Supervillains spend a lot of time trying to destroy superheroes, but they also spend a surprising amount of time teaming up with them. Or maybe it's not so surprising — what could make a better hook for a reader than seeing Batman join forces with the Joker?
Hero/villain team-ups have the potential for great storytelling. It implies a serious threat, because what else could bring archenemies into an alliance, even temporarily? Then comes the question of how long it will be before the villain pulls a double-cross — or is this the rare occasion when the bad guy’s acting from honorable motives?
And that’s another benefit, the chance to add some characterization to the villain. Kang the Conqueror putting his empire on the line for love. Doctor Doom realizing he can’t take on the world alone.
It's no small wonder that hero/villain team-ups have become a comic book staple. Here are sixteen memorable examples.
16 Adam Warlock/Thanos: To help Warlock kill himself
Jim Starlin’s Bronze Age Adam Warlock stories were a wild cosmic ride pitting Adam against the Magus, a cosmic tyrant and Warlock’s own future self. As the story arc progressed, it became obvious that nothing Warlock could do would save him from turning evil. Enter Thanos.
Thanos worshiped Death's avatar and plotted to kill the stars as a gift to her. The forces of life had created the Magus to counter Thanos, so it was in Thanos’ interest to stop Adam’s transformation. With the Mad Titan’s help, Warlock entered the future and sucked his still untransformed future self into his soul gem (this weirdness was typical of the series). There would be no Magus.
With the Magus dead, it was up to Adam to stop Thanos. He was a lot weaker, so he was killed pretty effortlessly. The dark god’s path looked clear until Warlock’s spirit emerged from the Soul Gem and destroyed Thanos. Game over. Well, over for more than a decade. Warlock and Thanos would both return, sometimes as allies, sometimes enemies. It’s unlikely anyone will be able to kill them permanently again.
15 Superman/Lex Luthor: Lex reforms for love
Lex Luthor's alliance with Superman in Action Comics #510-512 sets a new record for treachery. Luthor didn't only backstab Supes, he double-crossed himself.
In #510, Luthor has a clear shot at killing Superman, but freezes when he sees the Man of Steel rescuing the terminally ill Angela Blake. By the end of the issue, Lex realizes he's in love. He cures Angela, helps Superman against crime and passes every psychiatric test and mind-scan that his longtime foe deploys. He and Supes become BFFs, and Superman is best man at the Luthor/Blake wedding. Only when Superman kisses Angela, they disappear.
It turns out that Angela is a clone (Luthor murdered the real woman) with a genetic booby trap that hurled her and Superman into an inescapable prison dimension. Lex erased all this from his mind so that his reformation would seem completely genuine -- and Superman would trap himself with that kiss.
The Last Son of Krypton escapes, however (though he makes no attempt to save Angela) and comes after Lex. Luthor doesn't even put up a fight. The one thing his past self didn't anticipate is how much he'd come to love Angela — and now that she's lost forever, all he can do is cry.
14 Spider-Man/Satana: To save Dr. Strange’s soul
After Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist became box-office hits at the turn of the 1970s, stories about Satanism were in vogue. Marvel cashed in with Daimon Hellstrom, exorcist and Son of Satan. His succubus sister Satana never went over as well with readers, perhaps because she was a villain, where Daimon was (at worst) an anti-hero. In Marvel Team-Up #81, however, Satana redeemed herself by saving the soul of Stephen Strange.
Dr. Strange had previously dabbled in some very black magic to save Clea’s life, at the price of turning him into a werewolf. Satana’s mission was to save his soul by restoring him to normal before he killed. Failing that, she’d kill him herself.
Plunging into the evil maelstrom around Strange’s spirit, Satana fought her way through to him while Spider-Man tried to keep the werewolf from slaying its first victim. At the climax, Satana realized she could save her life or Stephen’s soul, but not both. She chose Strange. Marvel fans undoubtedly felt she made the right call.
13 Flash/Captain Boomerang: To stop an alien invasion
When Flash, Captain Boomerang, and Elongated Man team up against alien invaders in Flash #124, none of them ever learned that the invasion was all Boomerang’s fault.
Captain Boomerang was a bottom-tier Flash adversary, having a skill set limited to throwing boomerangs and building ginormous boomerang death traps. In this issue, however, it turns out that his throwing skills are so amazing that he can toss a boomerang through time. When it materializes to hook a priceless necklace, he has an airtight alibi. No tech or superpowers involved — readers were supposed to buy the idea that he was just that awesome.
Unfortunately, the boomerang’s flight took it through an alien dimension whose people assumed it was some sort of spy drone. Assuming humans were plotting to go Pearl Harbor on them, they attacked Earth first. Just as Elongated Man and Flash bust Boomerang, the invasion starts, so they team up. As soon as the invasion ends, Captain Boomerang zaps Flash with one of the alien weapons, then ties him to his newest giant boomerang (Elongated Man saved the day). Boomerang wouldn't really be interesting until he became part of the Suicide Squad.
12 Micronauts/Baron Karza: Because Professor X is destroying their universe
Marvel’s Micronauts series pitted the eponymous subatomic adventurers against Baron Karza, a ruthless tyrant that was half Victor von Doom and half Darth Vader. After years of battles in the Microverse and on Earth, the two sides found common cause in the X-Men/Micronauts miniseries. What else could they do but join forces when the mysterious Entity was annihilating subatomic planets like a kid kicking over anthills?
After the Entity’s trail led to the Xavier School, the alliance got complicated fast. The X-Men joined the fight, but then the Entity turned the Micronauts against the mutants. Karza, in a CYA move, hid his mind in Kitty Pryde's body to see how things turned out. The Entity enslaved the New Mutants, raping the girls psychically.
Finally, it turns out the Entity is Charles Xavier's dark side. No explanation was given — it just got up one morning, chose to fly solo, and began blowing up the Microverse, because reasons (actually, no reasons). Xavier pushed the Entity back into his subconscious and freed all his mind-thralls, and the Micronauts and Karza returned to the Microverse seeking a better storyline.
11 Aquaman/Ocean Master: To save the seas
Ocean Master and Aquaman had one of the Silver Age’s most intense hero/villain relationships. Ocean Master didn’t know it, but he was Aquaman’s human brother, resentful that he could never match Aquaman’s abilities. Amnesia took his memory away, but not the burning desire to prove that he, not Aquaman, was the ocean’s true master.
Given the hate, it’s not surprising that their team-up in Aquaman #37 only lasted a few pages. It began when their latest battle was interrupted by the Scavenger, a criminal hunting an immortality device hidden in the ocean. His weaponry literally rotted the sea around him, forcing Aquaman — who’d never heard of the gadget — to lead him to it.
Rather than see the ocean destroyed, Ocean Master and Aquaman joined forces. The team-up ended when the Atlantean king realized that his brother had set a booby-trap that would kill Aquaman’s wife, Mera, and their child along with the Scavenger. Aquaman deactivated the trap, the Scavenger died from the device’s side effects, and Ocean Master swam off, vowing to strike at Aquaman but wondering why he also felt so attached to him.
10 Doctor Doom/Namor: Even world conquerors need a buddy
Victor von Doom never did team-ups well. He treated allies like lackeys, and lackeys like dirt. In the first issue of Super-Villain Team-Up, the Sub-Mariner, having just joined forces with Doom (despite the title, at this point Namor was a hero, or at least an anti-hero), calls it off, fed up with Doctor Doom’s arrogant attitude.
Brooding later, Doom conceded Namor’s point. In a rare moment of humility, he reviewed his long list of defeats and admitted that while he could easily destroy the world, he couldn’t conquer it alone. He needed an ally, not a lackey. He needed … a friend. Off he went to chat up Namor, who had just been captured by some of his old enemies. With Doom’s help, Namor crushed them, and an alliance of equals was born …
... to die in SVTU #4, when the writing team changed. Disgusted by Doctor Doom executing a helpless enemy, Namor called off the budding bromance, so Doom forced the Sub-Mariner back into lackey-hood for a few issues. A shame — a buddy series with the two monarchs might have been a lot of fun.
9 Legion of Super-Heroes/The Fatal Five: To save the sun from being eaten
DC’s 30th century Legion of Super-Heroes, didn’t just team up with the Fatal Five, they created them. At the start of Adventure Comics #352 , “Fatal Five” is nothing but a nickname for the five most wanted villains in the galaxy. For example, the cyborg Tharok, who makes Doctor Doom and Luthor look like high-school dropouts, and Validus, a being so powerful that squishing Superman is as easy as popping a zit.
The Five didn't know each other until the Legion recruited them to help stop the Sun-Eater. A living, solar system-sized plasma cloud, it did exactly what the name implied, and it had just arrived in the Milky Way. The Legion couldn't stop it solo, and they figured the Fatal Five had as big a stake in the stars not going out as anyone, so ...
Even with heroes and villains joining forces, it took Legionnaire Ferro Lad's suicide attack to destroy the Sun-Eater. The Five then announce they're going to stick together; their partnership with the Legion will terminate, however, with extreme prejudice. In the fight that followed, the Fatal Five wound up stuck in another dimension for a while. They'd return, but never as anything but enemies.
8 Avengers/Kang the Conqueror: Under the armor beats a loving heart
Kang the Conqueror comes by his name honestly. A military genius, he ruthlessly conquered 40th century Earth, then proposed to Ravonna, princess of the future's last free kingdom. Rather than risk a no, she presented a challenge: bring the legendary Avengers to the future and beat them. Kang eventually did, conquering Ravonna’s realm in the process. Then his warlords demanded he put her to death, like all other defeated rulers. Kang refused, so his warlords, thinking he’d gone soft, usurped his throne.
Very bad mistake. After Kang freed the Avengers to help him save Ravonna, the warlords found out why he was called the Conqueror and they weren't. Ravonna, having come to love Kang, sacrificed her life to save him from a traitor, right before the Avengers were sent home.
In Avengers #69, Kang told the Avengers the cosmic Grandmaster had offered him the power of life and death; if the Avengers beat the Grandmaster’s champions, Kang could resurrect Ravonna. The Avengers won, but on a technicality, the Grandmaster offered Kang life or death. Kang foolishly chose death for the Avengers and wound up without revenge or Ravonna.
7 Atom/Chronos: To save Earth from a crossover event
Chronos, a costumed crook with clock-based weaponry, never hated the Atom the way that other big bads hated the heroes that so often thwarted their plots. Nevertheless, when he became independently wealthy thanks to an accidental time trip, he was quite happy spending his money to beef up his arsenal, capture Ray Palmer, and put him through a living hell. Ray busted out of Chronos’ trap, but just in time for the two foes to be caught up in DC’s Invasion crossover.
Without hesitation, Chronos offered to join forces with the Atom to fight the invaders (warriors from multiple worlds, out to stamp out Earth’s metahuman population). The Atom agrees, but can’t get over the put-me-through-hell treatment he just recovered from his longtime foe. Every time Chronos starts to see them as a team, Atom makes it clear that he considers the time thief to be pond scum. It’s hard not to feel at least a little sympathetic for Chronos.
6 Howard the Duck/The Circus of Crime: He was having an off day
Along with the stories where a villain temporarily switches to the side of good lies a smaller body of stories in which the team-up involves the hero turning to crime. Typically, it’s due to amnesia or mind-control, but Howard the Duck joining the Circus of Crime was just dumb luck. When he was present at one of the Ringmaster’s hypnosis-fueled robberies, the villain saw potential box office in a snarky, talking duck and promptly kidnapped him. Ringmaster pointed out that if the Circus fingered Howard as a fellow crook, the cops would probably take the humans’ testimony over the waterfowl’s.
Despite the coercion, the carnies saw themselves welcoming Howard into their little family. When he turned against them after an innocent got injured, they were shocked and angered, convinced that Howard had stabbed them in the back. However, against Howard’s quack fu skills, Cannonball, Princess Python, and the others went down. After years of taking on Spider-Man, the Avengers, and Daredevil, the Circus of Crime had finally proven themselves to be complete losers.
5 Enchantress/Female Avengers: Because men are scum
Avengers #83 is a textbook example of how 1970s pop culture struggled to come to grips with the feminist movement. Like countless TV shows, it turns out that “women’s libbers” are just man-haters with no rational reason for beating up on men. Seriously, why would a female comic-book character possibly have issues with men?
The story opens with the mysterious Valkyrie convincing Wasp, Medusa, Black Widow, and Scarlet Witch that male heroes are oppressing them, so they should join her as a new team — the Liberators! Enthralled by her rhetoric, they go find the male Avengers just as they’re getting clobbered by the Masters of Evil. The Liberators take out the villains, then whale on their chauvinist-pig oppressor teammates. It's all part of Valkyrie’s plan: she’s really the Asgardian Enchantress, who wants the Avengers distracted while she escapes to another dimension to get even with her ex (see, if feminists had boyfriends they’d be happy!).
Fortunately, the Scarlet Witch has seen through the spells the Enchantress used to persuade the Liberators and zaps the Asgardian with a hex bolt. The Enchantress would stay pissed at her boyfriend long enough to create a different man-bashing Valkyrie in Incredible Hulk, and this sort of hyper-sexist writing would continue on until...oh wait, it's still a thing.
4 Every villain/Every hero: To stop the end of everything
DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths set the template for crossover events — tie-ins with multiple books, huge casts, sweeping status quo changes — but it still remains head-and-shoulders above later attempts. A mysterious being called the Monitor, who watches over DC’s multiverse, recruits a team of heroes and villains to stop his anti-matter counterpart, the Anti-Monitor, from erasing DC’s entire multiverse. By the time the Flash apparently destroys the Anti-Monitor, only a handful of Earths are left.
At that point, Luthor and Brainiac recruit all the remaining supervillains to take over as many Earths as possible. The heroes are in the middle of fighting back when the Spectre reveals that the Anti-Monitor is still very much alive, and he's about to try for the all the marbles. With all reality at stake, everyone teams up with everyone. When Uncle Sam makes a big speech about what they're fighting for, Luthor grumbles that even he feels inspired.
The combined efforts stop the Anti-Monitor, merging the multiverse into one Earth. When the Anti-Monitor attacks again, Darkseid allies with the heroes to help destroy him. Even an evil god has to admit there's no "I" in team.
3 Doctor Doom/Dr. Strange: To save Doom's mother from damnation
Long before Victor von Doom became Doctor Doom, his mother, Cynthia, had been damned to Hell. A Roma sorceress, she’d bartered her soul to Mephisto for the power to make Latveria a homeland where her people would be safe. She died before she could do so. For years afterward, Doom would battle Hell on Midsummer Eve for her soul’s freedom, only to lose, time and again. Mephisto invariably spared Doom’s soul because it was so much fun to watch the great Dr. Doom crying for his mommy.
Finally, Doom once again accepted that he needed help, this time from Doctor Strange. Rather than ask, Doom participated in a mystic ritual that gave him the right to claim a boon of Earth's Sorcerer Supreme. Together they entered Hell to bring his mother back.
In the middle of the battle, Doom betrays Strange to Mephisto in return for Cynthia's freedom. It’s a fake-out though: Doom's horrified mom rejects freedom on those terms. That act of goodness not only frees her soul, it sends her to heaven. Doom returns to Earth at peace, or as close as he can ever come.
2 Batman/Joker: Because someone's smearing Joker's good name
Brave and the Bold #111 looks nothing like a hero/villain team-up at the start. The Joker just murdered an innocent Gotham City family because the father testified against organized crime. After seeing the bodies, Batman’s out for blood.
Only the evidence doesn’t add up: how could a killer as clever as the Clown Prince of Crime forget to dose the victims with Joker venom (so that he had to sneak into the morgue to give them his trademark Joker grin)? Is it possible that the murders weren't his work? Sure enough, the Joker reveals he’s been framed by Burt Slade, one of Gotham’s nastiest non-costumed killers. Working on the Joker’s tips (delivered by phone — the clown's no fool) Batman sets out to track Slade down.
When Batman catches up with Slade, he discovers this issue is actually a Slade/Joker team-up. The supposed frame enabled the purple-suited madman to lead Batman into a trap where he and Slade can finally finish the Caped Crusader off. And the scheme almost works too — but of course, with Batman, “almost” killing him is never good enough.
The most iconic superhero/supervillain duo in comics have teamed up numerous times over the years, actually, but rarely has it been this much fun.
1 X-Men/Evil Mutants: To prevent the apocalypse
Marvel’s mutants are often seen as metaphors for the civil rights or gay rights movements. In the Silver Age, however, they seemed more about 1950s Cold War issues — the fear of atomic radiation, of secret enemies lurking in America. Similarly, when good and evil mutants joined forces to fight Factor Three in X-Men #39, they weren’t fighting for mutant rights, but to stop a nuclear war.
By this point, the X-Men had been fighting Factor Three for a year. Factor Three claimed that mutants, once united, could be a third player in the East-West Cold War rivalry — the most powerful player. The Blob, the Vanisher, and other mutant criminals happily signed up. They switched sides, however, when Professor X exposed Factor Three's leader as an alien manipulating the mutants into triggering a nuclear war. In the aftermath, the X-Men let the crooks go; the bad guys made no attempt to get the drop on them. Xavier celebrated that for one shining moment, there had been “no evil mutants, no good mutants, only a handful of men fighting side by side to protect our planet from a common foe."
Do you have any personal favorite hero/villain team-ups of your own? Feel free to mention them in comments.