“Actions don’t take place in vacuum, they have a reason,” British actor Benedict Cumberbatch said in an interview, while he was promoting the Netflix film ‘Mowgli’, where he voiced the role of its antagonist Sher Khan, the blood-thirsty tiger who wants to kill Mowgli, because there is no place for humans in the jungle. Or as Cumberbatch explains, Khan’s lust for revenge is driven more by past almost death-like experiences with humans, one of them resulting in the loss of his eye. Antagonists or villains in popular culture, who have gone on to destroy communities, countries identities and even universes, generate a strong sense of apathy after undergoing terrible ordeals themselves.
Thanos, the supervillain who destroyed planets and galaxies, and went on to halve the universe’s population (albeit for five years), was born on the planet Titan. His alien gene gave Thanos a shocking appearance which convinced his own mother that he would destroy life in universe, and she decided to kill him when he was a baby. Thanos went on to become a pacifist, ridiculed by everyone on the planet, except his brother Eros, and so, he went on to disregard the general aspects of existence, so much so, that he began dating the physical version of death, Mistress Death.
Another popular supervillain in popular culture, Joker, a failed comedian, barely able to sustain himself and his pregnant wife, had no choice but to live a life of thievery to support his pregnant wife before the so-called superhero, Bruce Wayne aka, Batman's interference leads him to jump into a chemical vat, which disfigures him. The event, combined with the trauma of his wife's earlier accidental death, causes him to go insane and become the manic supervillain everyone is now aware of. In 2020 film, ‘The Joker’ by Todd Philips, Joaquin Phoenix, who won the Oscar for his performance, played the titular character, plays a failed comedian with an illness, which made him laugh in socially awkward and uncomfortable situations, becomes a criminal mastermind, and obsessed with the Waynes, after living a life full of neglect and being socially outcast.
In an attempt to empathise with the villainy, the writers, more often than not, have looked at consequences of identity politics, and use that as the backdrop to explain the reasons behind the character’s villainous intentions. Bane, another one of Batman’s nemesis, grew up in a prison because his father was declared a revolutionary by the corrupt government. Bane has to live with a mask with tubes forced on to his face, after he was forced to be a part of an involuntary drug-trial that saw him gain immense strength while also exhibiting several deadly side-effects.
Similarly, X: Men, has plenty of examples of supervillains, including Magneto aka Max Eisenhardt, a Jew born in Nazi Germany, who developed a general sense of apathy towards other living beings, after going through a series of events, where his eccentricities, his mutant-like powers led to death of people who were close to him, including his parents, wife and first-born. He eventually, used his superpowers, to only protect the other mutants on the planet, from the fellow humans, and didn't hesitate from killing them, if he had to.
Another popular DC supervillain, Lex Luthor, Superman’s nemesis, in the modern age has found an empathetic explanation behind all the villainy, which finds its reasoning is victim of identity politics. Luthor, constantly bullied and physically abused, by a short and ill-tempered father for wanting to have a better life, kills his parents in a fit of rage, after he takes out insurance in their name. He becomes the supervillain we know he is, after his foster father kills the love of his life, Lena, who he wanted to use in order to get to Luthor’s insurance money. Fuelled with rage and sense of powerlessness, Luthor vows to become so powerful that he would control everything, and therefore resents superman and his heroic ways of being more kind and more compassionate towards the human race.
Be it Marvel or DC comics, identity politics remains at the heart of origin story for any supervillain, while it may or may not be so -in-your-face reasoning, being victimised on the basis of one’s colour, gender, orientation, class, never leads to happy consequences, and becoming a supervillain is just one of those many results.