Peter Parker has faced a variety of enemies during his tenure as Spider-Man, but none might be as underrated as the Chameleon. From Green Goblin to Venom, Doctor Octopus, and Kingpin to name a few, the wall-crawler has one of the most notable rogue galleries in comics. But one of Spidey’s most dangerous villains is also one of his best.
Chameleon (born Dmitri Anatoly Nikolayevich Smerdyakov) is the half-brother of fellow Spidey villain Kraven Kravinoff. Dmitri first began developing his fantastic impersonation skills to amuse Kraven and friends. Though due to the familial abuse he suffered, Dmitri also developed low self-esteem and grew to hate himself – viewing his own identity as nothingness. The abuse Dmitri suffered was so great, he suppressed the memory of being family with Kraven for several years, believing he and Kraven were only childhood friends. Eventually, Dmitri’s talent for impersonation brought him to the attention of the KGB, who recruited him and trained him into a spy. Taking the codename of Chameleon, Dmitri eventually immigrated to the United States and became active within the criminal underworld.
Chameleon stole the plans for a secret missile-defense system, intending to frame Spider-Man for the deed. Unfortunately for Chameleon, Spider-Man thwarted his plans and cleared his name. This fiasco took place in Amazing Spider-Man #1, making the Chameleon Spider-Man’s first supervillain in publication. Chameleon was defeated and deported, but soon returned to America with Kraven, and also set Kraven’s sights on Spider-Man, lighting the fuse for the hunter’s storied obsession with the wall-crawler. Spider-Man once again managed to defeat Chameleon. But for a time Kraven the Hunter became one of Spider-Man’s most dangerous and prominent villains.
Despite his defeats, Chameleon continued a life of crime by now offering his services to others, as well as an attempted power grab that would’ve seen him become the new crimelord of New York. Using his talent for impersonation, Chameleon found himself in the employ of various underworld forces, including teaming up with mob boss Hammerhead. His criminal exploits found him making enemies of heroes as diverse as Iron Man, the Hulk, Hank Pym, Captain America, and Daredevil. But Spider-Man remained the constant thorn in his side.
Deciding he needed to increase his impersonation abilities, even more, Chameleon ingested an experimental serum that Originally Chameleon’s impersonation abilities were simply due to his talents and technology. But after the suicide of his brother, Chameleon became obsessed with making Spider-Man pay – as he saw the web-crawler as the cause of Kraven’s death. Chameleon began wearing clothing comprised of ‘Memory Material’ and utilizing enhancing serums similar to his brother Kraven. The serums changed Chameleon’s genetic profile, making his skin so malleable he could duplicate the appearances, not unlike Marvel’s Skrulls. Furthermore, it’s thought that the serums Chameleon took enhanced his strength and endurance similar to Kraven, although his power and durability seem nowhere near the levels of his older brother.
Chameleon’s most threatening plan came into action when he was hired by Harry Osborn (then the Green Goblin) to discover Spider-Man’s identity. Of course, Harry already knew Spider-Man’s true identity – but wanted to torment Peter further. The Chameleon created android copies of Peter Parker’s parents, making Parker believe his long-dead parents were alive. When Peter discovered the truth he flew into a violent rage and beat Chameleon so savagely all of his repressed memories rushed to the surface and he suffered a psychotic breakdown. Chameleon later escaped from the Ravencroft Institute and unmasked Peter after kidnapping him, thus learning why Spider-Man became so angry when he learned the truth regarding Peter’s parents. Revealing his deductive talents, Chameleon noted that he suspected Peter was Spider-Man for quite some time.
Later, Chameleon staged a kidnapping to lure Spider-Man to the very same bridge where Gwen Stacy died. As Spidey prepared to face-off with Dmitri, Chameleon revealed he had not come for a fight. Still suffering from his fractured mental state and the loss of his brother, Dmitri chose to spill his heart out to Peter, even stating that he ‘loved’ him. Spidey couldn’t help but laugh at the unintentional humor in Dmitri’s statement. Announcing that he was happy he was able to make Peter smile, Chameleon jumped from the bridge before Peter had a chance to stop him. Spidey realized Chameleon was just reaching out for help, and couldn’t help but blame himself for Dmitri’s apparent death. Of course, with this being comic books, Chameleon survived and again committed to a mental asylum.
Writer Fred Van Lente depicted Chameleon at his most brutal and sadistic, featuring a Chameleon that kidnapped his victims and tortured them until he could perfectly mimic the sound of their voice before disposing of them via a hidden compartment of acid under his hideout. Chameleon even kidnapped Peter Parker during this story arc. Peter managed to barely escape with his life thanks to his enhanced durability and quick wits and, luckily, the events of One More Day undid Chameleon’s knowledge of Peter’s true identity, otherwise, it’s unlikely the wall-crawler would’ve escaped with his life. During this time Chameleon became obsessed with not only impersonating his victims but “fixing” their lives. In Peter’s case, he sabotaged Parker’s relationship with Mary Jane Watson and put him into an awkward situation with Parker’s then-roommate Michelle Gonzalez, to say the least.
Most recently Chameleon has returned in Nick Spencer’s run on Amazing Spider-Man, conspiring with the young reporter and Peter Parker associate Norah Winters. After the conclusion of Spencer’s Hunted storyline, which featured the (latest) death of Kraven Kravinoff, Chameleon was revealed at his older brother’s gravesite. There he vowed to bring the very world crashing down. The extents of Chameleon’s plans have not yet been revealed – but with Nick Spencer’s tendency to feature lesser-known villains his run on Amazing Spider-Man may finally show what Chameleon is truly capable of as a villain.
Much of Chameleon’s tenure as a Marvel villain is overshadowed by popular or more striking villains like the Green Goblin and Venom. But Chameleon offers an underrated foe for Spider-Man, both due to his powerset and the depth of his character. Chameleon may not have the super-genius intellect of Otto Octavius, and he’d likely lose to Peter in a knockout drag-out fight, but Chameleon can (and has) tricked Parker before, even managing to brainwash Parker into believing he was a novelist named Herbert Smith at one point. Chameleon’s most dangerous attributes are his craftiness, and the versatility his powers and abilities offer. Given his characterization and history with Parker, there’s a missed opportunity in making Chameleon the Joker to Spider-Man’s Batman. Hopefully, this can be rectified in the future, Chameleon has too much potential to be relegated to the B-List of Spider-Man villains.