See, the problem with being an evil genius is that by and large, it’s a solitary affair. You don’t have a support network to share the burden. Every evil genius is convinced that they’re the evilest and the genuisest of them all and they don’t want to band together and potentially play second-fiddle to a second-rate pretender to the throne. So they either have to go it alone, in splendid isolation, or surround themselves with henchmen, who, while company of a sort, aren’t what one would call stimulating conversationalists and who tend to stare at you in dull-witted stupor when you’re trying to explain a particularly brilliant, Machiavellian aspect of your scheme. Either option will drive you mad. Either the utter isolation will drive you to bug-eyed chittering or the incomprehensible blankness of your minions will make you want to scream in frustration. One wants ones genius appreciated. And when you’re the villain, it never is. There’s consequences to breaking the social contract.
Superheroes get sidekicks, bright-eyed, bantering tagalongs who help shoulder the weight and will one day take over the mantle and assume the burden of Heroing. Villains get lack-witted flunkies who will probably bring about their master’s demise through utter ineptitude, or just an inability to keep ones mouth shut down at the local pub. “Oh, yeah, Bob, you should clear out by Friday, next. The Boss is planning a real mess that night, for sure.” It’s quite a lot of work to bring a grand, evil plan to fruition when you have no one competent upon whom you can rely. Being a villain is objectively, harder. They are the underdogs. They never have the good PR team. They’re usually hindered by objectionable looks too. They aren’t marketable.
But sometimes, the difference between a hero and a villain is merely in the hype. Sometimes you have to choose to be the villain in someone else’s story, to be the hero in your own. Once, before my rise to Super Villainy, I held a job in the real world. And one day in a meeting for which a colleague had spectacularly failed to prepare, they attempted to throw me to the hyenas in order to get themselves out of a self-sabotaged situation. See, we were each going into this meeting to recommend that each of our departments needed to be removed from a project, for excellent and valid reasons on both sides. And I was in contact with all parties for weeks ahead of time, outlining my proposal, answering questions, allaying fears, addressing concerns, so by the time I presented my proposal and the outcome I was recommending, the Deciders in Charge had already made peace with this being the best course of action and they agreed to the change. Which removed me from any responsibility or oversight of this project. But then my colleague, who had not done any advance work, who had not firmed up the ground ahead of time or built support for the boulder of unpopular opinion they were about to drop, unleashed it and when it went careening wildly out of control, was wildly unprepared to mitigate the damage.
What was needed, in that moment, was for my colleague to say, “This is the reality of the situation, there is nothing I can do to change it. There is a fatal flaw in the design, and my department cannot mitigate more than it has already done. You are going to have to live with it. To continue would be to waste everyone’s time and resources.” What was needed was blunt truth. A hero would have been able to fix the problem, but there was no fixing this problem, so what was needed was for a villain to rise. And let the boulder flatten them. But they didn’t do that, because doing that would mean admitting that they weren’t the hero. They didn’t have a magic spell to solve all problems. They didn’t have the blessing of the gods or plot armor that would get them through unscathed, and looking good. They couldn’t admit they couldn’t fix the problem, because that would be admitting to failure, and the hero doesn’t fail. They didn’t want to be “the bad guy”.
So my colleague couldn’t be the hero of this story and they didn’t have what it takes to rise as a villain; and really those are the only two roles worth playing. Instead, they decided on a different role for themselves, they decided to be the backstabby rat who sells out his squad to the enemy, for the promise of some cheddar. They tried to get me re-assigned to the project so they didn’t have to do the paperwork, which had previously not been their responsibility, but would now fall to them as the new lead. This failed plot resulted in them getting the worst from both sides; because now the Deciders know that my colleague doesn’t want to be there and feels stuck in a job they just tried to squirm out of it; and worse, they blatantly tried to fuck me over and pissed me off despite knowing that we were still going to have to work together on 12 other joint projects. All because they were too cowardly to just be the bearer of bad news.
Because being seen as the villain is the worst (hello bad marketing), they chose instead to be the unctuous weasel who tried to slime their way past the siege lines. Being the villain is not the worst role to play. It’s always better to be the villain than to ooze around as a third-rate background character. Those tend to just kicked to the side whenever a hero or villain walks past. They always get the worst from both sides. The heroes despise them and the villains don’t respect them. At the very least, the villain’s name will be remembered when the stories are told. I don’t remember what that colleague’s name was. But I bet they still remember mine. I bet my villainry on that day is seared into their amygdala. I bet sometimes they think back on that day, and they succumb to the Cringe. And I know that story went around. The stories always do.
When my colleague came to me the next day to apologize for their actions, they candidly confessed they had just panicked in the moment: “I just didn’t want to be seen as the bad guy. I just didn’t want them to think I can’t do my job.”. Because if you admit defeat, you’re the bad guy aren’t you? That’s how the story ends- with the bad guy admitting defeat. Because the good guys don’t quit, the good guys don’t fail, the good guys succeed in the face of impossible odds. They pull the miracle out of the flames at the very last second. But that’s not how life works. Sometimes failure is the only option; but accepting the limits of humanity is not a failure even if other people will see it that way. And lying to people and lying to yourself to justify a perceived failure is never going to make you a success. Everyone can see right through you.
Sometimes, you have to be the bad guy and you have to say the thing that nobody else is going to say, because everyone else is afraid of the repercussions. So people don’t say it straight, and they don’t say it directly, no, they whisper about it in packs behind backs because the consequences of saying it where it will be heard are too great to consider. I’ve often thought what a blessing it is to have real, true friends. The kind of friend who will tell you, “Okay honey, I know you’re trying out the super-villainy thing but you’re eyeballing fifty, go for more of a Cruella aesthetic and less for Poison Ivy, you need a wardrobe that drapes, not clings.” The kind who will tell you when you might want to check yourself, before you wreck yourself. How many bad guys have been brought down, because they had no one to tell them, “Hey, maybe, just maybe, doing this incredibly reckless and dumbass thing you’re planning to do is possibly not the best way of achieving your objectives”? The hamartia of villainry is in its inherent isolation.
If you’re surrounded by nothing but silence or sycophants, then nothing you think or believe will ever be challenged. And if you are never challenged, how can you ever know if what you believe to be true is true. Nothing is real until it’s been tested. When you live in an echo-chamber, it can be really easy to confuse what you believe to be real, with what actually is real. What happens when you’ve got no one around you, forcing you to confront the fact that maybe, just maybe, snapping your fingers and eliminating half the population isn’t the best idea, if for no other reason than you might end up having to make your own food, when you snap away half the restaurant staff in existence. Some really bad decisions could get made, without someone to challenge your premises. And how many bad decisions, does it take, til you’re just a bad guy?