One of the most fun parts of superhero comics is the infinite permutations creators are allowed to explore and present to fans. With the introduction of concepts like alternate timelines and the multiverse, we can see characters behave in ways they could never get away with in main continuities. Some of our greatest heroes can be turned into monstrous, dastardly villains. And since the stories don’t have to account for someone else taking over months down the line, those heroes can be successful in their villainous career changes, conquering the world or razing the planet of life as they see fit.
At the same time, there’s nothing we love to see more than a good face turn. It’s enjoyable watching a villain try to do the right thing, reshaping their moral code and figuring out whether or not they can redeem themselves. Of course, the way of comic books is they almost inevitably fail -- after all, it’s hard to give up Doctor Doom to the side of the angels for good when there are so many more great stories to be told of him going up against the heroes of the Marvel Universe. In that case, watching them try is far more important than whether or not they succeed at what they’re aiming for. So for this list, we decided to collect ten of the worst villains who tried to make a go at being heroes and saving the world, while also looking at some of the best heroes who finally broke bad.
20 HERO: MAESTRO
Maestro is easily one of the most dangerous version of the Hulk Marvel’s ever shown readers. Appearing first in Peter David's "Future Imperfect" storyline, Maestro is from a future where the world had been destroyed by nuclear weapons. The resulting fallout increased Hulk's strength, and he regained a measure of his intelligence.
With ease, he wiped out any of the other heroes and villains alike, and claimed control of the world. He's vastly more powerful than most versions of the Hulk we've known, but he's also more ruthless, consistently willing to do whatever needs to be done for him to keep control.
19 VILLAIN: CAPTAIN COLD
The Rogues are a simple enough group -- they’re concerned about the score, and avoiding the Flash. They work by a set of simple rules, a code that helps them stand out from most other bad guys. But there isn’t much of a code to have when a Justice League from another world captures the heroes and turn the world into their sadistic playground.
Eager to get things back to some form of normalcy, Cold was instrumental in sending the Crime Syndicate packing. His heroic turn wasn’t done though, as he even spent some time as a member of the Justice League in the waning days of the New 52 era.
18 HERO: INJUSTICE SUPERMAN
“Evil Superman” is one of the most predictable paths an Elseworlds story can take, but NetherRealm Studios still managed to create one of the longest-lived and most popular alternate worlds ever by doing just that for their 2013 Injustice video game. After being manipulated by the Joker into taking out his pregnant wife (which destroyed Metropolis in a nuclear explosion) Superman finally had enough of the criminal element, and started enforcing the rules in a much more…involved fashion.
He turned the world into a police state, forcibly bringing many of his former allies into the Justice League into his Regime, and making serious crime an offense punishable by the end of one's life.
17 VILLAIN: FLASH THOMPSON
We're stretching the definition of villain here just a bit. Still, as a high school bully who spent most of his time shoving Peter Parker into lockers and bullying him just because he was different, he’s about as close to a real life villain as the majority of us ever see. And in a unique What If? timeline, the character gained spider-powers instead of Peter.
Filled with confidence and bravado, he took to the streets as Captain Spider, and did a fairly decent job at first. Unfortunately, without Peter’s scientific abilities, a battle with the Vulture would lead to his doom when he was dropped from a great height and had no web shooters to save him.
16 HERO: FLASHPOINT WONDER WOMAN
When Barry traveled back in time to save his mother’s life from the Reverse-Flash, his actions were like a rock tossed through glass -- shattering the timeline and creating cracks in time, creating unintended effects everywhere. One of several unintended effects was altering the very nature of Themyscira and Wonder Woman.
Instead of Diana Prince bringing a message of peace to Patriarch’s world, she was instead much more of a warrior, and her feuds with Atlantis lead to them tearing Europe apart in a battle for supremacy. By the end, the armies of the Amazons had turned Europe into a literal No Man’s Land, and their battle with the Atlanteans nearly led to the destruction of the planet.
15 VILLAIN: GALACTUS
Though people often refer to Galactus as neither good or evil, it doesn’t change the fact that he consumes entire planets to survive, whether people are on them or not. Knowing that, it’s safe to define him as something of a villain. But when the Ultimates assembled, one of their earliest missions involved solving "The Galactus Problem".
As a testament to the intelligence and power they wielded, the group actually succeeded, turning Galactus from Planet-Eater to Life-Bringer by fixing the energy imbalance in the ancient being, allowing him to go to desolate planets and restore them to life once again. Though this didn’t last, as Galactus most recently was forced to return to his usual planet chomping self.
14 HERO: THE CRIME SYNDICATE
There’s a handful of versions of the Crime Syndicate of America, but the central element to these characters remains the same no matter the version. They’re the evil version of the Justice League, from a world where all of the heroes have turned into villains.
The Crime Syndicate easily conquered the own world, ruling it for years before Darkseid came and the resulting war with him laid waste to their planet. After this, these heroes managed to crossover to the main DC Earth in the storyline “Forever Evil”, and placed the Justice League in various traps, allowing them to conquer New Earth as well.
13 VILLAIN: SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN
After decades of battles, a dying Doctor Octopus finally got the most important victory over his long-time nemesis. Successfully managing to swap bodies with the Wall Crawler, he left Peter inside his own fading body while he went on to be Spider-Man. But Parker played one last trick to save his legacy -- he imprinted his conscience and experiences onto Otto.
From then on, Octavius swore that he would become a Spider-Man better than Peter ever was... a Superior Spider-Man. That version of Spidey worked to save the world from Peter's foes and larger challenges as well, even teaming up to battle the Inheritors, a multiversal threat determined to consume all Spiders.
12 HERO: DEADPOOL
Calling Deadpool a good guy isn’t entirely honest, but he spends more time working on the side of the angels than he does the villains, so it still fits. In Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe, an attempt to help Deadpool with his insanity results in him being exposed to Psycho Man, who suppresses all of Wade’s inner voices except one -- a voice telling him to take out everything.
The assassin proves to be effective (unsurprising given the mini-series’ title), laying waste to everyone from the Fantastic Four to his buddies in the X-Men. His last shot winds up being Man-Thing, whose demise opens the Nexus of All Realities to Deadpool and allows him to find other worlds to destroy.
11 VILLAIN: LEX LUTHOR
Like on most Earths, Lex Luthor attempted to stand against the ultimate weapon in Superman. A S.T.A.R. Labs scientist on this Earth, the character fought against Superman as best he could in a world where Russia’s continuously expanding influence causes America to suffer a gradual collapse.
He sends everything from a Superman clone to Batman and the Green Lantern Corps, but none of them are ever able to do more than briefly impede the Man of (Sickle and) Steel. Eventually though, Superman appears to perish in a battle against Brainiac, and Lex unites the world and ushers in a period of great scientific advancement.
10 HERO: THOR
We normally expect Thor to be more of a jovial god, different from his father Odin with his love of adventure and hanging out with mortals like the Avengers. But in the Dan Jurgens story "The Reigning", we’re shown a dark alternate future where Thor takes his duties as a god far more seriously, taking control from all of humanity to rule the entire planet himself.
He creates a society with no war, no borders, and no religion, introducing Asgardian science to the world of man to create a utopia -- but one he controls, forcing humans to be “registered” and catalogued, and taking advantage of his immortality to rule over Earth in perpetuity.
9 VILLAIN: IRON LAD
Nathaniel Richards is the boy who would become king. Or conqueror, since Nate is the young version of the time traveling nemesis of the Avengers, Kang the Conqueror. After his future self shows him his future of reigning over multiple eras to inspire him, Nate is instead inspired to try and prevent himself from ever going down those same dark paths.
Instead, he forms the Young Avengers and they work together to try and defeat Kang. Unfortunately, Iron Lad’s decision not to be Kang results in several massive changes to the timeline, and he eventually makes the decision to return home on his own.
8 HERO: HAWK/MONARCH
This one's a little complicated. Back in 1991, DC had a neat gimmick for an upcoming event, "Armadgeddon 2001". The event involved a terrible future timeline in 2030 caused by a despot known as Monarch. A young time traveler named Matthew Ryder went back to 1991 to prevent him from ever coming to pass, with the hook in the story being Monarch would turn out to be a DC hero from that era.
Initially, this was to be Captain Atom, but when this reveal was leaked, DC changed it at the last minute to be Hank Hall, who went insane and ended his lover Dove.
7 VILLAIN: MAGNETO
When Xavier’s son Legion attempted to end Magneto, Xavier sacrificed his life to save his longtime friend. Inspired by his friend’s actions, Magneto would eventually form a version of the X-Men himself in order to fight against an Apocalypse motivated to take over the world several years earlier than he was in the normal timeline.
Over time, Apocalypse would claim control over the world with little resistance other than Magneto and his makeshift X-Men, and it would eventually be Magneto’s own efforts that would finally see Apocalypse ended once and for all, bringing a measure of “peace” to their world.
6 HERO: SUPERMAN (RED SON)
Mark Millar’s Superman Elseworlds story had a simple enough premise: what if Superman’s rocket landed in a farm within the Soviet Union rather than in the heartlands of Kansas? Though this version of Superman isn’t a villain necessarily, he does change the focus of the Cold War from nuclear weapons to metahumans.
But since he’s Superman… he easily defeats every superhero that attempts to fight him -- from Batman and the Green Lantern Corps to Wonder Woman and the Amazons of Themyscira. All the while, Russia’s influence on the national stage expanded. To this Superman’s credit, it ushers in an age of peace… though at the cost of liberty, with Superman turning into the all-seeing, all-hearing “big brother”.
5 VILLAIN: INFAMOUS IRON MAN
What does one do after they’ve conquered all of creation and they’ve found no satisfaction? Well in Victor Von Doom’s case, you take over the mantle of one of your oldest foes and try to be a hero, apparently.
Not long after Tony Stark fell during the second Civil War, Victor decided he would take up the name Iron Man for himself, a decision which would lead to an almost constant conflict for the former villain. Everyone from S.H.I.E.L.D. to his former villainous allies start to come at him -- he even spends some time battling against the evil Reed Richards from the Ultimate Universe.
4 HERO: THE NEW REICHSMEN
In the new multiverse created in the aftermath of 52, there exists one Earth darker than most others. On this world, the evil forces win the war of metahumans, boasting their own Justice League known as the New Reischmen, which features their own Flash, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman.
Combined with their advanced technology thanks to them reverse engineering Superman’s rocket (which landed in their territory), they win World War II and gain control over the world. But the New Reischsmen’s shared guilt over how they gained their so-called utopia eventually leads to Overman to sabotage the entire thing, allowing the crown jewel city Metropolis to be destroyed in an attack.
3 VILLAIN: HARLEY QUINN
Though Harley dabbles on the side of the angels occasionally in the main universe, on this Earth the character is forced to go entirely down the straight and narrow. After her longtime partner the Joker is ended for his actions, Harleen is left with no choice but to join Batman’s Insurgency to protect the world (and her daughter) from Superman’s ever-growing influence.
While she breaks away from the Insurgency before Injustice: Gods Among Us, she joins back in time for the events of Injustice 2, even being trusted enough to work alongside Green Arrow and Black Canary, and operate Bruce’s Brother Eye satellite.
2 CAPTAIN AMERICA
This entry's a little weird, in that "Secret Empire" is set in the main Marvel Universe rather than an alternate, but it IS an alternate version of Captain America. After Captain America had his youth restored by Kobik, a sentient Cosmic Cube, he was brought back in such a way that he believed himself a secret agent of Hydra.
Proclaiming himself Hydra Supreme, this version of Steve worked alongside Hydra and infiltrated American society at every level. With the power of Hydra, he gradually took more control over the world -- even subtly altering reality in his favor, until he was capable of wielding Thor’s hammer.
1 VILLAIN: LEX LUTHOR (AGAIN)
There’s something about Lex Luthor, an almost inviolable rule that says when Superman is evil, Lex Luthor must be good -- or at least work on the side of the angels. In the Injustice world, Superman and Lex were always longtime friends, until Superman finally went off the deep end and created the Regime.
Finally turning into the thing the prime Luthor feared the most, an alien using his powers to play god, Luthor began working with Batman behind his friend’s back. Though he would eventually perish in the aftermath, he was even responsible for finally bringing true change to the world by bringing the heroes of another world to their own.