So I decided the other night, during a bout of insomnia, to follow up my list of the 25 Greatest Super Heroes with a companion list of the 25 Greatest Super Villains. Here in the clear light of day, I can see that idea was clearly insane. I mean, I love my Super-Bastards as much as the next guy, but that super hero list just about killed me. So much writing, so much research, so many pictures to find…
But I’ve already spent a sleep-deprived evening just making the list out, and I’d hate to see that go to waste. Maybe, if I break it up into smaller segments, it won’t seem too overwhelming. So… against my better judgment… Here we go again.
Even moreso than with the heroes list, I don’t expect everyone to agree with my rankings. There’s even more classic villains than there are classic heroes, after all, and I had to make some difficult cuts. Hardly any Spider-Man villains made it, for instance, even though I love pretty much all of his classic rogue’s gallery. But, cool as they are, most of them are straight-up traditional bad guy types without much meat on their bones, and I’m looking for a little something extra here. Which brings us, of course, to my criteria for inclusion:
- As with the hero list, the most weight goes to strong creative visions, stories that not only define the character but are also worth reading. So there are some great villains who didn’t make the list simply because nobody’s ever written a particularly great story about them.
- The gimmick. Moreso than super heroes, who are made to last through years of adventure, super villains are all about instant total gratification. They come and go like the wind, and have to sell themselves immediately. So what they need is a good gimmick. A great idea that sells itself without much development, or great dramatic potential that makes them compelling in their own right. The very best of them have both.
- Importance in spandex history. Some villains are great just because of who they are, and who they fight. This is the least important criteria for our purposes here, but in some cases it’s pretty potent. We’ll see some of those as we get into the list, but first…
Honorable Mention 1: General Zod
A Kryptonian war criminal sentenced to the Phantom Zone and set free on Earth, General Zod is a fantastic idea for a villain, and was in fact maybe the fifth or sixth name I thought of when I made up this list. There’s only one problem with him:
He’s only ever been compelling in the movies. Really, it’s only Terence Stamp’s imperious portrayal of him in Superman II that even puts the character on the “Best Bastard” map. Before that film, the Phantom Zone villains were kind of boring. Neat idea, dull execution. And after that film… astoundingly… they mostly disappeared. Other than that John Byrne story where he has Superman execute them, they were barely used at all, and never memorably. There was a story done with Zod just before the DC Reboot that I understand finally developed some of the character’s potential in print. But it’s just too little, too late. So, for lack of actual funnybook goodness, Zod can only rate Honorable Mention.
Honorable Mention 2: Bane
Much like Zod, Bane didn’t make the main list because his movie incarnation’s the only one I actually like. And that’s because MovieBane speaks to the seldom-discussed class issues that are inherent in the Batman character. I’ve written about this a bit in my reviews of Grant Morrison’s Batman run, where it’s also a recurring theme, but to sum it up here… Looked at from a Marxist perspective, Batman is a rich guy who beats up poor people. That’s an incomplete and horribly unfair assessment, of course, but it’s true as far as it goes, and that’s what makes MovieBane’s “power to the people” mob rule philosophies so compelling. That the whole thing is just a ruse is even better, the icing on top of the character’s villainous cake.
And then, of course, there’s Tom Hardy’s awesomely ridiculous Banevoice.
It’s a bold choice, a blatantly over-the-top magnificent bastard of a voice, and it made me love the character from the moment he opened his mouth. I know tons of people hate it because it’s so weird and cheesy, but I can only say that those people have no sense of humor. It’s a classic super-bastard sort of voice, one that wouldn’t be entirely out of place on the Adam West TV show, and anyone who loves spandex fiction should embrace that shit for the brilliant chunk of molten pop culture goodness it is.
But again, that’s MovieBane. FunnybookBane has unfortunately embraced none of the traits I love so much in MovieBane. He’s not a complete loss, you understand. The Criminal Mastermind is a tried and true villain archetype, even if he is a juiced-up musclehead. Plus… He wears a luchador mask! And that’s gotta count for something. It just doesn’t count enough for me to put him in the top 25.
Most robot super villains lack the real villainous spark needed to make this list. The problem with them is that they’re too often the pawns of their creators, human villains with more personality. Not so with Ultron. Because Ultron was created by Hank Pym, the Hero Voted Most Likely to Screw Up. Seriously, you’d think that the history of nervous breakdowns, reluctant super-villainy and spousal abuse would be enough for one hard-luck hero, but no. No, Pym also had to go and create the Avengers’ arch-enemy, a genocidal robot with daddy issues that’s capable of taking shots from a freaking Norse god.
It’s the daddy issues that really make Ultron great, understand. That, and his single-minded drive to kill all humans. But that drive’s really just a manifestation of his desire to prove himself better than the father who rejected him. So… Genocidal daddy issues.
Genocidal daddy issues that have haunted Hank Pym to the point of despair. It’s Ultron-guilt that’s responsible for the nervous breakdowns, and the nervous breakdowns that drove him to gob-smack his wife, and the shame of that life-shattering incident of abuse that lead him down the path to his flirtation with villainy. Pym’s long-since reformed, of course, but still… Any Super-Bastard who can ruin his creator’s life so thoroughly is certainly deserving of a spot on the list.
Superman’s imperfect duplicate. Bizarro’s seen many different takes over the years, from his original appearance as a tragic monster, to an evil Frankenstein type, to the whacky “opposite land” version that made him a Superman mainstay in the Silver Age. I love ’em all, but it’s that last version that cements the character’s place among the greatest Super-Bastards of all time. Though he was more of a nuisance than an actual bad guy, Bizarro’s “Me do opposite of Superman” mentality is ceaselessly entertaining in its silliness, and has made the character’s name into dork slang. If I were to say, for instance, that Rob Liefeld is the Bizarro Jack Kirby, I’m betting that every single person reading this sentence would know exactly what I meant.
The comedy back-up strip “Tales of the Bizarro World” is the go-to feature for Bizarro, I suppose. But the character was maybe put to the best (or at least most heart-rending) use by Alan Moore in his farewell to the Silver Age Superman, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow.”
You can call that “grimdark” if you like, but damn. That’s simultaneously funny, horrifying, and sad. A masterful bit of writing that hurts to read, and makes you sad he’s gone. A nice way to say farewell to a silly character we were never supposed to see again.
Created in 1973 by Jim Starlin, Thanos has always struck me as more than a little derivative of Jack Kirby’s Darkseid (who – SPOILER! – we’ll be discussing later). I almost didn’t include him on the list, in fact, but then I remembered the thing that really sets Thanos apart: he’s in love with Death. And not just in a kill-crazy bad guy kind of way, either. He’s actually romantically devoted to the cosmic embodiment of Death. Of course, she’s a cold and aloof sort of lover, one who seldom actually deigns to acknowledge his existence, and is usually only using him when she does. So he’s REAL emo a lot of the time.
Anyway, this means that Thanos kills people by the millions, just to impress a girl. That is absolutely brilliant, and might be enough to land the big guy a spot all by itself. But, as written by Starlin back in the Seventies, the Thanos Saga is also one of the most ridiculously prog rock funnybooks you’re ever likely to read. It’s all deep philosophical brooding, punctuated by lots of yelling and genocide! IN SPACE! There’s a drunken troll, the angriest man in the universe, and a hero who gains “acid trip” as a super power! It’s completely insane, and a fun read if you’re in the right frame of mind. The later Infinity Gauntlet stuff isn’t bad, either, but it’s not as trippy and weird as the earlier work, and therefore not as interesting.
22. Black Adam
Created by Otto Binder and CC Beck in 1945, Black Adam was used only once in the Golden Age, and killed off. But there was always something compelling about him. The costume, for one thing. Though it’s just a variation of Captain Marvel’s, it works better somehow; for me, it’s easily in the top ten super-suits ever designed (Oooo! ANOTHER list to do!).
But there’s more to like here: Black Adam is Captain Marvel’s Opposite Number, his equally-matched arch-enemy. He was the first champion chosen by the wizard Shazam, in the days of ancient Egypt, which gives him exactly the same powers. But Adam was corrupted by them over time and eventually banished, also making him a Good Guy Gone Bad.
That maybe wasn’t such hot stuff in the Golden Age, but in the long run he’s fared far better than his arch-enemy. Modern writers and artists (Jerry Ordway and Geoff Johns most notably) have really plumbed the depths of the character, exploring all those fascinating shades of grey. Over the course of a decade or more, Black Adam was rehabilitated from a Good Guy Gone Bad to a Noble Villain (another of the all-time great super-bastard archetypes), and even eventually made into something of an Anti-Hero (a Noble Villain sub-archetype). In that role, he’s been faced with moral dilemmas, and when he stayed true to the morality of his day, found himself ostracized and vilified (re-vilified?) for his actions.
Though I can’t point to any of those books as truly great comics, they make up one of the better character arcs in 21st Century corporate spandex. They’ve made Black Adam a really compelling pulp character, a conflicted heroic villain who’s easily earned his spot on the list.
21. Professor Pyg
In light of this character’s relative newness, I seriously debated including him on the list. He’s only appeared twice, really, and both times written by his creator, Grant Morrison, as part of his “day-glo horror show” take on Batman and Robin. All we’ve got is his creator’s vision of him, and that gives him perhaps an unfair advantage over longer-lived characters who’ve suffered through revamps, revisions and retcons that may have damaged them as characters. But in the end, I decided that didn’t matter. Creative vision is our number one priority here, after all, and Pyg’s got that, in spades.
A psychotic performance artist with a background in the “extreme” freakshow industry, Professor Pyg is obsessed with perfection and mind control. He turns his enemies into freakish Dollotrons, “perfect little ladies” with hideous synthetic meat masks. They’re like some kind of Raggedy Anne zombies, devoid of free will and enslaved to Pyg’s commands.
He also has ties to The Circus of the Strange, a group of criminal sideshow performers whose members include a hideously strong bearded fat lady, kung-fu-fighting siamese triplets, a new variation of old-school bat-villain Dr. Phosphorous, and the awesome (but tragically-murdered) Mr. Toad.
So… great gimmick? Check. But for all his outrageous surface, Pyg is a complex madman, a figure as worthy of pity as he is of hate. A victim of the Black Glove’s non-stop world-wide debauchery, Pyg’s madness is based in both a deep-seated shame and perverse delight at his own imperfections. His pig mask is now more of a face to him than his real features, and he regularly punishes himself over imagined failures. He’s given to cryptic but revelatory ravings over whatever horrors were inflicted on him to leave him in this sorry state. But I think Damian Wayne put it best: