Like the hero's journey, supervillain plots are generally confined to a small circle of ideas that just get rehashed when there's a deadline coming up and the bad guy needs a scheme to go along with his motivation. ‘Wasn’t hugged enough as a child’ can only work for so long.
Money, world domination, nuclear war or just a shot at killing the protagonist they so despise...villains will try anything, probably twice, to get what they want. And they always lose, because that's what bad guys do. It’s the never-ending cycle that can never be broken, outside of prequels and extra-edgy fan-fiction.
With props for trying, here are 15 supervillain plots that never, ever work, but just keep cropping up anyway. As with all dangerously broad concepts…sure, there are exceptions. But when the success rate of some of these sits at about one win for every 200 catastrophic failures, it probably still fits.
15 Starting a War
Ah, there's so many great reasons for a villain to start a war. The eradication of a country they really don’t like, a sense of nihilism that sees them attempting to turn everything to ashes, or maybe they just made a few sneaky investments in the sniper rifle industry and are looking forward to the glorious profits. The ‘start a war’ plot is usually one of these, with the goal of making loads of cash or simply nuking the entire world because their dog died and that led them to the conclusion that life is meaningless.
Unlike a few other supervillain plots, this one is pretty much dead in the water from the get-go. This might be because the hero in these scenarios is usually a highly-idealized action hero type who can’t be shown failing, but it’s perhaps more to do with the grandness of the scale. There’s no second phase of this evil plot; failure means the deaths of millions, if not billions, so it pretty much has to be thwarted. The last-minute save trope definitely comes into play here, as our intrepid underdog is forced to disarm the missiles. It’s pretty much always missiles, by the way. Bad guys just love them some rocket-boosted explosions.
Cue the opposing generals mopping their brows.
14 Summoning a Demonic Being
Here's the thing: life as a supervillain is lonely. Most of the time you’re stuck working alone, with the only exceptions being your incompetent assistants who struggle to find two brain cells together or teaming up with another villain. More on that later, but expect constant bickering followed by humiliating failure. And then on their nights off, villains can only hang around their gargantuan lairs tinkering with weapons and wishing they’d gone for that marine biology course.
So why not rustle up some company? Not with a Facebook event, mind you; nope, something a bit more magical (though sometimes it's just a big outer-space demonic type). It’s a well-trodden route for supervillains, but summoning some kind of ethereal monster seems to be a pretty common thread. Either this demon was imprisoned many years ago and needs the sacred *insert McGuffin* to free him from his torment, or perhaps it’s just your garden variety demonic overlord chilling in his flame dimension until the dinner bell is rung and he adds Earth to tonight’s menu. There are a few variations on the theme, though they generally have the villain attempting to summon or resurrect a being of great and terrible power because of a wacky belief system, or just because they were feeling vindictive on that particular day.
The main problem here is that the chances of the villain staying alive once they drag the demon into our world are generally squat. Demons and other such massive beings just betray people, because they value humanity about as much as humanity views earworms, and our whole species is occupying a planet that could be so much more on fire and liberally sprinkled with corpses for their liking.
And who’s the first to die? The summoner, to properly show that the summoned creature doesn't put much of a value on gratitude. Thanks for the resurrect! Thre's just enough time to eat you before being stomped right back to my hellish dimension and sealed away for another thousand years or so.
13 Exploiting an Innocent Child with Amazing Powers
People will always have a soft spot for children, especially if those children happen to surrounded by serious people in suits and constantly jabbed with needles for the purposes of mad science.
Maybe it’s purely to score some sympathy points with the audience, but if there’s some kind of evil government installation housing a near-mute person with amazing powers, they’ll probably be a child. Or at least extremely childlike; think River Tam from Firefly, with her massive puppy dog eyes and missing bits of brain that really don’t endear you to her captors.
The problem with this plan is that the test subject always escapes. They have sensational abilities; that’s the whole reason they’re there in the first place. And yet somehow, nobody gets that these powers could be used to escape the drab, lifeless hell in which they’re imprisoned and discover the outside world, as well as a plucky group of outcasts who’ll help them take down the evil organization. Mixed in with all this is a good dose of artificial stupidity, seen blatantly in Stranger Things. Everyone who works for the lab knows that Eleven can smush brains and snap necks, but it’s somehow always a surprise when she uses those abilities in self-defense.
But no, just keep rushing your immensely powerful and possibly vengeful test subject child with a bunch of guys in suits with handguns. See how that one goes for you.
12 Evil Science Gas
We’ve mostly migrated away from death rays and moon bases in recent cinema, though we also seem to have fallen into yet another rut that people will lampoon in coming years: blue beams and science gas. Most comic book movies seem contractually obligated to showcase a big blue beam shooting into the sky at some point, as if it’ll finally have that wow factor the eighteenth time we see it. As for the evil toxin, that one’s been around for quite a bit longer.
The basic plan: villain brews up some gas/toxin that will either transform people into *insert monstrosity* or kill them in some gruesome way. The hero must stop monstrosity gas from turning people into monsters in a dramatic climax atop a *insert very high building*.
It might make a climax that’s a little bit different to your average ‘blow it up with nukes’ scenario, but the monstrosity scenario is doomed to complete failure for one simple reason: the status quo. The Amazing Spider-Man was never going to bear the subtitle City of Lizard People Trying to Adapt to Their New Lifestyles, because the Lizard’s plan to mutate everyone else into giant lizards was just too absurd to ever carry through. Thinks of the makeup. Think of the CG!
Meanwhile, we’ve got the Shredder trying a similar scheme in TMNT, except this time it’s more of a straight virus that he and Sachs hope will cause people to give them all their money. This highlights an even bigger problem, and it’s that the stakes are way too high for the heroes to fail. Once that toxin is released, that’s it: there's no putting it back in the bottle. It’d be far too implausible for Bat-Bale to make antidotes for Scarecrow’s fear toxin for everyone in Gotham city, so the plot has to be stopped before it can be carried out.
11 Copying the Hero's Powers
Only the most famous of copycat villains stick around for long, and those are the ones able to escape the shadow of their corresponding hero. Reverse-Flash is Flash’s perfect antithesis with an interesting origin. Red Hulk is, in the end, a guy trying to do right by his country and taking it a tad too far. Bizarro is just bizarre.
But as the MCU has shown us on multiple occasions, simply copy-pasting the protagonist’s powers and making them slightly more evil just won’t cut it. The reason: it turns the hero into the perfect underdog, the virtuous yin struggling against a more powerful yang. It also helps that the yang is usually cheating somehow.
Ant-Man had Yellowjacket, with the same powers as Scott Lang but with the addition of lasers. Naturally, the plucky everyman was the ultimate victor. Iron Man had Obadiah Stone making his own, bulkier, more intimidating suit with greater destructive power. Cue him underestimating the more nimble Iron Man (and Pepper Potts) and getting himself vaporized. Venom is seemingly Spider-Man’s superior in every way, but it’s Spidey’s ingenuity that lets him keep coming out on top, and the same goes for most of those other mirror villains; with greater power comes a great responsibility to have the tar beaten out of you by someone supposedly weaker.
A villain with flashier, more impressive equipment is just setting themselves up for failure, because it becomes all the more satisfying when the courageous protagonist finally takes them down. What makes it especially satisfying is that they’re both using the same types of equipment and powers. Our hero just uses them better.
10 Erasing the Hero from History
Time-travel may cause a lot more story problems than it solves, but most viewers are willing to let a few paradoxes be swept under the rug for the sake of seeing everyone wearing bell-bottoms and gold chains.
This one crops up on TV, in movies, pretty much anywhere the setting will allow for time-travel, and where a villain is so diabolical that erasing a person from history becomes a viable solution to all their problems. Inevitably, the hero will gain access to time-travel as well, heading into the past to protect their mother/grandfather/ancestor/the dinosaurs. Wacky adventures with flared jeans and old-fashioned racism ensue and everyone has a good old time, because did you seriously think the villain was going to succeed in this one?
Killing a hero isn’t impossible, especially in a setting where they can be brought back. Erasing them from history, including everyone’s memories? That’s never going to fly unless the entire show is based around time-travel, with the most wibbly-wobbly of rules that allow for the reversal of such things. Once again, this is just one of those things that can’t result in success due to how hard it would be to reset the status quo. That’s one entire person, possibly the main character, completely vanished from everyone’s minds to the point where they won’t even think about bringing them back, because they never existed. Meanwhile, the villain is probably free to walk all over the remaining protagonists and fulfill their dastardly schemes. That might fly when preventing a bad future, but when it comes to the past, it would take a special brand of writing to pull it off. Or just some unbelievable coincidences.
9 Turning into a Giant Reptile
One of the more simple entries on the Evil Overlord Checklist, this one happens with a regularity that makes us think villains need to spend more time researching their evil plans on the internet. On the surface it’s a no-brainer -- snakes are scary. Snakes the size of a small pony are ever scarier, and any snake larger than your average bus just isn’t good for anyone’s health. On a related note are dragons or other snake-like creatures with fangs and a general aura that makes you want run away real fast.
However, as we’ve already stated, bigger is not better. A villain making themselves larger and less-human against a plucky human protagonist may as well have just signed their own death warrant, because they’re free to have their heads lopped off without the parents thinking it too traumatic for the kiddies. In fact, it’s just overall far easier to show the death of a giant snake/dragon/lizard, because they’re inherently scary and we don’t really mind all that much seeing their heads rolling on the floor.
Overall, the snake transformation doesn’t make a huge amount of sense anyway. Snakes are avoided because of their relatively small size, making them harder to defend against when they’re doing their best to introduce you to a venom cocktail. They don’t bludgeon people to death, which is why a gigantic version just isn’t a practical decision. Going full Maleficent and turning into a dragon would be a step up, if the valiant hero slaying a dragon wasn’t one of the oldest and most irreversible tropes in the book. Here’s a tip to all the Jafars, Maleficents and Narnian witches out there: you have magical powers. Use them for something that isn’t turning yourself into a massive target that the righteous do-gooders will have no trouble murdering.
8 Destroying the Team/Hero from the Inside
That Zemo, eh? No super powers, no mech suit, no alien armada, and he managed to wreck the most powerful team in history, turning them on each other and causing them to crumble from the inside.
For about a day.
The shippers just couldn’t stand it if Cap and Iron Man finished Civil War still mad at each other, so they all but made up before the end credits. The same goes for most individuals or teams subject to such a scheme, for the simple reason that the only thing better than character drama is the resolution of that drama.
It keeps you on the edge of your seat to see The Avengers fighting each other, but no one wants them to actually stay that way. It’ll just make their reunion all the more satisfying, presumably in Infinity War. In fact, Ultron tried the exact same thing in his own movie. Guess how THAT turned out.
Lex Luthor did his best to have Batman and Superman violently murder each other, but that was purely to set up the payoff for them becoming the bestest of buddies. The Emperor tries to tempt Luke with the Dark Side (more on that later), which underscored his choice to resist and choose the light. Villains cannot succeed because they’re just following a blueprint at this stage, going through motions that will cause us to revel in how the hero overcomes his trials. They may succeed in breaking up a team end the end of, say, a TV season, but that’s as good as it gets. And guess what happens in the next season premiere. Go on, guess.
7 Teaming Up with Another Villain
The only thing better than one villain trying to destroy a hero is two of them working together. Right? No?
Nope. It makes for a good story when two villains join forces to eliminate their pesky nemesis once and for all, for sure. It’s a chance to see two (or more) iconic evildoers bouncing off each other, which works just great if they happen to have very different personalities and methods. It’s always fun to watch the more measured Lex Luthor trying to work alongside the Joker, who spends most of the time driving his partner nuts. Power Rangers has made a habit of its crossover episodes bringing villains together, at which time they’ll be bickering from the get-go.
Too bad that two villains are never better than one. The partnership will work when there’s the element of surprise, but they'll inevitably crumble under the weight of villainous neuroses. There’s a good reason the Sinister Six have a worse win-rate than a blind Call of Duty player missing both of their thumbs, and it’s because the amount of evil in one place will always reach critical mass and implode (with Spider-Man’s quips driving everyone over the edge). Also, multiple villains often means multiple heroes, which evens the playing field and pretty much just brings everyone back to where they started. And ‘where they started’ means the good guys stomping the bad guys, every time. Makes you wonder why they go through the trouble of teaming up at all.
6 Grow Your Own Super-Soldiers
So you want an army? Why not grow one? All you need is a perfect genetic specimen, an underground lab complete with rows of human-sized tanks and some computers displaying ominous walls of text. You’ll be growing an army of super-clones in no time. Don’t count on them ever actually waking up or being useful, however, and if they do, there will always be a flaw of some kind.
There are some double standard going on here, since the good guys use super soldiers as well and it generally works out just fine. The difference: quality versus quantity. Heroes have such figures as Captain America and Olivia Dunham (Fringe), who are either one-man-armies or former test subjects who went a bit wrong, i.e. they now fight against the ones who created them. Villains are more likely to go the wholesale route, creating mindless legions who blindly follow orders, feel no emotions and can thus be mowed down en masse by the protagonists without any real ramifications.
Even when villains tone down their experiments to only a few subjects, perhaps even one, the results are disastrous. Turns out that nigh-unstoppable superweapons eventually reach a point where they wonder why they’re taking orders, either after an epiphany or straight after they were born. Sephiroth didn’t burn a town to the ground and try to annihilate the planet because he was bored. Mewtwo didn’t murder his creators and try to eradicate humanity because he was feeling smothered by love. The lesson here: if you genetically manufacture a living superweapon, maybe give it a hug every now and then. Show them you care.
5 Convert the Hero to the Side of EVIL
Flipping back to the start of the trope book, we have the temptation of the hero to switch over to the side of evil. This is Bible-level basic stuff, and while it might have worked there, that was about as successful as it ever got.
We can understand the villain wanting the hero to join their crusade, given that said hero is usually skilled, powerful or just brimming with potential. In a well-written story, we may even start questioning whether the villain is truly evil, and if the hero can do some good by signing up to the winning side.
It’s not gonna happen, though. It might for a little while -- the Expanded Universe/Legends actually has Luke becoming the Emperor’s apprentice for a brief stint -- but you just know we’re not making it to the credits with that arrangement still intact. Maybe the hero joined to get closer to the villain and kill them up close (this never works either). Perhaps they were briefly swayed to another way of thinking, but this was all just build-up for their dramatic epiphany that the evil villain IS evil, and maybe they should stop hanging out.
Or maybe we’re just getting the old chestnut of “I’ll NEVER join you!”
This is again a solid slice of storytelling that’s almost never subverted, because it lets us see our struggling protagonist show their moral courage, pledging to fight on in the face of adversity even when offered a way out. It’s an old one, but we still appreciate seeing it.
4 Genocide (if it involves people we like)
So yeah, wholesale slaughtering of the innocents. This is where we step up from card-carrying villainy to a bad guy whose schemes have to be stopped at all costs, because the alternative is the eradication of everything.
Well, the scheme has to be stopped before it kills anyone of note, anyway. This is common in sci-fi and comic books, because they have entire cities and planet that can act as cannon fodder to show how dang-nasty evil the bad guy is. The Empire blew up Alderaan? Those fiends! The First Order blew up an entire star system? Even worse fiends! Bludhaven was destroyed by a chemical attack? Oh…oh no. Not…that place?
There’s a bizarre drop-off in viewer investment when it comes to a place we’ve never seen before being destroyed. Sure, the First Order were established as pretty terrible when they destroyed the Hosnian System, but nobody we knew or liked was there. Same with Alderaan. But the system containing the Rebel Base? Totally safe both times, because main characters happened to be there.
So the villain might just get their genocide, but it has to be the slaughter of innocents either off-camera or without names. Jean Grey possessed by the Phoenix may have eaten a sun and doomed a planet, but it was full of weird alien people and thus became a footnote. Don’t think she’d ever even get close to doing the same thing to Earth.
Note: This can sometimes work...if it happens before the story, or at least at the very start.
3 A Massively-Destructive Superweapon
While we’re on the subject of big, scary superweapons, they’re often the ones carrying out the aforementioned genocide. Nothing shows the power of an evil organization quite like a really big intimidating thing, preferably one that fires lasers. The Death Star has become synonymous with the planet-destroying superweapon, but there have been plenty of them floating around that galaxy far, far away since then, and all of them share the same traits: big ship, phenomenal destructive power, one glaring weakness, destroyed by daring Rebel offensive before it can actually do anything of consequence or kill any main characters.
Star Wars doesn’t have the monopoly on the superweapon, however, and neither are they the only ones to have said superweapon destroyed in such a consistent manner. Such a weapon with no weaknesses would break the story, so there’s always a vulnerability to be handily exploited. Nine times out of ten, this involved infiltrating the weapon and destroying it from the inside. Legend of Korra has the gang slip inside the platinum colossus and overload the reactor (always a popular option). Doctor Who has the Dalek Crucible blown up by twiddling a few console buttons. The heroes typically can’t rely on force, so (you guessed it!) they use their plucky, underdog spirit and intelligence to bring it down instead. And they have the full support of the viewers as well, because bad guys just have to give their superweapons unnecessarily evil-sounding names. Is anyone working aboard something called the Death Star really not reconsidering their line of work?
2 Seeking the Ancient MacGuffin
As Indiana Jones can attest, the bad guys stand a pretty good chance of getting their hands on this one. Whether it’s some big-name ancient artifact that’ll give you magical powers, or a plain old MacGuffin with a shiny exterior that’ll grant untold wealth, this is one villainous scheme that just has better odds of succeeding.
Well, sort of. For a few moments. Three out of four Indiana Jones movies follow this one to the letter, with our intrepid hero being pretty much powerless to stop the bad guys from getting what they want. Too bad ‘what they want’ ends up killing them horribly! Yep, there’s also a good chance that the fabled MacGuffin of Great Plot Relevance isn’t meant for human consumption, with side effects including face melting, incineration or just general exploding from the inside. If the villain isn’t killed outright by whatever they’ve found, then it won’t be what they were expecting. Perhaps they read the ancient text wrong, were misled by the protagonist or were simply blinded by their arrogance into thinking they were getting something super valuable when the real treasure was the journey, or knowledge, or an ultra-powerful magic wand with some really stupid rules governing who gets to use it.
Or maybe they’re not ‘worthy’, which here generally means ‘extremely resourceful, powerful and intelligent, but a bit on the evil side’. Phenomenally powerful ancient artifacts apparently have the dog-like ability to detect the bad guys, conveniently malfunctioning unless used by someone pure of heart, or at least someone really good-looking and/or likable.
1 Dastardly Corporate-Type Buys Everything
This one will fail for a simple, overarching reason: it mostly shows up in shows and movies aimed at kids. Look elsewhere for your sad endings, because you won’t be finding them here.
The main baddie will show up as a greedy corporate type, comically obsessed with money and willing to stomp over as many sweet elderly folks as they have to in order to get more of it. What, a quaint little town is standing in the way of building a gigantic shopping mall? Hanna Montana is on the case to stop this awful scheme, for some reason! You know malls bring economic growth and can be extremely beneficial to the community, right? You know the rich guy owns the land and can do whatever the heck he wants with it, right? You do? Cool, let’s just put a stop to it anyway, because he’s a rich corporate type in a thing aimed at kids and is basically Hitler Junior.
Sometimes there’s no real altruistic endgame and the rich guy is just bulldozing homes to be a douche, or occasionally to dig up hidden treasure. If you thought the underdog trope secured victory for an adult protagonist, just wait til you see what it can do do a group of quirky, relatable kids. A sleazy rich guy is the perfect adversary, because children don’t tend to have loads of money or power, and the bad guy here has tons of both. The more lawyers, flash cars, personal assistants and quasi-legal attack dogs the rich person has, the more humiliated they’ll be when the townsfolk are rallied and they’re driven out while being pelted with rotten fruit. Yeah, that’ll teach you to promote economic growth, you dirty grown up.
Know any other villain plots doomed to failure? Let us know in the comments!