From Academic Kids

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The Green Goblin, a supervillain and enemy of Spider-Man. Art by Sal Buscema

A supervillain is a variant of the villain character type common, often found in comic books and action and science fiction films. Supervillains often have colorful names and costume and/or other eccentricities and most concoct complex and ambitious schemes to accumulate vast power and suppress their adversaries.

Supervillains are often used as foils to superheroes and other fictional heroes. Their extraordinary brainpower and/or superhuman abilities make them viable antagonists for even the most gifted heroes.

By most definitions, the first supervillain was Professor Moriarty, the arch enemy of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective Sherlock Holmes, introduced in 1891. The first supervillain who wore a bizarre costume was The Lightning, from the 1938 film Fighting Devil Dogs, which preceded the first superhero, Superman.

Many supervillains are inspired by typical characteristics of real world dictators, mobsters, and terrorists.


Common Traits

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Doctor Doom, one of the most archetypical supervillains. Art by Erik Larsen

While supervillains vary greatly, there are a number of attributes that define the character. Most supervillains have at least a few of the following traits:

  • A desire to commit spectacular crimes and/or rule the world through whatever means necessary
  • A generally irritable and spiteful disposition
  • A sadistic nature and tendency to revel in their sociopathic behavior
  • A brilliant scientific mind that he or she chooses to use for evil (see also mad scientist and evil genius).
  • Superhuman abilities or some special skill, similar to those of superheroes
  • An enemy or group of enemies that he or she repeatedly fights
  • A desire for revenge against said enemies. The method of their revenge often goes beyond simply killing them to making them suffer before death such as using deathtraps. This tendency to prolong their enemies' deaths is often an instrumental part of why the supervillain fails to kill their foes.
  • A dark and threatening-looking headquarters or lair, the location of which is usually kept secret from police, superheroes and the general public. However, some supervillains, who feel secure from prosecution for their crimes live and work in palatial buildings. Examples include Doctor Doom's castles in his country of Latveria and Lex Luthor's LexCorp's office buildings.
  • A theme by which he or she plots his crimes. For example, Two-Face plots his crimes around the number two and Mysterio plots his around movie special effects.
  • Although super villain “team-ups” occasionally occur and some supervillain teams exist (such as the Legion of Doom and Sinister Six), most supervillains do not collaborate with one another but employ a team of simple-minded and expendable henchmen to assist them.
  • A strong commitment to their criminal profession to the point where they will quickly resume their activities in their favourite area immediately after escaping prison.
  • A back story or origin story that explains how the character transformed from an ordinary person into a supervillain. The story usually involves some great tragedy that marked the change. In the case of many supervillains, including Dr. Doom, Magneto and, in the television series Smallville, Lex Luthor, this story involves a one-time friendship with their future foe.
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The criminally insane Joker from Batman #253. Art by Neal Adams

One thing that supervillains do not share is motivation; characters choose to become supervillains for many different reasons:

Some, such as the Red Skull and Professor Moriarty, are portrayed as outright evil. Some, such as Darth Vader and the Green Goblin, have fallen under some corrupting influence. Some, such as The Joker and Sabretooth, are criminally insane and incapable of controlling their murderous urges. Some, such as Sandman and Juggernaut, are simply thugs with superhuman abilities. Some, such as Mr. Mxyzptlk and Q, are tricksters, who torment heroes for their own pleasure. A few, like the X-Men’s enemy Magneto, have laudable goals, such as Magneto’s desire to protect his people, mutants, from persecution, but use extreme and violent methods.

Many supervillains are portrayed as an inversion of their foe. For example, Wolverine constantly tries to contain his animalistic urges, while Sabretooth fully embraces his. Batman is a humorless character with a foreboding appearance, but who is dedicated to good. The Joker, on the other hand, is a comical character with a colorful appearance, who is actually evil. Both Spider-Man and the Green Goblin are accidents of science, but while Spider-Man is an underdog who uses his gifts to help and protect the innocent, the Goblin is an elite who uses his to try to disrupt and dominate society. These contrasts help build-up the mythic grandeur of superhero and villain relationships and allows the villain to serve as a foil for the hero.

Examples of Well-Known Supervillains

Parodies of supervillains

Because the supervillain is such a common but distinct character type in modern fiction, several parodies have been created. Some of the most well-known include:

The supervillain stereotype applied to real life

The supervillain is a common archetype in western culture. Thus many media outlets portray real-life terrorist Osama bin Laden and dictator Kim Jong-Il in the way fiction writers often portray supervillains. The Nazis are also depicted as supervillains in a range of fictional works, including the Indiana Jones


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