“A villain must be a thing of power, handled with delicacy and grace. He must be wicked enough to excite our aversion, strong enough to arouse our fear, human enough to awaken some transient gleam of sympathy. We must triumph in his downfall, yet not barbarously nor with contempt, and the close of his career must be in harmony with all its previous development.”
Agnes Repplier, American Essayist
I’ve always been a fan of the villain. While I realize they must be stopped and the good guys usually win, it’s the race to that victory that makes a story good, or great, or just average. Whether it’s in a book, on television, in a movie, or even in professional wrestling (or “sports entertainment), the quality of the story is greatly affected by the quality of the villain.
It’s always been interesting to me that villains seem to be far more unique and varied than the “good guys.” Sure, Batman is dark and brooding and all, but his rogues’ gallery of villains is so diverse and interesting that they (at least in my mind) often overshadow The Dark Knight. The same goes for Superman. Seriously, who doesn’t think Lex Luthor is more interesting than Superman? Well, except for the Jesse Eisenberg version.
With so many interesting villains existing in the movie world, I wanted to see what other folks thought about villains. Who were their favorites? Why did they think that way? What made them consider a villain great? I decided to create a survey and send it to my friends and family and see what they had to say and compile the results in a nifty list for easy reading.
How it Worked
I sent out surveys asking folks to identify their 10 favorite movie villains. I didn’t really put too many parameters on the picks. They didn’t have to be solely horror movie villains (like Freddy Krueger or Jason); they didn’t have to be superhero villains (like Thanos or The Joker); they didn’t even have to be human (for example, Cujo or Christine would’ve been acceptable answers). This also wasn’t a matter of who could win in a physical fight. I didn’t care if the T-1000 could defeat The Riddler; I was only asking who the participants found the most entertaining…for whatever reason. The only real parameter was that they had to be from a movie…no television, books, video games, or Hallmark Channel Originals (except maybe the chick who played Aunt Becky on Full House…she’s an actual villain).
Anyway, after I got the surveys back, I scored them in reverse order. For example, someone’s number one pick got 10 points. A number two pick got nine points, and so on, with a number 10 pick getting one point.
For example, here were my picks:
- Annie Wilkes, Misery (10 points)
- Leland Gaunt, Needful Things (9 points)
- Biff Tannen, Back to the Future Trilogy (8 points)
- Hans Gruber, Die Hard (7 points)
- Samuel Norton, The Shawshank Redemption (6 points)
- Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (5 points)
- Simon Gruber, Die Hard with a Vengeance (4 points)
- Ivan Drago, Rocky IV (3 points)
- Gaston, Beauty and the Beast – Animated Version (2 points)
- Damon Killian, Running Man (1 point)
Sure, I realize some of these aren’t the “popular” picks, but I’ve always liked my villains to be more human with human flaws. However, my opinions were just one of 30; I didn’t weigh my choices any higher than anyone else’s. I figure some of these might not make the top ten, but that didn’t matter. I figured some of my more unique choices might motivate someone reading to check on the movies…I’ve watched each one on the list at least five times. As I said earlier, a great villain usually makes a great movie.
Enough of the preamble, let’s get to the top ten!
Oh yeah, one more thing…I started this project before Joker came out, so Joaquin Phoenix’s version of the character was not included in this survey.
The Top Ten (Wellllll, Maybe a Few More than That)
I’ll come clean…I decided to include more than ten here because some of these villains received tie scores and I didn’t want to include as many as possible in here. So, without further ado, let’s get to the list!
#10: Biff Tannen (Back to the Future Trilogy)
Biff Tannen (and his relatives Griff and Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen) were the personification of the stereotypical bully. Biff wasn’t too bright, wasn’t very nice, and typically got what he wanted through violence. He was mean simply to be mean, and that’s why we cheered out loud as he and his family were thwarted by Marty and covered in manure. While Doc, Marty, and dreams of time travel were all vital parts of the trilogy, Biff Tannen (and his various iterations) were just as important in keeping us glued to the screen.
#9 (Tie): The Shark (Jaws)
This selection just goes to show that villains don’t always have to be human or have complex plans for world domination. Sometimes, a villain who barely shows up (because of technical issues and malfunctions as much for dramatic effect) is even more effective than a scene-chewing, monologue spewing baddie like Ultron or Hans Gruber. Almost anyone who’s watched Jaws knows what’s lurking in the water as soon as the telltale “da-dum” of the John Williams Jaws music kicked in…and it’s kept folks out of the water ever since.
#9 (Tie): Joker, Jack Nicholson Version (Batman)
Most folks in my age group (folks in their 40s) will remember how cool Jack Nicholson’s version of the Joker was. We were too young to have a real appreciation for the Caesar Romero version on the 60s television show, and we just managed to fit into the demographic for the Heath Ledger version. Batman diehards and casual fans alike will argue for days who the better Joker is, but almost everyone will agree that the Joker is one of the most iconic villains of all time…except for the Jared Leto version; the less said about him, the better.
#9 (Tie): Agent Smith (The Matrix Trilogy)
Hugo Weaving did a great job of turning what is essentially a computer virus into a living, breathing character. The emotionless, unfeeling Smith was a fantastic nemesis that looked to wipe everything off the face of the Earth, because like many other villains, he/it believed humanity was the problem. Villains like Agent Smith and The Terminator are spectacular because of their singularity of purpose: to eliminate the hero at all costs. And besides, how can you not love a villain who says things like this:
“I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.”
#8: Khan Noonien Singh (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek into Darkness)
The people who answered the survey didn’t specify which version (the Ricardo Montalban version or the Benedict Cumberbatch version) they liked more, so we’ll include both of them here. As I compiled the results of this survey, I began noticing that Khan was the archetype “I think I’m right” villain that you’ll see often in this list. Despite the fact the two Khans had slightly different motivating factors, both of them were seeking revenge for perceived slights. Cumberbatch’s Khan was a little more sympathetic, but even Montalban, “believed all good villains do villainous things, but think that they are acting for the “right” reasons. Those seem to be the most effective villains, and the remaining choices on this list back that up.
#7: Thanos (The Marvel Infinity Saga Movies)
Yes, I’m too lazy to type out the specific movies in which Thanos appeared, since they teased him in a few before the big battle in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. As is the case with many of the villains on this list, and many great villains in general, Thanos is so effective because he might actually be right. Is it better for millions to suffer or for half that many to live in peace, harmony, and comfort? I guess you’d have to ask the gazillions of beings in the galaxy that got snapped out of existence. Thanos is an especially sympathetic, and effective, villain when you find him all alone on a planet living peacefully after he erases half the population of the galaxy…instead of sitting on a throne of his conquered enemies. Was Thanos right or was he wrong? The fact that we ask that question (and people have conflicting answers) makes him an incredible villain.
#6 (Tie): Lord Voldemort (The Harry Potter Series)
How do you know you’ve got a formidable villain on your hands? Well, when every witch or wizard dares not utter his unmentionable name, and refers to him instead with such expressions as “You-Know-Who”, “He Who Must Not Be Named” or “the Dark Lord,” you know you’re doing something right (or wrong) as a villain. It also helps that he has a group of evil wizards and witches called the Death Eaters backing him up. The ironic thing about his single-minded quest to rid the world of half-blood wizards is that he’s a half-blood himself. Even his creator called him nothing more than a, “self-hating bully.” However, from the first time you see him on the back of Professor Quirrell’s head, you begin to see that Voldemort is a force to be reckoned with…and by the time we reach Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, you realize he’s one of most memorable villains of all time.
#6 (Tie): Annie Wilkes (Misery)
Talk about going from one extreme to the other. In Voldemort, we have an all-powerful wizard who is at the fringes of fantasy. In Annie Wilkes, we have a woman who could very well be your next-door neighbor. It’s this pleasant, charming exterior that makes Annie’s evil all the more powerful. As the movie progresses, we come to find that the woman who saved the protagonist, Paul Sheldon, is not all that she’s “cracked up” to be. Paul’s “biggest fan” is also a mentally unstable psychopath who physically and mentally tortures him because he killed off her favorite character. One of the more memorable aspects of Annie’s character is the fact that she’s capable of ridiculous acts of violence, but abhors profanity, opting to use childishly strange words and phrases like “cockadoodie”, “mister man”, “dirty bird”, “dirty birdy”, “oogie”, “fiddely-foof” and “rooty-patooties”. The fact that Annie is so wildly unpredictable keeps us riveted to our seats, and makes her an extraordinarily memorable villain.
#5: Freddy Krueger (The A Nightmare on Elm Street Series)
When I set out to create this survey, I was worried that too many people would pick stereotypical horror movie villains. However, this is the first horror/slasher movie villain that appears in the top ten. While many other villains on this list (and others who were selected that don’t appear) are nuanced and conflicted, Freddy Krueger is memorable for just being straight-up evil. In an interview, Wes Craven described his creation as such:
“Freddy stands for the worst of parenthood and adulthood – the dirty old man, the nasty father and the adult who wants children to die rather than help them prosper. He’s the boogeyman and the worst fear of children – the adult that’s out to get them. He’s a very primal figure, sort of like Kronos devouring his children – that evil, twisted, perverted father figure that wants to destroy and is able to get them at their most vulnerable moment, which is when they’re asleep!”
So, basically, Freddy’s pure evil…that about sums up why he’s a memorable villain and why he appears on this list.
#4: Hans Gruber (Die Hard)
I was pleased to see Hans Gruber at the top of a lot of people’s lists because he is also one of my favorite villains. He’s so memorable because he’s so suave, well-dressed, calm, and well-spoken and he really is nothing more than…as Holly Gennero McClane points out…a common thief. Of course, Hans, when presented with this statement, only gets slightly bent out of shape and responds, “I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane. And since I’m moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite.”
The success of Hans as a villain is due largely to the fact that Alan Rickman plays the role perfectly. His calm demeanor and hints of humanity (like having a couch brought out to a pregnant woman) are in such stark contrast to his greed and quickness to kill (later, Ellis) that you can’t help but admire him as a formidable adversary and awesome villain.
#3: Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs)
Now we’re in the top three, and the top three in this survey were all head and shoulders above the rest of the field. The first of these three, Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter is an insanely deep, developed character, who’s intellectually brilliant, cultured and sophisticated, with refined tastes in art, music, and cuisine. Ironically, he’s deeply offended by rudeness, frequently killing people with bad manners. In sharp contrast to his intellect and culture, the protagonist of the novel Red Dragon calls Lecter a monster whose mind is incomplete, like a baby who’s born with a missing limb or non-functioning organ. In the movie, Clarice Starling says of Lecter, “They don’t have a name for what he is.” For the sake of this survey, however, we have a name for Hannibal Lecter: one of the greatest villains of all time.
#2: Darth Vader (The Star Wars Series)
“I was eight when the original Star Wars was released. Vader was everything a bad guy should be for me. He’s my original good vs. evil villain.” Keith Perry, Survey Participant
Darth Vader, who occupies the second spot on this list, is the prototypical movie bad guy. He dresses in black; he has a cool deep voice; he chokes his subordinates with his mind for failing him; he blows up planets just because; (Spoiler alert!) he cuts his own kid’s hand off; and he has his own killer theme song. Every time you see Vader on screen, he exudes evil. Later movies would add some depth to his character and follow his decent to the dark side.
Darth Vader’s appearance on this list just backs up the evidence that’s already out there, as he’s become one of the most iconic villains in popular culture, and has been listed among the greatest villains and fictional characters ever. The American Film Institute listed him as the third greatest movie villain in cinema history on 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains, behind Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates. Some voters mentioned that they listed him a little lower on their list because, unlike some of the villains they named, Darth Vader redeems himself in Return of the Jedi, becoming more of a tragic hero than a pure villain. Either way, he’s a memorable villain that deserves a high spot on this list.
#1: Joker, Heath Ledger Version (The Dark Knight)
The number one villain on this survey, with votes to spare, was Joker, as played by Heath Ledger.
It’s almost impossible to put into words how great a villain Heath Ledger’s version of the Joker is. Ledger described the Joker as a, “psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy,” and was allowed to bring this interpretation of the character to the movie. Christopher Nolan described Ledger’s performance as follows.
“Everything about what he does from every gesture, every little facial tick, everything he’s doing with his voice—it all speaks to the heart of this character. It all speaks to this idea of a character who’s devoted to a concept of pure anarchy and chaos. It’s hard to get a handle on how those elements combine. The physicality reminds me of the great silent comedians. It has a bit of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin about it.”
Every aspect of Ledger’s performance, from his look to his voice to his mannerisms, combined with the script, works to create a villain that was the most memorable of many people’s movie-watching lives. From fantastic reviews to a number of critical awards, Ledger’s Joker is clearly one of the most iconic villains (if not iconic characters) of all time. Richard Corliss of Time magazine said it best:
“Heath Ledger is magnificent. The Joker, incarnated with chilling authority by the actor, is simply one of the most twisted and mesmerizing creeps in movie history.”
The Next Batch
Some really great villains fell right outside of the top group, so I figured I’d give them their due. The following villains got a good amount of votes, and some fell just short of making the top 10 (well, the top 10-plus).
#11: Samuel Norton (The Shawshank Redemption)
#12: Scar (The Lion King)
#13 (Tie): Ivan Drago (Rocky IV)
#13 (Tie): John Doe (Seven)
#14 (Tie): T-1000 (Terminator 2: Judgement Day)
#14 (Tie): The Xenomorph (The Aliens Series)
#15 (Tie): Lex Luthor, Gene Hackman Version (The Superman Series)
#15 (Tie) Pennywise (It)
#15 (Tie) The Terminator (The Terminator)
#16: Jigsaw (The Saw Series)
#17: Hans Landa (Inglourious Basterds)
#18 (Tie): Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men)
#18 (Tie): Commodus (Gladiator)
#19: Dolores Umbridge (The Harry Potter Series)
#20 (Tie): Bane (The Dark Knight Rises)
#20 (Tie): Calvin Candie (Django Unchained)
#20 (Tie): Jack Torrance (The Shining)
There are a lot of really interesting, great villains on the preceding list. There’s certainly a variety, too. We have an evil prison warden who hides behind religion, an animated lion who kills his brother, an evil clown, an acid-blooded alien, and a cancer-stricken madman who gives people a chance to “repent” by playing deadly games. While some of the preceding villains are visually stunning, others, such as Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa, and Kevin Spacey’s John Doe are so amazingly well-acted that they need little in the way of visual enhancement. With so many villains to choose from, some really amazing, memorable villains were going to have to win “participation trophies,” but to be in the top 50 of the countless villains that have been created over the years is still pretty incredible.
Others Receiving Votes
In addition to the top ten (or so) and the runners up, there were some other villains that deserve mention. Many of them fall into categories, so I’m going to mention them that way.
While Scar was the only Disney animated villain to rank in the top of the survey, some other Disney baddies made the list, as well. Gaston from Beauty and the Beast got some votes, as did Syndrome from The Incredibles. Joining them in receiving votes were the wicked queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Hans from Frozen, Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians, and Lots-o’-Huggin Bear from Toy Story 3.
It surprised me that villains like Ursula from The Little Mermaid and Captain Hook from Peter Pan didn’t manage to receive any votes shows just how many memorable villains Disney has created throughout their movie-making history.
Bringing the Funny
Not every villain is meant to be taken seriously. Some pretty funny antagonists made the list, including Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers series, Paul and Beverly Barish from Tommy Boy, Vizzini from The Princess Bride, Ed Rooney from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Deebo from Friday, Dark Helmet from Spaceballs, and Shooter McGavin from Happy Gilmore. These villains, while comical more than terrifying or evil, were memorable because they made us laugh.
In addition to the supervillains who reached the top 20 or so on this list, there were others who received votes. Ozymandias from Watchmen, Killmonger from Black Panther, Ian McKellan’s Magneto from the X-Men movies, Ultron from Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mysterio from Spider-Man: Far from Home, Danny DeVito’s Penguin from Batman Returns, and Venom from…well, Venom, all received votes. Seeing so many superhero villains in this list proves that the effectiveness of the antagonist contributes a lot to the success of a superhero movie.
The Horror! (Say that like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.)
There were some traditional horror movie villains that also earned votes, including Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th…Surprisingly, his mom didn’t make the list.), Michael Myers (Halloween), Max Cady (Cape Fear), Norman Bates (Psycho), Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), and Christine (the car).
Kicking it Old School
Finally, there were some cool old school villains included in the list, including Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1962), Dr. Frank-N-Furter (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975), WOPR (WarGames, 1983), The Wicked Witch of the West (The Wizard of Oz, 1939), and Ming the Merciless (Flash Gordon, 1980).
In addition to the dozens of villains I’ve included in this article, there were an equal number that got votes that I didn’t include; my apologies if your picks didn’t make it. I’m so happy that people participated and everyone had a lot of different (but equally awesome) takes on what makes a great, memorable villain. As I look at the villains people voted for, I really can’t come up with a formula for what makes a good villain. The picks included women, men, lions, cars, cannibals, people who think they’re doing good, people who know they’re doing bad, scary monsters, prominent doctors, religious men, educated men, and complete psychopaths. So, what makes a good villain? What makes a memorable villain? I think, like beauty, villainy is in the eye of the beholder. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to making a villain…it’s all a matter of perspective, and that’s cool. I guess the goal of this article went from defining what a good villain is to letting people know about some great villains and some great movies…which is what being a geek is all about: sharing what we love!
So, folks, get out there and get to watching! Maybe you’ll find some villains that will make your top ten list!