13 Reasons to Use a Deathtrap
Months ago, I saw someone on DC's own boards asking why villains so often capture a hero and then dump him into a complicated "deathtrap" instead of just chopping his head off right away so they'll never have to worry about him again. It was a good question! I responded with a few possible reasons at the time, and made a note to come up with a better list later. Which I did. Then I saved it on a floppy disk and lost track of the disk for awhile. Today I managed to unearth it and decided to spruce it up a little and post it for you!
Note: Not all of the traps that villains set for heroes are actually intended to be deadly, but in the name of simplicity I am sticking to the term "deathtrap" for any such situation.
13 Reasons to Use a Deathtrap
03. The Pursuit of Science
07. Meant to Escape
08. Interrogate First, Kill Later
09. Patriotism and Other Scruples
10. Lack of the Killer Instinct
11. Proving a Philosophical Point
A "logical" chain of thought for a villain might go like this: "I want to steal lots of money. Character X [the hero] wants to stop me. I finally got the drop on him, for the moment. If I kill him this time, he'll never be able to stop me again!" (Granted, that chain of "logic" ignores the question of how hard it is to "really, really kill" a superhero in the long run.)
However, not all villains are capable of such rational thought, identifying and then taking the simplest possible route to reach a coherent objective. The Joker's characterization, for instance, has been all over the map in the 66 years since he was created, but it is generally agreed that the man is mentally ill to a significant degree. (Which is why he keeps getting locked up in Arkham Asylum whenever he is recaptured.) Accordingly, those occasions when he seems to have the upper hand on Batman, but doesn't just kill him as quickly as possible, carry some credibility because hey, do you really expect flawlessly logical behavior from a raving lunatic with a deranged sense of humor?
Killing the hero is not the point. Even stealing lots of money and making a clean getaway is not the point. The point is to bolster the villain's fragile ego by creating a situation where he feels that he has proven himself "smarter" or "more imaginative" or otherwise "better" than the hero. He may even be nursing the hope that he will get to hear the hero explicitly admit that the villain is better!
I recently reread the crossover event “X-Cutioner’s Song.” In it, the villainous Stryfe has managed to capture Scott Summers and Jean Grey and is holding them prisoner on the moon. Although he seems angry at them, he doesn’t kill them right away. I got the impression that he wanted them to do or say certain things that would prove that his very low opinion of their characters was justified, and that he was right to be so angry at them. (His belief (later proved mistaken) was that he was the grown-up version of the baby, Nathan Christopher Summers, whom Scott and Jean had once allowed Askani to carry far into the future, where he evidently had a miserable childhood, what with having been infected with a techno-organic virus and all that. Stryfe either did not know or did not care to admit that the only reason Scott let his baby boy be taken away was because the kid was otherwise going to die very quickly and future technology might be able to save his life.)
03. The Pursuit of Science
"Insert Superhero A into Deathtrap B, shake well, wait ten minutes, observe the results and write them down for posterity."
In a three-part arc in "Uncanny X-Men #'s 145-147," the X-Men fought the temporary alliance of Doctor Doom and Arcade. At the end of the first installment, several of them were captured. As #146 opens, Doom and Arcade are chatting about the way Doom has handled his prisoners.
ARCADE: What happened to the X-Men? I saw your flunkies cart them away.
DOOM: I thought you'd never ask. Behold.
[A painting turns into an LCD screen to show the cell Nightcrawler is in.]
ARCADE: They're not dead?
DOOM: Of course not. I do nothing precipitously, Arcade, especially kill. 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.
[We'll skip a few panels, and then Doom says the following in a voice-over caption]
DOOM: Each X-Man faces a test. Each test has an escape route. But finding - and using - that route will require the ultimate combination of their abilities and their intellect. The slightest mistake will cost them their lives.
Notice the key point: Doctor Doom apparently saw himself as looking down upon these X-Men from Olympian heights. They certainly did not merit the sort of respect he might have offered Reed Richards. They were not his "mental equals." They were not his "dangerous enemies." They were his cute little lab rats! Perhaps they would beat the tests and live; perhaps they would fail and die; it was all much the same to him! After all, there was no overpowering reason for him to feel afraid of them, was there? This arrogance struck me as being perfectly in character for Victor Von Doom. (By the end of the story arc, I believe he was forced to reevaluate the threat level they posed, if it makes you feel better to hear that.)
"Sure, I could empty a .45 into his head, but where's the fun in that? It would be over before he knew it! I want to see him grovel! I want to hear him scream!"
This is probably one of the most common motives. If the hero has made a lot of trouble for the villain in the past, then the villain feels that just taking five seconds to kill him now wouldn’t be nearly enough satisfaction to repay all the hero’s past offenses.
One of the most prolonged cases of a villain “torturing” a hero, when he theoretically could have tried to have the guy killed a lot faster, came in Frank Miller's "Born Again" story arc for the "Daredevil" title. It started out by having the Kingpin learn Daredevil's secret identity. DD did not immediately know that this had happened. First the Kingpin ordered discreet surveillance until he was reasonably certain that the information was authentic and not some sort of hoax. Then the fun began! Matt Murdock's professional reputation was dragged through the mud. Witnesses were bribed or coerced to testify that he had done all sorts of terrible things. He was disbarred. Financial records mysteriously were altered so that it looked like he was way behind in paying his bills (even though he wasn't). His house was blown up. When Kingpin decides he's really angry at you, he doesn't do anything so "merciful" as just hiring someone to put a bullet through your head. Daredevil had messed up some elaborate schemes of Kingpin's in the past and caused him some degree of humiliation, and now Wilson Fisk was bound and determined to repay the debt with interest!
While most of this was going on, Matt did not know why it was all happening to him and did not know that Kingpin (or any other enemy) had learned his secret identity as Daredevil. He eventually figured it out after his house blew up, however. Later, already in a very unstable psychological condition, Matt entered Fisk’s headquarters and fought him hand-to-hand . . . and got clobbered into unconsciousness. But still not killed. (We’ll explore the reasons for that in #06, below.)
"Scytale," Irulan said presently. "It is said that you Tleilaxu have an odd system of honor: your victims must always have a means of escape."
"If they can but find it," Scytale agreed.
"Am I a victim?" Irulan asked.
A burst of laughter escaped Scytale.
[Quoted from Dune Messiah, by Frank Herbert]
Some villains live by that rule: There must be a way for a victim, or at least a particularly respected adversary, to theoretically survive the experience if he plays his cards just right. The odds may be way against it, but there is still a chance.
In fact, some villains want to turn it into a "sporting proposition" in the form of a one-on-one duel, even when they could easily end the hero's career by other methods. They may feel this is the honorable treatment a "worthy adversary" deserves. (Some of the times when Ra's al Ghul has faced Batman man-to-man, using swords for instance, spring to mind.) Or there may be a public relations component: The master villain figures it will be easier to keep his subordinates and rivals properly intimidated if he shows them that he is not just smarter than they are, but also much deadlier in a personal duel instead of just hiding behind an army of thugs with deadly weapons all the time and letting them do the dirty work. Killing the hero is all very well and good, but here the major point is to remind a bunch of other people of what could happen if the same villain ever got his hands on them in a "fair fight"! Showing them the hero’s dead body and saying “I killed him in single combat” is just not as spectacular as letting them see it happen, with blood splashing all over the place!
"Murder? What murder? Gosh, it sure is a pity that this hero died in such an ignominious fashion by sheer bad luck, isn't it?"
Picking up where we left off in the recap of certain events of Frank Miller’s “Born Again” Daredevil story arc: It pleased Kingpin to slowly, carefully drive Daredevil into a nervous breakdown. And then to beat him up with his own bare hands. And then to finally kill him – but not with his own bare hands. Too obvious.
The crucial point was that Kingpin definitely did not want it known that he had done any of this. In fact, he didn’t even want the death of Daredevil to be identified as a murder at all! Hence, Matt Murdock’s battered and unconscious body was trapped inside a taxicab, with doors and seatbelt buckles sealed shut by a chemical process that would leave results that looked (days or weeks later, when examined by a lab) exactly like the natural process of rust in an underwater environment; something that obviously must have happened after the car was already in the water and Matt Murdock was already dead. The taxicab was then shoved into the river.
Classic deathtrap scenario, from our point of view, but creating a “deathtrap” just to make Murdock suffer a bit more was not Kingpin’s motive at this point in the game. I think he had already satisfied his own taste for sadism by his previous abuse of Murdock while the man was still alive. Now he was thinking about the larger picture, and a good solid Cover-Up. The key point was to prevent Matt Murdock from becoming a martyr after his death, as might occur if it appeared that some villain had murdered him. This presumably was what had prevented Kingpin from just breaking his neck and then tossing the corpse in a dumpster. Doing it this way, it would appear that Murdock had killed a cab driver, stolen the cab, and then carelessly or suicidally driven off a dock into water and drowned. Probably drunk at the time. The autopsy would “confirm” all this by showing the man had died with river water in his lungs and no fatal injuries inflicted upon the body (just some nasty bruises and such).
(Obviously, this last part – Murdock drowning and being autopsied – didn’t quite work out. Nonetheless, Miller had done a superb job of laying the groundwork for Kingpin to feel the need to take the calculated risk of using this method instead of just killing the man in a blatantly murderous fashion.)
7. Meant to Escape
"They wiggled out of the trap and disappeared into the wild blue yonder, eh? Perfect! Everything is going exactly as I planned!"
In other words, sometimes the villain's real agenda is not the obvious one that the heroes assume to be his mission statement of the day (such as watching them die). He permits them the opportunity to "escape" from his clutches for good solid strategic reasons: He calculates that their predictable responses to whatever nasty stuff he throws at them will actually move things closer to the important goal he really wants to achieve, instead of further away from it!
There was that time in the original Star Wars movie when most of our heroes fought their way through a bunch of Storm Troopers, piled onto the Millennium Falcon, and went racing away from the Death Star, blowing up a few TIE fighters along the way. Afterwards, Princess Leia worried that their daring getaway had been entirely too easy. Han Solo expressed incredulity at her definition of "easy" - but it turned out she was right! Darth Vader and Moff Tarkin, having failed to extract the true location of the current headquarters of the Rebel Alliance from her by other means, were now taking the calculated risk of letting her "escape" (on a ship with a special homing device installed) so she could lead them directly to it! Finding and crushing most of the Rebellion's military resources was far more important than just killing a few riffraff who had been running around stirring up trouble on the Death Star for an hour or two.
On a similar note, Grant Morrison's run on the JLA included a story (reprinted in the TPB "JLA: American Dreams") in which The Key penetrated the security of the JLA's Watchtower, ambushed and rendered unconscious several members when they teleported up for a meeting, and then injected them with a "psycho-virus" he had invented which would take over their central nervous systems and trap their minds in a dream world. Of course, many other supervillains over the years have also managed to "trap" heroes in dreams, hallucinations, virtual reality, etc., but this time The Key took it a step further in his planning. The Key's strategy took it for granted that the JLAers would eventually figure out what was wrong and somehow escape the mental trap, because escaping traps and "winning" is what JLA members inevitably do! (Good to see the man has actually learned something from past experience!) This time, their eventual "escape" was crucial to his Master Plan! If all went well, the way he had things wired up would mean that their sudden awakening would generate the necessary psycho-electric surge to let him project himself into "negative space" and then take control of just about everything in the universe.
That's what The Key said was bound to happen, anyway. Since he didn't get to enter "negative space" after all, we'll never know if he actually had his head screwed on straight when he came up with this "brilliant" plan. But to give credit where credit is due, he might actually have gotten away with it if not for the unanticipated interference of late arrival Connor Hawke with a well-aimed Boxing Glove Arrow!
8. Interrogate First; Kill Later
Here, the villain doesn't just kill the hero because that would be self-defeating. Corpses don't talk much. There are things the villain desperately needs to learn from the hero before he kills him. Or at least that's what the villain thinks. This is different from "Sadism" because the villain isn't just keeping the hero around for demented reasons, hoping to enjoy watching him bleed and hearing him beg for mercy (although with some villains, Sadism and a real need to Interrogate can conveniently go hand-in-hand in a particular case).
One nasty variation arises when the villain seems convinced that the captive hero "must know" the Secret of X. (Whatever X may be.) Only the hero doesn't know much of anything about X, except for the inconvenient fact that the interrogator seems obsessed with the subject! Unfortunately, a determined villain is unlikely to immediately take his word for it and say, "Oops! How silly of me! Sorry I bothered you!" He'll probably say, "Ah ha! You swore to keep your mouth shut and deny everything, did you? Well, let's see if I can't convince you to change your mind!" Which means that these interrogation sessions (with physical torture, mind-altering drugs, or whatever) are going to drag on for a long, long time . . . which has the advantage (for plot purposes) of providing an excuse to keep the hero alive for as long as it takes for him to stage an escape, or for someone else to come along and rescue him.
As a recent example, I'm thinking of the time in the "Villains United" miniseries last year (written by Gail Simone) when the new Secret Six were being tortured in rotation by the Crime Doctor in an attempt to learn the secrets of the mysterious "Mockingbird" who directed them via electronic communications from an undisclosed location. As near as I could tell from available evidence, none of the Six (Catman, Cheshire, Deadshot, Parademon, Ragdoll, Scandal) actually knew anything worth knowing about Mockingbird. Such as his real name or home address, for instance. And what they didn't know, they couldn't spill. So of course the torture sessions dragged on and on . . . until finally Tom Blake spotted a possible way to turn the tables on his tormentors and break loose.
9. Patriotism and Other Scruples
"Kill you? A fellow American who's just doing his job? What sort of monster do you think I am? (Maybe I'll just maim you a little bit!)"
Deathstroke the Terminator kills people for money. However, he used to brag (when Marv Wolfman was writing him, anyway) that he never takes a contract that would harm "national security." (He clearly meant "of the USA" - I doubt he loses much sleep over what his assassinations might do to any other country's national security.) A legacy of his many years of proud service in the U.S. Army, we gathered, before he turned into a freelance mercenary/assassin. Offhand, I don't know how often (if ever?) he has mentioned or demonstrated these same scruples about "national security" in the hands of other writers over the past decade or so.
And even in the days when almost all of his appearances were scripted by Marv Wolfman, Slade Wilson never offered us a good definition of just what he interpreted "against national security" to mean in practice. For instance, he did not hesitate to nab the Teen Titans and turn them over to the H.I.V.E. in "The Judas Contract." He must have known they had little chance of surviving whatever the H.I.V.E. intended for them, but apparently he felt the loss of the Teen Titans would not be a significant blow to the "national security" of the USA.
There have been various other times when Slade Wilson has fought one hero or another and has managed to gain some sort of advantage by stunning, injuring, capturing, or misdirecting them . . . but not actually killing them, and in at least some cases, I was convinced he wasn’t even trying. (Of course, different writers are bound to have different views on exactly where he draws the line.)
On a similar note: While the Punisher, Frank Castle, is certainly not afraid of the sight of blood, I believe he used to have a firm rule against using lethal force on "honest" cops, superheroes, well-meaning innocent civilians, etc., even if they were forcefully trying to arrest him. His war was with organized crime and the like; but he didn't just slaughter anybody who got in his way. That would be antisocial! (I've lost track of the Punisher these last few years; his rules may have changed a bit.)
Other villains, patriotic or not, have scruples of their own – they just wouldn’t feel right about killing Spider-Man (or whoever) in cold blood after they had him on the ropes. But it might be okay to stuff him into some fiendishly complicated prison cell to keep him out of harm’s way for awhile!
10. Lack of the Killer Instinct
"Kill you? Why would I even want to kill you? Who needs a murder rap hanging over his head? If this fancy trap keeps you out of my hair just long enough for me to get a good head start, then I'm satisfied!"
Some "villains" simply aren't murderous. "Take the money and run" often seems to be their motto. If they use fancy weapons and traps to tie down a hero for awhile, it's probably as a delaying tactic; never seriously intended to kill the guy; only intended to keep him off their backs long enough to get a good head start and disappear into the crowded streets of the city!
The Batman/Catwoman relationship has sometimes worked this way, over the decades. There have been times when Catwoman was allegedly in it for all the loot she could steal, plain and simple - but didn't actually want to leave a trail of bodies in her wake. And she especially didn't want to kill Batman. But she might find ways to stun him, imprison him, or otherwise hinder him so that he couldn't capture her right away.
11. Proving a Philosophical Point
"No, no, I don't want to kill you! I want a captive audience! I want to prove to you that I Am Right And You Are Wrong!"
In Alan Moore's "The Killing Joke," the Joker captures Commissioner Gordon and then starts ranting at him about a philosophy of life based on the theory that everything is a sick joke. And ranting, and ranting, and ranting. (When Batman shows up later, he gets to hear his fair share of ranting as well.) I couldn't find my copy just now, but Joker seemed to be hoping that Jim Gordon would come to agree with him about the benefits of insanity by going stark raving mad himself, basically “switching sides” to the Joker’s own school of thought. (Didn't work. When Batman showed up later, Gordon said to him something like: "We have to show him [Joker] that our way works."
"What good is a dead body? If I wanted a stiff, I could raid the morgue! But alive, you might be worth something extra!"
There is a very limited market for the corpse of a dead superhero. (If you've seen one corpse, you've seen 'em all!) A live superhero, however, is something else!
In the TPB collection "Robin/Batgirl: First Blood," there is a sequence in which Robin (Tim Drake) and Batgirl (Cassandra Cain) are captured by the Penguin's mob in Bludhaven. They end up tied back-to-back in a pair of chairs, surrounded by dozens of gangsters. Penguin assures his flunkies that the plan definitely involves killing these brats - but first he figures he might as well rip off their masks and take some photographs which he will then find a way to sell for extra moolah. One of his subordinates begs for the chance to do the honors there.
TWO-TON: You're already plenty famous, but it would help build my rep among my crew if I were the one to unmask them. It's worth a grand to me.
ANOTHER CROOK: Hey, I can do better than that. I'll pay two thousand, easy.
PENGUIN: It seems we've got an auction on our hands, boys. The current bid is two grand. Who'll give me three?
YET ANOTHER CROOK: I'll go three.
PENGUIN: Westbrook, get the other captains on the phone, in case they want to get in on this!
So the winner of the auction turned out to be a crook who was out of town, and would need at least an hour or two to get there and do the honors by ripping off those masks. That created a longer window of opportunity in which Tim and Cassandra could try to find a way to wiggle out of their current predicament without dying in the process. Penguin had honestly intended to kill them pretty darn quick once they fell into his hands, but his greed got the better of him. I found it fairly plausible.
"Why should I kill you when I hope to make you switch sides instead?"
In “Uncanny X-Men #256,” The Hand and the Mandarin dumped Psylocke in a sensory-deprivation tank and then used a psychic sensitive to monitor and influence her thoughts – along with the Mandarin's use of a ring that lets the bearer exercise high-powered telepathy himself when he cares to take the trouble. The plan was to turn her into a super-ninja who could kill the target with a single well-focused thought if need be. Much of what we saw in that issue was actually happening inside Psylocke's mind, full of childhood memories and symbolic encounters with other X-Men and and Mojo and Spiral muttering comments in the background and other weird stuff, but on the final page it appeared that what had "really" happened was that somewhere along the line Psylocke had physically broken out of the sensory deprivation tank, killing the "sensitive" who had been monitoring her mental deterioration and several other members of The Hand as well. Which illustrates some of the flaws in trying to pull anything so fancy on a telepathic hero, but Matsuo Tsurayaba and the Mandarin still considered this one to be a win for their side because Psylocke ended up kneeling before the Mandarin and calling him her master.
(Several of the details of what "really" happened here were retconned years later, but let's not go into that now, okay? It had nothing to do with Chris Claremont's version at the time of just why the bad guys had stuffed Psylocke into that tank and started manipulating her mind instead of simply cutting her throat.)
It worked well enough, despite the body count, that two issues later the bad guys decided to try the same stunt all over again by dumping Wolverine in the sensory deprivation tank and having Psylocke use her telepathy to monitor him and steer his thoughts in the "right" direction. (One flaw in this plan appeared to be that Wolverine was already sufficiently crazy that when their minds "merged" Psylocke suffered more from the experience than he did. Although she later claimed that the shock knocked some sense back into her and made her remember which side she was on.)
As always, I invite constructive criticism. If you can think of some other reasonably convincing reasons for a villain to stuff a hero into an elaborate trap instead of just going, "Bang! Bang! You're dead!" then please speak up!