Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Villains and Power Levels

Last week I wrote about power levels and superheros. Now I will take a quick look at villains.

Often the power level of a villain doesn't matter. Golden Age heroes were almost always the strongest character. The villain was a mastermind of some sort. There was never any question of Lex Luthor winning a fight with Superman or the Joker beating Batman. The few exceptions were with an evil version of the hero like Black Adam who was an evil version of Captain Marvel.

Things got more interesting in the Silver Age, especially at Marvel where heroes often fought stronger villains. This led to some great stories. In his first appearance, the Scorpion beat Spider-Man decisively twice before Spider-Man rallied and won by out-fighting the Scorpion. In the Abomination's  first appearance he literally beat the Hulk to death (the Hulk's heart was restarted with some friendly gamma rays). But this raises the problem, where do you go from there? After being beaten by Spider-Man twice, the Scorpion moved down, taking on Captain America and the Falcon. The Abomination appeared multiple times but the only time he had a chance against the Hulk was when the Hulk had reverted to his earlier, weaker gray version.

Once a villain has been defeated, the follow-up is usually anti-climactic. One way around this is to send the villain against weaker heroes. This was done with the Scorpion so often that he had to start getting power upgrades to keep him menacing. An different tactic is to have villains team up. Mr. Hyde and the Cobra were defeated individually by Thor so they teamed up to fight him. Later Hyde menaced Spider-Man.

Some villains manage to have a power upgrade and graduate to the next class up. The Rhino started as a Spider-Man villain but was given a gamma ray upgrade and has taken on the Hulk. He lost but he is clearly out of Spider-Man's class - which would make for a good Spider-Man story if the two ever ran into each other.

After too many defeats, a villain can become a joke. The Ringmaster's Circus of Evil started with the Hulk and took on nearly everyone in the Marvel Universe including Howard the Duck.

Some villains manage to stay menacing for long periods by combining traits. Dr. Doom is a mastermind but has enough weaponry in his armor to take on nearly anyone. Dr. Octopus usually has some sort of master plan but his tentacles are stronger than Spider-Man. The Mandarin has ten rings of great power but seldom engages in direct combat. Even though all of these characters have been defeated multiple times, their personal power is a fall-back rather than their main thrust.

Sometimes it is enough to foil the mastermind's plot. Doom seldom engages in personal combat after a scheme has failed.

The ultimate examples of this are the top-tier villains, ones like Thanos and Darkseid (although Thanos probably started as a copy of Darkseid). Both had shown themselves capable of taking on the top heroes. Thanos in particular has taken on Thor and the Thing simultaneously and won (although he lost to an alternate version of Adam Warlock). These are top-tier masterminds. Their plots threaten all of existence. When they lose they either retire to plot again or are swept up in a backlash and vanish.

Not matter how threatening a villain is, each defeat diminishes him. The writers for Dr. Who have retired the Daleks for a while because they suffered from over-exposure. Appearing more times than any other villain means being defeated more times. Dr. Doom suffered from this. He fought the Fantastic Four multiple times in a row in their early days. At the time he was just another mastermind in a suit of armor. It wasn't until Stan Lee limited his appearances and made him a foreign monarch that he became a really memorable villain.

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