In the first Austin Powers film, Doctor Evil’s demand of one million dollars comes across as hilariously absurd, not only because he doesn’t understand economic inflation, but because we’re all used to super villains acting like idiots. The underrated animated film Despicable Me further illustrates this tendency by having the plot of the movie center on the attempt to steal the Moon. But what about supposedly serious, or at least not intentionally spoofy villains with awful plans? Can we chalk up complications and ridiculousness to insanity? Perhaps. In the case of Khan in The Wrath of Khan or the Joker in pretty much every incarnation, the insanity plea is a good explanation for super villain plans being totally bonkers.
But there are some super villains who actually seem at least a little bit sane, and still somehow manage to enact schemes that are flawed to the point of being silly. Here are five of the most absurd super villain schemes, complete with my advice on what these big baddies should have done instead.
(Spoilers for some stuff below.)
5. Palpatine Foresees… Unnecessary Complications
Though bashing the Star Wars prequels will provide endless entertainment for eons, we can always find solace in the wonderful performances from Ian McDarmind as Palpatine. And yet, Palps has done some awful, awful scheming throughout his entire career. The creation of a fake war in which he controls both sides seems like a reasonable enough way to obtain power at first. But he’s so obvious about it to the point of being sloppy. Palpatine also puts himself at a huge disadvange by keeping up with the Sith Rule of Two. Converting Anakin was, in the end, not that hard, so why not do it with like 12 or 20 Jedi? Palpatine already sort of breaks the Rule of Two by courting both Dooku and Anakin at the same time. Plus, there’s no way Palpatine just randomly met Dooku the second Darth Maul died—he was probably texting with that guy too!
The point is, Palpatine sneaks around too much in order to get what he wants, which creates too many secrets and lies. There are a million things wrong with his manipulation of the Trade Federation, but the biggest problem is loose ends. If he was more up-front with his Evil Empire from the get-go, he could employ a bunch of Dark Jedi and manage the thing like a corporation. He wouldn’t have to de-centralize his power to do this. If he claims he kept it down to the Rule of Two because he was really worried about his cronies ganging up on him well, that actually ended up happening. With one guy.
4. Voldemort’s Convoluted Cup
One of the strengths of the early Harry Potter novels was Rowling’s ability to throw in a massive twist at the end. The kindly Professor Quirrell has a freaky face growing out of the back of his head. Tom Riddle is Voldemort. Harry’s father was friends with this Sirius Black guy who was locked up in Azkaban and the guy is actually Harry’s godfather. And by The Goblet of Fire, we learn in the end that the Goblet Triwizard Cup itself was just a portkey to transport Harry Potter to a creepy graveyard where Voldemort snags some blood in order to be completely reborn.
Again: the entire point of everything Harry does is simply designed to trick him into touching a thing that teleports him somewhere. Is this really the best plan Voldemort could come up with? Why not turn Harry’s toothbrush into a portkey and just teleport him to the creepy graveyard right at the beginning of the book? Also, if he needs Harry’s blood, does he really need to have Harry present? Couldn’t Voldemort get one of his many spies to infiltrate Hogwarts and prick Harry with a pin? Better yet, send Malfoy to punch him in the nose, (which happens all the time anyway) and just get the blood from the resulting bloody nose. This would arouse zero suspicion from the staff at Hogwarts, and get Voldemort the blood he needs to come back to life. Hexing the Goblet of Fire Triwizard Cup seems pretty complicated when all you really needed to do was make Malfoy punch Harry in the face.
3. Goldfinger Misunderstands the Economy
With the aid of a lot of sexy pilots, supervillan Goldfinger plans to gas all the guards around Fort Knox, sneak in, and then set off a nuclear pulse, which will irradiate the main supply of gold in the United States. Called “Operation Grand Slam,” Goldfinger’s plot is one of monopoly; once the gold in Fort Knox is radioactive, it will make his giant supply of gold inherently more valuable, meaning the U.S. and other nations will have to do his bidding. The only problem here is the U.S. wasn’t technically on a strict gold standard in 1964, and by 1969, President Nixon ended it permanently.
This isn’t to say gold didn’t have value or at least partially backed the dollar, just that the U.S. economy wasn’t as reliant upon gold as Goldfinger seemed to think. The U.K., Bond’s country of origin, also vacillated for years after WWII about returning to the gold standard (perhaps they anticipated Goldfinger?) and around the globe alternative monetary systems were being created left and right, the most well-known being the IMF. The point is simple: the United States has never had a problem of going into massive debt in order to get what it wants. So, if Goldfinger had been successful in his plan (which involved gassing a bunch of people!) the American government would have likely sent out every conceivable assassin to kill him, and continued to base their economic exploits on what every western nation is really worried about—oil.
In this way, Bond super villain Elektra King from The World is Not Enough had the right idea: forget the gold; control the oil. Fake ecologist Dominic Greene from The Quantum of Solace was also all about oil, even homaging Goldfinger’s style of execution with the substance. Obviously Goldfinger is a much cooler Bond film than either The World is Not Enough or Quantum of Solace, but in those two, the super villains have their shit together. Goldfinger doesn’t.
2. All of Megatron’s attempts to steal natural resources
In the early episodes of The Transformers most of the conflicts revolve around Megatron’s attempts to get natural resources and convert said resources into Energon Cubes. The Decepticons always seem to be running low on Energon, presumably because their base is underwater, and they waste a lot of power because they’re greedy bad guys. Why the Autobots seem okay on Energon in the early episodes isn’t clear, but I suppose we can infer it has something to do with having their base inside of a volcano. (The conversion of lava to Energon seems likely enough.)
But Megatron is always raiding army bases or digging into the Earth’s crust for oil to get what he wants. Most of his targets are seemingly small potatoes and almost always within DRIVING DISTANCE of the Autobot’s hangout. In later seasons, all of the Transformers would randomly be able to fly, but in the early episodes, only the Decepticons could fly. This is important because Optimus Prime has to use a jetpack in certain episodes, and the introduction of the aerialbots is a big deal. The point is, the Decepticons have the advantage of flight, and the Autobots do not. They could have been flying around the globe, stealing various resources, while the Autobots were stuck dealing with 80s travel agents.
Further, there aren’t very many powerful transforming robots on Earth, putting the Decepticons in a unique bargaining position. What about legitimate negotiations? Megatron doesn’t actually have to fire his giant death ray in order to get what he wants; the simple fact that he and all of his friends have death rays is enough to get most nations talking. The Decepticons biggest mistake: try diplomacy.
1. The League of Shadows Drives a Crazy Train
Though technically extreme vigilantes, Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows get the award for All Time Most Unnecessarily Convoluted, Ridiculously Silly Super Villain Scheme. The climax of Batman Begins essentially boils down to Batman trying to prevent a train getting all the way to Wayne Tower in the center of Gotham City. On the train is a microwave transmitter thingamabob, which will vaporize the crazy looney-serum in the city’s water supply, turning everyone into a maniac. When this happens, the League will sit back as “Gotham tears itself apart.”
Now. This seems pretty silly for a lot of reasons. First, the notion of an entire city suddenly turning into homicidal maniacs and killing each other will look pretty suspicious to any outside entity. The FBI or the NSA or somebody is going to look into that. Which seems contrary to the very concept of the League of Shadows being super clandestine. There is nothing clandestine about unleashing unnaturally occuring crazy-town gas on a bunch of people. Even after Scarecrow declares a few test-subjects insane, people start to get suspicious. A whole city? Furthermore, why not just manufacture a version of the toxin that is already airborne? At least this would take out one complicated part of the plan: the driving of the train with the magic stolen transmitter.
Then, Ra’s al Ghul betrays even more dumbness when he reveals to Bruce that the League of Shadows has destroyed Gotham a few times before. Once with FIRE and another time with an ECONOMIC DEPRESSION. Both of these sound like pretty good plans to me, and it seems like all the ninjas are really good at setting fires. (They burn down Wayne Manor!) Fires happen all the time and are hard to trace, also, cheap to manufacture. Sure, there is no guarantee of permanent success, but this whole drive a train to set off crazy-gas scenario has even more variables than saying “Ninjas! Burn everything you see!”
What do you think readers? I am wrong? Are all of these super baddies actually smart? Who has even WORSE schemes?
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. He is plotting his own destruction right now.