Villains Month: Skullmaster

For the month of October, I will be highlighting a different villain every day and giving some character analysis on them. I want to avoid particularly popular and well-traveled ones, but nonetheless I am generally picking characters I believe to particularly imposing or cool. I will try to get at what makes these villains tick, and what makes them memorable. These will not be in any particular order, nor do I necessarily consider them objectively the best. They are simply villains I particularly like and want to talk about. There may be spoilers floating around as well. So without further ado, let’s get to the one everyone knew I was going to talk about first!

I talked a bit about Skullmaster back in my Mighty Max review, wherein I stated that he is one of my favorite villains of all time. I’ll lift the paragraph I wrote about him, as I think it gets a lot of the point across:

  • Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the series is its villain. While I find the protagonists enjoyable and entertaining, Skullmaster is fairly unique among cartoon badguys. A superficial reading of the character might give the impression that he is simply a poor man’s Skeletor, as he is indeed a warrior and sorceror who has a skeletal face. Nothing could be further from the truth. In contrast to most villains of his type (and Skeletor in particular), Skullmaster was not incompetent. In fact, he won on more occasions than he lost against Max and company, and even their victories against him were mixed at best. Where most villains of his type threw their enemies in dungeons or put them in easily escapable traps, Skullmaster MURDERED PEOPLE. Just about anyone who came across him or his legions of evil died, and the show states that he not only slew everyone in Atlantis by stealing their souls, but raised their bodies as his personal army of the undead. He was smarter than Virgil (at least most of the time) and stronger than Norman, which led the viewers to truly wonder how Max was ever going to defeat him. Most of all, Skullmaster had style, and is to this day one of my favorite villains.

So, given all that, what else is there to say? A fair bit, actually. For one thing, I think a villain is only as good as their motivations, and while I talk a lot about Skullmaster being really scary, there isn’t a great deal on what it is he wants or why he does what he does. We don’t exactly get a ton of backstory on Skullmaster, though we know a bit based on this exchange:

Skullmaster: So, Virgil, old friend. Even though you were my teacher in those distant Lemurian days, there were many lessons you never taught me.

Virgil: Lessons of cruelty and selfishness.

Skullmaster: Lessons of effectiveness and realism. In case you hadn’t noticed, old friend, the world can be a very cruel place.

If we’re to take Skullmaster at his word here, which may be a dubious prospect as he has no qualms about lying to get whatever he wants, Skullmaster sees idealism and morality as being ineffectual and naive, and what  most people call evil as being the natural state of the world. Hence, one could follow that Skullmaster sees the path to power as becoming the most evil and vicious bastard alive, which, in the series, he is. It’s not exactly an extremely complex or tragic origin for villainy, but to be honest, I think adding humanity to Skullmaster in that way would damage his ability to be a particularly terrifying lord of evil. I imagine him being the sort who saw how Virgil could use Lemurian calculus to read the future, and he asked why his master didn’t use that knowledge to become king of Lemuria, or the whole world, for that matter. Virgil would offer up any number of ethical platitudes about why such things are not done, which Skullmaster would see as idiotic. Hence, the sort of brilliant and arrogant man that he is decided if his teacher wouldn’t take power, he would.

Skullmaster’s goals are pretty standard supervillain fare as well. He wants to take over the world. Of course, the way he talks about it is what is telling. Skullmaster often refers to forcing others to bow before him, which means he’s not doing it for any sense of idealism, twisted or otherwise. He is clearly obsessed with power and its trappings for their own sake, and any world he ruled would be a cruel one, where his subjects were not treated particularly well. Given this, and the fact that his endgame plan is to become god, so people will not only worship him in the present, but also from the beginning of time to the end, I believe Skullmaster is a megalomaniac, given to a desire for omnipotence and control, and unwilling to share that power with anyone.

Despite the fact that Skullmaster’s origins and goals are somewhat standard fare for a top tier supervillain, I wouldn’t say he’s utterly one-dimensional. While he is completely amoral, willing to murder and lie to get whatever he wants with virtually no sentiment holding him back, he has his subtle shows of relation to the other characters around him. Toward Max, the Mighty One, he has a rather complicated set of feelings. He speaks of his hatred and fear of the Mighty One as he waited in the underworld.  Since Max is a child, Skullmaster is not initially afraid of him, but Max proves that he is not to be underestimated one time after another. It seems to me that Skullmaster is afraid of Max, and absolutely hates that he is afraid of such a weakling, so he takes extra pains to kill Max and make him suffer. As for Virgil, Skullmaster seems to consider his old mentor rather doddering, hidebound fool, but nevertheless possessed of wisdom even he doesn’t fully understand. If Skullmaster were to leave any of Max’s band alive, I believe it would be Virgil. Likely he would be kept in dire slavery and forced to follow Skullmaster’s every command or be tortured, but for Skullmaster, that’s a slight sign of respect. Finally, I particularly like Skullmaster’s relationship with his bodyguard/protegee Warmonger. Warmonger is a demon, as cruel as Skullmaster and probably even more treacherous, but not as intelligent. In the episode “I, Warmonger” Skullmaster engineers a rather circuitous plan to trick Max and Virgil out of a powerful artifact, and does so largely by tricking Warmonger into betraying him. When Warmonger realizes he was duped, he reacts in sheer terror, but Skullmaster simply compliments him for being a skilled enough minion to betray his master when the opportunity presented itself.

In the end, Skullmaster is one of my favorite villains because everything he does, he does well. He’s supposed to be intelligent, and he is. He’s supposed to be scary, and, voiced by Tim Curry and usually draped in shadows, he is. He’s supposed to be lethal, and given his very high body count for a cartoon character, he is. He’s supposed to be the ultimate evil, and as a guy who lives at the center of the Earth, has endless legions of monsters, and a magic crystal that steals souls to harvest their energy, he really is.

This video, which I did not make, is a nice highlight reel of Skullmaster at his most deliciously evil. Sleep well, if you dare!