Over eight years and almost 30 seasons of shows, the Arrowverse has had countless villains. While there have been a few misses over the years, the group of shows that we call the Arrowverse has brought some of the best DC villains to life with comics-perfect looks, great writing, and awesome effects. These are the very best villains from the Arrowverse.
Deathstroke is the first of the great Arrowverse villains and shows off some of the best strengths of this universe of characters while resisting some of the worst tendencies of that same interlocking web of shows.
Slade Wilson joined the Arrowverse before there was an Arrowverse to join. He was Arrow‘s first anti-hero and second villain. Early in Arrow‘s story, Oliver Queen was a clear stand-in for Christopher Nolan’s Batman but on a television scale, and Wilson acted as a kind of Ra’s Al Ghul, helping to train Oliver to survive his life on Lian Yu and conditioning him for the life that was to come. Like Ra’s often does in the comics, Wilson was somewhat of a gray character; he was a dangerous but powerful ally whose future fall was heavily foreshadowed.
Watching Oliver befriend Wilson and then lose him to the Mirakuru serum was heartwrenching and, yet, satisfying as well. And then, slowly, the show redeemed him over the next six seasons, with he and Oliver leaving off maybe not as friends, but at least as allies.
Perhaps most importantly, though, were the casting and costuming. New Zealand actor Manu Bennett had the look and physique to play Slade Wilson, and gave him the gravitas and imposing feel perfect for the character. When he finally suited up, we got the first comics-accurate portrayal of a character’s look in the Arrowverse. To this day, Deathstroke is still one of the coolest and best-realized costumes on any Arrowverse show.
Deathstroke is a near-perfect mix of comics-accurate and tv-adapted. It’s hard to choose between Bennett’s Deathstroke and Esai Morales’ Deathstroke from Titans, but you won’t find me complaining about either.
In jumping from Deathstroke to Damien Darhk, you might think I’m a crazy person. But Damien Darhk’s presence in the Arrowverse is a prime example of context being all-important. Damien Darhk was a terrible villain on Arrow; it wasn’t until Legends of Tomorrow that the character came into his own.
On Arrow, a show about a guy who fires arrows at people, Damien was the absolute last thing the show needed. He was a powerful mage with a single-track mind for world destruction. He never felt at home on the show.
Cue Legends of Tomorrow season 2. After a barely-watchable first season, the Legends threw caution to the wind. Vandal Savage’s place was taken by the Legion of Doom, a kind of best-of of Arrrowverse villains. Reverse-Flash, Malcolm Merlyn, and Damien Darhk. We’ll talk about our favorite yellow speedster in a minute. But Darhk was a perfect fit for Legends and helped put it on the path it’s on today as a slightly sillier show.
The story of season 2 had the Legion of Doom assembling the Spear of Destiny to rewrite reality. Here, Darhk felt right at home. Not only the story, but Darhk’s entire tone fits more appropriately. He was a moustache-twirling Villain, capital V, in a story about rewriting reality itself. Neal McDonough brings a joy to the character that I can’t help but love.
The show would keep him on as a villain in season 3, which allowed the show to introduce his daughter, Nora, the second of four characters named Nora in the Arrowverse. Nora’s storyline both refreshed Damien himself and later put him on a path to three-dimensionality. I don’t know that you could call him redeemed; he did try to nuke earth and rewrite reality. But he was a believable father on Legends in a way he never was on Arrow.
Thanks to Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow, Darhk is simultaneously one of the best and worst Arrowverse villains all at once. That’s time travel for you.
Speaking of recurring villains, Reverse-Flash is perhaps my favorite Arrowverse villain. He’s the reason I fell in love with Reverse-Flash as a character and is the true definition of an arch-nemesis. Back before Barry fought the evil speedster Savitar, or the evil speedster Zoom, Barry’s first opponent in the Arrowverse was Reverse-Flash. The first season of The Flash acted a pseudo-mystery about the identity of Reverse-Flash, playing with our expectations about who he–and Harrison Wells–were.
Though the first season saw Reverse-Flash defeated, he would go on to become the Arrowverse’s first true arch-nemesis. He’s shown up in every season of Flash thus far. He was a major villain in season 1 and 5, a bit player in seasons 2 and 3, and part of the Crisis on Earth-X in season 4. He also played a major role in Legends of Tomorrow season 2, which culminated in one of my favorite moments that year:
This Reverse-Flash was on the run from Time Wraiths looking to correct the timeline, and episodes like Moonshot, which had Thawne and Ray Palmer trapped in the lunar command pod together, again helped give him more dimension not just as a villain, but as an intelligent and pragmatic character. The scene above also reminds us how incredibly powerful Reverse-Flash can be when he wants to. I love that he keeps coming back to cause trouble for Barry and his friends; it’s on-brand for the character and works in the logic of Reverse-Flash’s powers and place in the Arrowverse.
Both Tom Cavanaugh and Matt Letscher portray the character at various times in the Arrowverse, and both lend different tones to the character. The quiet obsession of Cavanaugh’s Eobard Thawne is different from Letscher’s jubilant villainy, but the character is an exception that has worked well in both places. If Deathstroke was the first character to get the comic book “look,” Reverse-Flash was the first to get the comic book “feel.”
It’s easy to overlook Black Lightning when talking about the Arrowverse. In fact, the CW went out of its way to separate the two until this year, when the Crisis finally united them. But it would be a crime to leave out crime-lord Tobias Whale.
Crime lords have often been under-used on Arrowverse shows. It makes sense; how is a gangster going to compete with super-speed, Kryptonian strength, or the kind of training you get when you spend five years in hell?
But Tobias has been a joy to watch from the beginning. Actor/rapper Krondon brings Tobias Whale to life as the diabolical crime lord of Freeland. It would’ve been easy to have Black Lightning defeat him during the first season, getting justice for Whale’s murder of his father so many years ago. That, however, would’ve been a waste.
Tobias, like our next villain, has consistently proven that it’s not superpowers that make him dangerous–though powers certainly help. It’s his mind. He knows who to trust and for how long to trust them. He knows when to cut ties with an asset.
Even when someone gets the better of him, he knows how they think and he knows his value. He knows that Black Lightning can’t kill him and that the ASA won’t. He also is the first villain smart enough to figure out his arch-nemesis’ identity all on his own, I think, and that’s worth some kudos on its own.
Batwoman is in its freshman season this year, but it has already given us one of my favorite villains in Alice. Alice is one character I’ll admit I have absolutely no comic-book familiarity with. A lot of the credit for Alice being such an enjoyable character goes to actress Rachel Skarsten. Skarsten got her start in the DC universe as the Black Canary in the 2003 CW show Birds of Prey. 17 years later, she’s Batwoman’s arch-nemesis Alice.
Skarsten brings a wild energy to Alice that makes her a force to be reckoned with. She’s not stronger or faster than Batwoman, but she’s always planned out further, and she’ll do things no one else will. Characters’ families are often involved in their stories, but it’s rarely so personal or emotionally charged, and Skarsten drives all of that home.
A recent twist in post-Crisis Batwoman disappointed me when it left the chance for some twisted character development on the table, and I’ll fully admit that Batwoman still has to finish out the season to deliver on Alice, but every moment she’s been on screen has turned into a highlight of the show so far. She’s so good, in fact, that I can’t help but worry about the show without her.
Gorilla Grodd stands out from the others on this list if only because he exists entirely as CGI. We live in an era when CGI villains can make or break movies, including villains like Thanos in the Infinity War movies and Steppenwolf in Justice League. The latter didn’t live up to his full potential thanks in part to muddy, unconvincing CGI.
I’m not going to compare Grodd and Steppenwolf directly; that would be silly. Rather, I think it’s remarkable that the Flash has managed to craft a convincing, compelling villain entirely out of computer graphics and on a TV-sized budget. The CW has done near miracle-level CGI work with Grodd given the budget that those shows must work with.
Grodd is another example of a recurring villain done right, too. When he comes back, his reason for coming back makes sense for his character, and he always presents a challenge to the Flash. As a character, he combines the brutality of an angry ape with the terrifying danger of a powerful psychic. He’s a fun foil for the Flash. Flash is a lightweight character who moves fast. Despite being a scientist, though, he’s often not very creative about how he approaches problems. Reverse-Flash might be the Flash’s arch-nemesis, but Grodd is the yang to Flash’s yin, the opposite of Flash.
Professor Ben Lockwood represents the charismatic head of one of Supergirl’s most dangerous adversaries: hatred. I’ve talked before about how much I loved Supergirl season 4. With this season, they shifted the focus away from Kara’s interpersonal drama and put the focus on her identity. Not her secret identity, but her personal one. Who is Supergirl and who is Kara? Where does one end and the other begin?
Lockwood’s Agent Liberty rendered Supergirl powerless not through some creative Luthorian technology, magic, or Kryptonite, but by taking an idea and turning it into a movement. Lockwood, as Agent Liberty, stoked the fears that humans held against aliens in Central City.
Actor Sam Witwer brought an intensity and believability to this character, as a family man, a charismatic leader, and a pawn for Lex Luthor. He helped make the whole season feel plausible. The basic idea of “Supergirl fights prejudice” is difficult enough to pull off that it might as well be writers’ Kryptonite, but the writers managed to do it thanks in part to Witwer.
I didn’t assemble this list in any particular order, but you wouldn’t be totally off base to suggest that I tried to save the best for last. Fans cried foul when actor Jon Cryer, best known in modern times for his role as the sad-sack protagonist of Two and a Half Men, was cast as Lex Luthor. And at the time, it seemed like he’d stay around for a few episodes and then the show would be done with Lex Luthor.
What we got instead was the perfect unification of smart writing, great casting, and an actor who found fun in a role. Lex’s debut introduced us to a very unfamiliar version of the character: a sickly, repentant man who wanted to work with his sister to do what he couldn’t on his own. But this is Lex Luthor we’re talking about. The second we’re almost ready to believe him, he shrugs off his invalid look as Lena sits, paralyzed in her chair and stunned by the betrayal she’d expected all along. Then, we watch Lex walk out of his house, waving his arms like a conductor as lasers take down the guards keeping him hostage.
Lex was, of course, the mind behind everything happening in season 4, including the hate movement headed by Agent Liberty, and it took Lena and Kara both to defeat him, though doing so would fracture their relationship for good.
But Cryer was so good as Lex that not only did the writers find a way to bring him back to life after Lena shot him dead, but to turn him into a major part of the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover. These days, he’s a primary villain in Supergirl’s orbit.
While I’ve taken issue with a bunch of decisions on Supergirl, the writers have outdone themselves with Lex, bringing him to life in his best incarnation yet – apologies to Michael Rosenbaum, but Jon Cryer is simply a great Lex Luthor.
It’s easy to focus on the lesser villains of the Arrowverse: Savitar, who was just Evil Barry; Ra’s Al Ghul, who should’ve been a highlight of Arrow; Vandal Savage, who reigned over the original and very bad season of Legends of Tomorrow. Let’s not forget the Daxamites, Ricardo Diaz, or Cicada.
But even with those lackluster villains filling out the ranks, the Arrowverse writers seem to know when they’ve struck gold; they’ve turned their best villains into recurring characters that evolve and change. They continue to make our heroes miserable, and never overstay their welcome.