There's probably some sort of psychological explanation for it, but for whatever reason, popular culture has loved to come up with evil geniuses. There's a reason that "mad scientist" is such a common phrase, and that's because the idea of a scientist going crazy in their quest for knowledge is an incredibly common idea in fiction.
The same goes for comic books, as the world of DC Comics and Marvel are filled with tons of evil geniuses and mad scientists. Marvel even had a special team of super-villains called the Intelligencia! The competition for the smartest villain is so tight that even a team such as the Intelligencia didn't get all of their members on this list (just as an aside, we also eliminated the High Evolutionary, as he seems hard to pin down as a "villain")! Enjoy, then, the smartest villains of all-time
15 Professor Ivo
Professor Anthony Ivo is best known for two things. The first is an obsession with death, namely doing whatever he could to avoid it. He was obsessed with obtaining immortality, so of course when he actually found an elixir that could give him immortality, it also horribly mutated him, so he would live forever...disfigured!
The second thing, though, is the reason he is on this list. Ivo is a genius with mechanical creations, none more impressive than Amazo, a robot Ivo built that could absorb the powers of the entire Justice League! As you might imagine, just Superman alone is one of the most powerful beings in the world. Ivo was able to build a robot that not only duplicated Superman's powers, but could also emulate Green Lantern's power ring and Wonder Woman's golden lasso! That takes some serious know how. Ivo has created other impressive robots over the years (including a whole island filled with them), but Amazo remains his crown jewel.
14 Dark Beast
Sharing the same intellect as the X-Men's resident genius, the Beast, the Dark Beast is a version of Hank McCoy from the Age of Apocalypse, a world where Apocalypse woke up from hibernation earlier than expected and conquered the world before superheroes could come about to stop him. While a small group of X-Men continued to rebel against Apocalypse, a good deal of mutants just threw in with Apocalypse, including McCoy, who eventually became so deranged that he got a kick out of the experiments that he would run on innocent people.
Dark Beast was one of a handful of people who managed to leave the world of the "Age of Apocalypse" and enter the main Marvel universe, only he entered the main timeline at the moment when things diverged, which was decades earlier. So Dark Beast had been running around on this Earth for years before the X-Men ever existed. He picked up his experiments here, and it turned out that he was responsible for the creation of the underground dwelling mutants known as the Morlocks.
13 Mad Thinker
The Mad Thinker is a fascinating villain because his crimes are rarely motivated by the same sort of goals that other villains have. It is not that the Thinker is not a villain, because he is, but rather he is more than willing to kill people if need be. However, he is mostly driven by a pursuit of knowledge. Heck, if a plan of his resulted in him learning something new or gaining a new insight into something, he would be more than happy to end up in prison, as that would just give him time to think about what he had just learned.
Of course, he is so smart that there isn't a prison out there that can hold him. A genius in many different fields, the Mad Thinker is perhaps best known for his creation of the artificial being known as the Awesome Android. Perhaps the greatest testament to the brilliance of the Mad Thinker is that when Reed Richards needed someone to double check his math when it came time for him to support the Superhuman Registration Act during "Civil War," it was the Mad Thinker that he turned to for help.
12 Doctor Octopus
Doctor Otto Octavius was perhaps the finest nuclear physicist, in the country. Even though his main field was atomic energy, Octavius also gained fame for his work as an inventor, especially his most famous invention, a metal harness that would allow its user to mentally communicate with an additional four limbs, so that scientists could work on dangerous materials without having to actually touch said materials themselves. However, tragedy struck when an explosion merged the harness to Octavius' body. The mental trauma of the accident led to him becoming the super villain known as Doctor Octopus.
Years later, after he suffered severe brain damage (years of getting punched in the head by superheroes), Doctor Octopus showed how necessity was the mother of invention as he built a device that could transfer his brainwaves out of his dying body and into the body of Peter Parker, Spider-Man. Octavius continued to work as Spider-Man, but he used his genius to make his Spider-Man a superior version.
11 Mister Sinister
While Dark Beast was a brilliant geneticist, he learned everything he knew from Apocalypse's chief geneticist, that reality's Mister Sinister. However, even in the main Marvel reality, Mister Sinister had been working with Apocalypse for over 50 years before the event that caused the "Age of Apocalypse," so all of the knowhow that Sinister showed in the "Age of Apocalypse" was already being used in the real Marvel continuity. It was later revealed that Sinister (who was originally a scientist in the late 19th century before meeting Apocalypse) had worked with the Nazis during World War II because of the concentration camp victims that were available to him for experimentation.
Sinister maintained a large collection of clones of his underlings. Sinister can do more with genetic material than almost anyone out there, which is probably why he was so obsessed with the genetic material of Scott Summers, as Sinister believed it to be central for the creation of a perfect mutant being. Remember when we mentioned that the Dark Beast created the Morlocks? He was using techniques taught to him by Mister Sinister, which is why Sinister years later ordered a culling of the "defective" Molocks - that was the basis for the "Mutant Massacre."
The group of evil scientists known as Advanced Ideas Mechanics (A.I.M.) made a major scientific breakthrough when they created the reality-altering device known as a Cosmic Cube. The scientists needed a way of maintaining the Cube, though, so they decided to alter one of their technicians and turn him into a super-intelligent being known as M.O.D.O.C. (Mental Organism Designed Only for Computing). However, the newly formed creature turned on his creators and changed his name to M.O.D.O.K. (Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing).
M.O.D.O.K. was one of a long line of Jack Kirby creations that used distorted body types for great effect (like Kirby's later creation, the evil scientist without a head, Arnim Zola, who just barely missed this list). M.O.D.O.K. was a super-genius who ruled A.I.M. for many years, but eventually drove the organization into the ground with his need for world domination. You see, while the transformation into M.O.D.O.K. made his brain essentially one of the world's most powerful computers, it did not improve his creativity levels, so he was bound to repeat the same basic plans over and over again.
A fascinating aspect of gamma radiation in the Marvel Universe, it seems, is that the radiation affects people in different ways. It also seems that the key lies in their inner desires. Bruce Banner had been hiding rage within himself for years due to the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, and as a result, he became the rage-fuelled monster known as the Hulk. Doctor Leonard Samson wished that he could be like his namesake, and thus he became a handsome, strong man. Similarly, menial laborer Samuel Sterns wished to be like his physicist brother, Philip, and therefore he was mutated into the brilliant Leader.
As the Leader, Sterns was also driven criminally insane, as his plots grew increasingly devious and unhinged as time went by. He once tried to mutate the entire planet through irradiating Earth's drinking water. Another time, he detonated a nuclear bomb in s small town just so that he could experiment on the survivors. The Leader was an early member of the super-smart villain group, the Intelligencia.
One of the most confusing things when it came to ranking these characters was how to deal with super-intelligent alien races. The issue there is that while one of Darkseid's traits is super-intelligence, it is a also trait that pretty much every New God possesses and it just sounds wrong saying that someone like Granny Goodness is one of the 15 smartest villains ever.
Still, Darkseid has shown enough unique intelligence that we're willing to put him on the list. Darkseid's brilliance typically shows itself in his planning. Jack Kirby famously depicted Darkseid's cunning in "The Pact," the story that saw Darkseid and Highfather broker a truce between their people that was based on each side taking control of the son of the other side. Darkseid, though, intentionally put Highfather's son, Scott Free, into a situation where he knew Free would escape from Apokolips, thus leading to the pact being broken and not by Darkseid's hands. Darkseid also showed great planning in both the "Great Darkness Saga" and "Final Crisis."
7 Dr. Sivana
During the Golden Age, a recurring theme in a lot of the early stories was about the evils of corporate greed. If you read early "Superman" stories now, you would think that Superman was ready to take part in an "Occupy Wall Street" protest. Fawcett Comics' "Captain Marvel" stories had a similar bent to them, and that formed the basis of Doctor Thaddeus Sivana's villainy. Sivana planned to use his genius for the good of humanity, but big corporations and political bosses got in his way and branded him a crackpot. Distraught, Sivana left Earth and settled on Venus. Now embittered and hating Earth, Sivana soon declared a personal war on the people of Earth, including their champions, the Marvel Family.
In a demonstration of how smart Sivana was, it was only a few appearances before he deduced Captain Marvel's secret identity of Billy Batson. Sivana was very similar to Lex Luthor, and when the Marvel Family was revamped in "Power of Shazam!" in the 1990s, Sivana saw a Luthor-esque reboot, as well, with Sivana now becoming the thing that initially drove him to villainy, a corporate bigwig.
Like Darkseid, the people of Thanos' home planet of Titan are all super-intelligent by Earth's standards, but Thanos stood out from the rest. Like Darkseid (who he was based upon), Thanos' brilliance came mostly in his cunning. Few people were quite as brilliant when it came to sadistic and cruel plans as Thanos. This was all due to his obsession with the concept of Death. He loved Death and wanted to send her as many tributes as he could.
Over the years, Thanos has built great machines of destruction and has also used his genius to acquire other destructive devices, all in his pursuit of murdering as many people as possible. His genius was on full display in "Thanos Quest," the prestige format series that saw Thanos take on each of the Elders who were guardians of the Infinity Gems. Thanos out-thought, out-planned and out-witted each of the Elders, defeating them all and gaining their gems, which led to the creation of the Infinity Gauntlet.
When it all comes down to it, Ozymandias' claim to fame as a brilliant villain is mostly the fact that he managed to do the simple feat of only revealing his master plan after it had already gone underway and that there was no way for his former superhero friends to stop him. Ozymandias was originally one of the superheroes himself in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' "Watchmen," but as time went by, Ozymandias realized that their approach to solving problems was never going to work.
Instead, he devised an astonishingly elaborate plan that would involve him killing millions in an attempt to unite billions and form a lasting world peace in the world, but only by giving the world an enemy that it could unite against. Naturally, such an immense threat had to be realistic to be believed, so Ozymandias not only created such a threat, but also he did so in a manner where millions actually did die. He took "means to an end" to an extreme.
There is something somewhat twisted when you think about how Superman's greatest enemies are geniuses, and thus the battle between they and Superman are examples of brawn defeating brains. It's an interesting message for readers that strength inevitably triumphs over intelligence. In any event, Superman's second-greatest foe is Brainiac, who has gone through many iterations over the years, but the one constant is that he has computer-like thinking (sometimes that results in him basically being a walking, talking computer, while other times it involves a computer-esque way of thinking and a way to hack his mind into a computer system).
Brainiac's genius was so powerful that he literally would kidnap whole cities, as he had developed technology that could shrink entire cities down to fit into a single bottle. He actually did this to a Kryptonian city, Kandor, which after Superman rescued them, gave him an in-depth connection to Krypton that he never had before. Brainiac's name was used for an early toy computer, which led to legal threats that were resolved when DC made Brainiac more of a computer-like being, to better tie in with the toy.
3 The Maker
A recurring theme in "Fantastic Four" comics is Reed Richards' difficulty in holding on to his humanity when it comes to his brilliance. He is so smart that he can often find himself becoming distant with people, as he sees the bigger picture but not the small, inter-personal picture. In a "Fantastic Four" storyline by writer Jonathan Hickman, Reed is invited to join a Council of Alternate Reality Reed Richards, but is shocked to learn that they have all long divorced themselves of having families. The main Reed could not do this.
That is likely the reason why the Ultimate Reed Richards was unable to hold on to his humanity, as the younger, alternate-reality version of Reed became detached from society and instead used his powers to mutate his own brain and become The Maker, the head of a group of genetically altered beings known as the Children of Tomorrow. After the events of "Secret Wars" left the Ultimate Universe destroyed, the Maker made his way to the new Earth, where he began trying to tap into the power of dead souls.
2 Lex Luthor
It is an awful shame that Lex Luthor is so evil, as in a lot of ways, he is so impressive. One of the versions of his origin involved him creating life, to which Superboy accidentally snuffed the new lifeform out of existence and, in the process, destroyed Luthor's hair, which led to the young Luthor growing up to hate Superboy as the Kryptonian became Superman. Think about that for a moment: he was a teenager and he used science to create life.
That is Luthor in a nutshell -- he is the peak of what humanity can achieve, but he is facing off against a man who is inherently beyond the scope of what humanity can reach. It makes you almost appreciate how Luthor has been able to hold tight in battle with Superman over the years. Then when you remember how Luthor is evil and he is willing to kill for no good reason, you get yourself a great villain, and a brilliant one to boot.
1 Doctor Doom
If you want to put Doctor Doom's genius into its proper context, think of this: whenever Reed Richards, one of the most brilliant people ever to exist, wants to travel through time, what does he do? Does he build a time machine or does he always just use one that Doctor Doom invented? Yep, sure enough, Doom is the only person in the Marvel Universe who has mastered the ability to travel through time.
That's what makes Doom so brilliant, he takes on these seemingly impossible tasks and he achieves them. The guy has developed machines that have absorbed the powers of some of the most powerful cosmic beings known to man, including even obtaining the ability of the Beyonder. Twice!
This is not even getting into the Doom-bot creations, robots so realistic they fool pretty much everyone. If the dreaded Reed Richards is at the top of the intelligence pyramid, Doom is right there behind him.
Who do you think is the smartest villain in comics? Let us know in the comments section!