A number of years ago I noticed for the first time that moment in King Lear when Shakespeare, having apparently just noticed Goneril and Regan were a lot more sympathetic than their father King Lear, provided the sisters with what I think of as “Have I mentioned today that I am evil” dialogue to inform the audience that Lear somehow wasn’t the worst person in the play. Similarly, Falcon and the Winter Soldier writers appear to have belatedly noticed that series antagonist Karli Morgenthau and her Flag Smashers followed a cause likely to strike a chord with viewers—thus the out-of-character atrocity Morgenthau commits to ensure that as problematic as the protagonists might be, their opponents are, however implausibly, worse.
One could, of course, make the good guys better from the get-go. However, a third alternative to very bad bad guys and better good guys exists, which is to accept that some antagonists can be surprisingly relatable…sometimes even endearing. This even (perhaps especially) extends to that specific variety of antagonist known as the supervillain. Here are five such, from least villainous to most.
Bad Penny (Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m a Supervillain by Richard Roberts)
Child of superheroes the Audit and Brainy Akk, Penelope “Penny” Akk is a brilliant and talented teen. Additionally, her fugue-state creations are marvels of super-science. Pity she cannot always remember what her inventions do. Despite plans to follow in her parents’ footsteps, mistakes are made and first impressions are poor. As far as the public (and more importantly, the superhero community to which her parents belong) are concerned, Penny and her enhanced friends are Bad Penny, E‑Claire, and Reviled, the city’s newest supervillains.
Penny and her friends’ actions are open to a variety of interpretations. Her maniacal laugh (“HA! AH HA HA HA HA HA HA!”) may also be a PR issue, although I note DC’s the Creeper manages to be accepted as a hero despite a similar chortle. However, in what will be a running theme, she’s the viewpoint character so the reader knows Penny means well and isn’t malicious. If only there was some way to convey that to her parents and their coworkers without being grounded for life.
Rex (The Meister of Decimen City by Brenna Raney)
Rex balances prodigious and wide-ranging genius with equally prodigious and wide-ranging vulnerabilities. For one thing, vast swaths of human behavior are a mystery that her brilliance has yet to unravel. For another, Rex habitually assumes that what she hopes to achieve will be what she gets. She is the poster child for unforeseen consequences, and the reason Decimen City had, for example, a cloned dinosaur problem.
If one measures villainy by the tendency to produce existential threats to the human race, then Rex undoubtedly qualifies. She is personally responsible for at least three such threats. However, her intentions are good, some of her inventions (like the cure for cancer) are globally beneficial…and yet again, she is the protagonist. The reader gets an informed insight into the thought processes leading up to conclusions such as “what this city needs is a small horde of genetically engineered dinosaurs.” It is very easy for a reader to conclude Rex isn’t really a villain so much as a person in dire need of a full-time babysitter.
Anna Tromedlov (Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots)
Simple economic reality forces Anna to work as a temp henchperson for supervillains. Supposed hero Supercollider’s callousness regarding collateral damage lands a badly injured Anna in the hospital. This is why Anna decides to leave the world of hench gigs behind for a management role. Anna will apply her skills at social engineering to send supposed heroes like Supercollider into oblivion…which is to say, she becomes a supervillain.
To be honest, I am not swayed by some of Anna’s anti-hero logic, because it seems to ignore the toll imposed on bystanders by her former bosses. However, she is adept at focusing her efforts on her targets, rather than handwaving away collateral damage as minor externalities. Again, it helps that she is the protagonist.
Cas Russell (Zero Sum Game by S. L. Huang)
Cas lives in a world in which a few people have superficially plausible enhanced abilities. In Cas’ case, that would be the power to do complex calculations at superhuman speed and use those calculations to solve real-world problems. Hence she is a superlative gymnast, can evade gunfire and assailants, and almost never misses when she attacks. Proof: the trail of dead bodies she has left in her wake.
Cas accepts dubious assignments from bad people and is quite nonchalant about murdering people. The main reason she isn’t labeled a supervillain is because very few people know that such enhanced beings exist at all, let alone know enough to label them. Moreover, Cas keeps a low profile.
If confronted and taxed with her actions, Cas would argue that she is merely being pragmatic. The narrative makes it clear that what she is, fundamentally, is broken. Cas does belatedly resolve to be a better person, a significant point in her favor. Good thing for Cas that there are so many ways in which she can improve. Success is almost ensured!
Dr. Impossible (Soon I Will Be Invincible) by Austin Grossman
It cannot be denied that Soon I Will Be Invincible’s Dr. Impossible is a vexing person with whom to share a planet. His determination to conquer Earth leads to a variety of ingenious schemes, each as disruptive as they are doomed to failure. When circumstances provide him with escape from the latest prison in which he has been penned, he immediately sets out to reprise the essential error that always lands him back in the hoosegow: the attempt to prove that he is the best by crushing all before him.
Grossman’s character has three factors working in his favor.
1) Impossible has what seems to be a recognized medical condition driving his compulsive behavior: malign hypercognition syndrome. What he doesn’t seem to have found is any sort of effective treatment for it.
2) He does avoid hurting bystanders directly.
3) Finally, he is one of the two viewpoint characters. Thus, events are presented from his unique perspective. Once again we see that being the person who tells the story is very handy when it comes to PR.
These are only a few of the sympathetic villains I could have named. No doubt many of you have favorites overlooked above. Feel free to advocate for them in comments, which are, as ever, below.
In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, four-time Hugo finalist, prolific book reviewer, and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Interzone, Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021, 2022, and 2023 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). His Patreon can be found here.