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In search of the super villain

by Caleob King

When I left the house this morning I had a relatively uneventful trip into town. The thing that jumped out at me right away was how clear the highway was of rampaging giant robots. They really tend to gum up traffic but today the streets were clear and smooth of debris. I turned on the radio to hear the news, and was further delighted to hear that no megalomaniacal madman was holding the world hostage with a stash of stolen nuclear weapons. It seemed no scientist bent on revenge was threatening to shatter the globe with his Earthquake device either, which of course was good news. Not even a hijacked submarine or accidentally released super-plague interrupted my peaceful trip to pick up milk.

Come to think of it — I cannot think of a single case of an evil genius appearing in reality. When you get right down to it, the majority of crimes perpetuated day in and day out are not elaborate plots arranged by dastardly masterminds. Instead the perpetrators are often reckless young men, or truly desperate individuals in the grip of addiction. The occasional charismatic son of a rich family gains enough prominence to cause trouble but even these rare instances hardly qualify as evil geniuses. In short, Lex Luthor and his ilk don't exist, at least not in the way we might imagine.

This is somewhat surprising when you stop to think about it. It immediately begs two very important questions: Firstly, why are these characters so omnipresent in the story and song of our culture? Why do we see endless examples of elaborately planned bank heists where a sociopath takes hundreds of hostages and makes off with millions when empirically most bank robbers are desperate men who tend not to plan much beyond grabbing a gun and a sack? Secondly, if these supremely wicked and competent men do not exist (at least to no great degree) then where does the tragedy of the human condition come from?

Some might say that the Dr. Evil stereotypes we see so often are just exaggerated forms of the more commonplace petty criminals. This would explain the character's omnipresence in fiction of course. In this scenario, the suffering of much of the world would be explained by the cumulative effects of these individuals acting in concert. While somewhat plausible (fiction is often exaggerated for effect and acts of destruction can add up) this explanation doesn't capture the whole truth for me.

The existence of the evil genius presupposes that:

  1. Extremely competent people exist.
  2. Some portion of these are people highly sociopathic.
  3. They channel these tendencies into obviously criminal acts of violence.

Obviously a portion of the population satisfies the first condition. I think a small but statistically significant portion of these satisfy the second condition. For some reason however, the extremely intelligent sociopath does not choose to direct his efforts in overtly criminal directions. Since we assume these budding Goldfingers are intelligent — then only one option seems open to us:

Intelligent sociopaths have ready-made legitimate options for achieving their goals without resorting to traditional criminal behaviours.

There are several of these paths that let a competent madmen influence others, but certainly the most powerful is the state. Herein lies the answer to the paradox. Criminal masterminds do exist, but they are smart enough to realise that irradiating the gold in Fort Knox or destroying the Eiffel Tower simply doesn't represent the most effective and sustainable method of plying evil. They are certainly sharp enough to realise that they are a small minority and that open and sustained action in opposition to the majority is unsustainable. In fact they are so devious that they undermine our understanding of morality itself in order to be given what they could never take openly.

If this is true, then madmen of terrible intelligence do exist. They do build destructive robots to hold on to their power. They do hold entire nations hostage with a nuclear arsenal. Evil geniuses do maintain island bases and experiment with super-plagues. They do all this and more in the open, and much more in secret. The only thing the stories seem to get wrong is that these scoundrels are not deformed outcasts, but instead have perfect hair and excellent teeth. All of this villainy is covered up and rationalised by an army of henchmen who spin the simple truth of what they do with an incomprehensible array of euphemisms and moral nihilism. In fact I'm fairly certain that if the modern state is Doctor Evil, than post-modern language is the original shark with a laser beam on its forehead.

On the one hand it is terrifying that these super-villains are out there. They are cunning, powerful, and ruthless — all the more so because they have the approval of society at large. On the other hand these dark forces do have a weakness — an Achilles heel that, if you are reading this article, you are ideally able to exploit. They are only able to kill and steal as long as they are not revealed for what they are. Truth and philosophy are a bane to them that we can and will exploit.

In this world of Lex Luthors — being Superman is as easy as calling things by their true names — nothing more or less. Accepting this responsibility doesn't require much beyond the courage to act in the face of evil. That's the way it always is with these stories. We usually luck into our superpowers. In this world it is simple, though never easy, to be the hero you have always admired.

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