DC’s pantheon of superheroes harbors a massive number of characters, many of whom are equipped with special abilities. When thinking of the characters that constitute such a description, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash and countless more come to mind. Therefore, debates, relatively dense though they may be, continue to circulate with regards to how we define the term “superhero." Do characters without powers deserve a seat under the same umbrella term as heroes who can run fast, fire heat vision from their eyes, or fly? The answer is subjective. If Green Arrow is a Justice League member capable of fighting alongside the likes of Martian Manhunter, shouldn’t they both earn the title of superhero? Even as a mere vigilante, the Emerald Archer can certainly be as deadly as his Martian teammate. Arguably, the same can be said most vigilantes in the DC Universe.
Despite this, the non-powered are often the butt of the joke. How many internet memes position the Dark Knight as a weak link of the Justice League? It’s easy to forget that such characters typically use artfulness, intelligence, and combat know-how to make up for what they lack in superpowers. To this end, DC’s vigilantes are sometimes depicted as more ruthless than their special ability-wielding counterparts. Thus, an absence of superpowers informs a character’s approach to most combat situations. In this list, we take take a look at and rank these vigilantes from least to most deadly. It's worth noting that for many vigilantes, a designation as deadly does not always equal a willingness to end a life.
20 ROY HARPER
Trained by the world’s finest archer, Roy Harper, regardless of the codename he bears, presents quite the threat. A bow and arrow is not his only forte, either. His weapon mastery also extends to firearms. Plus, Roy’s skills as a martial artist are an added bonus. In this regard, then, Green Arrow’s on-again, off-again sidekick has become somewhat of a triple threat.
In the past, he’s worn several hats -- undercover government agent, Titans leader -- and has dished out many beatings to criminals. Ending a life isn’t behavior Roy finds himself prone to partake in, however. The one instance where such an act does drive him is taken away, when Green Arrow murders Prometheus for what he did to Roy’s daughter, Lian, and the destruction of Star City.
Regardless of the continuity in which she appears, Batwoman’s as fierce as vigilantes get. Usually depicted as a wealthy socialite who comes from a military family, Kate Kane’s rise to one of Gotham’s protectors never ceases to fascinate. For instance, the New 52 positions her in the role of a bystander to a robbery. Instead of looking on, she jumps to the rescue, and continues to offer aid even after Batman arrives. Thus, the Batwoman is born.
In combat, she’s forceful, quick on her feet and vicious when necessary. Her one rule involves a refusal to end lives, and she questions the morals of those who would even consider doing so. There are a few situations where she comes close to crossing the line, but Batwoman never succumbs to temptation.
Artemis, the Amazonian, is the sole superpowered being on this list. She gets a pass, considering her recent ventures as a member of Red Hood and the Outlaws. However, for the purposes of this entry, her abilities are not being taken into account. Hence her low position in the ranking. In truth, she doesn’t need powers to prove herself as a warrior. Amazonian combat training alone is enough to make anyone formidable so long as they apply themselves.
Besides an instance with her best friend, Akila, whom she had to stop with the help of Wonder Woman, Artemis tries steering clear of deadly tactics. That said, she is known to develop a taste for ruthlessness when she feels no other option exists.
17 TIM DRAKE
Robins are historically rather threatening young heroes. How could they not be considered as such? Batman trains them, pushing his sidekicks to limits most youth could never handle. Tim Drake is no exception. And this is despite his being outclassed in terms of skill compared to the other three mainline Robins (Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Damian Wayne). Interestingly, Tim carves his own path as Batman’s right hand. In one instance, he does so in terrifying fashion.
During Bill Willingham’s run on Robin, Tim brutally beats a villain named Johnny Warlock for harming Stephanie Brown. The attack nearly fatally wounds Warlock, causing Tim to question whether or not he’s fit to be Robin. This scary incident proves there’s a lot more to Tim Drake than meets the eye.
16 THE QUESTION
Vic Sage’s Question remains one of DC’s most fascinating yet under-appreciated vigilantes. As a reporter and vigilante in the crime-ridden and corrupt Hub City, The Question’s worldview is often depicted as complex. He believes firmly in absolutes, good and evil, right and wrong, etc. However, some interactions with criminals have led him to walk along lines of the morally gray.
For example, while thrust in a drug war, he’s forced to end a man in order to protect a loved one. Question expresses no remorse and has few quarrels in committing a similar act later in his crimefighting career. The teachings of Richard Dragon add to the vigilante’s ruthlessness with regards to both combat and his perception of the world around him.
For a long time, Selina Kyle was little more than a cat burglar, a petty thief with whom Batman could sometimes talk reason. Therefore, Catwoman is often written or portrayed in the nuances that exist between good and bad. She does, however, play the role of vigilante on occasion, especially where the helpless and the poor are involved. To protect those she feels deserve her protection and more, Catwoman will go to great lengths.
One notable example occurs during Ed Brubaker’s Catwoman run, where the on-again, off-again hero incidentally mortally wounds the Black Mask. Or so she thinks -- he somehow survives her knocking him off a rooftop. This says nothing of combat encounters where trickery and flirtation often see her gain an advantage she rarely needs.
14 GREEN ARROW
From the outside looking in, the Emerald Archer hardly appears harmful. Without a doubt, this works in his favor. Green Arrow’s enemies too often underestimate him and what he is capable of accomplishing with a bow and arrow. The Robin Hood garb should fool no one, though.
When he wants to, this vigilante turns his joyful countenance into a vicious snarl meant to mock opponents while he effortlessly dispatches them. Obviously, the most notable example of Green Arrow’s storied deadliness revolves around an encounter with Prometheus. It’s a moment that depicts the hero’s most callous behavior. Additionally, his actions in Mike Grell’s The Longbow Hunters speaks volumes to his willingness to cross the line as well.
13 BLACK CANARY
Of DC’s various vigilantes, Black Canary is hardest to place in this ranking. In terms of her being described as deadly, there’s no one example to point towards. Sure, there exist instances of Black Canary taking things too far in the field and having to calm her base instincts. However, she rarely succumbs to the tempting behaviors. Therein lies the character’s greatest strength -- despite her ability to tackle any threat with deadly force, she often chooses instead to take the high ground.
Black Canary’s prowess in martial arts ensures her a spot amongst the DC Universe’s top combatants. Thus, she probably deserves to appear higher on the list. With so many combatants that use lethal force, however, this may have to do for now.
Even before gaining possession of the magical Soultaker sword, Tatsu, alias Katana, is an impressively skilled martial artist. Tatsu’s talents ensure her survival of the attack that slaughters her family. Soon after these tragic events transpire, she sets out to find and end the man responsible, her brother-in-law, Takeo. She eventually succeeds, but not before creating the mantle of Katana, a vigilante persona meant to fight for justice.
As one of the DC Universe’s premiere swordfighters, Katana makes for a formidable force in any given combat situation. Hence why Batman handpicks her for his Outsiders operation and why she’s recently become a valued contributor to Suicide Squad missions.
11 CASSANDRA CAIN
A daughter of the assassins David Cain and Lady Shiva, Cassandra Cain seems a warrior through and through. In many situations, especially where her younger counterparts are concerned, Cassandra can be classified as the best fighter in the room. Her formidability isn’t only thanks to her DNA, either. David Cain’s training allows his daughter little time to enjoy the magic of childhood. As a result, she follows in her parents’ footsteps, assassinating an assigned target at an early age.
Cassandra’s incredible skills also pit her against Supergirl and she nearly breaks the Girl of Steel. Furthermore, her proficiency with stealth rivals Batman’s. This is one Bat-family member most people, regardless of ability, would want to face.
If Deathstroke were an actual vigilante, he would undoubtedly deserve to rank number one on this list. As things stand, however, he’s more villain than hero. Furthermore, his heroics are typically selfish in nature or burdened by his reluctance to participate. Examples of this either manifest in his desire to save/protect loved ones or in his work with Amanda Waller’s Task Force X.
As an assassin with a panoply of skills ranging from martial arts to firearms to all manner of swords and other blades, Deathstroke’s deadliness needs no introduction. He isn’t called The Terminator for nothing. On the few occasions where Deathstroke fights for the “good” team, he never fails to prove why he’s the best at what he does.
The Dark Knight is another vigilante that’s not easy to place in this ranking thanks to his refusal to cross the line. Yes, there are several examples of Batman using lethal force against criminals, especially in the years following his first appearance. However, the modern Batman, though he’s often tempted, typically steers clear of such behavior.
Considering his notorious ferocity in combat, which can lead to what many deem mild acts of torture, deadly seems a befitting term for the Bat. Most of the criminals he deals with, particularly those of the petty variety, respect this, fear it even. Therefore, to Gotham’s underbelly, Batman is as deadly as a vigilante can get.
When it comes to the rules that DC vigilantes typically follow, Helena Bertinelli’s Huntress has difficulty coloring within the lines. After the end of her family by a rival Mafia clan, Helena is forced to mature at an early age. She learns hand-to-hand combat and how to handle various types of weaponry. Vengeance and a passion for achieving justice by any means makes her a shoe-in for the vigilante nightlife.
However, her practices continuously get her in trouble. Lethal force isn’t always her first course of action, but it is an option she often leaves open. Such behavior gets her stripped of the Batgirl mantle and later ousted from the Justice League.
7 DAMIAN WAYNE
Born to Talia al Ghul and Bruce Wayne, Damian Wayne was destined to become a fighter. His tutelage with the League of Assassins complicates things, though. For one, Damian believes most combat situations should end in one fashion -- the end of his opponent. When Batman enters into the picture, the Dark Knight struggles to break his son of this habit. The fact that using lethal force should never be an option does not sit well with Damian.
Consequently, his first few outings with Batman do not go well. Even after such inclinations have diminished, Damian still takes it upon himself to end a threat by ending their foes. In combat, he’s more aggressive than a young Jason Todd, making Damian’s stint as Robin endlessly eventful.
6 JONAH HEX
Technically, Jonah Hex isn’t a vigilante in the modern sense. As a product of DC’s Old West period, Jonah’s occupation is actually that of a bounty hunter. However, he still serves the same basic purpose of a vigilante. Of course, the primary difference is that bounty hunters receive payment for their deeds and rarely garner pushback from official law enforcement entities.
Ending a wanted individual or taking them to the proper authorities alive usually constitutes the choices afforded bounty hunters. Jonah Hex employs whichever method seems most efficient. For the time in which he resides, it’s either him or everybody else. As a talented fighter, gunslinger, and tactician, Hex is the kind of hero the western frontier needs in order to survive.
5 RED HOOD
Even whilst donning the guise of a Robin, Jason Todd acted as a deadly force in Gotham. A morally ambiguous young man, Jason’s view of justice differs greatly from that of his mentor. This results in his engaging in questionable behavior that leads to accidents where Batman ponders if his ward is capable of lethal force . Years pass before the Dark Knight becomes privy to the truth first hand.
Jason returns as the Red Hood in Under the Hood, equipped with dual pistols and a thirst for blood. He bears no qualms in the taking of lives, thinking it the ideal way of cleansing Gotham of the crime that corrupts it. Eventually, Red Hood tames this behavior, but the use of lethal force remains a temptation for the former Robin.
When she first debuts as a key figure in Mike Grell’s The Longbow Hunters, Shado’s depiction is that of an individual simply out to right a wrong. It just so happens that in taking on such a task, a few people, objectively bad people, have to die. By the story’s end, however, Shado and Green Arrow team to combat a common enemy. Her archery skills rival his, making her more than a formidable force.
The New 52, however, positions the character as a villain. Instead of being an ally to Green Arrow, this version of Shado is hired to take out Oliver Queen and later Dinah Lance. Regardless of her station among heroes and villains, Shado remains one of the deadliest street-level characters in the DC Universe.
3 LADY SHIVA
Considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, martial artist in the DC Universe, Lady Shiva is often written as a nuanced character. She’s not necessarily good or bad, since she changes sides based on her own motives. In truth, it typically comes down to perspective where the sometimes assassin, sometimes hero is concerned.
Her time fighting crime is brief. However, she later returns to the good side of the spectrum when her and Black Canary trade places. As a result, Lady Shiva runs with the Birds of Prey for a spell. It fails to soften her hardened exterior, but she does grow fond of her colleagues in the process. The deadly assassin in her never falters, though.
This list’s second and third spots seem as though they could be interchangeable in terms of ranking. Lady Shiva is far deadlier than Azrael. However, Jean-Paul Valley takes the number two spot because his main purpose is geared towards vigilantism. Contrarily, her motives typically align with that of an assassin.
As both Azrael and Batman, Jean-Paul abuses his power as a vigilante. His overly aggressive behavior takes the fear that Batman represents to a new level. In dealing with even the pettiest of criminals, Jean-Paul is willing to maim and cripple. Even Nightwing gets his ire at one point and nearly loses his life because of it. Azrael represents the kind of vigilante no one would want patrolling their street corners.
Rorschach is as much of an investigator as he is a vigilante. These abilities are integral to his success as a crimefighter, aiding his work in defending the downtrodden from the worst criminals the world has on offer. It’s not long before lethal force becomes a part of his routine. The horrific end of a young girl results in his taking out of the perpetrator. This act of violence becomes somewhat of a cycle for Rorschach.
As time passes, his violent behavior takes a turn for the worse. He unforgivingly takes out any criminal he feels is deserving of such treatment with little to no remorse. Interestingly, Rorschach’s later stint in prison does nothing to quell his base instincts.