The semantic range of this word is so vast as to almost render it useless.
How can we measure such an ambiguous term? Motivation? Character disposition? Extremity of acts? Consistency of acts? Foreknowledge of irreparable damage? Inability to justify that damage? Lack of desire to justify that damage?
Earlier, I spoke about Petty vs Grand evil, a la Shakespeare. The former is the petty ex who flexes muscles, just to prove they can; the latter is the Machiavellian villain who likes to destroy things just to see how they work. (See also: engineers). (Just kidding). (Mostly). (RIP, Teddy Ruxpin).
It turns out, the problem of evil is rather complex, and the philosophy of human-based evil understandably began post-World War II.
Because I am talking about comic book villains, I will be focusing on the motive-based concept of evil whilst comparing Lex Luthor (“Batman v. Superman”) and That Russian Bad Guy Whose Name I Can Never Remember Because I Was So Focused On Trying To Figure Out Who the Good Guys Were (“Captain American: Civil War”). We’ll call the latter villain The Bad Guy, because TRBGWNICNRBIWSFOTTFOWTGGW is a bit of a mouthful.
In the Real World, acts of evil are typically attributed to three causes:
- Mental Illness. Usually, in such cases, the term ‘psychopathy’ gets thrown around the courtroom quite a bit. (I will discuss, at tiresome length, my loathing of the term ‘psychopathy’ later). As an aside, and as I have mentioned before, mental illness is commonly used to explain away white serial killers.
- Bad Childhood. The argument here goes that, if one is raised in a morally-defective home, where one is not raised to understand right versus wrong, one cannot truly be expected to differentiate between acts of good and acts of not-good. Unless, of course, you are black.
- Proper Ignorance. Proper ignorance is defined as ignorance of your ignorance that your actions would cause harm. Which is to say, “I was just following orders” is not true ignorance, because a reasonable human would be able to determine that his actions would cause irreparable damage; on the other hand, the titular character in the Orson Scott Card novel Ender’s Game could be said to have suffered Proper Ignorance in his role in the commission of genocide against the Buggers. (Spoiler alert).
In the Comic Book Movie World, things are much more superficial. (This is, I suspect, a conscious decision on the part of Hollywood to increase revenue: if Comic Book Movies were only accessible to people who have followed the characters from their inception, the audience would be very small, indeed).
In the Comic Book Universe, Evil is usually attributed to four causes, or a combination therein:
- Revenge/Love. Someone the villain loved was taken from them and so they turn to Evil Acts to gain vengeance on those who stole said loved one. (Cf. “Civil War”)
- Power/Greed. Money and power are the age-old motivators for Evil. Although I can’t think of a comic villain off the top of my head who fits this paradigm perfectly (and if you can, please let me know!), we do see this in the Lord of the Rings universe, with our good buddy, Sauron.
- Social Change/Inverse Vigilantism. The villain is only trying to make the world a more just place. Their means should not be examined; only their end goal. (Cf. The Joker in “Batman: The Dark Knight”).
- Mental Illness. The Comic Book world’s favourite cop out. Which I’ve discussed at length in myriad other posts.
The primary issue with any discussion of “Evil” is how to define it. Who determines the Evilness of an act? Is it the victims of the act? Is it the enactor? Is it some hypothetical third party?
Terry Goodkind, for all his other flaws, makes a fairly strong point in his novel, Wizard’s First Rule: Someone who is truly evil doesn’t consider his actions to be evil, only necessary. Maybe even justified, or – horrifyingly – right. Of course, by taking this stance, he then assumes the role of Omniscient Judge of Good and Evil.
Philosophically speaking, there is a qualitative difference between “doing evil” and “doing wrong”. Instinctively, we know this. But what is that quality? Many philosophers argue that is the amount of pleasure the person gets from committing it. Committing evil is pleasurable; committing mere wrongs is not.
Let’s return to the Grand vs Petty Evil metaphor. Clearly, the petty ex-boyfriend doesn’t hold a candle to Hitler. Having never known Hitler (but having known several ex boyfriends of great pettiness), I can confidently say that Petty Evil revels in what little power he possesses, whereas Hitler’s motivations are left to the historians. In this case, then, True Evil (petty, in this example) is reliant on the motivation of seeking pleasure in power.
Lex Luthor, in “Batman v Superman” has the motivation of “mental illness”. According to the symptoms I noticed (disorganised thought processes, delusions of grandeur and invulnerability, paranoia, and expert levels of manipulation), he does not fit the qualifications for psychopathy.
(Quick rant break: “Psychopath” has become shorthand for Heartless Creature of Pure Evil. Etymologically speaking, “psychopath” = “psycho” + “path” = “person with an unhealthy psychology”. Psychologically speaking, however, it more closely follows the Creature of Pure Evil definition, up to and including the famous Psychopathy Checklist. Most of the criteria for Psychopathy are co-morbid with various personality disorders, including Narcissistic, Antisocial, and Borderline [and I rabidly disagree with that last personality disorder being included, as it is a disease already heavily stigmatised in the psychological sphere], and include “remorseless use of other people”, “impulsive violence”, and “chronically unstable and socially deviant lifestyle”. Obviously, not all deviant lifestyles are evil or wrong [such as polyamoury or sex work], and so once again we have problematic semantics).
As I was saying, Lex Luthor clearly doesn’t meet the definitions for psychopathy, in that he clearly has a capacity for future thought and an understanding of the consequences of his actions. This has the paradoxical effect of making him both more and less culpable for his actions: his symptoms point pretty definitively towards Borderline Personality Disorder, which qualifies as Severe Mental Illness (SMI), and most courts of law will make allowances for culpability in the case of “legal insanity”, which he both fits and doesn’t fit. (Borderline Personality Disorder gets its name from an earlier, less-PC version of its title, Borderline Insanity). Clearly, hearing voices, disorganised thought and speech patterns, and so on mean that he is not living on the same plane as everyone else; clearly his ability for such masterful manipulation means he has a clear understanding of how his actions will affect and harm other people.
All of which is to say, Lex Luthor is a sloppily written villain that relies on dangerous stereotypes of the mentally ill community in order to generate battle sequences between two beloved superheroes.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have The Bad Guy (whose name, I just discovered is Zemo, and so shall he be named hereafter), whose family was killed as a matter of unfortunate collateral damage whilst the Avengers were doing their world-saving gig. He was so heartbroken, he took to mass murder and framing innocent people. You know. As you do.
He has no mental illness to fall back on. It does not fit the legal definition of a “crime of passion” because he has pulled a lot of strings and done quite a bit of premeditation in order to bring his plans to fruition. Philosophically speaking, he cannot justify the irreparable harm he has committed. So here, then, we have a case of True Evil.
Yet, he is intended to be a sympathetic villain. He was driven to Evil because he lost his family. The implication here is that any one of us would do the same. (And after having heard the same tired “If Hitler had just been accepted into art school, the Holocaust would have never happened” joke about six thousand times in the last eight months, it seems that this sort of fallacious thinking is rather widespread. Either that, or the British lack imagination when it comes to jokes). We are pushed to understanding his motivations, and then forgiving him, because Feels. As such, we are saying that acts of True Evil are acceptable, as long as we can understand, and even basically empathise with, the motivation. True Evil, it seems, only exists as long as we cannot justify its existence to ourselves.
I’m not going to make an argument for evil based on body count or monetary loss or property damage or anything like that. The basis for the argument is purely “motive-driven evil”. And on that basis, DC Villains (The Joker, Harley Quinn, Lex Luthor, Two Face, and so on) are less culpable for the evils they enact than their Marvel counterparts: DC is lazy and relies on mental illness, whereas Marvel is more creative, relies on empathy, and therefore creates more awful monsters. Monsters, moreover, with whom we can sympathise, empathise, forgive, excuse, and justify – making them all the more horrible.