The supervillains who torment, thwart and otherwise mess with our universe’s well-meaning superheroes are, on the whole, a pretty foul bunch. But which of these supervillains is best at what they do? Put otherwise: if what supervillains do is try to inflict as much misery as possible on the largest number of people, which supervillain is most capable of pulling that off? Think of Darkseid, from DC Comics: instead of trying to live a meaningful and fulfilling life, he goes around trying to subject every single person in the universe to his screwed up will.
To find out, for this week’s Giz Asks we reached out to a number of experts — comics writers, TV writers, and more — to figure out who the most powerful supervillain actually is. The answers we got were varied, and factored in a number of disparate metrics — not just raw capacity for destruction, but also scope of ambition, underlying psychological motivation, and executional flair.
Host of Wait, What?, a podcast about comics, freelance writer, and io9 alumnus
There’s a tradition in superhero comics for truly powerful beings to be beyond human morality — so, you get characters like Marvel’s Galactus, who eats planets but is somehow not evil because, hey, who are we to judge? Similarly, Marvel also has characters like the Beyonder or Michael Korvac, both of whom are omnipotent and definitely antagonists, but could they really be considered supervillains? There’s an argument to be made against, seeing as neither are really trying to do much more than survive and learn, even if that process threatens the free will of everyone around them. Surely intent figures into deciding whether or not someone is a villain, super or otherwise?
I really want to say it’s Darkseid, because Darkseid is obviously the best supervillain. He wants to eradicate free will, and he’s got no problem doing whatever it takes to achieve that aim, even though he’s bound by his own weird sense of honour. He’s complex, contradictory and fascinating, and he’s also been able to kill Batman and beat up Superman and screw with the entire Justice League, so he’s clearly pretty powerful. But, really, he’s not the most powerful supervillain. We’ve seen far stronger. (Nekron, for example; he could bring all the dead guys back to life as evil zombies!)
Instead, I’ll nominate the Anti-Monitor, the awkwardly-named villain of 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. While his motivation and, really, personality, were somewhat unclear in that series, it couldn’t be denied that he was powerful: he was literally destroying entire universes to further his agenda of destroying all positive matter — he’s the Anti-Monitor, after all — succeeding, he killed countless versions of DC’s biggest name characters and, thanks to the cosmic laws of DC mythology, his being from the Anti-Matter universe automatically means that he’s evil. Most powerful supervillain? Almost certainly. That costume alone should earn him a place on the list, let’s be real.
Emmy-award winning writer, creator of Cartoon Network’s MAD, with work for Robot Chicken, Star Wars: Detours and Marvel’s Spider-Man
“Who is the most powerful super villain” is a complicated question. The reason it’s a complicated question is that there are varying degrees of power. It’s like asking, what’s more powerful: a hurricane, or cancer? For me the larger than life villains like Galactus and Darkseid were always impressive, but it’s the villains who are more devious with their plans, the Lex Luthors or the Norman Osborns, that always had me looking over my shoulder. World domination or the destruction of a species is one thing, but having some egomaniac targeting you specifically is a real drag. (No offence to the worlds or civilisations that have fallen to the likes of Thanos.) Also, people tend to band together to fight galaxy-shattering events. If the Earth is going to be destroyed, you can bet that we’re all going to join forces and prevent that from happening. But if you’re say, Peter Parker, and your best friend’s dad is out to get you, it’s tough to rally everyone around you when Norman Osborn is about to reveal your secret identity to the world. (Even if his plan is to get rid of Spider-Man first, before moving on to world domination.) But that’s the other thing about these business man/politician super villain types. They don’t use broad strokes. They have very fine tools that can chip away at your psyche and your spirit before going in for the kill. Unlike someone who simply wants to destroy the universe. So I guess my answer would be Norman Osborn. Because he’s manipulative. He clever. He’s vengeful. And he can also be seen weekly on Marvel’s Spider-Man on Disney XD. And those are traits I try to avoid when taking on a super villain. (Although this is by no means an invitation for Thanos or Apocalypse to prove me wrong.)
Creator of Quantum Teens Are Go and Kim & Kim, and writer for DC, Marvel, Oni, IDW, Boom!, Black Mask, Vault and elsewhere
I’m a trekkie, so it’s hard not to come out swinging with Q. Right? He’s functionally omnipotent and capricious as hell, like Mxyzptlk with a passive aggressive streak. But then there’s the whole “what makes a supervillain a supervillain angle” there, and to be honest, I don’t know that Q would qualify. So I want to take out any such whimsical or disinterested semi-deities — your Galactuses, your Mxys, your Beyonders, your Anti-Monitors — because I think the core of what makes a villain a villain is pure, unadulterated malice.
So, if we’re going to go down that route, I’d probably go with Cyborg Superman or any such evil Kryptonian — Zod, for example. Anyone who has Superman’s power-set without Superman’s morals is a huge threat by themselves, but when you add Henshaw’s driving, unmitigated spite, the hatred for Supes that fuels him, I don’t know how to get away from awarding him the crown.
Except that Superman, ya know, keeps beating him. But if that’s the measure, then I guess the answer is Doomsday, and that’s such a fucking cop-out. Event villains are so goddamn overpowered they’re barely even worth considering. Doomsday was a guy invented to kill Superman so of course he can kill Superman. And I’m tempted to say Magneto or anyone with control over a fundamental universal force, but I dunno — I still think Cyborg Superman is the right combination of cruelty, hatred, and power to take the crown.
Comics writer with work at Image Comics, Archie Comics, and Valiant Comics, and part of the 2017 DC Comics Writers Workshop
The only super villain in the conversation is Lex Luthor. His superpower is ego. Literally everything he does is an attempt to not feel small; he doesn’t want the world to be saved unless he’s the one to do it. What’s more powerful than a human who has all of the tools to change the world for the better and just chooses not to? Instead, he uses those resources to try and take down his greatest enemy — a man who, were Lex’s ego not a factor, would probably be his greatest ally. So in that way, his ego is directly responsible for much of the world’s despair.
Lex isn’t a fictional character, not really; everywhere in the world there are people with money and power who use it not for the betterment of humanity, but for themselves. All Lex cares about is inflating his own sense of self, even if it means unleashing terror on the world at large — all because deep down, he knows there’s someone else out there — someone “other” — who can do things he could never hope to do in his wildest imagination. One man with a bruised ego and the world at his fingertips is the most powerful — and terrifying — thing I can imagine.
Television writer whose upcoming work can be seen in Marvel’s Avengers: Black Panther’s Quest (Disney XD), Resistance (Disney Channel and Disney XD) and Saint Seiya: Knights of the Zodiac (Netflix)
My mind initially goes to villains with overwhelming “power” — the likes of Thanos, Ultron, Darkseid, Marvel Television executive Harrison Wilcox, etc. But my answer has to be the master of magnetism: Magneto.
With the creative ways he can manipulate magnetic fields, Magneto’s routinely taken on all the X-Men just by himself. But it’s not his magnetic powers that make him so formidable. It’s his beliefs and convictions: the way his experiences have been interpreted in his mind to justify his actions, the way he’s certain about the superiority of mutants, and the way he convinces other mutants to follow him. When I read the news nowadays and see the state of angry political discourse and how it’s filtered through to how we identify ourselves? Magneto would raise an army of evil mutants after five minutes of posting on Twitter.
Magneto could drop a bus on people and just as easily convince you that the people under the bus deserved it. That is one hell of a supervillain.
Author of Every Heart a Doorway, winner of the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novella, among many other books
So I know this is going to be a somewhat controversial answer, but I’m going to roll with it anyway: the most powerful supervillain in a big two superhero setting — specified because let’s be real here, Sailor Galaxia would clean the floor with most heroes — has got to be Professor Charles Xavier.
He has the money. He has the reputation. He has the good press. But most of all, he has the bone-deep conviction that everything he’s doing, he’s doing for “the right reasons.” He thinks of himself as a hero, and most of the time, we’re encouraged to do the same, when examination of his actions gets pretty darn villainous, pretty darn fast. On the rare occasions when he’s been allowed to go “full bad guy,” he’s done an incredible amount of damage. Having an Omega-level telepathy out to do you a mischief in the woods means you suffer, period. So yeah, I’m going Professor X for biggest, baddest supervillain in the mainstream comics world. I’ll happily fight you on that, as long as I’m not fighting him.
Adam P. Knave
Eisner- and Harvey-award winning writer and editor whose works include comics like The Once and Future Queen, Amelia Cole and Artful Daggers
When you’re looking for the most powerful super villain you inevitably — if you’re me — end up at Darkseid. Being a god certainly helps him out here. But, for me, what will always stick in my head is that most classic Darkseid stories (looking at you, Great Darkness Saga) involve not defeating him, but simply holding your own until he decides he has better things to do that week. He took on the entire Legion of Super-heroes at their height, and not only couldn’t be touched, he was only convinced to go away for a while — and his hidden plans reverberated through the team for decades.
He also has a habit of showing up in a hero’s living space and sitting on their couch, utterly unconcerned. It’s a show of force that most bad guys could only hope to match. He has style, he has chutzpah, he used to wear a skirt for comfort, and he can lay traps across the centuries. Darkseid doesn’t want to run a government. He already has a planet. He wants nothing more, or less, than complete control over the will of the universe. And he keeps coming close to getting it.
Freelance comic book writer whose credits include Lavender Jack, Will Eisner’s The Spirit, Battlestar Galactica: Gods and Monsters, San Hannibal and The Fowl
It’s gotta be my man Shuma-Gorath, created by Steve Englehart, Frank Brunner, and kind-of sort-of Robert E. Howard. He appears in name only in the Howard short story “The Curse of the Golden Skull,” but his first proper appearance was during Englehart and Brunner’s run of Doctor Strange in the early seventies. In fact, it’s facing Shuma-Gorath that finally earns Strange the title of Sorcerer Supreme.
But I digress — Shuma-Gorath is an interdimensional ultra-fucker, an immortal enemy of Crom, the Ancient One, Stephen Strange, God himself, and the Marvel Universe at large. Mephisto might be more cunning, Dark Phoenix might be flashier, and Galactus might have more of a rep, but when it comes to sheer scale and power, it’s this guy. And he has the best trait you can have in a comic book mega threat: he can only be fought back, although never outright destroyed, by a cluster of heroes all working together. Shuma-Gorath or bust, baby.
Award-winning comic book editor, and a comic book writer, who has worked for/with Dark Horse Comics, Image Comics, Stela Comics, and elsewhere
If we’re talking pure power, then a villain like Darkseid or Thanos — or even a Galactus-type antagonist — would be the easy answer. But I think the best type of supervillain goes beyond simple power, and it comes down to a few other characteristics: power, naturally, but also the villain’s motivation and their commitment to a goal. Galactus is powerful and committed to eating planets, but his motivation is hunger. It’s not evil; it’s nature. A character like Brainiac usually falls into this category. He’s methodical, not evil. It’s his nature. Thanos, the master of supervillain self-sabotage, seems to lack commitment when push comes to shove. Loki falls into a similar camp, I think. He’s motivated by chaos and high-powered, but his commitment comes down to self preservation, which makes him less deadly. On the lower-powered side, you have the Joker, who’s motivation and commitment to being Batman’s ultimate foil is unrivalled, but he’s just a man — a crazy man, sure, but just a man — when all’s said and done.
Characters like the Red Skull, Magneto, the Black Flame, and Lex Luthor function pretty well on all the three villainous pillars I look at. They have means or power (or both), they are motivated by some ideal larger than themselves (usually!), and they are fully committed. The CW’s Flash has done a pretty good job with its villains in this regard. Season 4's the Thinker was powerful, motivated to fulfil his plan of enlightenment, and fully committed to that plan’s end goal — and hating the Flash put him over the edge nicely as a good villain. Reverse Flash is another great example of power + motive + commitment. Conceptually, I think Doomsday (the product of hateful evolutionary manipulation) as a match to Superman in power, but as a foil to the ultimate superhero symbol of love and hope is really compelling. And, end of the day, the most powerful supervillain is, I think, the one that becomes the most compelling and dangerous foe to the hero he/she is facing. If we fear for the hero, mission accomplished. And making sure the villain has power, motivation, and commitment is usually a good means by which to measure how to build that fear in readers or viewers.
News columnist for DC Comics
It’s always really tricky to answer questions like this, the problem being that once you start talking about “power” in superhero characters you start getting into some really (and very deliberately) esoteric stuff. Eventually when you stop talking about the villains who want to rob banks or rampage around cities in their custom built mech suits, you have to start talking about the guys who control things like “death” and “reality” and from there it’s kind of an all-bets-are-off situation. That’s by design, too — a lot of these characters have to be able to fit into literally any narrative they’re plugged into, so their power or power levels can never really solidify because it proves a risk to their adaptability.
There’s also the matter of defining exactly what power means, even in terms of controlling the universe or getting their way. The temptation is always to go for the “endgame” bad guys, the final boss types who you inevitably run into when you’re finishing up a big Marvel or DC epic — guys like Thanos or Darkseid. The thing about both of them is, they’re really reliant on outside factors. Thanos needs the Infinity Stones to be really, outrageously powerful and Darkseid needs either the Anti-Life equation (it’s a whole thing, just don’t worry about it) or his armies to be really dominant. It’s not like you’d really want to face either of them in an unarmed fist fight, to be sure, but their iconic abilities — the things that lock them into Nightmare Mode difficulty — are largely external.
Which leaves me with some of the more atypical picks. You’ve got guys like Reverse Flash and Zoom who in are two of the very few people in the DCU who can literally travel through time without outside assistance — meaning if they don’t like the way things are going for them in the present day they can just hop back and change it. There’s Black Adam who is, for all intents and purposes, Magically Empowered Despot Superman without the Kryptonite allergy, who rules over his own country and has a full blown roster of Egyptian gods at his back. Over on the Marvel side of things, there’s Spot who, in addition to looking pretty gross, genuinely contains an alternate dimension within himself. He can teleport himself and anyone or anything wherever he wants, with a completely unlimited distance or range, meaning he can be anywhere at any time and, well, so can any part of your body. What’s more, these are villains with powers you can’t just take away or isolate them from without some serious manoeuvring, they’re built in. They’re internal.
Sure, these dudes might not sound like the most intimidating or the most well known, and they’re certainly not the most successful, but that doesn’t really matter. In terms of power, it’s usually the villains with names you don’t recognise who wind up being the scariest when you look close enough.
Featured Image: Thanos: Ron Lim, Tom Christopher, Tom Vincent, and Ken Bruzenak (Marvel Comics), Galactus: Aaron Kuder, Mike Hawthorne, Terry Pallot, José Marzan Jr and Jordie Bellaire (Marvel Comics), Darkseid: Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, Alex Sinclair (DC)