David Xanatos, the antagonist of the 1994 animated sci-fi fantasy series Gargoyles, is an unambiguously unrepentant A-hole.
He is also, to borrow a quote from another famous fictional A-hole, a “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” and the owner of a multinational corporation that in his own modest estimation is “bigger than many countries you could name.” That immense wealth and scope of influence is tied up in a vast web of investments scattered across the disparate yet intersecting fields of robotics, genetic engineering, cutting-edge weapons research, and mass entertainment. Oh, did I mention he’s a member of the Illuminati?
If that weren’t enough, David Xanatos ranks as one of the most well-written villains to ever grace the annals of children’s animated television, a character whose aptitude for Machiavellian deceit, strategic guile, and flair for the dramatic are so well known, he has a damn trope named after him: the Xanatos Gambit.
The Xanatos Gambit refers to any plan for which all foreseeable, mutually exclusive outcomes benefit the person behind it all — even those that would otherwise appear to be a failure on the surface. The mastermind accounts for every, and I mean every, possible contingency. A Xanatos Gambit is not a plan that relies on multiple desired outcomes to coincide with one another, but rather one that treats any individual outcome itself as a success.
“We didn’t call it the Xanatos Gambit back in the day,” Gargoyles co-creator Greg Weisman said in an expansive interview with Polygon in 2020. “We called them Xanatos tags, because it was always a tag at the end of an episode. It tickles me beyond belief that the trope is named after us.”
Of course, the trope itself does not originate with David Xanatos alone, but rather is believed to have originated from a sixth-century Chinese essay on military strategy attributed to General Wáng Jìngzé and often erroneously credited to Sun Tzu. That said, David Xanatos still stands as one of the greatest fictional characters to exemplify the trope, and thus it bears the distinction of his name.
“I have no idea whether we created it,” Weisman told Polygon. “There must be somebody before us who did it — but we definitely honed it.”
As one can likely venture to guess, David Xanatos demonstrates the Xanatos Gambit multiple times throughout the course of Gargoyles. In the five-part series premiere, “Awakening,” Xanatos fabricates an assault on his own skyscraper stronghold in order to earn the trust of Goliath and his clan. Xanatos then uses that trust to convince Goliath to lead a coordinated counterassault on three compounds owned by a rival corporation in order to steal some classified tech. When Xanatos’ deceit is uncovered, he deploys a troupe of robotic gargoyles modeled after Goliath’s clan in order to defeat them. When these are defeated, it’s revealed that Goliath’s former lover — a gargoyle by the name of Demona — has been working with Xanatos to manipulate Goliath’s clan this whole time. Enraged, Goliath attempts to kill Xanatos before being stopped by Elisa Maza, a police detective who met Goliath while investigating the prior assault on Xanatos’ skyscraper. Xanatos is left unharmed, promptly arrested for possession of stolen property, and later secures his release from prison using his preexisting network of influence.
That’s just one of many, many examples of Xanatos coming out ahead on account of the sheer power of his foresight. The pièce de résistance when it comes to demonstrating Xanatos’ almost supernatural aptitude for concocting plans, however, may not technically qualify as a Xanatos Gambit, but is nonetheless a mind-boggling feat of five-dimensional-chess mastery.
In the eighth episode of the second season, “Vows,” Xanatos asks Goliath — the leader of the Gargoyles, who at this point is his sworn enemy — to be the best man at his wedding to Fox, the onetime leader of the mercenary martial artists known as the Pack and daughter of Halcyon Renard, one of Xanatos’ most embittered business rivals. At first, Goliath balks at the request until Xanatos tells him that Demona, his former lover turned enemy, will be in attendance at the ceremony and “on her best behavior.” Joining the wedding party is Xanatos’ father, Petros, a fisherman from Bar Harbor, Maine, who disapproves of his son’s ostentatious lifestyle and believes that he did not earn his fortune, as it began with a 10th-century coin worth $20,000 that was bequeathed to him by a mysterious benefactor.
Turns out, to the surprise of absolutely no one, Goliath and Demona were merely pawns in an elaborate plot by Xanatos to travel back in time a thousand years to Castle Wyvern, the ancestral home of Goliath’s clan. Shortly after, Xanatos comes to the rescue of Princess Elena, who is betrothed to Wyvern Castle’s future king, Malcolm, and her companion, an emissary of the Illuminati. Upon recognizing Xanatos as an Illuminati member by the unique badge on the lapel of his wedding tuxedo, Xanatos and company escort Princess Elena to Castle Wyvern, wherein Malcolm rewards Xanatos for his bravery by gifting him a bag of coins. Later, Petros witnesses Xanatos hand the Illuminati emissary a sealed envelope before the latter promptly rides off on horseback.
When asked what was in the envelope, Xanatos explains that it contains two smaller envelopes and a list of instructions to be carried out by the Illuminati. He then reveals that one of the two envelopes contains a coin he was awarded by King Malcolm that is to be delivered to his younger self in 1975. The second envelope, which will be delivered to Xanatos 20 years after the first (one week before the present-day events of the episode), offers a detailed account of who sent the coin, how the coin was acquired, and what must be done in order to ensure that the coin is successfully delivered. All of this, Xanatos explains to Petros, is incontrovertible proof of what he has been trying to convince his father for over two decades: David Xanatos is, in fact, a “self-made man.” Now, if you want to know how they get back to the present day, you’ll just have to watch the episode to find out!
Over the course of the series’ first two seasons (and even the series’ third and final season, which Weisman considers non-canonical), David Xanatos achieves several extraordinary feats respective to his status as a mere human rivaled only by the likes of similar characters such as Batman and Lex Luthor. He builds a flying armored exosuit and successfully bests Goliath in hand-to-hand combat, fends off an invasion of his skyscraper stronghold by his stepfather-in-law Oberon (yes, that Oberon, it’s a long story), and even comes a hair’s breadth away from reaching his ultimate goal of achieving immortality — twice. Hell, the first thing this man did in his first appearance in the series was commanding his assistant Owen to purchase Castle Wyvern and have the building airlifted brick by brick from the cliffs of Scotland to the heights of his aforementioned headquarters in New York. When warned of what the venture might cost, Xanatos cooly replies, “You know the answer to that, Owen — pay a man enough and he’ll walk barefoot into hell.”
I mean, say what you want about the man’s questionable moral fiber, but damn: That’s some Big Dick Energy. Well-behaved fictional characters seldom make history, let alone have tropes named after them. And if there’s one thing that David Xanatos would agree on beyond a shadow of doubt, it’s that it is far better to reign in hell than it is to serve in heaven.