Batman is widely considered to have the best Rogues Gallery in comics. Almost everyone can name a good portion of his enemies off the top of their heads. Spider-Man probably comes in second, his villains are great and have gotten a lot of big screen treatment in recent years. But the X-Men have always had an incredible assortment of enemies, that tend not to be as celebrated as those other two. Part of that might have something to do with the films reusing a few of the same select villains over and over again. Magneto has appeared in every main franchise X-Men feature to date, and William Stryker is not far behind him.
There are so many different layers to the X-Men’s rogues gallery as they come from so many different groups. Most of them are fellow mutants who simply have a different agenda or want to see humanity burn to ash so that the age of mutants can truly begin. Many of them are bigoted humans who either want to exterminate mutants or control them for their own means. Then there are villains that reach into the cosmos because that’s how weird and wacky the X-Men can get, and that’s not even to mention the dozens of angry time travelers or guys like Mr. Sinister who somehow don’t fit into any of the above categories.
Another thing that makes the X-Men villains unique are their constantly fluctuating allegiances. Some of them are outright evil, some of them have dabbled in attempting to reform their dastardly ways, some have tried to be a full-on good guy and either failed or succeeded at it. Then you have the heroes who went bad to counter the baddies who turned good. It’s all very soap-operatic in the classic X-Men tradition.
Before we get into the list, I guess I have to make it explicitly clear that these are personal rankings and I’m not saying these are the best villains, just a nice sample platter of what the X-Men Rogues Gallery has to offer. These are villains that I find to be the most interesting, most unique, most memorable and in most cases just the ones I either love (or hate, in a good way) most deeply. And I love a lot of X-Men antagonists, so putting together this list was not easy. I desperately wanted to include guys like Sauron and Juggernaut, Emma Frost and even Omega Red, and maybe they’ll make it onto another list. But for now, here’s our selection for ten of the greatest X-Men villains ever.
Deathbird has got to be the Loki to Lilandra’s Thor. Lilandra is the Empress of the Shi’ar Empire and former lover of Professor Charles Xavier. Deathbird is the angry, manipulative sister of Lilandra and (weirdly enough) former lover of Bishop. There have been times when she’s tried to reform, but they’ve never really gone her way as her ambitions are too great. She’s too cunning to ever really live that life and that’s part of what makes the thought of her becoming Empress so dangerous. One of the reasons I had initially hoped that the Dark Phoenix movie would include the Shi’ar Empire was a vain hope for the chance to see Deathbird brought to the big screen. Obviously, that did not happen.
It’s worth noting that Deathbird’s name is somewhat literal as she does in fact have birdlike tendencies. She’s also an enemy of Carol Danvers so here’s hoping against hope that she could potentially make her way into a possible Captain Marvel sequel down the line.
Pyro is a weirdly relatable comic book villain, because he’s not really in it for the evil. He’s in it for the money and for the thrill, he’s drawn to the adventure of crime. Despite the fact that his whole power set revolves around manipulating fire and is, by nature, completely destructive, he’s never really setting out to hurt anyone. He’s also not a villain who likes to do a lot of the work himself, that’s a little too much effort for Pyro. He’ll jump in, he’ll get things done, sure, he likes to be a part of a group. For the most part, Pyro’s been associated with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and even kept with that team when they allied themselves with the government and became Freedom Force.
Pyro’s also an author and writing is just as much a passion for him as villainy. He’s a character that tends to like the seclusion and his criminal antics often serve as the inspiration for his adventure, mystery and even romance novels. He’s like that woman at work who might have a secret double life as a bestselling author of Kindle Erotica and I love that about him. But Pyro’s also just a very laid back character. You don’t see him hang out at many villain bars. He’ll do his own thing, but if he gets a call that the X-Men need a whuppin’, sure, why not?
Mojo is one of the best and weirdest comic book villains ever created. He’s the ruler of his own pocket dimension, a massive gangrenous and basically immobile creature with his eyes held open so he can constantly watch absolutely all the media intake he can. Mojo considers himself a producer of great entertainment and he’s always on the lookout for his next star. Victims of Mojo can wind up serving his entertainment channels for years, as was the case with Longshot and to an extent Dazzler. The metaphor is thinly veiled, I’ll admit. But so many writers have had a lot of fun with not only how over-the-top Mojo is, but the media commentary that the character provides.
Sometimes people are just destined to hate each other. You see them coming and you know that either one of you is going to leave or there’s going to be a scene. That is the definition of the relationship between Wolverine and Sabretooth. These guys absolutely hate each other, to the point that Sabretooth shows up every year on Wolverine’s birthday just to beat the holy hell out of him. There’s no wrestling rivalry better than that. There’s an extra, tragic element there too, because they used to be friends. They served in Department H together, they were both part of the Weapon X program, but over time Logan just began to see more and more of the person Victor Creed truly was inside.
There have been attempts to reform Sabretooth over the years. He’s served on the roster of both X-Factor and even the X-Men. But he is not a good guy and his instincts are always deeply villainous.
The Shadow King
I was so grateful that the Shadow King got his due on Legion because this is a character that is both incredibly endearing and genuinely frightening. He’s evil, and he’s often formless, just an entity that seeks to possess and take over helpless people that he can bend to his will. Any story involving the Shadow King is essentially a possession story. That’s part of what always drew me to him, I think. It was the best of both worlds for a kid with my interests, because the Shadow King is an X-Men villain who is also deeply rooted in horror.
Plus, he has a huge historic role to play in the X-Men’s history as he’s the one responsible for Professor X’s paralysis that caused him to be confined to a wheelchair by the time we’re first introduced to him in the pages of X-Men #1.
Mystique has, admittedly, been overplayed in the recent movies probably more than she was ever meant to be, as Jennifer Lawrence became a huge star after First Class and they had to write her bigger and bigger. But Mystique is truly a layered and complicated character so it’s not a shame that she’s getting the spotlight, it’s a shame that she’s getting the spotlight in a way that ignores all of that questionable morality of her comic book counterpart. Mystique is, first and foremost, a champion of her people. She also kind of regularly sells her people out, be it by literally doing that for a living in Freedom Force or by using Dazzler’s body to produce Mutant Growth Hormone. She’s a contradiction in a way that it makes total sense for a shapeshifter to be.
Mystique is also sexually fluid, her most serious and lasting relationship being with a woman, and even genderfluid as she’s often taken on the role of a man for years at a time. The films even saw her do this after she took over as Senator Kelly. Even in the comics, Chris Claremont has noted that he initially toyed around with the idea of her being Nightcrawler’s father rather than his mother. Mystique has done more than enough to be labeled a villain, but she has also been entrusted with missions by Xavier himself, even knowing that she can’t be trusted in general, in Brian K. Vaughan’s stellar Mystique solo title.
Apocalypse shouldn’t be as great a villain as he is. He’s not that complicated, there’s not a lot going on with him, he’s just an over-the-top form of destruction. He’s exactly what the name implies. So why, then, is he so interesting? I was excited to see this character any time he appeared on the cartoon as a kid, and even excited when he was finally announced as a villain in the films. Part of it might have something to do with the history, the notion of being the first mutant, the idea of having so many powers acquired and evolving over such a long period of time. There’s the unique concept of an eternal villain who reincarnates like the Dalai Lama. Apocalypse has been a constant force through history.
More than anything, I think it’s just the very idea of being something so powerful, so indestructible that despite the combined efforts of the X-Men, he truly cannot be beaten. There’s something that’s insanely overpowered but also intimidating about that. Apocalypse is a genuinely scary villain because he represents the notion of a threat that can maybe be stopped for a while, postponed, but never truly beaten.
The Dark Phoenix is so fascinating for so many reasons. This is a cosmic force that had been building its destructive potential over a long period of time, but this is also all of the rage and frustration that Jean had kept suppressed throughout her entire life bursting to the surface in an instant. This is both Jean and the Phoenix together, a force that is feeding on all the inherent rage and pain inside of this young woman and using that as further fuel for its own immense power. This is the kind of villain so destructive and so powerful that it only ever really needs to strike once to earn its place on the list.
Sure, there have been return appearances of the Dark Phoenix over time, but nothing like the impact of The Dark Phoenix Saga and the way that changed the course of the book at the time. This had huge costs for the X-Men that are still felt today. There’s no way she couldn’t make the list.
I’ve written extensively about why I love Mister Sinister so much. I can’t not give him a high place on this list, because he’s my favorite X-Men villain ever. There’s so much about him that is unlike any enemy the X-Men tend to fight. On paper, he has a lot in common with the movies’ William Stryker as he has a long history of experimenting on mutants. But Stryker’s experimentation is born out of bigotry whereas Sinister’s is fundamentally born out of envy. This is a man who wanted to be a mutant so badly that he turned himself into one.
In some ways, Sinister also represents fandom. Here’s someone who ships Scott Summers and Jean Grey more than anyone, to the point where he’ll kidnap them or manipulated their relationship to ensure that it has the outcome he wants. He’s vain, he’s egotistical, he’s absolutely mad and man, he’s just everything you could possibly want out of a villain.
What’s left to be said about Magneto? He’s the guy. There are so many great antagonists for the X-Men but no one even comes close to this spot. The only thing that makes one hesitant to include him is the question of whether or not he even counts as a villain at all. All Magneto is trying to do is ensure the future of his people, same as Charles. They’ve often been in contention with one another, they’ve never really agreed, but when Xavier could no longer care for his students, Magneto was the one person he trusted to take over for him.
Magneto’s allegiance has shifted time and again, sometimes over the span of a single story, but that’s what has always made him so interesting. His duty is to his people above all else. He’s someone who’s seen the atrocities of humankind firsthand. He has an intimate knowledge of exactly what humans will do to those they do not tolerate and he will not let that happen again. His motivations are entirely noble. It’s just his means of tearing down cities to accomplish them that keep him from being a true hero. This is a complicated, tragic character and Magneto’s not only the best X-Men villain, he’s one of the richest characters in comic book history.