Hard-Traveling Fanboys: Countdown (Marvel Villains)

Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. And if there’s anything that fanboys love, it’s debating what book is better than another book or which character is “cooler.” Enter Countdown, a monthly column where Greg and Nick will give a top five list and debate the merits therein.

Greg: Last month, PTBN readers, love was in the air as we looked at our favorite comic book couples. This month, no love can be found at all. We’re here to count down the meanest, most manipulative and downright entertaining villains in the Marvel Universe.

These are the characters readers love to hate, from the outer reaches of space to the streets of downtown New York.

Nick: That’s right. Without intriguing villains, Marvel’s greatest stories wouldn’t be possible. There are literally thousands to choose from, but we’ve narrowed it down to our own top personal top fives. So, with all of that said, let’s see Greg’s No. 5.

Greg’s No. 5: Apocalypse

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Nick: One of the X-Men’s most iconic villains and perhaps the most powerful force they’ve ever faced. Granted, those powers are rather ill-defined, but hey, can’t win ’em all!

Greg: Created in the pages of X-Factor by Louise Simonson and Butch Guice, Apocalypse (or En Sabah Nur) has since appeared in virtually every version of the X-Men in every conceivable medium. I first encountered the character through the popular early ’90s cartoon, where he was presented as a virtually unstoppable force of nature who appeared to be “as far above mutants as they are above (humans),” though he himself is a mutant.

In the comics, Apocalypse, like most great villains, simply refuses to go away. He has served as a mysterious mastermind operating behind the scenes, a Juggernaut-like physical threat and a conqueror on par with the strongest Avengers villains. In many ways, he is the opposite side of the coin from the X-Men’s most familiar foe. While Magneto is a thoughtful, cerebral person who could easily be considered a hero in many instances, Apocalypse is an unapologetic narcissist with a major god complex. He has no particular concern with the betterment of mutantkind, merely his own quest for power.

And speaking of power, as you alluded to above, his powers are probably the most vaguely defined in the X-Men corner of the Marvel U. Shapeshifting, matter manipulation, energy manipulation, strength, durability, teleportation (?), invulnerability (?), magic (?) … depending on the writer/artist, his powers have been known to change from story to story. One thing remains constant, though — he’s as formidable an opponent as Professor Xavier’s students have ever faced.

Nick: He’s set to make his big screen debut as a followup to this summer’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” so I’m sure we’ll be seeing plenty of Apocalypse in the months to come.

Nick’s No. 5: Gorr the God Butcher

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Greg: Undoubtedly the newest character that will make our lists, Gorr was created by Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic for the Marvel NOW launch of Thor: God of Thunder.

Nick: Now, when sitting down to make this list, there were dozens of Marvel villains I considered, all of which had much longer and more storied histories than Gorr. However, as anyone who’s read our columns regularly knows by now, I’m not going to pass up an opportunity to lavishly praise the work being done with Thor by Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic. When the pair took over the character with the launch of God of Thunder, it would have been very easy to start with a more established threat such as Loki or the Enchantress.

However, rather than taking the easy way out, Aaron and Ribic stepped up to the plate and, over the course of 11 issues, crafted one of not just the greatest Thor villains ever, but one of the greatest villains in Marvel lore.

Gorr was born into a dying planet where famine reigned supreme. His parents taught him to trust in the Gods, yet despite the prayers of his entire society, the rains and sustenance never came. As he grew, his parents wasted away and died, as did several of his own children. Eventually, an earthquake took his wife and his final living son from him. It was these events that caused Gorr to give up all faith in the gods. However, once he discovered that gods actually existed, he set out on a universe-spanning mission of vengeance.

He gains the ability to create constructs out of darkness and begins hunting down all the different gods and murdering them brutally. Needless to say, he eventually encounters a young Thor, who bests him in combat. However, his defeat only enhances his hatred, setting in motion Gorr’s greatest plan — the Godbomb, a device designed to bring about the end of all gods and the end of the universe. It takes the combined might of three Thors (you’ve got to read it) to battle Gorr. I won’t spoil how the story ends, but it’s one of the more poignant villain stories I’ve ever read. Seriously, in almost 60 years of Thor stories, this one might be the best.

Greg: High praise from someone who has read a ton of Thor stories. One of the things about Gorr that made him quickly stand out, much like Apocalypse, was an incredible visual design. Ribic deserves a ton of credit for crafting a character that really popped off the page and screamed “badass.”

Greg’s No. 4: The Kingpin

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Nick: A fantastic character who has affected many different characters throughout the Marvel Universe, from Spider-Man to Daredevil to Elektra. If a character largely operates on the streets of New York, they’ve likely had a run in with Wilson Fisk.

Greg: Wilson Fisk, Marvel’s Kingpin of crime, is indeed one of the most versatile villains in terms of the sheer number of adversaries he’s faced. In addition to his most prominent challengers, listed above, he has also run afoul of the Punisher on numerous occasions.

At first glance, Kingpin looks like Marvel’s overweight answer to Lex Luthor. But one of the great things about Fisk is that there is so much more beneath the surface — quite literally. I can remember my friends and I being stunned the first time we saw Kingpin beat Daredevil in a fight, as those layers of fat are actually layers of muscle. He is only like Lex on the surface – a wealthy, bald businessman who has a massive ego and sits on a figurative throne. But Fisk is unafraid of getting his hands dirty, as he has on multiple occasions.

Whether it’s orchestrating an underground plot or being more overt with a corporate takeover, the Kingpin has put some of Marvel’s bravest heroes through sheer hell. Most famously, he ruined Daredevil’s life on multiple occasions, hurting him physically, mentally and emotionally. Despite his sheer, unabashed criminality, the character can also be the source of great humor, particularly when interacting with Peter Parker.

When Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley were developing UItimate Spider-Man at the turn of the latest millennium, the Kingpin was one of the characters they basically left intact. Why? Because it’s pretty darn difficult to turn him into a better villain.

Nick: Most of my exposure comes from the Ultimate version of the character, but like Greg said, there aren’t that many differences between the versions. Kingpin is a character whose concept is easy to understand and incredibly effective in the hands of most writers.

Nick’s No. 4: Surtur the Fire Demon

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Greg: One of the oldest characters on this list, Surtur was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby during their early years of creating Thor and his unique family, friends and enemies. Oddly enough, I don’t know if I’ve ever read a story featuring Surtur. I’ll have to defer to you, Nick, on this one.

Nick: I won’t take too long here, as there isn’t much to tell about Surtur. My love of him stems from my love of Thor and the role Surtur plays in the Ragnarok cycle. The basic premise of the Marvel version of these Norse gods is that they are in a constant state of death and rebirth through the Armageddon-like scenario known as Ragnarok.

Surtur is, quite frankly, the bringer of destruction. I’m not saying Thor’s never gotten the better of him, but he’s fallen to Surtur far more times than any of the rest of his villains. For that reason, whenever Surtur pops up, the reader instantly knows that the stakes have been upped, and that every character, Odin and Thor included, is now in mortal peril.

The best interpretation of Surtur, however, came in a run of stories that the character barely appeared in. During the iconic Walt Simonson run on Thor, Simonson ended many months worth of stories with a panel depicting a flaming sword being struck by a hammer and the sound effect “DOOM!”

Month after month, the tension was built, and when Surtur finally made his grand appearance, the showdown between he and all of Asgard was one to remember. The visual was so compelling Simonson’s wife Louise would later introduce Doomsday in a similar fashion during “Death of Superman.”

In summary, it’s as simple as this: Surtur is the one character in all of the Marvel Universe who automatically takes a story to another level as soon as he appears, mostly due to the threat level being instantly multiplied.

Greg: I was just about to write that Simonson’s buildup to Surtur sounded a lot like the ominous build to Doomsday in the Superman books I read as a kid. It was a great device that served to really set up the heel as a big deal.

Greg’s No. 3: The Sentinels

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Greg: And now for something completely different — a group of (mostly) unthinking, unfeeling robots designed to control or wipe out mutantkind. I know this is a weird choice, in that these machines are almost always at the whim of some other evil mastermind, but bear with me.

Like most of the characters on this list, these bad boys were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the early days of the X-Men. Over time, they’ve gone through more changes than most in the Marvel pantheon, continually evolving into bigger, scarier and more versatile creatures. We’ve seen Super Sentinels like Nimrod, Prime Sentinels and even Bio-Sentinels. In any form, the machines are as scary and intimidating as robots can get. Think 20-and-30-foot-tall Terminators. Yikes.

But the reason the Sentinels made my list is the unique threat they’ve posed to comics’ greatest team, the X-Men, over the years. They’ve been controlled by Master Mold, Bolivar Trask, Sebastian Shaw, Robert Kelly, Loki and numerous others. Essentially, even the meekest human can become the X-Men’s most dangerous foe if given control of the Sentinels. It’s no secret why so many cartoons, films and comic books keep recycling the Sentinels — they represent the exact opposite of the empathy the X-Men family is built on. These Sentinels don’t see sentient creatures. They only see targets.

Plus, I have to admit part of the appeal is that the X-Men really get to let loose on the Sentinels, since they’re not living creatures. Artists like Jim Lee and Jack Kirby have drawn some amazing scenes of Sentinels being destroyed.

Nick: Yeah, the Sentinels may have been used by several different masters over the years, but they’re the ones who keep popping up time and time again as opposed to the characters who sometimes command them.

Nick’s No. 3: Magneto

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Greg: Yet another Lee/Kirby creation, Magneto is one of the most enduring and popular bad guys in all of comics. And, as you’ll see later, he’s among one of my favorite Marvel characters as well.

Nick: I know Greg’s got plenty to say about Magneto here in a bit, so I’ll be brief. It’s been said many times that in order for villains to be truly effective, their motives have to be somewhat sympathetic. It has to be believable that these characters would actually think they were doing the right thing. Well, look no further than Magneto for a perfect example of how a sympathetic villain can really make for great storytelling.

Magneto’s actions are almost always driven by what he thinks is best for his people, rather than what is best for him. Yes, he takes drastic violent measures at times, but he does it in an effort to ensure mutants have the so-called “seat at the table” that he feels they deserve. And with the X-Men so often serving as an analogue for the civil rights movement, Magneto has often been compared to Malcolm X and his “by any means necessary” approach.

Magneto has certainly changed his viewpoints over the years as well, teaming up with the X-Men at various times when he felt it was beneficial for all mutantkind. Plus, let’s not ignore the fact that his Holocaust-stricken background and metal-manipulating power set just add to the character’s appeal. Magneto’s a tortured soul, but a badass tortured soul.

Greg: Well said, and in the interest of brevity (certainly not our strong suit), I’ll save my thoughts on Magnus for a little later in the column.

Nick: We are the Race/Flair of comic columns! We may not have much to say, but by God, we’ll take our damn time saying it.

Greg: We need a Referee Gene Kiniski to really make our columns flow better!

Greg’s No. 2: Thanos

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Nick: Anyone who isn’t familiar with the Mad Titan had better get familiar, as Thanos will be heavily featured in the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the next few years.

Greg: And I couldn’t be happier about that. Jim Starlin’s pride and joy, Thanos may have started as a Darkseid knockoff, but he developed through the ensuing decades into one of the most iconic and memorable cosmic villains ever created, as well as one of the most powerful.

Thanos isn’t compelling simply because of a cool design (which Starlin certainly provided) or an immense power set, but rather because of the unique qualities that make up his personality and background. Uniqueness is so important in comics, and Thanos stands out because of his literal love of Death — the personification of death, that is.

Thanos is obsessed, in every conceivable way, with impressing Death and earning her love. He isn’t a mustache-twirling villain. In some ways, you can almost empathize with Thanos as he is simply doing what he thinks he must for the woman he loves.

Of course, he goes to pretty major extremes, including attempting and basically succeeding in destroying the universe. The Infinity series from Starlin stands as arguably the pinnacle of Marvel’s cosmic side, reaching major financial and critical success with works like The Infinity Gauntlet. As a 6-year-old, there was no image I thought cooler than Thanos holding the gauntlet as the entire line of Marvel heroes laid at his feet. Yet for all his power, there’s always a sense of sadness hovering over the Mad Titan.

Nick’s No. 2. Green Goblin

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Greg: Stan Lee (there’s that name again!) and Steve Ditko created this character, also known as Norman Osborn. He would eventually become one of Spider-Man’s greatest foes, arguably the biggest thorn in the wall crawler’s side throughout his long career.

Nick: Now, let’s get this out of the way right off the bat — for the purposes of this column, Norman Osborn is the Green Goblin, Yes, other characters have taken up the mantle over the years, but none have proven quite as driven or ruthless as Norman. He has become Spider-Man’s greatest villain and eventually made the transition to a villain for the Marvel Universe in general during Dark Reign, in which he gained control of SHIELD. He’s also one of the villains who is most personally connected to Peter, as he was the father of Peter’s friend Harry Osborn. We’ve also gotten revelations that he had sexual intercourse with Gwen Stacy, though I can take or leave that particular revelation.

And, of course, he played a major role in Gwen’s death, which still stands as one of the most heartwrenching moments in all of comics. Yet, for all the horrors he’s unleashed upon Peter over the decades, it’s the Ultimate version of the character who may have had the biggest effect on Peter and his loved ones.

Ultimate Norman was driven to take Peter and use him for his own designs from the beginning of Peter’s superhero career, and Norman stopped at nothing in an effort to control Peter. He directly targeted Mary Jane and Harry at different points, and in the end, Ultimate Peter died while protecting his home from Norman’s all-out assault. It was a controversial decision by Brian Michael Bendis, but it seems to have worked out. Much like Obi Wan Kenobi, Peter has only grown stronger in death, as he now serves as the inspiration for a new generation of heroes. For all his efforts to control Peter’s powers, Norman will never be able to control his memory. Here’s hoping Norman and Miles Morales will get a big showdown in the near future.

Greg: Norman has certainly caused Spidey more heartache than any other villain. From killing Peter’s girlfriend to emotionally abusing his best friend to vaporizing his clone to kidnapping his daughter, there is no low to which the Goblin won’t stoop to gain an edge over Spider-Man.

He also has a very real chance of beating Peter every time they meet. He’s a delightful mix of evil genius and complete psychopath.

Greg’s No. 1: Magneto

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Nick: I’ve said my piece about the master of magnetism, so I’ll let you take it away here.

Greg: When compiling this list, there was only one absolute — Magneto would be sitting at the top. There were a lot of great villains competing for places two through five, but Magnus (as he’s sometimes been called) stands head and shoulders above the pack.

Nick’s already touched on many of the qualities that make Magneto such an incredible character. The comparisons to Malcolm X are obvious and apt, and that alone makes him compelling.

Yet Erik Lensherr (err, Max Eisenhardt) has so much more that makes him Marvel’s greatest sympathetic villain. His terrible childhood, with its ties to Nazi Germany, adds a palpable pain to the character. His sacrifices (of family, friends and even sanity) to serve his cause of furthering mutant rights only add to that pain. He’s been a friend and a foe of the X-Men, but through it all he’s genuinely tried to do what he feels is right for his people.

You may not agree with Magneto, but you always have to at least stop and consider where he’s coming from. He’s also got a cool, unique design and is one of the most powerful mutants on the planet, so that adds to the appeal as well.

He has been and will remain the X-Men’s most recurring enemy across all media, and I’d argue he’s one of the Marvel Universe’s finest character of any allegiance.

Nick: And he’s been portrayed in truly iconic fashion by Ian McKellen in the X-Men film franchise. Sadly, we may be gearing up for one of McKellen’s final turns with the character, as the current post-“Days of Future Past” plans call for the “First Class” cast to take the central focus. Luckily, Michael Fassbender’s younger version of the character has the potential to become just as iconic.

Nick’s No. 1: Loki

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Greg: Speaking of characters being portrayed in tremendous fashion on the big screen, here’s Thor’s greatest foe, his brother Loki, the god of mischief.

Nick: With as big as a Thor fan as I am, there was little doubt on who I would place in my top spot. I would argue that no villain is so essential to his heroic counterpart as Loki is to Thor. The God of Mischief, Loki was the adopted son of Odin and Frigga, a son that always felt as if he were inferior to the beloved Thor.

It’s that childhood resentment that has fostered over the years and helped to craft the basic motivation for Loki. Simply, he wants the throne of Asgard, that power that was bound to go to the more favored of the two sons. However, over the decades of stories, Loki’s motivations have shifted from clear and defined to something more ambiguous. At a certain point, he began to embrace his role as the god of mischief and began to seek chaos for chaos’ sake. It is in this role that he becomes more threatening to Thor, as his brother never knows when, where or how Loki may strike. Loki’s not unlike the Joker, in that it’s nearly impossible for anyone to say they’ve ever truly understood him.

And now, Loki finds himself in a unique position as something of an antihero. He was reborn first as a woman, then as a child through the constant Asgardian cycle of rebirth and death. However, after years of playing a truly evil character, Loki felt he had become predictable, something that surely wouldn’t do for a character so fond of chaos. So, now, Loki serves Asgard once more at the behest of the ruling triumvirate known as the All-Mother. However, only Loki knows his true motivations, and I’m sure it won’t be all that long before he and Thor are at odds once more.

And, as Greg said, Loki’s popularity has never been higher, as Tom Hiddleston’s version of the character has been featured heavily throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And for those of you who have seen Thor: The Dark World, we all know we haven’t seen the last of Loki. I, for one, can’t wait to see what Marvel has in store for both the comic and cinematic versions of the character.

Greg: Loki has also been an opponent for other major Marvel characters, including the Avengers. He’s been a true heavy hitter for decades, battling the likes of the Hulk and Iron Man in between his bouts with his brother.

In some ways, he’s like a super-powered version of the Kingpin, somehow managing to interact with virtually every major Marvel hero.

Nick: Well, that about wraps it up for this month’s edition of Countdown, the column so popular the WWE Network lifted the name for its original programming.

Greg: We’re still waiting for our checks, Vince.

In any event, we’ll be back next month to count down our favorite writer-artist tandems (unless those checks from Stamford come in), and we’ll be right here next week to discuss Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s “The Ultimates 2.” That’s right, we’re turning into the Longbook Hunters again!

Nick: As always, be sure to send us your feedback on Facebook, Twitter (@gphillips8652 and @nickduke87) or through our Place to Be Nation email accounts, GregP@placetobenation.com and NickD@placetobenation.com.

Author: Greg Phillips and Nick Duke

Greg and Nick share two passions above all others, both of which involve people in spandex punching each other. Reporters by day, they also insist on being called "Two Dudes with Attitude" but can't decide who is Kevin Nash and who is Shawn Michaels.