I’ve been thinking a lot about evil and redemption lately. The first principle of Catholic Social Teaching affirms every human being is deserving of life and dignity because they are made in the image and likeness of God. Nothing can take that right away, not even their own destructive actions. So there is always a line, theologically, between sinner and sin. While the idea of redemption is theologically vital, we often struggle with it in the face of real world evil. At least I know I do. This cognitive dissonance begs the question is there a line, an evil act or actions we can’t return from? Doctor Doom is a character uniquely suited to explore this question. For decades he was the most evil villain in the Marvel Universe. But over the last few years, in both Invincible Iron Man and Infamous Iron Man, Brian Michael Bendis put a newly reformed Victor Von Doom inside Tony Stark’s armor in an attempt to atone for all he’s done. Now Fantastic Four has returned to the comic shelves and Doom’s future is a question mark once again. Can someone like Doctor Doom ever truly be redeemed?
Obviously, Doom is not the first villain to turn hero. Doc Ock controlled Peter Parker’s body as the Superior Spider-Man for years. Venom went from sadistic monster to anti-hero to full-on hero (with Flash Thompson). Thanos was a farmer for a while. And those are just a few examples. So villains turn good. Sometimes it sticks. Sometimes it doesn’t. But Doom is a special case because, arguably, Doom is Marvel’s greatest villain. No one else comes close in terms of intellect, aspirations, or arrogance. He is a literal dictator and a man of science and sorcery who has usurped the literal power of God to burn universes down and remake them according to his will. This is what makes Doom so unique in the question of redemption. Can a man this monstrous ever atone for his actions?
Before we speak of redemption, it’s essential to revisit his monstrosity. Of all the stories I could use to illustrate Doom’s evil, the one that stands out most in my mind runs from Fantastic Four (Vol. 2) #67 to (return-to-legacy-numbered) Fantastic Four #500. We see Victor searching the world for Valeria, the great love of his young life, whom he left behind when he went to America to study science. Valeria believes he has come to finally rekindle their love, leaving behind his despotic ways. While Victor still deeply loves her, he has sought out Valeria not as lover but as sacrifice. Victor has brokered a deal with dark forces to increase his mystical powers by sacrificing someone he truly loves. Valeria cries out to him as he watchers her burn, her skin melting from her bones and wrapping around Doom, forging new leather armor. Using his newly amplified sorcery, he possesses the Richards’ daughter Valeria (named after his love, his request when he helped deliver her) and literally casts their son Franklin into hell. As he battles the Fantastic Four, Ben’s body is beaten so hard chunks of him crumble off. Johnny is stretched to tearing (in an imitation of Reed’s power). Sue burns alive (imitating Johnny). Reed is permanently disfigured. And this is just one story of dozens.
So…can Victor Von Doom be redeemed? Can a man this evil ever truly atone for his actions?
The prevailing answer in the Marvel Universe seems to be “no,” despite the sincerity in his recent attempts. In Infamous Iron Man #1 he tells Doctor Amara Perera, “I am trying to rectify that. Your words have stayed with me doctor. I came here to say: I believe you are right. If I am trying to make up for the horrible things I’ve done in this lifetime…I need to do it with the same flourish and energy with which I attacked this world. You are right.” This is why, before the Second Superhero Civil War, Victor helped Tony Stark stop several world-ending catastrophes and, after that conflict left Tony in a coma, Victor took up Tony’s mantle. Yet Victor has no naïve belief he will be accepted as Iron Man.
In Infamous Iron Man #4, Ben Grimm, now working for S.H.I.E.L.D., tracks Victor to England as he’s visiting Amara. They (obviously) battle and Amara’s apartment is destroyed.
Amara – “Why did the Thing come after you like that?”
Victor – “Because I was Doctor Doom. I was his enemy. He will never see me as anything else. And I know that goes for most everyone else on the planet.”
Amara – “Okay… Why are you no longer Doctor Doom? Why are you now Iron Man? Victor, my life and reputation are most probably destroyed. Because suddenly, as you say, we are connected. So you answer me. It’s the least you can do. Why are you no longer Doctor Doom? Why are you obsessed with replacing Tony Stark?”
[Victor’s answer is lengthy but, I feel, it’s essential to understanding the story Bendis is telling. I quote it in full.]
Victor – “Because I was God. My entire life was a quest for power. This is no secret. I was born a homeless roma, living in the woods, the son of a dark witch…after I crawled out of those woods as a young man, I never looked back, and I made myself a king. I made myself a leader, a scientist, a sorcerer. But this part may take you aback a bit…after a lifetime of searching, I finally found how to make my dream of ultimate power a reality. And for a brief moment in time…I owned the universe.
“I became everything I had always dreamed of being. I controlled space and time and the world looked to me and only me, as their one true God. I held my enemies close and I kept the chaos of the world in check by only my sheer force of will. Only a handful of people even remember that happened. But it did. I was God and the world was mine. But ultimately it all failed. I failed. Because it was…there are no better words to use: I created the universe in my image. And it took all of that to discover that no man is God and God is no man. I was God and…and yet I was unchanged. I was not one with the universe. I was not content. I had pushed myself for this so much of my life only to discover it was a fool’s quest.
“So I fell back to Earth…forced to confront my true self…to rethink my purpose in this life. And it was then that a sudden and simple notion struck me. It knocked me to my knees. If the selfish act of ultimate power was not my calling…then maybe the opposite could be true. Perhaps the rest of my life needed to be dedicated to other pursuits. A life of protecting instead of conquering. As I prepared for this I looked out to my true peers. To Reed Richards, Tony Stark…as I looked to them, I studied them and I saw a new purpose. A better purpose. But in what form? That, I would need to consider. I then realized that my life up until now had put me in contact with some of the worst people on this planet. But maybe this is what all my time as ‘Doctor Doom’ was preparing me for. I knew who the monsters were, where they were and what they were capable of. I could right so many wrongs quicker and more efficiently than anyone else. Because I was once the worst of them all. I came to Tony Stark because I admired him. I was always – I always looked at him and saw another version of me. And when he fell, I knew the Elders of the Cosmos were telling me what form my penance would need to take. I would be Iron Man.”
Victor is dedicated and incredibly efficient in his quest. As Iron Man he defeats Diablo, the Mad Thinker, the Wizard, and turns over more costumed criminals to S.H.I.E.L.D. than another other hero. He takes down an entire island of Hyrda scientists and plans on turning his focus to Hydra, A.I.M., and other terror groups once he finishes with the criminals regular law enforcement can’t handle. Despite his results, no one believes he is sincere – not Amara, not Maria Hill, not Sharon Carter, and most of all, not Ben Grimm. As we see in The Infamous Iron Man #7:
Victor – “Benjamin, I’m sorry. For all of it. For the very first snide thing I ever said in college up until not expressing how much I miss them too.”
Ben – “‘Them’ who?”
Victor – “Reed. And Sue.”
Ben – “Don’t say their names.”
Victor – “He was a genius. And she was as close to a perfect soul as I have ever met. And I’m ashamed that I was so unable to appreciate that while they were here. And I am monumentally ashamed that, instead, I chose to hurt them and lash out at them in blind rage and jealousy.”
Ben – “Well…I hear ya. But you know I ain’t never gonna believe ya. Not after everything I seen ya do and say. Never.”
Victor – “That is fair Benjamin. I can’t forgive myself – why should you?”
Ben – “What happened to ya?”
Victor – “I told you: Epiphany. And I had given it a great deal of thought…if I thought my time would be best spent behind bars for my crimes, if I thought I would learn something more profound than what I have already learned…I would gladly put myself away. But…I think we can all agree I can do far more to right my wrongs from out here.”
Ben – “It ain’t up to ya. I ain’t gonna stop chasin’ ya. And ya damn well know it.”
Victor – “I have come here to clear some air. My goal is to not only earn back your respect, but to get to a place where you know you can call on me. I owe you a lifetime of gratitude, and I hope one day you can appreciate it and call on me for help. But I do know we have a long way to go before that.”
This is…beautiful. Reading this series I can’t help but want Victor to find what he seeks. I know he’s been a monster but I want to believe in this man. But is there any hope this will last? With Dan Slott bringing Fantastic Four back, I can’t imagine Victor will continue on this path. You can’t really have the FF without Doctor Doom, can you? Yet is this an ontological or narrative reality? Was Doom always too far gone to redeem or is this just returning a prominent villain to his classic role? I’ll be the first to say, some villain-to-hero shifts are a bit hard to take. Venom’s rise to antihero only made sense in the light of cashing in on his popularity. It never felt organic. And the “Reylo” crowd makes me uncomfortable. Kylo Ren clearly chose the Dark Side in The Last Jedi. Wanting him to be redeemed so he can smooch up on the girl he was emotionally abusing is hard to root for. But Victor’s actions are those of a man who wants to change! After reading the above scene, the idea of Victor becoming a villain again breaks my heart. He can be better. He has been better. But still no one believes in him.
Despite his quest to be a better person and despite what Ben himself has seen Victor do, in Invincible Iron Man #593 he still tells Victor, “Ain’t no one ever gonna forgive ya for all the things you’ve done. No one. Not me. Not the guy next door. Not a kitty you saved from a tree. You ain’t Iron Man. You know it. I know it. You’re a &$&$ monster. There ain’t no damn thing you can do to make people forget what you’ve done. You got a little lost boy dying to be heard now? Well, boo-hoo! We all do. And mine’s buried in concrete. You made all your choices Vic. Your whole life, you know it too! And even if you could get everyone on the planet to forgive and forget…even if you became the flavor of the month, everyone’s favorite %$#&^%, the jerk we need in these crazy times we live in…even if…you’ll know. You’ll know you had every chance to be the guy Reed Richards was. And every time…ya blew it. Because that’s who you are. You know it. You know who you really are.”
I get their history. I do. But I still feel…I don’t know. I feel like Ben is being an ass here. He saw Victor battle Mephisto. He saw Victor bring in more supervillains than any other hero. He saw him take down the Hydra science island. He’s seen him trying to be a hero. Is all this really necessary? Ben’s reaction (and the Marvel Universe’s at large) raises so many questions. What does taking responsibility for our actions look like? After so much evil, is it enough for Victor to do heroic things? Must he serve time in prison? Should his life be forfeit? And what of forgiveness? Are there things that can never be forgiven? Or what of forgiving versus forgetting? I don’t know… It feels as if no one in the Marvel Universe will accept Victor has redeemed himself but it also seems no one in the Marvel Universe wants to see Victor redeem himself.
This is in line with what Mephisto tells Victor in The Infamous Iron Man #11, “[D]id you really think that the Lord of Hades, Mephisto of the Dark Realm, was going to let even try to redeem your rotted soul? You have defied me and beaten me at every turn Victor…I was willing to wait for you. But there is no way in hell…(and when I say that I actually mean it.)…that I am going to sit back and let you worm your way out of your cursed fate.” Think of what this is saying! Mephisto – the Marvel Universe’s version of the Devil itself – comes to prevent Victor from trying to redeem himself. Mephisto wants his soul. This is a definitive point in the narrative that shows us a) Victor can still be redeemed – at least in a cosmic, mystical, theological sense – for all his evil actions and b) there are forces – both earthly and spiritual – that don’t want this to happen. WOW. Go Bendis.
This theological note underscores some important truths. First, of course Victor Von Doom can be redeemed in a theological sense. No sin is too great for God to forgive if we truly seek reconciliation and redemption. Second, the real twofold question of this narrative is: Does Victor Von Doom truly want to redeem himself AND are we willing to accept a villain like Doom has been redeemed? If Mephisto is worried, Victor’s soul can be saved, no matter what he’s done. Despite the Devil’s fears, the people of the Marvel Universe don’t believe it. There is a visceral reaction to the idea of Victor redeeming himself. They don’t want it and won’t believe it can happen.
As Victor and Doctor Strange battle Mephisto in The Infamous Iron Man #12, Mephisto narrates to the audience, “[Strange] can be the one that got away. But Doom? No way. His arrogant ass is mine. That’s all this is, by the way…arrogance. It’s all he is….Yes, he seems humbled now…but to do what he’s done to the multiverse and think he can just ‘turn it around’ because he thinks it’s time? Woof! That is arrogant. For his entire life, this little @#$% has had a rage-on for anything and everybody. He has tried to burn you all alive because his mother never loved him…he has tried to reshape all of us in his image…and yes, if you know your history, he has even had the arrogance to go to war with me. Now he wants to be one of the good guys? NO!…..What I was secretly hoping for was that one of these fragile, idiot super heroes would lose their @!#$ on him, betray their true self, do something horrible just to get him and I’d get both of their souls…but then he had to up and go good! I’m breaking a lot of rules coming down here like this, by the way…and you hear that? That is the sound of no one else in the universe trying to stop me. No god, elder, demigod, galactic entity, demon, Eternal, Infinity Warrior, Nova, or anyone else… When the other powers in the universe don’t try to stop me, you know they are so very happy to see me take care of this for them. Because THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE wants Doom to suffer and fail.”
Bendis is saying not just Mephisto – the Devil – refuses to let Doom’s soul go but the entire universe doesn’t want him to be redeemed either. They all want him to suffer eternally for all the evil he’s caused. Perhaps this is part of the narrative we’re meant to struggle with, as readers. I’ll be honest, I’ve pulled for Victor throughout this series. My heart is with him and the inevitable idea of him becoming a villain again is the only thing that makes me deeply sad the Fantastic Four have returned. But when I think of evil I’ve seen in real life…well, it’s a helluva lot harder to believe in let alone pull for the redemption of those who have perpetrated such actions. God’s love is the very nature of miraculous and in it all things are possible. But the hearts of humans can be far harder, far colder. Ultimately Victor’s turn as Iron Man had a lot more to say about seeking redemption in our earthly lives for sins committed and how we view those who are trying to redeem themselves than it had to say about Divine Love and redemption.
So is there a line that can’t be crossed? An evil we can’t come back from? Not in the eyes of God, no. For God all things are possible and in God’s love all things can be made right. But in our eyes, as human beings? We tend to be far more exclusive in our mercy than God. Herein lies perhaps the greatest genius in Brian Michael Bendis’s run with Victor Von Doom. What better way to make us look at how we judge others’ quests for and worthiness of redemption in real life than by making us root for Doctor Doom as the rest of the Marvel Universe demands he fall once more?