Strategy and the Supervillain Problem

Posted: November 15, 2012 by Adam Elkus in Uncategorized
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“He can’t be bought, bullied or negotiated with…some people just want to see the world burn.” – Alfred, The Dark Knight, 2008.

“Are there such men? Conceivably. But history affords no example of them, outside of comic books and the movies, attaining the sort of power it would take actually to burn the world, or even any very significant part of it. Reality seems to provide a natural check upon such people in the form of a shortage of those who both (a) share their psychosis and (b) are willing to play the part of humble assistant — rather than starring as the evil genius themselves — in accomplishing their purposes. This problem for the would-be evil geniuses — a reassurance to the rest of us — is what creates the distinctive unreality of Mr Nolan’s movie. Again and again we see Mr Ledger’s Joker pulling off the most fantastically-conceived acts of evil which, in real life, would require a virtual army of assistants, many of whom would have to be almost as clever as he is. Yet the movie shows us not even one. We do see the Joker lording it over some fellow criminals on a couple of occasions — not the best way to gain their cooperation, one might have thought. And, in the bank robbery with which the film opens, he casually murders all his assistants, which is even less likely to help him with any hypothetical recruitment effort. So how does he do it?” – James Bowman, 2008.

The Three Alls Policy (Japanese: 三光作戦, Sankō Sakusen; Chinese: 三光政策; pinyin: Sānguāng Zhèngcè) was a Japanese scorched earth policy adopted in China during World War II, the three “alls” being “kill all, burn all, loot all”[1] (Chinese: 殺光、燒光、搶光). This policy was designed as retaliation against the Chinese for the Communist-led Hundred Regiments Offensive in December 1940.[2] ….Contemporary Japanese documents referred to the policy as “The Burn to Ash Strategy” (燼滅作戦 Jinmetsu Sakusen?), In a study published in 1996, historian Mitsuyoshi Himeta claims that the Three Alls Policy, sanctioned by Emperor Hirohito himself, was both directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of “more than 2.7 million” Chinese civilians. His works and those of Akira Fujiwara about the details of the operation were commented by Herbert P. Bix in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, who claims that the Sankō Sakusen far surpassed the Rape of Nanking not only in terms of numbers, but in brutality as well. – “Three Alls Policy,” Wikipedia.

Pity the modern supervillain. Unlike Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes, he is not a master criminal. Unlike Ming the Merciless, he cannot be a inscrutable Other whose villainy can be neatly reduced via racist pseudoscience to his origins. The Cold War is over and the overseas box office necessary for capital-intensive movies to actually make back their production and distribution costs narrows the range of potential foreign adversaries for heroes to battle. A combination of Hollywood political correctness and understandable audience discomfort with ten years of war nixes al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or Iran from the list of possible villains. Most Americans have studiously ignored the horrific slaughter perpetrated by Mexican drug cartels. So what drives the modern supervillain and how does he (or she) carry out dastardly deeds?

The modern supervillain is truly a sad creature. Driven either by the desire for petty revenge, nihilistic glee in acts of destruction, and self-aggrandizement, the supervillain stands for nothing of additive value. There is nothing to explain how he or she can motivate others to fight and frequently die in large numbers. The supervillain has no positive goal, no attractive ideology; nothing except a quasi-mystical ingenuity and luck. Unlike al-Qaeda, a group with a systemic ideology (albeit a highly fantastical one), the modern supervillain is essentially an opportunist with a violent drive. Perhaps this is not a new development, as it is hard to see anything coherent about Napoleon’s essentially opportunist statecraft and military strategy. The Corsican may have ostensibly desired to create a system of subordinate states with France as hegemon, but his actions also suggest a strategic Attention Hyper Deficit Disorder fueled by excitement and martial vigor. There is certainly a tradition of British historiography that sees Napoleon as a proto-Hitler, but today he seems like a comic book supervillain. Napoleon is tactically dazzling, but tripped up by a basic strategic incoherence. Sadly, most supervillains today lack even Napoleon’s charisma and drive.

Consider several recent franchises—James Bond, Batman, and Call of Duty: Black Ops–for a portrait of the modern supervillain. Skyfall‘s Raoul Silva was tortured horribly after MI6 gave him up to the Chinese government. The half-crazed Silva responds by building up a powerful mercenary organization and relentlessly attacks MI6 for the sole purpose of killing the intelligence chief M. Silva is completely indifferent to how much this Ahab-like endeavor will cost him, and cares little even for his own life. So why should his men be willing to engage in a suicidal fight against the British government? The Dark Knight‘s Joker is a black box; nothing he says about his own origins and motivations can be taken at face value except his distaste for rules and plans. As Alfred observes, the Joker just wants to destroy everything. The Dark Knight Rises‘ Bane fools the citizens of Gotham with anti-capitalist rhetoric, but really just wants to punish them for their sins by blowing them up with a nuclear bomb. Bane commands a formidable force of heavily armed thugs, most of whom are bound to him by obligation. But would they really all die for him if all he wants is to go out in a glaze of glory? Black Ops 2‘s Raoul Menendez suffered through horrible family losses at the hands of the Contras during the Nicaraguan civil war, including the disfigurement and death of his beloved sister. But the connection between his personal loss and desire to provoke a war between the US and China is unclear. Even more unclear is why he has a private army with advanced military hardware and billions of fans worldwide hanging on his every YouTube update.

In contrast, crime bosses and deviants that act on a granular level always stand out as more richly textured and believable villains. It’s assumed Jack Nicholson’s crime boss in The Departed is out to make money and hold power. Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer, hence he commits horrific crimes. Cape Fear‘s convicted rapist wants revenge on his lawyer, not to take over the world. Villains with nonpolitical motives rooted in revenge or self-gratification also plausibly commit their deadly deeds without need of anything more than a small group of partners in crime. These criminals are not interested in overturning the existing order, nor could they attract anyone willing to help them if they did. Ad hoc groups of thugs are easier for commercial or thrill-killing criminals to plausibly command. But large groups? Taking on another state–to say nothing of the world–requires well-armed centralized military forces with the ability to project force and sustain themselves in austere conditions. Hannibal Lecter might be more terrifying than Erwin Rommel, but only one of them has the Afrika Corps.

Supervillains have to be different. To be a modern supervillain, you must want something tangible that the status quo inherently cannot provide. The more radical the aim, the greater the effort needed to overcome anticipated resistance. The genocidal Adolf Hitler needed to destroy much of Eastern Europe and Russia to create a zone for the Germans to colonize. For Hamas to fulfill the aims of its charter, Israel and the Palestinian territories would inevitably have to be forcibly and brutally replaced by an Islamic theocracy. A Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere dominated by a Japan that could parasitically feed on Southeast Asia for resources necessitated the destruction of Western military power and the enslavement of China. So why do modern supervillains fall short of such historical villainy?

Unfortunately, many supervillains fundamentally lack a sense of the political, a factor that separates powerful men from common criminals acting out their own personal dramas. Politics is about who gets what, when, and how. This does not mean that power is pursued for its own sake. But control over the political process is necessary to realize any project on a large scale. Power is a finite resource, and when an group is unable to accumulate enough power to realize their aim through peaceful means they may attempt to violently redistribute it. Aims that can require political action range from basic survival to more abstract notions of justice and equality. Seizing political power is foreign to many modern supervillains precisely because they cannot articulate positive aims that would require control of an existing polity or the use of violence to construct a new state or society.

Similarly, the supervillain must also be rational. Rationality is a basic requirement for any kind of consistent strategic behavior:

It is sometimes said that strategic theorists assume rationality on the part of those whom they study because they cannot assume anything else. To pass judgment on whether anyone is rational or irrational in political life is to assume that one exists in Olympian detachment with a unique insight into what constitutes supreme powers of reasoning (a self-evidently delusional position). The assumption of rationality, however, does not suppose that the actor is functioning with perfect efficiency or that all rational decisions are right ones, merely that an actor’s decisions are made after careful cost–benefit calculation and the means chosen seem optimal to accomplish the desired end.

This does not mean that our supervillain’s identity and goals are not historically contingent or otherwise constructed. It only means that we can assume that they will consistently and vigorously seek to realize their goals, however they may originate. It may be objected that supervillains can also exhibit bounded rationality, satisficing, or appreciate symbols and cultural totems over rational strategic effectiveness. But we must also assume a Darwinian logic at hand in regards to the relative utility of a supervillain’s guiding set of goals and his or her ability to make useful decisions. The supervillain incurs huge risks to overturn the status quo and villains lacking the ability to survive and convince others to follow must instead depend on their adversaries to be strategically inept.

A villain’s ultimate defeat does not offer definitive proof of their irrationality. Hitler may have been a terrible military commander and a poor geostrategist, but his delusional and genocidal ideology still motivated countless Germans to fight and commit grave atrocities. Moreover, his deft political skills allowed him to gain control of Germany and exploit the psychological and political weaknesses of European leaders. Without the latter skill, Hitler’s war machine could have potentially been strangled in its crib before it consumed Europe. Nor does individual or group misbehavior by supervillain henchmen demonstrate the overall enterprise is expressive and self-indulgent rather than instrumental in nature. It would certainly be ahistorical to suggest that a villain must run a completely disciplined and professional organization. Many of history’s greatest monsters governed loose networks of affinity and fielded warriors motivated by lust, greed, and a need for belonging rather than status, ideology, or theology. But the leaders of such organizations desired shifts in political order that required instrumentally using their brutish subordinates to realize larger aims.  As we have seen in World War II, even highly disciplined organizations may sanction, encourage, or even command predatory behavior by subordinates against civilians.

Another common mistake is the perception that a supervillain’s policy aims have to be elaborate. Science fiction’s most terrifying villains are aliens that seek to extinguish all human life they come into contact with in order to survive and grow. The basic biological and even virological imperatives of survival and expansion are what make single-minded nonhuman adversaries like self-aware killer robots and buglike alien xenomorphs so popular. Such behavior is also “political” in that full realization of a enemy species’ biological or technological imperative requires as a basic condition the destruction of the human state system–a de facto alteration of the balance of power. A related point: human opponents that seek control of crucial resources, territory, and conquest without modernist ideologies or nationalism should not be regarded as somehow categorically different. All strategy, however impressionistic, relies on the use of force to create new political “facts on the ground.” Clausewitz wrote of tribal groupings and barbarians that fielded entire communities at war, but such groups were still political actors.

Finally, a supervillain’s undemocratic nature does not remove his or her dependence on the cooperation of others to force their will upon a resistant world. The bigger the task, the bigger the need for delegation of authority. Delegation of authority requires plausible material and/or spiritual rewards for those who follow. Benedict Anderson wrote in Imagined Communities that the decline of religious authority in the everyday lives of Europeans necessitated a new structure–the nation–to promise some form of continuity after death. Men may die in horrific numbers in war, but the nation lives on. Sometimes fear of negative sanction is enough to motivate evil deeds. The fate of Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s loyalists are tied to the fortunes of his regime. At best, defeat would lead to a drastic drop in status. At worst, they can expect lethal retribution from those they once oppressed. A fear of divine retribution can also be a powerful source of motivation. As Joseph Tainter notes, the Aztec religion of Huitzilopochtli demanded human sacrifice to keep the world in balance. The need for fresh bodies to sacrifice spurred militaristic expansion to secure a reliable source of sacrifices.

Many franchises feature supervillains seeking revenge for an old wrong, but individual grievance does not translate into group motivation. Black Ops 2‘s Menendez bears a grudge against the US for its 1980s backing of the Contras and Manuel Noriega, but it is hard to believe that such events would matter to his young followers in 2025. Consequently, the Serbs that fought in the Yugoslav civil wars embraced an ideology that emphasized the righting of centuries-old injustices and the restoration of the Serb nation to its allegedly glorious past. What made the Serbs villains was that their vision of “justice” required the subjugation and massacre of Muslims and Croats. But fictional supervillains tend to get hung up on personal grudges rather than a sense of collective imbalance that requires purifying violence. Their need for personal revenge makes them followers to be used by others, not leaders of gangs, armies, and terrorist groups.

Perhaps we lack realistic supervillains because we think that only irrational men or women seek to completely overturn the status quo. Is the Joker, with his love of sadistic violence and penchant for moral experiments, is really all that different from the similarly depoliticized protagonist of the Saw horror movies? Bane’s invective against Gotham’s 1% is insincere, but what if it wasn’t? In order to create better supervillains, we must come to terms with the unpleasant fact that violent revisionists have ordered preferences and use violence instrumentally to realize them. The fact that those preferences are appealing enough for armies to kill for is half of what makes a good supervillain dangerous. But the true craft of the supervillain lies in the cunning and ruthlessness needed to get the job done. Alfred was right: some people do want to watch the world burn. But they will always be subordinate to those who believe that the world is theirs for the taking.

  1. Palpatine/Darth Sidious is probably one of the few super villains who spends the time necessary to build the political capital to seize control of the Republic. (Not surprising, as his rise to power is meant to parallel that of dictators like Hitler).

    Why does Palpatine succeed where others fail? Well, using the Elkus formula:

    Much of Palpatine’s consolidation of power takes place off-screen. You never see Darth Sidious pandering to Galactic special interest groups by furiously working on his speech to the Galactic Rotary Club. But rest assured, he’s doing it anyway.

    Most of Palpatine’s henchmen during his rise to power are recruited not by Palpatine, but by Sidious and his underlings. Most are motivated by their own greed or political grievances.

    Few are aware of Palpatine’s ultimate plot…not even Dooku, who shares in Palpatine’s religious ideology of righting the wrong the Jedi inflicted upon the Sith (another key Elkus element).

  2. Agree with Crispin, but I think that’s largely true of many other villians as well. Some are quite open about their intentions, while many others, like Joker, deceive their followers about their true intentions and/or cloaked their true identity when dealing with people who knew their reputation (like the bank robbers).

    That said, Adam nails one of the things I really liked about Robotech and Battlestar Galactica. You can objectively understand the motivations and intentions of the “villians” you are primed to hate at the beginning, and even empathize with their plight.

    One last thing: there is middle ground between purely rational decisions and irrational thinking. Behaviorist models are trying to zero in on cognitive biases that affect decisions and thinking that falls short of fully rational. These also form cleavages to exploit with deception operations.

  3. aelkus says:

    I think the problem with the Joker is that ALL of his support in based on deception of some sort. Its very unrealistic to think that a supervillain could subsist entirely on people he has fooled. Certainly disguising intentions from the mass public and manipulating elites are time-honored skills, but a villain needs some henchmen that aren’t being deceived.

    I do think that even if a decision is not necessarily fully efficient or rational, the bottom baseline still is on the assumption of instrumentality and consistent preferences. Cognitive bias doesn’t really change the basic existence of a defined worldview and vision for the future. But it is precisely those “human factors” that can be disrupted. In License to Kill, Bond preys on the jealousy and paranoia of the drug lords to turn them against each other.

  4. Yeah, I think once his reputation for nihilism got out, it would be tough to recruit. But some of his ops were spectacular successes without his henchmen taking the fall. People love a winner. Perhaps he plays a fine balance of wins with his all-in sprees. After all, Napoleon kept coming up with armies to burn; his supporters never seemed to wise up after each disaster. Somehow he managed to be one of the few surviving to crawling back from Egypt, Russia, etc, and yet they kept signing up to follow him.

    • aelkus says:

      Sure, but he did kill every single one of his associates several times. Not let them die through neglect or sacrificed—exterminated them. That has to say something.

      As for Napoleon, he benefited from the wave of revolutionary fervor and nationalism built up by the revolutionaries he overthrew. He was a skilled manipulator of those sentiments and may have believed some of them himself. Some people obviously benefited greatly in a material sense by being associated from him too. I think his actual progressive plans (The Napoleonic Code, etc) also were powerful incentives to be associated with him, particularly his statement that a general’s baton could theoretically be found in any lowly private’s field gear.

  5. aelkus says:

    As a side note, I think my next post will expand on the analysis of the aliens/robots and their understanding (if you can call it that) of strategy.

    • That (alien/robot) strategy ought to be great. I’ve been thinking about that for a while too and kicked some things around twitter about it. For example, what the heck would sentient computers/robots want with us anyway? Also, given the cost of interstellar travel in terms of time and resources, and the availability of resources elsewhere, it’s extremely unlikely anyone would travel here to fight us infantry style to take the planet intact. It’s extremely unlikely anything on Earth would even be biologically compatible enough to serve as food, not to mention if you have the energy to travel interstellar distances, you have the energy to synthesize food or possess food reserves to make the trip. Their motivation would most likely be fear of a rival and smoke us completely. They would probably do it through a mechanism that appears natural to avoid attribution and retribution in case we survive. Like a gamma ray burst, asteroid collision, etc. The only reasons I can think of why anyone would come here to fight would be for honor or to retrieve something irreplaceable that they lost.

      • aelkus says:

        I think the Fermi paradox tends to doom most PRACTICAL discussion of alien strategy. But in terms of fictional universe where aliens and humans may be in closer proximity (obviously, Aliens) the equation is a bit different.

        As for robots–that’s more straightforward. We can’t credibly commit NOT to unplug them. More on that later….

  6. Ah, but my theory is congruent with the Fermi Paradox. Civilizations that live long enough learn to avoid detection. If they do detect you, and determine you could be a threat down the road (it could be a thousand years before they detect you, so some guesswork goes into predicting the developmental curve from what you see now), they may determine to snuff you before you snuff them. Meanwhile, you don’t want to alert the target, or others out there that you are doing something like this, as it clearly, unambiguously signals that you are dangerous. Given the average depiction of aliens in our science fiction, I wouldn’t blame some other civilization for being a bit skeptical about talking to us.

    • aelkus says:

      This is actually really helpful. It suggests that the security dilemma and perhaps Gilpin’s theory of hegemonic war would also be valid for a interstellar political system as opposed to an interstate one. Except I would modify Gilpin here to suggest that the rising power (US) might not even be aware of the existence of the declining hegemon!

  7. Of course, everything totally changes if someone–anywhere–develops a feasible means of traveling faster than the speed of light. Suddenly, the place would get a whole lot smaller. If someone came at us with sub-light tech, we’d see them coming, but FTL ships would change the game.

  8. […] Strategy and the Supervillain Problem. […]

  9. […] the modern supervillain, Adam tells us. He’s a poor, decrepit figure, beholden to the deceptive whims of irrationality, distanced […]

  10. […] the modern supervillain, Adam tells us. He’s a poor, decrepit figure, beholden to the deceptive whims of irrationality, distanced from […]

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