Of the many arguments fans have over Superman one of the most prominent is over his seemingly limited rogues gallery. Or rather, the limited number of interesting villains in said gallery.
Whether or not you find Superman interesting in this case is irrelevant, this is about his villains. How do they measure up? Are they as interesting as, say, Batman’s or Spider-Man’s (arguably the two best rogues galleries in all of comics). I say ‘Yes.’ And here are my Top 5 picks to make my case.
Superman has no shortage of physically strong villains. Mongul, the despotic ruler of Warworld, was around long before anyone had ever heard of Doomsday (not in this list!) and went toe-to-toe with the Man of Steel on more than one occasion, even getting the better of him from time to time.
A retelling of their first meeting in the now-classic story Exile showed Mongul at his most powerful, as a slave trader who pitted those he collected against one another in gladiator-style battles to the death. Superman, having left Earth after killing three Kryptonian criminals, including Zod (more on that in a minute), was found in deep space and taken to Warworld. The last Kryptonian was quite a prize. When he saw the depths of Mongul’s cruelty, he had to do something.
But Mongul’s greatest moment comes courtesy of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in For the Man Who Has Everything. Mongul infiltrates the Fortress of Solitude on Earth seeking revenge against Superman for all he’s done. It’s Superman’s birthday so Mongul hides a Black Mercy, a psychic parasitic plant that attaches itself to its victims and feeds them images of their greatest desires while is feeds on their lifeforce, in a birthday present. The plant feeds Superman images of his ideal world where Krypton was never destroyed and he’s married with two children. Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman visit and find Mongul just as he’s ready to claim victory.
Superman has to forcibly give up his greatest dream when his mind begins rejecting the images because deep down he knows it’s not real, which causes his dream world to turn nightmarish. Mongul says separating from the Black Mercy must have been like tearing off his own arm. And it’s in this moment Superman unleashes a level of fury rarely seen from him. Superman was so emotionally tortured by Mongul that he very nearly kills him in a fit of rage. Mongul might be physically stronger than Superman, but it’s his ability to get in Superman’s head that makes him dangerous. Ripping away everything Superman could ever have wanted and reminding him just how isolated and alone he’ll always be pushed buttons he didn’t even know existed. In the end, thanks to help from the other heroes, it’s Mongul who winds up wearing the Black Mercy and being imprisoned in his own fantasy. But the damage done by that encounter will leave scars that last forever.
One-time military leader of Krypton’s army, he launched an insurrection to overthrow the government when it failed to heed the warnings of Jor-El, who predicted the destruction of the planet. Zod initially tried to get Jor-El to join him, but when that didn’t happen and Jor-El helped bring Zod and his followers to justice, Zod swore vengeance. The conspirators were sentenced to life in the Phantom Zone, but managed to escape years later. Zod made good on his promise to terrorize Jor-El and his heirs by targeting Kal-El and his adopted planet, Earth.
The newest incarnation of Zod, in the pages of Charles Soule’s and Tony Daniel’s Superman/Wonder Woman run, showcases just how dangerous this cunning villain can be. He appears under a friendly flag and attempts to coax Superman into helping him free his love, Faora, from the Phantom Zone. Of course, that’s just the start as Zod has a much bigger plan for Earth that includes overrunning it with an army of Kryptonian soldiers.Even if he has to use the force of destruction known as Doomsday to get what he wants. The Justice League of America confronts Zod at one point, but they’re outmatched in almost every way. His strategic mind allows him to outclass all of them.
Even together, Superman and Wonder Woman can only hope for a draw, at best. And matters are worse when Zod is successful in getting Faora out of the Zone. The end result is a battle that leaves Superman and Wonder Woman backed into a corner and believing their only way to win is to cause a nuclear blast that could potentially kill both of them, too, in order to put the criminals back in the Phantom Zone. The plan works, but Superman is drained to the point of looking like a skeleton and having nearly no powers after. Another blast like that and he’d likely be dead.
Zod has had multiple appearances in other media, too, such as Superman II and Man of Steel (and Superman killed him in both!). He was always despotic, though in Man of Steel his drive to build a new Krypton was fueled by his genetic programming from birth to be a protector of his people. When that possibility seemed taken away from him, his rage was all-consuming leading him to wish absolute destruction on anyone and everyone Superman cared for, which was the entire planet Earth. Zod’s callousness and pure evil goes even further back to John Byrne’s Superman: Man of Steel classic run from the 1980’s, in which an alternate universe version of Zod, along with three other Kryptonians, murdered an entire universe of people just because they could. And even after Superman managed to take their powers away, they remained defiant and threatened to do the same to Superman’s home dimension. In Superman #22, he makes the hard decision to end the lives of those Kryptonians for fear that they would make good on their threat. Zod is many things, but he’s never been one for idle threats. In his entire publishing history, if he makes a promise, he keeps it.
Sure, everybody knows this guy, right? Genius, billionaire, philanthropist…wait, is he Iron Man? Well, he does have a giant metal suit meant to combat metahumans…and he’s about as narcissistic as it gets…but he’s more consumed by the idea of furthering his own goals than helping anyone else at all. Although he has joined the Justice League recently…but that’s another matter.
This guy is Superman’s longest-running adversary. He’s setup as Superman’s opposite in many ways. Where Superman is nearly invulnerable and really strong, Lex is portrayed often as being skinny and frail, but with a mind as strong as Superman is physically. Although, most people should read a little closer because Superman has a near-genius level intellect, too. But his powers always get the most attention. In any case, Lex is his top human rival. Lex has always believed Superman would be the death of humanity and that he’s not at all as good as he claims to be. This paranoia about Superman has lead the owner of Lex Corps to build an untold number of anti-Superman weapons, some using the deadly Kryptonite and some incorporating red sun radiation (which can also strip Superman of his powers, but without being inherently deadly).
In All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly, Lex even devises a plan to overdose Superman on yellow sun radiation (the source of his powers) which in turn gives Superman terminal cancer with no possible way of curing himself. Talk about elaborate schemes, but that’s what makes Lex so great. Everything he does is aimed at making Superman into the villain of the story and turning himself into mankind’s savior. If there’s one goal Lex has above defeating Superman, it’s getting the whole world to see him as its ultimate hero. See? Text book narcissist.
Lex even manipulated an entire country at one point, becoming President of the United States. Yes, that happened and it was like his ultimate victory over Superman. Of course, it was all a plot to set the Man of Steel up for a bigger fall. Luckily, Superman has a friend who understands the paranoid mindset: Batman. Luthor manages to manipulate the Justice League and causes a division of those heroes who side with Superman and Batman and those who side with the government when the two big heroes are labeled Public Enemies (the title of a tremendous story arc by Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness in Superman/Batman #1-6). Lex is ultimately found out due to his own vanity and possibly poisoning of his mind via Kryptonite injections he’s been using to make himself physically stronger. But the fact that he, a known villain, convinced heroes to turn on the two people they should trust most and that he turned a whole country against Superman for a while is something worthy of note.
Never think of Lex as “just a human with access to Kryptonite.” There are plenty of villains who have access, but have never achieved what he has. There’s a reason Superman is always looking over his shoulder when Lex is out there. He knows this guy has it in for him and that he is one of a select few humans who could actually kill him if given the right opportunity.
You could call him the greatest evil of the DC Universe, but when it comes down to it, he’s Superman’s true opposite. Where Superman believes in peace and justice, Darkseid believes in dominance over all life. In fact, his relentless pursuit of the Anti-Life Equation is a clear illustration of his deeper desires. If he acquired it, he would be able to control the minds of all sentient beings in existence. His belief that all life is futility lead him down this path and set him in conflict with Superman (and the Justice League) on many different occasions.
He is the ruler of Apokolips, a derelict world that runs opposite to the world of the other New Gods, New Genesis. He’s worshiped as a god (which he is) on that world and no matter how much he harms the very people who worship him, they still believe in him. Bruce Timm illustrated this in the two-part Superman: The Animated Series episode Legacy. Even after defeating Darkseid and showing the people of Apokolips that he can be beaten, the people didn’t rise up. Instead, they helped their fallen lord by carrying him away from the battle so he could heal. Superman was left in utter disbelief, but the words Darkseid left him with rang in his ears for some time: “I am many things, Kal-El. But here, I am God.”
Darkseid has also made things personal with the Man of Steel by corrupting those closest to him. Take Supergirl, for instance. In the epic Superman/Batman: Supergirl story by Jeph Loeb (boy, this guy comes up a lot) and Michael Turner, Supergirl has just arrived on Earth for the first time and has a lot of trouble finding her place in the world. She’s kidnapped and manipulated by Darkseid into turning into one of his consorts. At least, for a brief moment. When Superman confronts the despotic god, he tells Kal that Kara is free to leave anytime she wants but instead she chooses to fight her cousin in the name of Darkseid. Of course Superman (with the assist from Batman) helps her see the light and she turns on Darkseid. Not that the fight was that easy. Darkseid comes to Earth to exact revenge for this disrespect and pretty much obliterates the Kent Farm in the process. See, he knows how to push Superman’s buttons and it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t do it for fun sometimes. But he’s also one of the few who can take a full-force punch from the Man of Steel and then give one right back. (There’s even an animated movie version of that fight in Superman/Batman: Apocalypse)
People talk about how strong Doomsday is, but they fail to realize that, fully unleashed, Darkseid is his superior. Oh, and he’s a FREAKIN’ GOD! It doesn’t get much more challenging than that.
The best for last. When it comes to Superman villains, few can equal what this character has done to the Man of Steel over the years. He’s been the destroyer of Krypton, an obsessive collector hell-bent on adding the last Kryptonian to his menagerie, an all-encompassing hyper intelligence trying to build himself into a god…and he’s been responsible for taking away some of the most important pieces of Superman’s life, including Jonathan Kent in Geoff Johns’ and Gary Frank’s instant-classic Superman: Brainiac.
In the Brainiac story arc, it turns out Superman has never encountered Brainiac’s true form before. He’s only ever fought copies or drones. When the real version sets his sights on Earth, Superman goes into deep space to find him before he can strike. But Superman winds up captured and tortured on Brainiac’s ship, where he also finds the Bottle City of Kandor and its inhabitants still alive, including Supergirl’s parents!
Supergirl was there the day Brainiac took Kandor and her family away. She saw the devestation he left in his wake and it leaves her nearly paralyzed by fear of him. She partially blames herself for Brainiac finding Earth and she feels incredibly guilty for feeling afraid.
Superman, for his part, confronts the villain in his own ship and is taken aback by the sheer amount of knowledge contained within. He feels a responsibility to save everyone, but there’s just no way to do it. In that, Brainiac will always hold a victory over Superman, but he’s not done yet. Brainiac reads Superman’s mind and learns all about his history on Earth and decides to collect Metropolis before destroying the entire solar system. Superman with the help of Supergirl and the Justice League manages to defeat Brainiac, but not before a missile is launched at the Kent Farm. Supergirl manages to stop the missile before it can hit, but Jonathan Kent suffers a heart attack as a result of moving quickly to save his wife and Superman arrives in time to see his adoptive father die in Martha Kent’s arms.
In addition to his ability to regenerate and his vast knowledge, Brainiac is essentially immortal. So long as a single piece of him survives, he can pull himself back together. He’s as much software as hardware in that if he invades a computer program, he can stay there indefinitely. His incredible intelligence is rivaled only by his obsession with collecting all knowledge in the universe (or multi-verse) so he can become its new god and remake things as he sees fit. He’s been both an alien and an advanced computer program, but in any incarnation he is easily Superman’s greatest foe. One who’s cold pursuit of knowledge has driven any and all compassion from him. He sees only the end goal and the destruction of the flawed universe he considers too inferior to survive. And while he may not experience emotional connection as Superman does, he understands it well enough to really hit Kal-El where it hurts.
And if that’s not enough to break him, maybe a near-infinite army of Brainiac drones will help. He’s not one to be trifled with and only Superman could ever truly be capable of bringing him down.