The despairing citizen victims of Metropolis shout at Superman as he retreats from the battle with Kryptonian war criminals General Zod and his super-minions, Ursa and Non, that they put themselves directly in harms way of. Apparently too stupid to understand the situation, these dumb beasts chose to crowd a fight that was destroying the city around them rather than running for their lives. Zod and Ursa mock Superman – as well they ought – for making liabilities of the throngs of morons demanding and taking for granted that Superman will protect them as they willfully meander into this meat grinder like moths to a flame. And Superman’s reward for disappointing these ingrates with unreasonable expectations of and taking him for granted: disparagement for not being good enough to give enough.
It’s never enough.
Re-watching Superman II, I imagine an alternate ending to this scene playing out with Superman laying waste to all these deserving victims, Zod looking on initially with shocked horror as everyone is summarily incinerated by eye-lasers, iced by freeze-breath and crushed beneath jagged, broken slabs of their own beloved city, but then Zod’s expression turning to an understanding, even approving, smile. Superman might never be good enough no matter how hard he tries to be but he could certainly be bad enough just as he is.
We see this internal struggle manifest in Superman III in a scrapyard scene between Superman’s passive, meek Clark Kent and selfish, powerful super man personas. Clark Kent wins that fight, presumably for good, but only after shedding the false identity of a mild-mannered newspaper reporter and resigning to the capacity of his powers to destroy his darker impulses that embodied and flaunted that capacity — so he didn’t so much defeat his dark side so much as he reintegrated with it, becoming his authentic self. And the film, Superman II, concludes with Superman defeating Zod and the gang via deception, tricking them into becoming stripped of their super powers and then torturing and murdering their now frail human bodies with impunity. So I guess he’s the benevolent hero then if only by virtue of demonstrating great restraint in not doing the same to Lex Luthor and all the other annoying assholes scheming against him, demanding his time and shifting responsibility to him?
I idolized Superman as a child. He was my hero. I’d run around wearing a blue tee shirt with a sparkly “S” decal, red Underoos over blue long johns and a red cloth for a cape, jumping off of anything I could climb up to fly. I felt loved and safe, that I would always have family and friends to depend on when I needed help.
Back then my mother would read to my brother, sister and I bedtime stories. A lot of Dr. Suess. One of his books, Thidwick The Bighearted Moose, resonates with me to this day. It’s about a moose, Thidwick, who feels that he’s being nice, a good guy, by letting other animals hitch rides in his rack of antlers. These animals exploit Thidwick’s kind nature, inviting other animals up into Thidwick’s rack without his permission and shouting him down whenever he attempts to protest. Thidwick’s friends are appalled and tell him to evict all these abusive freeloaders but he feels that he would be selfish to do so, that he would be a bad guy. Hunting season rolls around and Thidwick wants to follow his moose friends across the river but his “guests” bully him into remaining on the side with all the hunters. When the hunters see Thidwick’s rack full of animals they set their eyes on this prize and pursue him. Exhausted from packing a forest of animals up in his horns and cornered, Thidwick finally remembers that it’s time and he’s able to shed his antlers and does so. The story ends with a relieved Thidwick happily swimming across the river to join his friends and a hunter standing proudly beside Thidwick’s mounted rack still packed full of all the animals, killed dead and stuffed.
It wasn’t until later in life, having become less loved and less safe, that I more fully appreciated the lesson imparted by this children’s book. With a bright smile that Zod would have approved of, Thidwick did what Superman could not bring himself to: he gladly sacrificed everyone who’d selfishly exploited his better nature in order to regain the freedom he’d given up to them.
In the real world this translates to limiting contact with people who won’t respect our personal boundaries if not cutting them out of our life entirely. If we say no and they get abusive then they’re bad for us and have to go. Let someone else stuff and mount ’em.
This is anything but easy to do. Aside from possible dependencies, a lot of guilt can accompany a decision to go no contact with someone, especially when it’s exasperated by a smear campaign designed to make you out as the bad guy. I think most of us will do just about anything to avoid being labeled bad; however, if someone doesn’t respect us then we’re not going to change their mind. The accusation is simply a tactic to hurt us and get us to reengage with them. So take their power and embrace the villainy, I say. It’s a gift.
Consider the benefits of being a bad guy:
Villains are true to themselves. They’re not ashamed nor afraid of who and what they are and so don’t bother pretending to be something they’re not for anyone. No masks or secret identities to maintain and constantly monitor. And when they do wear a costume, it’s not for disguise. Because they’re confident in their self-worth and so comfortably laugh off what anyone else might think of them.
Villains attract friends. Not content to brood alone in secret lairs, evil lairs tend to be sweeping, high capacity spaces where many like-minded evil-doers can gather to delight in villainy together. Consider the extensive seating in every Bond villain’s headquarters. While Superman is moping around in the Fortress of Solitude, Zod and the gang are out living it up on the town. While Batman slips further into madness down in the dank darkness of the Bat Cave, the Joker is out partying.
Villains are ambitious go-getters. They know what they want and are always working on some scheme or another to acquire it, bringing in collaborators, employing contractors and the like. Bad guys think big, are goal oriented, plan ahead and ignore the naysayers (or destroy them should they get in the way). Like an orphaned illegal alien immigrated from Krypton trying to prove himself to an ungrateful adopted population or a bat-zillionaire mourning dead parents by seeking revenge through cosplay vigilantism, villains have suffered and been shaped by tragedy too — they just don’t let it fester into moral quandaries holding them back.
Villains win. All the time. Happy hero storybook endings are fantasies. Wishful thinking. Because bad guys don’t operate by rules imposed upon them but rather recognize principles that are known to serve their interests. Heroes end up having to break with the idealistic, artificial notions of order and justice they’re striving to preserve in order to defeat villains or, more accurately, usurp them. Heroes then are no more than villains that happen to serve our interests.
I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made.
—Franklin D. Roosevelt
Being a bad guy to bad people is a good thing. Wear their insults like badges of honor. Celebrate their disappointments like holidays. And bury them beneath the time we invest in better people and better living until we forget the sound of their voice, what they look like or whatever it was that they wanted. That’s the worst thing we can ever do — and also the best.