Vegeta is Multifaceted
The characters in Dragon Ball are not black and white, but Scouters make it seem that one person is “better” and the other person “worse.” It simplifies people and equates their value with a number. It puts others into classes and makes the Scouter users’ world a little easier to move around in because they can identify themselves by labeling others. Unfortunately, that mentality is not beneficial for anyone.
The characters in Dragon Ball are multifaceted and there are no “bad guys” or “good guys” beyond the roles they play in the story. Just like the rest of us, each person can be viewed from multiple angles and when analyzing a seemingly bad guy such as Vegeta, the more you look at the world from his point of view the more sympathy and understanding you have for his violent behavior. In short, he was a product of his genetics, but even more so his environment.
In an interview with ComicBookResources.com on April 2, 2009, James Marsters, the actor who played Piccolo in the 20th Century Fox live-action Hollywood adaptation called Dragon Ball Evolution, answered a question about how he perceives the clashing worldviews in the Dragon Ball series. James said, “In Shakespeare, there are really no villains or heroes, there’d just be people behaving in a villainous manner or a heroic manner, and it depends on which chapter of their life you happen to climb in on as to where they fit in the story. And I think that Dragon Ball has the same kind of universe where people start really evil and get redeemed in a fairly realistic way. Not like they’re all butter and cookies all of a sudden, but they do switch sides and they do realize certain things. I think that takes it away from white hats and black hats stapled on characters, which is less interesting.”
The most interesting thing about Vegeta isn’t that he grows up in a repressive society built on class struggle and manages to break past it through his own efforts, but that he purposefully projects the repressive society mentality he grew up with onto others. It’s like when a parent beats a child and the child grows up and has their own kids and beats them too. The negative behavior passes onto others.
For example, King Vegeta instilled in Vegeta’s mind that he was better than others, so when fighting Goku he repeatedly talks about how Goku is a “low class” warrior from a “low class” father. He pushes Goku down and builds himself up. But Goku turns that judgment on its’ head and says he’s thankful for it because it allowed him to come to Earth and meet all of his friends. The box can’t hold him.
When that strategy of self validation stops working, then Vegeta talks about how he is superior to Freeza’s men because he no longer needs the Scouter. That sort of backfires and he almost dies fighting Zarbon. So while continuing to say that he is superior he also talks about how he is the Legendary Super Saiya-jin incarnate, and will be the death of all his opponents. This doesn’t come to fruition either, and Goku one ups him again by beating him to that level.
After this he resorts to his all-purpose fallback by calling himself “The Prince of all Saiya-jins,” because surely no one can take that away from him. Despite the fact that according to the canon storyline, Goku is the only full blooded Saiya-jin left in the universe. So is he saying he’s Goku’s prince? No, not really. It’s a proud, boast ful statement, an emotional recognition of who he is and where he came from. Even after coming to Earth he still thinks more highly of himself than others.
The root of Vegeta’s self-validating statements is a denial of an internal weakness in his character. He makes these external proclamations as a crutch to hold up his own fragile ego in the face of someone better. He holds onto it for as long as he can until it stops working, and then moves onto the next crutch a little bit deeper in his psyche and personal identity.
Vegeta comes from a privileged background and feels he has to uphold that. His identity is centered on the pride that because he was born with these inherent abilities he should be better than everyone else. That’s the whole source of his identity. Without that, he’s nothing. It’s actually very fragile and yet this pride is the origin of his power and motivation to constantly be the best. He simply must be stronger than Goku. He simply must be stronger than Freeza. He simply must be stronger than the Artificial Humans. He simply must be stronger than Cell, and so on.
Why does Vegeta do this? Because it protects him from facing the truth of his own unhappy, painful life. The fact his father is dead. His partner is dead. His entire race is dead and the only one left is a foolish clown. On top of that he spent the first 30 years of his life unwillingly serving a maniacal despot. It’s no wonder he looks so angry!