In an age of superhero movies and TV anti-heroes, fictional villains are more complex than ever before. This week, Vulture examines villainous entertainment in all its forms.
In late 2014, while Hollywood was busy hammering out yet another failed attempt to make audiences care about Marvel Comics icons the Fantastic Four, the team’s finest foe experienced one of his finest moments. It came on the printed page, of course — no one on screens large or small has been able to capture that diabolical egomaniac’s essence and make him sing. In a story called “The Cabal,” written by Jonathan Hickman with art from Valerio Schiti, Frank Martin, and David Curiel, the reader finds themselves attending a dinner with the greatest supervillain of all time: none other than Doctor Victor von Doom.
This being a superhero comic, the specifics of the plot are a bit hard to summarize, but I’ll try: The morally ambiguous superhuman Namor has come to Doctor Doom to ask for help in saving the planet from a massive threat after Namor has exhausted the options of working with heroes like Doom’s eternal rival Reed Richards and bloodthirsty baddies like Thanos. Helping Namor would arguably be in Doom’s best interest: After all, the end of Earth would also mean the end of the country that Doom rules, the small European nation of Latveria.
But when the request for aid is made, the green-cloaked, mechanically masked Doom replies, “I think not.” Namor is astonished. Doom casually raises his left palm and eases into one of the grandiose explanatory monologues for which he is so beloved, and without which you can’t understand his magic.
“You could have come to me first. You should have come to me first. But you did not,” Doom intones. “I can forgive your dalliances with Richards and the others — their nature is not conducive to such practicality — but after that, you chose to throw in with your subhuman lot. Now you regret it. And you dragged the stinking carcass of your failure to my door.”
“Victor, please!” Namor pleads. “Everything will stand or fall on what we face.”
“You should have thought of that, Namor, and more carefully considered your position,” Doom says, as he stands to leave the banquet. Then he offers one of the better lines he’s ever uttered: “You should have known better — Doom is no man’s second choice.”
Indeed. When one makes a list of the best Marvel Comics bad guys, only a classless fool would rank him below first place. (Magneto is a close second.) The corpus of superhero fiction has a surfeit of nasties, dozens upon dozens of antagonists for each of the already multitudinous protagonists. But Doom looms above them all as the closest thing to the Platonic ideal of a supervillain that the genre has ever seen. And yet, the traps and tripwires of legality have made his meta-textual story something of a tragic one, because a heated legal situation has prevented him from entering the spotlight of Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s time for that to change, even if such a change may seem impossible right now.
Long before Marvel started producing their own movies in the mid-aughts, the film rights to the Fantastic Four and their related characters were sold to 20th Century Fox, and the folks there hold them jealously. So, despite having graced the pages of Marvel’s comics output for five-and-a-half decades, he has never faced down the Avengers or the Guardians of the Galaxy on the big screen. He languishes in third-rate spandex flicks about the FF, somehow less famous than the likes of Dormammu and Ego the Living Planet — neither of whom hold a candle to Victor in terms of thematic richness and iconic character traits, not to mention killer visuals. For casual superhero-film fans, he isn’t a second choice; he isn’t even a tenth. He might not even be on the list.
Doom would find this fact obscene, and so should we. Fortunately for those folks who don’t know who he is, his basic deal is gloriously simple: He’s the dignified and megalomaniacal ruler of a small country, and he’s a genius at both technology and magic. Created by writer Stan Lee and writer-artist Jack Kirby in 1962, Doom speaks well; he has tremendous pride and a firm sense of honor; he hides his face in a mask due to a disfiguring accident in a hubristic experiment; and he hates the leader of the Fantastic Four, the brilliant Reed Richards, because Doom has a bit of an inferiority complex. He’s motivated both by that neurosis and by an almost — almost — altruistic belief that he would rule the world better than anyone else.
That’s it. His gist is both elegant and internally consistent, as well as wholly unique. He isn’t a boilerplate desirer of riches, he isn’t an overcomplicated supernatural being, he isn’t a blindly murderous monster, he isn’t just the resentful rival of a hero. He’s his own thing, and he’s been a perpetual part of the Marvel Comics legendarium for 55 years. There, he is an A-list character, but onscreen, he’s been stuck in poorly constructed Fantastic Four movies from 1994 (played by Joseph Culp; the movie was produced but never officially released), 2005 (Julian McMahon), and 2015 (Toby Kebbell). The actors always do their best to infuse their performances with pomp and ostentation, but there’s only so much you can do if the story surrounding you is a dud.
Luckily for comics readers, Doom has been ensconced in a bevy of terrific stories over the decades, ones that have demonstrated what makes him work so well as a supervillain. The first and foremost factor is his nobility. I mean that in both a literal and figurative sense: He has a dashing and charismatic regal quality to his personality, but he’s also the actual sovereign of a nation. The latter factor makes him unique in the pantheon of top-tier superhero antagonists, and provides a fascinating twist on the usual archetypes for that canon: He has, in a way, already accomplished his goal of conquering — and, what’s more, he’s quite good at it.
Initially, the fact of his leadership was something of a gimmick. “The main reason I like Doctor Doom,” Lee has said, “is because inasmuch as he is a king, he could come to the United States and he could do almost anything and we could not arrest him because he has diplomatic immunity.” This is, of course, a little silly — once he starts straight-up attempting to take over the world, diplomatic immunity doesn’t matter all that much. But what was once silly has since been developed as a fascinating character trait.
In the best depictions of Doom, Latveria is actually a pretty great place to live. Sure, you can’t criticize the guy in charge, but everything else is pretty hunky dory. In 1989’s Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment, written by Roger Stern with art from Mike Mignola and Mark Badger, Doom takes the heroic Strange on a trip to the land he rules, where the people cheer for him in the streets and a little girl offers him flowers. “Do you begin to see, Strange?” he says. “Other nations may curse me under their breath, but no modern leader is more beloved by his people than I.” This is no Potemkin Village show — Strange thinks to himself, “These people seem sincere in their reverence for Doom.”
In fact, we got a glimpse of what that’d be like in 2015’s Secret Wars mini-series, written by Hickman (perhaps the greatest voicer of Doom in the character’s history) with art from Esad Ribic, Ive Svorcina, and Paul Renaud. After a multiverse-shattering series of disasters, Victor uses his magical and scientific abilities to defy entropy and create a new Earth, one over which he has omnipotent control. Sure, it has its problems and conflicts, but overall, it holds together and, most important, acts as the last refuge of the human race. Strange becomes Doom’s right-hand man, and when Reed Richards asks Strange how he could join with the baddie, Strange replies, “It’s easy to explain, Reed — he is very, very good at playing God.”
By contrast, think of Doom’s closest analogue in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Loki. When he says, “It is the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation,” in The Avengers, who among us could believe that this craven trickster would actually bring about peace and prosperity? He is merely power hungry, not inherently noble. Though Loki is fascinating to watch, he lacks the majesty of Doom.
And there’s a lot of majesty to be found. At his best, Doom has some of the best dialogue in the business, acting as a muse for his writers’ most loquacious grandeur. I’m particularly fond of a soliloquy written by Warren Ellis in Ultimate Fantastic Four, wherein Doom mutters to Reed in absentia:
You were never perfect. Scrawny little effort of a man. I can recite my family tree through six hundred years and I can recite the correct superpositioning code. Even now. Even now. You never understood that science is an art, not a system. Modern science comes from Descartes, who said that the conquest of nature is achieved through measurement and number. Do you know how he came to that realization? He had a psychedelic experience with mushrooms in which an angel told him this was so. Your precious reason is all based on a hallucination. And you pit your “phase-space theory” against my infallible instinctual knowledge of what is right? Your system was so utterly wrong that not even I could fix it.
Chills, dear reader! Precious few villain monologues in big-screen superhero pictures even come close to being that fascinating and compelling. When he’s written well, you are seduced by Doom. That’s also what makes him work so well as a morally compromised hero, on occasion. It’s a cliché to say every villain thinks of themselves as the good guy, but with Doom, you believe it because he’s so charismatic and, in his own way, benevolent.
He allows people to live if their deaths would violate his code of honor. He will allow the Fantastic Four to escape if they have aided him in a given situation. Right now, the comics incarnation of Doom has taken up the mantle of a comatose Iron Man, regretful about his past sins. His adventures are chronicled in Brian Michael Bendis, Alex Maleev, and Matt Hollingsworth’s Infamous Iron Man, and the character’s struggle to be virtuous is utterly believable because he typically is virtuous, in his own twisted way.
That’s also what makes him so utterly terrifying when he goes full-on evil. Mark Waid, Mike Wieringo, Karl Kesel, and Paul Mounts crafted one of the best Doom stories in 2003’s Fantastic Four arc “Unthinkable,” wherein Victor finds his childhood love, declares his affection for her, then murders her as part of a mystic bargain that can only be executed if he destroys something irreplaceable. As if that weren’t enough, he then proceeds to send Reed’s preteen son to be tortured in Hell. You want to love Doom, but his tragic flaw of needing to destroy Reed will always take him back to the depths of villainy in the end. It’s a thrilling roller coaster of a dynamic.
There are plenty of other reasons why Doom stands alone. He is the rare baddie motivated more by mommy issues than daddy ones (his magician mother lost her soul to a demon and that loss forever haunts him). His Kirby-designed outfit — a full-body metal carapace draped in green robes and a hood — is unforgettable. The name “Doom” is the rare moniker that actually sounds cool when its bearer uses it in the third person to refer to himself.
And just as important, Doom is capable of being hilarious. Not intentionally, of course — he’s deadly serious in his aims and self-regard. But his monologuing and grandiosity are easily mocked and parodied. This is a feature, not a bug. Any good superhero story needs dashes of humor, and Doom is perfect as an object of it. In the midst of Hickman’s stunning run with the character, there’s a moment in which Doom calmly declares, “Here in Latveria, Doom demands that children always get a good night’s sleep,” and the fact that he truly means it is utterly delightful.
Hell, virtually everything about Doom in a well-penned story is delightful. The odds are very poor that we’ll see him in the Marvel Cinematic Universe anytime soon, as Fox’s movie division fiercely guards its Marvel-originated intellectual property, which also includes the X-Men. Nevertheless, hope springs eternal: Fox’s TV division reached a detente wherein they collaborated with Marvel Entertainment to bring about the X-based shows Legion and The Gifted, so perhaps that’s a first step.
A more realistic thing to hope for is that the next Fantastic Four movie — and there will be one, as Fox needs to make them periodically in order to hold on to the rights — might finally be one that does Doom justice. Hell, just get Hickman to consult on it and you’ll be well on your way. It’s conceivable that the non-comics world might someday soon realize that Doom should always be your first choice.