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If you ask the average person who the best villain is in the world of comic books they will likely all answer with the same name, The Joker. He is a juggernaut on both the printed page and the big screen, garnering more attention than any other baddie that has come before or after him. But is he truly the greatest villain in all of comics?
To answer that question, it is first necessary to take a look at what exactly it is that gives The Joker his mass appeal. On the surface, you would be forgiven for thinking that he is nothing more than your run of the mill psychopath with a flashier than usual attire. That, however, would be selling him desperately short as there is much more to unravel with this enigmatic character.
Motivation is usually the most important factor for any villain in any rogues gallery but when it comes to The Clown Prince of Crime there is no obvious factor that causes him to act in the way that he does. Hints have been given to explain his behaviour, and if you read The Dark Knight Returns then it is made quite clear that he is driven only by the existence of The Batman. This is just one writer’s perspective on the incredibly complex criminal but it does go a long way to building the unique relationship which The Bat shares with his greatest enemy. There is a real sense that both men need each other and so they are inexorably intertwined in one another’s lives, something that rarely is the case for other villains as they terrorise multiple heroes with schizophrenic accuracy.
His relationship to Batman is not, however, the main reason that fans have latched onto him and made The Joker a media colossus. No, that can instead be attributed to the fact that he is not some loon who pops up now and again and destroys a city block for little reason but is rather an enduring and layered character who, despite the aforementioned lack of motivation, always has a complex and harrowing plan which regularly makes for some of the most gut-wrenching and must-read storylines in all of comics. Take, for instance, Death of the Family, the Scott Snyder penned masterpiece that sees a faceless Joker terrorise Batman, Gotham City, and his entourage of caped allies too. It could easily be argued that no other villain could have helmed such an emotional and tense plot without it feeling hokey and the ending being a foregone conclusion. With The Joker, you genuinely do not know what he is going to do next and due to that it is easy to buy into plots involving him, no matter how ludicrous, because he may very well kill Robin, as he has done in the past, or, as has been seen more recently, cut his own face off just to further his twisted plot.
It would be remiss not to take a moment to mention the big screen adaptations of The Man Who Laughs as they may well be the biggest factor for his modern-day surge in popularity. One man deserves much of the credit for this as it was Heath Ledger’s seminal turn in the role that caused millions of fans who had never been exposed to a comic book in their life to suddenly discover the monstrous brilliance of The Joker. His perfect mix of insanity and intelligence made for the most dangerous depiction of the man so far and led to The Dark Knight being heralded as not just one of the greatest superhero movies ever but one of the greatest movies full stop. Jared Leto would later prove that this popularity cannot be dented with his highly polarising time in the position, though it would be unfair to blame him for the horrendous direction and editing work on Suicide Squad.
So then, with all of this in mind and the knowledge that this has only been a very cursory look at The Joker’s appeal it has to be asked: who else could possibly lay claim to the title of comics’ greatest villain? Well, believe it or not, there are a few names that find themselves in the running.
Many will point at other rogues from Batman’s gallery but let’s take it as a given that Joker is the best of them and look a little further afield.
If it is that human element that makes Joker so terrifying, his lack of any powers beyond his depraved imagination, then one cannot discuss other greats without mentioning Kingpin. Wilson Fisk has been a thorn in the side of many heroes but most notably, Daredevil. He is another man who is just that, a man. He has no powers aside from money and ridiculous endurance and strength and that is precisely what makes him so effective. He’s not some farfetched being from another world but is rather a near perfect embodiment of man’s darker nature. His avarice leads him to near destroy his city through gang wars and corruption and that is something that many people around the world can relate to as street gangs and politicians alike use their wealth, power, and influence to twist the world in line with their vision.
He has seen his stock rise exponentially after a starring role in Netflix’s Daredevil but if you were to look back into his comic book archive you would find that he has been delivering an evil brand of brilliance for a great many years. His attempts to bring down Daredevil, Spider-Man, and Punisher have been legendary and provided some of the most compelling reading you’ll find in Marvel’s back catalogue. He is a titan of industry and a criminal mastermind who most definitely has a clear plan in mind and will stop at nothing to achieve it, the question is whether that clear direction makes him more or less scary than The Joker?
Shifting gear, let’s look at a less grounded bad guy in the form of Venom. Now, for this candidate it is necessary to disregard the notion of humanity being the source of great villainy as Venom is, in reality, nothing more than a symbiote life form that latches onto other creatures to form a co-dependent relationship. It is precisely this though that makes it such a worthy entry in this discussion.
Venom is in the somewhat unique position where, if a character becomes a little stale in the role, the suit can just switch to a new host allowing the series to hit the refresh button immediately. Due to this you get an infinitely interesting situation whereby nearly anybody can don the suit which makes things rather interesting especially when someone such as Old Man Logan finds himself bonded with it.
For a moment, though, consider just Eddie Brock as the quintessential Venom. If The Joker’s relationship with Batman makes for compelling material then his connection to Spider-Man as well as the suit’s has to make for even more interesting reading. Eddie is a relatively ordinary man who feels that he has been done wrong by Peter Parker and his feelings of revenge only intensify when he bonds with the symbiote as it had previously been bonded with Parker and also has desires to gain revenge on the original host who cast it out. This dynamic between three individual personalities is something that is quite unique in the entirety of entertainment, not just comics, and surely that allows Venom to be a real contender to the crown.
A final consideration has to be given to Thanos. Yes, he is a god and so the relatability angle takes something of a tumble but he still manages to be complex and engaging despite his seemingly overpowered nature.
The reason for this is likely due to his subconscious desire not to succeed. When you think about it that is actually quite a deep issue for such a larger than life character and could easily cause one to become introspective for a moment as you realise that most of us harbour some self-destructive tendencies. He has all the power in the universe and should have no issue dispatching The Avengers and Guardians but he himself becomes his own greatest adversary and prevents his empire from spanning the galaxy.
Of course, there is also the fact that Thanos is the reason for one of the best story arcs of all time in the form of The Infinity Gauntlet and has been the greatest enemy in the MCU thus far despite making only fleeting appearances at the time of writing. That speaks to some serious star power and you have to question if The Joker could do the same thing? Suicide Squad would make a good case for him not having this same ability.
Those are, arguably, the four best villains for the two big comic companies, but which one is the best? There is no definitive answer as each choice is just one person’s opinion and someone else will certainly hold differing opinions and have candidates not even discussed here but from the options listed it has to be The Joker. He just has that special something that the rest of these titans of the genre can’t contend with and that je ne sais quoi is what makes it impossible to deny him the position of the greatest villain in all of comics and one of the best in all of cinema too.