Apr 09 2009

How to Challenge Superhero Teams with Lone Villains

Superhero teams quite often go up against a lone villain.  Realistically, the Fantastic Four (or your version thereof) should easily be able to squish Doctor Doom (or the lone villain of your choice).

But that would be boring. Here are several ways to make it seem like a lone villain actually has a chance of winning.

1. Use minions.  Technically, this is cheating, but I won’t tell if you don’t.  You can always have your heroes fight your villain, and in between hundreds of nameless, faceless villains get in the way.  The best example of this is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Whilst they battle Shredder about 100 Foot Clan warriors usually jump in.

2. Give your heroes something else to do.  Defuse a bomb, free the hostages, stop the plane from crashing… if there is something else needing done, you can safely split your hero team, making it more plausible for your villain to win.  This also raises the excitement level by bringing in time limits.

3. Make your villain AWESOME.  What do I mean by awesome?  Simple.  Make your villain Neo from the third Matrix film, so ridiculously powerful that hundreds of Agent Smiths are required to do battle with him.  The downside to this is that when your heroes do win, it may look contrived.

4. Give your villain a weakness.  No, don’t be ridiculous, like kryptonite.  The best example of this I can think of is a big robot, totally unstoppable but very heavy.  In water it will sink and the water will get inside and frazzle its innards. The heroes could exploit that by getting the robot onto a bridge and taking the bridge out.  1 or 2 heroes as decoys, 2 or 3 to take out the bridge.

5. Add civilians.  Number 4 is going to be infinitely more exciting when the bridge is full of gridlocked rush hour traffic.  Can the heroes justify killing a few hundred innocents to save millions?  Do they have time to get everyone off the bridge?

6. Life gets in the way.  One of your heroes’ girlfriends is pregnant and in labour, one of your heroes is getting fired from work if he doesn’t go in today, one of…  you get the idea.  You don’t need the entire team to turn up for every battle, and sometimes it can be fun to have your hero sitting through the most humdrum situation ever… doctor’s appointment, parent’s night, job interview… and keep cutting back to the fight.

7. Use your environment.  The villain may have set traps, part of the ground might be unstable, the fight might be inside a burning building – these are all good ways to increase the difficulty for the heroes without increasing the number of villains or making them stupidly powerful.

8. Villains are bad. Seriously, it’s embarrassing how often in fiction villains act like heroes with a different agenda.  Let them lie, cheat and steal.  Let them watch camera-phone videos of the heroes posted on Youtube and work out their weaknesses.  Have a flaming hero?  Well, fire needs heat, fuel and oxygen – take away the oxygen and your hero just became powerless.  Have a superfast hero?  Put oil on the floor.

What do you think? What are some other ways to challenge teams with lone villains?

28 responses so far

28 Responses to “How to Challenge Superhero Teams with Lone Villains”

  1. B. Macon 09 Apr 2010 at 2:12 pm

    Thanks, Scribblar!

  2. scribblaron 09 Apr 2010 at 2:56 pm

    It’s cool. You gave it a better title than I did.

  3. Contra Gloveon 09 Apr 2010 at 3:04 pm

    To me, supervillains worth their salt require mooks; it shows that they have some charisma.

  4. Ragged Boyon 09 Apr 2010 at 9:25 pm

    I’m debating whether to have the final battle between Showtime and Afflictus (My Big Baddy’s new name) be in zero gravity in the debris of Afflictus’ ship just outside of Earth’s orbit. It kinda evens out because Afflictus can’t move and must submit to slowly sink into Earth’s orbit, but Adrian has to fight while moving on shifting debris. I think I could make it cool, but the setup may be extensive. However, I could make it part of the previous issue. I’ll keep brainstorming.

  5. Beccaon 09 Apr 2010 at 9:42 pm

    I like the idea, RB. And Afflictus is a super cool name.

  6. B. Macon 09 Apr 2010 at 11:45 pm

    One thing that comes to mind, as far as scarily competent villains, is that a competent villain will almost always have the initiative and is usually less visible than the heroes. So, for example, the villain might have his plot set up that he will only attack the city as soon as CNN reports the heroes saving Hawaii from a tidal wave or something like that.

    At one point in SN, a particularly paranoid villain sets up a series of bombs so that, if it ever looks like he’s going to be caught, he can trigger a bomb to go off soon. The hero MIGHT be able to disarm it if he goes for it right away. (Or, if the villain is facing many heroes, maybe he sets off enough bombs to split the team and shift the odds in his favor).

  7. A1Writeron 10 Apr 2010 at 1:10 am

    I feel like the shift to villains as “heroes with a different agenda” is an attempt to add complexity to villains. They “humanize” them. Personally, I thought this was inane. I like the idea of moving away from destroy the world sociopaths but I still think they need an uber level of neurosis.

    My favorite villains are actually from Sailor Moon. They are quite dark and complex. They have high ambitions and their emotions like greed and arrogance and even love make them do some twisted things. Even among their own ranks, they live in a dog eat dog world that adds a lot of pressure on them to perform. And unfortunately, they are screwed by the system they serve, because their Queen harbors a bit of a secret, not to mention will kill them if they don’t succeed in their missions.

  8. Contra Gloveon 10 Apr 2010 at 3:51 am

    Number 8 only makes sense when you’re writing Grey and Gray Morality. But then you’re probably not writing a superhero story if you’re going that route.

    That is not to say that superhero stories can’t have such morality; I’m just pointing out that most superhero stories don’t do that.

  9. scribblaron 10 Apr 2010 at 4:30 am

    The point of number 8 is that baddies are evil and heroes good not grey/grey, which is the case in most superhero fiction. I was saying that villains get to be really evil and you shouldn’t write them as just like heroes; sorry if that wasn’t clear.

  10. Lighting Manon 10 Apr 2010 at 11:25 am

    I think in modern fiction that you can’t really pull off the appropriate level of competence with a truly whacked-out antagonist, and even if you could a character that is motivated by and behaves in a manner that is legitimately evil, and not just ruthless is going to come off one dimensional at most. One of the most successful villains of recent times is The Dark Knight’s Joker, and if you take all things into consideration, he was never evil, amoral and apathy is what defined him. He was compelling because he acted in a manner that was apathetic to the core. there was never any genuine malice or hatred in in his actions, and because of that, he was a unique threat, which is what was intended to be illustrated by Alfred’s story about the diamond thief.

    Basic evilness requires being motivated by a basic urge, generally, and when a character is driven by such a thing, it simplifies them as much as it simplifies their motivations. B. Mac’s made at least one, if not a few references to the fact that in the original Spider-Man film, Peter Parker had no interest, part or parcel in the Green Goblin’s schemes against his board of directors, and really had no reason to interfere until he got into a tug of war with Mary Jane. If you ignore all the scenes stolen from Star Wars (“Join me, Peter! We’ll rule the galaxy!”) all that drove the Green Goblin was money, and he was absurdly plain.

    Now, granted he has to contend with the horrors associated with Gene Hackman and half of Kevin Spacey, plus a few bad time periods in comic books, but if you consider Lex Luthor, particularly non-film adaptations, he is driven generally to combat Superman out of a legitimate, and logical fear of aliens, because in the DC universe, for every Martian Manhunter or Superman, you’ve got ten Darkseids, and he is terrified of what Superman represents, given that Superman represents something stronger than Odin, or any god of old, and if he lost control for a single minute, he could wipe out every single life on Earth. People can understand that, and they can empathize with that, but most importantly, it gives him a reason to behave ruthlessly, and it gives his ruthless acts weight, because although the acts can be called evil, if you consider yourself his beliefs, you can see yourself behaving in a similar way. Villains need to be heroes in their own eyes, so that people can understand why they behave how they do, otherwise, you won’t have a character, you’ll have a plot point.

    Of course, just my opinion.

  11. scribblaron 10 Apr 2010 at 3:24 pm

    True. I was basing that last comment on Green Goblin actually. But at the same time I do think you can get away with evil for evil’s sake. What killed the Green Goblin was that we kept seeing things from his point of view. If you look at Emperor Palpatine in the original star wars trilogy he is evil for evil’s sake. But as we’re never really in his head, we can’t in actual fact say for sure.

    I think there can be a lot of fun in portraying characters as wholly evil, and I think there is more mileage in evil with a capital E than most people realize.

  12. Contra Gloveon 10 Apr 2010 at 5:36 pm

    I agree, Scribblar; capital-E evil characters can (and have) worked. Give them a believable reason, but you don’t have to make them likable.

  13. Anonymouson 11 Apr 2010 at 4:07 am

    Make a next post about how redeeming qualities may or may not work in a villain! That’s my suggestion at least.

  14. S.V.T.on 11 Apr 2010 at 10:23 am

    So B. Mac, would it be wrong to have multiple supervillains for the heroes to fight?

  15. B. Macon 11 Apr 2010 at 10:37 am

    No. The choreography will be a bit harder, but many comic books and novels have pulled it off successfully.

  16. Koveon 11 Apr 2010 at 11:21 am

    Look at the Sinister Six for Spider-Man or look at the Reavers or the Acolytes for the X-Men. The fights are never easy and usually involve multiple incarnations of all the issues discussed above. Fear, hatred, prejudice, evil, greed, arrogance, a lot of those and more.

    But the key there is versatility, all of the villains in those teams are remarkably different, but they work together to accomplish a similar goal, albeit for varying reasons.

    On the other hand, using single villains to conquer or challenge your team is far more interesting and sometimes even harder to pull off. You guys mentioned both Lex Luthor and the Joker above, and those are two great examples because neither one of them has any kind of superpowers at all. They used cunning, wits and will alone to accomplish their goals, and Lex Luthor has, on many occasions, single-handedly outsmarted the entire Justice League.

  17. B. Macon 11 Apr 2010 at 11:43 am

    “Lex Luthor has, on many occasions, single-handedly outsmarted the entire Justice League.” Mainly by the power of Heroic Stupidity. 😉

    On the other hand, his campaign manager has to be a balls-to-the-wall genius.

  18. Lighting Manon 11 Apr 2010 at 12:11 pm

    However, a key problem, particularly in general with the Sinister Six is that there comes a time when the writer decides that Spider-Man needs to face all six at once, which is logical, but the Sinister Six are almost always created out of characters that were first villains by their lonesome, and as such, have been shown to be capable of posing a significant threat to Spider-Man by themselves. However, when Spider-Man faces them, he needs to be able to quickly do away with at least half of the team so they can focus him fighting whichever impromptu leader they have at the time, be it Kingpin or Venom or whoever, so he generally takes out characters that have nearly killed him before in two or less, usually less panels. It is a requirement of the setup, particularly of that kind of team, but with a better thought out plan on the part of the villains, you can avoid it.

    If you consider the lead-up to the Knightfall storyline in Batman (in which he had his back broken and let a psychopath take up the game for a bit) during which Bane broke free all of the baddies inside Arkham so when it came time for him to fight Batman, Batman would be physically and psychologically exhausted. That is a much more efficient team-up between villains than the general Sinister Six setup, even if some didn’t know they were helping. If you had your primary antagonist recruit a set of supervillains with their own M.O, factions and connections and then had each of them, separately but working towards a common goal, work to destroy your protagonist, you’d have a lot more formidable force. An example of this would be a Lex Luthor type villain buying the company which employs your hero (if his secret identity is known) and firing them, or a villain that is a doctor or scientist in his private life diagnosing the love interest of the hero with a terminal illness (their identity doesn’t need to be known for this to work, both Lois Lane and Mary Jane are often connected to Superman and Spider-Man by the citizens within their universes) or on a less personal level, simply attacking him one after another, just as occurred to Batman.

  19. B. Macon 11 Apr 2010 at 1:14 pm

    See also the Law of Conservation of Ninjitsu. A large number of antagonists will usually be less competent than a single one. (The same is often true of protagonists, unless The Moral of the Story is that the heroes need to work together to win).

  20. Asayaon 11 Apr 2010 at 2:47 pm

    Y’know, it would be great if this was all summarized together in a post about how to choreograph, or structure, battles in novels and comic-books(especially comic-books).

  21. Daveon 19 Apr 2010 at 1:31 pm

    Another way to approach the problem is to make the single villain strong enough to be a real pain in the ass to contain. Then you can have the henchmen attack while the good guys are busy babysitting the big bad… wham! instant pincer.

    I tried this with some limited success in my story, starting here:


    and ending here:


    It’s rough, but I think it turned out OK.

  22. jay jayon 16 Jul 2013 at 8:18 pm

    Thanks for the help. right now im working on a comic ( well a plan for a comic)
    It’s about a guy named Zak and he is in jail and there is this big flash and when he wakes up, everyone is dead except the warden who is about to die. he then tells him that he (Zak ) did this and Zak doesn’t remember any of it. throughout the whole story ZAk is out in the world seeing others with powers and using them for good some for evil and he is trying to figure out what to use his powers for. good or bad.
    Commentate on what you guys think i should add in the story and/or how can i improve my writting.

  23. Andrewon 03 Feb 2016 at 6:22 am

    I have a total of 9 major villains, added with their henchmen, for my superhero team and I’ve been making that, while are in secret a collective villain team, can be dangerous stand-alone villains in their own right and have both the pyhsical and mental capabilities to pose threats

  24. Andrewon 11 Oct 2016 at 2:30 am

    This is something I’ve been having a problem with. I’m working on stand-alone villains but I have trouble expanding on their plans. I have considered having maybe 2-3 villains with similar agendas teaming up but that makes character development for the heroes hit a snag. Has anyone ever tried developing three hero characters at once? I need some solutions to this dilemma

  25. Nixon 11 Oct 2016 at 3:26 pm

    Check out Marvel Comics original Fantastic Four for use in developing an original team from scratch. It also includes one of comics most iconic bad guys – Doctor Doom.

  26. Sollyon 21 Nov 2016 at 11:19 pm

    My friend created a superhero he said had no weaknesses Matter Man. He can transform into and control all forms of matter. I really want to find a weakness

  27. B. McKenzieon 21 Nov 2016 at 11:26 pm

    “He can transform into and control all forms of matter. I really want to find a weakness.” One relatively well-known example: His villain blew up the city 35 minutes ago. Being able to win every battle isn’t sufficient against an enemy that shies away from open combat.

    Alternately, someone with mental/psychic/magical/supernatural powers or the ability to interfere with his superpowers might be able to take him on directly.

    PS: If this is a cowriting situation, my unsolicited advice would be running away from coauthors as fast as possible, particularly unpublished ones and ESPECIALLY friends.

  28. Sollyon 22 Nov 2016 at 11:42 am


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