How to be smart, charming and powerful: The degrees of the world’s most famous villains

How to be smart, charming and powerful: The degrees of the world's most famous villains
Lady Gaga performs during the filming of the movie "Joker: Folie à Deux" in New York on March 25, 2023. Source: AFP

While you might claim to have entered your villain era, do you know how to be a villain?

I suppose it depends on the kind of villain you want to be. 

Do you want the swagger and charisma of Marvel’s Loki or the curious and crazy that embodies DC’s Joker or Harley Quinn?

If comic villains don’t do it for you, you can turn to the insidious Dr. Hannibal Lecter or the horrifying Freddy Krueger.

Disney buffs can reach for the slimy characteristics of Jafar from “Aladdin,” the hotheaded Hades from “Hercules,” or the maliciously devious Ursula from “The Little Mermaid.” 

What classifies these figures as villains? 

You might think it would have to do with evil intentions. Take “The Lion King’s” Scar, who wanted to become king no matter who he hurt. 

There’s also the manipulative Jim Moriarity from BBC’s “Sherlock”, whose machinations were schemed just because he was bored. 

Some villains do not see their intentions as evil, but rather as a way of restoring order. This variety is very common in Marvel movies. 

Thanos believed the only way to bring stability to the universe was by wiping out half of all life at every level.

Killmonger in “Black Panther” felt that it was his birthright to be king and that killing anyone in his path was just part of his destiny. 

(There was also an element of revenge for his father.)

What made these “well-intentioned” characters villains was their ruthless attitudes to other people. Murder was thought to be part and parcel of life in their eyes. 

Then there are the villains who keep getting cast in an evil role and decide to just succumb to the assumptions. 

If someone calls you evil enough times, perhaps you should show them just how evil you can be. 

William Shakespeare’s Richard III is a fine example of this. The anti-hero says

“And therefore since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”

While we love to see good prevail, having something to prevail over is a key part of our storytelling. It’s why we still need villains. 

How to be a villain

Do you know how to be a villain? Source: AFP

How to be a villain and why we need them 

Why do we glorify these tortured souls? 

Villains allow us to delve into the darker side of our psyche in a safe and socially acceptable way.

Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University undertook research which examined if people favoured villains as a safe way to explore darker traits or actions without fear of judgment.

“Villains provide an interesting window into learning about parts of the self that we don’t normally explore,” says researcher Rebecca Krause.

At first, researchers expected their study to find that people would feel attracted to heroes like them but distance themselves from similar villains.

“We thought people would stray from similar villains, and instead, we found they were brought to them,” says Derek D. Rucker, Krause’s fellow researcher.

Many fetishised the more debonair characters like Loki and Lord Voldermort (when he was Tom Marvolo Riddle and before he lost his nose). 

The guise of fiction makes people feel safe in resonating with or even liking these villains. 

Some say it comes down to empathy (especially for evil characters with dark and sad origins). 

“One reason is that similarity is inherently attractive,” Krause says. 

“It creates a common base for understanding and learning. The other factor is that villains provide an interesting window into learning about parts of the self that we don’t normally explore.”

You can see yourself in these characters, but if presented with them in real life, that threat or aspect of danger should have you repulsed. 

Fantasy is a means to entertain darker thoughts, thoughts that we would never actually want to pursue in real life. 

How to be a villain and why are they so smart

Why are so many of these fictional villains so well-educated?

There are heroes such as the Hulk, Spiderman and Iron Man who have high-flying degrees and qualifications

The villains in movies and books are often equally qualified and educated. 

In fact, most of these evil-doers have a master’s or PhD in a STEM field. Why?

It can be argued that by having these incredibly intelligent villains, we’re showing how the heart is stronger than the mind. 

Triumph of good over evil, might it be a triumph of spirit or verve over intellect. 

Still, if you would like to take on some of the positive aspects of a villain, then perhaps following in the footsteps of their education will get you somewhere. 

How to be a villain

How to be a villain: Follow in the footsteps of psychologist Harley Quinn. Source: AFP

How to be a villain: Study like these 5 false Gods of intellect

1. Harley Quinn

Harley Quinn, formerly Dr. Harleen Quinzel, has been portrayed as a psychologist and psychiatrist, which leaves fans a little confused. 

What’s the difference?

Health Direct explains that a psychiatrist has trained as a medical doctor and can prescribe medication.

A psychologist is not a medical doctor and can’t prescribe medication.

Even DC swaps between calling her a “promising psychologist and intern at Arkham Asylum” and “former psychiatrist.” 

Still, the Clown Princess of Crime is one of the most popular villains. 

She is spunky, energetic, and does not take no for an answer. She uses her understanding of human psychology to manipulate people into doing her bidding. 

On the big screen, she has been brought to life by  Margot Robbie, Melissa Rauch (in the animated film) and, most recently, Lady Gaga. The movies confirm that she has a PhD. 

How to be a villain like Harley Quinn? Become a psychologist. 

To become a psychologist, you need to: 

  • Earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related subject
  • Complete a master’s degree in psychology
  • Get an accredited doctoral degree such as a PhD. in psychology or Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.)
  • Then complete an internship
  • And get licensed and certified
How to be a villain

The talented Ian McKellen played Magneto in X-Men. Source: AFP

2. Magneto

Max Eisenhardt, or Magneto, is an anti-hero of sorts. He has the ability to control magnetic elements. 

Whether you prefer the comic rendition, the character played by the talented Ian McKellen or the dashing Michael Fassbender, there is no mistaking Magneto’s charisma.

This character does not just attract metal, he draws in viewers because he is a natural-born leader who uses his intelligence to convince people to fight for freedom. 

According to the official Marvel website, this Master of Magnetism “possesses genius-level intelligence in multiple technical fields and genetic engineering.”

The website adds that he has had some public schooling before achieving unspecified advanced training in genetic engineering and robotics.

If you would like to take after Magneto, a degree in genetic engineering is possible (also called Genetic Manipulation or Genetic Modification).

To further your research, you could pursue a master’s and PhD. 

For the robotics route, there are numerous degree options. This includes:

  • Robotics Engineering BEng/MEng
  • Artificial Intelligence and Robotics BSc/MSc
  • Mechatronics and Robotics BEng/MEng
How to be a villain

Irish actor Andrew Scott played Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock. He could give a masterclass on how to be a villain. Source: AFP

3. James Moriarty

It would take an incredibly intelligent villain to take on the likes of Sherlock Holmes. 

There are many renditions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s thrilling detective novels on the big screen and stage. 

James Moriarty is an intriguing character played by Jared Harris (alongside Robert Downey Jr.) and Andrew Scott (who acted in the series with Benedict Cumberbatch). 

This criminal mastermind is the other side of Sherlock’s coin and their genius is unrivalled. 

Moriarty attended University of Cambridge and has a professorship in the Department of Mathematics. He also has an affinity for the binomial theorem.

If you’d like to chase the intelligence of this conniving villain, Cambridge’s Faculty of Mathematics has many degrees to choose from:

  • Master of Advanced Study (MASt)
  • Master of Mathematics (MMath)
  • Master of Philosophy
  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
  • Master of Philosophy (MPhil)
How to be a villain

Hannibal, the cannibal, is certainly a devious criminal who can show you how to be a villain. Source: AFP

4. Dr. Hannibal Lecter

At this point, you’ve probably noticed a significant number of psychiatrists in fiction who are villains

Perhaps we as a society have a small fear of those who study behaviour and so we paint them in a negative light. 

While Dr. Hannibal Lecter has certainly made this list, the Lithuanian-American serial killer also has a medical degree and is said to have worked as a surgeon

This cannibal is courteous and knowledgeable, which makes his character so intriguing. 

Lecter is said to have studied at Johns Hopkins Medical Centre in Baltimore, Maryland, for his medical degree. 

To become a psychiatrist, you need to earn a bachelor’s degree — typically majoring in a discipline like psychology. 

You must then graduate from medical school, which usually takes another four years.

Finally, you should complete a residency programme and earn board certification to practice as a psychiatrist.

5. Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde

Dr. Jekyll has many acronyms and titles next to his name. This includes M.D., D.C.L., LL.D., F.RS.

What do these mean?

  • M.D.: Doctor of medicine
  • D.C.L: Doctor of civil (canon) law.
  • LL.D.: Legum doctor or Doctor of laws
  • F.RS.: Fellowship of the Royal Society (award for individuals who have made a substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science, and medical science).

To earn all of these titles, you must be the sort of person who is thrilled by a lifetime of study, especially in very technically complicated subjects. 

If you want to be trained in the universal law of the church, which is founded in the Code of Canon Law, pursue the D.C.L.

This doctoral programme requires a licentiate degree (J.C.L.), or you must submit a thesis or major writing project for faculty review and two letters of recommendation.

The LL.D is an advanced research programme that is attainable only after securing a PhD in law.

How to be a villain: More pro tips

Here are a few more deceptive and intelligent villains and their degree qualifications:

From Batman:

  • Scarecrow (Batman)– professor of psychology with a PhD, specialising in criminology
  • Poison Ivy (Batman) – doctoral degree in botany 
  • Doctor Octopus (Spiderman) – Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics, honorary Ph.D. in Biochemistry
  • Green Goblin (Spiderman) – B.S. Chemistry (fifth-year degree)