Doctor Death Does a Villainy

Antagonists are tricky. Traditionally, they’re the Bad Guys who stand in the way of our protagonists. The most basic antagonist is the clear cut villain. These sorts of antagonists work because they’re easy to root against. They might not even have much of a personality at all. Xenomorphs just want to kill and impregnate without discrimination. Many thugs in adventure stories are interchangeable. We don’t know much, if anything, about them. We just know they’re trying to stop the protagonists.

Some stories deliberately make this clear. The alien invaders in Independence Day are a race of ruthless conquerors who move from planet to planet, destroying the native life, consuming all the resources before moving on. There is nothing redeemable or sympathetic about them. Heck, they even look weird and don’t make any effort to communicate in any relatable fashion. And that’s fine. It allows the story to put its focus on the human efforts to repel them.

Other stories blur the lines a bit. Die Hard’s antagonists aren’t sympathetic, but some effort is made to make them stand out. Each minor henchmen has a moment to establish some elements of their personality. They aren’t faceless. And their leader is charming in his own smug manner. Nevertheless, they’re still there to steal money and kill a bunch of innocent people in the process. It’s easy to root against them, especially when contrasted against the more dynamic and relatable protagonists.

But what about those stories where the antagonist has a point? What about those bad guys who aren’t really that much worse than our protagonists? Can you make an antagonist who is right? Sure, you can. It’s not even that difficult.

The difference between protagonist and antagonist is less about goals, more about methods. We don’t consider this very often because our focus is usually on character motivation, but what someone does is as important as why they do it.

A common refrain I’ve seen lately on the internet storytelling discussion is denouncing the Doctor Death Does a Villainy moment. You might have seen it. It goes something like this:

“Doctor Death wants to end racism, so, of course, the writer made him blow up an orphanage, just to remind us he’s a villain.”

On the surface, this criticism seems relevant, but only because it hinges on a few assumptions beforehand.

The first is that noble goals equal a noble character. This doesn’t have be true. Doctor Doom is one of my favorite villain. Despite his many noble qualities, Doom is a vengeful egomaniac. He may be the smartest human alive, he may speak of honor, but–as I once heard it best put–he would bite the head off a newborn child if he thought it would upstage Mister Fantastic. Doom has many admirable qualities, but he is not a good person.

The second assumption at work here is that sympathizing with a character makes them somehow less of a villain. Sympathy is something meant only for characters we like, and liking a character means they can’t be an antagonist.

This is so common that when a character turns out to be a traitor, they often exhibit entirely new personalities. A favorite example of mine is the character of Benny from Total Recall. Spoiler alert for a thirty year old movie, but Benny is the friendly taxi driver who turns out to be a spy for the bad guys. When we first meet him, he seems like a hard-working guy with a family to feed. When he’s revealed to be a traitor, we also discover his family is a lie. Because he’s a bad guy. Bad guys don’t have families, couldn’t possibly have any sympathetic reason for working with the villains.

So often, when I hear the Doctor Death Does a Villainy criticism, I find it shallow. If Doctor Death didn’t do that villainy, he probably wouldn’t be a bad guy in the first place. Professor X and Magneto are working toward the same goal. If Magneto wasn’t willing to go too far, then they’d be on the same side. There would still be conflict between the two, but it would be the kind of conflict resolved through talking and negotiation. And talking and negotiation are not the goal of most X-Men stories. The hint is that very few characters in the X-Men universe have Diplomacy Vision as their superpower.

It’s also a criticism that can be impossible to navigate. Have Doctor Death be outright villainous: He’s a shallow caricature. Have Doctor Death have a sympathetic motivation / goal: He’s only a villain because you had him do something villainous. It’s difficult to not fall into either one of those criticism when writing an antagonist.

The criticism isn’t entirely without merit though. Sometimes, a villain does something so cartoonishly evil that it comes across as ridiculous. If the villain really isn’t that villainous aside from those moments then it can ring hollow. Having Doctor Death pause to kick a puppy when that’s really all he ever does that’s despicable is a sign of weak writing. But if Thanos exhibits his own strange brand of compassion and self-sacrifice (which is, when examined, entirely narcissistic and egocentric) then his villainy is earned.

It’s not always black and white. We haven’t even scratched the surface that the terms Protagonist and Antagonist don’t necessarily mean Good Guy and Bad Guy. Villains can be protagonists. Heroes can be antagonists. It just depends on how the narrative frames things. Despite ourselves, we can end up rooting for some very despicable characters if the storyteller does a good job of it.

Sympathizing with antagonists isn’t wrong. It’s generally a good thing that we are able to see even deeply flawed people as having something worthwhile within them. But that worthwhile part doesn’t make them the good guy.

Sympathy is a tool in the storyteller’s kit, but it’s also a thing we should always consider in how we view characters. After all, Doctor Death can have a very good point, but still be ultimately wrong. And just because the story takes a moment to see there’s more to the doctor than villainy for villainy’s sake, it doesn’t make him a good guy.



3 Replies to “Doctor Death Does a Villainy”

  1. That was a fun read, so much so you got me out of my writing slump. It’s amazing what a new perspective can do

  2. Lee, this sentence is not complete: But that worthwhile part doesn’t make them……????
    Great piece, otherwise!

  3. I am not familiar with the debate about Doctor Death, since I’m not much of a Marvel fan.
    I was very interested in your musings on protagonist vs. antagonist. Because I’m old, it made me think of all of the controversy of is he a hero or a villain surrounding the Oliver North/Iran-Contra hearings in the late 1980s.
    We read books and watch movies or TV because the differences between protagonists and antagonists are more clearly defined than in real life. It makes us feel that life is simple, when of course it is not.

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