It used to be so simple. In the Golden Age of comics, it was easy to tell the good guys from the bad. The heroes were manly, square-jawed paragons of virtue, while the villains were most certainly not. Villains may have looked funny, acted strange or engaged in dastardly deeds but they all had one thing in common: they were villains and therefore they were bad, what further explanation was required? From a modern perspective, with the comic landscape now littered with anti-heroes, tortured heroes, reluctant heroes and reformed villains, such a stance now seems exceedingly strange.
That’s because although many of the most famous villains are ones that were first created during the Golden Age of comics, over the years their personalities and motivations have been fleshed out to great effect. Could a kid in the 1940s have imagined that one day the Riddler would work alongside Batman as a detective, or a Silver Age Marvel reader believe that one day Doctor Doom would become Iron Man? The same is true in the other direction, with numerous heroes doing the wrong thing for the right reason. Here, we spin the CBR moral compass and count down 15 of Marvel’s most justifiable villains.
15. CAPTAIN AMERICA (THE HYDRA SUPREME)
Captain America has long been portrayed as the moral center of the Marvel universe, making the recent reveal that Steve Rogers has been a life-long agent of Hydra especially controversial. It’s jarring to see Rogers aligned with his long-time enemies but, surprisingly, there’s almost something to admire in some of Steve’s actions – a sort of perverted nobility.
As the Hydra Supreme in the Secret Empire story, all the qualities that make Steve a great hero remain, just turned in a different direction. Single-minded in his loyalty to the cause, what sells Steve’s conversion is his conviction that the cause is just. He really believes that under the control of Hydra, America will be a better place. And with his ability to lift Thor’s hammer seeming to indicate his worthiness, could he possibly be right?
Since his introduction in Uncanny X-Men #282, Bishop had struggled to carve his own niche in the X-verse. This problem became more acute after Professor X was revealed to be Onslaught, tying up the X-traitor plotline that had long influenced Bishop’s actions. The next few years saw him drifting from role to role, but rarely in the limelight for long.
The introduction of Hope, the first new mutant to be born after M-Day, was a pivotal moment for Bishop. In an attempt to prevent his horrific future he attempted to kill the baby, eventually resulting in an obsessive cross-time pursuit of Hope and Cable, her protector. The intended murder of an innocent child is, of course, a horrific course of action. Yet Bishop was willing to betray his friends and be condemned for all time if it meant preventing his future coming to pass, thereby saving the lives of countless others.
The King of the bad decisions, all other heroes seem like rank amateurs when compared with Pietro Maximoff’s lengthy history of heel turns, bad decisions and misguided intent. Some of these actions can be explained by Pietro’s mental state, the character having struggled with depression and mental illness throughout his career. However, more interesting are the terrible decisions that Pietro makes because he manages to convince himself that they’re for the right reasons.
Infamously, it was Pietro who was the inspiration for the House of M reality, something that impacted everyone on Earth – in both good and bad ways – simply to save the life of his sister Wanda. Furthermore, he may have justified his later theft of the terrigen crystals as a way to restore mutant powers, but in reality it was all about restoring his sense of self-worth; anything else was a side effect.
Is Magneto a freedom fighter or a terrorist? Is he the product of his past or has he made a conscious choice to set out on his current path? The Magneto who first appeared in Uncanny X-Men #1 in 1963 was a stereotypical villain, even naming his gang of followers The Brotherhood of EVIL Mutants. Once Chris Claremont began his lengthy run on the X-books in 1975, Magneto came into his own, being transformed into a 3-dimensional character.
Claremont’s Magneto was a man who had done terrible things for what he perceived to be the right reasons. His every move was dictated by a desire to protect ‘his’ people and secure their future. In the years since Claremont first left the X-books, in 1991, Magneto has veered between complex and caricature. At his best, though, he’s a complex character that makes readers question what is the correct course of action.
11. EMMA FROST
Emma Frost is a woman who divides opinion, always being the person unafraid to make the hard choices. After joining the X-Men in New X-Men #114 she became a mainstay of the team, embarking on a romance with Scott Summers (Cyclops). It was this love that turned Emma back into a villain, after the pantomime villainy of her Hellfire Club days.
Emma hid Scott’s death from exposure to the terrigen mists, manipulating events so that he appeared to have died a martyr. This led to her later actions, when she was instrumental in persuading mutants to rise up against the Inhumans. Some might argue that this is a confrontation that needed to happen given the deadly effects of terrigen on mutants, yet it’s hard to escape the impression that all of Emma’s actions were motivated by a broken heart rather than concern for her species.
10. HENRY PETER GYRICH
As Marvel’s original guy-in-a-suit (sorry, Agent Coulson), Henry Gyrich has been a thorn in the side of heroes since he debuted in Avengers #165 (1977). First introduced as the U.S. Government’s liaison with the Avengers, Gyrich’s by-the-book personality and his dislike of superhumans has won him few friends in the superhero community. He’s revoked the Avengers’ flight privileges, been part of dodgy deals at Camp Hammond and used Jack Monroe to hunt down the Thunderbolts.
What makes Gyrich such an interesting character is that while many of his actions do undoubtedly hinder Marvel’s heroes, they stem from his his deep conviction: firstly, in doing his job and secondly, that superhumans are a dangerous unregulated bunch. And with everything that has happened in the Marvel universe since Gyrich debuted, it’s difficult to argue that Gyrich is wrong.
9. ALEX WILDER
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first. Yes, Alex Wilder betrayed his teammates in the Runaways by his continuing loyalty to his parents. Yes, he was willing to let the many die to protect the few, contrary to the actions of most heroes. But when the motivation for Wilder’s actions was love rather than personal gain, does it make it more understandable?
Like the expert dungeon master that he was, Alex’s every action during the first volume of Runaways was designed to secure his end goal: the safety of his family. When his deception is revealed, casting his every action thus far in a new light, it’s a great moment. Easy to understand and difficult to condemn, it’s a heel turn that challenges the reader to condemn or condone Alex’s actions. It also ties in with the central theme of the title’s first volume: the importance of family.
8. HELMUT ZEMO
Heinrich Zemo was an evil Nazi scientist and the founder of the Masters of Evil, making it hard to argue that he’s misunderstood or that his actions are justifiable. His son, Helmut Zemo, is another matter. It’s true that Helmut initially started off as a Captain America villain and also led the Masters of Evil, but many of his modern day appearances — particularly when written by Fabian Nicieza — have shown him to be a more complex character.
When Zemo formed the Thunderbolts it was through an attempt to take over the world rather than altruism. Yet, his later adventures with the team when they were stranded on Counter Earth gave him a new focus: he was now determined to save the world, even if this meant taking it over or personally manipulating events. After all, Zemo’s had always considered themselves superior, so who better to lead the world to a glorious future?
Picture the scene: you live on a world – Polemachus – whose culture glorifies warfare, with your great skill on the battlefield leading to your appointment as Imperion of the world’s largest country. You achieve great success conquering neighboring countries when – disaster! – you discover that the heat-providing rings around your planet are disintegrating. They can only be saved by the power that would be released through an atomic explosion on Earth. Intent on saving your world and its people, you head for Earth, ready to face whatever danger lies in store.
When put in these terms, Arkon appears a very heroic character. Granted there’s the minor detail that his early appearances involved him trying to destroy the Earth, but it was being done to protect his own world rather than for some short-sighted villainous scheme. A determined ruler ready to kick butt and take names in defense of his country? No wonder his people loved him.
Traditional concepts of good and bad don’t really apply in the case of Galactus. He is a cosmic force of nature, one that’s often been portrayed as having an essential role in ensuring cosmic balance. Granted he may have a nasty habit of using entire worlds — populated or otherwise — as a food source, but he eats because he must, not because he takes pleasure in the destruction or loss of life.
He may have often been portrayed as the antagonist in superhero comics, but that is just a consequence of humanity’s place in the food chain. Many of us think little about where the food comes from what we eat, only recognizing that we need food and drink to survive. For Galactus, his great hunger is the same; it’s literally the very definition of a necessary evil.
Since his first appearance in Marvel Comics #1 in 1939, Namor has been an easy character to love but a difficult character to like. On the one hand, he’s the regal monarch of an undersea realm. On the other, he’s also the same character that in his early appearances was happy to all but destroy New York with immense tidal waves. This dual role that Namor has — as a hero and a monarch — is key to understanding his actions.
It’s inarguable that Namor has committed some rather heinous acts over the years. Most recently, as a member of the Cabal, he was actively complicit in the destruction of several other worlds. Yet it’s important to recognize that unlike his teammates, Namor took no joy in such actions. He was merely acting as a ruler, trying to safeguard his people and his world.
4. DOCTOR DOOM
No two comic fans — or, it appears, no two writers — can fully agree on Doctor Doom. Some see him as an outright villain, others as a tragic hero. Some view him as a murderous despot, others as a just ruler. Even the human face behind his armored visage sparks debate about the extent of its disfigurement. What is clear is that Doom, with his healthy sense of self-importance, is undoubtedly the hero of his own story.
It’s often been argued that Doom could have been one of humanity’s great heroes if he had taken another path, something that he’s now attempting in Infamous Iron Man. He’s previously shown that he will do anything to protect his beloved nation of Latveria and if he applies this attitude more generally, perhaps Victor Von Doom will prove a lot of people wrong.
Michael Korvac is simultaneously the Avengers’ greatest success and their greatest shame. From the team’s point of view, they were able to triumph over a being that wielded the Power Cosmic and sought to assert his influence over the Earth. What team members didn’t know was that Michael dreamed of making the Earth into a utopia. Despite the combined force of the Avengers attacking him to thwart his plans, his dying act was to reach out and heal team members of all their injuries.
The Avengers perhaps had understandable reason for their suspicions. After all, they had previously seen Korvac kill Vance Astro, the Collector and others that sought to interfere with his plans. Yet Moondragon was able to sense his good intent, mind-wiping Thor so that he did not have to live with the guilt of what the team had done. Well done, Avengers, you just thwarted utopia. Good job!
2. IRON MAN
When Marvel began publishing the Civil War limited series in 2006, one of the selling points was that it featured Marvel’s heroes taking sides against each other. While some, led by Iron Man, endorsed the superhero registration act, Captain America led a resistance movement of heroes opposed to the act. Marvel took great pains to assure readers that neither side would be presented as the ‘bad guys.’ Unfortunately for Iron Man fans, Marvel lied. While his portrayal in the main miniseries was slightly more evenhanded, in many of the tie-in stories he was portrayed as a despotic tyrant.
This portrayal of Tony was a crying shame because it took away from the fact that in the context of the Marvel universe, the notion of a superhero registration act with trained and accountable superheroes made perfect sense. Unfortunately for Tony, while he won the argument he lost out big time in the PR war.
Long overlooked (rather unfairly) by many X-fans, the last decade of X-books placed Cyclops front and center, forcing many fans to re-evaluate their opinions as he strove to save mutants from extinction. Ironically, just as the appreciation from fans for Cyclops was hitting its peak, Scott found himself a pariah among Marvel’s heroes – mutants and otherwise. His more militant approach in the wake of the mutant schism and his Phoenix-induced murder of Charles Xavier caused many to write him off as a villain.
Despite this, the hostility and aggression directed towards Cyclops by his peers never matched up with his deeds. Even after his “death” after a confrontation with Black Bolt in Death of X, his actions were described in apocalyptic terms, despite his only crime being his attempt to stop a terrigen cloud that was lethal to mutants. Regardless of whether he was a hero or villain, Cyclops was right.
There you have our picks for Marvel’s most justifiable villains. Do you agree, or have we missed any misunderstood malcontents? Let us know your thoughts, in the comments or on Facebook!