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Batman has an extremely dangerous supervillain gallery. One of those dangerous villains is Victor Zsasz. He is a very dangerous serial killer. Put him in the real world, and Victor Zsasz would be the most infamous serial killer our world has ever seen. But in his own world, Victor Zsasz doesn't even make the top 50 most infamous villains list.

Despite Victor Zsasz being very dangerous, there are still other Batman villains that make him look like a simple police problem. In a way, my title question kind of ties into power creep. But my title question is also about how the more smaller threats can still be taken seriously.

Does the powerful Mob boss get overshadowed by the alien overlord? Do the ninja organizations get overshadowed by the underground Vampire cults? Does the powerful militia get overshadowed by the secret Wizard societies?

In conclusion, my main question here is: does the escalation of threats in a superhero world make smaller threats look irrelevant?

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    Irrelevant to who? What would bother you more: Getting robbed at knife-point by some punk, or some supervillain blowing up a bank you have nothing to do with?
    – user54131
    May 25, 2022 at 6:25
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    Wouldn't this be more appropriate for worldbuilding stackexchange?
    – Phil S
    May 25, 2022 at 13:17
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    I’m voting to close this question because it is asking for both opinions and verging on what to write. These questions are much more suited for WorldBuilding@SE, which examines the impacts on society as they applies to storytelling.
    – EDL
    May 25, 2022 at 18:21
  • Did you watch any of the Marvel Defenders series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist)? They take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the protagonists are much weaker heroes and they deal with much smaller threats which are below the radar of the Avengers or other A-list Marvel heroes..
    – Philipp
    Jun 24, 2022 at 13:06

3 Answers 3

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Just because there are big problems in a fictional universe, does not mean that the small problems go away.

Let's say you have a world where alien overlords want to subjugate all intelligent life, demonic armies from hell want to eat the souls of all humans and literal gods plan to end the very existence of the universe. In such a world, the story of a criminal gang committing crimes in a bad city district and the heroes trying to stop them might not be the most important story to tell. But just because the story is not all that important, it could still be an interesting story. Because it is a story involving people whose lives are directly affected by it.

The average person might be a bit worried about the alien fleet in low Earth orbit and hope that the mightiest superheroes of Earth will be able to save the day. But in the end they can't do much more than watch and continue living their life. Their lives will have conflicts which might not matter too much for the fate of the universe, but which matter for their own fate. They will definitely care about "normal" criminals committing "normal" crimes which cause "normal" victims, and demand that someone does something about them. They might understand that The Avengers might have their hands full at the moment, but can't they get at least someone like, say, Daredevil?

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"In conclusion, my main question here is: does the escalation of threats in a superhero world make smaller threats look irrelevant?"

In some aspects, it does. People prioritize self-preservation so they will logically go after, eg. the alien invader instead of the serial killer. This in turn can be abused by lower-prioritized criminals to reign free as long as the aforementioned threat continues to threaten our existence.

Of course, doing this can be difficult to maintain in a story as now you have to follow two perspectives, but in doing so you open up ways to:

  • Explore themes, and
  • Develop characters, not to mention
  • Introducing new plot points
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Sort of. It's A Matter Of Perspective

Let's say there are two types of threats. Individual threats and Societal threats. Individual threats can only kill a person or a small group of people. Societal threats can take out entire buildings or cities all at once.

A murderer would be an Individual threat. A greedy tyrant starting a war would be a Societal threat. So, let me pose the following question.

Does that make the local serial killer any less of a threat if there's a war going on?

No, the serial killer is still taking lives. They are very much a threat to their neighborhood, but which is more important, stopping the war or stopping him? Clearly, more resources should go to ending the war, but if you ignore the threat of the serial killer, your neighborhood will be in chaos.

Also, being exposed to more carnage can often desensitize people. Let's say some Societal threat has been killing off civilians left and right. People are taken home in body bags every day.

After a while, wouldn't people be a bit desensitized to violent acts like that? Learning of a serial killer doesn't hit as hard when people are dying in droves every other day. Like with the mention of the war, they become small news compared to the war.

But let me offer a counterpoint. Sometimes the Individual threat hits harder because it's hitting you as an Individual. The Societal threat may scare you, but it's far away.

For example, I know that in some other countries the heroes are caught in some life or death battle with some big bad that's burning down forests and wiping out cities, but that's a long way away and has nothing to do with your average John or Jane Doe. It's a matter of distance. The closer the threat the bigger it feels. If the heroes are fighting some guy in Dimension X or Planet Y or someplace halfway across the world, why should I care? But if the Joker's planning to wipe out my entire neighborhood in the next five minutes, then I care a lot.

You also need to consider the brutality and cunning of these villains. Fireblaze in a Societal threat. His power is that he makes massive wildfires and he could wipe out an entire city by sneezing the wrong way.

He's also dumb as a rock, easily tricked, and goes on laughable monologues like a villain from a bad show. His powers are the only reason anyone fears him.

In contrast, the villain Manipulator has no powers. None at all. He's just a surprisingly clever serial killer.

He's a master of disguise, ridiculously intelligent, and he's outsmarted some of the best minds the Hero Union has to offer time and time again despite being at a clear disadvantage.

He's also brutal, killing his victims in increasingly creative and sickening ways with each kill he gets.

Who's scarier, the villain who could blow up your neighborhood or the villain who could be hiding in your neighborhood right now?

The answer is both are scary. They're just scary for different reasons.

The Joker mostly stays in Gotham (as far as I know) and Darkseid is a potentially world-ending threat. One's an Individual threat, and the other's Societal, but both are scary in their own right.

Now, you can ignore the smaller threats to fight the bigger threats. You just shouldn't ignore them for long. Sometimes small threats become big threats, especially if you leave them to fester for too long.

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