It doesn’t matter how impressive a hero’s power set is or how good they look in spandex; rather, it’s often the quality of villains they’re pitted against that helps define a hero. After all, it’s only through adversity -- by testing their skills against great odds -- that the true mettle of a hero can be seen. Take Nova and She Hulk, for example; two heroes with the potential for greatness that failed to achieve sufficient popularity during their initial runs. Nova faced foes such as Diamondhead and Condor, while She Hulk faced off against the might of the Man-Elephant. That raises an interesting point: if the villains seem throwaway, are the heroes similarly devalued?
It’s no coincidence that the most successful heroes have the biggest and most memorable rogues galleries, but the question of which hero has the greatest collection of bad guys is one that has long caused debate among fans. We’ve immersed ourselves in villainy and tales of dastardly deeds in order to rank 15 of the greatest rogues galleries in comics.
15 Wonder Woman
Everyone knows who Wonder Woman is. She’s an iconic character, one of DC’s most successful heroes, and is recognized by comic fans and the general public alike. Her costume and colors are instantly recognizable and both the 70's TV series and her recent appearance in “Batman vs Superman” have kept her in the public eye. Despite these factors, one of the interesting things about Wonder Woman is that despite this popularity and her decades of publication, she’s not easily associated with an iconic bad guy.
Members of the public would no doubt be able to link Lex Luthor with Superman or any number of villains to Batman or Spider-Man, but the chances of them doing the same with Wonder Woman are slim. In her TV series she fought Nazis and a selection of villains of the week. Even her main villains in the comics -- including Cheetah, Circe, Doctor Psycho and Giganta -- don’t have the name recognition of other DC Universe bad guys. It will be interesting to see if the upcoming “Wonder Woman” movie is more successful in shining a spotlight on some of her rogues.
14 Howard the Duck
The presence of Howard on a list such as this may seem odd -- many of his villains are the definition of throwaway, after all, and it’s very unlikely that the Space Turnip will ever be the focus of a Marvel crossover event. However, in reality, it’s this type of villain that works so well with Howard, adding to the chaotic, anything-goes feeling that characterizes so many of his adventures.
Foes such as the Space Turnip, Dr Bong, Winky Man and the Kidney Lady may not have incredible powers, but they’re the perfect adversaries for Howard. They’re either individuals with a skewed perspective on life or they’re people who are caught up in strange events that they can’t control -- much like a certain duck. Howard’s “arch-nemesis,” Dr Bong, does enjoy a certain profile in the Marvel Universe, in recent years appearing in “Deadpool,” “She Hulk” and “Amazing Spider-Man.” It’s highly unlikely that a man with a bell for a helmet will ever be taken seriously as a threat, but then again, who could have predicted Deadpool’s current popularity 25 years ago?
It may come as something of a surprise to see Marvel’s merry mutants in the lower half of the list, particularly when many of their foes -- Sabretooth, Magneto, Mystique and Apocalypse -- have been prominently featured in comics, films and animation. The reason they are here is that over the course of the X-Men’s adventures, and increasingly so in the past two decades, many of their villains have either died, been de-powered, or (partially) reformed.
Mystique, Sabretooth, White Queen, Marrow, Magneto, Toad, Frenzy and Sebastian Shaw have all fought alongside the X-Men; Avalanche, Dark Beast, Mastermind, Pyro and Harry Leland are among those to have been killed in recent years; the Blob and Mesmero are two of the numerous mutants to lose their powers as a result of M-Day.
All of this means that in the years since M-Day, the X-Men have largely been stuck in a holding pattern. If they’re not fighting their remaining big enemies, such as Apocalypse or Mr Sinister, they’re fighting each other, other heroes or yet another interchangeable group that hates mutants. The above villains may have had their positions altered in good stories, but the cumulative effect has been to drastically reduce the number and quality of villains in the X-books.
How readers feel about Daredevil’s villains is probably heavily influenced by when they were first exposed to the character. It’s undoubtedly the case that, as Matt’s character changed from scarlet swashbuckler to serious figure, so too did his villains evolve. The first decade of Daredevil appearances saw him fighting enjoyably campy foes such as Leap-Frog, Stilt Man, Gladiator, The Owl and Mr Fear. Ten years on, with Daredevil fighting for his life against Ninjas, Bullseye and the machinations of the Kingpin, the tone of the comic had changed drastically.
This was undoubtedly the right move for Daredevil, helping to differentiate him from Spider-Man, while the darker tone gave creators more leeway to explore the psyches of flawed or dangerous characters such as Bullseye, Kingpin and Typhoid Mary. The Owl is a good illustration of how the series developed over this time, evolving from a run-of-the-mill bird-themed villain into a crime lord with a truly vicious side. However, the success of this refined approach to Daredevil’s villains is perhaps best seen through the Kingpin. He has been such a prominent thorn in Daredevil’s life that his origins as a Spider-Man villain (a significant, recurring one at that) are often forgotten about by many fans.
11 Justice League
Team books have a difficult role in finding villains to feature. On the one hand, it stretches credibility that a single supervillain would present much of a threat to a team composed of several high-powered heroes. On the other hand, it’s equally untenable for teams to only fight against beings of vast power. It’s a delicate balancing act that most team books tackle by featuring villains who cover all the bases, and by mixing up the power levels of their members.
Over their history, the Justice League has faced off with a huge variety of villains, both those specific to the team and those that more commonly plague individual members. Characters such as Darkseid, Starro, Despero and Amazo can see their effectiveness vary depending on the writer, but they have been reliable recurring foes. One of the most significant threats to face the Justice League over the years has been the Crime Syndicate of America, and it seems somehow fitting that one of the groups most capable of troubling the Justice League are dark reflections of themselves.
Traditionally, the Avengers have differed from the Justice League in that -- with the exception of a few line-ups on both teams -- their membership is typically less powerful; the team being composed of a variety of heroes rather than simply Marvel’s biggest characters. While this changed with the launch of “New Avengers,” (and the combined power level of the team increased to ridiculous dimensions during Jonathan Hickman’s run), it has typically meant that the Avengers team has been equally likely to fight B-list villains or Earth-shattering threats.
In villains such as Kang the conqueror, Korvac and the Kree Supreme Intelligence, the Avengers have been pitted against genuinely formidable foes. The reason these stories can be so successful is that they are interspersed with smaller battles against foes such as Graviton, the Grim Reaper or the Masters of Evil. Rumors and speculation surrounding the upcoming Avengers movie suggest that it will be epic in scale, and more cosmic than the first two films. With the sheer number of heroes rumored to be involved, it will be fascinating to see how formidable the writers make Thanos -- another Avengers baddie -- or what other villains he might have by his side.
9 Captain America
Although Captain America first appeared back in 1941, it’s really only the Red Skull that remains a recurring villain. Most of the others that are primarily associated with Cap -- Baron Zemo, Armin Zola, Machinesmith, the Serpent Society, Crossbones and Hydra -- date from the Silver Age or beyond.
One of the great things about Cap’s rogues gallery is that his bad guys can be used for any number of genres. Hydra can either be faceless goons or a creepy criminal organization, while the Serpent Society can be “villain-of-the-week” punching bags or an effective criminal union. This ties in with the different ways that writers have portrayed Cap and the varied emphasis that they've placed on super heroics, espionage and politics; it also highlights the strength of these characters, that they are able to be used effectively in so many different scenarios.
Traditionally, many of Cap’s villains have been effective because they function as twisted opposites of his values and beliefs. Now that Cap has been revealed as a Hydra agent, it will be interesting to see how this affects his confrontations with all of his old foes.
As a muscly Norse God with a big hammer and a talent for hitting things, it’s natural to expect that many of Thor’s foes will be physical in nature; characters that will give him a real challenge in combat. This has often been the case, leading to the creation of classic foes such as the Destroyer, the Absorbing Man and Ulik. Still, one of the things that makes Thor’s rogues gallery so effective is that it extends far beyond this.
Early Thor stories, before the Asgardian side of his adventures came to the fore, saw a number of villains introduced; everything from time travelers to bank robbers. In later years, the cosmic side of Thor’s adventures came to prominence, allowing a greater focus on characters such as the Eternals and Ego the living planet. With his hammer’s ability to travel through dimensions, the nature and type of Thor’s rogues is limited only by the writer’s imagination.
Of course, we would be remiss to discuss Thor’s rogues without mentioning Loki. While Loki has been a constant presence in the Marvel Universe, Tom Hiddleston’s charismatic performance in the Marvel movies has reinvigorated the character in the comics, leading to a whole new level of popularity for Thor’s trouble-making sibling.
Superman is another character who has often struggled with the discrepancy between his immense powers and the foes he’s pitted against. The Superman originally introduced in 1937 couldn’t even fly, with this reduced power set allowing him to be pitted against a variety of bank robbers and mad scientists. During the Silver age and Bronze age, his power levels inexorably increased, giving him the means to resolve the majority of situations with little difficulty. Hence, the reason why, when John Byrne rebooted Superman in 1986, he also de-powered him, making it more feasible that less powerful villains would cause him problems. Doomsday may be powerful, but the pre-Crisis Superman would probably have ended the fight in five seconds by throwing him into the sun.
Everyone knows Lex Luthor, with his status as Superman’s greatest foe secured by his appearance in films, animation and merchandising. But beyond Lex, Superman has so many great villains: Bizarro, Metallo, Brainiac, Mongul, The Parasite and Mister Mxyzptlk, to name but a few. With Lex having appeared in so many Superman movies, here’s hoping that the creators take the chance to spotlight other rogues in future films.
Fans of super hero comics rightly argue that they are more sophisticated entertainment than many people assume; at the same time, it’s undeniable that there’s a certain guilty pleasure to be had in watching two big guys beat the tar out of each other. The Hulk frequently declares that he is “the strongest one there is,” and over the years, he's enjoyed nothing better than demonstrating this fact to Marvel villains and heroes alike.
Ol’ Jade Jaws has tangled with pretty much all of Marvel’s heavy hitters over the years, but there are some that have a special place among his enemies. The Abomination, Wendigo, Absorbing Man, The Leader, the U-Foes and even Juggernaut as a sort of X-Men loaner, are some of the many bad guys that refuse to learn from their mistakes, returning time and again to try their luck against the big green -- sometimes grey -- guy. With the exception of the Leader, few of these bad guys are going to be winning any prizes for brainpower, but they don’t need to when their appearances are so consistently entertaining.
5 Dr Strange
With the new Dr Strange movie hitting theaters and introducing movie-goers to a relatively unknown Marvel hero, viewers may be treated to a new kind of villain fight. Unlike most superhero movies, where the final act tends to result in one big slug-fest, the Doc has rarely been one for physical violence. The same goes for his villains -- a fantastically diverse melange of magic users, cosmic threats, demons and threats to creation. The visuals for these characters also set them apart from the crowd, whether it’s the flaming visage of Dormammu, the awe-inspiring grandeur of Eternity, or the air of creepiness that surrounds the dark lord of the dream dimension, Nightmare.
The stakes in Dr Strange comics are always high -- we’re talking about a hero has fought battles at the dawn of creation and once destroyed all vampires -- and the villains reflect these high stakes. Even the less powerful ones such as Mordo can still be a serious threat on any given day. The possibility of seeing these threats on the big screen in all their epic glory is a mouth-watering one. Bring on the sequel!
The quality of the Flash’s villains can perhaps be shown by looking at the current run of the “Flash” TV series, and examining just how many bad guys from the comics have appeared. The series -- particularly in the early episodes -- had something of a “villain of the week” feel to it, and there was no shortage of characters from the comics that could be included. Captain Cold, Heatwave, Weather Wizard, Gorilla Grodd, Professor Zoom, Pied Piper, The Trickster: all have been adapted, with no doubt more to come.
Captain Cold and Heatwave have been successful enough to spin out into the “Legends of Tomorrow” television series, and the rogues in the comics have been equally well received. These characters have been so well fleshed out over the years that readers have got to know them as people, not just faceless villains. They have been the focus of events and headlined their own miniseries; their relative lack of power being outweighed by their status as well-rounded characters. Flash may not have one of the most well-known rogues galleries, but he undoubtedly has one of the best. They are called "The Rogues," after all.
3 Fantastic Four
To get a sense of how influential the Fantastic Four rogues gallery is, a readers only have to immerse themselves in the Lee/Kirby run of FF. Villains introduced over this period include (deep breath): Doctor Doom, Puppet Master, The Skrulls, The Frightful Four, Maximus the Mad, Diablo, the Mad Thinker, the Red Ghost, Galactus, Annihilus, and many more. Quite simply, it’s stunning; not only in its quantity, but also in the quality of these bad guys. Doctor Doom has become perhaps the greatest Marvel villain, while Annihilus, Galactus and the Skrulls have played key roles in countless Marvel stories, both in comics and elsewhere.
It’s true that the rate of innovation tapered off after this point, with few of the later villains introduced matching this original standard, but the majority of FF villains have moved on to become Marvel Universe villains, reflecting the huge importance of their rogues gallery; one of the finest in comics.
As you’d expect from a character that has been around for almost 80 years and has appeared in thousands of comics over his time, the size and breadth of Batman’s rogues gallery is stunning. Unlike many heroes, the general public doesn't just know the primary antagonist: in this case, the Joker. Many would also be able to name the Riddler, Penguin, Catwoman, Mister Freeze and others. Some fans may prefer the dark tone of the modern-day Bat films to the camp fun of the 60's TV series, but it’s undeniable that the larger-than-life villains featured there helped bring them into the popular consciousness.
As with the Flash, many of Batman’s villains have become such well-developed characters that they have gone in entirely different directions. The Riddler as a Detective; Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn as best friends; Catwoman as an antihero; but through it all, the Joker is the one constant, secure in his status as not only the primary Batman villain, but possibly the greatest villain in all of superhero comics.
As with Batman, Spidey’s popularity and sheer number of appearances has ensured that he has an ever-increasing number of bad guys to battle. While many of his greatest foes stem from the classic Lee/Ditko run (such as the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Mysterio, Electro and the Lizard), later creations that have become iconic villains include Hobgoblin, Venom and Carnage. Of course, the Punisher made his first appearance as a Spider-Man villain, before finding solo success as an anti-hero.
Spidey truly has a rogue for every occasion, with darker characters like Carnage being balanced out by fun foes such as the White Rabbit. The recent “Superior Foes of Spider-Man” was a delight, with its focus on lesser-known Spider-Man villains, proving that there are a wealth of great characters beyond the big names.
And what big names they are! Indeed, while it is normally a simple task to assign a hero a primary foe, Spidey fans will argue for days about whether Norman Osborne or Otto Octavius deserves the accolade of Spider-Man’s greatest foe. Both amazing and spectacular, Spider-Man surely has the greatest rogues gallery in comics.
What do you think? Was Batman robbed of top spot or did we miss out any rogues of note? Let us know in the comments or on Facebook!