Christopher Cantwell has been writing Doctor Doom for eight issues, and with the penultimate issue of his title about to arrive on November 25, Cantwell has dug deep behind Doom's psyche to get a sense of the man behind the iconic mask.
As a lifelong fan of Doctor Doom, I reached out to Cantwell to discuss not just the way his title, created alongside artist Salvador Larroca, has gone inside Doom's head, but why the ruler of Latveria and Reed Richards' hated nemesis remains one of Marvel's most enduring and beloved villains.
Cantwell opened up about his view of Doom's personality, including Doom's own perceptions of himself as a hero or a villain, how he ranks in Marvel's power hierarchy, and even what it's gonna take to get Doctor Doom right in live-action (hint: as the creator of the TV show Halt and Catch Fire, Cantwell's answer is short and sweet).
So fire up your time platform, draw your emerald hood, and shake your fist at Reed Richards along with two Doom super-fans – including the latest creator to drive his adventures.
Newsarama: Christopher, Doctor Doom is one Marvel's most iconic characters. As much as Thanos is the biggest bad guy in current public perception, Doom has often taken that position in the Marvel Universe. What makes Doom so compelling and timeless?
Christopher Cantwell: Doom is not a psychopath. He is not a relentless killer. He has a heart and soul, albeit ones that are warped. Doom has the ability to love others. I think he has a really hard time allowing himself to be loved. That makes a character that can connect with a lot of people, but then also refuse connection or sever connections because of his plethora of hang-ups.
This may be wrong but I think there are limits to Doom's evil. I don't believe Doom would go off and commit genocide. Remember when Thanos turned his daughter Nebula into that messed-up zombie corpse thing in Infinity Gauntlet and then laughed at her as she tottered around his throne? That was scary and disturbing. I don't know if I see Doom doing that. Doom is also colorful, and he's funny. He has a lack of self-awareness at times that makes him a delight to watch.
Which isn't to say he isn't a villain. He is, and once in a while he can do something that chillingly reminds us of that. He can banish his first love to Hell and let her become the property of demons. I think the spectrum of the character is so wide that there can be nearly infinite stories about him.
Nrama: I've been a fan of Doctor Doom since I was a little kid playing with Secret Wars action figures, and he looms large in many peoples' fandom in similar ways. What's your history with Doom?
Cantwell: Well as I type this I'm looking at my own Secret Wars Doctor Doom. That was definitely my first encounter with him too. I was a big Spider-Man reader when I was younger so the Erik Larsen-drawn/David Michelinie-written Amazing Spider-Man #350 issue was one I read over and over and over again. I played Doctor Doom's Revenge on my family PC (which was terrible). I had the Toy Biz figure with the spinning fists (why did it do that)?
Nrama: Doom is so many things - a megalomaniac, a dictator, an unparalleled scientist, and a powerful wizard to name a few. What do you see as the core of who he is that persists no matter what role he's filling?
Cantwell: It's weird to say but he is a natural-born leader. It's not like he's bad at it. He was deposed in Latveria and the Fantastic Four actually helped reinstall him when things got so bad. That's right, the Fantastic Four did a little nation-building. In Triumph & Torment, Doom comes out with Strange as the other most powerful sorcerer but he's also a leader in that book with Strange, that's why they work well together. In major crossover crises, his opinion is usually consulted and it's almost always valuable.
Nrama: Your Doctor Doom series has gone inside Doom's head in a big way, drilling into his perception of himself as, ultimately, a hero. From the outside, as a creator, is Doom a hero or villain? Why is that question so important to Doom as a character?
Cantwell: He is both, sometimes simultaneously. And that question is precisely what makes him so enduring. He is the type of character that if he has a virtuous goal may do some really twisted stuff to reach it, and I don't think it bothers his conscience very much. But he does have a conscience. I'm sure he wishes he didn't, but he definitely does.
Nrama: There was, for years, a rule that Doom's face was never shown. That bridge has since been crossed a few ways, but the mystique of Doom's mask remains. Why is the mask, and what it represents, so important?
Cantwell: The mask to me is the face of malice he feels he must project to the outside world. He cannot appear vulnerable, because actually, I believe Doom is deeply emotionally vulnerable. He is ashamed of that vulnerability, and that vulnerability is represented in his scarred face. I believe Doom has some serious self-worth issues. He is vain and needs to be seen a certain way in order to basically exist and function. The mask perpetuates the toxic sides of his personality that lead to evil deeds and sinister qualities.
There are many different versions of the mask, too.
There is the one version where he literally melted it to his face with the help of monks. It seems Marvel has moved away from that version in the years since, but to me, that version represents conviction and zealousness when it comes to his own truth. That kind of thing is a belief in one's destiny that is so strong, you're committing to it by forever altering your body.
There are full-head versions of the mask, and to me those hide some of Doom's humanity. In those versions, he literally has no flesh showing saved for the gnarled bits around his eyes. That is a Doom that is seriously in hiding. That version seems like he'd prefer not to be human.
Then there are the masks where it just covers his face, and you can actually see his hair. That's what we did in our book and that to me is the most interesting. That suggests a fleeting visage, a mask that can slip off, disappear, and return within a moment's notice.
There is a duality in that mask, a Phantom of the Opera quality to it. That kind of mask to me makes him immediately more vulnerable.
I don't usually like it when his face is healed, like in Secret Wars. I guess with a healed face he might become a psychopath. But mostly it's just hard to watch writers try to 'Final Destination' their way back to a scarred face, as if it's Doom's inescapable destiny to be mangled.
Nrama: You're getting into Doom's rivalry with Reed Richards in Doctor Doom #9, and writing the whole Richards family in Fantastic Four: Road Trip. How do you view the dynamic of their relationship?
Cantwell: Well originally I wanted to have Doom as the villain of Road Trip, but he was kind of all over the place in different books at that moment so we went in another direction. I think Reed and Victor's relationship is fascinating.
It's maddening to me.
Maybe this is a weird comparison but they are totally Betty and Veronica. Do they respect each other? Do they just want to kill each other? I don't think it's so clear cut as Reed is the magnanimous hero and Doom is the dastardly villain. Reed is certainly a very good person and Doom is certainly a very bad one most of the time. But it's their minds that compete most.
I do believe Reed can psychologically torture Victor in ways that he might not even realize. Reed is Doom's Achilles heel. Always will be. Reed will always be in his head. And Reed is smart enough to know that, so the question becomes obvious: why isn't Reed doing more to correct that dynamic? Perhaps he knows he's a fixture in Victor's head and is glad to stay there and stir things up.
Nrama: On that note, how do Reed and Doom's perceptions of their rivalry differ?
Cantwell: I went to the University of South California (USC) and there's a huge storied rivalry between USC and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
I went to college in the early '00s when USC's football team was unstoppable. The USC-UCLA game is always a big draw. I have to tell you, at least back then in my experience… there was no rivalry. Like, what rivalry?
Playing UCLA was like mowing the grass. And I feel like people at USC would shrug like, 'Yeah, we saw that coming' and UCLA students would like, be foaming at the mouth and screaming 'We're gonna destroy you!!!!!' Whoa. Calm down. Even to this day, if someone tells me they went to UCLA I'm like, 'Oh, cool, what'd you study?'
But if I tell someone I went to USC and they went to UCLA, they immediately bring up the rivalry. It's usually in this passive-aggressive joking way like 'Oh man, you're the evil empire,' or 'Player payer, ha!' or 'Reggie Bush lost that Heisman,' or 'I guess we can't be friends.' And I'm just baffled.
Like, why do you care so much that you feel you need to bring this up to me? We're grown people. This doesn't matter to me at all, and all I think now is maybe that person is kind of petty. And then I find myself playing into the rivalry at least internally, where it's like, 'Sorry you played like a YMCA intramural league in the '00s.'
I immediately feel a hierarchy established, with them below. And they established it. I wasn't thinking about football at all. I never do.
So Reed is USC and Doom is UCLA. Doom brings Reed up whenever he can no matter what the topic of conversation is. 'Hey, I'm gonna go to Starbucks, Victor, want anything—' 'I would like Reed Richards' stretchy head on a platter.' Reed is like, 'I'm doing these experiments and saving the world.'
I feel like Reed thinks about Victor maybe once a week. I feel like Victor wakes up and Reed's face is the first thing he sees in his mind. At Victor's funeral, Reed would probably be stoic and say something like 'His was a tremendous mind' and that would be that. At Reed's funeral, Victor would be sobbing and wrapping himself around the casket. He would be crying louder than Sue for god's sake.
It's like when the Monster mourns for Victor Frankenstein and Robert Walton is like, 'You are so full of shit, if he was still alive you would be hunting him down and tormenting and cursing his name, you poseur.'
Nrama: At one time, Doom was canonically considered the smartest person in the Marvel Universe, even over Reed Richards. He's also been called the second greatest sorcerer, behind Steven Strange. While those rankings and perceptions have shifted over the years, what is Doom the best and biggest example of in the Marvel Universe?
Cantwell: Doom is indelible. I feel like his defining trait in the Marvel Universe at this point is his immutability. How many suits of armor has Iron Man had? Spider-Man costumes? The X-Men are changing their clothes and missions statement every five seconds. The Fantastic Four always has guest stars or replacement members or now, kids.
I know Victor recently became Infamous Iron Man but if you think about it he was just making Iron Man Doom. He basically looked like Doom and did a few things that were barely like Iron Man. When Dr. Octopus became Spider-Man he really went for it.
Captain America is indelible as well, but so often he's either being Captain America or not being him. Cap is more of a symbol that is lasting. Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes and John Walker can be Captain America. Doom is Doom is Doom is Doom.
World without end, Amen.
Nrama: As someone who's worked in TV and film as well as comics, what do you think it'll take to get Doom right in live action?
Cantwell: Lee Pace.
Nrama: Whom you know well from Halt and Catch Fire... interesting.
The question from there is, what are your thoughts about how Doom could enter the MCU, and the role he could play for Marvel Studios?
Cantwell: I don't know if he can step in and be the big bad like Thanos. I'm not saying he's not capable of that level of villainy, I just think the character is much more complex and deserves more than the simplistic role of antagonist.
You could do a Beyonder storyline though. I actually think a good comparison is the MCU Loki. Make Doom the big bad of one movie, then have him showing up later and causing havoc, and then towards the end he fights alongside heroes. It would be tonally completely different than Loki but the structure is interesting.
Nrama: Given what you've written with Doom so far, and what you've got coming up, what aspects of his character are you hoping to dig into moving forward?
Cantwell: Well, unfortunately, there are only two issues of the book left—9 and 10, and I wrote those a long time ago, especially because of the pandemic.
Doctor Doom #9 is entirely a Reed / Victor dance, and an interpretation of Victor's pathology when it comes to Reed. It's the only issue in the book where I truly deal with the two of them and I'm really happy with how it turned out. I think 10 seals up our story really nicely and shows us that at the end of the day, despite all his complexities and intentions, this man is a villain.
I would've loved to have done a second arc. No shit my idea for a second arc was: Doom has a stroke in the first issue, and becomes somewhat incapacitated for a while, leaving his rule vulnerable again.
But, and I kid you not, as Doom reflects on his own mortality, he was going to hire / kidnap the greatest living Latverian music composer and force her to write an opera that was to be the history of Latveria's (and thusly his) glory. But as it gets written Doom begins to reflect on (actual) things he did in his past that weren't so great. So at times he rewrites them to make himself look better and at others he lays it all bare and raw.
It was going to be written entirely from the perspective of the composer. The structure of it came from the film Amadeus, where Salieri is desperately trying to keep up with a dying Mozart as he writes the Requiem.
Nrama: How would you explain Doctor Doom and his enduring appeal to someone who's not versed in comic book lore?
Cantwell: Doom isn't just his villain name… It's his real name!!!!!!
Doctor Doom is one of (spoilers: the best) best Fantastic Four villains of all time.