From Ra's Al Ghul to the Joker, we explore the greatest comic book villains of all time and what made them so unforgettable
Superheroes wouldn't be who they are without a good (or, should we say, evil) villain. The villain plays just as vital a role as the hero in any comic book. They provide a sense of danger, or excitement, and unease. Without a villain, the hero has no real challenge, nothing to triumph over. They'd lead easy, uncomplicated lives — which wouldn’t make for the most exciting plot.
Every hero needs a villain. But not all villains are created equal. Some villains have an edge to them that makes them truly unforgettable. Let’s explore the greatest comic book villains of all time — some old, some new, and some who changed comic books and popular culture forever.
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1. The Joker
Over the years, the Joker has evolved into one of the greatest comic book villains of all time. Other Batman villains have had their time in the spotlight, and while many might be popular in their own right, no Batman villain really compares to the complexity of the Joker. Over the years, the Joker has changed, become more complicated, more sinister, and, somehow, more human. He's unpredictable, obsessive, and diabolical. He can't beat Batman, or other villains, in terms of gadgets, weapons, or strength, but his character is so intriguing that he has endured for more than seventy years and continues to enthrall readers and audiences.
2. Lex Luthor
The MCU has turned Marvel superheroes into household names. They're now ingrained into popular culture. Even people who don't read comics love the Spider-Man films or the Iron Man trilogy. But arguably, the most popular superhero in the world is still Superman. Here’s the thing — Superman is the hero he is, only because he has a counterpart like Lex Luthor to challenge him.
Just as the Joker has evolved over the years, so has Lex Luthor. He began simply as an evil scientist, but he went on to become an evil businessman, an evil politician, and an evil supervillain. What's more, Lex Luthor has the charisma and persuasive skills to rally a team of supervillains. Even the Joker has worked for Lex Luthor. Lex Luthor is also one of the few Golden Age comic book villains who has lasted since his debut.
Scarecrow (Dr. Jonathan Crane), the Master of Fear, made his debut in “World's Finest Comics #3” in 1941. The ex-professor of psychology has been using his experimental toxins for years, exploiting the people of Gotham City with their phobias. Along with the Joker, Scarecrow is one of Batman's most enduring villains. What makes him truly terrifying is that when he targets you, he makes you your worst enemy. Your mind betrays you, and you're not able to separate fiction from reality — unless you're the Joker, who doesn't seem to be affected by Scarecrow's toxin.
Klaw (Ulysses Klaue) is yet another man of science-turned-villain. He's faced the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, and, of course, the Black Panther. His first appearance was in “Fantastic Four #53” in 1966. Due to a vibranium-powered sonic converter, Klaw was converted into a being of solid sound, with superhuman strength and durability.
5. Ra’s al Ghul
The Joker is often seen as Batman's arch-nemesis, but let's say for the sake of argument that this isn't necessarily true. What if there's another villain who presents more internal conflict for Batman?
As CBR suggests, Batman's real arch-nemesis could just be Ra's al Ghul, the immortal head of the League of Assassins. Of all the villains Batman has faced, Ra's is the one who can truly match his genius. In fact, they share a lot in common. Ra’s first appearance was in “Batman #323” (1971). Ra’s is powerful, brilliant, and rich. Both Batman and Ra's were born from tragedy — Batman from the loss of his parents and Ra's from the loss of his wife. From the moment he was introduced, Ra's was unlike any villain we'd seen before. What's truly compelling about this villain is he demonstrates what could have happened had Batman chosen another path.
Hela is based on the Norse goddess, Hel. First introduced in “Journey into Mystery #102” in 1964, Hela possesses superhuman strength, agility, stamina, and speed. She's so strong she can engage in direct combat with Thor and put up a good fight. On top of this, Hela has mystical powers, such as astral projection. Furthermore, as a Death Goddess, Hela has a pact with Death that allows her to claim the souls of any worshipper of the Asgardians.
Magneto might just be Marvel's greatest villain — because he's not really a villain.
In “X-Men #1”, Magneto was described as “Earth's Most Powerful Super Villain.” But over the years, Magneto became so much more than a one-dimensional comic book crook. Stan Lee, Marvel Comics' creative leader, himself even once said of Magneto:
"I did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He just wanted to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist ... he was trying to defend the mutants, and because society was not treating him fairly he was going to teach society a lesson. He was a danger of course ... but I never thought of him as a villain."
The clash of ideals between Professor X and Magneto paints Magneto as a villain, and although he has done evil things, he remains a friend of Professor X and, deep down, someone who just wants peace. This conflict is compelling and keeps us enthralled.
8. The Green Goblin
In the list of the world's most notable comic book villains, Norman Osborn (the Green Goblin) was ranked #13 by IGN. He is generally considered to be Spiderman's archenemy. He is even responsible for the death of Gwen Stacy, the woman Spiderman loved.
While the Green Goblin originally appeared as a manifestation of Osborn's insanity, Osborn's power depends on his ability to keep his sanity intact — something less likely as time goes by.
Catwoman represents Batman's chief female nemesis. Debuting in “The Cat,” back in 1940, Catwoman is a complicated character, being portrayed as a villain, an anti-heroine, and, of course, Batman's love interest.
Interestingly, between the years of 1954 and 1966, the character took a hiatus due to the Comics Code Authority and rules regarding the development and portrayal of female characters. She has appeared in IGN's "Top 100 Comic Book Villains of All Time" list, as well as their "Top 100 Comic Book Heroes of All Time", demonstrating the complexity of her character.
We can't discuss comic book villains without mentioning Thanos, particularly following the success of the Avengers movies.
Thanos is certainly one of the most powerful villains of the Marvel Universe. As a mutant member of the superhuman race known as Titan Eternals, Thanos has had power bestowed upon him by Death. Thanos has superhuman speed, strength, stamina, and, of course, immortality. He is capable of telekinesis and telepathy and is accomplished in hand-to-hand combat. To make matters worse, he is also a genius, making him an almost undefeatable foe.
Darkseid is the tyrannical ruler of Apokolips, debuting in “Forever People #1” in 1971. He is one of the most powerful beings in the DC Universe, as well as an archenemy of the Justice League. Darkseid's most notable powers are his Omega Beams, a pulse of energy he can omit from his eyes, capable of erasing people and objects from existence.
While Superman is resistant to his beams, they do cause a great deal of pain. Darkseid's also got incredible amounts of super strength and can move with great speed, so much so he can even give Superman chase. Although he possesses these powers, and more, he usually chooses to use his superhuman intelligence to control or manipulate others to do his deeds.
12. Doctor Doom
Doctor Doom, an archenemy of the Fantastic Four, was once ranked #4 by Wizard on its "101 Greatest Villains of All Time" list and #3 on IGN's "Top 100 Comic Book Villains of All Time".
Doctor Doom is a genius and, of course, a scientist (there are a surprising number of comic book villains with PhDs). Doctor Doom has invented a number of doomsday machines in his time. He is known as one of the most intelligent people in the Marvel Universe. On top of this, Doctor Doom is a powerful sorcerer, capable of energy absorption and protection, dimensional travel, and healing — a truly terrifying and formidable comic book villain.
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