This post contains spoilers for Seasons 3 and 4 of the Walking Dead (and a 50 year-old Marvel comic)
Let’s talk about sympathetic super-villains and ethics.
The likable villain is such an important commodity in modern story-telling. The successful villains all make us wish they were heroes (Darth Vader), or spend time being heroes (Magneto), or are fallen heroes (Sephiroth). We like understanding why they do what they do, sympathizing to a dangerous degree. This heightens the drama for us. Flat villains like silver-screen Dracula are just as uninteresting to us as Superman. This is why we update classics to be more tragic (see: Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula) or repeatedly fail to reinvigorate them (see: endless string of bad Superman adaptations).
Doom is a captivating super-villain for a lot of reasons, but a big one has to do with his backstory motivation. He’s a super-genius who masters magic and technology, reclaims his hereditary kingdom, and wages megaversal warfare all in the name of rescuing his mother from hell. He’ll do anything at all to save her. The entire universe is a storehouse of resources to save mom.
The Governor has a similar motivation. Everything he does with Woodbury is driven by his desire to save his daughter from her zombie-state. The city and its people are raw materials for his experiments to bring her back to life. Later his redemption arc is thwarted by the same desire, now transferred to his proxy daughter Meghan. Even when he’s ready to stop doing the dirty work himself, he only views community as an instrument of his own gain.
The attraction to both is heightened by a shared, frustrating counter-factual: both men would make incredible leaders were it not for this flaw. Doctor Doom really is the greatest mind in the world; his extreme vanity is mostly justified. When the universe falls apart, he holds it together! (In good comic book fashion, that’s not a figure of speech) The only future in which the Marvel universe knows true peace is under Doom’s just-but-sadly-hypothetical rule.
Likewise the Governor really is a fantastic leader. He’s charismatic, knowledgeable, full of resolve. He knows how to run a community! Woodbury could easily be a center of rebuilding civilization but for his mania (this is a standard zombie trope: we are more dangerous to ourselves than the zombies). Instead of bending his considerable skills to building a new world, he keeps the population low and kills off any potential additions that do not obviously serve his individualistic goal. When deprived of his motivation, he goes on insanely self- and community-destructive rampages…twice!
If only! This is the cry that makes Doom and the Governor so fun. They are evil, but they are so close to good, and it’s all for love! Who wouldn’t admire such doomed devotion to a loved one? It’s a cliched shortcut to our emotions, pathos-in-a-bottle. It’s also a dangerous seduction.
Doom and the Governor are guilty of doing some pretty horrible stuff on their respective quests, but it’s easy to overlook the greatest of their sins: the quest itself. Doom’s primary evil isn’t killing superheroes, betraying his allies, or stomping on puppies. The Governor’s primary evil isn’t turning friends against each other, keeping a cadre of rabid guards, or killing innocents looking for help. All of those things fall out of their original sin: subjugating the common good to an individual good.
It’s important to fight this tendency to see what they do as a tragic nobility. Turning the common good of Latveria or Woodbury into raw materials for personal gain–even good personal gain–is a horrendous overthrow of the right ordering of goods. The thing that makes them sympathetic to us–the part we like in spite of all the evil they do–is actually the problem. It’s what most needs to change!
The chief responsibility of the leader of any community is to ensure that each member has their due share of the common good. This is not a matter of counting up the money and dividing it up fairly; the chief good is peace. Not just buildings walls, but actively enabling all the pursuits of goods both universal and individual at each level of society. For the good of Latveria is a real good, not just a fiction of calculating private goods en masse. Woodbury is a real thing with a real, concrete, common good of human flourishing that the many (well, not so many) share together.
What sticks in the craw for us is this idea that the common good is a higher kind of good. We tend to have a very flat notion of goodness, and of course there is pride reorganizing the universe to be a wheel spinning around the axis that is me. But if the common good is not higher, nobler, to be sacrificed for–and sacrifice is hard!–then we end up alongside the Governor. And we all know how good it felt when Michonne ended that story arc.
Turning the universe on its head is not a tragic flaw. It’s the first sin of angels and humans alike.