Most of the costumed crimefighters who star in superhero comic books have never wavered in their dedication to preserving truth and justice. However, there are a notorious few who began their careers operating on the wrong side of the law before ultimately renouncing their wicked ways.
While some of these guys and gals will probably never live down their past misdeeds – Shazam anti-hero Black Adam immediately springs to mind – others have pretty much earned a clean slate. Indeed, as this list illustrates, there are several Marvel and DC superheroes that everyone seems to forget started out as villains!
No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you: one of the longest-serving Avengers kicked off his mask-and-tights escapades as a baddie! In fairness to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ resident marksman, his outlaw status was largely the result of a misunderstanding, with Hawkeye’s clumsy initial attempt at superheroics misconstrued as a heist.
What’s more, you can blame puppy love for Clint Barton’s subsequent lawless behaviour, as he was led astray by Black Widow (more on her later) after being seduced by the beguiling super spy. As excuses go, “My girlfriend made me do it” is pretty weak – but who hasn’t acted stupidly to impress their crush?
9 Plastic Man
In many ways, Plastic Man is the most impressive villain-turned-hero on this entire list – a small-time crook who worked his way up to a spot on the JLA’s starting roster after turning over a new leaf. Seriously: a guy known as “Eel O’Brien” who has goofy shapeshifting abilities winding up among the upper echelon of DC superheroes might just be the definition of the American Dream!
Indeed, Plastic Man has been rubbing shoulders with good guys so long that casual readers might not even be aware of his shady history. That said, long-time fans will remember instances where the more unsavory elements of O’Brien’s personality have come to the fore over the years, and his crass sense of humor occasionally betrays his seedy upbringing.
If your knowledge of X-Men lore only extends as far as the 20th Century Fox film franchise, then the news that Rogue was once a major thorn in the team’s collective side will come as a shock. Yet it’s the truth all the same, with early comic book appearances by this power-sapping powerhouse establishing that she was radicalized into a life of anti-human terrorism by her stepmom, Mystique.
Rogue eventually broke free of Mystique’s toxic influence and she reached out to Professor Xavier for help. Firm believer in second chances that he is, Xavier welcomed her with open arms, granting Rogue a place on the X-Men’s roster (on a probationary basis, natch) and changing her life trajectory for the better.
7 The Red Hood
Ok, we’ll admit it: the young Jason Todd was more of a juvenile delinquent than an out-and-out supervillain – although he did try to boost the Batmobile’s tires! That’s gotta be more than enough to earn him the “lawbreaker” label, so it was kinda big of Batman to take the kid in and train him to fill the vacant Robin sidekick role.
Unfortunately, Todd lacked the balanced personality and athletic skill of his predecessor, Dick Grayson, leading to a fatal run-in with the Joker. When he was inevitably resurrected (this is comics, remember), Jason flirted with villainy once more by adopting the Red Hood persona, before dialing his shtick back to that of a vigilante prepared to use lethal force.
6 Black Widow
Whether you’re talking about the comic book incarnation of Black Widow or her Marvel Cinematic Universe counterpart, it’s important to remember that she’s a former Russian spy. Obviously, Natasha Romanova defected decades ago, but that doesn’t erase the fact that she spent several years actively trying to bring down America at the behest of her Red Room bosses.
At the same time, since jumping ship to work for Uncle Sam, Black Widow has saved the world countless times, both as a member of various supergroups and all by her lonesome. For this reason – not to mention her close association with the likes of Captain America and Iron Man – Natasha’s sordid past is seldom brought up (and we’re totally fine with that).
5 Big Barda
Big Barda should be a villain – after all, that’s what she was literally raised to be. From the moment she could walk, Barda was groomed to become the leader of the Female Furies, the most fearsome warrior women the nightmare world of Apokolips has to offer.
But nobody counted on her meeting Scott Free – alias Mister Miracle, superhero escape artist – and falling head over heels for him. From that moment on, Barda’s days as an evildoer were numbered, and it wasn’t long before she was redeemed through her love for Scott (awwwww!).
Today, Sam Wilson is best known by his superhero moniker, Falcon, but he was previously known by another, entirely less wholesome alias: “Snap” Wilson. Just who was “Snap” Wilson? Why, a career criminal and gang member, that’s who!
In Sam’s defense, he didn’t set out to become a hood. On the contrary, it wasn’t until the loss of both his parents – coupled with a series of ugly, racially-motivated incidents – that he gave up on society (and a world) that seemingly didn’t care about him. Luckily, he later encountered Captain America, who inspired him to rediscover his heroic potential, and the rest is history.
At this stage in the game, it’s easy to forget that Catwoman (as her name suggests) is a cat burglar, what with her romantic ties to Batman and penchant for altruism-motivated theft. However, Selina Kyle has only really been on the side of the angels since the early 1990s – up until then, she was largely an unabashed antagonist.
Funnily enough, the Dark Knight spent the better part of five decades trying to convince Catwoman to reform her light-fingered ways, with limited success at best. But after the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event rewrote the history of the DC Universe, Selina was reborn as a more morally ambiguous figure, paving the way for her transformation from Bat-foe to Bat-friend!
Fittingly for a character as bonkers as Deadpool, it’s difficult to categorize the Merc with a Mouth as either a hero or villain. Sure, he’s come a looooong way from his days terrorizing the New Mutants and X-Force, but he also remains capable of behavior that borders on psychotic.
But at the end of the day, there’s no denying that Wade Wilson tries pretty dang hard to walk the virtuous path, even if he stumbles a lot along the way. So, while Deadpool is never going to represent the textbook definition of a good guy, he wants to be…and that’s gotta count for something.
For this entry, we’ve had to stretch the concept of heroism to breaking point…heck, Lobo barely even qualifies as an anti-hero. After all, not only has this intergalactic bounty hunter been committing unspeakable acts of violence from the moment he was born (no exaggeration!), but he’s done so with undisguised relish.
Nevertheless, Lobo has joined forces with several DC’s big guns like Superman and Batman in the past – he’s even been a card-carrying member of the Justice League. He also has a proven track record of going above and beyond to protect his friends, as well the space dolphins he’s bizarrely obsessed with. That’s why we’re willing to call Lobo a hero – although certainly not a role model.