The Supervillain. Without them, there can be no Superheroes. Of course, there is always regular, run-of-the-mill, bog-standard crime to fight, but it is not until they are forced to confront the pure evil of a legendary Supervillain, that a Superhero really achieves their potential. It is a rite of passage. The Superhero has not arrived until they have an arch-nemesis to battle, time and time again.
The realm of comic books is bursting at the seams with Supervillains, and they all have to come from somewhere. Some are born, some are created, but all play a vital role in the ongoing battle between good and evil. The origin of a Supervillain is as important to those stories as the origins of the Superheroes. Through their narrative, the audience is allowed to put order into their otherwise chaotic society. While, in the real world, we are faced with evil acts that seem to defy explanation, in comic books, the explanation is never far away. Whether they witnessed crime, experienced profound loss, or were involved in a horrific industrial accident, Supervillains are evil for a reason, and that is a comfort.
While the triggers for Supervillainy can be varied, the very best examples are tragic, dramatic and epic in scale. The release of ‘Thor: The Dark World’ is the embodiment of those factors, with the God of Thunder once again battling his adopted brother, the enigmatic Supervillain, Loki. As the Asgaardian brothers wreak havoc at the global box office, in a tale festering with years of familial resentment and jealousy, here is a look at the ten best comic book Supervillain origin stories, and the feuds they have given rise to.
1. The Joker Vs Batman
He has repeatedly said that sometimes he remembers his past one way, and sometimes another. It comes as no surprise, then, that there are many variations of The Joker’s origin story, with no one version being ‘officially’ accepted. The common thread amongst the various tales – in the comics and in cinema – is his accidental descent into a vat of industrial chemicals, emerging with pale, bleached skin, an artificial smile, bright green hair and a penchant for wearing purple three piece suits. The most popular of his origin stories sees him as a civilian named Jack leave behind a career as a chemical engineer in favour of stand-up comedy. When he fails miserably, he turns to a gang of criminals in order to support his pregnant wife. The criminals name him Red Hood and set up a robbery at a chemical plant, murdering his wife and unborn child to force him into working with them. At the plant, the gang are killed by security and, on seeing Batman as he flees, Red Hood falls into a vat of chemicals. When he emerges, the cumulative trauma causes him to have a psychotic breakdown, and focus obsessively on Batman for revenge. Outside of comic books, The Joker has appeared in various media, including the 1960s TV series Batman, the 1966 film Batman (played by Cesar Romero), the 1989 Tim Burton film Batman (played by Jack Nicholson) and the 2008 Christopher Nolan film, The Dark Knight (played by Heath Ledger). The character has also appeared in several animated series, often voiced by Mark Hamill.
2. Magneto Vs Professor Charles Xavier
Born Max Eisenhardt in 1920s Germany, he and his Jewish family flee to Poland in the early 1930s in an attempt to escape discrimination, but are captured during the Nazi invasion. The family manage to escape the Warsaw Ghetto, but are soon recaptured, resulting in the execution of Max’s parents and sister. Max spends several years in the Auschwitz concentration camp, meeting Magda, his future wife. On escaping and setting up home together in the Ukraine, the family are attacked and their daughter is murdered. The incident causes Max’s latent mutant power – magnetism – to manifest, spectacularly slaying their attackers and terrifying Magda in the process. She flees. The grieving Max, reinvents himself once more as a gypsy and travels to Israel to help at a psychiatric hospital. It is here that he befriends Professor Charles Xavier, with whom he soon becomes locked in battle after discovering their ideologies regarding mutations are incompatible. Xavier envisions a harmonious future where humans and mutants can co-exist peacefully, while Max/Magneto believes mutants are the next step in human evolution, and should therefore be dominant. In his early stages, Magneto is presented sympathetically, as a Holocaust survivor trying to prevent his fellow mutants meeting the same fate as his Jewish family. However, his overwhelming view – that the only response to that threat is to build upon prejudice and intolerance – turns him into something of a fledgling tyrant, and therefore he runs the risk of becoming the very thing he hates the most. Magneto appeared in several TV series – including Spider Man, Fantastic Four, X-Men and Iron Man – before hitting the big screen in the 2000 film, X-Men, played by Sir Ian McKellen. Since then, Magneto has appeared in X2 (2003), and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), played by McKellen, and in X-Men: First Class (2011) played by Michael Fassbender. X-Men: Days of Future Past is scheduled for release in 2014.
3. Lex Luthor Vs Superman
Another Supervillain with variations to his story, the common threads in Lex Luthor’s tale are his drive as a highly intelligent, sociopathic, power-hungry scientist, and his obsession with Superman. Originally a simple tale of jealousy, the teenage Lex Luthor spends his teenage years in Smallville with his Aunt Lena. Here, he encounters Clark Kent and feels his first pangs of envy toward Superman. In a later comic book story re-boot, the young Luthor is growing up on the outskirts of Smallville while nurturing ambitions to be the world’s greatest scientist. Learning about the adventures of a young Superman, he becomes his biggest fan, convincing his parents to move into Smallville so he can be closer to the object of his fandom. Luthor encounters the young Superman (Superboy, at the time) struggling with some Kryptonite and rescues him. In gratitude, Superman helps Luthor fulfil his scientific ambition – building him a lab, and providing him with chemicals and materials. In honour of their solidifying friendship, Luthor creates an antidote to Kryptonite, which he intends to give to Superman as a gift, but accidentally sets fire to his lab. Superman arrives to help, but cannot enter due to the presence of Kryptonite. He uses his super-breath instead, but this mixes together various chemicals, destroying all of Luthor’s work and balding him in the process. Enraged by the loss of his projects – and hair – Lex Luthor becomes Superman’s arch-nemesis. The character of Lex Luthor has been a relatively constant presence among Superman stories across a variety of media. First played by Lyle Talbot in Atom Man vs Superman (1950), he was then played by Gene Hackman in Superman (1978), Superman II (1980) and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987). John Shea filled his shoes in the TV series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993 – 1997), while it was Michael Rosenbaum in Smallville (2001 – 2011). Superman Returns (2006) saw Kevin Spacey play the role.
4. Amanda Waller Vs Everybody
A rare Supervillain, whose only real powers are superior intellect, leadership and ambition, Amanda Waller has a very specific origin story with no variation. In her hometown of Chicago, her son and daughter are murdered and, when he seeks revenge, her husband is killed, too. She becomes very protective of her three remaining children and achieves a Doctorate in psychology and political science. These qualifications lead to her appointment as a Congressional Aide, and it is here that she learns about the Suicide Squad – a group of incarcerated Supervillains formerly performing black ops missions with slim chances of survival, at the behest of the government, in exchange for leniency. Waller uses her influence to persuade the White House to reform this group under her direction. Her deep-seated hatred of both Superheroes and villains sets her apart from her cohorts, as she has found herself at odds with many characters from both camps. Appearing across the comic book realm, Waller has also been depicted in Smallville (played by Pam Grier), Justice League Unlimited, Batman Beyond and The Green Lantern (2011, played by Angela Bassett). The character of Amanda Waller will appear in the upcoming second season of the TV show, Arrow, played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson.
5. Catwoman Vs Batman
The costumed alter-ego of Selina Kyle, Catwoman has always been a cat-burglar by trade, reacting to the abuse and subjugation she has experienced at the hands of male authority figures in her life. Her origin story has undergone subtle variations, and she has at different times started out as a flight attendant, a prostitute, a murderer and a secretary. Her most persistent version details growing up in a home filled with emotional neglect and domestic violence. Her mother takes her own life and her father drinks too much, so Selina runs away from home as her sister is taken to an orphanage. In the following years, she bounces between living on the streets, the orphanage and Juvenile Hall. As an adult, Selina develops her skills as a cat burglar, crossing paths with a ninja during one robbery. As a result, she is invited to join a secret martial arts academy, where her agility and combat techniques are greatly enhanced. One night, she catches sight of Batman engaged in a fight with criminals, and sets upon the idea of continuing her cat burglary escapades as a costumed character. Thus, Catwoman is born, and her on-off relationship with Batman is set in motion. Catwoman has appeared in the media in many ways over the years, beginning with the TV series, Batman (1966-68, played by Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt), and the 1966 film of the same name (played by Lee Meriwether). She reappeared in the 1992 film Batman Returns, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, and again in 2004 in Catwoman, played by Halle Berry. Most recently, she appeared in the 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises, played by Anne Hathaway.
6. Bane Vs Batman
With the ultimate ‘childhood damage’ origin story, Bane was born inside the feared Pena Duro Prison after his father, Edmund Dorrence, escaped and had the corrupt Government transfer his life sentence to his unborn child. Literally paying for the sins of his father, the child is named Bane by a prison warden, after committing his first murder as a teenager. He spends his time in prison building himself into the perfect specimen of physical and mental ability, teaching himself strategy, philosophy, languages, and mathematics, and honing his body into peak fitness and strength. His growing abilities and terrifying conduct soon make him “King” of the prison – the most feared inmate. Bane is selected for use in a Super Soldier experimental program, and is injected with a previously lethal steroid-type drug called Venom. Surviving, he finds it further enhances his abilities, but only when taken every 12 hours. A complex tube system is installed to pump the drug directly into his brain. Throughout his life, Bane is haunted by dreams of a bat and, upon hearing stories of Batman’s reign of fear in Gotham City, makes it his ambition to escape the prison he has already dominated, and defeat the iconic Superhero – conquering the population in the process. The skills that Bane was forced to develop as an innocent child, in order to survive the prison sentence forced on him by his father, ultimately transform him into the quintessential alpha male, with a superior intellect combined with a deep-seated psychological need to dominate. Though this character has appeared in several animated stories, his big screen appearances are currently limited to the 1997 film Batman and Robin (played by Robert Swenson), and the 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises (played by Tom Hardy).
7. Maxwell Lord Vs Wonder Woman, Superman and Batman
The son of a successful businessman, Maxwell Lord leads a relatively uneventful life until the age of 16, when his father takes his own life. He has discovered that his company, Chimtech Consortium has produced a highly carcinogenic product, and he cannot live with the guilt and shame. Maxwell’s mother is convinced her husband’s demise is the result of a conspiracy, however, and teaches the young and impressionable Maxwell to distrust figures of higher authority – particularly those involved with his father’s business. Maxwell – possessor of extreme mind control capabilities – vows to become more powerful and ruthless than his father and, while taking revenge against executives at Chimtech, he finds himself clashing with fellow Supervillain Lex Luthor, who is running his own corporation and is equally hungry for power. Finding that Luthor is using hostile metahumans for profit, Lord forges his own plans to reassemble The Justice League in response. While assembling the Justice League, Lord is controlled by the evil computer Metron, which plans world domination. Lord’s position of power combined with questionable motivations regularly puts him at odds with many Superheroes – most significantly Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. Though he has yet to appear in any big screen adaptations, Maxwell Lord appeared in one episode of the animated series Justice League Unlimited, and in one season 9 episode of Smallville, played by Gil Bellows.
8. The Penguin Vs Batman
The criminal alter-ego of Oswald Cobblepot, The Penguin is borne of systematic bullying experienced at the hands of his family and the wider Gotham society. He is rejected by his father and siblings, smothered by his mother, and physically and psychologically tortured by his peers, mainly due to his short, round stature and large, beak-like nose. His unfortunate appearance, coupled with his affinity for his mother’s bird collection, earns him the nickname ‘Penguin’, which he readily embraces in reverence to the penguin’s adaptability and decisiveness when under attack. Following the death of his siblings and father, and his mother’s descent into a catatonic state, Oswald becomes a criminal mastermind with many ties to the underworld. His gentlemanly exterior hides an angry, power-hungry manipulator who will stop at nothing in his pursuit of respect and subservience. With many animated appearances to his name, The Penguin was played in the 1966 TV series Batman by Burgess Meredith, and in the 1992 film Batman Returns by Danny DeVito.
9. Baron Helmut Zemo Vs Captain America
With perhaps the most straightforward origin story, Baron Helmut Zemo is the 13th Baron in the German Zemo family line. His father, Heinrich was a Nazi war criminal that taught his son that the master race should rule the world. He was killed by Captain America before his disappearance and, though he had forged a successful life for himself as an engineer, Helmut was enraged by Captain America’s return. Among his strategies as a Supervillain, Helmut has led the Masters of Evil – a team of Supervillains that has variously included The Mandarin, Doctor Octopus, Max Fury and Ultron. Baron Helmut Zemo is driven by the simple, singular desire for revenge, and as such, poses one of the greatest threats to Captain America. Despite being one of Captain America’s main enemies, Baron Helmut Zemo has so far only ever appeared in animation.
10. Ultron Vs The Avengers
The result of something of a ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ story, Ultron is man-made. He is created by Dr Henry Pym as an exploration of Artificial Intelligence, never before attempted. Unfortunately, Ultron becomes something more than sentient, and begins to rebel against his creator and his programming. In a bid for the freedom to pursue his own agenda, Ultron defeats Dr Pym, leaving him brainwashed and unable to recall even the existence of his creation. Ultron wants to rule the world. The Avengers want to stop him. It’s as simple as that. The character of Ultron has appeared in numerous animated versions, and will make his big screen debut in Avengers: Age of Ultron, played by James Spader. Filmmaker Joss Whedon has confirmed, however, that the origin of Ultron will be altered and ‘trimmed’.
While the Supervillain is a thorn in the side of each of our favourite Superheroes, these incredible fantasy worlds would be nowhere without them, or their brutal origin stories.