While there are many different kinds of superheroes, it's pretty easy to distill the raw essence of a good hero: they must be selfless, putting the lives of others before their own. They must be responsible, using their powers and abilities in a way that makes the world a better place. And they must adhere to some kind of moral code that helps set them apart from the villains they fight.
While this is simple to understand, it's not always so simple to live by. Some of our favorite “heroes” actually break these rules pretty regularly. In fact, they break these rules so often that it starts to get pretty difficult to tell the superheroes from the supervillains that they regularly face off against. Sometimes, there are mitigating circumstances going on: characters whose personalities have been changed, or whose personalities are vastly different because the story takes place in another world.
However, these cases show us how close our regular “heroes” are to going over the line at any given moment. It turns out that The Joker's theory from A Killing Joke is correct: every hero is just one bad day away from going crazy and becoming the villain. Don't believe us? You don't have to consult your trading card collection about these characters...just check out our guide to how these superheroes are actually villains!
Batman is often presented as the quintessential hero. Given enough time, he can prepare to take down pretty much any threat, including Superman himself. However, such a great hero rides a fine line between heroism and villainy, and often crosses it. Many Batman stories over the years have made it abundantly clear how much like a supervillain Batman really is: he is obsessive, psychotic, and downright murderous at times.
For instance, he keeps detailed files on how to kill or incapacitate just about everyone he meets. He devotes years of time and untold riches fashioning exotic weapons (such as synthetic Kryptonite) on the off-chance he’ll have to eventually kill Superman, one of his closest friends. He manipulates women he dates merely to keep up his public persona, like a true psychopath. And the Batman v. Superman movie makes it clear that Batman is just a bad day or two away from killing dozens of bad guys, alien gods, and anything else that gets in his way. Face it—that Batcave is more like an evil lair!
Thanks to the wild success of the first Deadpool movie, the character is more popular than ever. That movie (and its R rating) did not flinch from showing us just how violent Deadpool and his world can be. However, the movie went out of its way to paint Deadpool as heroic and his opponents as amoral sadists who deserved to die. In reality, Deadpool is a villainous sadist himself!
First of all, he entered the Marvel universe as a straight-up villain hired to kill Cable. Even after ostensibly becoming more heroic, he continued killing pretty indiscriminately, including murdering henchmen in cold blood who have offended him. He’s taken jobs from some of Marvel’s greatest supervillains as a mercenary, and there are multiple book series dedicated to how easily he could kill the entire Marvel universe. Therefore, while it’s hard to not cheer for someone who looks and sounds like Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool is basically an evil villain who occasionally cosplays as a hero.
13 Scott Pilgrim
Compared to some of the murderous people on this list, Scott Pilgrim may seem like he doesn’t belong. After all, he comes across as an affable (if directionless) young man who is forced into a series of fights to win the heart of his true love, Ramona Flowers. However, there’s a dark secret that the Scott Pilgrim movie left out that reveals that Scott is worse than any evil ex that he fights.
In the movie, we only briefly see “Negascott” (Scott's evil twin), and his appearance culminates in a joke about Scott simply talking things out with his evil doppelganger. In the Scott Pilgrim comics, however, he spends multiple volumes running from Negascott. It turns out that Negascott represents all of Scott’s truly terrible moments—being a terrible womanizer, awful friend, terrible human being, etc. He doesn’t win a fight with Negascott or talks things out—instead, he merges with him and learns to accept how terrible he has been to everyone around him. Thus, a paradoxical part of Scott Pilgrim’s heroic journey is realizing that he has been the villain all along.
12 Charles Xavier
In the world of Marvel Comics, Charles Xavier is presented as one of the most powerful characters. This is because of his extraordinary mental abilities: he can read people's minds and influence their actions, and when he is sufficiently boosted by something like Cerebro, he can do so on a global scale. Generally, he's considered a good guy for forming the X-Men and fighting the good fight against a world that fears and hates mutants. However, angry Kitty Pryde was right about this guy—Professor Xavier IS a jerk!
In the earliest days of the X-Men comic, he lusted after his teenage student, Jean Grey. He uses his power to mind trick people, ranging from flooding people with positive emotions so they'll agree with him to outright wiping people's minds and rewiring them (which a weird retcon tells us is how he got Wolverine to become an X-Man). He got a team of X-Men killed by sending them to Krakoa, and, in his spare time, he creates detailed files on how to kill his friends (he and Batman would get along). Like a good villain, he fakes his death constantly, and, as Onslaught, he threatened to kill all life on the planet!
11 Green Arrow
Green Arrow is a character that has only gotten more popular in recent years. This is largely due to the charming and intense performance of Stephen Amell on on the CW's Arrow TV show. The show's co-star (Stephen Amell's abs) probably hasn't hurt its popularity, either. However, it was this version of the iconic comic character that gave us a hero that's much more like a villain.
This is because when the character first comes back to his city, he employs really brutal methods of crime fighting. And we mean really brutal: he kills about 66 people in the first season alone! The show has made a big deal out of rehabilitating the character and getting him off of this violent path, but the fact remains that Green Arrow is like American Psycho on a huge scale: he kills dozens of people and gets away with it, largely due to the wealth and power of his family. In another movie or TV show, Green Arrow would be the rogue psychopath that needs to be permanently locked up, but here, he's presented as a hero who simply had to get all the villainous rage out of his system.
10 Iron Man
Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to imagine the character of Iron Man without imagining the charming Robert Downey, Jr. Early on, the Marvel Cinematic Universe made a command decision to focus mostly on what is hopeful and inspirational about this character rather than what is dark. However, his Marvel Comics appearances show a very villainous Tony Stark several times.
First, there’s the alcoholism. In the comics, he is a recovering alcoholic. While he does a mostly good job of battling his demons, the fact remains he has fought in the suit while drinking before, which is about a thousand times more dangerous than drinking and driving. During the comic Civil War event, he oversaw creating a crazy clone of Thor that murdered Bill Foster, and he created an extradimensional prison to throw his friends into with no trial at all. How villainous is Iron Man? When his personality got changed by the events of AXIS, he got everyone in San Francisco addicted to body modification they could control with an app and then started charging a hundred dollars a day, causing mass riots. Most people didn’t know his personality changed, and the world just assumed this was Tony Stark being himself.
9 Jesse Custer
Jesse Custer is a reluctant preacher who is given the most incredible power of them all: The Word of God. He can literally make anyone do anything that he commands them to. Both the original Preacher comics and the TV show generally present Custer as trying to do good with his powers as he goes on a quest to find God. However, along way, he does some weirdly immoral things.
On some occasions, he has made people drop dead with a word. One time, he made people spontaneously incinerate. On a memorable occasion, he forced one man to cut off his penis and shove it into his rear end, and even one of his milder punishments resulted in making a man nearly starve to death while he counted thousands of grains of sand. The show takes these supervillain bits even further, showing Custer as a cop-killer and a man who is comfortable being hailed as a false messiah over the entire Earth. At the end of the day, it's tough to imagine a villain with his powers being much worse than Jesse already is.
8 Jason Todd
Among all the characters on this list, Jason Todd possibly has the weirdest history. He started out as Batman's sidekick and the second character to use the name Robin. Unfortunately, thanks to The Joker (and the votes from a reader phone poll), the character was murdered. Later, he came back as the Red Hood, who shined for a time as an antihero before becoming buddies with Batman and the larger hero community.
So, what makes Jason Todd villainous? To start with, there's all the murder: part of his hallmark as a hero when he returned was that he would kill the kind of people that Batman wouldn't. At one point, he teams up with a deranged young woman, Scarlet, and they start posting their kills on social media, basically trading murder pics for faves. How bad is Red Hood? Bad enough that even he knows he's terrible: after the character gets his memory erased, he finds out how many people he has killed (83) and decides that no one with that much blood on their hands can actually redeem themselves.
7 John Constantine
Many people now associate John Constantine with “charming British magician.” This is due in no small part to the performance of Matt Ryan as Constantine on both his short-lived TV show and cameos in the DC TV universe of shows on CW. However, the character's earlier appearances in Hellblazer comics show what a psycho he truly is.
On a “good” day, Constantine's sins are ones of omission. That is, he'll refuse to help someone if it means getting his coat dirty, or he'll ignore a woman being savagely beaten by her husband because he feels it's not his business. Other times, he commits sins of commission, including tainting someone with sex so she would later be punished by a demon who had intended to mate with her. And, fittingly enough, Constantine is responsible for summoning the chief demon that haunts him, Nergal. That means the countless murdering and suffering that this demon is responsible for can be laid at Constantine's feet for bringing him to Earth to begin with.
6 Damian Wayne
Damian Wayne is a very divisive character and that's putting it mildly. He is the son of Batman and Talia al Ghul, although the character was grown in an artificial womb. He is raised by Talia and The League of Assassins before returning to his father and making an attempt to be a superhero. And while he does a lot of good alongside Bruce Wayne and, later, Dick Grayson, there are many things about Damian that make him more villain than hero.
First off, that League of Assassins training is pretty hard to shake off. Early Damian adventures included him beheading a criminal and bringing it to Batman as a gift. Before that, he fought the third Robin, Tim Drake, and nearly killed him. He killed an unknown number of people as part of his League of Assassins training, and he killed the man called Nobody (also known as Morgan Ducard) while Batman watched. Basically, Damian is one of the most lethal members of the Bat family, and even when he's not killing, he's an arrogant and disrespectful brat whose dialogue would be more at home in Doctor Doom's castle than Bruce Wayne's mansion.
Visually, it can be a little tough to take Namor seriously. He looks a bit like Spock on a beach vacation. However, this character is one of Marvel’s most powerful characters, and he has the backing of the army of Atlantis behind him. He has played a major role in helping save cities and even the planet, but this superhero has also shown us his villainous side.
In his earliest appearances, the character was a complete villain. He destroyed American ships and tried to sink the entire island of Manhattan beneath a colossal tidal wave. He became more of a hero when he helped fight the Nazis during World War II, but the villainous streak continued: he’s partnered up with the likes of Magneto and Doctor Doom on more than one occasion. And even after he mellowed out, he continued to throw his weight into everything from American political affairs to the marriage of Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman. Namor’s not a hero—he’s just a supervillain on sabbatical.
4 The Punisher
No list about villainous heroes can be complete without The Punisher. In many ways, this character is the archetypal antihero. He is a Vietnam vet whose family is killed by criminals, so he dedicates his life to killing any criminals that he encounters. His hero status goes back and forth in the comics: characters like Spider-Man and Captain America often criticize his methods, while police forces sometimes deliberately bungle investigations into his activities because they fully approve of what he is doing.
If he (sometimes) has the police seal of approval, then what makes The Punisher like a supervillain? The most obvious reason is that he irreversibly takes justice into his own hands: he kills people who get no chance to defend themselves, and there is always a risk they might actually be innocent. He starts huge gun battles in crowded areas, risking casualties due to gunfire. And he moves from safehouse to safehouse, murdering anyone he sees fit. At the end of the day, Punisher is a lot more like a terrorist than any kind of hero.
To say that Wolverine has become a fan-favorite character is a complete understatement. This is a character who has gone from a D-list Incredible Hulk villain to headlining his own comics and solo movies (portrayed perfectly by the amazing Hugh Jackman). However, violence and death has always been the character's hallmark, and even as a heroic X-man, he acts more like a villain.
In the extremely different comic book version of Age of Ultron, he went back in time to murder Ultron's creator, Ant-Man. He has created secret assassin teams of X-Men with Cyclops knowing, and they've done such charming jobs as murdering a child before he could become Apocalypse. In an Ultimate X-men comic, Wolverine murdered a child himself because he thought the child's dangerous powers would make mutants look bad. That same version of Wolverine once swapped bodies with teenage Spider-Man and tried to have sex with an underage Mary Jane. Wolverine may be the best he is at what he does, but what he does is best is to be a murderous, skeezy pervert. Bad hero material, but perfect for a villain.
In both the incredible Watchmen comic and the ill-fated Watchmen movie, Rorschach is a character that steals the show. He is basically our Batman analogue, lurking in the shadows and putting the pieces of a massive conspiracy together. He also gets some of the best dialogue, including the iconic “I'm not locked in here with you, you're locked in here with me” when he is imprisoned. None of this changes the fact that Rorschach is more villain than hero.
First of all, the character is utterly without morality. He admits this to the psychologist interviewing him, saying that “existence is random” and with “no pattern,” leaving him “free to scrawl [his] own design.” To this end, he offers violence and even death to anyone he sees as a criminal. Owlman recounts a story, for instance, where Rorschach responded to a harmless man saying “punish me” by dropping him down an elevator shaft. Like a villain, he also fantasizes about watching people die, thinking to himself The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout 'Save us!'... and I'll look down and whisper "No.”
1 The Incredible Hulk
The Incredible Hulk functions amazingly well as a metaphor but can be a difficult character to write. This is because an out-of-control rage monster who can easily topple buildings might kill a lot of innocent people. So, his stories often focus on giving him enemies to challenge his strength (like the Abomination) and are careful to show him saving lives instead of taking them through random destruction. Over the years, though, Hulk has still been a villain as much as a hero.
Despite his control, he still manages to kill innocent people when he Hulks out. It gets bad enough that they boot Hulk off of the planet just to keep Earth safe. When he comes back, pissed, he tries to take over the world! To further solidify the case, Hulk is often the villain in various alternate realities: in the Ultimates, Bruce Banner recklessly injects himself with a Hulk serum and ends up killing hundreds of people in a matter of minutes before being stopped. And in Old Man Logan, he creates a super-powered brood with She-Hulk and takes over part of America, even killing Logan's wife and kid. Every day, Hulk is a villain just waiting to happen.
Know of any villainous heroes we missed? Let us know in the comments!