Super Villains: The 4 Major Food Groups

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot  about the villains in the comic books that I read. What compels villains, what motivates them, how they feel about what they do? How do villains maintain their conviction and work ethic? Personally, I find it really hard to get much done. I procrastinate horribly, it’s ridiculous. I procrastinate to the point where at least half of my spare time involves me feeling guilty about some project or social obligation that I’ve let slip (and to my creative collaborators and friends; Let me take this moment to apologize.) If I’m like this, how do villains – who are doing something bad and reprehensible, which common sense dictates they’d shy away from doing – manage to maintain their impetus and get anything big completed?

I think a lot of it has to be about perception. If you believe that what you’re doing is essential to the world then maybe you can get more done? Maybe the urgency of these pro-active fictional villains can be ascribed to the fact that they see themselves as good guys, and give their actions the weight of necessity with their good intentions. Is it possible that no one is the villain in his own story?  With this in mind, I began to try and categorize the comic book villains that I know of, and see where they landed on this spectrum.

The “I know what’s good for you” villain.
Like an over-zealous mother, some super villains believe that they know how to make life better. They see themselves as being somehow better equipped to make the kind of difficult decisions which will ultimately improve life for most of society. Of course in order to bake a cake, you’ve got to break some eggs, and there is fall out from the actions of these powerful types. At various times this kind of motivation has been attributed to Lex Luthor, (in his political incarnations), the Kingpin (trying to maintain order in the criminal classes), and Dr. Doom (a genius, unfortunately plagued by the limitations of people who lack his scientific vision.) These are men who’re surrounded by inadequate beings, who are constantly hindering their attempts to improve life (at least from their point of view). Thus their battles with “heroes” can be said to stem from visionary beings who’re simply attempting to escape the limiting and childishly narrow imagination of certain overbearing super beings.

The completely insane villain.
There’s a reason we say someone is “batshit insane” (okay, maybe you don’t say that, but I do. Anyway…), insanity is the one trait that describes pretty much all of Batman’s enemies (and if you asked them, I think they’d say Batman wasn’t too sane either). It’s a weakness shared by many, if not all, villains that I enjoy reading about. Mentally, these are people who’ve opted out of the conventions of normal society, they’ve crossed over into an area of life that is unpredictable, exciting, and frightening.  Insanity is a double-edged sword, since once you really lose it, while anything at all is possible, you also run the risk of hurting yourself or others because of your inability to control your self, and perceive reality in the same way as everyone else. Society has some rules, accepted modes of behavior which mean that we’re all generally able to work and function together in a healthy way. Stepping outside of the norm is risky, but for some villains, there really is no other option. It’s a kind of death of the logical, “Jiminy Cricket” brain that we all rely on to help us get through ever day, and while I’d imagine it to be liberating, I can also see how losing that reliable, solid part of oneself would be a very precarious way to life.

The vengeful villain
Sometimes bad things happen, someone is wronged in some way by life. In that moment of extreme loss and pain, they find a way to function by turning the pain into anger, and embracing their fury at this turn of events. By moving into the anger, they find a way to do something about their pain, a way to take action, which makes them feel like they have some control over what is really an uncontrollable situation. By wreaking vengeance upon the perceived culprits of their hurt, they are no longer victims of the situation, but are soldiers. In many ways, the Punisher is the perfect example of this, however, he’s not strictly speaking a villain… However, his disproportionate response to the death of his family certainly pushes him into a gray area and makes him a very readable angry character. In the actual villain camp, Harry Osborn’s Green Goblin is definitely always after Spider-Man to avenge himself, and while he comes across as a little to angry to be sane, his strongest motivation is definitely vengeance.

The entirely evil villain
Once in a while you get a villain that’s just outright bad. They just want to do bad things, things that they are aware are bad, and wrong, and hurtful. The purest form of these types of villains would have to be the supernatural, (after all, if a human is evil, they usually also fit into one of the other categories mapped out above, or all four; I’ve certainly enjoyed my share of overbearing, crazy, angry, evil villains.) The pure evil villains would be the demons and metaphysical god types. They could be said to be evil as a kind of genetic predisposition, (to paraphrase Jessica Rabbit; “They aren’t bad, they’re just drawn that way.”) Loki always struck me as a rather tragic example of this. He’s just bad, evil, naughty, and mischievous, there’s no getting around it. You can chain him up in the bowels of the earth and drip poison on him for eternity, but there will be no rehabilitation for him, because he can’t help being evil, it’s his nature. One of the reasons that I enjoyed books like Hellblazer or Lucifer was not because I’m a fan of the occult (not at all), but because the generous use of demonic villains made the concept of evil more palatable, more “believable” (in whatever way fiction can be said to be believable.)

For my taste, the strongest comic book villains cross into two or more of these categories. For example; Galactus is frightening because (by his alien logic), Earth and it’s inhabitants are just food. Therefore he’s evil by nature. Simultaneously, he’s overbearing and controlling, (because by his own logic, he’s doing what is best. Not best for us perhaps, but best for keeping what he perceives as the natural order of things.) Another good diverse villain is Magneto. Sometimes he’s portrayed as a crazed megalomaniac, intent on world domination in order to protect mutant kind. At other times, he’s firmly implanted in the world of vengeance villainy, wishing harm and pain to the humans who would persecute mutants. At no point are reactions to these (understandable) fears and motivators shown to be within what is deemed acceptable. Whether he’s crazed by a need to impose his own order, or driven mad by his pain and desire to exact vengeance, he’s always shown as insane.

That’s what it comes down to really, at the end of the day, if you’re willing to kill to get your point across, if you’re willing to hurt and maim to be right, then you’re probably pretty demented (or a demon, or some other non-human). In comics as in life, the really believable villains are the ones who aren’t quite mentally stable. After all, a mentally stable villain would just be a crank, and no one wants to read a comic about a Dr. Doom who’s just some guy making bad jokes about the Fantastic Four, (that’s less a super villain and more a slight annoyance), but in the real world, those are about as malicious as most sane people are willing to get. We will irritate each other, we will undermine each other, there’s gossip and even the odd fight, but to be a proper villain, it seems like sanity has to be the first thing to go.

Sonia Harris lives and procrastinates in San Francisco, with her brother Sam, who’s also insanely good at procrastination. She’s beginning to wonder if procrastination is a hereditary disease, and if so, is there some kind of treatment of rehabilitation program that she can enter into? Let her know by emailing her at


  1. This is probably my favorite article of yours to this date. It’s interesting that when you break down almost any villain to his/her bare essentials, their motivation is actually one of the 4 above categories. You should make a flow chart or something with all these villains to further prove your point, It would most certainly work with any villain you can come up with.

  2. I think you missed one.  The "I’m doing this because it is the only thing I’m good at and need to provide for my family villain."  Think Sandman. They regret their actions, but feel they have no alternative.  

    Perhaps you don’t consider them to be truely villainous.  I consider them to be villains, because I am a VERY strong believer in personal responsibility, but I can completely understand if you don’t consider them villains as their motivations are rather positive.

    Interesting article.  I find Villains fascinating.

  3. ugh.

  4. Stuclach: I agree, I think the "I robbed the bank because I’m broke" villan was left off.  Regardless of their motivations, villians was are looking for cash are a huge part of this dicussion.  Hell, that sums up a good portion of most actual real-life "bad guys".

  5. Hey, just because you’re willing to kill to get your point across, or willing to hurt and maim for the right reasons, doesn’t mean you are demented. I resent that. I think the Punisher is a Hero and in no way a villain.

    I do like the rest of the article. Batman’s enemies are complete wack jobs. 

  6. I think most of the worlds governments fit into the "willing to kill to get your point across… willing to hurt and maim to be right" category.

  7. The Punisher comic recently made a point that stuck with me: Frank Castle has gone so far down this road that, if he were somehow able to get his family back, they wouldn’t want anything to do with him anymore because of everything he’s done in their name. Many a villain is someone who lost sight of things and never looked back.

  8. I remember reading something that had something similar to this it was the acronym MICE

    M = Money

    I = Ideology

    C = Compromise or Coercion

    E = Ego

  9. Excellent article!  I agree with someone above that this is one of the best article published here.  A stand out of 2009.

    They do all have these characteristics that show they’re "too far gone" and this writing is a good in-depth look into that.  Thanks!

    Interesting to think how Punisher may be gone at this point, but he’s awesome!!! (In Ennis’s run)

  10. Great article, Sonia! I’ve often thought about this stuff myself, but it’s nice to see it written down and organized.

  11. Great read.

  12. Punisher isn’t a villain, he’s just a crazy dude who thinks killing hundreds of criminals will make him feel better. If he were killing innocent people instead of criminals, then I could easily classify him as such.

    Great article as always Sonia!

  13. Great article. Personally, I think the Punisher is a villan and he isnt at the same time. What he stands for and his reasons make him a hero of sorts, but the point he has reached in his path for vengence has pushed him to the edge of the fine line between heroes and villans. What I think is interesting is that the Punisher believes himself to be a villan, and has said (in a Moon Knight comic I believe, maybe other places too) that once he has eradicated all the evil from the world that he can, he’ll have one bullet left for himself. So he definitly views himself as a villan in his mind.

  14. In regards to finding the energy to do something wrong I think maybe its actually easier for people to motivate themselves.I’ve seen people drive off to fast food restaurants when they could have cooked something healthy at home.I’ve known people who do drugs who often won’t do an ounce of housework but will go to crazy lengths to score….so much dysfunctional behaviour is people trying to set off the pleasure producing chemicals in their brains.

  15. And the award for best writer on ifanboy goes to……………..  SONIA HARRIS.      Please come to the stage and claim your prize.



  16. Doom’s great! I would read that shit cover to cover.

    Also, best remedy against procrastination is: Beer and I-just-watch-porn-shame.

  17. *watched

  18. its interesting how people here are defending the punisher so veremently, despite the fact he has done many things as bad or worse than his vilains. Just because the recipient of maimings and death are bad doesnt mean its right. But i suppose that position is more prevalent in a society where capital punishment is common. The punisher is clearly a villain in a very real sense. Maybe not as much in comics or hollywood, but if he were real he would be a terror on society, killing villains or not.

  19. @har13quin Exactly. If he were real he would definitly be considered a terrorist and serial killer.

  20. Interesting thoughts, but I have to disagree with calling Galactus evil.  You might as well call a hurricane or an earthquake evil.  The are just forces of nature.

  21. I agree with Anville.  Even in Marvel comics they point out that Galactus isn’t evil, it’s just what he does.  If Galactus were evil then does that mean a Shark is evil for eating other things to stay alive? 

  22. Although it might be a bit of a golden/silver age throwback, you can’t rule out just plain old greed as a motivation. Great article!