A Taxonomy of Scientific Villainy, Part 1

This is only the beginning, my brain is building to something. I can tell.

I spend a lot of time defending science in stories. And then one day I noticed something, science heroes generally have a magic villain because that challenges their worldview, whereas magic heroes (excluding Promethea) do NOT tend to have a science villain. I think the logic is that magic should trump science, especially if it’s on the side of righteousness, but that’s another column entirely (and you’ll read it, I promise). I then had a secondary epiphany that science characters also almost always had a science villain too. And then I realized: Why have I never explored the perils of science gone bad? It may be dangerous to even consider it, but ironically as a scientist I cannot help but explore something unknown to better understand so I can then control it and bend it to my will (thanks goodness I’m a good guy!).

Before going straight into the philosophical ramblings about fears of science, progress, forbidden knowledge, and technology, which are all interesting concepts to explore, we need a classification system to frame the discussion. For example: it’d be very hard to study the interaction of predators and prey without first separating out each as distinct species.

If you read the blurb on the main page you’ll be expecting some sort of list and I don’t intend to disappoint, but it will be a bit different than the usual countdown. My goal with this first toe-dip into the world of villainous science is to try and come up with some broad categories which we can then place virtually any science character now up to no good. In order to add a sense of grandeur I’ve defaulted to some of the mythic underpinnings I see within each category. This is a comics site after all, we love a good dose of myth.  

The “Lex Luthor"

Notable Examples: Lex Luthor, Loki, Bugs Bunny, Professor Moriarty

I wanted to save this one for last, but how can I?! Lex is just too much fun.

It can be tough being the smartest kid in the room. The fear here is that a person so mentally above humanity might no longer be able to empathize with us as members of the same species. Here’s how I like to break it down. A person like Einstein or Stephen Hawking have very high IQs, maybe around 200, but we’ll say 190 and you’ll see why in a second. (IQ isn’t really a very good measure of intelligence, but it works for the purposes of the scenario). A “genius” has an IQ around 160, a “gifted” person is near 130, normal is 100, and mentally retarded starts at 70 (think Forest Gump). So in the mind of an Einstein, talking to a less genius is like a normal person trying to communicate with Forest Gump, not impossible, but frustrating. If you consider that there are very few geniuses out there for Einsteins to talk to you can see how frustrating life might be. Really no shock that he failed math as a youngster, you try learning arithmetic from a chimpanzee. So that’s essentially the problem here, someone like Lex Luthor literally has no equal, and that’s frustrating. So he lashes out, it’s not like it matters, we’re all barely better than noisy bugs that get in his way. Side note: Some versions of Lex’s history include an embittering accident, like if Dr. Doom just went bald. I think that reduces some of the complexity of this character motif, but that’s just me.

I see this model of villainy much like the trickster characters of myth and legend. Bug Bunny is so much smarter than Elmer Fudd that he doesn’t worry about actually winning, he just has fun messing with him. And yes, I consider Bugs Bunny to be one of the great archetypal tricksters. But to back it up even further, in Greek mythology Hermes is a god of wit, cunning (specifically amongst thieves), and intelligence but is also a trickster.

I think characters like Lex Luthor and Professor Moriarty are not pure tricksters, but I see a common lineage.

The Icarus Model – Flying Too Close to the Sun

Notable Examples: Dr. Doom, Mr. Freeze, The Lizard, Green Goblin, Man-Bat

I love this one because it seems to be very central to the idea of science as a villain. Take a piece of new or untested technology, use it for your own purposes with little to no regard for the consequences, have it go horribly wrong and then take out your frustration on the rest of us. If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Icarus I will summarize briefly. Icarus and his dad, Daedalus, were trapped in Crete. So Daedalus then crafts wings out of feathers and wax to affect an escape, warning his sun not to fly too close to the sun lest the wax melt and the wings fail. Icarus in his young hubris does just that and plummets to his death.

Assumming Icarus lived, this same model of villainy fits many of our favorites mentioned above. Some might initially scoff at the idea that Mr. Freeze and Curt Conors fit this model because they were trying to help people with their discoveries, but I argue that in the case of Freeze he was only studying cryogenics to save his wife and Conors was only studying lizard DNA to “escape” his own handicap. There's nothing wrong with studying something you're passionate about for personal reasons, but it does put the selflessness of the endeavor into perspective, which may inform why the failings resulted in villainy. It’s just important to keep in mind that I’m proposing broad categories, and they exist on a spectrum. The Lizard, Green Goblin and Man-Bat also fit into a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde motif (which may need to be explored as a subset of Icarus-esque characters) as well as a Promethean stolen fire idea I’m kicking around.

But as far as that goes, suffice it to say I’ll see you next week with some more big ideas.

Ryan Haupt should have spent this time studying. Oh well, listen to him ignore schoolwork on his podcast Science… sort of


  1. Great article!  Never thought of this before!

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever seen (or even considered) Luthor and Bugs lumped together in this fashion.  Very interesting article.

  3. That thing about how difficult it is for geniuses to communicate with “normals” is brilliant. Something I’d never even though about before.

  4. nice to read semi academic stuff on comics looking forward to next article

  5. I think these are my favorite articles on iFanboy. They always make me pause and take these funny books seriously. Thanks Ryan!

    PS Tricksters are the BEST. Glad to see them representin’.

  6. You know if you look at history, the ‘Icarus’ evil scientist only became popular after world war 2. In fact, if you compare pre-war and post-war sci-fi, you will find evil and mad scientists more prominent in the latter. The bomb changed everything. Where once scientific progress was seen optimistically, now it was seen as something destructive. And every mad/evil/accidental freak scientist’s rant can be traced back to J. Oppenheimer:


  7. I really like this deconstruction of villiany. It makes all villians more interesting. I cannot wait to read the article next week. 

  8. Yay for completely late comments! That being said, I would argue that Frankenstein matches the Icarus Mad Scientist classification, since he used and abused new science for his own ego-ie hubris, and might count as the catalyst for bringing the Evil Scientist back into fashion.
    I absolutely adore Tricksters, but I’m hesitant to call Lex one, if only b/c at least in versions I’m familiar with he’s not just playing. He may have been in the beginning, but unlike Moriarty, or the Doctor (sometimes), Lex isn’t seeking out his intellectual equal to “play” with (Holmes and the Master), but his polar opposite, ie Superman. A Trickster might not always win and never plays fair, but s/he always keeps themselves at a distance from the outcome. If Anansi gets eaten by Lion after messing with him, he tricks death and comes back to life. He doesn’t seek revenge on Lion. Superman has become Lex’s life, he can’t distance himself from him.