freeze, Hank Henshaw, Hugo Strange


    The Gangster

    These types of villains aren't necessarily out to take over the world, or inflict harm for the sake of it. Their number one motivation is greed, and they bypass the law in order to satiate it. These characters are often selfish, in it for themselves, but have the ability to inspire fear and loyalty among other criminals through violence and rugged leadership.

    Examples: Black Mask, Penguin, The Rogues (led by Captain Cold), the Court of Owls, the Royal Flush Gang, Carmine Falcone, Sal Maroni

    The Professional

    Similar to the gangster, the professional isn't often out to take over the world and doesn't usually get any personal satisfaction out of killing or hurting people. Money is usually enough to make them happy. A key difference, however, is the attention they pay to their craft, which they apply hands-on, and their individualist style in getting the job done. These loner killers and saboteurs often have a personal code, and take pride in a job well done.

    Examples: Deathstroke, Deadshot, Bane, Catwoman, KGBeast, Cheshire, Merlyn

    The Psycho

    The psycho villain's principal characteristic is that they don't see reality the way the rest of the normally-functioning world does. They're either convinced of experiencing things that aren't really there, have some uncontrollable obsession, don't have any empathy or connection to other living things, or simply have a warped and distorted perception. Although a psycho villain's motivations may vary, they all usually share the same behavior, which consists of unpredictable attempts at chaos and destruction. This villain can't be reasoned with, as they often forego concern for their own safety in their insanity.

    Examples: The Joker, Harley Quinn, Szasz, Scarecrow, the Mad Hatter, Professor Ivo, Dr. Alchemy, The Ventriloquist, Two-Face, Bizarro

    The Plotter

    The plotter's ego is enormous, matched only by their intelligence. These hyper-smart villains are usually compensating for a lack of physical strength. They seek the personal satisfaction of accomplishment through defeating the hero, and sometimes seek acknowledgement for their competence as well. The plotter often uses technology to create extremely elaborate and detailed plans that anticipate the hero's behavior.

    Examples: The Riddler, The Key, Clock King, The Calculator, The Turtle, T.O. Morrow

    The Mindless Monster

    As the name suggests, the mindless monster is an incredibly strong and destructive threat, but has no complex thoughts or emotions. They are almost always enraged, and attack full force without much of a plan. The mindless monster may have a past identity or alternate form that is or resembles a human, which often creates a moral dilemma for the hero.

    Examples: Doomsday, Man-Bat, Parallax, the Red Lanterns

    The Thug

    This villain has no remarkable motivations, no penchant for leadership, no committed ideology, but have an affliction or ability which makes them uniquely capable. They're in it to get-rich quick and often get manipulated by smarter villains with grander plans.

    Examples: Metallo, Killer Croc, Clayface, Solomon Grundy, Sportsmaster

    ---
    I guess, just like heroes, the best villains are usually 3-dimensional. So the more layers you give a character, the better. It can be tricky trying to give a villain layers without overly sympathizing, but oftentimes, they're relateable qualities that don't detract from their villain status. Many villains have loved ones, for example, that serve as rare exceptions to their selfishness and willingness to harm. Or sometimes such a relationship can reinforce those same qualities. Other times they have a distinct code. "No women or children", or refraining from exposing the hero, or having very specific targets, etc. They have to make sense for the character.

  15. #15
    Astonishing Member Tzigone's Avatar
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    Something like Deathstroke’s treatment shows where it varies and vacillates. The character can be a bastard and still be relatable in a darkly hummus kind of way, but going full “samurai” with him is just missing the point of how horrible he is. Dude wanted to avenge his son’s death, but is screwed up father who totally sexually exploited an underage Terra, whether she’s a sociopath or not.
    Not to mention he was a paid assassin for years before his son died, just because he didn't want to be put out to pasture, right (I think, it's been a while since I read that)? No morality or even emotional justification for that.

    but oftentimes, they're relateable qualities that don't detract from their villain status.
    I don't have a problem with that. I don't even consider those to be sympathetic villains (the categories you listed , I mean- alas several of the actual character have absolutely had the "sympathetic" treatment). But I'm talking about when it results in fans clamoring for their redemption, deliberate attempts by writers to make you pity them, or heroes respecting them or liking them, despite their deeds (particularly annoying when it results in fans/characters/creators blaming someone else for the villain's deeds). All of which happen a lot in comics. And popular ones can end up with their bad deeds (including murder, rape, torture) just swept under the rug or minimized or treated as "for a good cause" when in fact they were actually done out of selfishness or at least without any sort of positive goal at first.
    Last edited by Tzigone; 02-24-2021 at 05:52 PM.

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