Super Villains: Pure Evil or Purely Misunderstood?

With the upcoming opening of The Dark Knight, featuring Heath Ledger as the latest incarnation of the Joker, it seems that many of my comic book related conversations have danced in and around the topic of Super Villainy. When we were young, super villains were very easy to understand. They broke the law, they did evil things, they were avenged by the heroes we adored. Easy enough. But as I grow older and I dig deeper into the characters, I realize that many of these villains are much more complex than we ever imagined.

Now I know for a fact that one of my compatriots here at iFanboy will argue with me vehemently over these thoughts that I’m presenting to you. But, for now, I’m simply going to ignore him and his looming, bald shadow. Rather I’m going to present to you my thoughts and stand by them, because even if you only see the world in black and white and good and evil, I think if you really think about it, the main thrust of my thoughts are fairly accurate. So what are these thoughts that I’m teasing you with? Well they’re very simple.

I believe that when it comes to villains in super hero comics, there are two types of villains:

  • Evil Villains – These are the characters who commit heinous acts purely for evil based motivations, be it to achieve some sort of evil goal, or simply because they’re evil.
  • Misunderstood/Non-Evil Motivated Villains – These characters tend to make poor decisions, get backed up against a wall, or ultimately are misunderstood by their actions due to some sort of motivation, be it political or personal.

Simplistic? Absolutely, but different from the even simpler world view of good and evil. By no means am I excusing breaking the law or doing bad things here either. Murder and robbery are bad, no two ways about it. But I wonder if we dig a little deeper into those committing these crimes, I wonder if we can see how my simplistic view bears some resonance.

Let me begin with the source of this theory: A.I.M. If you’re unfamiliar with A.I.M., they are an organization that operates in the Marvel (616) Universe. A.I.M. stands for Advanced Idea Mechanics, and they are a corporation that is often in the employ of, or executing their own evil agendas bent on world domination. Now while they are firmly on the side of evil, I would argue that they are not a wholly evil organization. It’s not their fault that they’ve been under the leadership or hired by evil people. They’re just a bunch of scientists and minions who are trying to build cool stuff and earn a living. Could The Avengers hire A.I.M. to build some cool stuff? Sure they could. But they don’t. So in order to keep their P/L ratio in balance, they have to build M.O.D.O.K. and design the cosmic cube.

Conversely, HYDRA is a completely evil organization. Focused on world domination through terrorism (and not science like A.I.M.), all of HYDRA’s actions are done with evil intent, with the hopes of taking over the planet and ruling in an evil manner. HYDRA is not trying to make payroll from month to month like A.I.M. Sure A.I.M. may have originally spun out of HYDRA, but that doesn’t mean the evil management style of HYDRA has to continue. Poor Joe College who has an engineering degree doesn’t have a lot of options in the Marvel Universe. If Stark Industries doesn’t hire you and ROXXON is in a hiring freeze, he pretty much has to go to A.I.M. Joe College Engineer probably isn’t evil at heart, but he has to put food on the table just like you and me.

I understand that organizations are completely different than people and many super villains have a legacy of evil actions and wrong doings. But after examining A.I.M. and HYDRA, I zoomed in on a few villains that I found to continue the question of evil vs. misunderstood.

A classic example is that of Doctor Doom or Magneto. Both big time threat levels when it comes to villains in the Marvel Universe. Arch foes of the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, respectively, both villains have harmed hundreds, if not thousands of people as well as killed many over the past 40 years. But did they commit these acts in pure acts of evil? Or were they merely misguided attempts at fighting for what they feel is right? Sure Doctor Doom is jealous of Mister Fantastic, but at his heart, he’s an isolationist patriot, who is simply protecting his country of Latveria. Magneto on the other hand, sees mutants as a discriminated race and has simply fought for his, and other mutants rights to exist. Again, I’m not defending or siding with these characters at all. Lord knows if I was Magneto, I wouldn’t have sunk that Russian sub (an act that bit him in the ass for years). But I can’t say that if I was forced into a corner like he has been for years that I wouldn’t want to fight back.

If you put Doctor Doom and Magneto to the side and look at another couple of Marvel Super Villains, like the Red Skull and The Shadow King, these guys are purely evil. Can anyone defend the actions of a nazi like Red Skull, who while pursuing world domination will do whatever it takes to see freedom and the United States ruined? No way. Red Skull is pure evil. The Shadow King, an X-Men foe you may not be aware of, uses his hyper telepathy powers to invade and take over others, leading them to commit heinous acts all in the effort to help him achieve his, ultimately evil goals. There is no moral grey area with these characters. It’s just pure evil.

Now I could go on and on and examine other Marvel villains, such as Ultron (Daddy Issues), Green Goblin (Family Issues), Sandman (Dumb luck), The Rhino (Even more dumb luck), but I think it makes sense to take a look at some of the DC villains to see if this still applies, which much to my iFanboy brother wince, I believe it does.

Let’s take a look at Captain Cold. A key rogue of The Flash, Len Snart isn’t some evil mastermind bent on world domination. No, he’s simply a thug who got his hands on a cold ray gun and built a gimmick around it to help aid his petty burgularies. Even his entry in Wikipedia states: “Traditionally, Captain Cold is driven by three things: money, women, and the desire to beat Barry Allen. ” Who can argue that? I like money. I like women. I have people I would like to beat, does that make me evil? Sure I don’t use a cold gun to rob banks, but I believe Captain Cold does that purely because he’s an uneducated man who doesn’t realize he has other choices in life. Hell, at some points he’s actually an ally of Wally West, but ultimately he ends up back on the wrong side of the law, leading the Flash’s Rogues.  But again, out of necessity, not out of a compulsive need to be evil.

Captain Cold is about as different as you can get when you compare him to the Joker. The Joker is pure insanity, which equates to pure evil. He may be mentally ill, but the lack of regard of human life and the ease in which the Joker takes lives, shows that despite mental illness, one can still be inherently evil. Time and time again, despite the seemingly pathetic attempts at rehabilitation by the Arkham Asylum doctors from rehabnearme, the Joker always resets back to his natural state, that of a crazy killer, who is pure evil.

There are many flaws inherent in this idea of evil villains vs. villains who are misunderstood or may have just made a bad mistake. Like I said above, I understand the simplicity of the separation between the two and the idea that if one does wrong, then one is evil. But I think if you deconstruct modern day super villains, you’ll see that this line between pure evil and just ill intent or pure judgment exists. As much as we don’t want to cheer for the villain, I think it’s irresponsible of us to simply lump in someone as idiotic as the Vulture with Thanos, don’t you agree? What villains can you think of that aren’t purely evil, rather just made some bad mistakes? Leave a comment and help me prove my iFanboy partner wrong.


  1. Great article Ron!

    I think Black Adam is the perfect DC antihero. His intentions for his country were noble and good, but many times the way he went about things, appeared, at least from our perspective to be ‘evil.’

    Some of the most compelling stories are from a villians viewpoint. Wrong as it may seem, it’s fun at times to root for the villian. I don’t know about you guys, but I always wanted Wile E. Coyote to nail the Road Runner! It’s probably healthy for us to release our evil-tendiences through these fictional villians and not on each other.

    Darth Vader is also one, if not the most complex, cases of villiany and anti-heroism (?) there is….

  2. There’s just no way you don’t grow up antisocial after having been given the name "Len Snart." That guy never stood a chance.

  3. Jiminski:

    .LOL ..all the Batman villians suffer that same name-fate: Oswald Cobblepot? That name has serial-killer written all over it….

  4. A good way to tell Purely Evil from Misunderstood is by their code of honor, if they have one. Captain Cold beat down Mirror Master because of his drug use, and even showed a little remorse over killing the Flash.

    A real mystery is Lex Luthor. Yes, he has committed heinous acts for his own gain, but then again he has helped (in his mind) defend the earth from the evil force that he believes Superman is. He sees himself as more of a protector of humanity than a destroyer.

     And as far as AIM and Hydra go, yes they may be evil organizations, but mostly individual agents of both are not. Many are just programmed according to the organization’s customs, but deep inside are just regular people. Take for example, Bob, Agent of Hydra, from Cable and Deadpool. I know that it depends on whose writing it, but many of these large organizations contain simple-minded, yet innocent, cannon fodder.

     Finally, I think it’s safe to say that most of the Spidey villains, ruling out any Goblins or symbiotes, are not evil. The Rhino is too dumb to be evil, and has shown real human emotions recently, as has the Vulture. Most are just petty theives with superpowers.

  5. The best villains are the ones that think that they are the hero of the story. I will submit two, but there are many more. Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker, and Sinestro. If they were to write the stories that we have seen them in, the narrative that they write would show how much they think they are doing the right thing. Their stories would show that they are the ones making the heroic sacrifices for their percieved greater good. This is thing, for me, that makes a great villain.

    There are other types of villains. Ones that are evil for the sake of being evil. Carnage comes to mind. Although it is sometimes fun to see how our heroes deal with someone that likes to kill just because he likes the way their victims twitch while they are dying. They become one domensional cardboard cutouts of a villain.

    Thats my 2 cents. 

  6. I think you need to add one catagory to your list of villain types, Ron — crazy as hell. I don’t think the Joker is evil, the dude is too crazy to know the difference between right & wrong.

    I agree with Unoob — the best villains are the ones who think they are in the right. Add Ra’s Al Ghul & Lex Luthor to your awesome list of guys who think they are doing the right thing, helping mankind, by any means necassary. Ra’s is an Eco-Terrorist who thinks he has to wipe out most of the world’s population to save the planet & the human race, & Lex is obsessed with killing Superman so humans can shine on thier own merits, he doesn’t believe humans can be at thier best while looking up to, and relying on an alien. I don’t think either of these characters are evil, they just look at the world in a totally unique way & that’s what makes them awesome characters.

  7. Nice write up Ron.  It’s definitely nice that we can get more depth from our villains these days, and I always enjoy reading different takes on villains.

  8. My favorite villians are always the guys who are pressed against the wall, desperate, and just fighting back.  They seem more real to me than the extremely crazy or plain evil villians.

  9. This seems fitting for the week of Dr. Horrible.  After watching the first act this morning, I think there might can be a case for him to go either way.

  10. I would actually argue that Dr. Doom is so self-absorbed, arrogant, and demented that he may as well be evil. He kills people for the most minor and petty bullshit that, quite frankly, he’s too dangerous to be allowed to live. Lex Luthor is basically the same. Anyone who would sacrifice innocent lives for the sake of their own ego is fucking evil in my book. 


  11. What about Medusa, who started out in the Marvel universe as a villain? It turned out she had amnesia, of course, and was being manipulated by the rest of the Frightful Four. How about that as a sub-category of Misunderstood Villains — those that are being forced into doing evil by someone else?

  12. If traditional American judicial systems get people out of jail or death penalties because of mental instability, why should our judgment be any different. Characters like Two-Face or the Joker suffer from terrible mental diseases and require help. Depending on the origin you choose, the Joker used to be just another desperate man attempting crime (as the Red Hood) to make ends meet. I cannot see him as "completely evil" anymore than I can see the same of anyone possessed by the Shadow King.

    Nazis, however, are always totally bad no matter what.

  13. I wonder where Mr. Freeze lies, because everything he does (for the most part) he does to save his wife (though I’m going to plead ignorance that I have no idea if in comic contiunity his wife is dead or alive and away from him or whte not). But he has just tried to harm people in a "feel how I feel" way

  14. Dr. Doom IMO, is an arrogant aristocrat.  Doom has taken it to another level. He not only hates Reed Richards (Doom knows he is smarter), but anyone else who has more power or knowledge than himself (see: Silver Surfer).

    The Joker is not even "Super" or a "Villain". The Joker is a NUT, but so is Batman. They are the perfect antithesis of going crazy. I don’t believe "insanity" equates to "pure evil", since Batman is also "insane" just with a different focus.


  15. In my opinion Joker is a very complex villian.  Most people would dismiss him as psychotic and nothing more.  But to me a villian sees himself as the hero of his story and it’s no different with The Joker.  He gets joy out out exposing societies flaws and he believes at our core humans are intrinsically greedy, amoral and overall evil.  He believes in abscence of law and order that a person’s true nature shows through.  For example, take the Batman 1989 movie. To poison the city he exploits their greed by promising he’ll give away free money at the parade and their are numerous other examples but that’s the first that comes to mind.   Which brings me to his relationship with Batman.  In Batman he sees someone that has had some trauma in his life to make him dress like a bat but yet chooses good over evil.  He knows Batman won’t kill but the Joker does heinous crimes to push Batman over the edge.  For Joker to drive Batman to break his number one rule of no killing would be his ultimate goal and he would die having proved himself right.  So to me that’s what makes him the best villian.  On the surface he is pure evil but if you peel away the layers you see he is much more complex than people give him credit for.

  16. What we are quickly discovering is that things rarely come down to black and white. There are many variations of gray that exist when looking at the ‘best’ super-villains. Dr. Doom, while commiting acts that are reprehensible, does believe that he is doing what needs to be done to make the world ‘right’ in his eyes. Even the people of Latveria both fear AND love him. In the Emperor Doom (I think it was called Emperor Doom) story, we see that the world becomes a Utopia after Doom gains ultimate power. 


  17. I think the best villains are the ones who truly believe they are doing what is right. As the saying goes, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions".

  18. The road to hell was paved by the "Spider-Clone"

  19. yet another intriguing article by Ron. this bbrings much light to teh entire good or evil supervillain issue i have been thinking about. cheers mate!

  20. @BrianBaer   

    Pleading insanity is by no means a get out of jail free card though. In fact, it’s success as a defense is pretty low. I’m pretty sure the Joker would be on Death Row if he really existed in our world.  

  21. I would argue most criminal mastermind’s are not evil.  I believe many are just misguided.  They are doing what they think is right for the world but are not going about it in the right way.  For instance Rasputin in Hellboy believes he is bringing a new eden to earth with the release of the Ogdru Jahad, thus improving the world.  He is wrong and would bring the apocalypse but he is doing what he thinks is right.

  22. Yeah, in the real world, the Joker would be given the gas chamber.  According to my roommate (studying to be a psychlogist) the insanity plea is negated automatically by premeditation, which Joker has done numerous times.  Plus, the "insanity plea" requires something like a brain tumor or some sort physical ailment that directly effects the person to where the person cannot act otherwise, which is not the case for the Joker.

    Honestly, though, I do see Magneto and Doom and Captain Cold and the like as evil.  At the end of the day, no matter his justification, Magneto is a racist terrorist who thinks his genes make him superior over other groups lacking those genes.  Doom, while he may believe himself a just ruler, still kills and exploits and manipulates for goals both selfish and no-so-selfish and is a totalitarian dictator who has no qualms over stepping on human rights and freedoms.   Cold may not be as much as a killer as others but he still inflicts pain and suffering upon others for personal gain, which is as evil as bank robber or street mugger.  I do think there are distinctions between a guy like the Shocker and a monster like the Purple Man, but I would say "non-evil" and evil" but more "less evil" and "more evil."

  23. Dr. Light and his ‘date with Sue Dibny’ anyone? 

  24. PymSlap (@alaska_nebraska) says:

    Hey guys. . . Neil Patrick Harris stars as the super villain Dr. Horrible in Joss Wedon’s "Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog." He’s a diabolical inventor who’s working on a freeze ray in a "Flight Of The Conchords" meets "The Incredibles" kind of crazy, mixed-up world.  I loved it! It’s currently on iTunes.

  25. Wow! It’s nice to finally see someone views supervillians just like the bad guys in the real world: people who may have redeeming qualities of various degree, but may also make poor decisions or have some bad intentions despite their good points. The Mole Man, after all, had a mommy who loved him regardless of his flaws.

    I must disagree about the evil nature of Hydra, however. No one is going to argue the validity of terrorist actions, but I do think that Hydra firmly believes in the idea that they can run the world better. Many people in the real world are frustrated with our governments, nations and people in charge. So it is not that uncommon to dream of a utopian society that our existing rulers could never achieve. Hydra exists because these people have lost faith in the powers-that-be, yet desire a better society so strongly that they are willing to let the ends justify the means. So, to be honest, sometimes I root for the bad guy a little bit.

  26. Hail Megatron!

  27. I think that Joker is completly evil. Don’t give me the lame execuse he can’t to tell the difference between right and wrong because he’s aware people think what he does is wrong yet he does it anyway. Add in Punisher was about to kill the lowlife abject piece of trash known as Joker why because unlike Batman he would not take the moral high ground of throwing him in a failed containment facility known as Arkam Asylum he would have killed him. He’s a Nihilist so from his view there is no boundries, moral code, attachments, or distinctions between right and wrong it’s all the same to him.

     Green Goblin (Norman Osborne) is purve evil. He killed Gwen Stacy, told the kids after having a afair with her that Peter killed her, and he’s the father. Killed his own dog without a problem seeing it as one less mouth to feed. Also he goes out of his way to remind others of their shortcomings just because they aren’t his level. Not to mention he double crossed Spider Man by having Scorpion kidnap Aunt May so he would help escape from Prison then despite the honerable Spider Man doing what Green Goblin he decides to ambush with the Sinister 12. He’s gone out his way to make Spider Man’s life a living hell because he can, and because he hates him. I could go on but as you can see the last sentence is very much a strong case that the original Green Goblin is pure evil.

    I think Poison Ivy goes under purely misunderstood. She has noble intentions mainly plants not be run over by Big buisnesses however the way of going about her goal is the wrong way. Add in she’s also pretected Harley Quinn from the piece of abject trash savage Joker who’s treaded Harley like trash which is ironic when Joker is in every way the lowest kind of trash.

  28. Or that Joker knows what he does is wrong but can’t help himself, and that he does some of the things he does so Batman will kill him and take him out of his misery, because he’s too much of a coward to deal with it.
     Maybe the way he treats Harley is to distance her, but it doesn’t work.


  29. He can’t use he can’t help himself excuses mainly because to start with Batman has offered him help multiple times, and Joker has pretty much said screw you, and declined to be helped. He has 0 empathy, is a psycho living compeltly in his own world, and is as low as a human can get. He treats Harley like dirt, and trash because he is a complete unempathetic psycho that is no different than a womanbeater with how he treats women however with the distinction he’s complete unempathetic psycho with no attachments, moral code, or boundries. The only person he cares for is himself. I think he would qualify as a Top Worker of the Devil considering  he’s as abject as the Devil.If he had any balls he would mock Circe, Gigantica, and see if he could get away with beating them which he couldn’t because Gigantica would smash him easily under her foot, and Circe would change him into a fish to be eaten by a shark, a monkey to be eaten by a Tiger, or some other smaller animal that will be eaten by a larger animal.

     Dr.Doom He seems to qualify as pure evil. From his own view no person is his equal or better than him which is wrong, he respects no one, can do no wrong, and he’s always right. This is the same man that sent Reed Richards kids to hell without remorse. That screams enmity of the highest kind. Add in World Domination is his goal. He believes that most of what he does is for the good of his country, and lacking empathy he fails to feel anything bad for the people he purposly hurts. Add in his  behavior is not that much different of the savage Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele who I think would be considered his equal in the real world. Both are Mad Scientists.

     Dr.Light He’s a Vile master of evil that is a rapist, and murder. On top of that he’s aware of how evil he is, and loves it. Add in Joker praised him calling him sunny. I believe Cheetah objected to him joining the Injustice League because he showed them for exactly for what she, and other members are which is Evil without the pretense of Nobility. I don’t think she was able to handle that.

  30. If the Joker wants to die, he wouldn’t accept other help.

  31. Of course he’s not afraid of Death as long as it’s out on his own terms. The whole fooling Superman would be perfect because Lois was never in any real danger. Another would be Batman killing him because after years of torment the Clown Prince of Crime has broken the Bat.

     Another Pure Evil Super Villain is (DC) Dark Angel. She has bedeviled those foolish enough to summon her, brings doom, and has tormented Donna Troy through having her live multiple dismal lives. One of which included being married to a male womanbeater.

  32. He might be afraid of death and that’s why he doesn’t take his own life. He chooses to haunt someone else so they will stoop to his level and do it for him. He knows he’s beyond fixing so death is the only choice available. The Joker being a character that’s prominent mainly in comics is another interesting aspect. He will never grow old, so life won’t stop him, and he’s too smart for the local police and even Batman sometimes.

    He might be aware that he’s scum but he just can’t help himself because the drive to do the things he does is too great. Like he’s stuck on a rollercoaster. The drive is too powerful and since god isn’t the sort of guy to reveal himself, Batman is the next best thing. He’s a higher power.

    People sometimes pray to god because they’re too weak and can’t stop themselves. What makes the Joker different?

    Of course it depends on the way writers choose to write him – some choose to delve and some choose not to, some choose to make him look a certain way and other writers prefer to showcase a different aspect of him. 

    I’m not saying that’s the way it is, but it’s possible. Is he pure evil? I doubt it. Should he be? No. He is human and that is scary. We know of many examples where people stooped so low that it seems like there isn’t anything humane left in them,  but they are humane – they’re not some devil with a "god didn’t love me enough" fixation.

  33. I think we can agree to disagree On the Joker.

    Anyways I still think that Captain Cold, and Shocker are evil just to a lesser extent. Shocker a thug that wants to get rich fast, and Captain Cold is a robber aimed at getting more money.  They are no where near as savage as Sabretooth, Darkseid, Red Skull, Green Goblin (Norman Osborne), Hobgoblin,etc but they are still willing to be evil through stealing.

    Feel free to post more super villains that people see as less evil.


  34. @ chlop:


    "Or that Joker knows what he does is wrong but can’t help himself, and that he does some of the things he does so Batman will kill him and take him out of his misery, because he’s too much of a coward to deal with it.
     Maybe the way he treats Harley is to distance her, but it doesn’t work."


    The Joker tempts Batman to kill him, not because he is a coward, but because the Joker knows that Batman doesn’t kill. The Joker wants Batman to kill him, cause than the Joker will have won.  



  35. Yes, that might be part of it. The Joker knows Batman will crack sometime, so he wants to die. He’s in Gotham for a reason, and it’s not for the view.

    I find it hard to believe that all he wants is to lower Batman to his level. He knows Batman will kill him eventually, and I find it hard to believe that he does what he does just so he can have that type of victory. Like serial killers that toy with the police. 

  36. That’s not the only reason why Joker does what he does. He does in hopes to drive other people as insane as him. Look at The Killing Joke. That literally shows the Joker as a diabolical devil. He also does what he does because he believes the World to be insane so there for why not act insane without much of any rules being abject, and because misery is funny to him. Whether it’s antagonizing Batman, or antagonizing other people of Gotham City he knows it’s enough to torment Batman in one of the worst ways possible, and make Batman as miserable as him. He’s fully aware of Batman’s moral code, ethics, and morality, and he takes advantage of it because he knows that he won’t kill him. He could but not without his name being tarnished, and then being hunted by Commisioner Gordon, Gotham PD. Add in losing respect for himself, and hating himself for letting Joker get the better of him.

    Bats feels guilt over not being able to find a solutio to the Joker problem because he believes himself mainly responsible in creating the Clown Prince of Crime. Honestly build a new Asylum it’s just pathetic to keep throwing him in a place he knows so well. It’s not much different than Raiders Owner Al Davis who believes his pitiful style will work despite all Evidence pointing it’s a dismal colossal failure.