As everyone knows, a superhero story is as dependent on its villains as it is on its heroes. The classic good vs. evil narrative requires a compelling evil side– otherwise, what meaning does the hero’s victory have?
The CW’s Arrowverse has been pumping out superhero stories since 2012, and those stories have share of ups and downs when it comes to villains.
The Arrowverse is an interconnected group of TV shows on The CW, comprised of Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, and Black Lightning. Supergirl technically occupies a separate universe from the other shows, and Black Lightning has avoided any crossovers, but there have been hints of connections, so they both count here.
Following several recognizable DC heroes and their wide network of allies, each show has to contend with its own set of supervillains. Ranging from hacktivists to damaged replicas of heroes caused by time travel, the villains are just as diverse as the heroes.
This list looks at the actors playing those villains, collecting the best and worst of every villain casting decision in the Arrowverse. The criteria here depends on whether the character was well-received by fans, and whether that reception was caused by the acting, the writing, or both.
Sometimes, what we think of as good or bad writing comes down to the actor connecting to their character (or failing to), especially when it comes to villainous roles. The right casting decision can elevate weak material.
Here are 11 Villain Casting Decisions That Saved The Arrowverse (And 9 That Hurt It).
20 Saved: Michael Emerson – Cayden James
Dramatic irony is the literary term for when the audience knows something that a character doesn’t, and it can be used to make powerfully tragic figures in fiction. Arrow tried its hand at this when it created Cayden James, a super hacker played by Michael Emerson who believed Oliver Queen was responsible for his son’s passing.
James was the most active antagonist in the sixth season, and he was fascinating to watch not because of his fearsome intellect, but because of his tragic backstory brought out with a mixture of rage and sorrow by Emerson.
James was obviously deceived by the man truly responsible for his son’s end, and this dynamic gave Emerson plenty of material to play with.
19 Hurt: Casper Crump – Vandal Savage
On paper, Vandal Savage is the perfect villain for Legends of Tomorrow, but a poor casting and mediocre writing got in the way of that.
An immortal megalomaniac, Vandal Savage was born Hath Set, an Egyptian priest. He maintains his immortality by finding the reincarnations of his enemies (Hawkman and Hawkgirl) and end their lives.
This seems like the ideal villain fodder for the time-traveling Legends, but Casper Crump’s character never put the pieces together.
Coupled with some unremarkable writing, Crump’s acting felt wooden and uninspired.
It made Vandal Savage feel more like an organization than a person. His character’s exit has allowed the show to get much weirder and more interesting.
18 Saved: Tom Cavanagh – Harrison Wells
Harrison Wells is one of the central figures of The Flash, and for good reason. It says a lot that Tom Cavanagh’s performance was so good that the writers felt the need to write him back into the show after his character was (sort of) bumped off.
Cavanagh spent the first season playing Eobard Thawne masquerading as Harrison Wells, somehow becoming a heartwarming mentor and a fearsome enemy at the same time.
After Thawne’s defeat, Cavanagh was so popular the writers knew he had to remain part of the main cast. Cavanagh has since returned to play over a dozen alternate reality versions of Harrison Wells – usually a brilliant scientist of some kind.
17 Hurt: Peter Gadiot – Mr. Mxyzptlk
The CW’s model for casting has, for some years now, traditionally been to cast incredibly good-looking people. This strategy has its limits, however, as it just doesn’t work for every character. Case in point: Mr. Mxyzptlk, a trickster and villain appearing in Supergirl.
In the comics, Mxyzptlk is a little imp who pesters Superman with reality-bending superpowers.
More of a pest than a real evil, Mxy doesn’t really look the part in Supergirl.
Peter Gadiot plays him like an arrogant frat boy, combining good looks with ruthless immorality instead of oddity and whimsy. Honestly, who wanted a dreamy Mxyzptlk, much less one who was an entitled creep?
16 Saved: Krondon – Tobias Whale
Villains can make or break the first seasons of superhero television shows, and Black Lightning got what it needed from Tobias Whale.
Tobias is a sadistic crime overlord, completely ruthless and willing to use whatever means he has at his disposal, be they force or diplomacy. It was a coup for the show when they recruited rapper Krondon to fill the role.
Krondon gave Tobias just the right amount of menace he needed to be a fearsome opponent. Tobias has a history with Jefferson Pierce, having brutally eliminated Jefferson’s father.
Krondon was able to sell viewers on both his character’s past and his motivation moving forward to rid the community of Black Lightning.
15 Hurt: Amy Gumenick – Cupid
It was hard not to let out a groan whenever Cupid made a reappearance on Arrow. A former police officer who became obsessed with the Arrow, Carrie Cutter started shooting heart-shaped arrows at whomsoever she chose.
This was fun for an episode or two after her debut in season three, but fans were tired of seeing Cupid by season four.
We can’t blame this character’s annoying nature entirely on actress Amy Gumenick– the writers of Arrow never seemed to scratch beneath the surface with Cupid, seeming to like the character without knowing how to make her more of a gimmick.
It didn’t help that Gumenick lines were frequently delivered in a cutesy, flirty way that was bound to get frustrating before long.
14 Saved: Wentworth Miller – Captain Cold
It should go without saying that Wentworth Miller crushed the role of Leonard Snart, aka Captain Cold. After all, his portrayal of the character has been a highlight of not one, but two shows in the Arrowverse, both The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow.
Captain Cold was hardly a well-known character, but Miller’s performance has blasted him to the forefront of the popular imagination– and probably helped him get a spot in Injustice 2.
In his first appearances on The Flash, Captain Cold might have appeared to be a one-note character with a gimmick, but over the years he has grown and matured into a complex antihero, with a memorable end to his character’s arc in Legends of Tomorrow. Without Miller behind the character, it’s doubtful he ever would have been so important.
13 Hurt: Kirk Acevedo – Ricardo Diaz
Ricardo Diaz is a villain defined by his ambition. Unfortunately, he’s not defined by much else. Beginning in season six and continuing into season seven, Kirk Acevedo portrayed the crime lord who started as a lieutenant to Cayden James before revealing his plans to supplant him as boss of all of Star City.
While he’s certainly not the worst villain to appear on Arrow, Diaz just doesn’t have enough of a personality to carry an episode.
Acevedo is known for playing tough guys, and he definitely conveys that aspect of the character, but there just isn’t much else that comes across. Diaz’s ambition was striking, but with the spotlight on him, he failed to generate interest and the actor is at least partly to blame for it.
12 Saved: John Barrowman – Malcolm Merlyn
Malcolm Merlyn is the first main antagonist from Arrow, and in many ways he represents a lot of what makes the show compelling: stylized fight scenes, sensationalized characters, and complicated familial dynamics.
Without John Barrowman, Merlyn likely wouldn’t have lasted nearly as long on the show.
Barrowman has played Malcolm (aka the Dark Archer) since the beginning, and if he wasn’t so in sync with the character and by all accounts such a generally nice guy, it’s doubtful Malcolm would have seen many episodes past the first season.
But he did, appearing in every season through the sixth, receiving a longer arc revolving around his daughter Thea.
Arrow has a history of taking its bad guys and making them much more morally complex, and Barrowman was arguably the catalyst for all of that.
11 Hurt: Chris Vance – Non
Supergirl is known as being the one Arrowverse show that has had a consistent problem creating compelling villains, and Non is probably the poster boy for that issue.
Non, played by Chris Vance, was defined by his relationship to other villains (namely his wife Astra and his mistress Indigo), and partly because of that he never really felt like his own character.
Vance’s Non felt like he was General Zod lite, and the character didn’t evolve past that.
While Non always felt like a placeholder villain thanks to him taking over his wife’s army after her passing, the actor never really imbued him with much character beyond arrogance, immorality, and ruthlessness.
10 Saved: Katie Cassidy – Black Siren
Not all fans liked what Arrow did to Laurel Lance. After it became clear that Oliver and Felicity were, by far, a more popular couple than Laurel and Oliver, Laurel didn’t have nearly as important a role on the series, and she was eventually bumped off by Damien Darhk. Luckily for viewers, Katie Cassidy didn’t leave the show, returning as the villainous Black Siren.
The reviews of the later seasons of Arrow have been largely mixed, but everyone seemed to like the way Cassidy played the villainess. Since she already had chemistry with much of the cast, Cassidy was able to twist and hurt the heroes in her new evil identity, making her a genuinely affecting character.
Some fans were sad to see Laurel go, but it’s hard to argue with the role Cassidy was given after.
9 Hurt: Cynthia Addai-Robinson – Amanda Waller
The Suicide Squad (aka Task Force X) was not the brightest spot in Arrow’s series run, as many of the less popular villains ended up there for storylines that were later squashed when the Suicide Squad mainstream film was announced. At the helm of this sinking ship was Amanda Waller, played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson, who never managed to more than an annoyance.
Waller was the head of A.R.G.U.S., ostensibly a crime-fighting government agency. Waller’s totalitarian tendencies revealed her to be more of a villain than a heroine, and through it all, Addai-Robinson’s performance was flat.
It’s hard to play a role that Viola Davis nailed on the big screen.
We know Waller was supposed to be harsh and guarded, but you’ve got to do more with your character than just smirk and say strict stuff all the time.
8 Saved: Brenda Strong – Lillian Luthor
Supergirl has had its share of villain problems, but Lillian Luthor solved several of them. After starting with a kind of Lex Luthor Lite in the first season with Maxwell Lord, the show upgraded to the very mother of the real thing. Brenda Strong plays Lex’s mother Lillian, and you can see the resemblance.
Strong plays Lillian in the vein of classic depictions of Lex Luthor, drawing on the character’s classic self-righteousness and greed. Much like Lex, Lillian is arrogant, believing herself to be saving the planet from aliens like Kara Danvers.
This depiction works very well, allowing Supergirl to draw from the well of past Superman stories while still retaining its own unique identity.
7 Hurt: Grant Gustin – Savitar
The Flash may be a great TV show, but it isn’t without its problems. One of those issues is its villains, as its big bads have traditionally been powerful speedsters, and after a while, fights between two super fast individuals just aren’t that interesting. The villain that crystallized this problem was Savitar, later revealed to be a time remnant of Barry Allen himself.
The decision to have Grant Gustin play a hero and villain fighting one another was fun– for a little while.
It didn’t take long before fans grew tired of this dynamic, though, especially given that Barry had been fighting other speedsters all throughout the show.
The decision to have Grant Gustin play good and evil Barrys wasn’t just boring, it made it feel like the show was running out of ideas.
6 Saved: Darren Criss – Music Meister
The Music Meister is low-key one of the most underrated DC supervillains, given that his superpower is hypnotic singing. Obviously, this situation is rife for goofy musical set pieces, and the Arrowverse took full advantage of it, casting Glee alum Darren Criss in the role.
This is perfect cameo casting, as Criss is known for his singing and appeared on Glee alongside both Melissa Benoist (Kara Danvers) and Grant Gustin (Barry Allen).
Appearing in one episode of The Flash and Supergirl each, Criss wasn’t overused, adding the ideal jolt of musical whimsy into both series. The confluence of the cast’s past history together and Criss’ singing voice made him the perfect Music Meister.
5 Saved: Andy Mientus – Pied Piper
One of the best ways to make a villain compelling is to give him a motivation that makes sense, even if their methods are evil. That was the case with Hartley Rathaway, aka the supervillain the Pied Piper and the former apprentice to Harrison Wells/Eobard Thawne.
Played by Andy Mientus, Rathaway was an instant hit among fans for the way he poked holes in Team Flash’s worldview.
Rathaway was upset over getting fired by Wells for noticing that the particle accelerator was going to explode. After becoming a metahuman with power over sound, he embarks on a quest to eliminate Wells’ new golden boy, Barry Allen.
Mientus gave Rathaway the tinge of arrogance and entitlement he needed to be an appealing, flawed jerk. His return in season two to give Rathaway a happy ending was the icing on the cake.
4 Hurt: Vinnie Jones – Brick
Casting an actor to play a supervillain similar to a supervillain they’ve already played isn’t always a great idea. A perfect example is Vinnie Jones, enlisted by Arrow to play Danny Brickwell, aka Brick.
Jones might seem to be a good fit for the role, having played the Juggernaut in X-Men: The Last Stand, but the execution was lacking here in more than one way.
First, Brick himself was a fairly bland character, distinguished by sadistic tendencies and a brutal outlook on life and not much else. Second, Jones phoned in his performance, playing Brick’s rage and giving him absolutely no nuance or subtlety. Finally, the writers tried to make him important by giving him a painful history with the Merlyn family, but it felt pointless by then.
3 Saved: Mark Hamill – The Trickster
It turns out the Joker isn’t the only DC villain Mark Hamill can play, and play well. Appearing in the first and second seasons of The Flash, the Trickster was one of the few villains on the show who had a history before the particle accelerator explosion. Once the most dangerous criminal in Central City, the Trickster’s narcissistic nature demanded he return to the limelight.
As any fan of Batman: The Animated Series will tell you, Mark Hamill has a knack for playing villains with a psychotic, vain side.
Casting Hamill in the role of James Jesse was an excellent choice, as it allowed the veteran actor to just have fun with a silly part. As long as he wasn’t overused– and he wasn’t– Hamill as the Trickster was great fun.
2 Hurt: Jimmy Akingbola – Baron Reiter
Some roles demand a great actor just to be the least bit memorable. An extremely bland character, Baron Reiter needed all the help he could get, and unfortunately, Jimmy Akingbola didn’t provide it.
Reiter was the antagonist in the flashback subplot of season four, which was marked by the introduction of dark magic to the Arrowverse.
Magic was a mixed bag for the Arrowverse, and Reiter was one of least interesting parts of it. Reiter was a simple soldier who sought magical power– and that was about it. Neither the writing nor Akingbola added much texture or nuance to the character, making his scenes noticeably boring to watch.
1 Saved: Manu Bennett – Deathstroke
Deathstroke is almost certainly the defining villain of Arrow’s series run, and it’s mostly thanks to Manu Bennett’s performance as the legendary mercenary.
Slade Wilson’s story is told both through flashbacks and the main narrative, starting in Oliver’s past as his mentor and ally and morphing into a crazed soldier driven by nothing but a desire for vengeance.
Manu Bennett fit this role so well that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Slade nowadays.
Bennett brought an intimidating presence that hid some surprising tenderness, and his transformation from friend to foe is one of the best arcs in the series.
Fans are happy to see Deathstroke return, especially now that he’s less of a villain.
Who’s your favorite villain in the Arrowverse? Let us know in the comments!