Next to Lex Luthor, Superman has no greater foe than Brainiac, the “space outlaw” in pink spandex.
Admittedly, Brainiac has absolutely no fashion sense (pink shirt on that green skin? And what's with the knobby hat?), but when you have a force field even Superman can’t even scratch, who needs a cool costume?
For that matter who needs a consistent origin? Brainiac’s backstory has been all over the map. He’s the last survivor of his alien race. He’s a computer spy for a world ruled by computer tyrants. He’s a carnie with schizophrenic delusions. He’s a supernova in humanoid form. Superman writers seem to agree we need Brainiac around, but they just can’t seem to agree on who Brainiac is exactly.
When a character’s been rebooted, retconned, and changed around that much, it’s not surprising that his history has more than a few quirky and obscure moments in it. Read on for sixteen of them.
16 Brainiac has a twelfth-level effector brain (so he’s way smarter than you)
Brainiac is obviously very smart — after all, the word “brain” is part of his name. And that name really is the source of the word “brainiac.” Luthor is undoubtedly seething that the word isn’t “lexiac” instead.
Silver Age comics actually quantified his intelligence: Brainiac has a "twelfth-level effector brain,” compared to human sixth-level effector minds. They did not, however, explain what that meant — was he twice as smart as humans? Was it a logarithmic scale? Your guess is probably as good as ours (or theirs).
A bigger problem is that Brainiac really didn't seem smarter than Luthor. He does outwit him in their first team-up (Superman #167), but Luthor, despite being a mere sixth-level effector, usually held his own. For that matter, the minor Superman villain Grax was a twentieth-level effector and he never seemed smarter than either of them. Perhaps when Superman stories already had Luthor accomplishing the scientifically impossible, coming up with someone even brainier was too tall of an order. Still, "twelfth-level effector" does sound kind of cool, doesn't it?
15 Brainiac started his comic career as an alien kidnapper
When Brainiac debuted in Action Comics #242, he was the last survivor of his alien world, later named Bryak. He planned to repopulate his planet by shrinking and bottling cities from other planets, which he would later enlarge on Bryak, providing subjects for him to rule over. When he foolishly made Earth his next stop, he inevitably ran into Superman.
Or maybe not so foolish. Superman couldn’t break through Brainiac’s force shield, and he wound up shrunken along with the rest of Metropolis. It was a stalemate until Brainiac put himself into suspended animation for the hundred-year trip home. That left Supes free to restore the cities stolen from Earth and the other worlds. One of the cities turned out to be Kandor, taken from Krypton before its destruction. Brainiac's enlarging ray ran out of power before Superman could restore Kandor, so he placed the bottle city in his Fortress of Solitude, promising to enlarge it someday (and years later, he did).
14 Brainiac has a great-great-great-great-grandson
In Action Comics #276, Supergirl was invited to apply for membership in the Legion of Super-Heroes, DC’s 30th-century teenage super team (she’d applied before, but hadn’t made the cut). To her horror, one of the other applicants looked suspiciously like Brainiac, albeit with hair. Brainiac 5 confirmed he was the original villain's descendant — real name Querl Dox — but like Brainiacs 2 through 4, he was dedicated to atoning for his ancestor’s crimes. And he really, really, didn’t want that pretty Supergirl to hate him.
The Legion signed both heroes up, with Brainy's superpower being his awesome intellect. He demonstrated that by creating a force-field belt duplicating his ancestor's force shield. He went on to develop the Legion's flight rings and served as their general Mr. Fix-It and science whiz.
Although Brainiac 5’s initial crush on Supergirl deepened into love, she never spent much time in the 30th century and didn’t reciprocate. After later retcons erased the Girl of Steel from existence, the Legion writers introduced Andromeda, a Supergirl substitute who liked Brainiac just as much as he liked her. The alien nerd finally got the girl.
13 DC retconned Brainiac into a computer because there was a home computer called “brainiac”
When DC introduced Brainiac, they had no idea that the name already existed. Edmund Berkeley had started selling the “Geniac” home computer in 1955, then came out with a simpler version, a Brain-Imitating Almost-Automatic Computer. These “electronic brain machines” weren’t computers by today’s standards, just a kit of configurable rotary switches kids could connect together to perform simple functions. Still, back in the '50s, a machine that could play tic-tac-toe was pretty amazing.
When Berkeley learned about Brainiac the space outlaw, he complained to DC that he had a prior claim on the name. In comics, two characters having the same name usually means a fist fight, but DC found an alternative solution. Superman #167 revealed DC's Brainiac was a computer too, a spy created by the computer overlords of Colu. The origin reveal included a footnote that the Brainiac computer already existed, which apparently satisfied Berkeley. Who knows, maybe it sold a few more electronic brain machines.
12 Brainiac’s son is a hero (sort of)
So if Brainiac is a computer, where exactly did Brainiac 5 come from? Once again, Superman #167 provides the answers.
When the Coluan computerocracy sent Brainiac out to spy on the rest of the universe, they decided he'd look less suspicious if he were a family man. They assigned a Coluan boy to travel with him as "Brainiac II," which proved to be a big mistake. The kid used Brainiac's technology to give himself one of those twelfth-level brains, returned to Colu, and crushed the tyrants (who were stuck with being tenth-level effectors). Brainiac 5 was his descendant.
After the 1980s Superman reboot (see #8 below) made Brainiac a Coluan named Vril Dox, it was possible for him to have a son. Vril Dox II, however, was more of an anti-hero. He created his own super team, L.E.G.I.O.N., which liberated Colu and became a major peacekeeping force throughout the galaxy. However, Vril was also manipulative and power-hungry, and he treated even his own team like pawns rather than allies. At one point, after he lost control of L.E.G.I.O.N., he turned against them as the leader of R.E.B.E.L.S.
11 Luthor and Brainiac are joined at the hip, sometimes literally
Lex Luthor and Brainiac are two smart guys that taste great together.
Superman #167 was a rare moment of clarity for Lex, as he realized he'd never beat Superman without the help of an even more powerful mind (this clarity did not, of course, last). Luthor picked Brainiac and learned his origin. As an incentive to team up, Luthor juiced Brainiac from tenth to twelfth level effector.
It was an uneasy alliance, but it worked well enough, particularly for comics readers, that they joined forces several more times. During DC's epic crossover event, Crisis on Infinite Earths, the duo rallied every supervillain in DC's dying multiverse, plotting to conquer the few remaining worlds.
The two geniuses became really close in the DCAU. In a plot thread that ran through Superman and Justice League Unlimited, Brainiac implanted nanites in Luthor, intending to take his body over. Instead, Luthor convinced Brainiac to merge with him as equals. Together, they would absorb all the knowledge in the universe, then reshape it to their will. They apparently enjoyed this enough that when the Justice League broke the link, the two geniuses struggled to restore it in a later episode.
10 Brainiac stopped Jor-El from saving Krypton
When Jor-El warned his people that Krypton was going to go boom, his fellow Kryptonians wrote him off as a crackpot. He then turned to building a spaceship for the El family, but had to settle for launching Kal-El in a small test rocket. Superman #141 showed that there was a lot more to the story.
The tale has Superman crashing the time barrier and landing on Krypton. Stranded there — the red sun negating his powers — he went to work for Jor-El (without revealing his real identity) and came up with a crazy idea. What if they built a giant space ark to ferry Krypton's people to Earth, a planet Jor-El had been studying by telescope? Jor-El liked the idea, and it turned out that thousands of Kryptonians did take his warning seriously enough to sign up. Alas, Superman should have known better than to build the ark in Kandor ...
After Brainiac stole the city, along with the fuel, the ark, and Jor-El's supporters, the project was dead. Superman resigned himself to dying on Krypton, but a freak accident saved him.
9 Brainiac’s look changed in the 1980s, changed again, then went classic
Brainiac's first appearance shows a mismatch between the cover and the story (the same thing happened with Bizarro). Inside the comic, he's just a bald, green alien. The cover has his scalp topped with the red, knobby hairnet, later explained as the terminals of his sensory nerves. It's not until three years later, in Action Comics #275, that the knobs show up inside the comic book as well. While Brainiac's image isn't exactly iconic, most later versions of the character were modeled on the Silver Age look.
In 1983, though, Brainiac's disintegrated body was reassembled by a computer world into a more metallic look, and a new agenda: stopping someone called the Master Programmer from using Superman to destroy Brainiac (as this plotline was never resolved, it may have been a delusion of Brainiac's). After Crisis on Infinite Earths rebooted Superman continuity, Brainiac's look changed again, to human (see the next entry), but eventually, it reverted back to green skin and yes, head knobs.
8 In the 1980s, Brainiac was retconned into a delusional sideshow mentalist
Now, about that 1980s reboot...in Adventures of Superman #438, we met Milton Fine, a carnival mind reader known as "the Amazing Brainiac." Suddenly, Fine began to manifest powerful telekinetic abilities, along with delusions that he'd been possessed by an alien. His alien personality claimed it targeted Fine because his latent psi-powers made him such a useful host, but psychiatrists assured Superman that that was just Fine's insanity talking.
Nope. In the new continuity, Vril Dox was a Coluan who had voluntarily served the computer tyrants, while scheming to replace them and become the new tyrant. When the computers executed him, his mind survived, made contact with Fine, and possessed him. Eventually, Brainiac took over completely and Fine's body became Coluan, though this Brainiac had a beard. The head knobs now served to stabilize Fine's mental powers. Brainiac would later go on to possess several other bodies and undergo multiple upgrades to more advanced and powerful versions.
7 TV turned Brainiac into a Kryptonian
Superman: The Animated Series introduced viewers to an even nastier version of Brainiac, originally created as Krypton’s central computer. When Brainiac realized that Jor-El was right about the planet's instability, he lied about it to the government. That left him with time to save himself, and all the Kryptonian data he had filed away, rather than wasting time saving the lives of mere mortals.
After escaping Krypton's death, Brainiac traveled across the universe looting alien worlds of their knowledge before destroying them. That way, his hoarded data was unique, and therefore more valuable. Like the comic-book Brainiac, he made the mistake of targeting Earth and running into Superman. Their battles continued into the Justice League series.
Smallville made Brainiac a Kryptonian computer used by General Zod to destroy Krypton. On Earth, the computer, posing as Prof. Milton Fine, served as the advance man for Zod's planned invasion. He was almost destroyed fighting Clark; instead, the Legion of Super-Heroes reprogrammed him into Brainiac Five.
6 In the future, Brainiac became a living star
In Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #224, the Legion encountered Pulsar Stargrave, an adversary whose body had become fused with a supernova. Stargrave could toss Superboy aside like a beach ball and take the full brunt of a combined Legionnaire assault without flinching. After the Legion agreed to work with him against another of their foes, a sorcerer named Mordru, Stargrave shared one detail of his origin with Brainiac 5: he was that Legionnaire's father. It looked every bit like the start of a big story arc and a major new adversary.
After the writing team changed, however, nobody seemed interested. Over the next couple of issues, the Legion learned Stargrave was really Brainiac, who'd been caught in the supernova while visiting their era. In his debut, he'd been invincible, but now, one punch from Superboy was all it took to bring Stargrave down. Just like that, Brainiac's career as a Legion nemesis was over.
5 Brainiac once made Superman wear funny hats
According to the cover of Action Comics #275, Brainiac’s latest attack on the Man of Steel (a combination of red and green kryptonite rays) had affected Superman “in the most fantastic way possible!” As so often happens, the story inside did not measure up.
When Superman interferes with Brainiac's crime spree — the writer treats him as a generic alien criminal — Brainiac blasts his foe with the red/green combo. The effect appears to be that Superman has to wear funny hats, and then use his powers accordingly. When he wears a hat matching the guards who walk up and down outside Buckingham Palace, for instance, he super-marches back and forth to crack open a water main and put out a fire.
In reality, the red/green has grown a third eye on the back of his head, hardly fantastic by red kryptonite standards (the green k apparently didn't do diddly-squat). Wearing the hats just covers the eye up so that Lois won't get any ideas about checking Clark's head for a similar organ. It's less fantastic than fantastically dull.
4 In the 1990s, Brainiac rebuilt Metropolis
As the 21st century began, Brainiac got yet another upgrade. His future self, Brainiac 13, came back in time and took his past self over, with the long-range goal of bringing about the very events that would create him. His short-term goal was to take over Metropolis. As part of that, he transformed it into the 64th-century version of the city. While Superman stopped the takeover, the transformation remained. Metropolis was now a city of tomorrow, a worthy home for the Man of Tomorrow.
Brainiac 13 didn’t give up easily, though. He made more attempts to take over the world until Superman traveled into the future and prevented Brainiac 12 from upgrading into 13. This change to Brainiac’s history promptly retconned out the changes Brainiac made — would have made? — to Metropolis, returning the city to normal. Brainiac, likewise, was back to his old self. Or technically his new old self.
3 In the “New 52,” Superman learned his origin from Brainiac
In his new 52 incarnation, Brainiac was originally just called the Collector of Worlds. Bottling cities of various worlds against the destruction he saw coming, the Collector, like previous versions of Brainiac, made the mistake of arriving on Earth. Luthor encouraged his interest, believing being bottled with Metropolis was the best shot at saving himself from the looming doom.
After Brainiac shrunk Metropolis, Superman arrived on the Collector's ship. There, he recognized the structures inside one bottle from his dreams about his past. Brainiac confirmed that the city and Superman both came from Krypton. In the New 52, it was the first time Superman had learned his homeworld.
As an experiment, Brainiac tried forcing Superman to choose: would he save Metropolis or save Kandor? Superman, of course, defeated Brainiac and saved both, though only Metropolis got enlarged. Superman reprogrammed the Collector to work with him, and for a while made Brainiac's vessel his own home base, like a Space Ship of Solitude.
2 Brainiac has been beaten by Lois Lane, a gorilla, and Jimmy Olsen
If greatness is measured by the caliber of your adversaries, then perhaps Brainiac isn't that awesome after all.
Lois defeating him is understandable, as she had superpowers at the time. Superman #159 tells an "imaginary story" where it's Earth that explodes, and Lois who gets rocketed away to Krypton to become a superhero. When Brainiac shows up to bottle Kandor, she kicks his butt faster than Superman ever managed.
The gorilla fiasco came about in Action Comics #280. Brainiac shrinks Superman and the Daily Planet staff into a bottle while they're covering a story in Africa. He doesn't see any problem with trapping a golden gorilla in the same bottle. That's because he doesn't know legendary hunter Congo Bill has a magic ring that lets him swap minds with "Congorilla" (Bill and Congorilla had recently lost their gig in Adventure Comics). The combination of human cunning and gorilla brains spiked Brainiac's revenge plan.
And then there’s Jimmy Olsen, who saves Superman from Brainiac without any superpowers or even gorilla powers. Brainiac, attacks Jimmy and his friends, knowing Olsen will summon Superman for help. That creates a perfect opportunity for Brainiac to spring a kryptonite trap...which Jimmy promptly saves his friend from.
Losing to Jimmy Olsen? So much for the merits of having a twelfth-level effector brain.
1 Justice League may finally bring Brainiac to the big screen
Like so many ordinary beings, Brainiac hasn’t had much luck breaking into the movies.
Brainiac had his first near miss with 1983's Superman III. The initial concept had been that Brainiac would divide Superman's mind into good and evil sides. Warner Brothers thumbed that down as "too sci-fi", so instead, viewers got computer hacker Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) using a machine to turn Superman evil. Contrary to legend, however, Pryor was never considered for the role of Brainiac.
Next came Superman Lives AKA Superman Reborn in the 1990s. Loosely inspired by the "Death of Superman" arc, the film included Luthor, Doomsday, and Brainiac — accompanied by his snarky robot sidekick L-Ron — in various drafts, and had multiple names including Nicolas Cage, Tim Burton and Kevin Smith attached to it at various points. Screen legend Christopher Walken was even pegged to play Brainiac at one point. Ultimately, Warner Brothers nixed the project, choosing to put their faith in 2006's Superman Returns. Superman Lives has become an object of such fascination, though, that there's even a documentary about it.
There was speculation before Batman v Superman hit the theaters last year that Brainiac would play a role in that one. Now the same speculation has attached itself to the Justice League movie coming out later this year. One theory is that Brainiac emerges from a Lexcorp neural network computer system, which could turn the 60-year-old comics character into a knockoff of Skynet. Then again, that would be no stranger than some of his earlier versions...
Do you know of any other fun facts about Superman's most appropriately-named adversary? Would Bizarro be a better fit for a Justice League film, or is he best served playing a villain in a Man of Steel sequel? Sound off in the comments.