14 Plausible Reasons Why a Super-Villain Would Devise a Death-Trap or Keep a Superhero Captive in Perilous Circumstances Instead of Popping a Cap in His Costumed Ass and Getting the Job Done, Already
1. “Because where’s the fun in just shooting them?”
If there’s one thing that separates a true super-villain from a run-of-the-mill gangster, felon or thug, it’s a sense of style. Finesse. Panache, if you will. Outside of wardrobe choices, this is never more apparent than situations in which the bad guy has a superhero at his mercy. Your average criminal, with only self-preservation as his motive, will waste no time getting rid of the hero in a very permanent fashion… but the true super-villain will balk at an immediate execution, choosing instead to lock the hero in a cell or a convoluted death-trap from which the hero will invariably escape. Given how often the heroes manage to do just that, you have to wonder why these criminal “geniuses” keep going back to the same well (a well filled with cyanide and pirahnas, in case you were wondering). One obvious reason: where’s the fun in just shooting your rival? Death by gunshot is always over so quickly, and you never get to relish your enemy’s final agonizing moments. True, getting a thrill from watching your enemies get slowly lowered into a vat of boiling oil or a cage full of rabid wolverines may mark you as a twisted sadist… but isn’t that kind of the point?
2. “Because we’re running a business here, people — and our business is profit.”
There’s a great Robin/Batgirl story from a few years back in which the two young heroes get captured by the Penguin; after two of his henchmen start bidding for the right to kill them (on the grounds that it would “make” their reputations as gangsters), he immediately sees an opportunity to make some moolah and opens up the bidding to any and all criminals who want in. Naturally, the winner of the auction can’t get to the hideout right away to claim his “prize,” which gives the heroes just enough time to make their escape. (A similar story in the Teen Titans Spotlight series from the ’80s has Nightwing searching for a missing Batman, only to find a roomful of criminals bidding for the right to unmask and execute a bound, but still very much alive, Dark Knight.) Greed overruling common sense is certainly a plausible explanation for a delayed execution — they are criminals, after all — but you’d think someone as smart as the Penguin would at least ensure the heroes were in no shape to get away. Or would a bullet in each kneecap lower the reserve bid?
3. “Because we’re on a timetable and you can’t just rush these things, all right?”
Related to the profit motive is the notion that it’s just not the right time for a hero to expire. Sometimes the villain is waiting for another villain (perhaps someone higher up in the criminal hierarchy) to show up and savor the execution in person. Sometimes the hero’s death is part of some grand prophecy and it has to happen at just the right time for desired events to come true. Sometimes the villain has a few balls in the air and he has to attend to another, more urgent part of his scheme before he can devote his full attention to overseeing the demise of his archenemy. There are all kinds of reasons why the villain might want to delay the hero’s demise, but I think “because we’re on a timetable” is one of the more plausible ones; after all, you don’t achieve super-villain status by giving in to every whim and impulse the moment you feel them.
4. “Because I’m a Curious George kind of guy, that’s why.”
The truly great super-villains are the ones who understand the gig is not just about the wealth and the ladies; it’s also about power. Knowledge being power, it stands to reason that your more intelligent and power-hungry super-villains wouldn’t allow a captive simply to perish without gleaning some valuable data first. The Scarecrow is an obvious example here; the self-styled Master of Fear and former psychology professor is often motivated as much by the pursuit of knowledge as he is by money or power, and his more convoluted death-traps double as psychology experiments designed to test the limits of human endurance (“hmmm, Subject B lasted a full six-point-four minutes before swallowing his tongue….”). Then there’s Dr. Doom, who once hired the colorful hitman known as Arcade to imprison the X-Men in a deadly funhouse, just so he could examine and quantify their powers within a controlled environment. “I do nothing precipitously, Arcade, especially kill,” he says. “I have never met the X-Men before. Their powers are new to me. I wish to examine them — learn their strengths, their weaknesses, how they fight and think.” Spoken like a true scientist.
5. “Because only I could devise such a fiendishly clever trap for my arch-nemesis!”
Think about it. Any fool with a gun can kill someone; heck, you don’t even need the gun if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty. Super-villains, especially those with a flair for the dramatic, tend to be raging egomaniacs who see themselves as miles above the average run-of-the-mill ruffian, so naturally their methods for dispatching troublesome heroes have to be a little more grandiose than your typical drive-by shooting. Think of someone like Syndrome from Pixar’s very fine The Incredibles. Mister Incredible learns that all the missing super-heroes were lured one by one to Syndrome’s island hideaway under the pretense of battling an out-of-control military robot… when in fact Syndrome was executing them with a series of progressively more dangerous robots he designed to help him rid the world of the “supers.” Surely, ego is the main motive for his complicated scheme; as the world’s premier inventor and weapons maker (and a spurned sidekick), he was out to prove he was better than any of the so-called heroes with their inherent super-powers. Ego also goes a long way to explain why, given the ease with which he was able to locate the heroes-in-hiding, he didn’t just show up at their houses unannounced and shoot them in the face because, again, any shnook in a cape can do that. But giant killer robots? Now you’re talking.
6. “Because this victory means nothing if I cannot break my enemy’s will.”
For some villains, the actual death of the hero is just a side effect of their true objective, which is to break the hero’s spirit. Take this scene from an issue of the 1970s Mister Miracle series, one of Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” books that introduced Darkseid and the other New Gods to the world. The ironically named Granny Goodness has strapped three of Mister Miracle’s friends to her “magna-wall,” and it appears to be Miracle’s turn next. (Those who know their New Gods history will tell you that Mister Miracle, also known as Scott Free, was the only cadet to ever escape from the horrors of Granny’s orphanage/boot camp, so she’s always had a bit of a mad-on for his free-spirited ways.) Logically, Granny would have just sent master assassin Kanto to drill Mister Miracle with a nega-rod, or whatever other cockamamie weapon name Kirby could up with, and use Miracle’s death to send a message to her other charges. But life on Apokalips isn’t just about owning other peoples’ bodies; before Miracle expired, Granny was determined to hear him say I am yours, body and soul. On an unrelated note: would anyone else pay to see a live-action New Gods movie if Betty White played Granny Goodness? Or Ed Asner in drag? Just me? All right, then.
7. “Because I want to show the world who has triumphed over their so-called hero.”
In Justice League’s “Secret Society,” Grodd and his Secret Society of Super-Villains manage to do the damn near impossible and defeat the Justice League. Granted, they were helped quite a bit by the League’s sudden bout of mututal distrust and bickering (goaded, but not instigated, by Grodd’s mental powers), but hey — a win’s a win. And so it’s quite understandable that Grodd and friends would pass on the cathartic thrill of an instant execution and instead parade the fallen heroes on national television; after all, what’s the point of committing the ultimate bad-guy act if the beer-chugging masses don’t know who did it? Just ask any of the more bloodthirsty medieval rulers out there: when it comes to instilling fear in your enemies, nothing quite beats a public execution. And with all the heroes safely immobilized inside their inescapable stasis fields, what could possibly go wrong?
8. “Because my boys are getting a little restless and it’s time to show them who’s the real super-villain around here.”
Related to the point above is the need for a villain to show other villains just who is top dog around here. Consider this scenario: you’re a super-villain who finally gets the drop on a hero, but you’re in a dark alley and there are no witnesses to your achievement. Sure, you could just snuff the hero right then and there and drag the corpse back to Villain Headquarters to show off to your teammates and/or henchmen, but (a) your criminal colleagues wouldn’t get to see you humble a supposedly untouchable hero and (b) dude, have you ever tried to drag a dead body around town? The opening issue of Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis is a good example of this motive in action. When a formerly obscure villain named Libra offers a group of villains their hearts’ desire if they pledge to follow him, they’re understandably a little reluctant to sign on. But when one minor super-villain demands the Martian Manhunter’s death in exchange for his loyalty, Libra fetches the shape-shifting hero and stabs him with his flaming staff. If the goal was to just get rid of the Martian Manhunter, Libra could have done that anywhere; instead, he had the hero brought to their location for a very public display of his power. And shockingly, this was one death-trap from which the hero didn’t escape (at least, not until DC’s next sad attempt at a blockbuster crossover event, but that’s another story).
9. “Because a worthy adversary deserves a death befitting his status.”
Two words: Batman #251 (all right, one word and one number, then). In this classic Joker story, in which the Joker is brought back to his homicidal roots after a lengthy run as a criminal prankster, we find the Joker killing off his former henchmen one by one on the grounds that one of them is a stoolie (mind you, the Joker doesn’t particularly care which one is guilty as long as he gets his revenge and some fun, not necessarily in that order). At one point in the story, he knocks Batman unconscious and is ready to pull the trigger, but… “Such a hollow victory!” he thinks to himself. “I’ve always envisioned my winning as a result of my cunning… at the end of a bitter struggle between the Batman and myself!” Shift scene to an aquarium where the Joker offers a revived Batman a choice: either jump handcuffed into a tank with a great white shark or watch an old man in a wheelchair suffer the same fate. Batman being Batman, there’s really no debate here, so he jumps in and takes his chances with the shark. I wouldn’t be spoiling anything by saying he makes it out alive, but why would the Joker time and again offer a sporting chance (however slim) to someone who has frustrated his every criminal move? Simply this: more than any other villain, the Joker sees himself as Batman’s equal, a worthy adversary who deserves more than just a bullet in the head. To the Joker, the people he casually murders mean less than nothing to him, but Batman? That’s a different story, and one that (in the Joker’s mind) can’t end with someone so banal as a gunshot or knife wound. Indeed, he’s often made comments about how Batman’s death deserves the kind of theatrical finale that only he, the Joker, can accomplish (see the classic “The Man Who Killed Batman” from Batman: TAS for another take on that aspect of their relationship), and so it’s hard to see him being satisfied with just a lucky shot.
10. “Because I’m trying to prove a point here, people!”
You wouldn’t think that people dressed in gaudy colors or masks would be inclined to debate the finer points of philosophy, but there is the odd occasion when a villain will opt to subdue instead of kill because he has something he wants to say to his captors and, well, it’s not as if they would accept an engraved invitation to come over for tea and cookies. Again, we return to the Joker, specifically Alan Moore’s Killing Joke; while the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon in cold blood, he kidnaps her father and subjects him to brutal psychological torture just to prove that all it takes is one bad day to turn anyone insane. Despite numerous opportunities on the Joker’s part to rid Gotham of its upstanding Police Commissioner, he doesn’t do so because an instant execution doesn’t jive with the point he’s trying to make. Similarly, he could have had a hundred snipers positioned around the abandoned carnival to take out Batman as soon as he arrives to rescue Gordon, but the Joker instead elects to explain to Batman why he’s doing all of this to an innocent man because someone has to understand, if not necessarily agree… and if not Batman, then who?
11. “Because… look, I got issues, all right? Which you probably guessed from the way I wear my undies outside my form-fitting pants.”
Closely related to the “proving a point” motive is the idea that the villain feels wronged enough by his captives to want their deaths… but not before they learn just how badly they’ve wronged him in some way. Although it happens during one of my not-even-close-to-favorite-eras in X-Men history, there was an incident during the “X-Cutioner’s Song” story arc that nicely illustrates this motive. At one point, the villainous Stryfe manages to capture Scott Summers and Jean Grey and hold them prisoner on the moon (which… um, okay), and in between torture sessions he makes it clear he holds both of them responsible for ruining his life, even though neither had ever met Stryfe prior to their kidnapping. Given how resourceful both mutants have proven to be time and again, what possible motive would Stryfe have for keeping them alive long enough to attempt an escape? Answer: it wasn’t about securing their deaths so much as it was about confronting them about their past sins — or, at least, what he perceived their past sins to be.
12. “Because I’m not a monster, dammit.”
Not every super-villain aspires to be a homicidal maniac; think of the Catwoman or the Riddler, whose motives are material wealth and proving his intellectual superiority, respectively. Sure, in some incarnations they may act a little bloodthirsty, but for the most part they and other similar super-villains recognize their priorities, and they don’t include “kill whomever I feel like killing.” Call it scruples, call it a conscience, call it a calculated effort to avoid serious jail time, call it whatever you want — these are villains who lack the “killer instinct” that would allow someone like Deadshot to eliminate anyone who gets in his way. They may ensnare a hero or put him in a perilous situation, but it’s only to keep the hero busy long enough to allow them to make a hasty retreat.
13. “Because it’s all part of my master plan.”
And sometimes the hero’s death isn’t the villain’s real objective, but the villain wants the hero to think that so that the hero act in a way that helps the villain achieve his ultimate goal. It’s a common enough cliché in the movies; think of the first Star Wars movie where the Millennium Falcon was able to escape from the Death Star in a getaway that Princess Leia thought was too easy… and it turned out she was right, as the Imperial baddies placed a homing device on their ship in the hopes they would lead the Empire right to the Rebel base. Other times, the villain may be counting on the hero’s propensity for escaping from traps to help him in other ways; in the 1990s JLA series, arch-baddie The Key ambushed several members of the team, rendered them unconscious and injected them with a drug that trapped their minds in a dream world. So far, so good — though you may be wondering at this point, “Well, why not just shut off the machines and trap them in a dream world forever? Or hell, why not blow them away while they’re all napping?” Ah, but the Key was counting on them to find a way to escape, as their awakening was how he planned to gather the energy needed to achieve his actual goal. Ask any villain who’s into long-term planning; killing a hero might be psychologically satisfying in the moment, but why waste a good opportunity?
14. “Um, crazy nutty-cuckoo over here? Hello?”
Really, that one should go without saying. You just don’t go and spend good money on trap doors, acid pits and movable walls — not to mention all the other renovations that go with a good death-trap — and not be a little screwy. I mean, the contracting fees alone…