What makes a hero turn evil? What path sends a person who was willing to fight the good fight, turn to the darkness? It doesn’t usually happen overnight. It’s a slow burn — unless you’re possessed, which happens quite often in the world of comics, as you’ll see.
The real measure of a comic book hero’s villainy is whether or not their publisher allows them to stay evil. Far too often, a story is told in which the hero or heroine is seduced to the dark side, only to be forgiven for everything a short while later. Hitting that reset button takes the bite out of every evil action, and completely defangs all of the drama that having a good guy go bad is meant to generate.
The following 16 superheroes became full-fledged supervillains, but less than half of them stayed evil.
Daredevil has always been a hero who leans a little closer to the harsh end of the vigilante spectrum. So seeing him become a villain after starting down a darker path than usual was, in a way, a logical conclusion. But in the end, it turned out to be just the latest case of “possessed by an evil entity.” You’ll see several more of these as we go along.
During a trip to Japan, Daredevil won control of the Hand ninja clan, and returned to New York with his lethal new minions in tow. His first order of business was to erect a spanking new headquarters in the middle of Hell’s Kitchen that he dubbed Shadowland, which also functioned as a prison for anyone he deemed a threat. His methods of apprehending the guilty grew harsh, he ran afoul of other superheroes, and he even killed his longtime adversary, Bullseye.
Eventually the heroes figured out that Daredevil was possessed by a demon called the Beast of the Hand. In the end he was exorcised by Iron Fist’s chi powers, and then he killed himself to keep the demon from repossessing him (after which Elektra brought him right back to life of course). He cut out of town for a while, understandably, but it wasn’t long before things reverted to normal.
15. Bucky Barnes
Poor Bucky. Once Captain America’s best friend and loyal sidekick, his death during World War II served as a touchstone for Cap’s future motivations for decades. So it came as a great shock when Bucky was discovered alive in the here-and-now and functioning as a covert secret operative known as the Winter Soldier.
Hydra wiped his mind, gave him a new metal arm to replace the one he’d lost in the war, and kept him in suspended animation between missions, allowing him to age to roughly the same amount as the modern Steve Rogers. As the Winter Soldier, Bucky undertook dozens of black ops missions for Hydra, his conditioning enforcing his loyalty and willingness to kill. Hydra also gave him a major skill boost.
It took the power of a Cosmic Cube for Captain America to finally restore his friend’s memories and true personality. He’s not the same Bucky he once was, though, as Hydra’s influence has left him hardened and more willing to “do what has to be done” for the greater good. After a stint serving as Captain America while Steve Rogers was believed dead, he reverted to his Winter Soldier persona. But now he’s one of the good guys.
14. Mary Marvel
Mary Marvel may be the quintessential “good girl gone bad.” A member of Fawcett Comics’ Marvel Family, she has the same powers as Billy Batson (Shazam, formerly known as Captain Marvel) and is one of the earliest examples of spinning off a female hero based on a male character. (There are dozens of these today — Supergirl, Batgirl, Spider-Woman, She-Hulk, X-23, etc.) She made the move to DC with Captain Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. when DC licensed the characters in the ’70s.
In 2006, DC sent Mary down a much darker path than readers ever expected. Mary lost her powers, fell into a coma, and later acquired new powers from the longtime nemesis of the Marvel family, Black Adam. Her exposure to Adam’s form of magic changed her, a turn of events exacerbated by her repeated manipulation from the likes of Darkseid, Granny Goodness, Eclipso, and Desaad, who (you guessed it) possessed her at one point.
She eventually reverted to her normal self — just in time for the New 52 reboot, which wiped away her entire history of evil. How convenient.
Warren Worthington III was one of the original five X-Men, but when he joined X-Force, things changed pretty drastically for him. As a child he’d begun growing feathery bird wings, and soon he was able to fly. As a mutant, he was an effective fighter and member of Charles Xavier’s initial team.
It was during a crossover event called “Mutant Massacre” that Warren’s wings were mutilated by an evil mutant named Harpoon. Each wing was impaled, crucifixion style, and they later became infected and had to be amputated. Warren was devastated by this turn of events, and at his weakest moment, the hyper-powerful villain Apocalypse offered to restore his wings if Angel would serve as Death, one of his Four Horsemen. He agreed. Warren’s superior fighting skills caused Apocalypse to name Warren, now the power-enhanced “Archangel,” as the lead Horseman.
Knowing their tactics and weaknesses, Archangel bested all of the X-Men in battle quite easily, but his buddy Iceman helped him recover his former self. Yet Apocalypse’s genetic alterations made changes that were too deep to allow him to ever go back to the innocent young man he was before. He continued to battle his inner darkness for years, and more recently he discovered the ability to transform between Angel and Archangel at will, in order to wield the powers of each.
Long before Hal Jordan fell victim to Parallax and turned into a universe-threatening über-villain, another member of the Green Lantern Corps took the journey from good to bad: Sinestro, the Green Lantern who trained Hal Jordan. Jordan’s mentor was once considered among of the greatest of Lanterns, but his was a classic case of power’s corruption.
A native of the planet Korugar, Sinestro’s desire to protect his world and keep the peace turned into an enforced dictatorship of absolute order, thanks to abuse of his Lantern powers. When the Guardians on Oa found out, he was stripped of his ring and sent to the antimatter universe. There, he took up with the people of Qward, who made him a yellow ring based on the power of fear, and helped him seek revenge. He’s been Jordan’s arch-nemesis ever since.
Eventually, Sinestro launched his own ring-powered Corps, which counted Parallax, the Anti-Monitor, Cyborg Superman, and Superboy Prime among its members. Other colors popped up in the emotional spectrum, leading to the “Blackest Night” war. The Green Lantern titles more or less ignored the New 52 reboot, making only minimal changes, so Sinestro remains one of the few heroes-gone-bad who’s never returned to the light.
11. Ultimate Reed Richards
Not much survived the demise of Marvel’s “Ultimage Comics” universe, when the multiverse collapsed and was reborn thanks to the events of Secret Wars. Miles Morales was the big one, but a few other things have trickled in. The hammer Mjolnir that was wielded by Ultimate Thor made it over to Marvel’s main “616” universe, for example.
A villain named The Maker joined the 616 too, but comics fans who didn’t keep up with happenings in the Ultimate universe may not know who he is. This young genius has a wicked scar on his face and an even more wicked superiority complex. So who is he?
He’s the Ultimate universe’s version of Reed Richards, aka Mister Fantastic of the Fantastic Four. He started out well in a comic book that reinvented the FF as a team of four young adults involved at a government think tank (Josh Trank’s failed cinematic reboot was heavily based on Ultimate Fantastic Four). Reed was the best and brightest of that group, and an accident in the Negative Zone gave his team their powers.
Things were nice and heroic for a while, but after the world nearly ended in Ultimatum, the team disbanded, Reed proposed to Sue and she said no, and his childhood home was bombed while he was there. The experience not only scarred him physically, it drove him insane. He changed his moniker to “the Maker” and put his gifted intellect to use for some really nasty purposes.
You know the story: Bane comes to town. Bane fights Batman. Bane breaks Batman’s back. Nope, not talking about The Dark Knight Rises, although that movie was partly inspired by this source material. It’s the plot of “Knightfall,” the 1993 arc that found the Dark Knight in sudden need of a successor.
Rather than going with the obvious choice — Dick Grayson, now working as a solo hero, aka Nightwing — Bruce Wayne instead made an unorthodox choice. In reality, DC Comics was looking to shake up the status quo by putting someone new under Batman’s cowl for a while. Thus was born Jean-Paul Valley, or Azrael, as he’s now known. It was a case of villain becomes hero becomes villain again becomes hero again.
Valley was a brutal vigilante working for the Order of St. Dumas, whose purpose was to punish the guilty instead of protect the innocent. He met Batman, learned the error of his ways, started training with the Bat, yadda yadda yadda, and after the altercation with Bane, Bruce decided to name Valley his successor. Valley took on a preposterous costume that could not be any more ’90s, and became Batman.
It didn’t go well. Due to the conditioning he’d received all his life, he became unhinged, employing ever more barbaric tactics and suffering from hallucinations. Bruce Wayne’s recovery allowed him to stop the madness, breaking through Valley’s conditioning, and becoming Batman again. Valley, meanwhile, got better, took on the mythic role of Azrael, and worked with Team Batman for years before dying in the “No Man’s Land” crossover event.
Mark Waid’s Irredeemable was the superhero equivalent of Breaking Bad: the story of good man who turned evil. In this case, the man was Dan Hartigan, a superhero similar in power to Superman going by the name “Plutonian.” Unlike Superman, he came from a series of broken foster homes. As an adult, he confided his secret identity to his girlfriend, but she didn’t react anything like Lois Lane. She was outraged that he’d tricked her and told the whole world who he really was in retaliation.
Things went downhill from there. Dan had an affair with one of his fellow superheroes — who also happened to be a married woman. Later, he was partially responsible for an accident involving an alien virus that killed hundreds of children. He compounded the problem by trying to keep his part of the tragedy a secret, which his sidekick soon discovered. Plutonian snapped when confronted with the truth, and lobotomized his protege. Ouch. He then destroyed Sky City, his version of Metropolis and home to some 3.5 million people.
Most of this wasn’t revealed until late in Irredeemable‘s run, with the bulk of its issues dedicated to his former friends and allies both attempting to stop his mania and trying to find out why he turned evil. True to the book’s name, he never seeks or finds redemption on his own — but is redeemed in the end by the actions of another superhero who finds a way to force Plutonian to save the world.
The best part: we could be seeing this comic on the big screen in the very near future.
8. Iron Man
Okay, take a deep breath. We’ll try to simplify this as much as possible. If you read Marvel Comics, you’ve probably heard of Kang the Conqueror, a supervillain who’s fought the Avengers countless times. Kang is a time traveller, and has crossed his own timeline so many times, even the Doctor would give up ever trying to understand it.
One future version of Kang is known as Immortus, and during a story arc called “The Crossing,” Immortus discovered a weakness in the neural link between Tony Stark and his Iron Man armor. The big bad exploited this link and began manipulating Tony’s psyche, having the Avenger do his evil bidding. It was subtle at first, but as the plot thickened, Tony eventually murdered three Avengers allies and would have killed more if his teammates hadn’t found a way to snap him out of it.
This is the story that famously brought in a teenage Tony Stark from another timeline to help stop his future self, and eventually replace him. The elder Tony commits suicide to stop Immortus, but Teen-Tony’s tenure is short-lived thanks to the coming of Onslaught. But Marvel’s ultimate deus ex machina, Franklin Richards, would later merge a reborn Tony Stark with his alternate teenage version. (Told you it was complicated.)
Anyhoo, Onslaught led into the “Heroes Reborn” initiative, which didn’t work out so great. About a year later, Heroes Reborn was dead and everything reverted to the way it was before. Tony Stark was Iron Man again and was absolved of his pre-Onslaught actions.
Once upon a time there was a nice X-Man named Scott Summers. He was reliable, responsible, and level-headed. And then, in a long series of attempts to make him more interesting by giving him shades of gray, Marvel assassinated his character. Cyclops’ troubles began in the mid-’80s, after he’d mourned the loss of Jean Grey (thanks to the Phoenix Saga) and married a woman named Madelyne Prior. They had a son named Nate, who would grow up via time travel to become Cable. When Scott learned that Jean was still alive after all — thanks to some heavy-handed editorial retconning — he made the jerk move of running out on his family and returning to his first love. Strike one.
Years later, in an effort to save Nate’s life, he merged with Apocalypse, which left him a changed man even after he was restored. Distancing himself from wife Jean, he began a psychic affair with Emma Frost and started down a long road toward extremist mutant views. When Jean died, he continued his controversial relationship with Emma. Some time later, several past sins of Professor Xavier were brought to light; Scott forced him to leave the school. Cyclops formed a new X-Force for black ops missions, but keeping their existence a secret came at the cost of his intimacy with Emma.
Undertaking one contentious decision after another — such as letting a new mutant execute her enemies — Scott was eventually possessed by the Phoenix Force, killed Xavier, and remade the world into a totalitarian state. When that crisis ended, he was sent to prison, but escaped and became a revolutionary, taking a hardline approach to doing whatever’s necessary to aid mutants around the world. He even opened his own secret mutant training academy at an old Weapon X facility, which stood in contrast to the New York school now run by Wolverine, which carried on Xavier’s original vision.
6. Jason Todd
1988 was a big year for Joker. He’d always been a thorn in Batman’s side, but this year brought out his most sadistic attacks ever. First he crippled poor Barbara Gordon in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. Then he killed Robin, aka the second Robin, Jason Todd.
Todd was never terribly popular. Dick Grayson was a hard act to follow, and Jason’s rebellious nature didn’t do him any favors among Bat-fans. So DC held an event where readers were allowed to decide if Jason lived or died, using a 900 number. By a very small margin, death was the decision, so a story was written in which Jason was captured by Joker (with help from Jason’s long lost mother, no less) and left to die from a bomb blast.
Jason made his return in 2005 in the “Under the Hood” story arc, which introduced a new vigilante in town calling himself the Red Hood. He led his own gang and had a take-no-prisoners approach to “justice,” bringing him into conflict with Batman. It was later revealed that Jason had been revived by DC’s favorite back-from-the-dead plot device: a Lazarus Pit. He functioned as a nemesis for a while, and fought as to take on Batman’s persona during “Battle for the Cowl.” (He lost.)
The New 52 softened Jason a bit, making him an antihero instead of a villain, and a card-carrying member of the Bat-family. There’s tension and drama often between him and the other Robins, Batman, and even Batgirl, but they work together and mostly get along these days. He also fights alongside other “heroes” of a similar temperament — Arsenal and Starfire — in Red Hood and the Outlaws.
5. Scarlet Witch
Back in 2004, Wanda Maximoff had a nervous breakdown and launched a magic-fueled attack on the Avengers that nearly destroyed them. Ant-Man, Hawkeye, and Vision were killed, Avengers Mansion was destroyed, and the Avengers disbanded. It was a story called “Avengers Disassembled,” and it paved the way for the launch of New Avengers in 2006, with A-list characters like Spider-Man and Wolverine added to the roster.
In her defense, learning that the twin boys you had with your android husband were just magical constructs and not real, and that your friends erased your memories of them, would send anybody over the edge. She later made mutants an endangered species. It was all retconned, of course, in order to allow Scarlet Witch back onto the team. Like most retcons, it was a tangled web of B.S. that explained away Wanda’s madness thanks to Dr. Doom’s mind control (aka, possession) and some random, cosmic being known as “the Lifeforce Entity” (aka, we know this sounds lame and don’t care enough to come up with something better).
Her kids were brought back to life in Young Avengers, and everyone that died in “Disassembled” was eventually restored to life in other titles. Scarlet Witch is currently a member of the Avengers Unity team — the one that combines Avengers and X-Men — in Uncanny Avengers. But she continues to occasionally deal with the consequences of her past.
4. Superboy Prime
Superboy Prime, who debuted in Crisis on Infinite Earths as the Superboy of an alternate universe (our real-world universe, if you can believe it), is a classic study of a good guy gone bad. But at the end of the day, he was just a naive, immature brat who wasn’t ready for the expectations placed on him.
Along with Superman and Lois Lane of Earth-2 and Alexander Luthor of Earth-3, Superboy Prime was sequestered in a pocket dimension at the end of that first Crisis, as DC Comics’ multiple dimensions collapsed into one. Years later, they escaped that dimension in Infinite Crisis, which is when things went bad. Under the manipulation of Alexander Luthor, Prime turned evil, killed the mainstream continuity’s Superboy, and nearly wrecked the entire multiverse.
He stuck around for the duration, becoming ever more unhinged: he signed up with the yellow-ringed Sinestro Corps, got imprisoned in the main power battery on Oa, escaped and caused loads more mayhem, and eventually found his way back to Earth Prime. There, his parents had read about his dark deeds in the pages of DC Comics, and were understandably terrified to see him return. When last seen, he was imprisoned in the Source Wall at the edge of the universe by the Titans.
3. Kid Marvelman
You may or may not have heard of Marvelman, an old superhero who was roughly the British equivalent of Captain Marvel, aka Shazam. Just like Billy Batson, all Michael Moran had to do to transform into a super-powered hero was utter the word, “Marvelman.” (There was some legal wrangling that required changing his name to “Miracleman” for a while, but it was eventually cleared up.)
Like Batson, Moran had a sidekick; he was a young boy named Johnny Bates, and saying his magic word transformed him into Kid Marvelman. They and other allies, including Marvelwoman, had a long run of standard adventures, before being sidelined for almost 20 years. He resurfaced in 1982 thanks to a reimagining by the legendary Alan Moore.
In Moore’s update, Marvelman and Kid Marvelman were part of a secret government program who fell victim to a nuclear bomb attack. They both survived, though Michael Moran emerged with no memory of his superhero alter ego. Kid Marvelman believed he was the only survivor, and decided never to return to his child form, growing into a super-powered adult. This allowed him to mature his powers to an enormous degree. His disillusionment at being alone in the world and the power he amassed turned him into a vicious psychopath.
Kid Marvelman went on a rampage across London, destroying everything and killing most of the population. Redemption never came, as he was defeated and executed by his former mentor on the basis that he was too dangerous to be kept alive.
2. Green Lantern
If there’s one thing the comics industry does not tolerate, it’s declining sales. It’s a surefire ticket to cancellation. But what if the title in question is a major book, starring one of the publisher’s cornerstone characters with a legacy going back decades?
When that happens, it’s time for a creative revamp. In this case, DC Comics decided to ditch its longtime Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, in favor of a newer, hipper character named Kyle Rayner. But first, there was the pesky matter of what to do with Hal. The editorial team opted to have Hal go mad and transform into the ultimate supervillain, Parallax, thanks to his hometown of Coast City being destroyed and its seven million inhabitants killed.
Parallax went on a wild, destructive spree, ending the Green Lantern Corps., killing several of his fellow Lanterns, wiping the floor with the Justice League, and ultimately attempting to reshape the universe itself to his liking. He ran around like this for a few years before becoming the Spectre’s new host as a form of penance.
Jordan later returned to his life as Green Lantern after it was retconned that Parallax had been a separate entity that was possessing (there’s that word again) him the whole time. The whole thing was oddly similar to a seminal storyline from Marvel that predated the Parallax saga by some 13 years…
1. Jean Grey
In a 1979 X-Men arc, Jean Grey became the Phoenix, a nearly omnipotent cosmic force. It went okay for a while, but you know that old line about what absolute power does? That totally happened.
Dark Phoenix destroyed an entire star system and threatened the existence of the universe itself, so something had to be done. The X-Men tried their best, but in the end it was Jean herself who ended Phoenix’s destructive binge. During battle, Jean’s true personality managed to surface long enough for her to take her own life, ending all of the horror and devastation.
A few years later, Marvel editorial decided they wanted Jean back. So the whole thing was retroactively changed that the Phoenix was a separate entity that had (wait for it…) possessed Jean, and that she had been at the bottom of the ocean in a cocoon, healing from injuries. Or something.
Jean died a second time after learning to control and wield the power of the Phoenix without it corrupting her. A younger version of Jean from before she became the Phoenix now exists — and is stuck — in the present, having been brought forward in time.
Who’s your favorite hero-turned-villain? Let us know in the comments.