Man of Steel, the sixth film featuring Superman, comes out this Friday, June 14th. Warner Brothers has already put the wheels in motion for a sequel to the film, in anticipation of blockbuster success. Since Man of Steel isn’t even quite out yet, we obviously don’t know much about what a sequel to it might hold, although speculation suggests that as Lex Luthor is reportedly not in Man of Steel, the screenwriters may be following the Dark Knight path of putting Superman’s main villain in the following film. But that doesn’t mean they necessarily will, or that he’ll necessarily be alone — and, of course, we can expect that Warner Brothers would probably want a third film at some point as well, with its own villain or villains.
As I stated in Top 10 Unfilmed Batman Villains, a comic book movie is often only as good as its villains. And when it comes to Superman, the movie villains begin with Lex Luthor and end with General Zod. Luthor has shown up in all but the third film and, reportedly, the new one. General Zod is in the first (in cameo), second, and newest. And that has been it for comic book villains in the film franchise; the third and fourth films created new villains from scratch.
This means that there are several possible choices for Warner Brothers to use out of existing comic book characters. Not as many as Batman, perhaps, but still enough to provide some interesting story choices.
When making my selections for my top 10 list, I had a few different factors that I used for selecting and ranking. How recognizable the character is to the public at large was a factor, but not a huge one; it’s enough to get a character on the list, as a rule, but a character being obscure didn’t rule them out or even make them low-ranked. After all, General Zod was essentially unheard of before Superman II, and 30 years later he’s still riding that wave of popularity to the point of being used in WB’s attempt to revitalize the franchise. Variety was also a factor in my choices; I could have filled the whole list with different evil Kryptonians and pseudo-Kryptonians if I wanted to, but given that “Evil Superman” is essentially the plot to a fair number of the existing films already, I didn’t want to go too heavily in that direction. My biggest criteria, however, was simply what I thought would make a good Superman story for the cinema. If I had trouble figuring out how the character might serve the franchise, they were left off, or at least ranked lower. Fortunately, a lot of them work well as henchmen for Lex Luthor even if they can’t necessarily carry a film on their own, and Luthor setting supervillains is a long-established part of the franchise. I’ll also note that when considering a character “unfilmed”, I’m only looking at theatrical features; just about every Superman villain of note has been shown in some form on television or home video.
Those were the criteria, now on with the list.
Honorable Mention: Doomsday
Ah, Doomsday. If you’re not a comic book reader, there’s a good chance you don’t know Doomsday. If you are a comic book reader, there’s a good chance you were expecting him to have made the list proper; this honorable mention slot is to explain why he didn’t. For those who don’t know, think back to 1993, when Superman made the news for having been killed off (temporarily, of course) in the comic books. Doomsday was the character who brought that about. An alien threat of (then) unknown origin, Doomsday was as strong or stronger than Superman, and stopping his rampage took everything that Superman had.
It’s a great big slugfest of the type that would provide the action that is often criticized as being lacking in Superman films. So why is he just an honorable mention? Because that’s literally all he’s got going for him. The character has no personality to speak of; as far as characterization goes, he may as well be a Kryptonian grizzly bear. He has no motivations beyond rampaging, and no purpose beyond allowing DC Comics to have a big event called The Death of Superman. More so than most comic characters, Doomsday was just a marketing tool, and little has been done to change that since his original story, a story which had nothing to it beyond the slugfest… and which showed that, when that’s all there is, there really isn’t much of a reason to read the story. The Death of Superman led to some interesting stories, but it was not, itself, interesting — and wouldn’t be on the big screen either. If Warner wants a big threat for a slugfest, they have much better options available.
Honorable Mention: Mr. Mxyzptlk
Mr. Mxyzptlk is an imp from the fifth dimension, whose powers — though commonplace in his own realm — resemble incredibly powerful magic on Earth. Virtually anything that can be imagined is within the range of Mxyzptlk’s abilities, and he typically uses these powers to harass and annoy Superman, whom he views as one of the few beings who provides enough of a challenge to be interesting. Mxyzptlk can visit Earth’s dimension only a few times a year, and is banished when an agreed-upon criteria is met — typically saying his name backwards.
As a character who has made regular appearances in the comics for decades, along with numerous appearances in Super Friends and the occasional showing in later programs, Mr. Mxyzptlk is one of Superman’s more recognizable foes. But what’s keeping him from properly making the list is simply the difficulty in bringing him to film. The way he is normally handled in the comic books and cartoons, he’s a strictly comedic character; his shenanigans are irritating, but not truly harmful. Any appearance of Mxy that was true to the comics would represent a significant tonal shift from what Warner Brothers (and audiences) are likely to want for a Superman film. Alternatively, if they took out the comedy it would not only be untrue to the character, it would also make him too much of a threat; a serious Mxyzptlk could wipe out the planet, Superman included, in the blink of an eye. And a middle ground would be tricky to navigate. I’m not saying a Mxyzptlk movie couldn’t be done, I just don’t see it as being very likely.
#10: Silver Banshee
Siobhan McDougal underwent a secret family ritual without permission from her patriarch, and as a result wound up as the Silver Banshee, a supernatural being with tremendous power. As the Banshee, she possesses superhuman strength and speed, as well as the ability to fly. More importantly, she has a supernatural banshee wail which can kill even beings as powerful as Superman — provided she knows their true name.
Silver Banshee could be a powerful villain to use in a Superman movie, and the battle scenes — complete with a certain element of aerial cat-and-mouse — could be a lot of fun to watch. The hook of needing his name could provide an element of danger to Kal-El’s identity, given the propensity of various people to stumble upon his private lair. (How a lair in the arctic is so consistently insecure is a question for another time). However, I can’t put her any higher on the list than #10, as the supernatural element — while posing a threat to Superman as one of his few non-Kryptonite weaknesses — is something that viewers may not feel fits well with the more science-fictiony style of most Superman stories. She may be better suited for the Justice League Dark adaptation that keeps getting bandied about.
A character from Superman: The Animated Series, Volcana had only a couple appearances in the cartoon, and fewer still in the comics. As a result, she is not only relatively obscure, but is also fairly short on character development. Any screenwriter who wished to use her would have to do a lot of work developing her backstory and motivations.
So why does she make the list? Besides contributing to the scarce number of female villains in comic book movies, there’s her powers. Volcana is a powerful pyrokinetic, able to create and control fires of great size and intensity. Superman villains typically have either great physical power (e.g., General Zod) or great mental power (e.g., Lex Luthor). Volcana’s abilities represent a third type of power, one that serves as offensive weapon but isn’t mere muscle. It’s also a power that, while Superman is immune to it, could pose a significant threat to the city of Metropolis. And, frankly, it’s a power that could look pretty good on the big screen.
Adding to her screen potential is what little does exist of her backstory. Volcana was given her powers as part of a covert government experiment. With the apparent distrust shown by the government in previews for Man of Steel, it would be very easy to work in Amanda Waller and/or General Wade Eiling, a pair of well-intentioned extremists heading up black ops and the military, respectively. Either could easily be behind the creation of a secret government project to set up their own superhumans to deal with the Kryptonian… “just in case”.
The one “Evil Superman” I decided to put on the list, and probably the most recognizable with the exception of Zod. Bizarro’s origins sometimes differ in the comics and television series, depending on what medium and what era he’s being written in, but the core of the character remains the same. Bizarro is a dim-witted, backwards version of Superman, with powers that closely resemble Superman’s but are sometimes inverted (such as having freeze vision). Bizarro’s strength and abilities would make him a credible threat to the Man of Steel on the big screen. What holds him back on the list, though, is the sense of familiarity that would be present in using him for a film; between two appearances of General Zod, and Superman III, they’ve already used “Evil Superman” a lot.
However, despite that similarity, he remains usable where some other “Evil Supermen” would not. This is primarily because Bizarro, in most incarnations, isn’t exactly an evil Superman so much as a deeply misguided one. Bizarro is typically portrayed as having an almost childlike innocence, and much of the trouble he gets into is either accidental or through being misled by more intelligent villains. A story of Lex Luthor manipulating the naive Bizarro has worked in both comics and cartoons in the past, and could work for the big screen as well, bringing some pathos to the “villain”.
Another possibility for a team-up with Lex Luthor is John Corben, the cyborg known as Metallo. Corben’s metallic body gives him tremendous strength, but what makes him one of Superman’s most dangerous threats is his heart — a solid chunk of green kryptonite which not only powers his cyborg body but allows him to project its deadly radiation at Superman. Metallo occupies an interesting niche in Superman’s catalog of villains; he’s a villain who is capable of going toe-to-toe with Superman, and yet unlike many of them, he doesn’t feel like he’s “larger than life”. Though he’s more machine than man, he feels more down-to-earth due to being from Earth; he isn’t another Kryptonian or other-worldly invader. This gives him some similarities in tone to Lex Luthor, who in a film could be responsible for providing the financial backing that turns Corben into the cyborg to begin with (an origin that was used for the animated series, although not the comics). If the sequel to Man of Steel really is introducing Lex Luthor, it’s very plausible that it could include Metallo to pose a physical threat to Superman.
The second animated series character on the list, and the third villainess, Livewire offers many of the same advantages as Volcana. She has the same style of offensive power, one that deals with energy rather than brute force or raw intelligence, though she certainly has a degree of cunning to her. What’s more, her power — if we go by the animated series — is actually capable of causing Superman pain. This makes her a villain who is able to be an equal of sorts to Superman — in that each is a threat to the other — without being the same as Superman, the way General Zod and Bizarro are. Varied and equal threats are important for the long-term health of a superhero film franchise.
Livewire’s backstory is, despite being written in the 90s, a very “Silver Age” origin story. A shock-jock radio host, she became a literal shocker due to an accident with electrical wiring during an outdoor concert. This left her as living energy, capable of manipulating electricity and magnetism — and also left her completely psychotic. She’s a Batman type of villain operating at a Superman threat level.
Another villain created through a freak accident, exposure to radioactive chemicals left Rudy Jones in the form of the Parasite, a large purple-skinned being with the ability to absorb energy from other living things. When Parasite uses this ability, he not only drains the life force from people, but also their memories — and any superpowers they may have. This makes him a formidable threat to the Man of Steel, as not only could he easily learn Clark Kent’s secret identity, but any confrontation with him involves the risk that he could wind up with Superman’s powers. And even worse than a typical “Evil Superman” villain is the fact that when Parasite has Superman’s powers… Superman doesn’t. A Superman film in which Superman has to spend part of it trying to fight someone with his powers while being powerless himself could, if written well, provide an interesting twist on the franchise. Particularly if he finds himself having to go to Lex Luthor for pointers. Providing another possible twist on the usual tropes of movie supervillains is that unlike most villains created through freak accidents, Rudy Jones is typically not portrayed as being insane, but merely opportunistic. While not a particularly intelligent villain, he’s not as given to the wild rampages and is more likely to be committing super-crime. This not only would allow the plot to ramp up gradually as Parasite becomes increasingly daring, it would also help prevent it from being too dark for a Superman movie during the period when Parasite is fully powered and Superman is powerless.
#4: Manchester Black
Much like Doomsday, Manchester Black was created for a single story — in his case, one that even lasted only a single issue (though, comics being what they are, he did have some subsequent appearances). Manchester Black is a powerful psychic, and the leader of a new team of superheroes known as the Elite. But the Elite aren’t the standard Silver Age clean-and-upright type of superheroes; rather, they are a gang of powerful anti-heroes, who are not only willing to kill a villain, they prefer it. This, of course, brings them into conflict with Superman, who has always viewed killing as a line not to be crossed.
As the leader of the Elite, Manchester Black provides a sharp contrast to the Man of Steel’s sense of morality, and a challenge to it as well. With Manchester Black meeting with public approval due to putting down villains who have been recurring threats, Superman is forced to ask whether his way is still the right way. And it ultimately concludes with a climax and demonstration that yes, Superman and his dedication to truth, justice, and the American way are as relevant as ever, or even more so. It’s true that Superman vs. the Elite has already been adapted into an animated film, but this wouldn’t prevent a good live-action adaptation from working (any more than the numerous Batman films have hindered new versions). And with a lot of internet chatter still expressing skepticism about Superman’s “goody-goody” nature, the story could be a much-needed antidote to the notion that a superhero has to be dark in order to be interesting.
Who is the biggest potential threat to Earth? Darkseid is. The undisputed ruler of the planet Apokolips, Darkseid is a being who not only styles himself a new god… he has the power to support the claim. More cunning than Lex Luthor, more powerful than Superman, and with the loyalty of an entire planet behind him, Darkseid is more than capable of defeating even the most powerful of heroes. Using Darkseid in a Superman film would provide an opportunity to see something that is otherwise unlikely to show up on the silver screen. We’ve seen Superman challenged, we’ve seen him equaled… but with Darkseid we could see him outmatched. How does the most powerful man on Earth deal with an enemy that’s far more powerful? Add in the inherent threat of Darkseid’s desire to conquer Earth, and the story almost writes itself.
So why, considering the story potential, does Darkseid only make it to #3 on my list? Because he’s almost too big for a Superman movie. Darkseid is a classic example of a villain who is designed for a team effort; indeed, the only bigger villain in the entire DC Universe is the Anti-Monitor, a character specifically designed to eliminate universes. Darkseid would make a good Superman movie villain… but he’d make a better Justice League movie villain. Of course, DC and Warner Brothers would have to deal with the risk of it looking like they’re mimicking Marvel’s use of Thanos in Avengers 2 (which, given that Thanos was inspired by Darkseid, would be a note of irony). But even with the caveat that Darkseid is probably best suited for the team movie, that doesn’t mean he can’t have an influence on a Superman film… which brings us to our next entry…
Just because Darkseid is possibly a bit too much for a Superman movie doesn’t mean Darkseid’s son wouldn’t be a good fit. While not as powerful as Darkseid, Kalibak is still more than capable of going toe-to-toe with Superman, and though he’s not long on brains, he has enough feral cunning to be a worthy opponent in combat… and also to lead a few phalanges of Darkseid’s parademons.
Using Kalibak would allow the screenwriters to have the best of both worlds. They could present the Apokoliptian threat and have Superman face an immense challenge without having it quite be too much, and without using up one of their “big guns” that they would like to save for a Justice League movie. And it would provide a natural segue into the team movie. Superman fends off one of the biggest threats he’s ever faced, only to find out it was just a preliminary foray into Earth. The real threat is yet to come, and it’s much bigger. He’s going to need some help….
Selecting the #1 unfilmed Superman villain was the easiest choice on the whole list. As a villain, Brainiac has it all. A living computer, he is hyper-intelligent, capable of out-thinking either Superman or Lex Luthor, with the one weakness being his tendency to underestimate emotion. As a cyborg, he’s also powerful enough — in both physical strength and armament — to take on the Man of Steel. He has the ability to pose a threat to the entire planet, and his methodology of reducing populations — either by shrinking them to collect or by assimilating them as data — has the potential to evoke a real sense of awe and intimidation in the audience, particularly when coupled with the sheer scope of his operation. He would also be visually impressive with today’s special effects. And he’s a classic villain that would be recognizable even to many people who aren’t comic book readers.
Brainiac was almost used in Superman III (partnered with Mr. Mxyzptlk, of all characters), but the script was discarded. 30 years later, it’s time to get the ball rolling on finally getting him to the big screen. Maybe not for the film right after Man of Steel, if they want to introduce Lex Luthor first, but certainly by the one after. Warner, before the decade is out, bring us Brainiac.
And those are my choices for the best unfilmed Superman villains. Ten villains who haven’t been used in live-action Superman films, but who would lend themselves to good stories for the big screen. Disagree with the rankings? Think I left someone out? Let me know in the comments. The Man of Steel sequel is already on its way. Who do you think should be in it?