What Puts the “Super” in Supervillain?

And when he planned to steal our sunlight, he crossed that line between everyday villainy and cartoonish supervillainy.

—Waylon Smithers

What is it that makes a villain a supervillain? What quality is it that defines an antagonist as more than a threat, more than a foil? As something extraordinary?

The easy answer is that a supervillain is a villain with super powers, but that’s not a sufficient answer. If you name three supervillains off the top of your head, I guarantee you two of them have no powers at all. And there are many monstrous villains in fiction that have powers that still wouldn’t ever be considered a supervillain.

Similarly, we can say a supervillain must have specific accouterments—a costume, a nom de guerre, henchmen, a hideout—which is another way of saying that a supervillain must have a distinct, instantly recognizable aesthetic. They can have a costume, or a ...