Bad guys gone good: comics’ greatest reformed villains

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August’s release of the new DC film Suicide Squad introduces a group of new characters to the DC superhero movie franchise, most of them based on traditional comic book villains. The comic on which the film is (loosely) based follows a team of supervillains (and a few forgotten heroes) offered pardons in exchange for undertaking dangerous missions for the government. The genius of the book was that since the writers were using characters no one really cared about such as Nightshade and Nemesis, they were free to kill them off if need be.

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Left to right: who?, oh her, some guy, breakout star, who cares, third-stringer, fourth-stringer, knockoff, character from another franchise in disguise, tiresome stereotype

Don’t let my flippant caption fool you: the classic John Ostrander / Kim Yale run on Suicide Squad is fantastic, and if you haven’t read it, you should. But it’s one of DC’s few great examples of villains as heroes. Let’s take a look at some of the other characters who’ve made the transition from bad guy to good.

A surprising number of Avengers

The Avengers must be a forgiving bunch, because for a while, recruiting former bad guys into their ranks seemed to be their main method of recruitment. Hawkeye, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and Wonder Man all started out as antagonist characters, although by now their careers as heroes eclipse their early criminal antics.

A less-surprising number of X-Men

The X-Men have always consisted of outcasts and outsiders, so it’s no surprise that their ranks include a number of former villains. Magneto has flipped between villain and hero so much that it’s now one of the most important parts of his character, a radical change for a character who started life as a diabolical villain. Perhaps the most lasting face turn, however, is Emma Frost, who began her tenure in the comics as a villain — albeit not a completely evil one — but has become a fixture of the X-Men team.

The Punisher

An antihero he may be, but Frank Castle is definitely a Marvel protagonist. He wasn’t always, though — the gritty urban vigilante first appeared in comics as a Spider-Man villain.

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Castle was portrayed as a dupe with good intentions, though, so perhaps he wasn’t a villain per se. Still, he has often blurred the lines of what a proper comic-book “good guy” should be.

Catwoman

As you can see from this list, there are an awful lot of reformed-villain characters in the Marvel Universe. Across town (well, across the country now) at their Distinguished Competition, there are a lot fewer. Perhaps the most famous is Catwoman, who was always an ambiguous love-interest/villain, but who has been changing for decades into a more likeable scoundrel.

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Like the Punisher, and unlike most of the characters on this list, Catwoman has achieved the greatest height in superherodom: an ongoing solo title. However, few of Batman’s other villains have made the transition. The Riddler had a brief stint as a detective in Detective Comics, and Clayface, Two-Face and others have been heroic characters for a time, but few have done it so successfully.

Major Disaster

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This lesser-known DC villain did a stint in the Justice League titles for a while, and it was quite an interesting run. He didn’t catch on, sadly, and the character has faded from sight since.

Other than that, however, not many DC characters have successfully transitioned. DC’s other major crook-turned-hero, Plastic Man, doesn’t really count, since his life of crime is part of his character’s backstory rather than part of his publication history.

So why the imbalance? It’s not clear — perhaps it’s to do with the types of themes Marvel tends to explore, or simply results from the fact that DC’s long history means it has the heroes it needs already. Either way, we’ll see if DC’s attempt to bring some of its villains into the public eye, both in Suicide Squad and in Legends of Tomorrow, pays off.

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