Prototype Supervillains: Ranking the Top 5

Victorian Villains

Sherlock Holmes:[Moriarty] is the Napoleon of Crime, Watson, the organizer of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city…”

The Final Problem by Arthur Conan Doyle

You cannot have a hero without a villain. For every paragon standing for justice and law, there are dozens who crave power and wealth. But not every criminal is a villain. No one cares about a random spree killer or pickpocket acting on their base desires because they are a dime a dozen. People want someone with strength, guile, and skills who can take evil to the next level. No mere criminal, but a villain.

There are countless villains in fiction, though supervillains have been the choice du jour in recent years. From amoral assassin Deathstroke to mysterious thief The Ghost, the murderous machine Ultron and even the genocidal god Thanos, there is no end to the disreputable blackguards. But what of the villains from before supervillainy emerged?

Like in our previous list of The Top 5 Prototype Superheroes, we’ll count down the greatest villains from the era between the mists of mythology and the advent of the superhero. So who has made our list of the top 5 Prototype Supervillains? Let’s find out.

As before, our only criteria is that the villain must have debuted before Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1, in 1938.

#5 Professor James Moriarty

Debuted: 1893
Created By: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Played by: Andrew Scott

Moriarty: “In a world of locked rooms, the man with the key is king. And, honey, you should see me in a crown.

Sherlock: “The Reichenbach Fall” (Season 2, Episode 3)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was in a pickle. He had grown tired of writing Sherlock Holmes stories and yearned to escape from the great detective’s shadow. Doyle decided that Sherlock Holmes had to die. But how to do it? A random thug getting the drop on him would be unsatisfying. Like Doomsday to Superman or Bane for Batman, Doyle needed an ultimate threat to slay his greatest work.

Enter Professor Moriarty, a teacher at a small university. He was known for publishing mathematics treatises so advanced that his colleagues could not understand them. Far ahead of his colleagues, a bored Moriarty turned to crime.

He eventually took control of most of England’s criminal enterprises, which captured the attention of Sherlock Holmes. After several failed assassination attempts, Holmes was forced to go on the run with Moriarty himself joining the pursuit.

The pair finally met in Switzerland. Moriarty sends Doctor Watson on a wild goose chase and confronts Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls. The two are implied to have plunged to their deaths below, though later stories reveal that was only Moriarty’s fate.

Professor Moriarty is arguably the most famous member on our list of the top five prototype supervillains. Despite only appearing in two stories, he has since grown into Sherlock Holmes’ archnemesis. Moriarty would have placed higher if he appeared more frequently or succeeded in killing the detective.

#4 The Invisible Man

Debuted: 1897
Created By: H.G. Wells
Played By: Claude Rains

Griffin:It’s easy, really, if you’re clever. A few chemicals mixed together, that’s all, and flesh and blood and bone just fade away! A little of this injected under the skin of the arm every day for a month. An invisible man can rule the world! Nobody will see him come, nobody will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob, and rape, and kill!

The Invisible Man (1933)

Say what you will about the second member on our list of prototype supervillains, but we think he’s out of sight.

Doctor Griffin was a chemist who cracked the secret of turning objects invisible. He robbed his father to fund his experiments and soon perfected the formula. He tested the formula on himself and became invisible.

Griffin was ecstatic, but soon realized the problems caused by invisibility. He cannot interact with other people, had to constantly watch his surroundings, and couldn’t wear clothes. Even worse, he burned down his laboratory, leaving him homeless.

The Invisible Man stole clothes and bandages to wrap himself up so that no one can see his invisibility. He rented a room at a nearby village and began experimenting to find a cure. Despite his best efforts, Griffin was unsuccessful and had a breakdown when his nosy neighbors discovered the truth.

As the Invisible Man, Griffin went on a rampage, killing several people and wounding more. He planned to take over the world and forced several people to assist him or die. An angry mob beat Griffin to death, and he became visible in his last moments.

#3 Captain Nemo

Debuted: 1870
Created By: Jules Verne
Played By: Farin Tahir, Sir Patrick Stewart

Professor Arronax:You cannot do this! This is uncivilized!
Captain Nemo:I am not what is called a “civilized man”, Professor! I have done with society for reasons that seem good to me. Therefore I do not obey its laws.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

Hope you don’t get seasick because the third member of our prototype supervillain list of won’t be found on land.

Before there was Captain Nemo, there was Prince Dakkar, son of the Raja of Bundelkhand. Prince Dakkar was a genius who spent his youth studying. He participated in the Indian Rebellion of 1857, ultimately losing his kingdom, wife, and son to the British. 

Prince Dakkar swore revenge, gathering a small army of followers and constructing an advanced submarine called The Nautilus. Dakkar took the name Nemo (Latin for no one) and began a reign of terror against the British Empire.

Captain Nemo sent dozens of ships to watery graves, aided by his advanced weaponry. After a massacre, he rescued a trio of castaways on a whim, who serve as the viewpoint characters of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

Captain Nemo and the Nautilus are seemingly destroyed by a whirlpool at the end of the story, but were later revealed to have survived. They appeared in several of Jules Vernes’ works, culminating in Nemo’s retirement and death in The Mysterious Island.

Captain Nemo is a complex character who can be viewed as both a villain and an anti-hero. Despite noble intentions, his frequent massacres tip the scales to villainy for the purpose of this list.

#2 The Phantom of the Opera

Debuted: 1909
Created By: Gaston Leroux
Played By: Lon Chaney, Gerald Butler

Christine: “You — You are the Phantom!
Phantom: “If I am the Phantom, it is because man’s hatred has made me so. If I shall be saved, it will be because your love redeems me.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Our tale begins with an unloved young boy named Erik whose horrible parents hated his facial deformity. He eventually ran away from home and joined a freak show where he learned several tricks from the other performers, including sleight of hand, escapology, and misdirection. Erik also spent time in a decedent Persian court, where he was forced to create death traps for the Shah of Persia’s enemies. 

Erik eventually escaped the Shah and made his way to Paris. He took refuge in the crypts beneath the Palais Garnier opera house, building secret passageways to sneak through the opera undetected. He extorts the owners for money and a private balcony, causing mischief when they refuse. The superstitious actors dub him the Opera Ghost.

The Phantom falls in love with a young singer named Christine. He begins teaching her how to sing, claiming his disembodied voice is an Angel of Music sent by her deceased father. Unfortunately, The Phantom is enraged when Christine’s childhood friend Raoul begins courting her, and the lead role is given to new singer Carlotta. His mischief turns from pranks to murder as Erik tries to win Christine’s love, even famously dropping a chandelier on the audience during a performance.

The Phantom of the Opera has all the makings of a prototype supervillain. A secret identity, an evil lair, a tragic backstory, skills that seem almost magical, and an air of mystique.

#1 Arsene Lupin

Debuted: 1905
Created By: Maurice Leblanc
Played By: John Barrymore, Romain Duris

Lupin: [excerpt from a calling card] “For this time, I shall content myself with these objects which will be, I think, of easy concealment and resale. I ask you therefore to have them properly packed and to send them to my name (carriage paid), at the Gare de Batignolles, within eight days. If you fail to satisfy this request in time, I shall proceed with their removal on the night of Wednesday, the 27th of September.”

Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Burglar

Professor Moriarty may be the Napoleon of Crime, but Arsene Lupin is the Sherlock Holmes of Thieves, popularizer of the Gentleman Thief genre, and our number one prototype supervillain.

Little is known about Lupin’s backstory, though one story implies that his real name is Raoul, the son of a maid who got his start by robbing a snooty countess. Fast forward to adulthood and Arsene Lupin is the terror of France’s aristocracy. No one knows who he is or where he came from. All they know is that he is unfailingly polite, sends a calling card ahead of time, and can accomplish thefts that seem impossible.

Lupin is an expert escapologist, trained martial artist, and a master of disguise who rarely appears in the same form twice. Lupin’s most powerful tool is his reputation, which has let him fool victims by suggesting audacious false plans as cover for his much simpler methods. This continues to trick victims because they truly think he can pull off the impossible.

Arsene Lupin’s adventures are chronicled by his friend and confidant Maurice Leblanc, a nod to the series author. He frequently matches wits with police inspector Ganimard and old detective Sherlock Hol, er, I mean Herlock Sholmes. Yes, really.

Arsene Lupin is popular in France and England, and adored in Japan. The character is featured in several movies and directly inspired a number of works, including the Phantom Thieves of Persona 5, a superhero team called Kaitou Sentai Lupinranger, and the long-running adventures of his grandson in Lupin the Third.

Who do you think is the greatest Prototype Supervillain? Is there one who is even more despicable than these reprobates? Tell us in the comments.

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