At least some of us pay attention to the world around us.
When we do, many of us wonder what goes on in the minds of those who shun the light, those who wear the mask of humankind yet commit deeds deemed dark, violent, and just plain evil against others. What makes those we call villains villainous?
Is it as simple as attachment? Is it clinging to desire for things denied? Not all who want go so far as to impose their will on others, though. What pushes one person to violate the rights of another? We've all heard it before. The common experiences that drive these actions are fear, anger, hatred and suffering. Fear itself is anticipatory of an experience. Anger and hatred are indicators of the level of attachment placed on experiences. Suffering is what remains, the scars of a traumatizing experience typically measured in terms of perceived intensity and endurance. At its worst, suffering survived manifests as madness, scarring so severe on one's intangible essence of self that the resultant alterations can become utterly abhorrent. Those whose selves have become so lost as to become a menace to themselves and those around them, may have no chance of recovery.
"Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad," said Prometheus (Longfellow, The Masque of Pandora).
To be cut from the cloth of Moriarty, Keyser Soze, Ozymandias, Morgan Le Fay, Shiwan Khan, Sauron or Emperor Palpatine, is to have found the path to wrangling the wills of others. It was easily done because the will of others is insignificant next to people whose self-perceived greatness has set them beyond the laws and conventions of ordinary mortals. Megalomania is a special form of madness where an easily understandable lust for greater power is coupled with genius enough to make it seem attainable. From there, who knows how far one may try to run with it?
Penguin, on the other hand, does have distinctive personality traits. His upbringing was that of a studious "mama's boy". She's the one who pushed him to always carry the umbrella. He's very intelligent, but also obsessive. He has been portrayed as greedy, cunning, vengeful, social-climbing, approval-seeking. His drives come from greed, obsession and insecurity. Unlike many of Batman's foes, he's not emotionally disturbed or blatantly insane. He is, however, determined not to be the impoverished, persecuted misfit he was as a child.
Lex Luthor's desire for greatness is certainly megalomania, but his usual entertainment of blissfully crushing the dreams of others (not to mention the occasional bare-handed strangulation) and toying with their tiny lives became overshadowed by his burning hatred for Superman. Worse than having his spotlight stolen, suffering the humiliation of interference in his plans is more than Luthor is willing to endure. His greatest goal is to see Superman dead, with impunity, by his hand. Luthor is so dedicated to this end that he has even helped Superman against other villains to save Superman for himself.
Maybe that sounds crazy, but he's not the only one who'd go so far. Stop me if you've heard this one...
Joker's stand-out feature isn't that he's a cunning mastermind or even the snappiest dresser (not to say he has anything short of killer fashion sense), but a mind driven to chaos. Born from suffering and loss, his unbridled unpredictability is one of his greatest assets. He wants to dance and Batman is the only dance partner he truly cares about. The steps he takes to lead the way into madness are those he thinks are funny. He doesn't just kill anyone available or steal shiny things. He doesn't just spray acid and create mayhem for mayhem's sake. He does it all for laughs. How dark is the heart that sees every bruise, broken bone or murdered victim not as perpetrated evil, but as one more punchline in a neverending series of jokes?