My heroes have always been villains, Episode IV: Victor von Doom

Hello and good morning.  It’s time at last, after a month-long hiatus, to give you the latest iteration of “My heroes have always been villains.”  Today I discuss one of my personal favorite villains:  Dr. Doom.  The fact that he is a comic book villain may make him seem a less than respectable choice of character to discuss, but the popularity of movies depicting such villains—including situations in which these depictions have been critically acclaimed (e.g. Health Ledger’s role as The Joker in The Dark Knight), and the immense success of movies involving villains such as Loki and Thanos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—makes me feel that Doom is a worthy subject of discussion.

Those of you whose only exposure to Doctor Doom comes from the theatrical versions in the Fantastic Four movies could be forgiven for thinking that he isn’t very interesting, but those movies did no justice whatsoever to the character.  I liked the casting choice in the first two movies (I didn’t see Joseph Culp’s version), but Julian McMahon was simply not given a good script with which to work to portray this most riveting (and riveted) of all comic book villains.

One difficulty in discussing a comic book villain is that the characters, especially long-standing ones, are written and interpreted by many different people over time, often with wildly varying quality and depth.  I will here focus primarily on Doom as portrayed by such greats as John Byrne (probably the best of them all) as well as such stand-outs as Jim’s Shooter’s Doom in Marvel Secret Wars, Chuck Dixon’s Doom, and, of course, the work of Doom’s creators, the inimitable Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

Over the years, I’ve come to see Doom as a sort of anti-Batman.  The two have similar back stories.  Differences in their life courses seem dependent almost entirely upon specific details of the events which shaped them, but the events and outcomes are similar in many senses.  Doom’s parents, like those of Bruce Wayne, were killed when Victor was quite young, and at least one of them died in his presence.  Of course, Doom was a gypsy, and Bruce Wayne was born fantastically wealthy; perhaps these facts are fundamental to their different specific career choices.  Doom was a member of an oppressed and marginalized minority, his family hounded by, and his parents (at least his father) killed by, the “powers that be”.  Wayne, in contrast, was born into power, and his parents were killed by a low-level criminal.  So, perhaps predictably, Wayne became a protector of the order of society against elements of chaos.  Doom, on the other hand, grew to seek vengeance against those in power, to strive always to take that power for himself, and if possible, to assume control over fate, to become more powerful than anyone or anything else in the world.  Of course, in comic books, all things are possible, and Doom has achieved this goal on an occasion or two, only to lose it…largely through the tragic character flaws that made him a villain in the first place.

One central aspect of Doom’s mystique is the fact that his features are terribly scarred, certainly from his own point of view, and are always covered by his baleful gray armored mask.  But really, I don’t want to dwell too much on the issue of Doom’s visage.  As has been insightfully said about Bruce Wayne’s identity as Batman, the mask is the character’s true face.  The flesh and blood beneath is the façade.

One thing that’s always intrigued me about Doom is that, like Batman, he has no superpowers.  His “powers” are all self-created, the products of his incomparable mind and (apparently) unlimited will.  Yet, despite being an “ordinary” human in a universe populated by beings of almost unimaginable power, Doom remains one of the most potent forces in the Marvel universe, and he has challenged the good and the great on many occasions, defeating those who should be far beyond his power through cunning, intelligence, and nerve.  This is another trait he shares with Batman.

Also like Batman, Doom is pretty screwed up in the head.  It’s hard to see how he couldn’t be, given his childhood experiences, but at least some of Doom’s mental dysfunction seems to be inherent.  He is intensely egotistical, and this is probably congenital to at least some degree, though it’s perhaps also a learned defense mechanism against the chaos that he faced in his formative years.  It’s also somewhat justified, for Doom is a fantastically brilliant scientist and inventor.

One could be forgiven for speculating that Doom might have at least a mild case of Asperger’s Syndrome.  He certainly has difficulty connecting with other people emotionally, almost always preferring the company of his robots to that of any lieutenants, sycophants, or courtiers, let alone comrades or friends.  His only close human contact is with Boris, his father’s friend, who took care of Victor—to the degree such a notion has meaning—after Werner von Doom died.  Certainly, there is no one else in the world that Doom trusts, and he doesn’t even trust Boris in the sense of relying on him.  He also doesn’t connect well with his subordinates as real human beings with feelings and identities, killing some of them if they make even trivial mistakes, or if they accidentally question his genius and infallibility.  “Doom needs no one,” he says, quite typically, before destroying an errant robot, practically quoting “Another brick in the wall, Part 3.”

Also fitting the Asperger’s model, Doom definitely qualifies as having restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests.  His life centers almost completely around three basic goals:  1) to free his mother’s soul from Mephisto’s Hell; 2) to conquer and rule the world; and 3) to destroy the Fantastic Four, especially Reed Richards.  Even the possibility of restoring his own face is a distant afterthought—the mask, even to him, really is his true face.

Another interesting aspect to Doom’s character is that he’s not actually that terrible a villain in terms of what he does when he achieves power.  He’s willing to do almost anything to achieve his ends, and God help you if you get in his way (though he has a weird code of honor:  he misleads, deceives, tricks, and otherwise manipulates people in endless ways, but he seems allergic to telling any direct, blatant, knowing lie, at least a petty one, and he will never, ever break his word of honor; if Doom makes a promise, he’ll keep it or die trying).  Once he achieves power, however—as in his control of his native country of Latveria, and on those occasions when he’s achieved temporary dominion over the world—he treats his subjects well, and almost always makes things better than they were before.

I don’t know if this is an expression of benevolence on his part or is rather a function of his insatiable ego:  if he’s going to do something, then you’d better believe he’s going to do it better than anyone else ever could, and that includes running the world.  The average citizen in the Marvel universe could be forgiven, frankly, for hoping that Doom would triumph over all those stupid, wishy-washy heroes who keep everything messy and violent, under the control (if one can dignify the state of things with that word) of lesser minds.  Doom is not one of those villains who wants to watch the world burn.  He wants to put out the world’s fires; he just thinks he’s the only one good enough to do it.

He may be right.

Doom is a complicated character, certainly, and that’s one of the things I like about him.  Though insane, violent, and dangerous (certainly!), and with an arrogance that is only acceptable at all because he lives up to at least some of his own hype (eat your heart out Kanye West), he is very human, and very tragic.  Though certainly evil by most sensible definitions of the word, he is not Evil, if you take my meaning.  He is self-reliant to a fault, with absolute conviction in his own point of view and in his personal capacity to achieve any goal on which he sets his sights.  In focus, willpower, determination, and related synonyms, he is unmatched by any character except, again, Batman.  Like Batman, in Doom this attribute is central to his success, and is also not uniformly good, even for him.  It is, in a way, terrifying.  Doom makes the Terminator look like a vacillating dilettante.  He absolutely will not stop, and he will never, ever, give up.

This is not a good thing.  Sometimes the only sane, reasonable, logical thing to do is to call something a bad job and let it go.  Great deeds can be done by those who set their sights on their goals and never waver from them; also, terrible deeds.

The inhabitants of the Marvel universe might really be better off if Doom were in charge, but the cost of achieving that state would be gargantuan, not least to Doom himself.  But, of course, the nature of comic book villainy is such that Doom is never likely to be allowed to mellow out and settle down, get married, have kids, write his memoirs, and make unsurpassed scientific contributions along the way.  On behalf of the characters involved, we can call this a shame.  But for those of us reading—at least for me—we will be endlessly grateful.

My heroes have always been villains, Episode III: The psychiatrist, Dr. Hannibal Lecter

Today, for the third installment of “My heroes have always been villains,” I discuss one of my favorite modern, “realistic” villains:  Dr. Hannibal Lecter.  Dr. Lecter has been portrayed by at least three exceptional actors of whom I’m aware, the most noteworthy being Anthony Hopkins, who performed the character brilliantly in the movie “The Silence of the Lambs,” and also creditably in “Hannibal” and “Red Dragon.”  He was also played by the excellent Mads Mikkelsen in the TV series “Hannibal,” and (his first screen portrayal, to my knowledge) by the brilliant British actor Brian Cox (not to be confused with the rock star cum physicist, also brilliant in his own right).*

I am not, however, primarily interested in the portrayals of the good doctor on the large or small screen, though I have found them uniformly excellent.  Here I take my cue from Thomas Harris himself, the character’s creator.  He is reputed to have refused to see any of the movies based on his work, because he didn’t want his vision of his creation to be influenced by the interpretation of writers, directors, and actors who had visions of their own.  I deeply respect this attitude, and I think it’s warranted.  So, my discussions of Hannibal Lecter will focus, mainly or entirely, on his depiction in the books.  This is not a sacrifice; Thomas Harris is one of the finest authors I’ve encountered, and I consider Hannibal, specifically, to be among the greatest books I’ve ever read, on a par with The Godfather and The Lord of the Rings. Continue reading