April 19, 2021 7 min read
The mad scientist trope has been one of the most enduring in all of television & cinema for decades. Usually wearing a lab coat, some wacky goggles, with a strange haircut to match, the mad scientist is typically seen working away in his lab on some devious, high-tech creation. It's no surprise that they feature so heavily in film & literature: This is a character that all of us have fallen in love with.
Arguably the earliest prototype "mad scientist" was Dr. Frankenstein, creator of the fabled monster who broke loose and turned against his creator. There in Mary Shelley's classic book, we read about Victor Frankenstein toiling away in his laboratory, day and night in a feverish state, to bring his creation to life. Consumed with his vision of animating dead matter, he alienates those around him and does little else but work in his lab.
Since then some variation of the mad scientist character has been featured in countless movies and television shows—ranging from cartoons to Netflix series to blockbuster Hollywood productions.
Similar to the Frankenstein story, a recent reincarnation of the mad scientist character who unleashes an evil monster upon the world was seen in the Batman vs. Superman film, where Lex Luthor brings to life the Kryptonian monster Doomsday—who as his name would suggest, nearly brings an end to life on Earth as we know it.
Similar to the Frankenstein story, once the creature is brought to life, he almost immediately turns against his creator, attempting to attack Lex Luthor—only to be stopped by Superman who happens to be there at the time.
Another recent example of the mad scientist character was featured in the Robert Rodriguez film Alita: Battle Angel. There, in a futuristic cyberpunk world, a mysterious, omnipotent and omnipresent mad scientist known as "Nova" controls all from his sky-city known as Zalem. At the end of the film we finally catch a glimpse of this evil genius character in his laboratory (played by Edward Norton), and there he is with his predictable gray hair wearing the stereotypical, circular mad-scientist glasses. That's about as mad scientist as it gets right there!
The devious, scientific machinations of this Nova character range from remotely gaining control of his subordinates to be able to speak through them, and even going so far as to have the brain, eyes and nervous system of certain subjects harvested and sent up to him in his sky city—while they're still kept alive, I might add—presumably allowing him to conduct further scientific experiments in his evil laboratory.
A common trait among mad scientist characters is their ability to create advanced pieces of technology & machinery capable of furthering their devious aims. They point out on TVtropes.org that
"The Mad Scientist fulfills many needs for a story's creator, allowing the Scientist to fit into a wide range of stories. . . . they're scientists, which in fiction means they can invent whatever strange device the plot requires."
This tends to make them the perfect villain because it doesn't matter what idea you come up with in the writer's room: the evil genius will have the brains and technology to make it happen. A machine that produces earthquakes? A high-tech bomb that turns the Eiffel Tower into dust? Whatever zany idea you come up with that would look awesome on the big screen, the mad scientist can bring it to life for you.
In the movie G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, for example, the mad scientist character Cobra Commander aims to use destructive nanotechnology to wreak havoc upon the world. His nanomites can dissolve tanks, make super-soldiers immune to cobra venom, or even reduce huge buildings to dust. (Incidentally, in this film, this particular mad scientist character was inspired to go this route by another mad scientist, whose scientific research he encountered in a laboratory just before it was bombed. You can't look under a rock these days without bumping into a mad scientist!)
I should also point out the hilarity of these evil genius characters sometimes simultaneously being incredible morons in the process—again, for the convenience of moving the plot along and allowing each character to play their respective roles.
For example, in the G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra film, Cobra Commander and his group of minions are brilliant enough to design high-tech nanomites that can destroy whatever they encounter, endlessly, in a chain reaction—yet he's also bumbling enough to design this device to have a large red button in the center that instantly disarms it when the hero gets close enough to push it. If the goal is to truly wreak havoc upon the world, why not design it without the big red "DISARM" button?
("I would have gotten away with it if it wasn't for you meddling action heroes!")
The simple fact of the matter is that the genius and technological know-how of this character makes them much more interesting on film than your ordinary, boilerplate movie bad-guy.
A common criminal who shoots people or robs banks? Boring! Now if he shoots them with some high-tech pulsed-laser anti-matter weapon that burns a hole in the wall, or flips their vehicle, or completely reduces them to atoms, then things become a lot more interesting on screen! But just two men having a standard shootout with a revolver? What is this, the 1940s?!
This character allows writers & directors to just continue raising the bar, producing films where the action scenes & special effects are just off-the-wall thanks to the mad scientist's crazy inventions. Hard to do that with just your standard knife-wielding murderer.
The mad scientist character is typically cast as the perfect blend between pure genius, pure madness, and pure evil. Their sinister nature is often amplified by having the mad scientist possess Nazi-like traits, with this obviously negative connotation adding an extra layer of evil to their personality. Other times they just flat-out are Nazis.
Take the Hydra organization in the Captain America films, for example. Led by an evil mad scientist character bent on world domination, they dress in all black, march in lock-step like the Nazis, and even exclaim "Heil Hydra!" as their organizational motto.
Their leader, Johann Schmidt, eventually gets transformed into a red-skinned monster known as "Red Skull"—with the Satanic connotation here adding an additional layer of evil to this character. Mix a mad genius with Adolf Hitler and Satan, and what you have is the apex of movie villains right there.
These films are, of course, borrowing from the fact that in a lot of ways the Nazis were evil scientists—this being not a fictional example, but a real, historical one that actually took place. Their entire Jewish extermination campaign was based upon the evil, pseudo-scientific idea of Germanic superiority and Jewish inferiority that necessitated their extermination. On top of that, infamous Nazi scientists such as Joseph Mengele conducted all sorts of evil experiments on Nazi prisoners in concentration camps.
The mad scientist character isn't always an evil one. In some films, he's actually one of the heroes. Again, this is just the flip-side of what we said earlier: Whether he's a good guy or a bad guy, this character gives writers & directors the same free-reign to have him conveniently invent whatever is needed for the task (and plot) at hand.
Take the scientist who awakes from a coma in the recent Independence Day film, Brackish Okun. Upon waking, he immediately stumbles into the nearest laboratory and begins engaging in all kinds of scientific shenanigans, while arguably teetering on the verge of insanity: Not wearing pants, recklessly using dangerous equipment while laughing about it, and so on.
And in the Marvel film Thor: The Dark World, we see almost an identical character: Erik, the astronomer, is seen on the news running around completely naked at Stonehenge—babbling incoherently while running away from police and pointing some scientific instrument in the sky.
He gets checked into a mental institution, later released by his friends, only to slowly regain his sanity—again, babbling about science in a later scene, not wearing pants (although this time, at least he's wearing underwear. Progress of a sort?)
Interesting also that we rarely see the bad-guy mad scientist not wearing pants. Perhaps that's because this sort of slapstick humor would take away from the aura of evil that typically surrounds him? ("Once I unleash my nano-weapon, YOUR WORLD IS MINE!!!—oh crap, where did I leave my pants again?")
The insanity of the good-guy mad scientist is typically a quirky, jovial one that's fun for us to laugh at. For the bad-guy mad scientist, however, it's typically a dark and evil type of madness.
In some films you'll even have two mad scientist characters—one a bad guy, the other a good guy—battling it out in the proverbial (and sometimes literal) laboratory.
In Pacific Rim: Uprising, for example, good-guy mad scientist Hermann Gottlieb goes head-to-head with bad-guy mad scientist Newton Geiszler. In this film, bad-guy mad scientist Newton Geiszler has quite literally lost his mind, as it's been partially taken over and corrupted by the kaiju who are attacking Earth.
(Pictured left: Mad scientist. Pictured right: Mad scientist.)
Regardless of what unique form he takes, the mad scientist character has been a staple of Hollywood and literature for many decades. Given their versatility on the big screen in terms of writing and plot devices, it is very unlikely that this character will disappear from the movie theater anytime soon.
April 19, 2021 5 min read