People aren’t born rotten. At some point in life, whether childhood or later, some terrible event has caused them to be who they are. And even the most rotten people in the world have a reason for what they’re doing, no matter how terrible, murderous, illogical, or catastrophic that reason might be. Perhaps that’s why in comics, all of the best villains tend to be the complex ones. While any B-grade bad guy might act out for two-dimensional reasons, the best villains are the ones with complicated back stories, motivations, and unique morals that are every bit as interesting as the heroes they face against.
But in universes where heroes face off against one another in Civil Wars, or superpowered fisticuffs can accidentally cause the deaths of millions, it’s worth asking: what if, sometimes, the villains were right all along? What if, when viewed through a different lens, some of these villains have unexpectedly relatable motivations?
Now, of course, there’s some bad guys we can’t make excuses for, particularly the ones acting out of petty selfishness, jealousy, or plain insanity. But what about mutant leaders trying to protect their species, or rulers that are beloved by their people, or environmental protectors that might take it one step too far? There are no easy answers in the territory we’re venturing into, and it’s time to dive deeper as we examine these 15 Supervillains Who Might Actually Be Heroes.
15. Ra’s al Ghul
His name might mean “the demon’s head,” but the motivations of the immortal eco-terrorist Ra’s al Ghul aren’t so hard to understand. He sees a world plagued by toxic corruption, wars, hatred, pollution, and corruption, and he believes that in order to correct this, all of the toxicity must be stamped out. Unlike the heroes he opposes (namely Batman) who believe in making small moves from the inside, Ra’s al Ghul works on the outside to force rapid change, and believes that the majority of humanity is beyond saving. This quote from the cinematic depiction of Ra’s, as played by Liam Neeson in Batman Begins, sums up his views quite eloquently:
Only a cynical man would call what these people have “lives,” Wayne. Crime. Despair. This was not how man was supposed to live. The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years. We sacked Rome, loaded trade ships with plague rats. Burned London to the ground. Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance.
What’s captured here, that is so core to Ra’s al Ghul’s philosophy, is his notion that he is not a cynic: he is an idealist, who still believes in the world. He sees himself as the valiant hero who knows when an infected limb must be chopped off, whereas Batman is merely giving painkillers to treat the symptoms of something that should have been removed years ago. According to his beliefs, Ra’s sincerely works to make the planet a “better” place… albeit, by trying to murder billions of people whom he deems unfit.
Of any villain on this list, there is perhaps none more debated than Erik Lehnsherr, formerly Max Eisenhardt, and most commonly identified as Magneto, leader of the Brotherhood of Mutants. Once a young German boy of a middle-class Jewish background, Magneto and his family were victims of the Holocaust, where he watched all of his family murdered in the concentration camps. Though he survived, the boy who would become Magneto was left with a fierce resolve to never let such an event happen again. As a mutant, a new race of human beings facing prejudice and persecution from the world at large, he believes that mutants must both fight back and claim superiority over their oppressors, no matter what the cost.
Though we want to believe in Charles Xavier’s dream of a peaceful coexistence between man and mutant, it’s easy to understand where Magneto’s coming from. Since mutants have revealed themselves to the public, they’ve been subject to profiling, registration acts, prison camps, biological warfare, and even government programs that create giant mutant-hunting Sentinels. Everything Magneto was afraid of from the start has happened, and continues to happen.
At the same time, however, there’s no question that in his quest to save the mutant world, Magneto has become exactly what he hates: a genocidal bigot. Even when it comes to other mutants, his morality has proven more flexible than he might like to admit. As readers and viewers, we naturally have to side with Xavier, and the X-Men‘s message of hope. But if you’re an everyday mutant in the Marvel Universe, where even some students of Xavier’s school wear T-shirts proclaiming that “Magneto was right,” it’s a complicated issue.
Okay, so there’s no question that the ultimate villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, set to finally invade the Earth in Avengers: Infinity War, is one bad dude. The so-called Mad Titan has caused some pretty cataclysmic events that can’t really be excused. But the reason that Thanos has proven to be such an iconic character in the comics is due to his complexity, not his power. And given Kevin Feige’s latest statement that Thanos will essentially be the “main character” of Avengers: Infinity War, it’s worth examining his motivations. If one thing is for sure, it’s that Thanos doesn’t see himself as the villain. Should we?
For one thing, for all his ambition and power-lust, Thanos is motivated by a thing that all of us can relate to: love. Thanos is passionately in love with, or one might say obsessed with, the personification of Death, who represents itself to him as a woman in a dark robe. As a boy, Thanos was actually a pacifist, until his infatuation with Lady Death led him to the existential nihilistic philosophies he has today. The countless slaughters that he has committed have come in an effort to prove himself to the “woman” he loves.
Because Thanos believes that the universe is without meaning or purpose, it means that to him, his mass murderous actions can thus not be considered immoral — since morality does not exist. It’s a complicated line that Thanos walks on, and a lonely existence he must lead.
12. Zoom/Hunter Zolomon
Every Flash must have a Reverse-Flash. It’s simply the nature of reality, time, and the Speed Force. Wally West, the fan-favorite character who succeeded Barry Allen after Crisis on Infinite Earths, is no exception to this rule, but he could have never predicted that his archenemy would turn out to be someone so personal.
A former FBI agent, Hunter Zolomon faced tragedy as a child — and then once again, as an adult — but persevered, even when he lost loved ones and damaged his knee, requiring a cane to walk. As a criminal profiler, Zolomon becomes friends with the Flash, but this friendship hits a snag when he was paralyzed from the waist down. When Zolomon asks the Flash to use the Cosmic Treadmill to go back through time and prevent the paralysis from occurring, and Wally refuses, Zolomon responds by using the treadmill himself — and thus becoming Zoom, Wally’s Reverse-Flash.
However, what separates Hunter Zolomon from so many other villains is that his decision to become Zoom is not motivated by vengeance or hatred, but rather, by a desire to make the Flash a “better hero.” Believing that Barry Allen was a superior Scarlet Speedster to Wally due to the fact that Barry experienced a severe personal tragedy, whereas Wally lived a happy day-to-day existence, Zolomon uses his powers specifically to cause tragedy in his friend’s life. Not because he personally relishes Wally’s pain, but because he believes that pain will help Wally, and thus help the world as a whole.
11. Poison Ivy
There’s no question that humanity, as the caretakers of the planet, have done a poor job. Massive pollution, contamination, deforestation, ozone… the offenses are numerous, especially from the perspective of the world’s plant life. For Dr. Pamela Isley, the botanical biochemist who becomes the Batman villain Poison Ivy, it’s the plants that she’s concerned about — not the humans.
When it comes down to it, there’s a strong case to be made that Poison Ivy isn’t truly a full villain, at least not when compared to so many of her fellow Gotham City rogues, and she’s not anywhere near as loony as the Riddler, Scarecrow, and so on. Though she’s certainly a criminal, and her near-total disregard for human life is certainly immoral and thus deserving of Batman’s involvement, Ivy’s actual motivations aren’t insane, even if her methods might be.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the storyline where she reveals that all of her criminal activities up to that point have only been for the sake of amassing enough funds to purchase a location far away from human society, where she and her plants can live in peace. When she finally does this, settling on a Caribbean island that she turns into a glorious plant paradise, she is actually completely satisfied, happy, and does nothing to interfere with humanity. This all gets ruined when a giant corporation tests out its new weapons system on the island, destroying it.
Wilson Fisk certainly isn’t a nice guy. He’s ruthless, petty, and violent. But as the world now knows from Vincent D’Onofrio’s magnificent portrayal of Fisk in Marvel’s Daredevil, Fisk is no simple character, and his motivations for becoming New York City’s top criminal overlord are not due to greed or malice, but rather, the honest belief that what he does will make his city a better place.
Fisk’s morality, twisted as it may be, comes from a rather common philosophical question: order vs. chaos, especially as it pertains to crime. To the Kingpin, his airtight organization and systematic domination of the underworld is exactly the force that prevents mob wars from breaking out, that prevents total carnage and bloodshed. If crime must always exist, the Kingpin believes it should be organized and controlled, and his ability to outlast competitive mob bosses has, to him, proven he’s the one for the job. In addition, in Marvel’s dark and dangerous version of Hell’s Kitchen — a place so corrupted that Fisk has even been able to weave his way into the so-called legal circles as much as he’s involved in the illegal ones — the question of legality is moot in Fisk’s eyes. The real question is whether he’s right, or whether his grip on the city actually leads to greater and more frequent violence.
Yeah, okay, so the guy’s name is Sinestro, which hardly bodes well for a heroic career. He consciously betrayed the Green Lantern Corps, the great peacekeeping force of the universe. He became a dictator. He uses a yellow ring powered by fear, of all things. And he’s clearly drawn to resemble an alien Hitler, much of the time. How could anyone possibly argue that this guy is anything but a stone-cold villain?
However, though he may be the Green Lantern’s most frequent arch-enemy, Sinestro is a deeper character than many realize. Like Ra’s al Ghul and Magneto, Sinestro’s intentions are coming from an idealistic place, which is what led to him becoming a Green Lantern in the first place. It’s his methods that we have to worry about — his focus on law and order at the expense of compassion, not to mention his rather arrogant and authoritarian personality traits. When it comes down to it, Sinestro is a firm believer in galactic peace, but he believes that achieving it requires a firm hand.
8. The Joker, in The Dark Knight
Arguably, one of the major factors that made Heath Ledger’s depiction of the Joker in The Dark Knight so iconic is how mysterious he is. Throughout the film, the Joker appears out of nowhere. He offers only meager hints about his identity. No fingerprints. No real name. In the years since the movie’s release, many theories have circulated about who this Joker was before he began wearing clown makeup, and what his real intentions may have been, with some believing he may be a PTSD-suffering war veteran, and others thinking that he’s an incarnation of Satan.
But perhaps the most interesting fan-theory of all is one developed by a user on Reddit, who believes that Joker is actually the hero of The Dark Knight. Crazy as this might sound, there are a lot of interesting facets to this idea. Basically, it starts with the notion that Joker actually does have a plan the whole time — despite his claims otherwise — and that his plan was to clean up Gotham of all organized crime, as well as deal with the escalating problem of costumed vigilante crusaders taking the law into their own hands. In fact, he does accomplish both of these tasks; by the end of the movie, Gotham has no more organized crime, is at peace for the eight years until Bane comes around, and the city’s lawbreaking masked vigilante disappears. To accomplish all this, the theory suggests, the Joker sets himself up as a scapegoat while working as a master chess player behind the scenes, carefully positioning all of the key players in Gotham in such a way that, in the end, he’s able to save the city. The writer of the theory also believes that when the Joker is clapping at Commissioner Gordon’s promotion, it isn’t sarcastic, but actually one of the few moments where we see his genuine intentions.
While it’s unlikely that any of this is what Christopher Nolan intended, it’s nonetheless a fun theory to speculate about. As far as the comic book Joker goes, it strikes us as pretty hard to argue for any heroic intentions on his part, but we’re open to hearing theories.
7. Black Adam
Though it might be surprising that Black Adam, normally seen as the arch-nemesis of Shazam, may be getting his own solo movie even before the hero formerly known as Captain Marvel gets his, it’s not unprecedented. In fact, the very reason that Dwayne Johnson chose to play Black Adam instead of Shazam himself is that he thought the “villain” was more the more compelling character, with the deeper back story. For a long time, many fans out there have even considered Black Adam to be more of an antihero than a true bad guy.
Born in ancient Egyptian times, a former slave, and once the champion of Earth, Adam has a long and complicated origin story that runs throughout history, combining elements of heroism, villainy, pain, heartbreak, tragedy, and redemption. Though violent, outspoken, and authoritarian, Black Adam has served as a member of the Justice Society of America, and later on, the ruler of his home nation of Kahndaq, a fictitious country positioned between Egypt and Israel. If a Black Adam movie is indeed released before Shazam, it will be interesting to see how the general public perceives the character.
When it comes to supervillains, there may be no character more morally depraved than Spider-Man‘s symbiotic mass murdering antagonist, who possesses one of the highest body counts in comics. And it’s not like Cletus Kasady is particularly sympathetic, either. He might have come from tragic beginnings, but his homicidal tendencies have caused countless people an unbelievable amount of suffering, and all because Cletus feeds off their pain like an addict. So no, Carnage definitely isn’t a hero. Other than the one period where his morals were forcibly “inverted” due to a magical spell, Cletus Kasady has never performed a heroic action in his life. But…
…what if his absurd and irrational philosophy on the universe’s meaning (or lack of it) is right, and the universe really is that bad? Carnage has often argued his belief that reality is meaningless, laws and morals are nonexistent, and that the only way to achieve freedom in a terribly empty world is to strike back at it with purposeless chaos, violence, and bloodshed. Carnage seeks out the random murder, the spontaneous killing. According to his philosophies, he’s the hero, cutting away at an idiotic society burdened by artificial concepts like love, truth, and family, none of which he believes to be real. In Carnage: Mind Bomb, the killer even got inside the head of his psychiatrist, convincing the man that he was right.
Kasady is the exact opposite of Peter Parker, a man driven to purpose by moral responsibility, and this contrast is the most interesting part of their conflicts. Luckily, in real life, Carnage’s philosophies are a load of nonsense; Cletus has demonstrated himself to be a liar before, and it’s clear that his philosophy is just an excuse to justify his meaningless existence. But still, it’s scary to imagine a universe guided by Carnage’s beliefs, and what an unbelievably horrifying place that would be to live in.
Though Bizarro’s origin story has changed many times throughout DC’s history of universe-wide reboots, if there’s one thing that’s consistent, it’s that he’s never wanted to be a villain; he’s simply been the pawn of masterminds using him to achieve their own ends.
A wonky clone of Superman with minimal intelligence, Bizarro has usually been depicted as possessing vague memories of the Man of Steel’s life, and thus trying to be Superman — albeit with sometimes disastrous results, due to his faulty understanding of how the world works. Though Bizarro has committed villainous actions, it’s usually been because of either the manipulations of others, or because his actions have unintended disastrous consequences, or sometimes simply out of loneliness. After all, he happens to be a “bizarre” being totally different from anyone or anything around him.
Many versions of Bizarro’s story, particularly the Pre-Crisis version, lead to the clone eventually becoming the progenitor of his own “Bizarro World,” where Bizarro — who renames himself Bizarro #1 — clones a wife, son, and entire society of Bizarros to keep him company, naming his planet Htrae and operating according to a law stating that they must always do the exact opposite of everything Earthlings do. Crazy stuff, which leads to crazy places and crazy stories, but hardly something to throw somebody in prison for.
4. Lex Luthor
But now, what about the guy who created Bizarro? It might seem crazy to argue that Lex Luthor could ever be thought of as a hero, considering his name is synonymous with the terms “mad scientist,” and “evil billionaire.” Lex’s personality doesn’t do him any favors, either. He’s unrelentingly greedy, sociopathic, pretentious, power-hungry, and generally just an unlikable guy.
But consider, for a moment, if we lived in a real world where we didn’t know Superman’s history, didn’t know that he was raised by farmers in Kansas, didn’t know he was a good guy. In the real world, if some alien being emerged that could balance skyscrapers on his fingertip, it would throw the entire world order askew. To Lex Luthor, a brilliant man who has spent his entire life building himself up into what he is today, the appearance of a godlike being such as Kal-El undermines everything that he has ever achieved. To him, if Superman exists, the accomplishments of human society no longer matter. All of humankind now sits in the shadow of something far bigger than it, unable to climb free — and furthermore, there’s no guarantee that this alien god will continue to act so altruistically.
Now, none of this excuses what a homicidal narcissist Lex has proven to be, between crushing anyone who opposes him, or becoming President of the United States only to allow an alien invasion to occur— claiming millions of casualties — so that he can make himself look like a great leader. But still, Lex’s perspective is an interesting one to explore.
Hey, a guy’s gotta eat.
Really, let’s be fair. If Galactus is evil, then so are we. Everything that we eat is organic, whether plant, animal, or fungus, and we can’t really justify calling Galactus a villain and then pretending that we’re all heroes. Galactus goes around the universe, gets hungry, and it just so happens that he requires entire planets as sustenance. Good for him, though maybe not so good for us.
It doesn’t matter to him how intelligent we are, what we’ve invented, or any achievements we’ve ever made. Galactus is a force that has existed since before the Big Bang. He’s older than the entire universe. Human beings, and the denizens of all other alien races for that matter, are just ants in an ant farm to him. Luckily, he occasionally can use one of us as a pet “herald,” as was the case with the Silver Surfer, Nova, and a few others.
None of this is to stay that we aren’t worthwhile, don’t deserve to exist, and so forth, because sure, of course we matter. The point is that though Galactus may have threatened the entire planet, his intentions certainly weren’t malevolent, regardless of the fact that if it weren’t for the Fantastic Four, we would’ve all spent the rest of our lives moving through his digestive system.
Adrian Veidt of Watchmen may be one of the most debated hero/villains in comics. Arguably, the entire purpose of his character (and Watchmen as a whole) is centered around the question of heroism, and whether true heroes actually exist or not. Veidt is a prime example of this. His every act, purchase, and manipulation is done for what he believes to be the greater good, truly thinking that the sacrifice that he is preparing to make — the death of millions of innocent people, at his hands — is the only way to avoid doomsday. Unlike so many other villains on this list, who are too arrogant to question their own authoritarian principles, Veidt does have moments of self-doubt. At the end, he even questions Doctor Manhattan about whether he did the right thing, “in the end.”
Veidt honestly believes his goal is the only way to save humanity, or at least the best one that anyone has come up with. Is he right? Will the worldwide union that his tragedy creates stay together, or will it fall apart again in time? The uneasy lack of answers to this question is part of what makes Watchmen a comic book classic. Though, if we look at real life history, and the way that tense worldwide unions in response to catastrophe don’t tend to stick together once conflict arises again, we suspect that Veidt may have only prolonged the ticking clock of the inevitable.
1. Doctor Doom
There’s a reason that Stan Lee has stated on numerous occasions that Doctor Doom is his favorite Marvel antagonist. The great Marvel writer has voiced his love for Doom over the decades, and even made a point to “clear his name,” by pointing out that there’s nothing so criminal about Doom’s desire to rule the world, not to mention the fact that as the ruler of the tiny Eastern European kingdom of Latveria, Doom possesses diplomatic immunity.
And that’s the thing. Doom might be an oppressive monarch, but from his perspective, he singlehandedly took his home country of Latveria, once broken down and desolate, and transformed it into the only nation in the world totally free of crime, famine, or poverty — albeit, by taking away the free will of his subjects, and forcing them to comply with his rule of law. There have been multiple occasions in the comics where Doom actually does take over the planet, from Doom 2099 to Secret Wars, with varying results. He’s sometimes been shown as havign saved anything from the entire world to the entire multiverse.
Perhaps the biggest problem with viewing Doom as a hero is that his desire to rule the world and bring about world peace, though certainly genuine, isn’t really altruistic. When it comes down to it, Doom is all about Doom, and his ego comes before all else. However, there’s no question that he’s is one of the most fascinating characters in all of comic book history, with a gripping backstory, unique motivations, and a commanding presence comparable to cinematic icons like Darth Vader and Sauron. It’s truly a shame that Doom has never properly been adapted for the cinema, with both big screen versions of the Fantastic Four totally missing the point of his character. We hope that someday, whether in a Fox film or a Marvel one, that a proper version of Doctor Doom will announce his name on the big screen.
What other villains might be heroes, if viewed through a different lens? Let us know in the comments!