If you’re one of those people who spends as much time reading about stories as you spend reading stories, you’ve probably read that our villains tend to reflect our collective fears. It’s no coincidence that Invasion of the Body Snatchers came out during the Red Scare, they say. To the postwar Japanese, Godzilla was more than a rubber sea monster. Seventies cinema is chockablock with dirty cops, corrupt politicians, and The Man. During the eighties, it seemed like every movie villain was a Russian, a drug dealer, or a Russian drug dealer. If you’re old enough to remember the exact point at which cable news started getting stupid, you will remember a story or twelve about how Independence Day and other movies where landmarks get blowed up real good were really about our anxiety around the coming millennium. Even before you knew what Y2K was, you were scared of Y2K.
Comics sort of play by these rules, too, although I could spend all night trying to figure what Doctor Doom has to do with any actual thing. X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills came out right as televangelists were gaining notoriety and political power, and sure enough, that’s who kidnaps Professor X and tries to use him for mutant genocide. (Like you do, from your church basement.) During the Watergate era, the puppet master behind Captain America’s foes, the Secret Empire, turned out to be none other than sitting president Richard Nixon himself (as you may remember from my favorite Top 5 I’ve ever done). I could write a thesis paper on how The Amazing Spider-Man is ultimately a book about paranoia: the majority of the villains trying to kill him, when unmasked, turn out to be people he knows personally.
“My first high school crush… is the stepsister of the Molten Man??” Oh, Peter; you’re just getting warmed up. Don’t get too close to any of your professors.
I tend to fall down these analytical rabbit holes, especially when I read a couple dozen comics in a row. What does this story say about the writer? What does it say about us, the readers? What does this book really say about the world we live in? What was in those brownies?
I went on such a binge this weekend, and I found myself reading probably too much into Avengers vs. X-Men. This event, after all, is one of the latest in a string of Marvel blockbusters in which the Good Guys stand up for what’s right to defeat their opponent, the Other Good Guys. The premise would be interesting enough to me in a vacuum, but the fact that it’s something that’s happening again fascinates me.
In House of M, the villain was an emotionally troubled former teammate. To ponder what exactly drove her mad is to ponder the nature of living in a world as insane as the Marvel Universe.
In Civil War, Iron Man’s team fought Captain America’s team. Lifelong friends came to blows, cloned each other’s corpses, and locked each other up in gulags that somehow no one is mad about anymore over issues of public safety, personal liberty, the people’s right to know, and who Mark Millar could write the most out of character. I still think about the issues that series raised, and what it says about the times that birthed it. Especially space Gitmo, which again, Iron Fist was getting locked up in but no hard feelings.
World War Hulk, of course, is what happened when Hulk’s friends staged an intervention and blasted him into space rehab. The villain is a friend who delivers the ultimate “not cool, bro” before everything returns back to normal.
Secret Invasion and Dark Reign had actual villains, but they were 1) Villains who were pretending to be your friends all along and 2) Villains who were declared good guys by taking advantage of a gullible media and a corrupt system. No subtext there, I guess. Moving on!
Remember Shadowland? Daredevil.
Remember Messiah War? Bishop.
Even Fear Itself, which attempted maybe-not-entiiirely-effectively to be about the existential dread in the zeitgeist, did so by making a bunch of goodish guys (the Thing, the Hulk, the Juggernaut) into agents of the apocalypse.
The Ultimate Universe has been getting in on the fun, too. The Ultimates are currently fighting history’s greatest monster, Reed Richards, after imprisoning him in the Negative Zone. (How do you like it, jerk?) At the moment, Ultimate Spider-Man Miles Morales’ biggest villain is… his uncle. How’s that for a twist in the usual Spider-Man mythos?
Well, as I was reading AvX, I thought, “Hmm. Two opposing sides made up of basically good people trying to do the right thing but with very different ideas about how to go about doing it. Each side is declaring that the other side’s plan will result in catastrophic ruin if implemented. Having each accused the other side of being reactionary, being racialist, and/or trying to destroy an entire population, it is now entirely impossible for them to work together and get things done for the good of the people they ostensibly protect. The atmosphere between the groups is now so toxic that all compromise is impossible.”
I just cannot shake the feeling that all of this sounds familiar somehow.
I can’t say whether any of this stuff happens on purpose. I do think the issues of the day have a way of seeping into the groundwater, and it makes following the brightly colored adventures more rewarding. That’s where our heads are at. Who needs Doctor Doom when we have each other?
It could be worse. I also spent part of this weekend catching up on Joe Keatinge’s excellent Glory and Hell Yeah, and in both those books the biggest threats seem to be the hero him/herself. I can’t even begin to probe that can of worms.
Jim Mroczkowski would love to be able to blame everything on Loki.