Everybody loves a bad guy. Among the tens of thousands of unique characters who inhabit the DC Universe, it’s the super-villains created to oppose our greatest heroes who often shine the brightest. Why? Law of averages, perhaps. By necessity, every hero’s ongoing story requires a wide variety of obstacles for them to face, and as such, new concepts for villains tend to generate at a much faster clip than new heroes.
But every so often, once in a hundred new foes, a villain arises with such a compelling element to them that we become drawn to their story. As these villains continue to return to wreak havoc against their heroic counterparts, we find ourselves wanting to know more about them each time. This gives rise to a particularly tricky challenge: how do you tell a story about a villain without making it all about the hero they were created to challenge? How do you shift a villainous character from antagonist to protagonist?
It’s a difficult question, to be sure. But luckily, it’s one which DC has attempted enough times—successfully, no less—to allow us to figure this out together. Let’s look at four different ways of making a super-villain a star.
Common advice is that the ideal place to start any story is at the beginning. Just as every hero has their Secret Origin, every super-villain had that incident which made them into who they were. Or, to borrow a phrase from the Joker, their “one bad day.”
To humanize a super-villain, the simplest solution is to go back to when they were human and show us how they fell. The most popular villain used for this particular approach is, appropriately, the Joker himself. Batman: The Killing Joke gave us the story of a hard luck stand-up comedian of little talent, who falls in with the wrong crowd to provide for his family and ends up losing everything. Or Batman: The Telltale Series, which lends us “John,” an initially harmless psychiatric patient whose fixations on the alluring Harley Quinn and his “best friend” Bruce Wayne drive him over the edge. Most successful in recent memory, of course, is 2019’s theatrical film Joker, the tale of a broken man in need of support who is failed at every level and simply reacts accordingly.
Getting into the Joker’s head is so daunting a task, not even Batman dares it. But some of the most compelling villain stories come from when creators try.
The Hero of Their Own Story
Some of DC’s most delightful villains are the ones who revel in their villainy, but what makes many more compelling is how they believe themselves to be on the right side of history. The comic books Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, Sinestro and more or less every appearance of Black Adam in the 21st century have all been about complicated men making what they believe to be hard choices to save what truly matters. It’s Ra’s al Ghul’s faith that he is ultimately saving the world that makes him Batman’s most persistent foe, and the camaraderie between the Flash’s Rogues in an impossible mission which makes them such lovable losers. After all, a great fight needs challenging dialogue to go with it. A clash of fists is incomplete without a clash of ideals to match. And in a villain’s own story, that opposing viewpoint gets the much-needed space away from the hero to flesh itself out.
The Second Opinion
On the flip side, there’s always the danger that if you get too far into a villain’s head, you risk spoiling the character’s mystique. It’s always those villains who don’t want to be understood, the vilest to their core, who put up the greatest resistance to being centered in their own story. The best way to get around that? You don’t actually make them the perspective character.
Like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, sometimes a second party is required to observe the mysterious title character in order to truly comprehend them. Such is the case in Azzarello and Bermejo’s Joker, through the perspective of henchman Jonny Frost. Or, similarly, Six of Clubs, one of the Joker’s other henchmen in Joker: Year of the Villain, providing a stark contrast between mental illness and criminal insanity. Or, once again, Commissioner Gordon in DC’s current ongoing series of The Joker, who provides the book a more grounded protagonist than its title suggests.
The greatest example of this, however, may be in the fifty-issue Deathstroke series by Priest from 2016, where the DC Universe’s greatest assassin finds new and inventive ways to disappoint his family in every story it tells. So, if you want to tell a story about a villain without losing sight of what makes them evil, the solution is to expand the cast outward.
The Redemption Arc
We hinted at this earlier, but the easiest way to tell a villain story? Just make them the hero. Not a hero in their own mind, but one you can straight up root for.
This is the very premise of the entire Suicide Squad franchise as a whole, which takes discarded villains and gives them a chance to be heroes in their own right. Even the lowliest rat can serve higher purpose, as director James Gunn shows us in The Suicide Squad. The massive media empire of Harley Quinn stands as another example—not just with her role on the Squad over the past decade, but as an emancipated feminist icon who stands in defiant rejection of the clown who once made her his property. It’s an image makeover that Catwoman too has experienced in her own right, transforming from femme fatale to unlikely Robin Hood of Gotham’s East End since her on-screen transformation courtesy of Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns. Like we said, everyone loves a bad guy. But they’re even easier to love when they’re bad in the name of good.
All this isn’t a matter of history. DC’s tales of villainy are just getting started. Watch for these methods of villainous storytelling in ongoing projects like Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, Season 3 of Harley Quinn and the Black Adam feature film starring Dwayne Johnson—all of which you’ll have the opportunity to get better acquainted with next month, in the DC FanDome.
Experience some of DC’s best super-villain comic book stories right now for free! You can read The Joker #1, Catwoman: Selina’s Big Score, Harley Quinn: Hot in the City and much more as a part of DC FanDome’s super-villain week right now on DC UNIVERSE INFINITE.
DC FanDome returns on October 16, 2021! For more articles like this one, and to stay up to date on all the latest news, visit dcfandome.com.
Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly "Ask the Question" column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DCComics.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.