Superman’s Best Villains Are Not The Powerful Ones.

In Superman V. Batman, supposedly we get to see the Man of Steel square off against a foe that has the one asset that Superman doesn’t get from a yellow sun, intelligence. Of course, if you go by Silver Age stories, Superman’s many powers did include intelligence but in modern incarnations everyone tends to stop after the vision powers, so we’re talking about those villains that present a threat to the Man of Steel without being a physical match for him. We know about Lex Luthor so I’ll save him for last.

Winters_as_HumaniteThe Ultra-Humanite. This is the first, and remains one of the best, even after his many different incarnations. Originally a mad scientist, when his frail body failed after a scheme, he had his brilliant criminal brain transplanted into the body of actress Delores Winters, making for one of the most entertaining stories of the Golden Age. In the body of Delores Winters, Ultra showed up once more seducing a nuclear scientist to extort money and valuables, before being foiled by the Man of Steel. Roy Thomas revived this version for one of the best stories in All-Star Squadron that introduced Infinity, Inc. and having Ultra-Humanite work across time with a future incarnation with he same brain in the body of a mutated white gorilla.

ultrahumaniteWhich is how most of us know the Ultra-Humanite. In the body of a mutated white gorilla, the Ultra-Humanite  gained some level of mental powers that he often augmented with technology. It’s these mental abilities that become so problematic for the Man of Steel, since his invulnerability doesn’t extend to his mind. Even in his last appearance, retconned in the pages of Power Girl, he was able to provide a threat to a Kryptonian, ultimately by transferring his brain into the body of one of her friends. Such a ploy would present a problem to Superman, who has a distinct aversion to harming innocent bystanders, and if the Ultra-Humanite were to use one of Superman’s close friends or allies, the conundrum would be even more challenging.

toymanThe Toyman. It’s in the endangering of innocent civilians that the Toyman is so dangerous. In most of his appearances, he keeps Superman so busy trying to prevent the villain from harming anyone, he has no time to actually catch the villain until Winslow Schott lets his guard down in an apparent victory. One of his best incarnations was in the DC Animated Series Superman and Justice League United where his toy-like weapons provided formidable against even Darkseid’s Parademons.

Where the Toyman becomes so dangerous is in how much he points out Superman’s biggest flaw in being only one man that can be in only one place at a time. He also differs in how his silly demeanor hides an inventive criminal genius with an almost endless variety of toy themed weapons and deathtraps. Adding to that is absolutely no concern for others, especially innocent people, and Superman has a hard time dealing with the Toyman every time he surfaces.

MxyzptlkMister Mxyzptlk. Magic is one of Superman’s biggest vulnerabilities, and the silly little man from the fifth dimension never fails to make trouble for Superman by forcing him to cope with the chaos of his mischievous magic. It also forces Superman to use his wits to defeat him, by making him come up with a way to force Mxyzptlk to meet some bizarre condition, traditionally, saying or writing his own name backwards.

His motives vary from mischievious to downright malicious, but never seeming to be in this for personal gain or to conquer anything, just the thrill of making Superman’s life as difficult as possible. How dangerous this villain could be was later explored by Alan Moore in “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?” that ended the Pre-Crisis era for Superman, showing just how dangerous an extra-dimensional being with power over reality could be.

action540Lord Satanis and Syrene. Before Crisis on Infinite Earths, two sorcerors from the far future both wanted control of Superman to recover  the Runestone of Merlin, which would give them the power to rule their Earth. Their plot required an invulnerable body to filter the Runestone’s power and their struggle split Superman in two, and Satanis sent a Superman back to Metropolis without his invulnerability.

This started an almost year-long story where Superman still struggled to still meet his obligations and responsibilities without all of his powers. It was refreshing to see a Superman with limitations, brought about by his vulnerability to magic. By having Superman face off against mystical foes, he has to work his way around fighting them directly. It gets remembered every once in a while with characters like Silver Banshee, but for some reason, writers and editors don’t think we want to see a Man of Steel having to solve a problem or stop a foe in a way other than punching it.

brainiacV2Brainiac. How has any filmmaker (other than Kevin Smith) not thought to use Brainiac as the villain that Superman faces is beyond me. In recent years, Brainiac in the comics has been beefed up to be a physical match for Superman, but he doesn’t need to be. Brainiac has the mental capabilities to put a variety of obstacles in his way and even target the areas where Superman’s weakest, namely his mind and his compassion for others.

Brainiac has had many incarnations over the years, some looking like a green skinned humanoid of his first appearance, and some, like in JLA: Earth 2 were downright alien. My favorite, and it rightfully keeps reappearing in some way, shape or form is the first robotic version of Brainiac. This is most recognizable due to its inclusion in the popular Super Powers toy line.

Brainiac can be a threat for Superman without being all-powerful, as he is depicted in the first issue of Convergeance, but simply being a master of technology that can thwart Kryptonians, even those possessing the powers of Superman. Red Solar radiation, Kryptonite gathered from space travels, and equipment that augments Brainiac’s mental powers and targets Superman’s mind are just some of the ways Brainiac can be a threat without being a cosmic-level entity.

Lex_Luthor_(Justice)_003Lex Luthor. The archenemy. Lex is the one that embodies everything Superman is not. Lex is a normal human, and in some stories, that has been his motivation for trying to kill Superman, in that Superman is an alien,and Lex sees that humanity looking to an alien for protection puts them in a role of subservience to an alien master, not realizing that Superman does not share the goals of someone like Luthor. Other times, Luthor just wants to be worshiped by the world for his accomplishments and his brilliance, and other times, he wants to rule it.

Lex is at his worst, creatively speaking when he tries to physically match the Man of Steel. He’s at his best when he out-thinks him, the most classic case coming from John Byrne’s Superman #2 where Luthor fashions a ring holding a Krptonite gem so that Superman can’t come anywhere near him. That is the example of how Luthor works. He works his mind around the problem and finds a way to meet his goals and keep himself safe. His is not above working with aliens, specifically Brainiac, in order to meet his goals, specifically if that goal is to kill Superman. In recent years, this ruthless scheming has become more a part of Luthor’s character in books like Justice League. Howvere, it still never fails that writers want to put him in armor that lets him physically fight Superman. In Superman Returns, Kevin Spacey demonstrated exactly how Luthor would try to kill Superman, lure him in to an environment that he is de-powered, then physically assault him as if he were no other man, and deliver a final insult with a fatal strike.

Which brings me to my concept for a Superman trilogy. First, Superman faces multiple, low-level threats like the Toyman and Metallo that are all ultimately directed by Luthor, whome he thwarts. Second, he faces the threat of Brainiac and sees no way to stop him than by seeking aid from Luthor. Third, we learn that Luthor used Brainiac to lure Superman in a position to trust him before trying to ultimately destroy him. No Zod, no Doomsday, no Ultraman, no massively powerful foe going toe-to-toe with the Man of Steel. That’s how you give Superman enemies worth his status as Earth’s greatest super-hero. Then we have a Superman worth rooting for.