Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Villain Tune-Up: Maxima

'That the female of Her species is more deadly than the male!' -Rudyard Kipling.

Strange the things you never notice. In over thirty years of reading superhero comics I've never even considered it before, and for someone with as deep and abiding an obsession with the minutia of popular culture for something to have been staring me in the face for so long and to completely miss as I have. . .well, it's a bit humbling to say the least.

When I initially started the concept of the Hero/Villain Tune-Up, it seemed little more than a fun little exercise in taking a problematic character (or even a character I felt hadn't been utilized to their fullest potential) and exploring those aspects of said character that could make them absolutely badass. Yet it was only until one lazy afternoon about two weeks ago that—woolgathering ideas for a new blog piece at my typical glacial pace—it hit me between the eyes like a thunderbolt.

I'd been flipping through one of my Essential Handbooks of the Marvel Universe, when I began to notice something odd. I switched over to my copies of the DC and Marvel Encyclopedias, and as the pages flipped by I began to notice it more and more. A discrepancy. A void I'd never even seen until it was staring me in the face, and it all began out of a simple enough thought. Namely: 'Hey, I should do a Villain Tune-Up for a female Master Villain, someone on the level of like a Doctor Doom or Darkseid.'

And that's when I noticed it. Or rather, noticed the lack of it.

Female super-villains don't seem to have a character like that among their ranks, someone that makes the heroic community pause collectively and go 'Holy sh!t, it's her.' You've got some examples that come fairly close; Circe, Nebula, the Dark Phoenix to name a few, but there doesn't seem to be a level of feminine villainy that reaches the upper levels, a villain that could stand shoulder to shoulder with the first tier of villainy and make being bad look good. About as close as I could get in my own researches was the subject of this Villain Tune-Up, and while she does come close there are a few elements that keep her from reaching the top. Together we'll explore them, shake out the bugs and illustrate just how with a few tweaks, this character could go from the minors to the majors.

Debuting in Action Comics #645 in September of 1989, Maxima was created by the team of writer Roger Stern and artist George Perez. Scion of the warrior rulers of the far-flung planet of Almerac, Maxima was the eldest child of the royal line. Born with super-strength, the power of flight, telepathy and telekinesis, she was a formidable enough power in her own right. Desiring a consort with which to sire an heir, she journeys to Earth with the intention of making Superman her consort. This isn't as implausible as it sounds, as it turns out their is a genetic compatibility between Almeracians and Kryptonians, which means that Maxima could potentially provide Kal-El with something no human could: children. Of course, the idea of being the boy-toy of an intergalactic warmongering tyrant doesn't sit well with our intrepid hero (no matter how appealing the red-headed, voluptuous package), and he promptly sends her packing with a stern talking to, stating flatly that he had no desire to father a line of despots. The character would return, eventually becoming an ally and a member of the Justice League before returning to her despotic ways. She died a hero however, saving the universe from the menace of Brainiac. She's appeared in an episode of Superman: The Animated Series, but by and large the character was confined to the comics, and was quietly swept away with other '90s-era detritus. Which is a pity, because with a few tweaks here and there, this is a character that could be easily jump from periodic menace to serious threat.

There are those who argue that Superman is a headache to write for because his powers make him far too capable for villains to provide a credible threat. They see him as essentially the protagonistic (if that isn't a word I'm making it one) equivalent of a Sherman tank, rolling over anything that a writer can put in his path. These people, for all their talent, are much like the character of Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark. They're digging in the wrong place. The key to a good Superman villain lies not in the Super, but in the man. The best characters (your Luthors, your Brainiacs, even your Zods) challenge Superman on not a physical level, but an intellectual/moral one. Thus it would be with the revised Maxima.

Starting from the top, let's take the whole 'Wants Superman To Be Her Consort' thing and promptly kick it to the curb. For all the badassness of the character, that notion is one that needs to be removed, or at least heavily underplayed. Maxima is a warrior-queen, the monarch of an entire planet of conquerors whose leaders have done a fine job uniting their people and focusing them into a race to be reckoned with. In a universe of alien threats, from the enigmatic dominators to the vicious Khund, from the cool intellects of Rann to the wingmen-elite of Thanagar, the Almerac Empire should be teased at, hints of a whispered fear. Even Brainiac treats them with a reverence, citing that he attempted to collect a sample of their civilization and that it 'did not meet with expected results'. Eventually a probe reaches Earth, a group of highly trained, possibly empowered Almeracian warriors attempt to establish a beachhead on Earth, only to be repulsed by a powerful figure in red and blue, a figure that identifies as a survivor of Krypton. The Almeracians escape, reporting back to the Throneworld. A decadent world, Almerac cares little for anything save the acquisition of territory. . .and of challenge. And what better challenge than a world so rich in metahuman defenders, especially this 'Superman'. The defeat and enslavement of this world that so many have tried and failed to conquer would be glory enough, but to have the last survivor of the Kryptonian Empire licking the boot of Almerac's queen? No, the prize is too enticing by far. Add a little bit about Almerac being a world that in the past threw off the shackles of Kryptonian oppression only to become the very thing they once fought against and you have yourselves the making of a cosmic epic that would make for a long-term threat that would boil over into a full-scale invasion that would set the pages of the Superman titles ablaze with. . .dare I say it. . .action.

Think about it; a woman with all the basic powers of Superman and Wonder Woman (flight, super-strength, invulnerability), plus she can read your mind, control you like a puppet, shoot bolts from her eyes that stagger the Man of Steel, create force fields a la the Invisible Woman, and can channel her psychic might into her physical attacks to make her stronger still. Plus, she's the ruler of an entire planet dedicated to the cause of war and the expansion of their empire. Where Superman is the open hand of Hope, she is the closed fist of Control. Where Kal-El believes in providing an example for others to follow, Maxima believes in crushing any and all opposition to her will in the most definitive and final manner possible. She is the dark reflection of Superman, and while there may be some potential for redemption, it's buried under centuries of dogma, an ethic that allowed her people to overthrow their masters and create their own superhumans, forging them into a force to be reckoned with. Can Superman make her see reason? Or will Krypton's dark past destroy her last hope for the future?