A Supervillain Scheme Schematic   Leave a comment

I learn a lot about speculative storytelling by playing video games, specifically video games that involve superheroes. I wish there was a more grandiose or refined thing that I could tell you about, but the grandiose and refined things that teach me about writing are generally few, far between, and less interesting. Anyway, two of my biggest teaching moments from these games came from the Lambda Sector Trial in City of Heroes about two years ago, and another one happened just the other night while I was playing DC Universe Online. I won’t tell you about the Lambda Sector’s lesson… it’s a dull lesson, and one that should be obvious to anyone, and how obvious it is would remove its grand significance to people who aren’t me and/or anyone familiar with the story of that trial (you basically show up, cause some damage, and then Marauder shows up, drinking a serum that makes him stronger and tougher.) Instead, I’ll tell you about the secret I learned the other night (and, naturally, this means that SPOILERS are lurking below). The secret is something that I like to call The Supervillain Scheme Extrapolation.

Wow, that’s a horrible name. I hope I come up with a better one by the end of the blog post. The title of this post isn’t giving me much hope, though, since that gets written after the article usually.

Anyway, I’d been stuck in DCUO for a couple days because my character, Boy Beta, was working on a mission that was glitched out to the point of unplayability. Mr. Freeze had trusted me, and my mentor, The Joker, was having me take advantage of Freeze’s gullible nature. So I showed up, walked through the mission, and spoke to Mr. Freeze. And suddenly, Mr. Freeze went from an opera villain to a super villain.

Opera villain is a weird term here, what with me making it up on the spot. What I mean by that is that his motivations in most stories (ever since the Batman Animated series of the early nineties, anyway) has been driven by the love of his cryogenically frozen wife. Sure, other stories have shown him as one who seeks revenge against those who have wronged him, sometimes he’s a mercenary for hire motivated purely for money… but most of his memorable stories revolve around him stealing something (a power source, weapon, piece of technology or tidbit of classified information usually) that can be used to further his quest to saving his wife from her cryogenic state. Her disease needs a cure, otherwise Mr. Freeze loses a lot of his motivation for villainy. Compared to most of Batman’s rogues, Mr. Freeze isn’t crazy; he’s driven. His deep emotions (made all the more intense by the computer-synthesized reverberations of everything he says from within his suit) drive him to do things in the name of love that even some of the insane villains wouldn’t try. This aspect of his character is the kind of emotionally charged plot point that I associate with the plots of operas, which is why I use the term opera villain there.

With that tangent over, it’s time to focus on DCU Online’s unique universe. It’s not the DCU from the comics, nor is it the DC Animated Universe, nor is it the world of the Arkham video games. It’s its own world, one that borrows a lot of the bits and pieces of story from the decades that DC has been around. You fight the gritty forces of Intergang’s advocates of the Crime Bible, but you also carry bombs for rapid disposal like Adam West. And it all fits together in a weird way. This leads to some disparities between the characters, though. Batman, for instance, has been given gadgetry and gizmos that might be more appropriate in a Superman story; when I joined The Joker to fight Batman, he was able to trap Joker in a force field of all things. Joker, meanwhile, is an arms dealer who trades Apokoliptian weaponry amid his dealings with the Falcones. In DCU Online, the Gothamites have been forced to step up their game.

Mr. Freeze has done this. He’s still basically a guy in a suit of armor with a freeze ray, of course, but his plan is bigger than I’ve seen in most comics that I’ve read. Rather than finding a total cure for his wife, Nora, he’s willing to accept a partial cure. A partial cure will be easier, after all. Instead of totally curing Nora, he’s planning on completely freezing Gotham to make it habitable for her (and, presumably, himself) without the use of any cryogenic chambers or freeze suits.

The significance of this is probably lost on people. I say “He’s going to freeze Gotham!” and most will say “Yeah, he’s Mr. Freeze, that’s what he does.” If I say “But see, he’s doing it for Nora!” then most will say “Of course, EVERYTHING he does is for Nora.” It’s possible that I won’t be able to explain what it is that I see outside of that, but I’m going to try.

It occurs to me that there’s a formula here, a formula that can turn a well-written opera villain into a super villain. This is desirable because usually when you start with the super villain you can wind up with a silly story (which isn’t bad in and of itself, but sometimes you want something more serious.) The formula could, if successful, create appropriately grandiose schemes for the tragically well-written character who normally avoid them.

The formula is simple: take the villain’s motivation, take the villain’s power, and start looking for where they intersect. Mr. Freeze’s motivation is well established as trying to save his wife, Nora. His power might be better stated as “that which he uses to commit evil deeds,” and we can safely say that his power is freezing things. This likely still falls in the “Well, d’uh” category for most people, but bear with me.

When looking for the point where they intersect, it’s imperative that we do not allow for a step two. The plan can’t be “Step 1: Freeze people or things. Step 2: ??? Step 3: Save Nora.” Instead, just focus on a single step. This step is going to be the place where step 1 goes directly to step 3, or more appropriately where step 1 and step 3 merge into a single step. DCU Online did this, making it “Freeze Gotham City so that Nora will be saved.” The details fall nicely into place for this example thanks to Nora’s well established history. We assume that Nora won’t just be saved in part due to the freezing of Gotham City, we have to assume that this is a crucial step. Something about the freezing process is essential to her living. This easily leads to the decision that Freeze is capable of partially curing his wife, and getting her into a state where she might be able to live happily as long as her environment is frozen. Mr. Freeze isn’t developing Freeze Ray technology as a handy way to rob banks to get more funding; he’s developing Freeze Ray technology as a medical breakthrough. Any bank robberies that might come as an after effect of this are just convenient extra steps.

Now, having an interesting super villain scheme doesn’t necessarily make for a good story. Most Poison Ivy stories, for instance, follow this pattern, both the good ones and the bad ones. But it does give it an edge that a lot of superhero stories require. It wouldn’t be for everyone, but I think a writer stuck for villainous motivation might be able to use this pattern to create a fun and memorable story structure in a pinch. I could be wrong, of course… but that’s something that I’ll need to try for myself to see.

 

Afterward: I know that there was a DC Animated movie quite some time ago called Batman: Sub-Zero or something like that. From what little I remember of the trailers, it certainly looked like Freeze was freezing everything around him. I don’t really know what the plot of this film was, but it’s quite possible that this tiny plot that I’m finding so unique is actually from that film. If so, sorry for rambling on about it.

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