A meditation on good vs evil in Avengers, focused on a comparison of Steed and Beresford from “Return of the Cybernauts.” This originally appeared on my tumblr blog.
First let’s make a list of characteristics Steed and Beresford have in common. They are:
- well spoken
- well dressed
- financially well off
- attractive to women
- willing to kill to protect the people they love (yes, I know Beresford’s brother is already dead, but if Beresford had been there in “Cybernauts” he doubtless would have cheerfully killed both Emma and Steed to protect Anderson.)
So we have these two men who have an awful lot of basically positive characteristics in common, to the point where Emma feels attracted to Beresford even as she is already in a relationship with Steed. But Beresford is evil, and Steed is not. How come?
A lot of it boils down to choice. Beresford chooses to take revenge for his brother’s death. It’s really that simple.
But it’s also more complicated than that. There are other psychological forces at work, namely Beresford’s narcissism. He’s not taking revenge for his brother’s sake, although he might conceptualize it that way in order to justify his actions to himself. Truthfully, though, that revenge is for his own purposes. Steed and Emma hurt him by killing his brother. Now he’s going to hurt them back and make them pay a hundredfold for that insult. Beresford is angry about Anderson’s death to the point where he has completely internalized it and made it a personal insult not just to his brother, but to himself. This to him is intolerable. It is not possible that anyone could so insult him and not be made to pay.
That Steed and Emma didn’t even know Beresford existed at the time of Anderson’s death, and that Anderson’s death not only was not a personal insult either to Anderson or to Beresford, but not even Steed and Emma’s fault is something that simply doesn’t cross Beresford’s mind. His eyes are only on himself and his own pain, and on making Steed and Emma hurt as much as he does, and more. Misery loves company, and as a narcissist who must necessarily be the most important and powerful thing in the universe, Beresford must wound and disempower those he considers to be his enemies. He craves control and the power to humiliate those who cross him.
♦ ♦ ♦
Steed does kill people who threaten people he loves, true. He bashes the bad guy’s head in with a phone in “Concerto”; he runs Willy through and then whales on him with a massive punch in “Brimstone.” Although it is possible to conceptualize both those killings as revenge for the hurt his partners received, there is an important difference: both bad guys potentially might continue hurting Cathy and Emma—or even might kill them—if they are not stopped. Steed’s anger is certainly driving his actions in these scenes, but he’s not killing either of those men for the sadistic pleasure of it. In “Concerto,” Cathy is still tied up in the next room, where she has been tortured with a session of Russian roulette that will continue until she dies if Steed doesn’t rescue her; in “Brimstone,” Emma has been humiliated and endangered by the Hellfire Club, and if Steed does not defeat Willy she surely will continue to be mistreated and probably eventually killed. There’s more riding on those rescues than Steed’s pride.
Like Beresford, Steed chooses to kill in those two instances. But unlike Beresford, he’s not deriving personal pleasure from the acts and generally not intending to toy with and humiliate the men he kills. He dispatches the guy in “Concerto” very quickly, without a word or a second thought, then goes to make sure Cathy is okay. In “Brimstone,” Steed doesn’t play games with Willy before killing him: they are two very evenly matched opponents, and Steed only barely manages to defeat Willy. It’s true that the haymaker Steed launches at Willy’s head might be intended to humiliate, but there’s no sadistic pleasure behind it, only rage. And that rage isn’t for himself: it’s over what was done to Emma.
Steed also doesn’t get other people to do his dirty work for him. If he needs to fight or to kill, he does it with his own hands. He takes ownership of his actions. Beresford, on the other hand, forces captured scientists to come up with a mechanism for torturing Steed and Emma, and kills the two who dare defy him. It’s not enough for Beresford to torture Steed and Emma and then kill them himself: first he has to compromise other human beings and turn them into his puppets, too.
♦ ♦ ♦
The difference between Steed and Beresford—and, indeed, between Steed and most of his adversaries—is not capacity for evil. Like Beresford, Steed is an intelligent, powerful man with significant resources at his command, should he choose to draw on them. If Steed chose to capture and then torment an enemy he thought had done him wrong, he would be just as thorough and creative about it as Beresford was in his plans to deal with Emma and Steed. If Steed decided to become a diabolical mastermind, he probably would be fairly successful. Like Sherlock Holmes says of doctors who turn bad: “he has knowledge; he has nerve.” Steed has all the tools at his disposal to do incredibly dastardly things. But he doesn’t do them. He has no interest in it.
The difference between Steed and Beresford (or between Steed and any number of diabolical masterminds) is will to power. Beresford wants to set himself up as a god who toys with lesser beings and has their lives and their deaths at his command. Beresford enjoys inflicting pain for its own sake, because infliction of pain is an expression of personal power over the victim, and he derives pleasure from the exercise of that kind of power. Beresford’s thirst for power and need for control ultimately betray his very deep insecurity: he is trying to insulate himself against the possibility that other people might hurt him by making preemptive strikes against them, and by harnessing others’ power to do bad things on his behalf instead of taking responsibility for doing them himself.
Steed is very competitive. He enjoys putting bullies in their places and defeating the bad guys, but he’s not doing this because he personally wants to be in control over them. He defeats them because it’s the only way to prevent them from hurting innocent people. Once the baddie has been dispatched and is either dead or in custody, Steed has no further interest in him or her. His conflicts with them are not personal, and he knows that the evil they do is usually not directed at him personally (although even when it is he still goes after the villains pretty dispassionately). And while Steed likes his job and often enjoys the process of hunting down the bad guys and confronting them, that pleasure is in the exercise of skill and the act of protecting others, not a sadistic desire to inflict pain for its own sake, or in pain and humiliation as a form of personal entertainment. Steed does not feel that his own personal power increases with the defeat of each baddie. He is confident enough in himself, and secure enough that he doesn’t need to feed on other people’s power in order to maintain his own, and he is willing to make himself vulnerable by having equitable relationships with other human beings.
♦ ♦ ♦
Beresford is turned selfishly inward. He can only see himself. His exercise of power is aimed only towards himself and the increase of his power. Other people are either threats to that power and must be disposed of, or are tools and pawns to be used in its increase, and then disposed of when no longer useful.
The thing that insulates Steed from any desire to do evil things is his intrinsic generosity and goodwill towards others. Steed turns his considerable power outward. He wants to use it to help other people. His power is something he shares and employs outside of himself in order to make the world a better place, not something he hoards or feels he must increase at all costs, at the expense of others. He treats other people as full human beings, not as toys or pawns for his own use, or as vehicles for his own pleasure.
tl;dr: The thing that distinguishes Steed from Beresford (or people like Beresford) is not capacity for evil. It is their relationship to power and their choices about how that power ought to be employed.