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Heroes and Villains

February 19, 2009

ResearchBlogging.orgsouthernfriedsquareI finally got the chance to watch Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog last week. After watching and enjoying, I started thinking about something. We have our heroes, the stalwart defenders of whatever, mostly absolute in their righteousness; often torn by by their duties, their beliefs, their past; sometimes high and noble, sometimes darker and more base; but almost always connected in some primal way to our own sense of self. We love our hero’s because we see some of who we could be in them.

But then there are the villains. Sometimes twisted by a painful life, torn by lost loves, driven by revenge, and corrupted by power. Often they are deeper, more complex than the heroes; capable of great evil, but sometimes redemption. We hate them, fear them, sometimes empathize with their plight. They are what we could become, if we allow ourselves to fall from grace. Most of them have PhD’s.

I’ve spent the last few days struggling to name more than 10 superheroes who are recognized as Dr’s. I couldn’t. Why is this? Why do heroes so rarely hold advanced degrees? And why are villains so often among the highly educated?

wolverine_croppedSome heroes are primal, like Wolverine. Fierce and powerful, they are the part of us that wants to beat the crap out of bad guys and right injustice with our fists. They are nature red in tooth and claw, and often the most popular of the heroes. superman_croppedThere are superhumans. Heroes who have incredible powers and chose to use them for good. They have refused to let the power corrupt them, and that is their greatest feat. Superman is lame, except for the fact that he could so easily conquer the world, yet he does not. His human goodness overcomes his superhumanity. But for the most part, these heroes are not known for their intellects.

There are superheroes that are geniuses. Batman, Spiderman, Ironman. With the exception of Spiderman, their power comes from their intellect. Tony Stark (Ironman) holds several advanced degrees. Batman, in his original vision, is the world’s greatest detective. Peter Parker (Spiderman) is supposed to be brilliant at physics. But the power of their minds often plays second cello to their physical prowess.

So now, if you grew up on comic books like I am, you are screaming in your mind “what about Professor X!” Charles Xavier, the only superhero I could come up with who’s academic credentials are part of his persona. But Charles Xavier is fundamentally known for his mind. By confining him to a wheelchair, his creators humanized him to the readers. Where are the powerful psychics who can kick butt and fly? Evil Incorporated.

drdoom_croppedVillains? Dr. Doom, Dr. Octopus, Dr. Sivana, Prof. Moriarty, Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. No, Mr. Freeze (Dr. Victor Fries), and of course, whenever any parody of the superhero/spy genre is produced, the archvillain is always Dr. Something – Dr. Evil, Dr. Horrible. Dr. Mad Scientist, PhD is such a staple of the superhero zeitgeist, that we never even think about it.

The message is clear. Power corrupts, and knowledge is the most powerful force in the world. How could someone so educated not become twisted and evil by their own knowledge. Scientist are cold, heartless, capable of doing horrible things because they don’t care about the morality of the world, only how best it can be manipulated.

Maybe this is all just fun. These are fairytales, stories to teach lessons, or just to entertain. They’re nothing serious. The way we portray heroes and villains isn’t imprinting people with a fundamental distrust of scientist. Or is it?

“If you ask the average ten year old in America what a scientist looks like, they almost always describe an older man with crazy white hair and a lab coat. If you ask a group of adolescents how many have looked through a microscope, few raise their hands. If you discuss the implications of genetic research with a group of high school students, they’re likely to cut your next class. The reason why these students have such profound stereotypes of scientists and are less than enthusiastic about science’s impact on society is simple—the lack of exposure they receive during their pre-college education. According to a preliminary study conducted at Leicester University in England, students are often repeatedly confronted with stereotypes of science and scientists via television, cartoon, and comic book characters as well as uninformed adults or peers. (Schaefer and Farber, 2004)”

Maybe we owe our future a better class of hero.

~Southern Fried Scientist

UPDATE: There’s a very good discussion on this topic happening at Command F

Jamie Schaefer, Steven A. Farber (2004). Breaking Down the Stereotypes of Science by Recruiting Young Scientists PLoS Biology, 2 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0020279

26 Comments leave one →
  1. February 19, 2009 2:10 am

    Although not your comic-book super-heroes, there are several examples of intellectual heroes in popular science fiction, or at least major characters who are valued for their intellect. Dr.Spock in Star Trek for a start, up to characters like Samantha Carter in Stargate. Although she can kick butt with the best of them too.

    Further back, the intelligent arch-villain is older than comics, and goes back at least as far as Prof. Moriarty.

    Hmm, there’s more to think about here, thanks for posting this.

  2. February 19, 2009 6:04 am

    Hmm. Heroes as Doctors.

    Doctor Fate.
    Doctor Mid-nite.
    Doctor Strange.
    Doctor Hank Pym (for a while he just went by his real name instead of Ant-Man or Giant-Man.)

    That’s all I have. Even Mr. Fantastic could be Doctor Fantastic, but he eschews the title.

  3. whysharksmatter permalink*
    February 19, 2009 12:14 pm

    I have memories of popular figures using their strength to beat up those who were good at science…. it’s called “High School”.

    Stargate is an interesting point, Tony- the smart people (Dr. Jackson and Major-then-Colonel Carter) are often called in to save the day. However, although Carter has several advanced degrees, she goes by her military rank, and they have T’ealc and MacGuyver (big strong soldier types with no science background) to protect them. Also, you and I are probably the only people who watch that show.

  4. February 19, 2009 2:13 pm

    Great post! But don’t forget THE Doctor, Dr. Who! Not a comic book character, but definitely a good guy.

    On the eeeeevil side, perhaps Watchmen shouldn’t count, since it’s kind of a superhero parody. But Dr. Manhattan is an anti-Superman and Ozymandias (the smartest man alive) is a bad bad man.

    I might add that I can’t think of a single female character called Dr., either hero or villain.

  5. February 19, 2009 4:24 pm


    The Carter character on Stargate is female, and though she doesn’t go by doctor, she is the scientific genius of the group and has “several advanced degrees”

  6. February 19, 2009 5:24 pm

    I’m shocked, shocked I say, that none of you point out that both Betty and Veronica, from Archie Comics, led fulfilling, goody-two-shoes alternate universe lives as doctors, scientists, explorers, etc. On the Starship Rivda storyline, Betty and Veronica needed at least a PhD in engineering to operate the ship. Dilton Doiley, smartest kid in Riverdale, also had alternate universe adventures where he was addressed as “Doctor Doiley”. And I believe that in the cross-industry one off, Archie Meets The Punisher, an amiable Archie doppelganger named “Red” studied supernatural arts and was often referred to as “Doctor”.

    I now claim the title of king nerd of uncool comics!

  7. February 19, 2009 9:07 pm


    very good


  8. Sweetwater Tom permalink
    February 22, 2009 2:20 pm

    I am older (3 score and 4) and not up on the current superheros. It seems to me that one thing a superhero needs is readers/watchers/followers. I think a typical person is more likely to identify with a super power than with great intellect. You can imagine yourself flying, but it hard to imagine yourself understanding string theory or whatever.

    Long live the geeks!

  9. February 22, 2009 8:55 pm

    WhySharksMatter – I gave up on Stargate SG-1 after about four episodes, so I’d forgotten about Carter. But I think that she actually proves Andrew’s point – she IS a doctor, but she’s not CALLED doctor.

    Though I just thought of my own Stargate-centric counter-example – Dr. Elizabeth Weir from Stargate: Atlantis.

  10. whysharksmatter permalink*
    February 22, 2009 9:01 pm

    Dr. Weir, a diplomat who led a group of military people… and almost allowed Earth to fall to the replicators due to her lack of physical strength. An interesting example.

  11. February 22, 2009 9:10 pm

    Interesting – I haven’t seen much of SG:A, either, so I didn’t know that. So Dr. Weir might also prove Andrew’s point about the Danger of Doctors.

  12. February 23, 2009 7:05 am

    I think Rick was a little to hasty in crowning himself king nerd of geekdom…

  13. February 23, 2009 12:29 pm

    Rick- I had a Star Trek themed Bar Mitzvah. I am NOT kidding. Andrew has seen the pictures. I’m consulted by Star Trek novel authors to make sure that their plots fit into established storylines. Your nerdiness is bush-league at best.

  14. February 23, 2009 1:19 pm

    It’s all true, he even has friends featured in the documentary “trekkies”

  15. February 23, 2009 5:18 pm

    WhySharksMatter – I see your Star Trek themed bar mitzvah and raise you our wedding toppers (those little dudes that sit on top of a wedding cake) – Kermit as Indiana Jones holding hands with Mystique.

    • February 23, 2009 5:25 pm

      so which one were you?

  16. February 23, 2009 5:31 pm

    Mystique, of course! It’s not that I’m so attached to her, but it’s HARD to find a female action figure that a) kicks ass; b) isn’t wearing fetishwear and c) is cheap enough to ruin by sticking it into a pie.

    • February 23, 2009 6:12 pm

      Couldn’t you use two Kermit Indiana Joneses and just say one was Mystique?

  17. whysharksmatter permalink*
    February 23, 2009 5:40 pm

    Miriam, so what you’re saying is…. there are a lot of nerds associated with the science blog-o-sphere?

  18. April 6, 2009 8:15 pm

    Great post! I found it through Scientia Pro Publica. I came to suggest Dr. Manhattan, who isn’t exactly a hero, but isn’t a villain, either. He’s above such petty classifications.

    Beast from the X-Men is also known as Dr. Hank McCoy. Him being super-smart is played in contrast to his brutish superpower. He’s a world-class genetic expert (helpful in a world full of mutants) and also serves the X-Men as a physician.

    Dr. Who is another great example. Even if he’s never been to medical school or whatever, his superpowers are wholly derived from being mega-smart and having advanced technology.

    If we’re going beyond comics into general SF, though — Dr. Scully! She goes by “agent” most of the time, but her MD is a crucial plot point and her science skills are second to none. The X-Files premiered when I was in elementary school, and I think I have Scully to thank for at least some of my interest in being a scientist (because then I might get to hang out with hotties like David Duchovny all the time…).

    PS: “Dr. Spock” is the child psychologist. “Mr. Spock” is the Vulcan. Bones was the doctor, and I think he counts as a doctor-hero since his nickname derives from “sawbones” (and they also refer to him as “Dr. McCoy”).

  19. April 9, 2009 8:23 pm

    There’s Dr. Bruce Banner, the calm physicist side of the Hulk. Admittedly, the Hulk is usually cast as the “hero” (sort of), and the Hulk is usually not portrayed as intelligent.

    Also best known from The Indredible Hulk, we also have psychiatrist Doc Samson. Probably he’s one of the closest examples of an “academic hero” that this thread is looking for, although he’s hardly a well known character.

    I have to cheat a bit with a medical doctor when I bring in Dr. Donald Blake the alter ego of Thor in some early issues.

  20. Ragriav permalink
    April 13, 2009 4:22 pm

    Good Scientist-focused superHEROES:
    Doctor Mid-Nite = Medical Doctor
    Doctor Fate = Wise/Archaelogist
    Sandman = Chemist/Inventor
    Spider-Man = In the original series, most of his abilities are based on scientific revolutions
    Doctor Strange
    Mr. Fantastic

  21. April 13, 2009 4:32 pm

    To everyone posting with a few additional superheroes, while I appreciate it, adding a few more names to the list is totally not the point.

    What we’re talking about here is the presentation of scientists in the popular media and the predominance of the mad scientist/evil doctor as the archetypal villain, and what it means when a society devalues knowledge. There is a public mistrust of science in America, and I think that this may be one, though not the most serious, cause of that mistrust.

  22. July 20, 2009 11:43 am

    Well, also look at representations of scientists in childrens’ cinema. In Flubber, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Sword in the Stone (kinda), Meet the Robinsons, etc. scientists are invariably portrayed as eccentric madmen. Adult television doesn’t exactly do much to add complexity to that image (Fringe, CSI, there must be others). Science is, simply enough, suffering from bad publicity management.

    It probably doesn’t help that I bill myself as Toaster, Mad Scientist, Jr.


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