At New York Comic Con, Warner Bros./DC Comics recently held the world premiere of the documentary Necessary Evil: Super-Villains of DC Comics, in which DC Comics pros, filmmakers, actors, and two psychologists discuss super-villains, exploring these evil icons, their fans, and "the culture that makes evil entertaining."
Geoff Johns: "The best villains are villains that you find yourself rooting for and you don't quite understand why."
Len Wein: "Almost every villainous character worth his salt is somebody who believes they're doing the right thing."
Dr. Travis Langley: "We need those villains for us to understand our heroes, what they are and what they aren't."
Dr. Andrea Letamendi and I were honored to be the film's "intellectual outsiders," the only interviewees who don't primarily work either in film or for DC Comics, and we get to say plenty in the documentary. We don't make a penny off this. We discuss these characters and stories because we know and love the material, because we welcome opportunities to unite nerdiness and psychology, and because this lets us use nerdy topics to share some real psychology. According to Blu-ray.com, "psychiatrist Andrea Letamendi and author Travis Langley hold their own." Yes, they called her a psychiatrist. (Sigh.) Other sites like DVD Talk got it right, though.
In this bonus feature, Dr. Letamendi and current Batman comic book writer Scott Snyder analyze a shapeshifting villain called Clayface:
What does any of that have to do with understanding psychology? What possible value can we find in analyzing fictional characters, especially characters so fantastic that they might seem to have little in common with living human beings? My "Beyond Heroes and Villains" column keeps coming back to that basic question, and there are many answers. By contemplating the characters, we might reach a better understanding of the interests and dreams that drive us, of the hopes and fears that inspired the characters' creators and captivate their fans. I'm more interested in analyzing the characters themselves, using their fictional realities to shine a different light on our own lives. When I reach forensic psychology, facts about killers can be too repulsive to some students and they might turn away, and yet the filter of fiction lets me discuss things we know about real killers by weaving that information into an analysis of a character that does not really exist.
At recent Wizard World conventions (Chicago Comic Con and Nashville Comic Con), I've discussed the psychology of super-villains and their popularity with folks like writer/editor Danny Fingeroth (Spider-Man, Superman on the Couch), and I'll do so again soon at Stan Lee's Comikaze Expo and Austin Comic Con. While the convention panels sometimes raise more questions than answers, certain themes keep coming up. The most popular super-villains tend to be grandiose, narcissistic, truly full of themselves, and, from their perspectives, the true heroes of their own stories. As WB Home Entertainment V.P. Derek Maddalena tells Blair Herter (2:30-3:02 in DC All Access episode two), "In the villain's mind, the heroes are the bad guys." These villains are proactive individuals combatting heroes who simply react. Once you remove the super powers from such descriptions, you do hit on some features that resemble some of our own world's worst monsters.
Necessary Evil comes out on DVD and Blu-ray this Friday. Narrated by Christopher Lee, a man who has played many villains throughout his career, it's fun and interesting. I'd have enjoyed watching it even if I had not been it. Even though all the examples come from DC Comics, several reviews note that the principles and concepts discussed therein are much broader in nature, that they apply to a wide variety of fictional characters and touch on issues of real human nature.
Note: Normally I don't hyphenate the word supervillain, but I did this time because that's how WB/DC did it in the documentary title. Both are correct, and super villain would be as well.
Travis Langley, Ph.D. is the author of Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight.