Up until last year, nobody knew Captain America was a Nazi.
The big reveal of 2016 was that Cap had been a dedicated Nazi and an agent of Hydra from the beginning. But wait — it wasn’t really real, it was a history created by the reality-altering Cosmic Cube!
No, wait, it was really real! The latest twist is that the heroic version of Captain America was created by an earlier reality change. In the original reality (or so Marvel claims at the moment), Cap was a Nazi double-agent who betrayed America in WWII.
This would make Steve Rogers the most famous figure in a long line of villains playing superheroes. Not in the sense of Skrulls replacing established Marvel heroes, but new, seemingly heroic characters who turn out to be rotten to the core. The imposters’ goals can be anything from world domination to putting a superhero through the ringer.
Surprisingly, even hardcore villains can find fake heroics addictive and end up being the real deal. Others stay rotten to the end. How Cap will turn out is anyone's guess, but here are 17 earlier phonies and their fates.
Marvel’s current Secret Empire event takes its name from Cap's classic Bronze Age battle with an earlier Secret Empire. The cabal kicked things off with a smear campaign (if Cap represents America, why does he wear a mask?), framed him for murder, then had their fake superhero Moonstone drag him to jail. With some slick PR, it was easy to establish Moonstone as America’s newest, coolest, mightiest hero.
The Empire’s endgame? An attack on the White House, heroically opposed by Moonstone … until he lost. Helpless, he begged America to surrender — because if his powers couldn't beat the Empire, how could anyone stand against them? It might have worked, except Captain America arrived in time to expose the whole rotten scheme. Afterward, Cap quit in disillusion about the state of America. Moonstone went to jail and eventually lost his powers to Karla Sofen, who became a fake hero herself as one of the Thunderbolts (see #7).
In Daredevil #62, Matt Murdock is in the middle of busting a robbery when he’s suddenly upstaged by New York’s newest superhero, Nighthawk. After DD leaves, Nighthawk lets the hoods go with a laugh — like he actually cares about fighting crime? All that matters to him is fame, hero-worship, and using them to build a political power base. Thanks to the drug he slipped Daredevil to slow him down, Nighthawk’s legend is up and running. And, as per usual in comics, the media forget DD’s heroism and brand him yesterday’s news.
Daredevil, however, figures out that Nighthawk’s a phony. He then tricks him into confessing the truth while standing near a concealed microphone. With his image destroyed, Nighthawk flees, though there’s really no way his plan could have worked anyway. He’d already battled the Avengers as a member of the Squadron Sinister; what are the chances he could become a prominent New York hero (let alone a politician) without the team going “Say, doesn’t that look like that guy ...”
Nighthawk later reformed and became a genuine hero with the Defenders.
When Aquaman and his Justice League teammates tried to stop an Atlantean attack on the surface, they received help from Rhonda Pineda, the newest Atom. After she dismantled an Atlantean bomb and performed a few other heroic feats, the Leaguers were happy to have her join.
What they didn’t know was that like Captain Atom (see #11) she was secretly spying on the team for the US government. And what neither the League nor the government knew was that the Atom was playing them both. She was actually Atomica of the Crime Syndicate, a parallel-world villain team plotting to take over the Justice League's Earth.
Thanks to her betrayal, the Syndicate seized control, crushed the Justice League, and ground Earth under its heel. Which, ironically, is what happened to Atomica after Lex Luthor organized the resistance. Pineda ended up trapped in tiny size and helpless. Luthor raised his boot and brought it down …
To his teammates on the First Line — a Marvel retcon superhero group operating from the 1950s into the 1990s — Effigy was a high-ranking security official who’d acquired shapeshifting powers in a freak accident. Secretly, Effigy was Velmax, a Skrull who'd crashed on Earth in the 1940s after playing chicken with a jet fighter at Roswell.
After kicking himself for his stupidity, Velmax murdered the first human he came across and assumed his identity. His roles in the government and the First Line were just covers so that he could eventually find where the military stashed his ship, reclaim it, and go home. Humanity meant nothing to him ... or so he thought. But when the Skrulls tried sabotaging the Apollo XI moon landing, Velmax found himself siding with his adopted country against his own people. The mask he wore had become his true face.
Years later, Velmax sacrificed himself to destroy an invading Skrull armada, revealing his true nature to his team. As he died, he assured them that Skrull though he was, his true heart bled red, white, and blue.
Terra, a teenager with telekinetic control over earth and stone, had been with the Teen Titans for two years when readers learned she was a traitor. She was no hero; she'd been working for Slade Wilson, AKA Deathstroke, to destroy the Titans from within. She also smoked, drank, and apparently had sex with Wilson. Readers who’d seen Terra as a sulky but heroic fifteen-year-old were shell-shocked.
After Terra’s death in the "Judas Contract" arc, Wilson told her boyfriend Changeling that Terra had been a sociopath and a killer long before they met. He hadn't recruited her to kill the Titans -- she'd recruited him.
That conversation, however, highlights the story's biggest flaw. We're supposed to believe that Terra seduced Deathstroke, but that would still make the fortysomething Wilson a statutory rapist. The conversation hand-waves that issue away; when Changeling brings it up, it's presented as him being jealous of Wilson, not that Wilson did something creepy and wrong.
When Quality Comics introduced the Spider in 1940, he was a straight-up hero, though not a memorable one. Despite the name, he had no spider powers or weapons — he was a millionaire playboy who fought crime with a bow and arrow (the Golden Age had many superhero archers). The Spider vanished into obscurity until James Robinson revived him for the 1997 Shade miniseries.
Shade #3 revealed the Spider was actually a crime boss using his superhero role to eliminate rivals to his control of the underworld. He’s also descended from the Ludlow family, who’ve warred with the immortal Shade for several generations. The Spider thinks he can triumph where his ancestors lost. To his surprise, his bow and arrow were no match for an immortal with the power to summon darkness monsters.
The Cobra and Deadshot had similar agendas when they posed as heroes (see their entries below). There’s even a real-world example, Jonathan Wild, an English “thief taker” who secretly ran the London underworld.
11 Captain Atom
When DC rebooted Charlton Comics' Captain Atom in 1987, they didn’t make him a villain. Nevertheless, his hidden agenda — spying on real superheroes for military intelligence — skated along the thin edge of ethics.
To other superheroes and the public, Captain Atom was the survivor of a freak accident that gave him power over energy at the quantum level. In reality, Captain Nathaniel Adam had been convicted of murder in 1967, then offered a pardon if he underwent a military experiment. The experiment gave him his quantum powers and time-jumped him twenty years ahead. The Reagan administration offered a new deal: Adam could search for proof of his innocence (he found it eventually) in return for working under General Wade Eiling. His mission would be to pose as a superhero, infiltrate the metahuman community, and report back on their goals, strengths, weaknesses, and true loyalties.
As Captain Atom, Adam did a lot of good, but he frequently had to play dirty to preserve his secrets. Eventually, the truth came out, and like Effigy and Nighthawk, Adam rose above his shady past.
The Predator’s turn from hero to villain came about when Green Lantern switched writers from Len Wein to Steve Englehart.
During Wein’s run, the Demolition Team attempted to destroy Ferris Aircraft — run by Green Lantern’s girlfriend Carol Ferris — while GL was in space. Enter the Predator, a mysterious vigilante who took the villains down.
When Steve Englehart took over the book, he decided that the most startling reveal would be to show the Predator was a woman. Not only that, the ambiguous hero was a manifestation of Carol’s repressed supervillain identity, Star Sapphire. Manipulating events through the Predator, Carol planned to seize control of Ferris Aircraft from her father, while getting Hal Jordan to quit as Green Lantern and marry her.
When Carol became Star Sapphire "permanently", she reabsorbed the Predator. Later writers retconned his origin so he could return, but he never became a hero.
9 Nemesis Kid
DC’s 30th-century team, the Legion of Super-Heroes, is one of the largest in all comicdom. Statistically, it was inevitable that they’d recruit a few rotten apples, the most notorious of them being Nemesis Kid.
To win Legion membership in Adventure Comics #346, Nemesis Kid demonstrated that when faced with any single foe, he instantly acquired the powers to defeat them. The Legion signed him up, but discovered in the following issue that he was destroying Earth’s defenses to pave the way for an invasion. The LSH stopped the attack, then confronted Nemesis Kid. Unable to defeat so many foes, his power settled for teleporting him away.
Nemesis Kid returned several more times before dying of overconfidence. After killing the Legionnaire Karate Kid, Nemesis Kid confronted the man’s widow, the illusion-casting Princess Projectra. His power made him illusion-proof, so he figured killing her too would be a slam dunk.
Projectra stabbed him to death instead.
8 Composite Superman
Unlike the Spider or Nighthawk, Joe Meach had a simple, unambitious goal as the Composite Superman — making the Man of Steel and Batman look stupid.
Meach knew that they couldn’t be that much more awesome than he was. If Joe had Superman’s powers, he could do just as well, right? And Batman, pfah, he got a few lucky breaks that made him look smart. When a freak accident endowed Meach with the powers of the Legion of Super-Heroes (think Superman plus telepathy, shapeshifting, transmutation…) he set out to prove his superiority over the World's Finest. As the Composite Superman, Meach horned in on the Superman and Batman team, hiding his true abilities. For example, he telepathically tracked down some crooks, then claimed he’d done it with his mad detective skills.
The good guys soon figured out the Composite Superman wasn’t on the up-and-up, but that didn’t help. With his powers, defeating them was easy — but his abilities wore off before he could kill them. Meach later reformed and ultimately sacrificed his own life for theirs.
The end of Thunderbolts #1 remains one of the all-time classic reveals. Everything up to that point had established the 'bolts as the newest heroes in the MU. Then they pulled off their masks to reveal themselves as Baron Zemo and his Masters of Evil.
Zemo hadn’t planned it that way. He’d been figuring on taking normal revenge attacks against the Avengers until that team and the Fantastic Four died (as far as anyone knew) during the Onslaught crossover event. When one of the Masters joked perhaps that they should replace the Avengers, Zemo suddenly realized … why not?
The masquerade made them Earth's newest, greatest heroes, trusted by everyone ... until Zemo reverted to open supervillainy and tried conquering the world. He failed, but the remaining Thunderbolts discovered that they wanted to be genuine heroes. With Hawkeye stepping in as team leader, they began finding a path to redemption.
The Cobra is the first supervillain to pose as a hero, having appeared in The Shadow pulp magazine in 1934.
Like Nighthawk supplanting Daredevil, the Cobra made his rep by surpassing the Shadow. The Cobra and his agents, the Fangs, waged an even more ruthless war on crime than the Master of Darkness: the Shadow stopped crimes, but the Cobra killed crooks even when they weren't pulling jobs. And he did it publicly, instead of lurking in the dark. When the suspicious Shadow moved against the Cobra, it seemed obvious to the cops that the Shadow was the real criminal, and the Cobra was the hero.
In reality, the Cobra was another villain in the Jonathan Wild mode; a crime boss using his vigilante role to purge the underworld of adversaries. With the police in his corner and the Shadow the target of a manhunt, the Cobra figured he couldn't lose. When the Shadow gunned him down, he knew he was wrong.
Like Nighthawk, the Swordsman’s plan to pose as a fake hero was seriously dumb. When he offers the team his services in Avengers #19, he was already a notorious international criminal. Then again, the Avengers had just accepted supervillains Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver into their ranks, so why not the Swordsman too? Then again, the Swordsman wrapped up the issue by threatening to throw Captain America off a skyscraper to his death, which would seem like clear evidence that he wasn’t a team player.
Nevertheless, they accepted him, reluctantly, after the Mandarin made it look like Iron Man had handpicked the Swordsman for membership. The Mandarin wanted an agent on the team, and eventually ordered Swordsman to blow them all up. The Swordsman balked at killing the Avengers without a fair fight and deactivated the bomb. Circumstances made him look guilty though, and he had to flee. Years later he’d redeem himself and rejoin, before dying as a hero at last.
In another memorable big reveal, Xorn — a popular new X-Man created by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely — turned out to be Magneto.
When Xorn signed on, he was supposedly a Chinese mutant who had to wear a helmet to control his energy powers. Thoughtful and idealistic, he became a popular character with X-fans. Then came New X-Men #146, when Xorn pulled off the helmet to show who he really was. Magneto had taken advantage of his disguise to spread his militant views among Xavier's students and recruit new followers. He launched a murderous attack on New York City's human population, killed Jean Grey, then died when Wolverine gutted him.
As far as Morrison was concerned, there never was a real Xorn. That didn't suit Marvel editorial though, and neither did having Magneto revert to mass murder. Subsequent writers retconned Morrison's era to restore both Xorn and Magneto.
When Ringmaster burst into Central City in Flash #261, he used an arsenal of high-tech rings to perform spectacular crimefighting feats. Barry Allen was delighted to have a new ally; that is until Iris Allen walked out on him and became Ringmaster’s girlfriend.
Flash couldn’t believe it was possible that he'd lost Iris — and it wasn’t. Ringmaster was the mind-controlled puppet of Flash’s enemy the Golden Glider. Obsessed with avenging the death of her lover, the Top (it wasn’t Flash’s fault, but she didn’t see it that way), Golden Glider schemed to take away Flash’s love, as he'd taken hers (Iris was under hypnosis).
Things got more complicated when the Glider realized that she’d subconsciously modeled Ringmaster on the Top, and was actually in love with him herself (she knew it wasn’t real love, but she didn’t care). She reworked her revenge scheme to encompass Iris’ death as well, but Flash put a stop to that. Surprisingly, after being freed from Golden Glider’s control, Ringmaster never showed up again or tried becoming a superhero for real.
When the Hyperclan appeared on Earth in JLA #1, they were alien heroes like Superman and J'Onn J'Onzz, survivors of a doomed world seeking a new home. Rather than just fight crime, they wanted to improve Earth (for example, by turning the Sahara fertile). Once again, the new heroes became more popular than the old guard; even after they attacked the Justice League, the world took the Hyperclan's side.
This time, though, the reason was less human fickleness than the Hyperclan’s mind control. Easy enough, since Protex, Zuum, and the other Hypers were really White Martians, hereditary enemies of J'onn J'onzz's green race. Their master plan involved releasing a White Martian space armada from its dimensional prison and conquering the Earth.
The Hyperclan eventually reformed, but not by choice. After the League defeated them, the Martian Manhunter's mind control turned their shapeshifting powers against them. The Hyperclan became not superheroes, but good, decent human beings, with only vague dreams of their real nature.
While Batman and Robin were vacationing in their secret identities in Batman #59, millionaire Floyd Lawton debuted as Deadshot, offering his services to the Gotham City PD in their absence. An amazing marksman who could take someone down without even delivering a flesh wound — shooting a rope to drop a scaffold on their head, say — Lawton soon had his own Deadshot-Signal at police headquarters.
Secretly, like the Cobra and the Spider, he planned to take over the Gotham mobs as Lawton, then capture his opponents as Deadshot. He also planned to kill Batman; it would be so tragic when Deadshot “missed” a shot for the first time and killed his crimefighting ally. But Commissioner Gordon would understand that nobody's perfect.
Batman couldn’t get the goods on Lawton, so he spiked his guns, literally: he rigged the gun sights so that Deadshot couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn. Convinced that his skill was gone, Lawton cracked and confessed all.
Deadshot never turned into the heroic figure he'd pretended to be, but he would find long-running success as an anti-hero in his days with both the Suicide Squad and the Secret Six.
What other villains have attempted to pass themselves off as heroes? Let us know in the comics.