Batman vs. Superman is out in theaters, and we’re already thinking ahead to the next movie in the Man of Steel series. There’s been a lot of speculation already, and admittedly it’s difficult finding a good Superman villain who works well on film. Lex Luthor and General Zod have both already been done to death, and BvS will reportedly include an appearance by Doomsday. So who’s left?
We’re taking a look at all of Superman’s biggest rogues to try and determine who we’re most likely to see next. A huge criticism frequently aimed at Superman is that he’s too powerful, so it’s difficult finding villains that seem like a reasonable threat. The point of this article is also to go over how many different kinds of Superman villains there are that can challenge him in different ways.
The most important thing to remember is that it’s not about who Superman can fight… it’s about who Superman can save. The best Superman villains are people who can challenge him in other ways than just his fists. That’s why the greatest Superman villain has always been Lex Luthor, because he challenges Superman with his mind, using strategy and psychology and public opinion. There are also a ton of different Superman weaknesses to take advantage of. He’s weak to magic, Kryptonite of course, loss of access to yellow sunlight, mind control, and that’s without getting into the complicated ethical choices he has to make about prioritizing loved ones. Let’s get to it!
Definitely one of Superman’s more popular enemies, Bizarro has already had a couple live-action adaptations. If you don’t know who he is, he’s a sweatshop knockoff-quality clone of Superman who describes himself as Superman’s “perfect imperfect duplicate.” Bizarro usually isn’t portrayed as evil, he’s just horribly misguided and he tries to be like Superman but his brain is all screwy. I think most adaptations of Bizarro so far (I’m talking Smallville and Supergirl) have missed what makes him interesting. There’s a tendency to do Bizarro as this tragic character, the unintelligent clone sent to kill Superman who learns how to be a hero just as he inevitably dies. Honestly, I can’t see the MoS universe suddenly going comedic, but I think the Bizarro that resonates with people is the well-intentioned idiot. There’s a lot of dramatic potential in that guy who’s legitimately trying to be good but just doesn’t understand how to at all. I think a lot of people know a Bizarro in their life… someone really well-intentioned who just wants to help people, who always makes things 1000x worse because they never have any idea what they’re doing. They know what doing good looks like, and they try to kind of mimic it in appearance, but they just lack any awareness of the effect they have on people.
Okay, I’m gonna start off by saying that I think most people get Brainiac wrong. If you don’t know who he is already, depending on the writer, Brainiac is a super-computer from Krypton that gained sentience, OR an alien from the planet Colu who collects planets by shrinking them down and storing them in his awesome Skull-Ship. Most people talk about Brainiac as a villain who challenges Superman’s intelligence, because Brainiac IS super-intelligent, but that’s not really true. Let’s be real here. Brainiac never poses deep philosophical questions to Superman, or makes him think back to high school calculus, or even makes him answer a riddle. Brainiac builds robots that Superman has to fight and that is what he has always done. Don’t get me wrong, I like Superman fighting an army of identical robots! I’m just worried it’s been done. I think a recent example of how to do Brainiac perfectly as a movie villain was the LEGO Justice League movie Cosmic Clash, which focused entirely on the “collector of worlds” interpretation. Brainiac challenges Superman’s humanity by treating him, and the rest of the planet, the way we treat the animals that we put in zoos. He has the potential to raise a lot of interesting questions as a higher being about how and why we define ourselves as “sentient.”
Legion of Super-Villains
This is probably my most controversial pick on this list, and I highly doubt the DCEU is gonna get into the full Legion of Super-Heroes… but hear me out, because I’m more interested in the basic idea here. If you’re not familiar, the Legion are a team of teenage heroes in the 30th century who are inspired by the idea of Superman. I LOVE the original Silver Age story with the Legion of Super-Villains because it’s such a great concept. The story involves Lex Luthor calling these villains in from the future to help him, the same way Superman would call for help from the Legion. I just love the idea that Superman isn’t limited to threats in his own era… Superman’s legend has had such a profound effect throughout history that there are people who haven’t even been born yet that want him dead. They want to murder Superman for inspiring their greatest enemies, and they’re from the far-off future, so they have all sorts of unexpected tricks that Superman can’t predict. It’s such a great way to really establish Superman as living in a larger universe.
I’ve always felt like Maxima is kind of underrated, and she did turn into a hero pretty quickly… but there were a couple of years in the nineties where she was just such a great wildcard. Maxima is the powerful ruler of a planet called Almerac who has strength on par with Superman. She visits Earth to meet Superman when she needs to find a worthy husband to take the throne beside her. This courtship goes poorly when Superman finds out some uncomfortable details like she chews with her mouth open, she has “man hands,” and oh yeah, she’s also a merciless despot. I could probably write a college-length essay on whether her aggressive sexuality is exploitative and sexist or an empowering role-reversal, but, either way, she presents an interesting choice to Superman. She offers him absolute power, a lovingly devoted relationship, and the children that no human woman could give him if he’ll only give up the life he’s built on Earth.
Metallo, a cyborg with a heart made of Kryptonite, has always occupied a weird place in the Superman rogues gallery. He’s one of Superman’s most famous and recognizable enemies, but he’s never really been an A-lister. The Kryptonite thing kind of limits him to Superman, and he’s never been ambitious enough to try for world domination or anything like that. He doesn’t even have that much of a personal connection to Superman, beyond Superman constantly getting in his way. John Corben is a man who’s just constantly imploding and dragging everyone else down with him. The basic story really resonated with me as a kid, Corben was always a criminal, but he went insane after his brain was trapped in the body of a robot. His philosophical struggle to determine whether or not he’s human is very familiar to Superman, looking at that question from a different angle. Ultimately there’s a reason Metallo has no real staying power beyond his original arc, but I think that first story of Corben going insane and coming into conflict with Superman would be a very interesting movie.
Mongul, the intergalactic conqueror, is one of the few villains on this list in Superman’s strength class. He is a brutal tyrannical dictator who wants to rule the universe on a throne of skulls, which makes the guy hard to dislike. Mongul is most widely known for the Black Mercy incident in Alan Moore’s classic story “For the Man Who Has Everything,” but old-school fans associate him more with the always delightful War World. War World is a planet basically built out of guns, that Mongul rules over while he forces the greatest warriors in the universe to fight as gladiators. A story set on War World would deprive Superman of his supporting cast, but it also has a lot of advantages for a cinematic Superman story. The best thing about War World is that surrounding Superman with aliens means it’s easy to justify why the other characters are on his level of strength. It would also be an excellent opportunity to showcase his humanity. Superman never has to work harder to justify his humanity than when he’s chained up like a dog and forced to kill for the amusement of others.
I loved Parasite when I was a kid because he’s such a simple response to the criticism that Superman is overpowered. His ability is to reduce Superman’s power! There have been several different incarnations of Parasite over the years, and none of them have really stuck… when you get down to it his powers and their implication for Superman are more interesting than he is as an actual character. I think the best thing about Parasite is that he facilitates great Superman stories, by knocking Superman down a couple pegs and forcing Superman to examine what it is besides incredible strength that makes him a hero. How much of his bravery is invulnerability? Parasite forces Superman to fight smarter, and he also gives Superman a taste of what it’s like to have real human concerns.
Project Cadmus has seen a lot of different variations over the years, some good and some evil. It’s an underground scientific research center dedicated to genetic experimentations. I’m probably most fond of the DCAU version that’s explicitly a government project dedicated to building a military response in case the heroes of the world go rogue. Cadmus is built on a very real and understandable fear, but their staff of paranoid bureaucrats and unstable mad scientists inevitably leads to horrible insane consequences. They’re a great antagonist to Superman because the monsters they create lead to a lot of interesting physical challenges. The larger questions they raise about what makes Superman special in a world ruled by men are also always interesting to explore.
Superman Revenge Squad
No version of the Superman Revenge Squad has really stuck around that long, and admittedly 50% of the reason why they’re on this list is that I really like the name. Usually, it’s a collection of random C-list villains that have personal grudges against Superman for a variety of reasons. I’m putting them on here just as a reminder that sometimes one villain isn’t the answer. There’s a common criticism that superhero movies are “weighed down” by too many villains, but I think the best supervillain teams aren’t about the individual members. They’re about the ramifications this team has for the hero. In a city filled with people Superman has saved, it’s an interesting flip to meet some lives he might have ruined. I’ve also always just loved the “dogpile” theory of supervillain teams aimed at destroying one common enemy, made popular by the Rogues of the Flash. The villains know that one dude with a weird science gun isn’t gonna take down a member of the Justice League, but hey, if they bombard him with things from different directions, maybe one of them will get lucky.
Toyman has always been one of the weirdest and silliest enemies of Superman. I think they did a great job making him menacing in his recent Supergirl appearance, but it’s hard to take the guy seriously when his gimmick is children’s toys. I think Toyman is at his best in the stories where they really make him out as a creepy loner killing random people for money or weird personal reasons. Obviously, the crotchety overweight Winslow Schott could never take a punch from Superman, but he makes it very challenging for Superman to keep people safe. Schott is smart enough to evade Superman, and forcing Superman to deal with a brilliant but insane serial killer instead of a giant monster is a great way to get him out of his comfort zone.
If you’re wondering about characters that I left out of this article… I intentionally didn’t include any New Gods, Kryptonians, or people from the 5th Dimension, for various reasons.