The Biggest Bads
The best supervillains don’t just fight superheroes. They hold up a mirror, presenting a tantalizing vision of a super-id unleashed. No wonder we love the bad guys so much: They get to do everything that the good guys would never let us do.
10. Dark Phoenix
Jean Grey was a kind person, so bland that she made boredom look aspirational. Then came absolute power – and everything changed. Despite goofy retcons and half-baked adaptations, the fiery wonder of Dark Phoenix Saga hasn’t dimmed one bit. It’s the essential terror of the werewolf legend: Not of “becoming” evil, but of revealing the terrifying inner self that was always lurking within. Decades before Breaking Bad, Dark Phoenix was the original Heisenberg.
A world-devouring skyscraper-man who represents the literal high point of co-creator Jack Kirby’s religio-scientific mythmaking. The freakiest thing about Galactus is that just doesn’t care: About the worlds he destroys, or the untold billions of sentient lives he snuffs out. He’s a vision of an aloof God – and, perhaps, a looming parody of modern apathy in the face of violent destruction.
A slobber-goopy roid-thing with a Gene Simmons tongue and a thirst for mature-content ultraviolence, Venom represents all the gritty-gross excess of the Dark Age of comics, ’80s decadence spitshined with ’90s grunge. The black symbiote-costume has affixed to different hosts, and always brings out the worst repressed aspects of their personality. No wonder Venom’s so popular: He’s the internet with teeth.
Every superhero is a failure. Peace on Earth? Batman can’t even keep the Joker behind bars. So maybe Adrian Veidt is the greatest hero of all: Thanks to him, a world at war becomes a global human society united in common cause. Of course, they’re united in fear – which also makes Ozymandias the world’s most successful terrorist. Lex Luthor’s not on this list, but only because Watchmen‘s twist-ending baddie represents the mad-genius billionaire archetype at its most vivid extreme.
Thor’s nefarious brother existed in comics for decades – and in mythology for centuries! – but the character’s sudden-onset reincarnation as a tormented emo-glam prankster pin-up derives entirely from Tom Hiddleston, who was the wounded heart of 2011’s Thor and the florid spirit mobilizing 2012’s The Avengers.
On a list with serial-killing world-conquerors, “non-violent burglary” looks like the most venial of sins. But Selina Kyle represents one of villainy’s greatest traditions: The charming thief-as-economic parasite, living a high-society life by scamming aristocrats out of the cash they’re too dumb to hold onto. You actually want to be Catwoman: She has all the fun.
4. Dr. Doom
Mad scientist, renegade mystic, despotic patriarch of a feudal-ish Soviet-ish nation, best friend-turned-sworn enemy: The Fantastic Four’s chief antagonist appropriately reflects four distinct flavors of crazy. He’s a man of science and a man of faith…and he’s got a cool mask, too.
A bald-headed cartoon anvil in a bespoke suit, the Kingpin started out a Dick Tracy-worthy street-boss pastiche. But in the ’80s, Frank Miller reimagined Wilson Fisk as a new kind of corporate criminal: A local-grown New York tough guy radiating brains, brawn, and brutal entrepreneurial capitalism. Witness the American success story circa now: The little man who becomes the big man who keeps the little men down.
2. The Joker
Good? Evil? If you believe that stuff, there’s a bridge in Gotham the Joker would like to sell you, right before he blows it up. The Dark Knight’s nemesis isn’t just crazy. He’s a walking, talking, giggling, mass-murdering assault on the whole idea of moral sanity. In a world of chaos, sometimes laughter is the best medicine.
A great villain is a hero in his own mind, and no bad guy has better intentions than the mutant master of magnetism. A Holocaust survivor and a violent defender of his race’s civil rights, Magneto only wants to ensure safety of mutantkind – even if that means humankind must go. Ian McKellen played him with wry cunning; Michael Fassbender exuded desperate exhaustion; comic book history has often cast him as a lesser-of-two-evils heroic figure. But 63 years after his introduction, one thing has never changed: Magneto is a monster, but only because our monstrous world made him that way.