Superheroes get the all headlines, the franchises, the video games, the titles cards bearing their names. But even the mightiest superheroes are only as impressive as their nemeses. The most memorable story arcs in comic history are defined not by the heroes themselves, but by the challenges they overcome; the villains they defeat. Who is Batman without the Joker? Spiderman without The Green Goblin? Superman without Lex Luthor?
Memorable villains come in all shapes and sizes; but in a world where superhuman strength isn’t a rarity, the most impactful and successful are usually the most intelligent. After all, a villain is only as good as their evil plan.
This list is an attempt to rank the fifteen smartest villains in comic history. We largely stayed away from true god-types, as their innumerable gifts make them boring devices of deus-ex-machina more often than compelling antagonists. We also wanted to focus on those villains that count intelligence as an innate ability. Villains who use smarts to augment their powers, not vice-versa. These are the characters who were never going to be anything but geniuses - the ones you would most want to cheat off of in class, if you were feeling so villainous. These are the 15 Smartest Villains in Comic Book History.
15 The Riddler
You know you’re dealing with a list of real poindexters if The Riddler is number 15. Edward Nigma has been a primary Batman Villain since he first appeared in Detective Comics #140 in 1948, and in that time he has set himself apart as a singularly intelligent villain.
However, The Riddler is slotted low here because while he does have a genius level intellect, he uses it mostly to create convoluted puzzles; puzzles that often provide an opportunity for his victims to escape his grasp.
Nigma, like many other Batman Villains, has taken a backseat to The Joker in terms of cultural import, as Joker’s profile continues to rise on the big screen. But in 2002’s Hush story arc, The Riddler showed just how effective he can be when he sets his mind to it.
14 Dr. Otto Octavius
Doctor Octopus has been pestering Spiderman ever since his first appearance in The Amazing Spiderman #3 in 1963. In that time, Octavius has cemented himself as one of Spidey’s most dangerous and effective foes. He is a genius, an expert engineer and inventor, and a master strategist and tactician.
Furthermore, Doctor Octopus is only able to physically hold his own against superheroes because of the metal (sometimes titanium, sometimes adamantium, sometimes carbonanium – geniuses fiddle!) harnesses that bear his mechanical tentacles – technology that a lesser mind would not have access to. Those same arms allowed Doc Octopus to beat Daredevil nearly to death in Daredevil #165, and hand Iron Man a defeat in Marvel Fanfare #22.
If you need more evidence of Octavius’ mental prowess, none other than Reed Richards himself called up on Doctor Octopus for help when the Invisible Woman was suffering from radiation-related pregnancy complications in Fantastic Four #267. If Mister Fantastic needs your help, “genius-level-intellect” is probably an understatement.
As we see it, artificial intelligence is still intelligence. Ultron has been around since 1964, and made his big screen debut last year in Avengers: Age of Ultron. While his appearance and abilities have varied, a constant has been his powerful synthetic brain. Like many other villains on this list, Ultron has a “genius-level intellect," although his has more to do with processing information and performing calculations with superhuman speed. He is an expert of strategy and robotics, and is able to control other machines remotely.
Ultron’s superior intelligence makes his convoluted scheme in Age of Ultron feel like a waste. Picking up a giant rock and dropping it on earth isn’t necessarily ineffective, but it’s the hare-brained territory of Bond Villains, with their moon lasers and undersea civilizations. The man-made meteor was substantially nefarious, but sometimes less is more. With Ultron’s intellect, we are surprised he couldn’t find an easier way to wipe out humanity.
12 Ra's Al Ghul
There’s no substitute for experience; and having been born 600 years before his first appearance in the Batman timeline (1971), Ra’s has as much of it as anyone. While some of the other super-smart villains on this list use their gifts for invention, flashy technology, and applied sciences; Ra’s exercises a different type of intelligence: the earned wealth of knowledge that comes from an extended lifespan and vast amount of experience. Not to downplay at all the villain’s innate abilities. Ra’s Al Ghul’s mind has consistently been framed as equal to Batman’s, and his sinister plots usually include big, existential goals concerning the balance of the known world.
A hallmark of intelligence is a willingness to learn, and Ra’s al Ghul, through his centuries of life, has coupled his natural genius with a vast accumulation of knowledge of everything from hand to hand combat to physics.
11 Solomon Seltzer (The Professor)
The Professor, the main antagonist from Wanted (more so in the books than the movie), might not be as well-known as some of his list-mates, but don’t be fooled. Real name Solomon Seltzer, The Professor famously learned to talk in the womb (who was he talking to?), and graduated college with a Bio-Mechanics degree before the rest of his friends turned ten.
In the books, like the film, The Professor helps protagonist Wesley Gibson unlock his powers and beckons him to join a fraternity of assassins. In the original comic, Seltzer was responsible for the overthrow of superheroes by an organized group of villains, who subsequently destroyed the world’s collective memory of heroes and formed clandestine assassin groups. This scientist may be mad, but being crazy and crazy-intelligent aren’t mutually exclusive, especially when it comes to supervillains.
10 Mister Sinister
Mister Sinister first appeared in The Uncanny X-Men #221, in 1987, but in the storyline, he had already been around for many, many years.
We learn in The Further Aventures of Cyclops and Phoenix (1996) that Sinister was born Nathaniel Essex in Victorian London, where he became a biologist in 1859. He was a contemporary of none other than Charles Darwin, and became obsessed with Darwin’s work. However – in a true testament to Sinister’s character – he felt that Darwin was too constrained by morality, and that his work should transcend such a meaningless construct.
Mister Sinister’s scientific genius allowed him to substantially mutate himself at the most basic level, unlocking abilities as varied as shape-shifting and invulnerability. He is a master of genetics, cloning, physics, manipulation, and technology, but he’s still the tenth most intelligent villain of all time.
9 Kang The Conqueror
Kang has an unfair advantage, as he was born much later (30th century) than most of his peers on the list, and traveled back in time to eras when the average intelligence was substantially less than his. As such, Kang has no true superhuman abilities. But he is an exceptional genius, a historical scholar, a time-traveling physicist, and a master technician.
His mastery of time travel allows Kang to employ technologies that other characters aren’t able to access; 40th century science powers the battle armor that makes him so invulnerable, with its force-field protection, strength enhancement, and (less exciting) 30-day supply of rations. Kang’s armor has withstood punishment from the hammer of Thor, and survived the harsh wilderness of space. It can shape shift, and fire energy blasts.
I suppose It’s entirely possible that Kang is closer to average by 30th century standards. But we aren’t here to find loopholes – intelligence is intelligence, and Kang the Conqueror is many degrees of brilliant.
Among all the smart guys on this list, only Ozymandias was known everywhere (in his respective universe) as “the smartest man in the world.” Between his brilliant strategizing, photographic memory, and exceeding will (not to mention physical prowess), it is unsurprising that Ozymandias was able to best his peers in Watchmen.
In the Watchmen storyline, Ozymandias was able to execute a convoluted secret plan to create catastrophe on earth, with the goal of uniting its citizens with a common cause. He teleported a creature to New York City, planning for it to explode – killing millions and (ideally) uniting the world against a (fake) extra-terrestrial attack.
Ozy, and all his arrogant brilliance, also gave us one of the most gloriously boastful mic-drop quotes we can remember. After his former team arrived at his lair to intervene, telling Ozymandias that he wouldn’t be able to execute his master plan, the villain responded with a defiantly dead-pan “I did it thirty-five minutes ago.” Harsh.
7 Lex Luthor
It would be tough to find a resume longer or more impressive than Lex Luthor’s. Widely understood to be the most intelligent human in the D.C. Comic Universe, Luthor mastered seemingly every known science – he rightly considers himself singularly brilliant. Luthor is owner and operator of LexCorp, one of the biggest corporations in the D.C. universe. He has invented numerous technologies, including his own power armor, the source of his physical invulnerability.
Oh, and Luthor has used his prodigious political talent to become President of the United States of America. He is a master manipulator with ruthless ambition and his intelligence is his biggest asset.
6 Alexander Luthor, Jr.
“I’m you. Only better.”
Despite everything that we just wrote about Lex Luthor and all of his achievements, Lex Luthor Jr. is even more intelligent.
Junior was born on Earth-Three, one of the alternate timelines that doesn’t fit the standard D.C. storyline that readers see the most. He is the son of Lex Luthor in that alternate universe and not in the regular continuity that comics readers, especially casual ones, are so familiar with. Lex Jr.’s storyline and journey to earth is long and convoluted (as is the way of comics), but he eventually makes it to the main storyline with a villainous plot to restore the multiverse; a task that would take enormous intellect to pull off.
In order to do it, Alexander Luthor Jr. needed to pretend successfully to be his father, manipulate a large number of other villians, best Batman, and then revive the Multiverse tower (an extreme undertaking in itself). It worked – Lex Jr. and his overwhelming smarts recreated the DC Multiverse, and left behind the classic quote you read at the beginning of this entry, a verbal smack down of his equally evil father.
5 Doctor Doom
Number five is doctor Victor von Doom, the classic arch enemy of the Fantastic Four and leader of the fictional Latveria. He is a genius scientist and inventor, and a villain that is impactful enough to have feuded not just with The Fantastic Four, but also Spider Man, The Avengers, and other Marvel heroes.
Doom was born in Latveria, to a witch mother who passed her capacity for magic onto her son. It was his superior intellect, though, that helped Doctor Doom create advanced technology like his Doombots, technology that helped him do things like steal the Silver Surfer’s powers and (briefly) the powers of The Beyonder. He shot The Baxter Building into space. He was responsible for Scarlet Witch’s mental collapse, which disbanded The Avengers.
Schemes like these illustrate the best of Doom. He’s unmatched as a planner, and has the willpower to execute even his most far-fetched plots. In fact, a number of Doom’s “defeats” have come by his own hand, due to his irresponsibly large ego or the compulsion he has toward achieving victory exclusively on his own terms. There’s truly a case to be made for Doom to be even higher on this list, but the evil-doers in front of him are no slouches either.
The Mad Titan has been a big bad in the Marvel universe for over forty years, after making his debut in Iron Man #55 in 1973. Filmgoers know him as the final boss that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been hinting at through the films of its first three phases. Thanos has been framed to readers and viewers alike as a next-level villain – a force with powers so limitless that to challenge him would be to invite total annihilation. While this is true in large part because of his superhuman physicality and psionic powers, it is also true because of Thanos’s unmatched intellect.
The range of skills that Thanos has mastered is extensive enough to be boring; he is an expert in essentially all known fields of theoretical and applied sciences, and has created technology that supersedes anything that exists on earth. His self-made transportation chair allows him space flight, teleportation, time travel, and movement between universes - quite the impressive DIY project.
Darkseid occupies a space in DC canon that is somewhat similar to Thanos’ in Marvel canon. He is a tyrant from another planet, who intends to conquer the known universe and bend all existent life to his will. Sound familiar?
Like Thanos, Darkseid enjoys the powers of superhuman strength and durability, energy projection, and telekinesis. Also like Thanos, Darkseid is a certified genius, with a limitless intellect. He too creates highly advanced tech, allowing him to manipulate mass (a boring way of saying that he can teleport entire planets between galaxies). He, like so many supervillains, is a master manipulator who cleverly uses underlings to do his bidding.
Most impressively, in the 2005 Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle miniseries, it was revealed that Darkseid had cracked the vaunted anti-life equation, allowing him to finally eradicate free will from the universe. Smart.
Once you are in the rarified air of Top-5 smartest supervillains, you are probably dealing with entries of similar intellect. Still, you might bristle at the inclusion of Brainiac at number 2, because he lacks some of the cachet and storyline prominence of a Luthor, Thanos, or Darkseid. But this list is about intelligence, and Brainiac’s name says it all – 12th level intellect, infinite calculation ability, and amplified memory; mastery of engineering (bio and mechanical), mastery of physics, and a limitless knowledge of alien technology.
Brainiac created the technology that allowed him to shrink and steal Kandor, the capital city of planet Krypton; and that is just one of his many intellectual feats. His extensive mental powers also include the direct absorption of knowledge from other beings, and the ability to transport his consciousness into other living and breathing organisms. He may have done less with his considerable intelligence than other big-time supervillains, but that doesn’t inherently discount his intelligence in the first place. His name was literally the birth of the term Brainiac, for good reason.
1 High Evolutionary
High Evolutionary was born Herbert Edgar Wyndham, in England; he went on to attend Oxford (ever heard of it?) in the 1930’s, where he became fascinated by the work of another supervillain, Nathanial Essex AKA Mister Sinister (10 on this very list). At Oxford, Wyndham started to experiment with mutation and genetic manipulation. Wyndham eventually left Oxford, moved to Wundagore Mountain, and began experimenting radically.
Through his work, Wyndham was able to evolve his own intellect, eventually far outreaching any of his human peers. His experimenting on his own DNA also gifted him omnipotence in some fields; see his ability to evolve and devolve life-forms, create matter, and manipulate energy. In Fantastic Four #175, Wyndham – now High Evolutionary – successfully battled the cosmic entity Galactus for an extended time, before suffering eventual defeat. Still, even those brief moments of victory tell you all you need to know – when it comes to smarts, no supervillain in the world of comics can claim superiority over High Evolutionary.