Sep 1, 2014

The Supervillain Hall of Fame, Part Five: Three's Company

Part Five – Three’s Company
Ben Smith

It’s the odyssey that began with a single step. The most glorious of quests. A life’s calling if ever there was one. An arbitrary list of the world’s greatest supervillains, created by a person with far too much spare time and a questionable need to share useless knowledge without compensation, and oftentimes, validation.

We’ve arrived at the pinnacle of four-color evildom and heinous acts of villainy. A three’s company of despicableness, only without the singular force of nature that was Joyce DeWitt. As an aside, I would totally watch a sitcom with these three sharing a small Los Angeles apartment.

As I’ve said before, changing the arrangement of the words to form different yet similar sentences each time, this list was devised using a pre-established set of pointless categories (which can be easily located using the web browser of your choice) each of which was assigned a point value ranging from one to ten, which were then divided blah blah math, and then completely disregarded so I could rank Dr. Doom third.

(I hate introductions. Introductions are like talking raccoons. You might have thought it was a good idea, but next thing you know they’re stoned and taking a nap in your trash can, and they rip up the garbage bags and make you feel really self-conscious toward the garbage collectors.)

Despite garbage collection anxiety, we’ve made it to the end my friends, let us not delay any longer.

3. Dr. Doom

Resume: movies, cartoons, Secret Wars, Emperor Doom, Silver Surfer, Morgan le Fay

Dr. Doom is the single worst case for the ghettoization of villains to specific heroes. Dr. Doom deserves better than Reed Richards. While Doom gets used plenty across the Marvel universe, he will always return to the Fantastic Four, a book that has always seen its better days in the rear view.

One of my earliest exposures to the greatness of Doom, was in the maxi-series Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars. Despite what you may want to say about the quality of that particular project (anything other than “it’s great” is frankly, ridiculously incorrect) you cannot argue that it wasn’t the perfect representation of Doom as Marvel’s greatest villain. As the rest of the petty criminals play the Beyonder’s games, Doom has his eyes on bigger prizes, making Ultron his butler along the way, before stealing the power of Galactus and then the Beyonder himself. Doom places himself front and center as the final bad guy in the first and most epic of company-wide crossovers, a position he truly deserves to be in.

Secret Wars was but one example of Dr. Doom proving himself to be the baddest of the bad. There were the times he fought Iron Man in Camelot, introducing the greatness that is Morgan le Fay, which represent the best Iron Man comics ever made pre-Warren Ellis. Don’t forget the time he was dissecting Asgardians and fought Thor wearing a version of the Destroyer armor, or the time Luke Cage famously followed him to Latveria to get his money, honey. Stealing the Silver Surfer’s power, teaming up with Doctor Strange, or kidnapping Flash Thompson as Spider-Man, Dr. Doom has faced off against every single Marvel hero, and it’s almost always spectacular. Last, but far from least, is all the times Doom has actually succeeded in taking over the world, the best example of which being Emperor Doom, an underrated classic that you should immediately track down right now. Go, go now.

However, despite his success in the world of Marvel comics, he’s been less than impressive when adapted to other media. One of the things that makes him look so cool on the printed page, his armor and face mask, is much harder to represent in live-action or animation. It doesn’t help that he’s relegated to Fantastic Four cartoons most of the time, which are almost always awful. The movies miscast the part, with an actor that doesn’t have the commanding type of voice that Doom needs to have. His best showing in animation, was arguably at the beginning of season two of Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, where he shrugs off an attack from the Avengers like the annoyance it would be to him.

Dr. Doom is the greatest villain in Marvel comics, but he still couldn’t top these next two.

2. Lex Luthor

Resume: Superman, Justice League Unlimited, cartoons, movies, synonyms, John Byrne, Smallville

I never cared much for Superman (as long time readers are aware) so I never cared much for Lex Luthor. I recognized that he was basically pop culture short-hand for arch-villain (“he’s my Lex Luthor”) but I never much cared for anyone that didn’t have powers, and especially a villain. What would be so scary about a bald guy that doesn’t even look like he’s all that formidable? (He’s the Clyde Drexler of super villains.)

All that changes once you get to his appearances in multi-media adaptations. Look, the Richard Donner Superman movies were pure garbage, and Hackman was a horrible Luthor, but that’s the worst it gets for Luthor. Smallville may have been wildly inconsistent, arguably an abomination, but Michael Rosenbaum was positively magnetic as a young Lex Luthor. He carried the show, offsetting Tom Welling’s pathetic mewling about the burdens of having really awesome powers, and the never-ending annoying romantic dance between Clark and Lana Lang. Rosenbaum was everything good about that show, so it’s really no surprise it went completely off the rails the moment he left it.

Similarly, many of the greatest episodes of the Justice League animated series involved Lex Luthor, memorably portrayed by Clancy Brown. From Amazo, to his (series peak) partnership with Brainiac, and the entire last season of the series, Luthor provides the good stuff throughout. He arguably saves the day against Darkseid in the very last episode. For the first time, you could honestly believe a man with no powers could be a valid antagonist for the ridiculously overpowered Superman, and that has never been portrayed better than in the Timm-verse.

Most of my Luthor comics knowledge is limited to the classics; Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, Superman vs Spider-Man, Public Enemies, the Byrne reboot. Byrne was the one that rebooted Luthor as a fat businessman, instead of the evil mad scientist. I can’t say which one I prefer over the other, but I can say I’ll never not love the purple and green battle armor. It’s the ‘80s in me.

Which character could possibly beat out the original sketchy bald guy for the title of top villain? The answer, I think, is obvious.

1. The Joker

Resume: Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, cartoons, Alan Moore, coulrophobia, Batman, The Joker’s Five Way Revenge, Arkham Asylum, The Killing Joke

I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise. The Joker takes the top spot because the Joker is the top villain in all of superhero comics. People are scared of clowns. People are scared of clowns that want to murder you by poisoning the water supply. People like Batman. People like Batman preventing clowns from poisoning your water supply.

I’m not going to go into great detail about all the factors that make The Joker the top villain in comics. He’s been around nearly since the beginning (Batman #1 to be exact; fun fact: he died in his first appearance, and had to be resurrected due to, I assume, fan demand) and he’s been maiming and killing ever since. There’s the Joker’s Five Way Revenge, and the Killing Joke, and Ledger’s brilliance as a character named the Joker in The Dark Knight.

Instead, I’m going to recommend a couple of books for you. First is a book I’ve probably bought at least a half-dozen times (one of the aspects of me growing up as a comic fan, is buying and trading books that I didn’t think I’d ever want to read again, only to buy those same books again later) The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told. Back in olden times, before trade paperback collections in book stores, and online digital libraries with comics for purchase, you actually had to find and buy old comics in order to read them. Being able to afford Golden Age Batman comics on a 12-year-old’s allowance was impossible, even back then, and that’s if you could even find any in the first place. That’s what made these collections of great Batman and Joker stories such a brilliant idea, released in the wake of the 1989 Batman major motion picture. With stories by legends like Dick Sprang, and Neal Adams, it’s still a fantastic collection of comics, and I recently re-bought it yet again a few months ago.

Second, is a book of prose stories named The Further Adventures of The Joker: All-New Tales of the Clown Prince of Crime (edited by Martin H. Greenberg). This book has probably been out of print since I first got it as a seventh grader, but it should be simple enough to track down used (we live in the glorious age of Amazon, and here it is - Cranky Editor.) and it contains some of the most twisted short stories of crime and horror by a talented lineup of writers. My personal favorite is a tale from the Joker’s youth named On a Beautiful Summer’s Day, He Was by Robert R. McCammon. Here’s an excerpt:

There were over a hundred. Constructions of wire and small skeletons – birds, kittens, puppies, chipmunks, squirrels, lizards, mice, snakes, and rats. Junior had not killed all of them himself; most of the carcasses he’d found, on his long solitary treks. He’d only killed maybe forty of them, the kittens, puppies, and some birds with broken wings. But the skeletons had been reformed, with wire and patience, into bizarre new shapes that did not resemble anything that had ever lived. There were birds with the skulls of kittens, and kittens with wings. There were comminglings of rats and puppies, squirrels with beaks, and other things with eight legs and three heads and ribcages melded together like strange Siamese twins. There were things freakish and hellish, constructed from Junior’s imagination. And here, on these wires, was the result of the only thing that excited Junior and made him truly smile: Death.
“I … think … I’d better go home,” Wally said, and he sounded choked.
Junior’s hand closed on the boy’s wrist, and held him. “I wanted you to see my toys, Wally. Aren’t they pretty?”

Things only get worse for dear Wally from there.

Besides the mysterious past, the violence, the horrific rictus smile, what makes the Joker such a great character is that he’s basically a blank slate, much like his arch-enemy, Batman. The Joker is easily adaptable to any kind of story a writer wants to tell, thanks to the built in malleability that is insanity and unpredictability. Or I could be overthinking things, since the fans love violence and murder. Plus, he put Jason Todd out of his misery for us, a debt which can never be repaid.

That concludes matters. Top heroes, top villains, best weapons, there’s nothing else that could possibly be added to this ever-growing fictional Superhero Comic Book Hall of Fame I’ve concocted in my coffee-addled brain.

What’s that you say? The greatest vehicles of all-time...

I hate you.

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