The following are some insights into comics’ super-heroes and protagonists through their evil villains and counterparts. Sometimes the best way to understand a character is to look into their mirrors. What foes and villains confound the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and The Avengers? How do they resemble their opponents? And what lessons can we ‘real’ people learn?
The villains of the FF are all geniuses who exclusively work alone and use their intelligence for evil. Mole Man, The Mad Thinker, Diablo, Annihilus, Red Ghost, Psycho-Man and of course Doctor Doom. These villains shun the use of families or friends, and their minions are either robots, apes, dull-witted super-villains or Moloid drones but never a united team. Those that have been united, such as the Inhumans, have ended up being the FF’s allies. I think the story of the FF is how family changes us. Reed Richards could use his genius intellect to take over the world or at least make billions with his inventions. The Council of Reeds, a collection of Reed Richards’ from other dimensions, all have proved a major threat to their worlds without their family to root them to the side of good. Doctor Doom will never conquer the world, he is doomed the fail, for he shuns the company of family (trying to brainwash his adopted son for instance). However Reed is made stronger by his family backing him up.
The core of Spider-Man has been responsibility, as handed down to him by his Uncle Ben. If you have the power, you have to use it. Unfortunately, plenty of Spider-Man’s foes would disagree, or at the least not use their powers for good. Doctor Octopus, Sandman, Venom, Electro, Molten Man and key foe Green Goblin were all products of accidents, gaining their powers unintentionally or not realising the full cost of their bargains (Scorpion). But these villains are villains because they had a choice, sometimes they do good (Will O’ The Wisp, Sandman) mostly, they shun their responsibility. In life sometimes outside out control we are given options. What we do with those options is entirely ours, however. Life throws stuff at us, but it’s out responsibility to either throw stuff back or run and hide.
At the heart of the Avengers is change, difference and variety. The Avengers have seen through their ranks aliens, mutants, sorcerers, patriots, spies, Gods, scientists, ex-criminals, androids and, most importantly, plenty of ex-villains. Whilst the Justice League can be defined to perhaps 8-12 specific individuals (all of which heavy-hitters in the DC Universe) the Avengers has a core of 3-4 and the rest a rotating line-up of stock characters who would never (and have never) proved interesting solo characters. But Hawkeye, Vision, Wonder Man, Scarlet Witch etc etc have all proved to flourish with a larger cast. And take a look at their enemies, from time-travelling warlords (Kang), evil brothers (Grim Reaper), robots with daddy issues (Ultron), Sons O’ Nazis (Baron Zemo), Asguardian Gods (Loki) and Titans (Thanos). Their teammates have often fought each other, Yellowjacket becoming a threat to the team, Hulk has fought plenty of members over the years. The Thunderbolts, a perfect example of how Avengers villains can swap back-and-forth from villainy to heroism. Things change. Our enemies can become friends, friends can become enemies. Those we know and love may become estranged, those we consider strangers might just become our closest friends.
Supes is the ultimate immigrant. A being from another world. Some from a foreign world with strange customs. Lex Luthor is the big businessman, the politician, the capitalist. Superman as an immigrant is treated as a threat by Luthor, who feels he must crush this ‘difference’ to reclaim control over America and Metropolis and, indeed, the world. Superman keeps his culture to himself, his Kryptonian heritage sitting neatly alongside his Kansas upbringing. Superman is the perfect American, accepting his ‘alien’ background and his role in America, and the perfect example of Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” ideology. A mechanic can offer their skills to America, a Nurse theirs. Superman, being super-strong, invulnerable and able to fly, offers his powers to the cause of Truth, Justice & The American Way. Luthor is the establishment, no ideology, no patriotism, no American-idealism. Just pure control and power wrapped inside legitimate business. The Superman vs. Luthor dynamic is how you offer your skills in service to, or for, your country.
The Hulk is a tricky one, and requires more thought. Batman and The Joker/Two-Face/Riddler dynamic has been looked at plenty of times. The Flash and Green Lantern villains always seem to be common crooks/aliens respectively, with no set ‘theme’, but maybe I need to research more. Feel free to disagree, millions would.