How Do I Hate Thee, Let Me Count The Ways

Normally I express my musings on the nature of supervillainy through the words of one of my characters, Derek Radner (aka Triton, the first supervillain of the Fourth Heroic Age in my Academy of Super-Heroes setting), but this particular one arose out of annoyance with some of the CW DC shows, and rather than try to come up with in-universe versions of the shows and write a thinly veiled polemic, I decided to remove the veil and just write the essay here.  But in framing my complaint, I ended up stepping back and creating another taxonomy, so strap yourself in for the LIST.

Here's the fundamental question around which I based this list: "Why does the antagonist go after the protagonist?"  Metafictionally, the answer is "because the story needs conflict," but there's a lot of in-story reasons, which I will now classify into 8 narrow categories that roughly fold into two larger categories: Nothing Personal, and It's Personal.

Nothing Personal

These reasons all pit the antagonist against the protagonist for reasons that don't involve specifically wanting to fight the protagonist.  Often they will evolve over time...once the protagonist foils the antagonist a few times it probably becomes personal.  And there can be some overlap, no taxonomy has totally impermeable boundaries.

1. You're In My Way.
Greetings,, Detective.

The antagonist has plans independent of the protagonist, but the hero either got themselves involved or the villain suspected they would and had to take interference into account.  Antagonists who fancy themselves rational sorts will often claim this motivation even if their real reason is personal.

Example: Ra's Al Ghul in Batman the Animated Series sees himself as a savior of the world, but his grand plan is going to kill a lot of people in the process.  He doesn't hate Batman, even respects the Detective in many ways, but Batman is not going to let Ra's enact his plans and therefore must be dealt with.

2. You're My Way In.

This can blur the lines a bit, because it's sort of personal...just not personal personal, you know?  The antagonist's plan requires the protagonist's participation in some fashion.  If the protagonist has superhuman abilities, then the antagonist likely wants to make use of those abilities.  If the protagonist is wealthy or otherwise controls significant resources, then the antagonist will want those.  This can start as "join me and we can do great things," but often ends up with "kidnapped and strapped to a table" especially in the case of superhumans.  As with #1, the antagonist may like and respect (for twisted values of the term) the protagonist, but won't take no for an answer.

See?  Totally not personal.
Example: Loki once captured Iceman and strapped him to a device that would bring a magical winter.  He had nothing against Bobby Drake personally, he just needed an ice-control mutant to run his wdiget.

Alternately, the key to the plan is a supporting character, rather than the main character.  Everyone wants to capture the hero's girlfriend because she's a power source, that sort of thing.  But the antagonist still has to go through the main character, which makes for a blend of #1 and #2.

Example: In Season 1 of CW's The Flash, "Harrison Wells" engineered a number of conflicts for Barry specifically to drive him to greater speeds, because he needed to be able to steal enough speed energy from Barry to restart his own powers.

3. It's Business.

The immediate antagonist was hired to fight the protagonist.  Obviously, this requires a different ultimate motivation for whoever hired them, but reflects that not every antagonist has a grand plan or a personal reason to take on the protagonist.  Note, by "It's Business" I don't mean that the antagonist's business plan is "take down the protagonist," because then it's #1 or #2.  I specifically mean mercenaries.  Mercenaries may still have personal reasons and archenemies and the like, but the real professionals will go where the jobs are.

Example: When Deathstroke was trying to poison Bruce Wayne and accidentally mistook Clark Kent for Bruce, he didn't have anything against Batman or Superman, it was just a gig.

4. Oops.
This one's extra-mistaken.

This covers mistaken identity, heroes fighting heroes, and frame jobs, among other things.  Sometimes fights happen because one or both of the sides is mistaken.  A hero who is sneaking around where they shouldn't be is spotted by another hero sneaking around where they shouldn't be, and each assumes the other is the unknown antagonist who was plotting to break in to the place none of them should be.  Or a mercenary is given bad information and goes after the wrong guy.  Or the police are mistakenly pursuing the hero for a crime and the "antagonists" are law enforcement.

As with #3, this could be a layer to peel back in the search for the true antagonist.  It's an old tactic to get one potential enemy out of the way by sending them after a enemy.  Convince a grief-stricken widow that her husband's death was the protagonist's fault, for instance.  So it could be personal, just mistakenly so.

Example: In his early years, Spider-Man spent a lot of time fighting police and other heroes who thought he was a criminal.  And his habit of lurking on walls and ceilings tends to get him shot at by his jumpier allies.

It's Personal

In this category, the antagonist is specifically trying to get in conflict with the protagonist, for some reason.  It may be as simple as having history together...foil one too many plans and all forthcoming plans include "Kill the protagonist" as important action points even if the plan otherwise has nothing to do with the protagonist.

5. It's For Your Own Good.

If a superhero is around long enough, they will almost inevitably run into this sort of antagonist.  They range from kindly mentor who makes sure none of the trials are actually lethal to ruthless masterminds who are searching for The One Who Can Save Us All and will shrug and figure "not The One" if they get the protagonist killed.  These antagonists engineer conflicts for the purpose of testing the protagonist, and then to train them to be better and stronger.  This differs from #2 in the sense that they do generally want to help the protagonist rather than themselves.

Hey, if glasses can fool people, so can
a mis-colored wig.
Example: In Dragonball (no Z), at one point Master Roshi enters a tournament in disguise as a way to teach his prize student Goku a little humility.

Example: In the first season of CW's The Flash, "Harrison Wells" did not have a #5 motive, because he wanted Barry to get stronger solely to make him a better power source.  However, if his motive had been "Make sure Barry can save the world in the Crisis," then it would have been a #5.

Sometimes a mentor-antagonist can transition between #2 and #5, especially if there's a time-sensitive Plan.  Either they're a kindly (if strict) mentor to start with but then regretfully switch to outright "you are a cog" mode when the spit hits the plan, or they are introduced in bastard mode but once the Big Bad is beaten they mellow out.

Example: In the Netflix Daredevil continuity, Stick started as more of an "It's for your own good, Matt" abusive mentor, but later on when the Hand's plans kick into high gear he enters "follow my plan or die and get out of the way" mentality.

6. I'm Better Than You.

Ah, the green-eyed monster.
No, not Hulk, the other one.
In some ways this is like #2, with the plan being "show I'm great."  But this time it's personal.  It's not just "I'm great," it's "I'm greater than you."  If the antagonist is a physical match for the protagonist, or can become a physical match, this will tend to take the form of direct conflict.  On the other hand, if the antagonist can't possibly beat the protagonist in any sort of fight, they may focus on dragging the protagonist down instead.  They may arrange a number of #4 encounters, framing the protagonist for crimes or just propagandizing against them.

Examples: Lex Luthor post-Crisis becomes Superman's arch-enemy because he's intent on showing he can be better than some alien.  The Joker is often driven by the need to get the better of's not enough to win, he has to beat Batman in the process.  Same with the Riddler, hence leaving all those clues.  And J. Jonah Jameson's crusade to drag Spider-Man down is perhaps the archetype of "If I can't be better, I'll make you worse" antagonists in superhero stories.

7. I Hate You And Want You Dead (Or At Least Beaten Badly).

Usually reserved for later evolutions of an antagonist, but sometimes an antagonist is introduced with this motivation.  Hate from the start may be the result of insanity, someone becoming irrationally fixated on the protagonist.  Or it could be revenge, especially if the protagonist is the sort who kills their enemies or is careless about collateral damage.  Sometimes it's a case of hating what the protagonist stands for, and deciding they need to make An Example of the protagonist.

This is one of the most common motivations of recurring antagonists...regardless of their original motives, being defeated several times makes it personal.

On the other hand, in another blurring of the lines, this can mix with It's Business when you have more of a war story or spy thriller.  The antagonist is part of an enemy state, and hates the protagonist's state if not necessarily the protagonist in particular.

Example: Several of the men to wear the Crimson Dynamo and Titanium Man armors hated Tony Stark as a symbol of the Capitalist West, not because they personally knew him.  But they hated the symbol enough to make it personal anyway.

8. I Hate You And Want You To Suffer.

This is distinct from #7 because of what it says about the antagonist.  Otherwise decent people can have #7 as a motivation (okay, decent aside from being criminals or enemy agents or whatever).  But this motivation requires sadism on the part of the antagonist.  It's not good enough that the protagonist die, they need to see their lives fall apart, their loved ones killed or maimed, etc.  These antagonists can be kept around for a long time, because no matter how many times they best the protagonist, they refuse to kill the protagonist.  Eventually the protagonist gets strong enough to win, and that usually ends it, if only for a while.  (After victory, such an antagonist could be revealed as a super nasty variant on the #5 motivation mentor, of course.)

"I hate you so much I'll rip off the name of one
Batman villain and the mask of another just
to make your suffering CONFUSING."
Where it tends to become a bad cliche is when the antagonist's final move is to make the protagonist suffer by becoming a killer.  The whole, "Kill me now, or everyone I kill after this is your fault," deal, where the antagonist hopes to permanently scar the protagonist.  And then, if not killed, they remind the protagonist of the lost opportunity at every future meeting.

So, The Complaint...

In general, serial fiction works best if your antagonists have a variety of motivations.  Even if the premise of the stories favors one or two motives (i.e. a toy-driven storyline that has to keep using the same villains will perforce have a limited set of motivations), sprinkling in a handful of other lesser antagonists can keep things fresh.

Some of the motivations, in particular, should be used sparingly, either because they fall into bad cliches, or because they are tricky to begin with.  For instance, trying to have more than one "It's for your own good" antagonist in a single series will have readers rolling their eyes.  And the inherent sadism of #8 can turn the whole series into a sort of emotional "torture porn" if you let it be the predominant villain motive.

And that's CW's problem, of late.  Season-long arcs in The Flash and Arrow dominated by antagonists who are out to make the protagonist suffer.  Arrow hardly has any antagonists left who aren't sadists seeking to kill everyone but Ollie.  Where the comics Savitar was about being a god and ruling and stuff, CW Savitar wanted to make Barry suffer.  The Thinker's grand plan is still not clear, but "make Barry suffer" is certainly one of his action don't gaslight someone out of kindly motives.

It's cruel, and I think more than a little lazy.  They can keep an antagonist around for a full season by having them in a "you can't kill me" position and then just toying with the protagonist for a dozen or so episodes.  I've started to dread new episodes of Arrow and The Flash rather than anticipating them, because I know it'll probably just be more emotional torture porn.

Sure, bringing Damien Darkh back again in Legends is a different kind of lazy, but at least his motivation is "I wanna be a god," and the Legends are merely in his way.  Supergirl may have a sadistic antagonist in Morgan Edge, but in a nice twist he's actually trying to hurt a supporting character more than trying to hurt Supergirl directly (his motivation for going after SG is more of a #2, because he knows hurting her would hurt his real target).  Plus, not every episode is about Edge anyway, so I don't get sick of him.  I still look forwards to Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow, in part because I know there will be a variety of antagonists and motivations, instead of yet another week of this season's mastermind tormenting Barry or Ollie.

Dvandom, aka Dave Van Domelen, is an Assistant Professor of Physical Science at Amarillo College, maintainer of one of the two longest-running Transformers fansites in existence (neither he nor Ben Yee is entirely sure who was first), long time online reviewer of comics, probably taking Arrow and Flash off his DVR for the rest of the season, occasional science advisor in fiction, and part of the development team for the upcoming City of Titans MMO.
How Do I Hate Thee, Let Me Count The Ways How Do I Hate Thee, Let Me Count The Ways Reviewed by Dvandom on Tuesday, January 16, 2018 Rating: 5
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