10 Favorite Reformed Supervillains

So DC recently announced that after Forever Evil, Lex Luthor was going to join the Justice League. No wonder half the members move to Canada. This has, like so many DC decisions of the past three years, set the Internet ablaze. I invite you to check out Snell's rant over at Slay Monstrobot for why commentators find this offensive, but for me, the decision is mostly boring, which is the greatest sin of all. DC has simply overdone this trope. The New52 has had several books starring villains in the "heroic" role already - Deathstroke, Sinestro (in GL, but he will get his own title too), Suicide Squad, Catwoman, Larfleeze, Red Hood, Red Lanterns, Harley Quinn, etc. - spent a month on villain origins and then giving those villains the run of several books, which is still ongoing. DONE. TO. DEATH. Lex as a protagonist was done recently too, when he took over Action Comics in the year before Flashpoint. It was fun, and no one thought he was anything but a villain. It was a book like the Joker, Kobra and Eclipso have had. But as a member of the Justice League? Does DC even know what that franchise, no, those WORDS mean? Because another version of Luthor? Maybe. This one? Psychotic murderer. Unless it's all a hoax and he's the goodie Luthor of Earth-3, it doesn't make any sense. No way does this guy "reform" in any meaningful way.

Which got me to thinking about some favorite reformed villains and what made THOSE stories palatable, and indeed, fascinating. I've drawn up a list (hard to keep it at 10, so sorry if I missed your favorite), which might hold the clues to what those crucial elements are. There's no order here, let's just start with...
Loki. Or Kid Loki as we call him. The God of Lies died and was reincarnated into a child, the slate wiped clean, so to speak, though most of Asgard continues to mistrust him. And they should. He hasn't lost his memories or anything. But he still believably wants to do good, though his methods are those of his former self - lies within lies, secret deals, blackmail and dark magic. Kieron Gillen's run with the character in Journey Into Mystery and then Young Avengers was nothing short of brilliant. As was the character. Villains who are used to facing powerful physical heroes tend to use their brains instead, and I do love a well-written supersmart character. Unlike Luthor, he comes in a disarming package, but also isn't a killer. Whatever his past self might have done, he's now exclusively concentrating on being the best cosmic grifter in the universe.
Bronze Tiger. Here's a former assassin who, by the time he joined Ostrander's Suicide Squad, was already being used as a hero, but a tortured one. Martial arts have given him the discipline to tame the killer inside him, and I especially liked how he befriended Jihad member Ravan, someone with similar skills and lifestyle, and tried to help him reform. It's supervillainy as addiction, and to see someone actually struggle with this, act as a sponsor and guide to another, etc. was one of the Squad's better (and rarely discussed) subplots.
Bane. I was a big fan of Gail Simone's Secret Six, but though they operated as "heroes" (in that they usually went up against worst villains), few could actually be said to be "reformed". Bane was though. He too struggled with addiction, making him swear off the Venom that gave him his powers, turning to God like many criminals actually do in prison, and his motives were noble and altruistic. It's doubly surprising that I'd care to put him on this list because as a villain, he's boring as hell. He was basically Batman's Doomsday, a creature invented to break the hero and with nowhere to go after that except make dull repeat appearances and try to recapture his past, editor-engineered glory. So there's more than one redemption at work here.
Hawkeye. An example of a super-criminal reformed long ago to the point where his villainy can be used a trivia question. Here, having done wrong in the past gives the character a motivation to do good today, trying to make things right. And it works partly on the basis that when he was one, supervillains weren't universally portrayed as psycho killers. So Hawkeye never got the chance to do things that would make him irredeemable.
Rogue. A special case, it's likely that had Rogue never "killed" Ms. Marvel and absorbed her entire being, she would still be a villain today. Merging her personality with that of a heroine means she could do a reverse Dark Phoenix and play for the angels' team, but also have ample reason for the angst being an X-Man calls for.
Black Widow. Mercenaries and spies who get into superheroic action can get a pass from me because all they need to do is change bosses. The Widow was early on a villain, sharing history with Hawkeye, but working for the USSR and SHIELD are two different things. Writers can decide to show her nobility, have her defect to the "right" side, and she still works as a character. I suppose DC's Deathstroke could fall into this category, but I hate everything about him. If I had to name another favorite here, it would be Taskmaster, who has worked with SHIELD to great effect in his own recent mini-series.
Vandal Savage. Always been a tyrant, this one. And by "always", I practically mean since the dawn of time. He was a bad caveman made immortal and is still around in the future, according to some stories. But as a member of the Demon Knights, he worked very well as a "hero". Why? Because of the time frame. The Middle Ages don't have the same moral parameters as the modern day, and as a badass with many vices, but some momentary loyalty to his traveling companions, he proved fun. These guys were all armed with swords and other iron age weapons; killing in battle wasn't really an ethical problem, you know? Think of it this way: If Conan was a modern character, but acted exactly the same, he'd be a villain too.
Dragon Man. A sweet and fun example of a monster made more human and thus redeemed, the synthetic Dragon Man was given genius-level intelligence and became a frequently amusing intellectual pacifist, currently teaching the kids at a the FF's Freedom Foundation. Sometimes you need a complete lobotomy to make a villain work. With a near-mindless monster, it's the opposite that turns the creature into someone who can make moral decisions and choose a different path. The Hulk could fall in this category.
Spike. Just to get out of comics for a minute, here we have a ruthless vampire who was one of the most evil creatures on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and who gave it all up... for love. As a victim of his own passions, it was actually believable that he'd turn over a new leaf for an emotional reason, and great fun to see him grumble his way through heroic deeds that were against his nature. Not wanting to be a hero and still being one is a great motivation for a character. And it's also found in...
Superior Spider-Man. Doctor Octopus has been driving Peter Parker's body since last year (seems longer), and has had all sorts of reasons for staying legit, one of which was having access to Parker's memories, necessary to keep up his pretense, which changed him. A hero's memories. The memories of the person who had learned a hard lesson from his uncle's death. Ock was less heroically motivated by jealousy, that Spider-Man's achievements were recognized, while his own genius wasn't. This has led him to continue as Spider-Man to OUTDO Spider-Man in every way. Of course, the cracks started showing. The willingness to kill. The use of HQs and minions and traps and ploys, more proactive than reactive, trying to get rid of the personal impediments that keps Parker from giving himself to the fight 24/7. After purging Parker's memories, the line became even more blurry, and there will be a reckoning. If Superior's popularity is part of the impetus to put Lex in the League, well, I can't see any of this translating to Lex's particular circumstances. Ockspider has been a great story, only showing fatigue from time to time, exploring what makes a hero, and how a villains' methods might be used to do good, or ultimately corrupt the hero using them. Luthor (and Captain Cold, he's joining too) could be used for that, but it's a story that's just been told and that would be redundant. I don't think that'll be it.

I can't see him conforming to any of the things discussed above. I don't think I'll buy (in all senses of the word) his "redemption", whatever it is.

23 comments:

d said...

How bout that issue of Marvel 2-in-1 where The Sandman reformed after going drinking with The Thing?

Martin Léger said...

My picks would be Plastic Man and Godzilla.

Siskoid said...

d: Sometimes all you need is a bit of social lubricant to repair broken bridges.

Marty: I could not count Plastic Man because he's a former criminal, sure, but became a hero in his origin story. So he was never a "supervillain". I did think of Godzilla, but I would have had to stretch the definition of the word as well.

Matt Celis said...

My Luthor wears either prison greys or green-n-purple battle armor and has but one reason to live: revenge against Superman for making him prematurely bald. I don't know what version would WANT to be on a team with Superman. Must be a '90s thing, I dunno, I quit DC shortly after the "Crisis."

Siskoid said...

As you can see from the pic above, Superman won't be in the team anymore.

Craig Oxbrow said...

Having a villain working with heroes to save the world, that's fine. In fact, I love a good "enemies side by side" bit.

Don't try to spin that "relative" bit though. Grr.

Matt Celis said...

I can only assume he got disgusted at th idea of working with some gun-toting "badass," angry nasty modern Batman, Xena-ripoff WW, glow-in-the-dark Captain Marvel, and the rest, and therefore resigned from
the DC Universe altogether. That would make sense. That picture looks like a team of villains.

Matt Celis said...

Is that supposed to be Cyborg on the right side?!?! Captain Cold on the left?! Hell, this bunch makes Vibe and Gypsy look like classics.

SallyP said...

All excellent choices indeed. God, I miss Secret Six.

American Hawkman said...


Personally, I like the idea of Luthor giving the idea of being a public hero a go. It's exactly the sort of pretense that appeals to his ego, especially if it hurts Superman enough to leave the League for him to do so. Nobody actually expects Luthor to be a REAL hero, but his ego could very well drive him into trying to be one to show up Superman. I'll note that Post-CRISIS Luthor has done this before, trying to steal the Justice League out from under Superman in Rock of Ages, and acting as a hero to gain public acclaim in Final Night. It'll be interesting.

That said, Captain Cold as hero actually interests me a LOT more. Cold's turn to crime has always been basically because he wanted respect and money... in other words, exactly the sort of person who could get seduced by the idea of being a hero, as Thunderbolts shows us. Cold's also not a killer, except in exceptional circumstances, which helps. He's the one that I'm really interested in seeing if he can turn it around, as opposed to Luthor, who we ALL know WILL turn on the League eventually.

Matt Celis said...

Let's recruit short-shorts Brainiac, Grodd, and Grundy and just call it the Legion of Doom.

Randal said...

Sandman is a good one....hooked up with Silver Sable's crew for awhile. Molten Man comes to mind. Lizard. Venom. Spidey's got a lot, doesn't he?

wriphe said...

When I first head this news about Luthor, I thought it was just another example of DC following Marvel and making their bad guy an anti-hero. And... I still think that.

I'm bothered that DC has created a universe where a Lex Luthor COULD join the Justice League. That any member of the League would sponsor him for membership.... Maybe if no one had ever met or heard of Lex Luthor before. (Luthor as Tomorrow Woman, I guess.) But the same Lex Luthor who has always been one of Superman's most determined opponents? No. Just no.

(For the record, I wouldn't say I'm bent out of shape about this news. For that, I'd have to care. And I no longer care about the DC Universe, or anything that happens in it. FLASHPOINT took care of that.)

Andrew said...

I can actually see a scenario where this could work. It starts with LexCorp Luthor losing his position as the most powerful man in Metropolis. He then does his battle armor thing as a hero, to prove that Superman isn't all that special. Until it all goes wrong and he's left revealed as the base villain he really is.

So it'd be a combination of the Lexor saga and Lex "Junior"'s single adventure as a member of Team Luthor.

Siskoid said...

While I agree with you guys that it COULD work, and American Hawkman, I like your take on Captain Cold in this.

Theoretically, it could work. It would certainly have been able to work back when Lex was a businessman who hadn't gone to prison for supervillainy, which isn't this Lex. But I've basically sworn off the Johns version of the Justice League, a book I find consistently frustrating and unappealing, and I just can't imagine, under the current regime, this story working to my satisfaction.

It could work, as you say, but it won't, not with the current creative team. Or at least, not to my tastes.

Jeff R. said...

Yes, having Lex attempt a face turn is almost as stupid as doing it with Magneto.

Let's see if I can go 10 more good picks without research. Trickster, obviously. Blok. Major Disaster. Big Barda. Bork. Steeljack. And that's it. So no, only 6.

American Hawkman said...

My guess is that Luthor makes his way into the League so Batman can watch him... there's no way ANYONE trusts him. If I were in the League, and Luthor was declaring himself a super hero, I'd want him on hand where Batman can plan around him and we had someone that could LITERALLY force him to be honest, like Wonder Woman, rather than allow him to, say, form his own League with much less trustworthy people and ruin the name of the League.

Johns, for all his flaws, has always shown an exceptional understanding of Captain Cold, his own stated favorite DC character... that's a selling point to me. I guarantee he'll be the one to watch here, while Luthor is just there as what Kurt Busiek likes to call a "crap stirrer"... a character introduced to cause conflict.

Randal said...

Oh, I thought of another one...Awesome Andy!

Anonymous said...

I've always liked Songbird. She went from uninspired villainy to being unsure about herself and her role to being a genuine dark super-hero (look what she did to Bullseye in Ellis's Thunderbolts!).

- Mike Loughlin

Siskoid said...

No slight intended to the Thunderbolts, I just never read the series. From what I've read, Songbird could have easily found her way to those list.

American Hawkman said...

Bronze Tiger is an interesting case here as well, since he began his career as a hero in Richard Dragon: Kung-Fu Fighter and was brainwashed into being a villain afterward.

jdh417 said...

Given some of the actions and attitudes of Justice League members in the comics and movies lately, is Luthor really that out of place?

Siskoid said...

AmHawk: Yes that's true. Maybe I stretched the definition there, but it's another "color" in the supervillain spectrum.

 

Blog Archive

Category

5 Things to Like Activities Advice Aliens Say the Darndest Things Alpha Flight Amalgam Ambush Bug Animal Man anime Aquaman Archetypes Archie Heroes Arrowed Asterix Atom Avengers Awards Babylon 5 Batman Battle Shovel Black Canary BnB 2-in1 Books Booster Gold Buffy Canada Captain America Captain Marvel Cat CCGs Charlton Comics Comics Code Approved Conan Contest Cooking Crisis Daredevil Dating Lois Lane Dating Princess Diana Deadman Dial H Dice Dinosaur Island Dinosaurs Doctor Who Doom Patrol Down the Rabbit Hole Dr. Strange Encyclopedia Fantastic Four Fashion Nightmares Flash Flushpoint Foldees French Friday Night Fights Fun with Covers Galleries Game design Gaming Geekly roundup Geeks Anonymous Geekwear Godzilla Golden Age Grant Morrison Great Match-Ups of Science Fiction Green Arrow Green Lantern Hawkman Hero Points Podcast Holidays House of Mystery Hulk Human Target Improv Inspiration Intersect Iron Man Jack Kirby JLA JSA Judge Dredd K9 the Series Kirby Motivationals Kung Fu Learning to Fly Legion Liveblog Lord of the Rings Machine Man Motivationals Man-Thing Marquee Masters of the Universe Memes Memorable Moments Metal Men Metamorpho Micronauts Mini-Comics Monday Morning Macking Movies Mr. Terrific Music Nelvana of the Northern Lights Nightmare Fuel Number Ones Obituaries Old52 Outsiders Panels from Sheena Paper Dolls Play Polls Questionable Fridays Radio Rants Reaganocomics Recollected Red Bee Red Tornado Reign Retro-Comics Reviews Rom RPGs Sandman Sapphire & Steel Sarah Jane Adventures Saturday Morning Cartoons SBG for Girls Seasons of DWAITAS SF Silver Age Siskoid as Editor Siskoid's Mailbox Spectre Spider-Man Spring Cleaning ST non-fiction ST novels: DS9 ST novels: S.C.E. ST novels: The Shat ST novels: TNG ST novels: TOS Star Trek Suicide Squad Supergirl Superman Supershill Swamp Thing Team Horrible Teen Titans That Franchise I Never Talk About The Prisoner The Thing Then and Now Theory Thor Thursdays of Two Worlds Time Capsule Timeslip Tintin Torchwood Tourist Traps of the Forgotten Realms Toys Turnarounds TV V Waking Life Warehouse 13 Websites What If? Who's This? Whoniverse-B Wikileaked Wonder Woman X-Men Zine