It Takes a Great Villain to Make a Great Superhero Movie – Here are 10 of the Best:
It’s really frustrating when the movies get the villains all wrong, as we profiled in our recent list of the worst movie super villains.
This time around, we’re focused on picking the best, which is no easy task since it turns out there have been ALOT of great movie super villains.
Check out the list and let us know if you disagree – nicely of course!
10. Cillian Murphy as The Scarecrow in “Batman Begins” (2005)
One of the most terrifying villains in the Batman’s rogues gallery, the Scarecrow (aka twisted psychologist Jonathan Crane, who uses a gas to inspire fear-induced hallucinations in his foes) had never been portrayed in live-action form before 2005’s Batman Begins, though he’d been pegged as the bad guy in a proposed third Joel Schumacher picture in the late 1990s, Batman Triumphant. One can only imagine how that one would have turned out, but in the hands of Christopher Nolan, and actor Cillian Murphy (who got the gig as a consolation prize after testing for, and missing out on, Batman), he was a cooly unsettling foe for the Dark Knight. Murphy’s piercing eyes and quiet demeanor makes it clear that something’s wrong with Crane as soon as you meet him, and as he show his true colors by gassing Tom Wilkinson’s mob boss, it becomes clear exactly how unhinged he is. He’s not much of a physical threat against “The Bat” (a term he coins), but levels the playing field with his fear toxin, and the imagery Nolan conjures up is legitimately unnerving. It’s a testament to Murphy’s performance that he’s the only bad guy to appear in every film in Nolan’s trilogy.
9. Jason Lee as Syndrome in “The Incredibles” (2004)
Though it’s not based on a pre-existing comic-book like almost every character here, we’d argue that Brad Bird and Pixar’s animated wonder The Incredibles is by some distance the best superhero movie ever made, and fortunately, it has a dastardly villain to match, one well-motivated and well-drawn enough to put most superhero antagonists to shame. We first meet Buddy Pine as a child and superfan of Mr. Incredible, who attempts to be his Robin-style sidekick, but is rejected by his idol. Years later, Buddy’s now an enormously wealthy inventor with a volcano lair and countless gadgets that have made him a foe to be reckoned with. Bitter and twisted from his rejection, he’s been killing off heroes in an attempt to eventually take their place, and turn himself into the savior of the city. The politics of Bird’s film have been commented on fairly comprehensively in the decade since its release, and to some, Syndrome is afraid of exceptionalism and, portrayed as a would-be egalitarian, is trying to level the playing field (“If everyone’s super, then no one is”). Whether or not these are Bird’s politics, (and Buddy’s a little more complex than that), it doesn’t change that Syndrome is a genuinely psychotic villain for a Disney film, a true sociopath who doesn’t blink at shooting down a plane full of children or kidnapping a baby, ultimately undone mainly by his own hubris. Brought to life by an excellent against-type turn by Kevin Smith favorite Jason Lee, he’s funny, menacing and compelling, and a fitting foe for The Incredibles.
8. Samuel L. Jackson as Elijah Price in “Unbreakable” (2001)
M. Night Shyamalan’s difficult second film after the worldwide smash of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable has, even as its director has gone increasingly off the boil, grown in stature, and now increasingly looks like the his finest achievement. Bringing a sober art house sincerity and plausibility to the superhero mythos four years before Christopher Nolan pulled the same trick with Batman, it grounds the idea of comic book heroes in the real world, and unlike most of these films, doesn’t appear to really have a villain as such — the closest thing that Bruce Willis’ invincible Average Joe David Dunn seems to have to as a nemesis is the murderous janitor he battles in the third act. Except, as with his breakthrough feature, Shyamalan has a twist up his sleeve: a final handshake reveals that Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price (nicknamed Mr. Glass), the brittle-boned comic-store owner who’s served as David’s mentor, engineered the train crash through which he discovered his abilities, along with various other atrocities, with the intention of drawing out someone with superpowers. Dismissed by some at the time as an attempt to replicate the jaw-dropper of a reveal at the end of The Sixth Sense, it plays better on subsequent viewings, perhaps stretching plausibility to some degree, but making perfect sense on a character level, and without much in the way of cheating. And Jackson’s performance, one of his finest, does what all the finest villains do, and makes you understand why he’s done what he did, while still making you hate him for his actions. It’s the rare reveal of villainy that actually makes you wish that the touted sequel had actually come to pass.
7. Tom Hardy as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2013)
The third and final installment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy faced a difficult challenge — closing off the story without the presence of Heath Ledger‘s iconic Joker. We wouldn’t say that Nolan and co. managed to match Ledger’s genius, but Bane, the principal villain in The Dark Knight Rises, was still a hugely compelling and terrifying creation, brought to life with an inspired turn by Tom Hardy. Bane had cropped up as a lumpen henchman in Batman & Robin, but here he’s, initially at first, the mastermind, as brilliant as he is brawny, and Hardy’s performance makes him genuinely other — that unidentifiable accent, equal parts Vincent Price and Columbian dictator, the flashes of wit, the ability to create a character without the use of most of his face. For really the first time, you fear for Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne as he goes up against someone, and you soon see why, as Bane simply takes him apart, brutally breaking his back. The character is, admittedly, undermined by the conclusion, as he’s revealed to be a pawn of Marion Cotillard’s Talia Al Ghul and dispatched simply with a rocket to the chest, but even then, Hardy brings unexpected pathos as Talia bids him farewell, underlining that Bane has more in common with James Whale’s take on Frankenstein’s monster than the majority of supervillains.
6. Tom Hiddleston as Loki in “Thor” (2011), “The Avengers” (2012) and “Thor: The Dark World” (2013)
It’s probably fair to say that, for all their strengths, Marvel Studios’movies from Iron Man onwards have not featured villains as their strong points. From Jeff Bridges’ rather anonymous businessman in Iron Man to the incredibly boring Malekith in Thor: The Dark World and the underwritten Bucky in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the heroes have faced off against some rather forgettable baddies even in their better movies. But there’s one exception to that, and fortunately it’s been in the shape of the Marvel movie universe’s most frequent antagonist, Norse trickster god Loki, as played by Tom Hiddleston. We’d argue that we perhaps still haven’t seen his definitive appearance so far — he’s a touch ill-defined in the first Thor, mostly extraneous, though welcome, in the second, and his shift to genocidal megalomania in The Avengers is a little clumsy — but the character’s generally been drawn with a welcome complexity, the misunderstood black sheep who just wants to be loved. And we perhaps take for granted what a find Hiddleston was in the part — physically threatening enough to face off against his mountain-sized co-star Chris Hemsworth, blessed with a light comic touch, but able to pull off the pathos without it slipping into melodrama. The coda for ‘The Dark World’ suggests that a third film would see one last battle between Thor and Loki, and despite him appearing in three movies in three years, we’d still be happy to see more of Hiddleston.
5. Alfred Molina as Dr. Otto Octavius in Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Spider-Man has one of the most colorful and iconic rogues’ galleries in comic books, so it’s rather disappointing how badly they’ve been brought to screen on the whole, as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 continues to demonstrate. Arch-nemesis the Green Goblin has been botched not just once, but three times, while Venom, Sandman and The Lizard were all mostly or wholly botched. But one of Spidey’s most famous bad guys was pulled off with aplomb, in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, easily the best of the five-strong franchise to date. The film does use the same mentor-turned-adversary structure of the first film, but in a much more refined way, with Alfred Molina’s Otto Octavius causing a terrible accident through hubris, robbing him of his wife and melding him to his metallic tentacles. The script makes the smart decision to make Octavius have a kind of multiple personality disorder through his new metallic friends, which keeps the good-hearted man at the film’s center even as his actions become ever more dastardly. Molina, so often underrated as an actor, gets one of his best big-screen showcases here: he can go broad enough to chew scenery in Raimi’s big, bold comic book vision of the universe, but lends real pathos and warmth to his relationship with Peter Parker. Plus he looks great in the costume, which not everyone would.
4. Ian McKellen as Magneto in the ‘X-Men’ films (2000), (2003), (2006), (2014)
Perhaps the recipient of the most compelling back story of anyone on this list, Magneto is fascinating partly because he is easily read through another lens as a hero striving to avert a mutant genocide, having already lost his family to The Holocaust. This richness of history, and the complex, political nature of much of Magneto’s motivation, requires an actor of considerable depth to convey, and luckily, Bryan Singer netted never-less-than-brilliant Shakespearean actor Ian McKellen for the role. Opposite Patrick Stewart’s Dr. Xavier, the pair take the intellectual arguments and thorny confrontations that by rights should be the bits of the film where the teenaged audience is all, like, “ugh, two old guys talking,” and makes them among the most gripping sequences, especially for fans of subtext and those of us who dig an intelligent effort to knit a fictional universe into our own real one. McKellen’s Magneto can be cunning and ruthless, but he is, paradoxically for a mutant, one of the most human of villains, the most sympathetic and comprehensible, and the one who most clearly demonstrates that the path to hell can truly be paved with the best of intentions. It’s a coup for the reboot franchise to have got an actor as good as Michael Fassbender for the role going forward.
3. Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor in “Superman” (1978) and “Superman II” (1980) (not “Superman IV”)
How much we truly admire Hackman’s portrayal of Superman’s self-dubbed nemesis, and how much we love it out of sheer nostalgia for our our younger selves for whom Superman films were without qualification the Greatest Films Ever Made, proved too difficult a question to parse, so we stopped trying. Hackman is a scenery-chewing, comically exasperated, why-I-oughtta type of villain, but in the bright, bold world of Superman, with its clear virtues and ludicrous plots for World Domination (or simply continental — one of our favorite moments in ‘II’ is when Zod asks Luthor what he wants in return for delivering Superman, and Luthor replies “Australia”) that makes him the perfect Lex. Even to the children watching, there’s an ambivalence to Hackman’s portrayal (that we never really got with Kevin Spacey’s more sinister, Machievellian riff) because half the time, while we know he’s the bad guy, and is Doing Bad Stuff, he seems to be having way more fun (balloon escape!) than any of the good guys. Props of course have to go to his retinue of Ned Beatty as Otis (“Mr Luthor! Mr Luthor!”) and Valerie Perrine as Miss Tessmacher, who up the comedy quotient even further, but the tone of these first two films, loopy but with real stakes, is arguably best embodied by Luthor, the result of taking an actor as usually restrained and controlled as Gene Hackman, and letting him off the leash.
2. Terence Stamp as General Zod in “Superman II” (1980)
There’s a bit in Superman II where Terence Stamp, in his immortal role as arch-villain General Zod, shoots lasers from his eyes. This special effect, aside from probably blowing our unformed minds when we first watched it, is almost entirely superfluous, because Stamp’s eyes do the job their own. Without a doubt the smoothest, most implacable, and best-looking villain on this list, there’s an icy, alien, reptilian ruthlessness that Stamp brings to Zod that makes his incarnation, despite the cronkiness of the special effects and the famously mish-mash nature of the Donner/Lester film, a completely defining villain for the Man of Steel. Matching him power for power and not suffering from the debilitating disease of “caring about people” Zod is Supes’ equal, and so for once the stakes are high, because you know this is the one guy that Superman can’t, if push came to shove, shove harder. But it’s the solemn, chilling glee with which Zod scorches his path to ultimate power that makes Stamp’s version indispensable. Where Michael Shannon played Zod as a brawny, raging, bellowing thug, Stamp is so much more chilling by being almost effete — lithe, sardonic but so in control he makes Superman seem gauche. Frankly, if you gotta kneel before someone, you could do worse than Terence Stamp in black PVC.
1. Heath Ledger as The Joker in “The Dark Knight” (2008)
Eternally proving that premature fanboy outrage over casting can always, always be disregarded, the announcement that Australian actor Heath Ledger would play Batman’s most famous foe, The Joker (previously brought to life by as legendary a figure as Jack Nicholson) inspired uproar from certain segments of the fan community. “Probably the worst casting of all time,” wrote comments sections. “I am not seeing this movie if he is in it,” they continued. “I won’t be able to watch it. I’ll keep expecting him to have sex with Batman,” added one particularly enlightened fellow. Well, the comments boards, as usual, were wrong: Ledger was a phenomenal choice, reinventing the character just as thoroughly as Nolan had brought new life to Batman in the previous film. Never playing to the crowd like Nicholson had, Ledger makes the fantastic choice to make the Joker funny, but only to himself, and it’s an immediately unnerving, twitchy turn in which almost every choice the actor makes goes against the grain in constantly surprising and satisfying ways; it’ll likely forever change the way the character is thought of. The performance was hugely acclaimed — indeed, it’s likely to be the only acting turn in a superhero movie ever to win an Oscar — and should have turned Ledger into the megastar he deserved to be. Sadly, he passed away of an accidental overdose six months before the film’s release, so the performance stands only as a reminder of his enormous promise.
courtesy of Indiewire
Click here to see our Top 10 Worst Movie Super Villains