DC Comics is filled with wonderful heroes and horrifying villains. But what makes the best DC villains? Is it raw power? The ability to sell comic books? Number of appearances? For every comic book reader, there are different criteria for “best” and a different ranking. While some prefer their villains cosmically powered, other prefer the quietly insidious. And there is a wide range of villains in between those two extremes.
So how did I choose this list? Well, it’s certainly not about raw power, though the villains on this list are not without power. For me, it’s about how compelling they are as characters and what they bring out in the heroes they face off against. Any villain can throw a punch or fire a gun, but do they get inside the heads of our heroes? Do they personify the flaws and foibles of our heroic protagonists? Do they reflect something horrifying in our own society, writ large across the page?
Those characters, to me, are the best DC villains. They do more than bash their way through cities and civilians. They dance through our dreams and nightmares long after we turn the page, unsettling us with their machinations and metaphors. So here they are, the best DC villains.
12. Mr. Freeze
He might be the most tragic and relatable of the incredible rogues gallery for Batman. Victor Fries was working hard, trying to save his terminally ill wife, when a cryogenics accident occurred. His body temperature was lowered to sub-zero levels, requiring a cryogenic suit to survive. No matter if he’s robbing a bank or aiding another villain, it is always in the hopes of finding a cure for his beloved wife. No other villain makes me weep for his lot in life like Mr. Freeze.
11. Harley Quinn
Created in Batman: The Animated Series as a sidekick for Joker, Dr. Harleen Quinzel has grown into so much more. She’s outgrown her twisted Stockholm Syndrome, forging her own path as a villain independent of her origins. She’s found her own voice as well as success as one of the prominent characters in the DC Extended Universe and animated shows. She’s also a lot of fun.
10. Reverse Flash
As much as I don’t like villains that are just copycats of the heroes they foil, Reverse Flash has bloomed into Flash’s most insidious villain. His copycat power also means he puts on display how access to the Speed Force can be used for nefarious means, which just shows how incredible Flash is for choosing to do good in the world with his power.
Villain? Hero? Part of what makes Catwoman so compelling is how she’s been riding this line, falling more into the antihero category than anything else. She began as a simple cat burglar that was too on-brand, and has grown into a regular love interest, ally, and occasional foil to Batman. Whenever she shows up in a story, you always know it’s about to get more complicated.
8. Black Adam
Black Adam is about to get his turn on the big screen, and with good reason. He is a regular villain for Shazam, wielding equivalent powers that give any hero a run for their money. He’s also a ruler of his own country, defending his people with those incredible powers, which sometimes lands him with our heroes as often as he fights them. No matter what side he’s on, Black Adam is a powerhouse.
The best DC villains are often the primary antagonist for the best DC heroes. In this case, Cheetah is the most consistent foe of Wonder Woman. Imbued with feline reflexes, heightened speed and strength, and sharp claws, Cheetah is selfish and ambitious, the perfect counter to Wonder Woman’s selflessness and heroism. Originally focused on obtaining the Lasso of Truth, Cheetah has shifted to an obsession with besting Wonder Woman purely for her own ego, another sharp contrast to DC’s greatest heroine.
Without a doubt, Sinestro is the greatest foe of Green Lantern. Any of them. He was one of Hal Jordan’s mentors, a leader of the Green Lantern Corps, and great hero in his own right. He was exactly the kind of person Hal wanted to be. So when Sinestro began to prioritize power over selflessness, fear over will, his fall from grace was far and devastating. Sinestro is a mirror of what any Green Lantern could become without vigilance and conscience.
5. Amanda Waller
While some of the best DC villains have amazing superpowers, others wield great and very human power. Amanda Waller is just such a person. She pulls the strings of government, directs the Suicide Squad, and generally gives people the shivers whenever she appears on the page. When you see Amanda Waller, you always know there’s a bigger, darker scheme that our heroes aren’t even aware of.
Deathstroke the Terminator. Inspiration (sort of) for Deadpool. Master assassin. Expert tactician. Possibly the best hand-to-hand fighter in all of the DC Universe. A frequent adversary of the Teen Titans, Outsiders, and even Batman, Deathstroke is always a challenging fight. He is merciless and often working for some bigger bad that is hiding in the shadows. Can he beat Batman in a one-on-one fight? I don’t think the DC editors will ever let us know the answer.
This is where people start to get mad at me. Yes, Joker is the original Batman villain, his greatest foe, his antithesis. His constantly shifting id makes him unpredictable and a perfect palette for any writer. They can adapt him to virtually any situation, change his personality from issue to issue, and always torture the entire Bat-family. His persistent desire to play with, but never kill, Batman is fascinating. His need to torture and kill Robins is horrifying. So why isn’t he number 1? Maybe because we should be beyond villainizing mental illness.
2. Lex Luthor
Superman’s indomitable arch-nemesis has been around for a long time. He fears that superpowered people like Superman are weakening humanity, making us depend upon their aid instead of defending ourselves. Wealthy and genius, he takes this genuine concern and twists it to Machiavellian ends, often willing to sacrifice innocent civilians just to prove that he’s right. He is a mirror to the worst of humanity, making him one of the best DC villains.
If there is a devil in the DC Universe, a boogeyman from the stars, it is Darkseid. Ruling Apokolips with terror and brutality, he is a frequent and often overpowering foe for Superman, The Justice League, the Green Lantern Corps, and the entire universe. He is a rogue member of the New Gods, an entire super-powered race intended to represent our highest ideals, corrupted and turned against all living things. He is evil incarnate and the best DC villain.
The next time you’re perusing your local comic book shop, unsure of what to buy, look out for these baddies. No matter who they’re fighting, these are the best DC villains to read.