I’ve always been on the side of Marvel in the Marvel-DC debate. I mean their main titles, not the lesser read comics, imprints like Vertigo, and non-superhero titles. In the original superhero comics, there were good guys and bad guys. The good guys’ motive for saving the day was that they were good. The bad guys’ motive for trying to destroy the world or harass helpless damsels was that they were bad guys and that’s what bad guys do. The good guys always made quick work of the bad guys, once they found their lair or whatever and killed 95,082 henchmen. Action movies are still like that half the time. My egregiously abridged recounting of history might be off, but Stan Lee led the way in giving mainstream heroes more personality with the Fantastic Four. Lee moved on to targeting a specific demographic with Spider-Man and his teenage subplots. In the late ’60s, X-Men gave the villains a twist in making humans kind of a bunch of assholes and implying that Nazi concentration camps might understandably turn Magneto off to the whole “humanity” thing. All of this gradually evolved in other titles from various publishers and authors over the decades until Watchmen blew the whole morality thing apart and introduced a full roster of anti-heroes and a villain who was hell-bent on… stopping an extinction-level nuclear war?
Though Watchmen was DC, it seems that Marvel (and I have to give a nod to Image’s arrival in the 1992) took the hint that they needed heroes to have flaws and villains to be sympathetic and ran with it. Meanwhile, DC mostly stagnated with the “_____-Man VS. the Evil __________!!!” shtick for another half decade after Watchmen until they decided to kill off Superman a few times in ’92 to get sales back up. Actually, when you consider the effect that AIDS had on Generation X and the no-fun, face-the-facts attitude that came along with it, I think the late ’80s and early ’90s were the perfect time to expand on characters that represented harsh reality to a public that embraced grunge and gangsta rap, The Real World and COPS, Oprah and Loveline.
I was an X-Men kid, so that’s what I want to talk about. In the ’90s, you see Marvel retracing X-Men to talk more about how Professor X and Magneto used to be good friends, and that they really just had a conflict in ideologies. These characters were initially modeled after Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively, but it seems like they made a firmer decision in the ’90s to portray Magneto as an equal to Xavier. The animated series made a point to show non-mutant humans as aggressive towards mutants in a way that even made the X-Men seem unwise in saving them all the time. The short-lived 1995 Age of Apocalypse storyline (which I may be the only fan of) positioned Magneto in charge of the X-Men in an alternate reality where Professor X had died protecting Magneto from his nutbar time-traveler son. This gave everyone a glimpse into the way Magneto would have done things, plus it gave his character the internal conflict of pursuing his own vision for the X-Men while trying to honor Charles’s perspective. On its own, the Age of Apocalypse had plot holes and lacked the X-Men’s classic love-hate triangle between the Professor, Magneto, and homo sapiens sapiens. Yet, if you were a long-time fan of the X-Universe, this storyline gives a great alternative insight into the tenuous and blurry line between right and wrong that the series as a whole has always represented. Plus, it brings us a world that has finally succumbed to Apocalypse. Which, to me, seems inevitable.
I postulate that Apocalypse is the purest villain. Feel free to offer another suggestion. Now, I already said that I don’t like bad guys that are just bad for evil’s sake. That’s not what I mean by pure. A good villain must be more powerful than a hero, must have a desire to destroy something, and (this is where writers always go wrong) must have an ultimately more logical motive than even the heroes have. A villain’s motive should be so directly logical, beyond normal human reasoning and moral perspective, that it supersedes socially acceptable behavior and leads to acts that will be universally viewed as inhuman. This way, the audience is subtly conflicted between what is right morally (hero) and what is right rationally (villain). This is where the action comes in. You want to hear the villain’s rationale, and think “Yes, but! But! You’re wrong! Because… I don’t know, get fought!” [Cue kickass battle music]
When I say that I think he’s the purest villain, I mean that his motive is extremely easy to understand by pure logic, but it entirely undermines the concept of civilization and is impossible to understand in any social context whatsoever. Keep in mind that civilizations are meant to minimize the likelihood that anyone would be the weakest link, and ensure the survival of as many people as possible.
If you’re not familiar, Apocalypse (real name “En Sabah Nur”) was raised 5000 years ago in Egypt by a tribe that lived under a “survival of the fittest” sort of ethos. His abilities aren’t fully understood, but he can control molecules and energy, and displace matter, and he’s immortal simply because he can control his molecules to stop aging. He’s been the scourge of civilizations throughout history under the names of different gods. He can and does kill absolutely anyone, and his motive for doing so is that you don’t deserve to live if you don’t survive him. The archetypal X-Men conflict was between Xavier uniting humans and mutants as a species, or Magneto promoting mutants to the top of the food chain. It becomes sort of moot, because Apocalypse is culling the herd no matter who you are. In a sense, he is evolution. Survival of the fittest. It doesn’t matter how many redeeming qualities you think you have, what good are you if you can simply be erased? He gives anyone in his path the ultimate stress-test to see if they can’t get killt by the most capable killer in killing history. His internal monologue would never be “Why am I killing you?” but rather “Why are you letting me kill you?” That motive is beautiful to me. Cruel, yet impersonal. It’s your fault you die. No hard feelings.