Science Fiction’s Greatest Movie Villains: Psychopathic or Not? (Part One)

Fully 1% of us are psychopaths. Really. And while few psychopaths are the Hannibal Lecter type (or the Emperor Palpatine type, as it were), this group has caused untold misery throughout history.

When I read that scientists were finding differences in the brains of psychopaths versus those of normals, I was fascinated. What if scientists could invent a simple way to diagnose this condition? I thought. Would society be justified in monitoring psychopaths? Even before they’ve committed any crimes? And what if we could cure this condition? While answers to these questions may seem straightforward, the deeper I dug, the more unexpected complexities I found.

So I called up Dr. Mike Koenigs at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, one of the scientists doing research in this area. This guy enters prisons and conducts brain scans on psychopathic murderers and rapists—one on one, in a confined space, with the prisoners totally unrestrained. Are you kidding me! This guy has Hulk-sized cajones!

After this conversation (and three books on the subject later) I wrote the novel The Cure, in which the science of psychopathy takes center stage. And because I’ve been a sci-fi geek since I learned to read, I made sure that big science-fictional themes were an integral part of it.

So in celebration of the release of The Cure, I’ve created a sort of quiz involving some of my all time favorite sci-fi movie villains. You have to decide if they are psychopaths… or just very, very pissed off.

To prepare you for the quiz, I’ve provided a few sentences below on what makes a psychopath… well, a psychopath. To begin with, psychopaths experience emotions only superficially, if at all. They are fearless, narcissistic, and impulsive. But what may define them more than anything is their total lack of conscience. Utterly selfish, they are without mercy, empathy, or remorse. Never embarrassed or self-conscious, they can charm the venom from a snake, and are unsurpassed as con-artists and liars. You can find them in all walks of life: they might be unscrupulous doctors, lawyers, or even politicians. (I’m sure you’re shocked that skilled liars with no shame or conscience could succeed in politics, but you’ll just have to take my word for it.)

Before we begin, a few caveats. My knowledge of these fictional characters is not exhaustive, and my assessments are highly subjective. To really know for sure if someone is a psychopath, an expert would need to conduct an in-depth interview, looking for a history of social deviance, lack of sympathy, and personality and behavioral characteristics described above (but good luck getting Voldemort to sit for that).

Okay then. Enough said. It’s time to test your psychopath-spotting skills:

 

MAGNETO (X-Men 1, 2, and 3)

“In chess, the pawns go first.”

Magneto is a very tough call. The question in my mind is, is he a psychopath? or is he a sociopath? What’s the difference? you ask.

Experts use the word, sociopath, when this condition is due more to upbringing and environment, and psychopath, when it’s more genetic and biological (so in a sense, psychopaths are born, not made). Sociopaths can be brutal killers and still love, and make sacrifices for, their wives and children. Psychopaths have no loyalty or love for anyone. They could abandon their families without a second thought, or even kill them, if it suited their interests.

So back to Magneto. A merciless mass murderer, at first I thought he was clearly a sociopath. After all, he was savagely mistreated during his formative years at the hands of the Nazis. Talk about environments that could potentially drive one toward sociopathy. And he really believes that killing all humans (as Bender might say) is the only way to prevent them from killing all mutants, so in his mind, mass murder is justifiable.

But one scene from X-Men 3 (The Last Stand) turned the tide. In the scene, Mystique gallantly takes a dart aimed for Magneto—which would have erased his mutant powers, but now erases hers instead. She is turned into just an average, naked human (calling a naked Rebecca Romijn-Stamos average may not be entirely accurate, but as a married man, I’m sticking with this adjective). Then, because Mystique is no longer a mutant, Magneto abandons her! After she saved him! Even the cruelest sociopath shows more loyalty than that.

Correct Answer: Psychopath

 

KHAN (Star Trek Into Darkness)

“And after every single person aboard your ship suffocates, I will walk over your cold corpses to recover my people.”

What can be said about Khan Noonien Singh? Brilliant, charming, fearless, ruthless, and a master manipulator. A psychopath if there ever was one, right?

Not so fast. In my view, Khan is the counterpoint to Magneto. He is absolutely the classic psychopath, except for one thing: his fierce loyalty to his crew. One could argue he believes he needs them to further his goal of conquest, but my sense is that his loyalty goes well beyond this. This loyalty makes him merely a ruthless megalomaniac and sociopath.

Actually, loyalty and self-sacrifice are the characteristics that often separate our psychopaths from our heroes. Let’s face it, other than this, our James Bonds and Batmans often exhibit many of the same behaviors as the psychopathic villains they battle: fearlessness, charm, ability to lie and manipulate, and ruthlessness. But our heroes, like James T. Kirk, are usually willing to sacrifice everything for the needs of the one—if that one is Spock, at least—over the needs of the many.

Which brings me to a fascinating finding. Suppose there is a runaway trolley car that will hit and kill five people on the tracks. You’re standing near a manual switch and see that if you switch tracks, the trolley will only kill one person. What do you do? Most people say they would switch tracks, killing one instead of five. But would you still do this if the one person on the other track was your mother? Not so easy this time, is it?

There are a whole host of ethical-dilemma thought-experiments involving this basic scenario that make up a field of ethics called trolleyology (no kidding—I researched this for The Cure). What is interesting is that, while Spock may espouse the view that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, psychopaths have an easier time living this philosophy than do normals. For a psychopath, moral dilemmas like these aren’t really dilemmas at all—they just do the math and follow whatever it dictates. Save two people but lose your mom? No problem. The math is obvious. Because of this, one could argue that in very limited circumstances, a psychopath would make better decisions than a squishy, too-loyal leader like Kirk.

Correct Answer: Not a Psychopath

 

THE JOKER (The Dark Knight)

“Do you want to know why I use a knife? Guns are too quick. You can’t savor […] their last moments”

Yes, he may have had a rough childhood, but come on! Manipulative, able to weave brilliantly realistic tales (why so serious?), ruthless, fearless, and ridiculously impulsive. Shows no mercy or remorse. Amuses himself watching the suffering of others. This character is often incorrectly classified as psychotic. While many people use the term psycho to stand for both psychotic and psychopathic, these conditions are very different. While a psychotic is considered out of touch with reality, a psychopath is chillingly sane. While the Joker seems insane at times, schizophrenic voices in his head aren’t what’s driving him. Like all psychopaths, he’s well aware of the pain and suffering he’s causing. He just doesn’t care.

Correct Answer: Psychopath

So what about Bane, from The Dark Knight Rises? A tough customer to be sure, but a psychopath?—not so much. He’s too loyal to Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter, and willing to sacrifice himself to destroy Gotham. Psychopaths aren’t the type to die for a cause. Terrorists strapping bombs to themselves are unlikely to be psychopathic. Terrorist leaders, on the other hand, who glibly persuade others to do so while they remain safe, are more likely to fall into this category.

 

General Zod (Superman II and Man of Steel)

“The son of Jor-El will be my slave […] forever. Or else, the millions of Earthlings you protect shall pay for your defiance.”

This could go either way, depending on what movie you’re seeing. In Superman II (1980), and in the vast majority of written depictions of Zod, he is a fairly clear psychopath. Cruel to the core. In Man of Steel (2013) he is portrayed as having been a fairly loyal military leader, before disagreements with Krypton’s Ruling Council forced his, admittedly, ruthless hand. But there is one Superman villain for which the evidence of psychopathy is overwhelming: Lex Luthor.

Few fit the bill quite as well as this bald mastermind. Cold and calculating, even during the most stressful situations. A superb liar and con. Smooth as silk when needed. Charming. Self-centered to an impossible degree. And like all psychopaths, never takes blame for anything, and often sees himself as the victim. John Wayne Gacy provides a real world example of this. “I was made an asshole and a scapegoat,” said Gacy, after torturing and murdering thirty-three young boys. “When I look back I see myself more as a victim than a perpetrator.”

Trick Question: Both!

 

HAUSER (Total Recall, 1990)—Douglas Quaid’s real identity

“Howdy, Quaid. If you’re watching this, that means that Kuato is dead, and you led us to him.”

Hauser appears to be the ultimate psychopath, alongside his evil buddy, Cohaagen, the ruler of Mars who casually initiates the suffocation of hundreds of helpless people, including a three breasted woman and a diminutive hooker. Now that is harsh!

But as evil as Hauser is portrayed, he wipes out his own memory and implants the persona of Douglas Quaid into his mind. He may remain a fearless killer, but he’s now a righteous one—with empathy to spare. So if you subscribe to the definition of sociopathy as being about environmental influences rather than biology (or brain physiology), it is clear Hauser must have been a sociopath all along. If he had possessed a psychopathic brain, no matter what memories of a happy childhood were implanted, he would have remained psychopathic.

Correct Answer: Not a Psychopath

 

So that ends the first part of the quiz. How did you do? Since there are really no right and wrong answers here, just my armchair analysis, you actually couldn’t miss any. Be sure to stop back tomorrow for another round!

So what would happen if scientists really did find the cure for psychopathy? Well, on the one hand, we could rid the world of its John Wayne Gacys and Saddam Husseins. But on the other hand, our epic movies wouldn’t be nearly as fun. Hmmmm. Tough call.


Douglas E. Richards, who penned The Cure, is a New York Times bestselling author widely praised for his ability to weave action, suspense, and science into riveting novels that straddle the thriller and science fiction genres. A former biotech executive, Richards earned a master’s degree in molecular biology from the University of Wisconsin, where he genetically engineered mutant viruses that are now named after him.

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