A recent Internet conversation led to some thinking about some interesting aspects about serialization. A vast majority of my analysis on characters on a story that can span into multiple years is centered on the hero. The spotlight is focused on this guy/girl with a certain set of skills and weaknesses. The challenge in writing for said character revolves around introducing curious tests that work to individual strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes you can do the same thing but slightly different and it works amazing. Take MacGuyver for example. You know he is going to be in a situation where he needs to use a tool to solve a problem but he doesn’t have it so he has to improvise. Old school detective/lawyer shows were more a matter of how Matlock or whoever would get the bad guy, not if. Superman has a ton of powers and a few crippling weaknesses (kryptonite obviously but magic and lightning work pretty well alongside red sun light) but his challenges turn into a borefest easily of him going really fast and punching stuff. Batman can do the same thing but he rarely gets that kind of criticism. But that’s for heroes, what about villains?
The antagonists have a curious challenge for storytellers, especially when serializing. They should be a threat to the hero but the protagonist can’t fail. Bad guys rarely get straight up victories even as they often times have better resources and less scruples. For example, Spiderman needs to find where Carnage is and make sure he doesn’t maim or killing the man behind the symbiote. Carnage on the other hand can do whatever he wants and just straight up murder everybody. Superman needs to get evidence to prove Lex Luthor is guilty. The owner of LexCorps has plausible deniability, billions of dollars of good publicity, and a small army of lawyers. However, the villains need to be actual threats, an intent which is often undermined by the fact that they always lose at their main objectives. Given enough time, the heroes should beat them easily. Consider Bane, his first appearance is in Knightfall and he straight up breaks Batman’s back after an amazing plan. Years later he can be a cunning tactician, a boisterous bruiser or whatever but the Caped Crusader usually just dodges a few punches and then severs the hose to his steroid serum. Problem solved.
Ultimately the villain becomes boring because they can’t really lose or because they lose all the time. I can’t take Rita Repulsa or other Power Rangers villains when the only threat is a few cardboard empty buildings exploding. Only a few times does something happens that merit a legitimate fear of losing for the heroes and that is usually resolved in five episodes tops. Of course, these villains had distance between them and the heroes and still had an almost infinite supply of Monsters of the Week so the protagonists where left to deal with the symptoms, not the disease of the source of their problems. The space is ultimately what keeps a believability that the heroes can’t just go on the offensive, even if this would violate their personal ethos. If you save the actual confrontation between protagonist and antagonist until the season finale or its equivalent you build some narrative tension which hopefully gets resolved in an interesting way for the readers.
The other thing that happens with villains far too often is that further explanation of backstories leads to potential sympathy. This makes for a complex character but makes it harder to connect with the hero. This particular trope was codified by Rich Burlew with the prequel book for OOTS titled Start of Darkness. He took explicit care to complicate the character of the villainous Xykon without demystifying just how horrible a person/lich he actually is. What ends up happening with a lot of these backstories is that the antagonist needs to actively look back and say “I regret nothing” or do something that effectively eschews their humanity and turns him/her into an often literal monster. See more examples here.
Speaking of backstories, the original idea for this post came from a discussion of the upcoming show FOX show Gotham which serves as an introduction to how the villains and heroes of the eponymous city came to be. Popular villains like Catwoman, Riddler, and Penguin have shown up since the beginning. The notable absence of the most famous Batman villain was recently explained here. The TL;DR version goes as follows: “”every episode in the first season will introduce a character that might be a future Joker, each emphasizing aspects of the character’s iconography, a card sharp, a flower seller, a clown, or just a guy with a very big grin.” What followed was an interesting debate as to whether this was a good or bad idea. This is my final point of the conversation where I defended the choice and speculate way too much.
The problem with writing Joker is pretty much the same issue that comes with any kind of villain for anything serialized: how can they stay a threat for a season or longer while still leaving a level of fear of what could happen. Mr. J is insane and for good reason but even at his best longform story arc (in the 90s cartoon voiced by Mark Hammill for my standards) he was more comic relief than deadly.
In this way we see that much like how anyone could be Batman if given the right circumstances anyone could be the Joker for any myriad of reasons. Bruce’s eventual paranoia gets reflected unto the viewer as anyone could be a villain in the making. Season 1 from what I’ve seen is about the rise of the Penguin to power and how the corruption of the city seems to be siphoned and focused unto these villains. GOrdon and other detective are the forebringers of vigilante justice that both saves and dooms Gotham. The old power dynamics are radically altered as the mob bosses are replaced with the strange and uncanny rogues gallery. Season 1 is about that transition of who reigns over the city. As Bruce channels his emotions into becoming the dark knight we get a glimpse of a potential Joker anywhere. Batman doesn’t turn a regular man into the clown of death, the city does.
Season 2 now becomes a further metamorphosis of how the new supposed light and hope of the city has made its most powerful shadows. As Bruce descends into Darkness Joker comes into the light. He will be erratic and destroy almost at random, which will turn the detectives to realize that no amount of clues or mental gymnastics can predict his next move because he doesn’t know it just yet.
As the Joker said in The Killing Joke, “if I’m to have a past why not make it multiple choice.”