At the dawn of civilization, the hearts of men were built from stories told around campfires in the snowy darkness of the winter solstice. Ages later, the minds of men were formed from the narratives that they read in books. For millennia this was so. But for the last century, the destiny of man has been determined by what we have seen in movie theaters. Many genres were created, and many stories were told through an increasingly colorful palette of special effects, with heroes and villains from outer space and other realms, but for the last two decades, our eyes have been locked on to the adventures of superheroes.
Four of the five most-viewed movies in human history have been brought to us by the Walt Disney Corporation: Avatar, Avengers: Endgame, Avengers: Infinity War, Star Wars: the Force Awakens. The fifth, Titanic, comes from Paramount. Only one is history. Two more are science fiction. The remaining two come from the realm of the superheroes.
Superheroes more than any other medium impact the minds of children, with their colorful presentation and distillations of profound ethics. The genre spans the spheres of mythology and science fiction. They take place in the world we know, but these worlds are different, full of advanced technology and magic and power. They tell stories so simple that children can understand them, but in contexts so diverse that they entertain adults and challenge them concerning fundamental issues of ethics, philosophy, and spirituality.
Because of all this, these movies are not childsplay. They drive humanity forward, from the cradle to the schoolyard to the office to the grave. Their heroes tell us what heroism is, and their villains define for us the nature of evil. Evil is something with which I am well acquainted. I want to talk about evil. I want to describe what I see in the most omnipresent villains to come to us on the big screen.
While Disney and Paramount claim ownership of the biggest box office features humanity has to offer, Warner Media owns the intellectual property rights to the original superhero. They also own the rights to arguably the most popular superhero of the modern day. They claim the most popular female superhero in print and on film.
From the cafés of Carracas to the boulevards of Bankok, all of humanity knows of the unbridled success of the proverbial “Marvel movie” and the Infinity War Saga of Disney’s Marvel Studios. It might take a small bit of scrutiny, however, to gain an understanding of the sundry chicanes of Warner’s DC superhero franchise.
Recently a powerful filmmaker has gone from being a flagship director for Marvel to being the godfather of DC. It hasn’t been a simple process. He is still making a movie for Marvel, the final chapter of his Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. To boot, he has already made a movie for DC, The Suicide Squad. With these films he has proven to be a master of action and of comedy and of the avant-garde, being hard to match in his presentation of dialogue, character, and scenery.
But if you’re going to have Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman to play with, you need to know theme. I do not want DC to tell the world the same thing about villainy that Marvel has been telling the world about villainy. DC has been forming itself on the vanguard of artistic expression, and sometimes this involves stories that the critics just don’t see to the bottom of, and that can baffle the sensibilities of promoters. But if you go to the halls of the world’s storied universities and ask those professors who analyze Beowulf and King Arthur and the Odyssey and the Iliad and the Bible, DC Media, with Lex Luthor, Ocean Master, General Zod, Ares, and Darkseid, has successfully rendered the flaws of the human condition in comic book form. The same cannot be said of Marvel’s villains.
That’s why I want to talk about Thanos, Ego, and Darkseid. Two of these villains come from Marvel, and one from DC. Thanos made an appearance in The Avengers, and was the villain of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, the films that capped the enormous Infinity War saga of more than twenty films, considered to be the grandest cinematic arc film has thus far produced. Ego was also featured in a Marvel movie. Only one. Guardians of the Galaxy 2. But this villain is important because he was conceived by the director mentioned above who is now moving from Marvel to DC to be the new godfather of the DC superhero pantheon. Finally, there is Darkseid. This villain only appeared in some cameo scenes in a director’s cut release of one DC superhero film, Zack Snyder’s Justice League. However, his role in DC comics is quintessential, as is his place in the planned quintet of films envisioned to form the center of the DC superhero mythos for a generation, with only three of the five films having been made thus far.
The fate of that quintet of films hangs currently in the balance, with this new godfather promising new directions and reboots, and the fanbase viciously divided about the future of the franchise, and the movie media engine watching furtively and taking notes on the road ahead.
I maintain that only Darkseid as teased by the Zack Snyder film quintet presents villainy to the calibre required to truly prepare future generations for an understanding of what total evil actually is. Thanos, now competing with Darth Vader for the most bankable villain in all of cinema, is a paltry goon in comparison. And Ego, the fiend given to us by DC’s new godfather from back when he was directoing for Marvel, is a joke that does nothing other than wire humanity the wrong way. So let me get to telling you why this is the case.
To understand a villain, you have to understand what evil is. Very few people actually know. So let’s start there. Most people think that good is simply that which pleases them, while evil is that which displeases them. The Greek philosophers had two understandings of the word for good: kalon. They had the kalon/kakon polarity. Kalon meant anything that pleases the speaker, where kakon meant anything that displeases the speaker. This dynamic engendered the concept of moral relativity: that which pleases me may well displease you, and that which displeases me may well please you. To me, ice cream is good. To you it may well be bad. To you, sports cars are good, but to me, they may be bad. However, the Greeks also had the kalon/poneron dichotomy. This is a horse of a different color. In this context, the good, kalon, meant anything that contributed to the proper functioning of a system for its intended purpose. Evil, poneron, referred to anything that inhibited the functioning of a system for its intended purpose. In other words, a good thing WORKED. An evil thing was BROKEN. In the Hebrew of the Bible, we have the axis of tov and ra. This dichotomoy corresponded to the kalon/poneron, and the word for good, tov, is often translated as harmony or lawfulness, whereas evil, or ra, is often translated as lawlessness, disharmony, or discord. In an absolute sense, evil is basically conflict. It is this absolute sense of evil that we will concern ourselves with here. Dear reader, nobody gives a whit about whether you like ice cream or not. We care about what works and doesn’t work. Everyone has to agree on that. What works can be around in some way. What doesn’t work is going to have to be gotten rid of, no matter who you are or where or when you live.
The next thing we are going to have to understand is freedom. This will be particularly relevant to our discussion of the villains named above. Explanation to follow below. But here we need to understand that freedom is when elements of a system, normally understood to be conscious elements such as animals or people, are able to act in accordance with their desires without inhibition. Conversely, slavery is when these elements or people are not able to act in accordance with their desires, but are forced to act in ways that they do not want to. This description may seem self-evident, but there is an entire sphere of philosophy that seeks to define freedom as actions that are determined by nothing. That is, nothing can determine your actions. If anything determines your actions, you are not free. This school of philosophy is called libertarianism. It exists within theology, where it concerns itself with human accountability in the face of a sovereign God who determines all things, as well as secular philosophy, where elements of human agency are pondered in their own right.
The problem with libertarianism is that all actions can be described as determined by something. So if your actions being determined is an impediment to freedom, well, we’re screwed. You do what you do because of X. That’s just the way it is. Only when you do what you do because of nothing can libertarianism be the case. I think it’s safe to say that doing what you do because of nothing is called madness. Chaos.
It may seem like I have gone off the chain with this discussion of philosophy in the midst of this treatment of supervillains and Hollywood studios, but there is a connection. It will become apparent when we talk about the villains mentioned in detail. So now that we know what good and evil are, and freedom and slavery are, let’s talk comic book villains.
Returning to the realm of cinema, we have matters of tone. Now in art and cinema we surely have the concept of the nuanced villain. The Apostle Paul said that Satan can appear as an angel of light. We all know of the suger sweet poison, the beautiful murderess, and the charming barbarian. These can be the most powerful of villains. But when it comes to comics and little kids, we might want to consider that light be light and dark be dark. This factor will be apparent in the descriptions below.
Of our villains, we have one that checks every block of bad guy there is. Darkseid looks evil. He sounds evil. He acts evil. Everything is black, stone, cold and dead or lava hot. Nothing is comfortable. He is a CGI monster of absolute enmity. He rules a planet of dark skies and parched deserts filled with pollutants. Moreover, his subjects are portrayed as skeletal goblins in chains. The denizens of hell. His planet is called Apokalips. You can see its furnaces from outer space. According to the movies and the storyboards that have been released from the unreleased sequels of the quintet, he becomes the master of the antilife equation. Interestingly, the antilife equation doesn’t simply cause death in the form of the cessation of movement of the body. It causes a lack of freedom. It gives Darkseid the ability to control others. But there is something very, very important about this notion of controling others. In the story as teased, Darkseid controls Superman by applying the antilife equation to him at a moment where he has lost his sense of hope. At the beginning of the quintet, in the movie Man of Steel, Superman’s “S” shaped shield on his chest is defined as being a glyph that means “hope” in the alien language of his homeworld. Superman has been established in the minds of the population of the world as being among the noblest of people, a champion of all things loving and good. When he loses hope, he is overtaken by this antilife equation and becomes a slave to Darkseid, forced to do things he would never do if he were free, becoming himself a villain of enormous devastation. We know who Superman is from decades of comics, radio shows, television shows, and movies. We can see that he is enslaved. That Darkseid would do this is the demonstration of his villainy and evil.
Next, we have Thanos. Thanos is also a huge CGI monster of imposing form. However, we begin to see nuance with this character. His eyes are set within his ugly form of brutishmess as windows of sincerity. The eyes are the windows of the soul. His voice is the powerful but sage and fatherly voice of Josh Brolin. He does what he does because he thinks he is making the universe a better place for all people, not just himself. And his sin is that he wants to kill half of us. He doesn’t want to enslave us and make us do things we don’t want to do such as destroy ourselves and each other. He just wants to get rid of half of everybody. Yes, this is an agenda of mass killing. But ultimately what it is saying is that in order to make a perfect world, some of us are going to have to go away. Frankly, this is true. This may shock some readers, but we live in a world of rape and murder and war and betrayal. If the reality in which we live is to be perfect, those things can’t happen, and those who freely want to do those things, and who don’t consent to being changed into people who don’t want to do those things, really can’t be around. I hate to say it, but good guys kill bad guys. Bad guys have to become good guys, or be willing to be turned into good guys, or they just can’t be around. Then finally, with his mission accomplished, Thanos retired to some remote planet to live as a humble monk. Thanos’ real evil in the movies in which he features is that his snap in which he gets rid of half of everybody is portrayed as being indiscriminate, even though Thanos himself calls his plan of removing people “perfectly balanced, as all things should be.” Half of our superhero protagonists get obliterated by his activities. But only the supporting characters, of course. Tony and Cap and Thor don’t get snapped out of existence. It’s all so convenient. The unknowns and supporting characters just go away, and this offends us because it isn’t really connected to getting rid of evil, which is what Thanos thinks he is doing. But in a philosophical sense, all Thanos is really doing is what most of us would acknolwedge would have to be done to create a really perfect world. In the Judeo-Christian understanding, the Messiah will appear, or return for the Christians, and get rid of some people and establish a perfect kingdom. Thanos really isn’t terribly different from the Messiah! The Jews and the Christians and the Muslims are just insisting that the right people are going to go away. But fundamentally, Thanos is a kind of Messiah. He isn’t taking anybody’s freedom or anything. He is just getting rid of who he thinks are the bad guys, while the audience sees him getting rid of supporting characters they like.
Now we come to Ego. To talk about this villain we again have to start with tone. Ego isn’t a person. He is a person who is an embodiment of a planet. And a planet symbolizes a world. In the movie, the planet is actually a beautiful world of edenic proportions. Gorgeous forests, mountains, vistas and sunsets are all portrayed in the film. If Ego is evil, he is certainly Satan appearing as an angel of light. The person who embodies this world is none other than Kurt Russel! His motivation is that of a person who has experienced love and loss, and he wants to enact a program that fixes people psychologically so that they work together harmoniously. He wants to control people. But there is no aspect of the film where he is shown to really want to force anybody to do anything bad. He just wants to determine what people do to the effect that everybody is good to each other. The heroes, the Guardians of the Galaxy, instantly rebuke such a notion, because in order to be free, people can’t be controlled by anything! They’re libertarians! As soon as you talk about altering somebody to be a harmonious part of a system, that’s slavery and must be opposed.
Kurt Russell is not a CGI monster or brute. He’s not everybody’s favorite actor, but I think most people would agree he is a kind of a likeable guy. Okay, this can work into a Satan as an angel of light kind of presentation, but ultimately his villainhood rests on the fact that his wanting to prevent people from being evil is seen as slavery. A likeable actor representing a beautiful planet is the enemy because he wants to fix people so that they work together well. Obviously Satan is appearing as an angel of light here, right?
There is another movie to consider. Not a superhero movie. It’s called Transcendence. It stars Johnny Depp. You should see it if you can. The main character becomes a computer consciousness of a higher level than humanity, at which point he is hated by a fearful humanity, so he forges a plan to transcend the evil of our race. His plan involves his controlling people. Yet the people are shown as acting freely, going so far as to say they are not doing anything they don’t want to, and they work in service of a benevolent protagonist with maximum efficiency.
The critics hated that movie, as it portrays this sort of control over people as a kind of inspiration from a benevolent spirit, rather than slavery. This portrayal would fit quite well with the plan of Ego/Kurt Russell.
So we have three villains. One ugly bad guy who basically wants to get rid of bad guys. One charismatic actor representing a beautiful world who wants to fix broken people. And one horrific volcanic rock in humanioid form who turns the purest and most powerful superhero in human history into an enslaved weapon of mass destruction.
Now that you know what good and evil are, and now that you know what freedom is and can tell the difference between inspiration and slavery, which one of these guys is really and truly evil? Who is the true villain?
If you ask me, there is no greater evil than slavery, and there is no more perfect presentation of the evil of slavery than the corruption of the most powerful icon of good in superhero history into a destroyer of worlds.
Keep in mind, the director who rendered Darkseid in this way has yet to bring him to the big screen. He has basically been excised from the DC superhero mythos. The new allfather of the DC superhero engine is the guy who told your kids that Kurt Russell wanting to get rid of everybody’s flaws so they can work together is the enemy that they should want to oppose. And the biggest superhero franchise in history, basically the biggest franchise in cinema of any sort, says that wanting to get rid of the bad guys is the ultimate evil that heroes are supposed to fight against.
The new creative head of DC, the author of Kurt Russell as evil, has started his tenure by getting rid of the actor who plays Superman in the films featuring Darkseid. The director of Gal Gadol’s Wonder Woman, the actress who plays the heroine in the films that are to feature Darkseid, is not returning to finalize her trilogy. The fans are assuming that everyone from those proposed films won’t be around except for Jason Momoa’s Aquaman. This new creative head’s first project is to be another Superman film with a younger actor, and he promises to reboot the entire continuity.
What do you think we are going to get?
I hope this academic treatment of the nature of villainy has shown you something. Superheroes are a big deal. They are big dollars. But they are also big features in the hearts and minds of your kids. What do you want the heroes that your kids idolize to fight against?