Top Ten Captain America Villains
A superhero is only so great as the costumed crazies he gets to battle. The rich rogues galleries of heroes like Batman and Spider-Man undoubtably contribute to those characters’ enduring appeal. I’d even argue that someone like the Flash would unambiguously be a second-tier hero (instead of a quasi-A-lister) if he didn’t command a roster of memorable villains to call his own.
Captain America is definitely an A-list hero, but is this due more to his iconic costume and role in comics history, or to his collection of super-powered rivals? Read on for my list of the Top Ten Captain America Villains, and then let me know how you think Cap’s most dastardly enemies stack up!
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10) The Grand Director
He has a complicated history, and owes his origin to a publication quirk, but the concept behind the Grand Director lets him squeak onto my list at #10.
Captain America has had two major publication periods — the wartime books published from 1941-1949, and the modern reintroduction of the character commencing with Avengers #4 in 1964. But in-between, Cap experienced a brief revival in the 1950s, which was not considered part of Marvel history until Steve Englehart resurrected the character for an early-1970s story, depicting him as a paranoid, ultra-patriotic double of our star-spangled hero. Driven mad by the cut-rate Super Soldier serum that gave him his powers, this forgotten Captain America became a vessel for all of America’s worst excesses in the McCarthy era of the 1950s.
Later, the character would be given a white spook suit and become the Grand Director, who is less interesting than a Red-baiting Captain America impersonator (who would be less interesting than a legitimately Red-baiting Captain America, but we can’t have everything). It’s all a bit of a muddle and serves to suppress that first awesome concept.
Continuity aside, the Grand Director is ultimately a tragic figure — a fallen hero manipulated into betraying everything he held dear by the next entry in my Top Ten List …
9) Doctor Faustus
A master of mind-control, mastermind of the neo-Nazi National Force, and the evil agent who twisted and manipulated the Grand Director for his own foul purposes, Doctor Faustus still may not have made this list but for a singular act of villainy. He does have deep roots in Cap’s history (having first appeared in Captain America #107), but with this subtle psychological powers, Dr. Faustus is little more than a second-rate Mysterio (without the groovy Steve Ditko costume).
I don’t care if he has a monocle and an Austrian accent … Doctor Faustus is pretty lame. But he did turn Sharon Carter into an unwitting pawn in Ed Brubaker’s Death of Captain America saga, and if you can punch the ticket of your arch-nemesis, then you get on the list!
(But he’s still a second-rate Mysterio!)
8) Baron Strucker
The first of several Nazis on this list, Baron Strucker might have been whistled up out of central casting — he has a monocle AND a Heidelberg fencing scar!
First appearing in 1964’s Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos #5, and eventually coming to lead HYDRA, Baron Strucker might more properly be considered a foe of Nick Fury and the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but he’s battled Cap a time or two, and he also provides an excuse to show a bit of Steranko art, from that era when Strucker was undoubtably at his coolest.
Will Baron Strucker figure in Joss Whedon’s pending S.H.I.E.L.D. television series? The movie side of the Marvel Universe isn’t so deeply connected with World War II as the comics upon which is it based, so it seems unlikely that Strucker will appear in anything like his original form … but in a world where the Guardians of the Galaxy are getting their own movie, anything is possible! Hail HYDRA!
This is kind of a cheat, as I don’t really think of M.O.D.O.K. as a Captain America villain. But there is no denying that the “Mental Organism Designed Only For Killing” made his debut in the pages of a Captain America story in Tales of Suspense #93-94.
Any list is made better by M.O.D.O.K., and so everyone’s favorite hyper-encephalotic floating acronym gets the nod (though at a lower seeding than he might otherwise command!)
Batroc is definitely Captain America’s most ridiculous recurring foe (and that’s saying a lot, considering some of the names on this list), but no survey of Cap’s arch-enemies would be complete without him.
First appearing in Tales of Suspense #75, Batroc is a mercenary and a master of savate, the art of French foot fighting! That’s right, French foot fighting! Portrayed as something of a swashbuckler with his own code of honor, Batroc is more light-hearted than the Nazi psychopaths that make up most of Cap’s opposition … and no matter what his crimes, it is hard to hold a grudge against anyone with such an out-rageous Franch acc-cent, non?
Maybe Marvel will sober-up the character for his pending appearance in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier film, given that UFC fighter Georges St-Pierre has been cast to play him, but to me, Batroc will always be that goofy bearded guy bouncing around in purple tights …
5) Winter Soldier
And since we’re talking about pending Captain America films, it’s time to take a look at the Winter Soldier, who checks in at #5 on my list.
For decades, the death of Captain America’s wartime partner, Bucky Barnes, was one of the third rails of comic book storytelling. Other heroes might take on the identity of Bucky, or Bucky might seemingly come back from the dead (before being unmasked as an impostor or a robot or whatever), but the original version of Bucky was dead as Caesar, and permanently so.
At least, he was until Ed Brubaker came along.
Brubaker’s Winter Soldier arc stands out among the finest in Captain America history. In the best kind of revisionist storytelling, Brubaker reveals that Bucky wasn’t killed outright in the final days of World War II when he plunged into the English Channel from an exploding rocket, but that instead his body was recovered by Soviet agents, and that Bucky became a dreaded sleeper agent assassin during the Cold War — the Winter Soldier!
Though he would go on to become a hero commanding his own series (but not before his appearance in Winter Kills earned a spot in my list of Top Single Issue Stories), the Winter Soldier is initially a bad guy, a pawn in the Red Skull’s plan to destroy Captain America. As such, the Winter Soldier proves one of Captain America’s greatest foes, a murderously dangerous opponent who turns our hero’s heart against him. He’s a great character, and would rank higher on this list if he’d remained a villain. I’m curious to see how this character transitions to film in new summer’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier!
4) Arnim Zola
I’ve enthused about Arnim Zola in a recent Longbox Graveyard column, so I won’t go into great depth about him here. Jack Kirby’s last great contribution to the Captain America mythos is one of Cap’s weirdest foes, obsessed as he is with creating and manipulating life, and his freaky appearance is among the most bizarre in all of comics.
Like many of Cap’s great villains, this character lives on through the Marvel Captain America movie franchise, though in a substantially more conventional form. We can only hope actor Toby Jones will soon elect to transform himself into the Arnim Zola we all know and loathe …
3) Baron Zemo
For reasons too tedious to list (though Wikipedia is undaunted), Baron Zemo is actually two different bad guys … a Captain America foe introduced in the early days of The Avengers and Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos, and then that same character’s son, re-introduced in The Avengers decades later. To be honest, up until now I thought they were the same guy!
But maybe false memories are integral to this character. After all, he wasn’t created until 1964, but thanks to Marvel’s mania for continuity and its continual reinvention of history, Baron Zemo is responsible for one of the most heinous acts in Captain America history. No, it wasn’t that Baron Zemo was a Nazi who wore a purple bathrobe. It wasn’t even that he founded the Masters of Evil!
No … it was Baron Zemo who killed Bucky Barnes back in World War Two!
(Plus, his mask is glued to his face. Don’t ask).
Now I must note that the order of appearance of Baron Zemo and Arnim Zola created some controversy before this list we even published! In fact, this entire column was inspired by a particularly spirited exchange on my Twitter stream:
Ever the gentleman, John Gholson delivered with this illustration of … Arnim Zemo!
Thanks, John! And for more of John’s work, please visit his Gutters & Panels blog.
2) Red Skull
The Red Skull is more than just a top Captain America villain — he’s one of the premiere villains in the Marvel Universe. He first appeared in Captain America Comics #1 back in 1941, and he’s been Cap’s arch-nemesis ever since, battling our hero throughout World War II and returning from seeming death to bedevil Cap in the present era. He even wielded the Cosmic Cube before Thanos was a glimmer in his mother’s eye! The Red Skull co-headlined Super-Villain Team-Up for awhile, and he was memorably portrayed on the big screen by Hugo Weaving in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger.
As Captain America’s polar opposite, the Red Skull is clearly one of Cap’s greatest foes — a Fascist thug and murderous mastermind to oppose our freedom-loving hero. He’s also a badass, with no real superpowers — the Red Skull holds his own with fear gas and an endless string of minions that he holds in a grip of terror. Plus, the Red Skull brings along a whole host of lesser villains that might very well have made this list on their own, like Crossbones, Sin, Mother Night, and the enigmatic Sleepers.
With a resume like that, you’d expect the Red Skull to top this list!
Who could possibly be worse than the Red Skull?
1) Adolph Hitler!
That’s right … the only bad guy who could possibly be worse than the Red Skull is the Red Skull’s creator — Adolph Hitler!
I don’t mean to trivialize a real mass murderer by including him in a comic book top ten list, but Hitler is so interwoven into the Marvel Universe that he might as well be a supervillain at this point. Plus, if a couple of crazy kids named Kirby and Simon hadn’t decided to introduce a certain new red, white, and blue comic hero by having him sock Hitler on the chin, I probably wouldn’t be writing this list today.
Keep those colors flying, Cap!
What do you think of my top ten list of Captain America’s most fearsome foes? Did I snub anyone? Overrate someone? How do Cap’s villains rate against the greatest bad guys in comics history? Sound off in comments, below!
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #98 Iron Fan
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Posted on April 24, 2013, in Lists! and tagged Arnim Zola, Baron Strucker, Baron Zemo, Batroc, Captain America, captain america enemies, captain america villains, Death of Captain America, Doctor Faustus, Ed Brubaker, Grand Director, Hitler, Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko, Joe Simon, MODOK, Red Skull, Sharon Carter, Top 10, Winter Soldier. Bookmark the permalink. 59 Comments.
Really enjoyed the Top Ten Spidey podcast with Mark from Chasing Amazing, and all the insights into the nature of Peter’s character.
Confession: We had no idea Jack Kirby created Arnim Zola until you clued us in by reviewing that Kirby run recently. We scored some VG+ copies and read the run last week. We got a great kick out of Kirby’s artwork and concepts. The plotting and scripting… needed some work! And, the letters page confirms any accusations that Kirby wasn’t quite in touch with Cap’s audience at the time, too. Regardless, Zola steals the stage, and just watching Kirby take that lunatic off his leash was a great pleasure. Thank you LBG!
Regarding Cap villains…. SERPENT SQUAD! Because, snakes. Perhaps the funniest thing about Brubaker’s run was the decision to bring back these goofballs in their silly costumes instead of redesigning them to be more… something. …Anything. Please!
I totally whiffed on the Serpent Squad! It actually occurred to me late last night that they deserved the last spot on the list but since the Grand Director and Doctor Freakin’ Faustus are a package deal I couldn’t find room for them.
Hopefully this footnote addition will suffice to correct my oversight!
(Always great to hear from you, Mars, and it’s nice to learn I turned you on to the original weirdness of Arnim Zola, who still gives me shivers after all these years).
I’ve always loved Cap more as an icon than as a character, and the bulk of the stuff I read of his was either his classic/current Avengers stuff and the subpar Gruenwald arc in the early 90s. Point being, half of these characters are not even on my radar as being a “top” anything… Totally speculative bordering on rhetorical question here: is there any Marvel flagship character who’s had the bulk of his “big” moments outside of his own series? When I think of Cap, I think of being uncovered in ice, staring down Thanos in Infinity Gauntlet, walking out on Iron Man in Galactic Storm (and then confronting Iron Man in Armor Wars) and all of Civil War. I realize I’m saying this without having read Brubaker’s run, which I plan to do at some point via Marvel U, but still… since I think of Paul as the ultimate Cap fan, I wonder if I’m being too harsh on his series.
There are too many gaps in my reading to really be the “ultimate” Cap fan, but thanks for the compliment, Mark!
You’re not alone in being underwhelmed by Cap’s own book. Through much of the seventies and eighties I think he was better in Avengers than in his own title. There were streaks when the book was worth reading but for the most part I don’t think Captain America really found his groove as a headlining hero until Brubaker came aboard in the 2000s! (And even those stories had him pretty closely embedded with other characters — Cap’s just better in a team than on his own).
You could argue the same points for (against?) Iron Man and Thor. Until about ten years ago (I can’t believe 2004 was ten years ago), Iron Man was a glorified B-lister, and while I love Thor, I just don’t think his “big” moments are anywhere on par with other characters’ “big” moments (Batman’s back broken, death of Superman, Spidey/Venom mayhem, etc). I think we can thank Disney and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) for finally investing time and energy into these properties. Seriously, before 2006, how many major Iron Man stories can name? Origin, Demon in a Bottle and…
That said, Blood and Thunder is my ultimate guilty pleasure, and now that the Infinity Gauntlet and Guardians of the Galaxy are actual things in the MCU, I see no reason for Thor 3 to be based off this epic crossover. (The Guardians are not involved in the comic, but Drax and Gamora, members of the Infinity Watch, were.)
EDIT: I see no reason for Thor 3 NOT to be based off this epic crossover. (The Guardians are not involved in the comic, but Drax and Gamora, members of the Infinity Watch, were.)
This is not an original sentiment — and I can’t find a citation for where I first read it — but the best thing that ever happened to Marvel fans was “losing” the rights to Spider-Man, X-Men, and the Fantastic Four to other movie studios. If those characters had remained with Marvel, those are the films we would have gotten from Marvel Studios these past several years, and while they likely would have been better than the Spidey/FF/X-Men pictures we got from other studios, by having those big characters in the fold, Marvel would not have been incentivized to develop their B-team (Iron Man, Avengers, Thor, Cap) into the very entertaining movies they have made.
That goes double for Ant Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy, as well as the TV development for Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist … no way do we get any of those shows if Marvel Studios could just stick to the guaranteed money of their top properties.
Arnim Zemo. Now we’re talking!
Great list, fun to read.
Yes! John did a bang-up job on that one!
I’ve always been a Cap fan but I am certainly no expert. I really expected to see Crossbones on here somewhere. Either way, great read!
I cheated and stuck Crossbones in with Red Skull and the rest of his dysfunctional extended family. I agree that he is a superior character in the Brubaker run.
I have to wonder how many of these would translate to film. Many seem like it would be crazy to even try without completely butchering the character. With a non-pink/purple costume I think Zemo could make the cut though.
There was a time when I thought Thor or the Avengers wouldn’t really work on screen. There was a time when I couldn’t imagine the Guardians of the Galaxy getting a movie (and I still can’t quite imagine that, frankly). There was a time when I couldn’t imagine Winter Soldier anchoring a film, or Batroc getting a screentest … I am so far past being able to envision any of these things that I will stick to my funnybooks and (hopefully) continue to be pleasantly surprised by how Marvel films reinvents and reinvigorates this ancient, goofy IP catalogue for 21st century movie.
We live in an unlikely era of geek plenty, my friend! Never thought I’d see the day.
I revel in the occasion when these heroes are understood and lovingly brought
to the screen in a way that honors their intended character and meaning.
As always, it’s the WRITER that makes it happen…>ahem<.
It certainly starts with the writer, but don’t underestimate the performers, the director, the producers who put it all together. Could there have been any other Loki than Tom Hiddleston? Who had the vision to pluck that guy out of the choir and make him our latest, greatest screen villain?
(Groovy to hear from you, as always, Glenn!)
The FF fought Hitler (OK, his clone) early in their run (issue 21) — in the guise of the Hate Monger. Were you thinking of both of these incarnations in your #1 listing? To be fair, non-clone Hitler probably deserves the #1 ranking by himself, without his clone hanging around, just wondering if Cap ever crossed paths with the Hate Monger.
Sorting out that Hate Monger stuff was above my pay grade. As far as I’m concerned, all those other Hitlers are downstream from the guy Cap socks on the chin on the cover of Captain America #1.
(I love that sentences like these can make a rough kind of sense at this crazy blog!)
Great article! Thanks!
While I can’t fault your choices it would have been amusing to see how much crap you’d have gotten if you had left off Batroc from the list. I’m happy you included Wacky Red Baiting Cap from the 50’s, I enjoyed that Storyline and it’s one of the first Captain America comics I remeber buying.
It would also have been amusing if you included Richard Nixon. He was President during the whole Secret Empire storyline and while Englehart stopped short of saying he was Number 1 that’s sure the consensus opinion. I know you’re not a fan of the story but the result of that series was Cap hanging up his chainmail. If you can get Cap to quit being Cap you should make the list.
It would be amusing to add a #0 entry to the list, and make it Richard Nixon. Who could possibly we WORSE than Adolph Hitler (scroll down!).
Unfortunately, well aware as I am of Dick’s faults, I can’t rank him worse than Hitler (though I am reminded that Hunter S. Thompson said that rather than a funeral of State, Nixon’s body should have been burned in a trash bin).
Welp, the Red Skull was always one of my favorite supervillians from the 70’s, but I’ll be damned if I know why. Looking back, I think Kirby’s characterization of him in the late ’60’s and mid 70’s was the classic version of the Skull. He was sort of over-the -top theatrical kitsch, like Geobbels and Goring, and even Hitler himself. Dressed to the nines in black with a cigarette holder, he was more like a cartoon version of a supervillian than a real one. I think Kirby and Lee (Kirby especially) played him more as a comic character that a real one. Look at the way Kirby drew him.
Obviously, I don’t know what Kirby was thinking, but I wonder if his version of the Red Skull didn’t have a lot in common with Mel Brooks version of Hitler in The Producers. Both Kirby and Brooks fought in that war and knew what happened…maybe black comedy was their response. But I’m only guessing.
I think there is truth is what you say. Remember, the Red Skull’s character was born in World War II, when you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting some sinister, half-monster Axis agent in the comics. If Marvel hadn’t resurrected Captain America in the 1960s, the Red Skull would likely be forgotten today. Instead, he’s come to stand in for all those goosestepping goons of wartime comics — in effect, the schtick of an entire generation of comic book villains is compressed into this single character.
Along with their Sgt. Fury strip, the Red Skull played to the “World War 2 As It Really Was In The Movies” vibe of the 1960s, what with all the “Gott im Himmels” and “Dummkopfs” flying flying around. I don’t think Stan or Jack were trying to tell genuine war stories — these were just Boys’ Own Wartime Tales, using the shorthand of the day, which became crystalized into a kind of playbook or toolkit for depicting these wartime situations and characters ever since.
And since you mention Mel Brooks — whom I love, and will probably never get a chance to write about here at Longbox Graveyard — I will tell you my favorite Mel Brooks anecdote … Brooks thanked Hitler on stage when he won his Tony Award for the Producers! Only Mel could do that, the thought of it kills me. You can look it up!
Uh oh. He’s on to us!
Plenty of great runs on Cap‘s main title. Stern/Byrne run(short but sweet),Dematties and Zeck,hell,even Englehart and Buscema! But yes,I too enjoyed Cap in Avengers much more. He was more sure of himself as team leader as opposed to being a “man out of time”
I liked that Byrne run a lot, and I do wish it had gone on longer — seems like the creator revolving door spun faster than usual for Marvel in those days.
What about Femizons ? 🙂
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