In a lot of forms of media, the antagonists are every bit as gripping–if not more so!–than the heroes themselves. Look no further than professional wrestling. A lot of wrestling stories are centered around a babyface’s trials and tribulations against the heels that seek to destroy him.
But so often, it’s the heels who really shine. Whether that’s because they get to let a bit more loose and have more fun, or because we all secretly appreciate a solid win-at-all-costs mentality, wrestling fans are historically drawn to the heels.
This extends to other mediums, as well. One of my absolute favorite television characters of the 2000’s has been Giancarlo Esposito’s Gustavo Fring from Breaking Bad. On a show where epic, award-worthy performances were as everyday as brushing your teeth, Esposito was separately brilliant as the cartel kingpin. His quiet, simmering menace was palpable, and you always bought the threat he presented to the other characters.
And comic books are obviously more of the same. Some of the most lasting characters in the medium have been the villains who stand between our heroes and their righteous goals. Maybe it’s because the villains drive the story. Without them, the heroes would just be yelling at bad drivers to slow down. The villains actually create the plot.
When I recently listed my favorite comic book characters of all time, no real villain was ever in consideration for a high spot. If I had expanded to a top… thirty? Maybe. But the opening salvo was always going to be hero-heavy.
Why is that?
I can think of two possible reasons.
The first, and more obvious, is that while the villains push the PLOT, the heroes drive the characterization. So while villains can be responsible for the stories I love, it’s generally the heroes who the reader can more easily relate to. You see more of their day-to-day struggle. They are often fighting FOR something, while the nemeses are just an obstacle. So when you think about fully-realized characters, heroes are who will jump to mind.
The second point relates to the first. Sometimes a villain does reach beyond just being a foe. They get their own books. They become the protagonists of their own tale. And if the villain becomes popular enough… they become a hero! So many of the best comic book “villains” haven’t been a villain in ages. Black Cat, Catwoman, Emma Frost, Venom, Harley Quinn, Deadpool. It goes on.
And that brought up the most interesting proposition as I worked on this list. How “villainous” do these villains have to be? Where is that incredibly blurry line between savior and monster?
I could see an argument to be made for Anyone Who Has Ever Been A Villain as the basis for this list. I could also see a rationale for Only Include Dire Villains Who Have Never Been Purely Altruistic.
I tried to straddle the line.
My standard was that a character has to be considered a villain first, and his or her best stories or moments should have occurred as a villain. This rules out characters who made my Honorable Mentions segment from the Favorite Characters list (Emma Frost and Black Cat, neither of whom I consider a villain any more than I would Rogue from the X-Men anymore), and others who would otherwise have been here (Harley Quinn and Deadpool).
With that wishy-washy protocol in place, let’s get to the list.
10. Powerhouse (Savage Dragon)
Powerhouse is one of the villainous Freaks of the Chicago Vicious Circle in Savage Dragon, but he is much more respectful and honorable than most of his peers. Maybe it’s because he literally has the blood of gods coursing through his veins (though… respectful and honorable doesn’t really describe many of the gods in Savage Dragon).
Powerhouse’s name suits him, as he is quite strong and has the typical flying brick powerset. And, like I said, there always seemed to be a wannabe good guy under all those feathers.
Also, his fight with Brainiape led to a few really funny moments (“Which came first? The chicken or the ape?!”)
D-tier Spidey villain Boomerang was the focal point of the early 90’s mini-series Deadly Foes of Spider-Man, and he was actually a pretty worthwhile character therein. Then in the 2010’s, Nick Spencer got his hands on him for Superior Foes of Spider-Man and made Fred Myers a hell of a character.
Boomerang is obnoxious, unreliable, crooked, and yet still has a heart. His misadventures were a lot of fun to behold in that latter series. And then Spencer brought him around again (you could say he CAME BACK, like a… you get it) in the revitalized current run of Amazing Spider-Man. Boomerang as Spidey’s roommate? Good stuff.
Boy, Buu almost doesn’t count based on my standards of ignoring former villains more known for their heroism, but I couldn’t deny it; I love Buu, and he was a villain longer than a good guy in DBZ (and I tend to ignore DBS).
After a run of deadly serious, very stern villains across Dragon Ball Z (Raditz, Vegeta, Frieza, the Androids, Cell), the last Z arc introduced us to Buu, and for at least a while, he was a breath of fresh air.
He didn’t want to destroy everything or rule the cosmos. Buu just wanted to have fun and eat candy. And if a hero tried to stop him, well Buu would unleash his till-then-unheard of power.
Until he got a puppy and a friend. That was all he needed for his inner good guy to come through.
7. Lex Luthor
Lex Luthor is a weird choice to me because I don’t really feel like he should be this high for me–I’ve never considered myself a fan of his portrayals–but the more I thought about it, the higher he climbed.
Lex is such a brilliant study on envy, ego, and politics. The Lex Luthor as President story feels ludicrously ahead of its time nowadays. He fights Superman not because he wants to conquer or has a bloodlust; he just can’t imagine anyone being superior to himself.
That said, I kind of hate Luthor in armor and fist-fighting Superman. It defeats the point of the character. Give me operating-in-the-shadows-and-peddling-influence Luthor over that any day. The Luthor who sees human nature as something he can corrupt and manipulate is a lot better than that silly green and purple mech.
Frequenting battleboards (comic forums dedicated primarily to Who Would Win In A Fight scenarios) has sapped a lot of my love for the CHARACTER of Magneto because it turns out he is somewhat boringly overpowered.
But ignoring that, Erik Lensherr has typically been the best villain who falls into the “hero of his own story” mold. Magneto genuinely thinks what he is doing is right, even as he repeatedly succumbs to the same trappings of the men who murdered his parents in a World War II concentration camp. He’s perpetuating a cycle he can’t even see, and it’s wonderfully tragic.
Erik occasionally tries to walk the heroic line and do things the right way, but his worse nature almost always gets the better of him when it doesn’t yield the quick results he demands.
Two-Face is, for my money, the best Batman villain. Because, unlike The Joker, there is depth and relatability there. Harvey Dent has pulled the Magneto a few times and tried his best to be a hero, but deep down, it’s just not who he is.
You want to sympathize with Two-Face because he is where Batman could end up. Harvey Dent was trying to do right and trying to fight against injustice, but when he was damaged more brutally and irreversibly than Batman ever has been, it broke him mentally. And since then, there is a war inside him. And sometimes the best and most just way to decide the winner of a war… is just with the flip of a coin.
Sure everything about him is so damn on-the-nose, including the silly suits he wears. But that’s not always bad.
Kingpin is like Lex Luthor in that I appreciate him as an above-the-fray villain who wields corporate power much more effectively than, like, super strength or laser beams. I don’t want to see Wilson Fisk duking it out with Spider-Man–that’s absurd–I want to see him being an untouchable force just beyond the legal reach of heroes like Daredevil or Spidey.
Kingpin has been a part of some great Marvel stories across the 616, the Ultimate Universe, the Netflix universe, and the Into The Spider-Verse film. There are layers to the character when it comes to his backstory and his wife, but ultimately it’s hard to ever feel sympathy for him. He’s too far gone.
3. Harry Osborn
Norman Osborn has never felt like a worthwhile character to me. Sure, he has done some awful things and has reached heights (and lows) no other Spider-Man foe has ever managed, but ultimately he was just a costumed baddie to be punched away. He’s just a crazy dude that Spidey fights.
Harry’s short-lived tenure as the Goblin felt much more menacing and personal, though. He was Peter’s best friend. His family lived in the same house as Peter’s. Harry was violent and psychotic, but he had flashes of the good man he used to be. Peter didn’t want to punch him and web him away to prison; he just wanted his best friend back. He didn’t want Liz and Normie to lose him. They would have scenes where they just stood and talked to each other that were far more tense than any battle.
Harry would end up redeeming himself as his last act for many years before he was brought back as a pure supporting cast member. But the whole road to that point was so stressful and well-done by the character.
Doomsday isn’t a character. I can’t discuss many good moments of nuance. He doesn’t really grow all that much. And aside from his initial appearances, he’s mostly been treated like crap.
But man…those initial appearances.
Doomsday was just a hard, mindless, unstoppably violent beast. He was a nightmare given life. There have been SO MANY monsters in comics that were big strong guys, but Doomsday actually backed up his design by punching Superman to death and inspiring a real embedded fear within him.
He gave Superman NIGHT TERRORS. That’s powerful.
1. Captain Cold
Captain Cold is villain who, like others on this list, has tried to be a hero but failed at it.
Like others presented, he has a moral code and sense of honor that many other comic antagonists lack.
And like others still, Leonard Snart is just a man who manages to fight much more powerful heroes.
He just has the best combination of what you could want in a villain. He has an interesting backstory. He has tragedy. He was a villainous mindset mixed with a code. And he’s wildly underrated in terms of cunning and competency.
This wasn’t an easy list to make because I found that eliminating the villains-turned-prominent-heroes thing really cut down on how many villains I actually care about. It turns out that I really do read comics for the HEROES, which seems both obvious and also kind of wild.
That said, I was able to throw together some honorable mentions for you!
LIGHT YAGAMI – The rare pure villain who was also the protagonist of his series, You could never really confuse Light as a good person, even as his goal started off as one in which you could maybe have SOME sympathy. He was just such a great evil, egomaniacal asshole!
GORILLA GRODD – Kind of like the Doomsday aspect where, when he is portrayed well, he is TERRIFYING.
HUNTER ZOLOMON / ZOOM – Hunter is a sad character because even in his own story, he’s not the hero. He’s just a villainous side player. He uses his powers not necessarily to get anything he wants, but instead to force Flash to face the loss he thinks a real hero needs in order to make the hard choices.
BIZARRO – The fun, backwards-speaking, Ed McGuinness drawn goofy Bizarro was always best. If nothing else, he made you slow down and read things more deliberately!
JOKER – Sure he lacks depth and tact, but he’s also had so many great stories. The last issue of No Man’s Land is sneakily one of the best Joker comics ever.
There is a BIG drop-off on my list after that top three. I really appreciate Snart, Doomsday, and Harry. Those three were never in question. You could take the rest of the list, toss the names in the air, and put them back in whatever order they fall.
Man, I feel like such a goodie-goodie schmuck. Why don’t I really enjoy more baddies?
I’ve rambled on enough, though. Who are YOUR ten favorite comic book villains? Let me know in the comments. What are some of your favorites runs or issues of those characters?
Until next time… take care!