Sometimes it’s just good to be bad. But, not every hero gets to make the choice to take a walk on the evil side. Whether they’re driven mad by the death of a loved one, tortured mercilessly by a dark force, or just the victim of a cruel fate, when some heroes get knocked off their righteous path, it’s almost too painful to watch. We’ve been fascinated by fallen heroes for a very long time, one of the first being Lucifer — the rebellious angel who was sentenced to rule Hell as the “ultimate evil.” Our favorite stories have been full of fallen heroes ever since.
Some villains seem born into the life while others are pulled into it through a series of unfortunate circumstances. Supervillains like Victor von Doom are quite literally born into their villainous identities and make little effort to steer themselves away from the dark or amoral path they’re headed down. Others, like Lex Luthor, show glimmers of heroism every now and again, but ultimately, the call to evil is always too hard for them to slink back into. But, the poor unfortunate souls on this list aren’t simply villains with tragic origin stories, they are — or were — legitimate heroes, making their falls from grace all the more wretched.
15. SUPERMAN: INJUSTICE
Superman — the original superhero — stands famously for, “truth, justice, and the American way.” He’s a shining symbol of hope (literally, if you ask him what the “S” stands for) for millions around the world. This, unfortunately, makes him prime bait for one of the world’s most diabolical villains — the Joker. After all, what’s more fun than corrupting an incorruptible force?
In the video game and tie-in comic series, Injustice: Gods Among Us, Joker dosed the Man of Steel with enough fear toxin to make him hallucinate that his old enemy Doomsday has returned. Enraged, Supes kills “Doomsday” in cold blood, only to discover, to his horror, that it was a pregnant Lois Lane he’d actually murdered. In his anguish, he kills Joker and sets out to rule Earth with an iron fist. No more Mister Nice Kryptonian.
14. TIM DRAKE: JOKER
Often portrayed as far milder and more reserved than Batman’s other Robins, Tim Drake seems like the very last sidekick you’d expect to be pulled down a dark path. But, in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, his well-adjusted sense of morality (and sanity) is completely broken by… well, who else but the Clown Prince of Crime?
Forty years earlier, Tim was kidnapped, drugged and tortured by Harley Quinn and Joker until he spilled the Bat Family’s secret identities. During Batman and Batgirl’s rescue mission, Tim cracks, shooting Joker and breaking into hysterical laughter. Back in the present, it’s revealed that the “Joker Jr.” terrorizing Gotham City is the old Joker, living on through Tim, a truly tragic transformation for one of Batman’s adopted sons.
13. SCARLET WITCH: HOUSE OF M
What does Wanda Maximoff have in common with Cersei Lannister? Their fathers are villainous, old men and they’ve both had sex with their brothers. That is clearly a potent recipe for amorality. Though Scarlet Witch hasn’t ever made the official switch to fully-fledged villain by name (except for dabbling in the beginning of her career or when she is otherwise mind-controlled), she’s suffered arguably more tragedy-induced-pursuits-of-villainy than any other superhero. Wiping out 90% of the world’s mutant population in M-Day is pretty inexcusable.
But, battling the Avengers because you’ve been driven mad by the idea that your own children might not even be real commands a bit more sympathy. During Vision and the Scarlet Witch #3-12, Wanda uses hex magic to have twin boys with android hubby Vision, except they keep disappearing when she loses concentration. Lost memories of them come back to haunt her in Avengers Disassembled, causing her destructive rampage.
12. MISTER FANTASTIC: THE MAKER
Marvel’s Ultimate universe gave us some pretty twisted takes on familiar origin stories, one of which inspired everyone’s least favorite Fantastic Four movie. The other great evil born from this alternative world was Reed Richards’ supervillain alter ego, The Maker. After Sue rejects his marriage proposal and the team disbands, Reed’s mental state descends into depravity.
After faking his own death, he blows up several superhero bases — and even his own family home — and is pulled into the Negative Zone after a fight with Sue. He quietly plots his vengeance there until he’s confronted again by his former allies, and suffers horrific injuries at the burning hands of Johnny Storm. After floating around miserably in the Zone, he later returns to Earth as The Maker, intent on building a “perfect world.”
11. BUCKY BARNES: WINTER SOLDIER
From celebrated war hero to mindless killer enslaved by the very forces he was willing to die to destroy. It doesn’t get much more tragically ironic than Bucky Barnes’ lot in life, especially when he’s pitted up against his childhood BFF, Steve Rogers. As part of the original Invaders (and the Howling Commandos in the MCU) James Buchanan Barnes fought at Captain America’s side to take down Hydra during WWII.
After an explosion blew him and Cap into the North Atlantic ocean, they were both presumed dead. In reality, while Captain America was revived decades later to continue fighting the good fight, Bucky had already been thawed out, given a cybernetic upgrade, and brainwashed into becoming one of Hydra’s deadliest assassins. The tragedy of his plight is heightened by his broken relationship with Steve — the last connection to his lost past.
10. JASON TODD: RED HOOD
If Jason Todd’s life was a Ben & Jerry’s flavor, it’d be “Rocky Road.” Considering Batman first encountered him trying to jimmy the wheels off the Batmobile, the warning signs of his instability were right there from the get go. Filling Dick Grayson’s boots was never going to be an easy task for anyone either, and readers let their distaste (or just bloodthirst) of the second Robin known when they voted for the troubled teen to be killed off in Death In The Family.
Other than the brutality of being beaten to death by the Joker, the worst part of his death was the fact his own mother was an accomplice to it. Years later, Jason was fake-resurrected in Hush, only to be actually resurrected thanks to Superboy Prime punching through reality… because comics. He has since once again joined the side of the angels, but for a while there, he was Batman’s biggest failure, on multiple levels.
9. HARVEY DENT: TWO-FACE
There’s hardly a better character to represent the fallen hero archetype than Harvey Dent, aka Two Face. Almost bordering on meta-commentary of his character arc, Dent often laments that he is merely a product of fate — symbolized by the obsessive coin-flipping that dictates his judgment. As he puts it in The Dark Knight, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
Once the golden boy of Gotham’s criminal justice system, Dent finds his strong moral code and marriage put under huge strain while trying to take down the powerful mafia families that have a stranglehold over Gotham in The Long Halloween. He then suffers through an explosion in his home and an acid attack, contorting both his outer and inner self into a twisted villain.
8. ANGEL: ARCHANGEL
If you see a fictional character sporting a great set of wings, you know it’s only a certain amount of time before those feathery attention-grabbers are going to be clipped. X-Men’s Angel knows this by now all too well, and the loss of or severe damage to his have often proven too much for him to bear. During the X-Men event, Mutant Massacre, Warren is pinned to a wall by the Mauraders’ Harpoon while trying to protect his teammates.
The damage is so bad they have to be amputated, sending Warren spiraling into depression. After a plane crash, he’s presumed to have committed suicide. In reality, he was rescued by immortal mutant Apocalypse, who offered to restore his wings. Warren agreed and was subjected to a tortuous procedure that (weirdly) turned him blue but — even worse — created his warped alter ego, Archangel.
In Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, the fairy witch, Maleficent gives us little reason to empathize with her. But, the live-action prequel movie fleshed out one of the company’s best-known villains into something much more sympathetic — a woman scorned. It turns out that Maleficent was once a lot like Princess Aurora, a young girl living in the woods who falls in love with a boy.
That boy would grow up to become King Stefan, Aurora’s father. Maleficent, on the other hand, grows up to become the sworn protector of the magical Moors and battles invading human forces to save them. After a bounty is placed on her head, Stefan betrays her by cutting off her wings to trick the King and marry his daughter. Maleficent’s heart darkens, as does her magical realm, setting her on the road to villainy.
Sludgy Batman supervillain Clayface has had many different identities in the comics, but his appearance in The Batman cartoon series imbued his character with more tragedy than ever before. In an unexpected twist, Ethan Bennett — partner of Detective Ellen Yin and old friend of Bruce Wayne’s — made the transformation from hero cop to the shapeshifting criminal in the final two episodes of Season One.
After ideological clashes with his boss, Police Chief Rojas, Ethan is captured and submitted to psychological torture at the hands of the Joker. As well as turning his mind to slush, Joker infects him with his “Joker Putty,” causing Ethan’s body to become freakishly unstable. Though he learns to control his powers, his mind is damaged beyond repair, leading to a new life of crime.
5. GABRIEL BELMONT: DRACULA
Dracula’s myth has always been tinged with tragedy and Castlevania‘s version is no exception. In Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, the iconic video game series explores the undead villain’s surprisingly noble origins in an alternate continuity. As the Belmonts are famous monster-slayers, this makes Gabriel Belmont’s monstrous transformation even more unfortunate.
Gabriel inhabits a dark version of Earth that has been cut off from Heaven. With the souls of the dead left in a tortuous limbo — including Gabriel’s deceased wife — the Brotherhood of Light’s prophesied hero finds himself conflicted between his heroic duties and personal grief. To make matters worse, post-credit scenes reveal that his many battles with demonic forces will result in him losing his humanity to the vampire curse. Talk about a thankless job.
4. BIRDPERSON: PHOENIXPERSON
Rick & Morty‘s amoral, anti-hero, Rick Sanchez benefits from a genius intellect but his inherent cynicism and propensity to “not give a fuck” make him difficult to get along with. Of all the figures from his shady past, Birdperson seemed to be one of few he’d call a genuine friend. That was, until his shocking death in the finale of Season Two.
After falling in love with Tammy, a school friend of Summer Sanchez, Birdperson decides to tie the knot with his new spirit partner. Their bliss is interrupted, however, when Tammy reveals herself as a Galactic spy and murders her new husband in front of a horrified Rick. The only thing that tops this shocker is Birdperson’s return in Season Three as cyborg drone, “Phoenixperson” under his killer wife’s control.
3. BARRY ALLEN: SAVITAR
In the comics, the “God of Speed” was an unknown Cold War veteran who became obsessed with a Hindu deity and founded a dangerous cult. In the Arrowverse, however, Savitar was given a much more shocking origin story that had fans reeling at its reveal. It turned out that Barry Allen had really been fighting himself the entire time. Well, not exactly himself.
The Barry Allen inside the shiny, metal suit with the Christian Bale Batman voice was actually a time remnant (or “Future Flash”) created and abandoned by our Flash. His ill-treatment sparked a deep hatred of his former teammates, twisting this echo of a hero into his shadow, complete with a Phantom of the Opera-style disfigurement. Intent on making Barry suffer, Savitar fixated his hatred on the women he once loved — Iris West.
2. ANAKIN SKYWALKER: DARTH VADER
Often, the bigger a hero is built up, the harder it is when they fall; the strength of their light making the darkness that consumes them seem all the darker. Anakin Skywalker was supposed to be the chosen one; destined to become a Jedi messiah. Yet, despite his magical, midi-chlorian-enhanced birth, Yoda warned Anakin’s master, Qui-Gon that there was darkness within the boy.
Both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan trained the gifted child in the ways of the Force nonetheless, and though he walked the path of good during his youth, catastrophic trauma made him too easy for the evil Palpatine to manipulate. Anakin suffered an enslaved childhood, the deaths of his mother, wife and children (or so he thought), and he lost most of his limbs before fully succumbing to the Dark Side.
1. JEAN GREY: DARK PHOENIX
The reason why The Dark Phoenix saga remains one of the most tragic falls from grace of any hero is down to the scale of the fallout from Jean’s dramatic transformation. As a powerful telepath and telekinetic, Jean Grey’s true potential was concealed from her for years by her mentor, Charles Xavier. While in space, she’s targeted and possessed by the “Phoenix Force,” but manages to keep her cosmically heightened abilities under wraps.
Unfortunately, after some mental manipulation from Mastermind, her suppression of her new godly identity becomes unstable. After punishing Mastermind and defeating the X-Men, she blasts off into space and accidentally commits some, uh, light genocide. Jean later regains control, but upon learning of this atrocity, she allows herself to be killed by… disintegration. A sad end to a sad descent.
Which other falls from grace do you think were truly tragic? Let us know in the comments!
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