Steppenwolf was recently announced as the “Justice League” movie’s supervillain. No, the Justice League won’t be battling the evils of Chicago theater or early-’70s arena rock — we’re finally heading down the path toward one of the most evil planets in the universe: Apokolips.
But before we head there and find whatever creepy-crawlies lie in wait, we’re going get to meet an electro-axe carrying New God and uncle to one of the biggest bads of them all. You can read our DC Comics history of Steppenwolf, but if you’re curious who his terrible nephew is and some of the worst villains to ever face down the Justice League in comics, we count down the most heinous foes DC’s premier superteam has ever gone toe-to-toe with.
While the Top Ten supervillains have each earned their places on this list, there are a few leftovers that deserve a mention, at the very least.
10. 10. Starro / Despero
When rounding up your awful former relationships, you’ve got to start with your first ex, and in the cases of Starro, Despero and the Justice League, this was a three-way for the record books. The Justice League’s first two villains ever come from a time in comics where heroes’ powers were basically “punch hard, run fast, fly,” and writers needed a villain that couldn’t be punched, raced, or flown out of existence. Enter Starro and Despero’s mind-wankering tomfoolery.
We’ll start with Despero, a purple-robed, clothing-optional, third-eye-sporting space man that hit the scene right as a certain guitar genius was entering his prime comic book reading years. Despero is your classic planetary-class world-conqueror — constantly a step ahead of the heroes, ready to thrown down via brawn or brains, and utterly motivated by more. More power, more foes, more conquered subjects under the power of his mighty mohawk fin.
There must have been something in the DC water cooler in 1960, because the same year also gave us the first appearance of Starro, another mind-control space baddie bent on domination — but in this case, on a universal scale rather than a global one. Starro has varied in appearance over the years, from being a planet-sized starfish to a starfish-sized starfish, but the threat has always been the same: bend the wills of Earth’s mightiest to his will. Basically, he’s the reason Batman carries kryptonite bullets. He also has the distinction of being the first villain the Justice League of America ever faced.
9. 9. Injustice League
Why settle for one bad guy when you could just have “all the bad guys”? That was the genius writing technique that led to this unholy union of baddies, but in all sincerity, it works. Following in the tradition of the Legion of Doom, Lex Luthor, the Joker, and all the other heroes’ rogues decide they’ve had just about enough of getting punched in the face individually. If the good guys are going to team up, why can’t they? Besides, it’d be much more efficient if they all got themselves punched in the face together.
Granted, many of these baddies could be a force of their own against the Justice League, but watching two of your favorite villains team up is almost more fun than watching your heroes. Imagine if two people who were able to melt steel beams with their eyeballs or vaporize you with a thought teamed up, and then also had ridiculously large egos to go along with it. Isn’t that worth the price of admission alone?
The Injustice League has had some great goes of it over the years, but in the end, it’s always their egos that get in the way. The best laid plans of mice, men and maniacs can usually be punched astray — assuming, of course, you’re the Justice League.
8. 8. Amazo
But what if you can’t “punch your problems away?” What if your powers punch back just as hard? Enter Amazo, one of the most ingenious answers to one of the biggest problems in superhero writing.
For years, the main complaint about superheroes (especially Superman) is that they’re just too powerful. By their very nature, they have to be; no one wants to watch Clark Kent get his butt kicked over and over for nearly eighty years. Superheroes evolve, grow, discover new uses for their powers and generally become harder and harder to present a real challenge to.
Until Amazo, an android built specifically to be as powerful as any hero he comes up against. His unique “absorption cells” (comic science, just go with it, it’s easier and way more fun) allow him to take on the powers of any hero he fights.
So let’s say you’re Wonder Woman, hanging out in the Watchtower, and you receive a report that an android is tearing up the Central City Bank. Easy, send Flash out there! Problem solv– oh crap, the android is lightning fast now. All right, cool, maybe Red Tornado can handle it — wait, now he can make tornadoes, too? Fine, send Superma– Sweet Hera, I’ve doomed us all.
An Amazo story is one where the science geeks and big brains get to shine. He can’t be beat by brawn or speed, he has to be outsmarted. It’s a chance for the master strategists to show why they’re on the team in the first place. But then again, what happens when your strategists get out-strategized?
7. 7. Prometheus
The Justice League has been caught with their pants down plenty of times — depending on the medium, their secret Watchtower is revealed to the public, one of their projects goes haywire, or a villain plays the public against them. However, Prometheus didn’t catch them with their pants down. Prometheus turned their own pants against them.
Take Batman’s origin story: noble parents gunned down by crime, swears revenge against the criminal element, uses considerable time and fortune to travel the world and make himself a weapon, wages a one-man war against crime using the power of Money, and is ready for absolutely any conceivable altercation.
Reverse every moral stance in it, and you’ve got Prometheus: robber parents gunned down by the law, swears revenge against the forces of justice, travels the world to make himself a weapon, wages a one-man war against the forces of good using the power of Money (and a special key to the Phantom Zone), and is able to create any conceivable altercation.
He sets a trap for the Justice League and neutralizes every single one of them in minutes, and he does it solely with brains, tech, and tons of preparation. He’s Batman if Batman was a bad guy, and proves what we all already knew: Batman would be a terrifying bad guy.
6. 6. Magog
The best superhero villains are ones that force our heroes to reexamine how they perform their heroic duties. They shove their values, rules, and ethics into the spotlight and force them — and more importantly, the audience — to really think about why they do what they do.
Would superheroes like the Justice League or the Avengers ever actually work in our world? We’d all like to think so, but in all fairness, there’s very good reason to believe they wouldn’t. If Batman truly turned down so many opportunities to end the threat of a serial mass-murderer like the Joker, a psychopath that only keeps coming back because he wants to mess with Batman in the first place, we’d start blaming him. And we’d have an extremely good case. We’d either hunt down the Batman or we’d turn to someone else to do the dirty work for us.
That someone else is Magog, a new breed of hero for a new era of humanity. Things aren’t as innocent as stopping bank robberies anymore. Villains are getting hyper-personal — when the Joker kills Lois Lane in “Kingdom Come”, Magog hunts him down and ends his life. When the Justice League come for Magog, the public outcry against them and for Magog drives them into retirement, ushering in a new era of heroism.
When Superman and the rest of the League return years later to confront Magog, the battle isn’t one of might, or even wits. It’s a battle for the very soul of heroism.
5. 5. Crime Syndicate
If Magog forced the hero community to question their ethics, the Crime Syndicate showed them why they’re important to have in the first place. As the Justice League of Earth-Three, a parallel world where might makes right, the Crime Syndicate is what happens when Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and their allies decide they’re no longer protectors — they’re rulers.
After overwhelming the powers that be on their own world, Ultraman, Owlman, Super-Woman, Power Ring, and Johnny Quick began looking for parallel earths to conquer. In their original incarnation, they challenged the Justice Leagues of Earth-One and Earth-Two and were eventually defeated by their own pride and hubris.
The Crime Syndicate has popped up in other mediums, reboots, and stories with different origins and motives, but their purpose has always been clear: As important as it is to constantly examine and adapt your ethics, it’s even more important to have them in the first place.
4. 4. Emperor Joker
As gripping and character-revamping as a good philosophical quandry can be, there’s nothing that can replace a good universe-ender, and that’s the league the bottom part of our list plays in. First up, we’ve got none other than Emperor Joker, one of the only villains in the DC Universe who actually managed to win — like, win the universe.
“Joker?” you might say, “He’s just a murderous clown! There’s no way he could pull off heisting the entirety of existence.”
You’d think, wouldn’t you? But it happened, and it’s Reason #1 why you seriously want to avoid crossing your villain-streams with another hero if you can help it. Mr. Mxyzptlk, one of Superman’s baddies and an imp from the fifth dimension, gets curious about what a mere human would do with his powers and decides to give 1% of them to the Joker (already a terrible idea). Joker, being the Joker, tricks him into bestowing 99.99% of his power and utterly transforms the entirety of existence into a reality that shuns logic, rationality, and sense in under 69 seconds. The Joker sets himself up as a god king, kills Lex Luthor every day, eats the entire population of China, and subjects Batman to repeated existential torture and murder over and over for eternity.
This isn’t so much a Justice League threat as it is an everything-threat, and it’s only when the Spectre begs Superman for help that you realize how bad things have gotten. For the uninitiated, the Spectre is the literal instrument of God’s will on Earth. Yeah, that God. He’s a big deal. Emperor Joker’s machinations threaten to wipe existence, well, out of existence, and he’s only too happy to consign us all to oblivion.
It was intense, and huge, and a degree of conquering not even the DC Universe’s biggest bads have managed to pull off.
3. 3. Anti-Monitor
As bad as Emperor Joker was, he’s not usually that huge of a threat. No, there’s a whole other class of baddies many rungs up the ladder from him. For example, there’s this guy, the Anti-Monitor: If the Anti-Monitor shows up in your atmosphere, the Justice League is the first number you call. After you’ve hung up, you then call every other number on your list because heavens-to-Betsy you need every single one of them.
When comic book nerds talk about heroes and villains, there’s an unofficial ranking of sorts they use that helps class different characters. Some heroes are “street-level” — they’re the guys stopping bank robberies. Some are city-level — they protect Gotham when parademons start pouring out of a boom tube in the middle of the park. It goes up from there: planetary-level, system-level, galactic-level. The really big bads are “universal-level” — they want to conquer the universe.
Then there’s the Anti-Monitor. The Anti-Monitor is a threat to every parallel universe in existence, because all he wants to do is eat all of them.
When he first showed up in the DC Universe, he had already eaten a thousand earths and was ready to take on the Justice League’s home as his 1001st course. This is the kind of battle no one wins — the only way they eventually beat him was to restructure the very fabric of reality and eliminate every single parallel reality in existence, save five of them.
The Anti-Monitor is the kind of bad guy where you bring out the nuclear option immediately, because the alternative is unquestionably worse.
2. 2. Vandal Savage
While Vandal Savage isn’t a universe-eating death construct, or a psychopathic godclown — or even a telepathic alien starfish — he gets major points for style. Vandal Savage is just like you and me: human strength, speed, and intellect, no flight, no power ring, no nothing. He is as human as it gets — he’s just older than recorded history.
Try this out for an inventive villain origin story: millennia before homo-sapiens were even a twinkle in homo-erectus’ eye, Vandal Savage was a caveman wandering around prehistoric Earth with the rest of his tribe, until he touched a glowing meteor from space and was granted intelligence and immortality. Since then, he’s been watching, waiting and plotting.
He’s had quite literally all of human existence to acquire wealth, status, and influence. His resources are limitless, his plans are centuries-old, and his goal is simple: rule the planet. How could the Justice League ever beat an opponent like that? No matter what happens, all he has to do is survive long enough. Throw him in jail, send him to the moon, whatever — eventually, someone will slip up. He’ll get out — or more likely, he’ll convince someone that he couldn’t really be immortal. Surely they don’t actually believe that? And hasn’t he already served a long enough sentence? And presto: he’ll be let out. It just takes one weak link in the chain.
As long as there is humanity, there is Savage. And as long as there is Savage, there’s a chance for his plans to succeed.
1. 1. Darkseid
Anti-Monitor almost ended up here just for the sheer scale of his (its?) conquests, but in our heart of hearts, we knew that the #1 spot couldn’t be anyone else’s.
Darkseid is the ultimate bad, the biggest threat, the be-all to end-all. He doesn’t want to conquer Earth just because he wants to conquer everything, he wants to conquer Earth because he hates the hell out of Earth.
This is a guy who conquered an entire planet full of gods — space gods, to be precise — and turned it into a war machine. A literal war machine! The planet is a machine now! He kidnaps entire alien races and breaks their bodies, twisting them into his parademon minions. He scours the universe for warriors and turns them into his willing slaves. His Omega Beams are destruction at the speed of light. His Anti-Life Equation kills all who read it. To be looked upon by him is to perish. To beat him in combat is to sign up for membership in his goon squads. He is death. He is fire. He is oblivion.
And he keeps getting his keister handed to him by a world that turned Uggs into a fashion statement. By all accounts, we should have been a fly on his windshield decades ago.
He hates us like he hates nothing else. He doesn’t want us to be destroyed, he wants us to suffer. He doesn’t just want to beat the Justice League, he wants to ruin them. He is simply as bad as it gets in the DC Universe, and there will come a reckoning for the Justice League, a day when–
Oh look! An Uggs sale!
Who’s your favorite Justice League villain? Let us know in the comments!
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