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When it comes to dark storylines and twisted villains, DC comics are in a league of their own.
Although Marvel’s Cinematic Universe may be far more recognizable these days, when it comes to memorable villains, no one does it like DC. DC has been around for more than 80 years, and in those years countless villains have clashed with Batman, Superman, and everyone else in the Justice League. These DC villains are the worst of the worst, and we can’t help but love them for it.
The best DC villains
Not all villains are created equal. DC creations like Calendar Man—who commits crimes based around the calendar date—will live forever in our memories, but not due to his power, intelligence, or creativity. These villains may not always beat out DC’s heavy hitters, but their exploits are what really make characters like Batman and Superman memorable. After all, without bad guys to fight, why would we even need heroes? With that in mind, here are the best DC villains in no particular order.
Spoiler alert: there are a lot of Batman villains on this list. As arguably the most interesting character DC ever summoned up, it makes sense that Bats would also inspire some of the most interesting villains. Perhaps the most memorable comic villain ever—from both Marvel and DC—is the Joker.
Even people who’ve never touched a comic book in their lives know who the Joker is. His name has become synonymous with the idea of a villain, and he has served as inspiration for dozens of twisted characters.
Created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson all the way back in 1940, the Joker is one of the oldest of the DC villains. The writers initially intended to kill the Joker off during his original appearance, however thanks to editor intervention he’s still tormenting people to this day.
Due to the length of time the character has existed—not to mention his propensity for dishonesty—the Joker‘s origin story has changed several times. His identity before becoming the Joker, in particular, has been widely disputed. Yet the method through which he gained his eerie smile, green hair and ruby red lips is generally agreed upon.
Disguised as the Red Hood, the Joker picked a fight with the wrong people and ended up being pursued by Batman. After falling into a vat of chemicals, he emerged with bleached skin, green hair and a thoroughly broken brain.
The Joker originally came across as a somewhat satirical take on a villain, but gradually transformed into the twisted and vicious character that has been prominently featured in DC comics for the past several decades.
The Joker has shared multiple versions of his origin story. In The Killing Joke, he explained that he was a failed comedian who lost his wife before adopting his Joker persona. An early Detective Comics issue wrote him as a factory worker who donned the Red Hood outfit to rob his employer of millions. In one version, it was Batman that gave him his permanent grin.
Regardless of where he came from, the Joker became one of the most menacing villains to ever threaten Gotham. Over the course of the comics, he has killed countless beloved characters and maimed many others. His twisted mind is horrifically creative, leading to some of the most interesting—and awful—DC storylines to date.
Powers and abilities
The Joker, unlike many characters on this list, does not possess any actual superpowers. His mind is his greatest tool, though he utilizes a number of props and gadgets to achieve his nefarious goals. Most notably, the Joker has an expert grasp of chemical weaponry.
His Joker Venom has been used since early comics and leads to uncontrollable laughter in its victims. In high enough doses, his created venom can lead to paralysis and even death, leaving his victims with a pained, permanent grin.
Other weapons commonly used by the Joker include his exploding cigars—strong enough to level buildings—and razor-tipped playing cards. His lapel flower shoots acid instead of water, and the joy buzzer often attached to his hand packs a whopping million volts of electricity. However cunning intellect is often the Joker’s most useful weapon. He uses it to manipulate people and situations, often leading to altercations that don’t physically involve him at all.
Another early DC creation, Lex Luthor was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster back in 1940. In his earliest appearances, Luthor harbored very little resentment or dislike for Superman. Instead, he was primarily interested in schemes that would further his wealth and power. Eventually, however, this character would become one of comics best-known villains, and Superman’s arch-nemesis.
Lex Luthor, like most early comic characters, has undergone a few facelifts since his creation. The most widely accepted version of him is a power-hungry megalomaniac, who harbors a deep hatred for Superman. This distaste is spurred primarily by his fear that Superman is capable of disrupting his plans for world domination. He uses his wealth and influence as a shield to conceal his criminal activity.
In his time in comics, Luthor has done far too much to list here. He briefly lived off-world on a planet called Lexor, where he became a husband and father. A brief foray into politics landed him as President of the United States, a position he retained for years before Batman and Superman removed him from office. He’s gone to prison, broken out and supposedly died countless times. He was even one of the good guys at one point!
Lex Luthor has a number of important relationships that, like himself, have shifted over the years. Lena Luthor has morphed between Luthor’s biological sister and adopted sister, but there is certainly no love lost between the two. Of Luthor’s eight marriages, only one has any real significance in the comics.
His eventual wife Contessa Erica Alexandra Del Portenza bore him a child, who is also named Lena. But the most love Luthor ever really showed was to a clone he created from his DNA combined with that of Superman. Connor Kent never returned his feelings of familial affection, despite Luthor referring to him on several occasions as his “son.”
Powers and abilities
Like the Joker, Luthor has no enhanced physical abilities. To compensate for his innate humanness, Luthor utilizes a number of weapons–often of Kryptonian origin. He is also depicted as the most intelligent character in the DC universe. His photographic memory allows him to grasp seemingly every science known to man, including extra-dimensional travel and biochemistry.
Luthor’s battle suit is the only thing that allows him to engage in physical combat with Superman. He has used a number of battle suits throughout the years, all equipped with impressive upgrades. His suits typically enhance his strength and durability immensely, also allowing him to fly and shoot kryptonite energy cannons. It also provides a nearly impenetrable energy shield and collapsible energy sword.
This DC villain didn’t make his first appearance in comics until the Joker and Lex Luthor were well above the legal drinking age. More than 30 years after Batman and Superman’s main villains appeared in comics, Darkseid was conceived. Created by Jack Kirby, this character is one of the most powerful DC has ever conceived.
Second in line for the throne on his home planet of Apokolips, Darkseid was once known as Prince Uxas. After an attempt to seize power led to him murdering his brother Drax, Uxas absorbed the Omega Force and transformed into the stone-like character we know from comics. But it was the death of his wife Suli at his mother’s hands that led Darkseid to become the dark and twisted villain we know today–set on eliminating all free will from the universe.
Over the years, Darkseid fathered several children, most of whom he eventually battled against, and was also briefly married to Tigra. He had a long history before any of our favorite DC heroes began fighting for Earth, and on several occasions, met his demise only to be reborn. For a time, he even housed a portion of Wonder Woman’s soul—which was her revenge for his slaughter of many of her Amazonian sisters.
Powers and abilities
Darkseid is easily one of the most powerful DC villains. His Omega Beams—jets of energy he shoots from his eyes and hands—are capable of completely erasing living organisms from existence. Using this same power, he can resurrect those killed by the beams, which he uses liberally on vital minions who fail him.
The character can likewise teleport through time and space, grant superpowers to unpowered individuals, and trap beings in horrific alternate realities. Darkseid is fast enough to challenge Superman and has enough strength to battle two Kryptonians at once.
He can also increase his physical size when need be, and was strong enough to battle the Olympian god Zeus even in a weakened state. While not exactly immortal, Darkseid is incredibly resilient and long-lived. Add to all of this his grasp of telekinesis and telepathy—not to mention his enviable intellect—and its no wonder Darkseid causes the Justice League so many problems.
Ra’s al Ghul
First devised by Julius Schwartz, Dennis O’Neil, and Neal Adams in 1971, Ra’s al Ghul is a longstanding and respected DC villain. Due to his popularity in comics, he has gone up against a number of DC heroes, but most notably Batman. His ultimate goal is to see the world in a state of perfect environmental balance. Unfortunately, the only way he can accomplish this is through the elimination of most of humanity.
Ra’s is lauded by many Batman fans as one of the most intriguing and intelligent characters to challenge the Dark Knight. Having lived for more than 600 years before ever becoming a thorn in Batman’s side, Ra’s lived in a desert in North Africa for years where he eventually became a physician. His discovery of the Lazarus Pit became a necessary part of his character, particularly as he gained his extraordinarily long life from it.
After his discovery of the Lazarus Pit, Ra’s spent several centuries traveling around the world. But the modern era began, he found himself resenting humans for their negative impacts on the Earth. This began his voyage into the realm of eco-terrorism, which eventually would lead him to face off with Batman.
The two have clashed countless times over the years, particularly after Batman began an on-again-off-again relationship with Ra’s daughter Talia. Eventually, the two conceived a son named Damian, who Ra’s and Talia attempted to use against Bruce.
Powers and abilities
Thanks primarily to his long life, Ra’s has collected an impressive set of combat skills. Skilled in martial arts, hand-to-hand combat and the use of numerous weapon–Ra’s also relies on his grasp of chemistry, medicine, and physics to aid him in his schemes. While his consistent exposure to the Lazarus Pits grants him greater strength, durability, and healing than a typical human; each time pushes him closer to insanity.
Eventually, Ra’s gained a degree of mystical abilities. In multiple instances in which he lost his life, Ra’s was able to bind his soul to the bodies of others. After a soak in the most ancient Lazarus Pit, Ra’s also gained the ability to levitate, manipulate matter, and project energy.
Deathstroke, whose real name is Slade Joseph Wilson, doesn’t have the same lofty ambitions of many of the DC villains on this list. Created by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez in 1980, Deathstroke is unique for a very particular reason. Rather than add the dimensionality that defines beloved DC villains such as Lex Luthor and the Joker, Deathstroke is–as comic editor Christopher J. Priest puts it–“skeevy.” His approach isn’t world domination or some kind of beautiful chaos, but mere assholery more often than not.
At 16, Slade Wilson lied about his age in order to join the U.S. Army. He fought his way through Korea and Vietnam, and along the way met Adeline Kane, the woman who would eventually become his wife. Adeline would go on bear his children: Grant, Joseph and Rose–all of whom would eventually suffer for their father’s sins.
Slade obtained his metahuman abilities from to a secret military experiment. Soon after, he began working as the mercenary Deathstroke, all the while keeping this alter-ego a secret from his family. Eventually, his secret activities would catch up to him, leading to Joseph being kidnapped by a criminal who cut his throat and caused him to lose his voice.
Enraged at their son’s injury, Adeline attempted to have Slade killed. His eldest son would eventually perish due to H.I.V.E. enhancements, and Slade later drove his daughter Rose partially insane by urging her into the mercenary business. She, like her brother Grant before her, would go on to adopt the identity of Ravager.
Powers and abilities
Thanks to the experimental serum given to him by the military, Slade possesses enhanced strength, stamina, durability, and agility. Regenerative healing allows him to heal from virtually any injury, however he is not able to regenerate his limbs. He can utilize up to 90% of his brain capacity, which—combined with his years of tactical experience—makes him a very dangerous foe.
Slade is an expert in nearly every form of unarmed combat you can think of. Kung Fu, Jujitsu and Krav Maga are all on his resume, as well as boxing and Judo. He can wield a number of deadly weapons with the same skill, including variety of swords, firearms, and enhanced weapons. His suit is capable of deflecting small arms fire, however the upgraded Ikon suit comes equipped with invisible protective shields. For a short time, Slade even possessed a divine sword called The God Killer. This impressive weapon can do almost anything, which makes it a dangerous thing in the hands of a man like Slade.
This bald, green-skinned Superman foe was first conceived in 1958 by Otto Binder and Al Plastino. His early appearances in comics mostly placed him in a background role, sidelined to advancing the plot but never driving it. His most notable deed, in early days, was the shrinking and capture of Kandor—Krypton’s capital city—to use on the unnamed planet he ruled. But later, Brainiac would become one of Superman’s most prominent villains.
As with virtually every early comic book creation, Brainiac has undergone several revamps through the years. Thanks to a machine created by the Computer Tyrants of Colu, Brainiac was intentionally given his humanoid appearance. He was initially intended as a spy to assist his creators in their quest to invade other worlds. In later adaptations, he was given the name Vril Dox.
A shift by DC in the 1980s lead to a reworking of Brainiac’s character and design. After the robotic planet he created was destroyed in a fight with the Man of Steel, Brainiac lost his physical form. He then rebuilt himself as a skeletal metal living computer with no remaining trace of humanity.
Brainiac was then given a complete overhaul once again in the early ’90s. The new version of Brainiac was a member of the Computer Tyrants of Colu, who attempted an overthrow. Following his failure, he was sentenced to death but managed to transfer his consciousness into a metahuman named Milton Fine.
Powers and abilities
Brainiac’s intellect is emphasized over all else. He possesses twelfth-level intellect, which allows him to easily grasp a number of things. Theoretical and applied sciences are all child’s play to him, as are mechanical engineering and physics. He has a firm grasp of various alien technologies, and his technopathic abilities allow him to communicate with machines.
Brainiac’s created devices give him a major boost. His force field belt can withstand blows from Superman himself, and the shrink ray he made once shrunk both Kandor and Metropolis. Though his knowledge is unmatched, Brainiac also often uses his abilitoes to transfer his consciousness, absorb information, and replicate himself.
Harley Quinn, who was once known as Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel, might seem like a unique choice for this list of notable DC villains. She may not have Bane’s strength, Brainiac’s intelligence, or the Joker’s sheer ruthlessness–yet Harley is one of DC’s most recognizable characters.
Her longevity is due in part to her interesting character biography, created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. Interestingly enough, Harley is the only character on this list who didn’t make her debut in comic books. Instead, she first appeared in Batman: The Animated Series in the early ’90s. Soon after, she made the jump to comics as well.
Harleen Quinzel was a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum when she and the Joker first met. Mr. J began was initially a patient of the young psychiatrist, before they eventually began a relationship. Quinzel fell hopelessly in love with the Joker during their sessions, and was instrumental in several of his escapes. Eventually, she took on the persona Harley Quinn to mimic the Joker’s jester style.
Harley has likewise undergone multiple redesigns over the years, but her origin story remains the same. One of the most nuanced and, importantly, compassionate villains in the DC universe–recent years have seen Harley shift into an antiheroine role after spending years as the Joker’s violent and sadistic right hand.
Several stories have seen her show startling empathy, such as one in which she discovers Black Canary’s pregnancy and allies her self with the expecting hero. She has given birth to at least one child by the Joker, a daughter named Lucy.
Powers and abilities
Harley is one of the only characters on this list with no real enhancements. She is an intelligent and capable woman, but has nowhere near the level of intellect of, say, Lex Luthor and Brainiac. More than anything, Harley’s defining trait is her unending loyalty to the Joker.
DC’s website lists “superhuman agility, enhanced strength, intelligence” among Harley’s special abilities. Considering the amount of damage she’s taken over the years, its not surprising to learn that she’s more durable than your typical human.
Her unpredictability is often Harley’s greatest weapon, as is her impressive agility. Love her or hate her–Harley has gone up against both Batman and the Joker time and time again, and is still around to tell the tale.
Dr. Johnathan Crane first appeared in comics in 1941 as the brainchild of writers Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson. Crane’s obsession with fear led to his transformation into Scarecrow. The character has persisted through more than 70 years of Batman comics, and has long been considered one of the most compelling DC villains.
Crane’s obsession with fear began at a young age. After years of bullying and rejection, Crane donned his trademark Scarecrow mask for the first time as a teenager. This same obsession drove him to his career as a psychologist. He studied fear and the human reaction to it with manic energy, eventually gaining a position at Arkham Asylum. There, he conducted sadistic experiments on patients.
Crane’s position at Gotham University went down the drain after he fired a gun in a classroom full of students, accidentally injuring one. In the wake his termination, Crane then returned to the University and slaughtered the professors he deemed responsible–which triggered his criminal career as Scarecrow. He has spent years tormenting Batman, the Teen Titans, and any other heroes who happen to cross his path.
Powers and abilities
Crane’s fear gas is often the only tool he uses in a fight. Thanks to its mind-altering effects, Crane can turn the minds of his opponents against themselves. He uses his Scarecrow mask to enhance the fear the gas causes, creating nightmares in the minds of his victims. Batman has created several antidotes to the fear toxin, but Crane is constantly changing the recipe to keep Bats at bay.
Crane’s intelligence is also a consistent boost in his fights. On top of the toxin that he uses to alter his victim’s minds, Crane can easily manipulate people with his words. He understands fear, perhaps better than anyone else, and can trigger it in people with almost zero effort. From time to time, he has also wielded a scythe. Usually, it serves more to enhance his frightening aspect rather than to actually fight.
Finally, we have a villain that wasn’t created as a foil for Batman or Superman. Sinestro, who was conceived by John Broome and Gil Kane in the early ’60s, is a former member of the Green Lantern Corps. After a dishonorable discharge, he became the archenemy of Hal Jordan. Even before his turn to evil, Sinestro’s totalitarian methods were questioned by his fellow Green Lanterns.
Before he joined the Green Lanterns, Sinestro was a citizen of the planet Korugar. He gained his position among the intergalactic police force after a Green Lantern crash-landed on his planet. Sinestro took the Lantern’s ring to fend off his pursuer, but then allowed him to die in order to retain the ring and its power. After joining the Corps, Sinestro wielded the ring’s power recklessly and was banished for his actions. And so, a villain was born.
Fans of the comics are probably aware that the Green Lanterns essentially have the most lame weakness ever. They can’t directly affect the color yellow (for some reason) which is a glaring and easily manipulated vulnerability. As such, when Sinestro returned from his banishment with a–gasp–YELLOW power ring, he became a massive thorn in the sides of Green Lanterns everywhere.
Powers and abilities
Thanks to his yellow power ring, Sinestro has the capability to harness similar abilities to the members of the Green Lantern Corps. With the ring, he has the power of flight, can survive in any environment, and–when he’s feeling especially creative–can create matter in any shape or size. Sinestro also hosts Parallax, the Emotional Embodiment of Fear, which grants him staggering power and durability.
Parallax allows Sinestro to harness the ability to manipulate time and space, as well as matter and energy. The boost from his ring, combined with Parallax, makes Sinestro a match even for Superman. The presence of Parallax also gives his ring a massive upgrade, which sets him on-par or above the Green Lanterns that he often finds himself pitted against.
Considering how well-known this brutish beefcake is, casual comic fans may be surprised to discover that Bane is a recent addition to DC villains, created in 1993. Dennis O’Neil, Chuck Dixon, Doug Moench, and Graham Nolan imagined Bane as a way to utilize and flesh out the previously established drug, Venom. Over the years, he has become one of Batman’s most problematic villains.
Bane spent his childhood and adolescence behind bars due to a prison escape by his father, Edmund Dorrance, leading the government in his native Santa Prisca to imposed his father’s life sentence on him.
To survive this wholly unique childhood, Bane worked to enhance every part of himself while imprisoned, reading books with the same voracity he took to weight lifting. The nightmares of a giant bat he had as a child are partially to blame for his hatred of Batman.
At only eight years old, Bane took his first life. By the time he reached adulthood, murder had become a common pastime for him. After years of experimentation by the prison’s guards—imbuing him with superhuman strength and endurance—Bane escaped with some of his fellow inmates.
The Venom that was pumped into his body made Bane a particularly challenging foe, however in order to avoid its debilitating side effects he needs to use it every 12 hours.
In an iconic moment that ultimately defined his character, Bane drove Batman to exhaustion in the “Knightfall” storyline. By ambushing him at Wayne Manor, Bane beat Batman nearly to death and broke his back over his knee. He is considered the only character to have ever effectively bested the Bat.
Powers and abilities
Most of Bane’s abilities come from his abuse of the drug Venom. He can lift at least 15 tons—or, 30,000 pounds—and is a skilled close-combat fighter. Even without the drug, Bane’s mastery of meditation allows him to harness impressive strength. Years of fighting in prison taught him to be a merciless and disciplined killer.
Bane boasts a brilliant mind, and speaks at least ten languages including French, Mandarin and Urdu. Ra’s al Ghul even credits him with having one of the greatest minds he’s ever known. A master tactician and strategist, he is one of the very few characters to discover Batman’s secret identity–in only a year, no less!
Having educated himself on a number of scientific disciplines while in prison, combined with his eidetic memory—have made Bane essentially a genius, and a near impenetrable foe.
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Nahila Bonfiglio reports on geek culture and gaming. Her work has also appeared on KUT's Texas Standard (Austin), KPAC-FM (San Antonio), and the Daily Texan.