A hero is only as good as their villains. There are times when it’s great to see a hero beat down on some thugs and save the hapless civilian, but we all know that such tussles are beneath the abilities of the truly spectacular. And if we can agree that a hero is, at least in part, measured by his villains, it then becomes necessary to determine who in comics has the best villains with which to fight. We are nerds, people, if we don’t sort this out, well, there will be no consequences, but that’s hardly the point of a great nerd debate now is it?
First, we have to disqualify a few folks. I know, I hate to do it, but I don’t want anyone to think they were just ignored, it’s better that I explain just why they don’t even merit a place in the discussion. First out of the running is the big blue boy scout: Superman. Her’s as powerful as a hero can get, but his villains just…a aren’t. Yes, there is Lex Luthor, who is a fantastic foil for Supes, but this list is about having villains, not just villain. There’s also Braniac, but his portrayal is just too inconsistent to be considered one of the greats. After that you get Parasite? The Toyman? Mr. Mxyzptlk? I’m sorry I’m just not feeling it.
The same sort of principle applies to Captain America. He has one fantastic villain in the Red Skull, but beyond that not a lot. Sure he punched Hitler, but fortunately the Fuehrer isn’t much a threat these days.
Getting back to Superman, before you scream Darkseid at me, I want to point out that I would consider Darkseid as much a villain of the Justice League as I would Superman specifically, which brings me to my next point.
The X-Men and Magneto. Magneto is one of my favorite villains in all of comics, but I’m just going to go ahead and declare that this discussion is about individual heroes and not teams.So isn’t Professor X the hero to Magento’s villain, you might ask? I guess I just don’t consider Charles a proper superhero, maybe that says more about me than him, but that’s just how it is. (For another similar example see: Fantastic Four vs. Doctor Doom; I love Doom, but this isn’t a list for teams.)
Next I’d like to disqualify Wonder Woman, I know I’ve already knocked off two of the DC trinity (hint hint) but if you have god-level powers and you’re nemesis is an archaeologist with cheetah powers? You’re out. Sorry.
And finally for my disqualifications come Captains Marvel. That’s right, both of them. One is the magic equivalent of Superman augmented with a talking tiger and his villains are a parasite or a guy with the exact same powers as him. The other is a venerated hero in the Marvel universe who has one of the most poignant deaths yet to happen in 616, but who did he ever fight? Even his replacements have never had a cadre of baddies to be worth the legacy.
So who gets on my short list for the best? Well if you were paying attention I bet you could guess that Batman would make the shortlist. I don’t even know where to begin. Joker is the ultimate antithesis, and has been done in myriad ways all relevant commentary on the Dark Knight. Then there’s Two-Face who has the tantalizing possibility of redemption always just a coin flip away. Scarecrow, the Ventriloquist, Catwoman, Mr. Freeze, Penguin, Ra’s al Ghul, and the Riddler. This is a diverse list of adversaries that all bring different challenges to Bruce’s plate and comment on his character in different ways. It’s a tough list to top.
But Spider-Man may just be able to. The crazy thing about Spider-Man is that most of the heroes I’ve listed so far have a clear prime nemesis. A singular character who is their main bad guy. Luthor, Red Skull, Joker, etc. Peter Parker doesn’t have that. You may have the knee-jerk reaction that Green Goblin deserves the spot, but is that really the case? Can you simply discount Doctor Octopus? Or the Lizard? Or Venom? These characters all share disparate yet personal connections with the web-slinger. And each have it in for him in their own unique ways. I’m not sure you can pin just one down as THE main villain. Add that to the fact that Spider-Mans rogues gallery is just so expansive, from a guy with a rhino suit to a living vampire to an old man with wings. Call it the old Parker luck, but I think Peter is a contender in this bout.
And since I used the word “rogue” I may as well bring the Flash into this. Not only does the Flash have an excellent assortment of villains, but they’re freaking unionized! They all acknowledge that they’re rotten, and decide to team up and call themselves “the Rogues.” Sure, it’s on the nose, but it’s also quite effective. The other really cool thing about the Flash’s foes is the idea of legacy, which runs parallel to the hero, who also embraces the concept of passing the torch. This is the kind of epic and over-arching themes that I think can really only occur in serialized storytelling, which is in and of itself for why Flash could have the best villains in comics. Batman could be a prose hero and still make the list, Flash makes the list in part because of the medium in which we most readily read him.
So those are my three top picks. Is this list complete? HECK NO! I’m sure I’ve discounted someone I shouldn’t have or completely ignored someone I should have venerated. This is what comments are for, just be nice lest you become my arch-nemesis in the process of telling me how dumb I am. Have at it!