Now, where would all our favourite superheroes be without their archenemies? While there are films like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, V for Vendetta and Deadpool that see the “bad guys” more of a means of protagonist development than an actual presence, some of our favourite comic book films are as much about the bad guys as they are about the good. This sort of dramaturgical dyad formed between the two opponents or groups has done so much for the genre. Villains can be used to reveal the heroes’ false presupposition, hold up a mirror to their darker selves and even deliver some pretty poignant and relevant social commentary.
Then, there are times we just want to watch them do their thing because it’s so bad, it’s good. No matter the reason, we’re here to celebrate the guys and gals who brought so much joy into our lives by bringing so much pain to our beloved heroes. So get ready to twirl your thin moustaches and get your 1987 Michael Jackson album out, cause we’re going bad!
10. Thanos (Josh Brolin – Marvel Cinematic Universe)
Making it on our list is the Mad Titan himself, Thanos. Since the end of 2012’s The Avengers, audience members have known that our heroes were on a collision course with the destroyer of worlds. What makes this character so interesting, even more so than his comic book counterpart, is his motivation. In lieu of the original source material in which Thanos often did what he did to impress Mistress Death, the female manifestation of the concept, his mission here is that of pure calculus.
In his eyes, the universe is overpopulated. A beast dying under the weight of its mass, without the resource to continue. He has seen war and famine sweep through the universe and life has become a curse for many. He witnessed it firsthand on his very own homeworld of Titan. So, how does he wish to rectify this quandary? By starting the universe’s largest intergalactic food drive? Nope, by killing half of all life in it.
The beauty of his motivation is that in spite of his maniacal machinations and morbid goals, somewhere deep inside we fear that well…he might be right. He certainly seems to think so, up to the point where he’s willing to murder his own daughter to further his cause. Say what you want about the guy but his convictions are pure.
The man will cross all personal, philosophical and moral lines to see his utopia come and that is precisely why he won. That being said, the reason he’s not higher on this list is that as driven as he is, some of his more sympathetic traits simply didn’t have enough time to stew. Gamora’s death was tragic, yes but Thanos’ “love” for her seems a little out of left field. Still a solid guy all around. For a genocidal monster, I guess.
9. Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl – Captain America: Civil War)
While Thanos willfully sacrificed all in the name of balance, our next candidate is a man who was not afforded this choice. Robbed of all he loved by the reckless hubris of one Tony Stark. No family, no country and no mercy. Enter the Sokovian Scorpion, Helmut Zemo. We’ve recently done a piece on how underrated this guy is but we feel like it cannot be overstated enough. Zemo is an amazing foil to the Avengers.
Long before Thanos brought his plan into fruition, Zemo had executed his vicious vendetta with long-lasting consequences that would change the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) forever. He masterfully orchestrated an operation to tear the Avengers from the inside out. Some of his feats include brainwashing Bucky Barnes into killing the King of Wakanda and revealing to Tony that Bucky was the one who murdered his parents. Damn man, that’s some cold blooded shit right there.
The truly tragic part of it all is that all this could have been avoided if it wasn’t for Tony overstepping his boundaries. One could even argue that Thanos could not have accomplished what he had set out to do if not for Zemo’s successes. He is as much a victim of circumstances as he is a dark avenging angel. Out to bring down a superpower from within with precise blows and key strings.
When your guy’s actions have this many far-reaching and devastating consequences, you know you’ve got a heavy hitter here. The one thing I would have liked to see is a bit more personality in Zemo. Daniel Bruhl was excellent, don’t get me wrong but at the end of the day, so much of the Team Cap and Team Tony stuff took centre stage.
8. Bane (Tom Hardy – The Dark Knight Rises)
We’ve seen the Scorpion who poisoned the Avengers against one another, now it’s time for the man who broke the Bat. And once again like Zemo, tragedy is an integral part of this character’s life. Bane was born and raised in a near-inescapable prison called the Pit. Men would try to scale the walls of the Pit to reach the top, only to fall to their deaths below. But amidst such cruelty and harsh conditions, grew a gentle soul. After the death of her mother and seeming disappearance of her father, Talia al Ghul found refuge and comfort in the arms of Bane.
He nurtured and protected her from the other prisoners, helping her flee that hellhole. He, in turn, suffered severe pain and torture that left his face disfigured and in constant need of a mask that delivered an anaesthetic to ease his suffering. Talia eventually returned to deliver her friend away from the Pit and into the League of Shadows. There he would hone his deathly craft and become Talia’s instrument of lethal strength. He would be the bane of Batman.
Barring his slightly goofy accent, Bane is not a man to be trifled with. Truly Tom Hardy’s transformative performance as the insanely muscular Bane is impressive by itself but it isn’t just his stature that lends such a menace to the character. Some of the dialogue he delivers here is the stuff of horror movie villains. When he gently laid his powerful hand on his weasel investor Daggett and asked “Do you feel in charge?”, my heart was in my throat.
The man is intelligent, physically intimidating and ruthless. Therefore, it’s just such a shame that near the end of The Dark Knight Rises his motivations are revealed to be that of Talia’s lovesick puppy. Especially after so much of the philosophical posturing he does throughout the film.
7. Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe – Spider-Man)
But hey, sometimes it’s not really a villain’s intricate ideology or captivating complexities that win us over? At times, it’s the actor’s performance that makes the character so damn enthralling to watch. We were seriously considering sneaking Jack Nicholson’s Joker on this list somewhere but after careful evaluation, we decided to go with Willem Dafoe’s eternally creepy and ghoulishly spellbinding depiction of the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.
It’s not just what Dafoe says or how he delivers his lines. Nor is it merely about how he moves or he alternates between his alter ego of loving father and diabolical monster. Rather it’s all of the above! There’s something almost spiritual about the way the identity of the Green Goblin overtakes the decency and sensibilities of Norman Osborn. It’s his smile, his shift in tone and the way he moves.
Where most of our villains experience a sort of death and rebirth from their past lives into their new vile personas, we get to see Osborn’s struggle. We witness a man’s descent into madness as he mentally clashes with his inner demon. His transformation into this Goblin becomes fully triggered when he experiments with a chemical that supposedly unlocks human evolution.
The greatest irony here is that in the pursuit of becoming something higher than man, Osborn devolves into a beast instead. By the end of it all, it is by his own hands in which he meets his demise. Impaled by the glider blades intended for Spidey. By merit of Dafoe’s wonderful work alone, the Green Goblin easily makes our list. Well done, you scary bug-eyed bastard. Well done.
6. Mama (Lena Headey – Dredd)
Speaking of scary…we couldn’t possibly talk about shit-your-pants worthy performances without mentioning Lena Headey’s unnerving depiction of whore turned crime boss Mama from 2012’s Dredd. Dafoe is scary but it’s often in a cartoonish and over-the-top sort of manner. Mama is somebody who would flay you alive while pouring expensive vodka into your open wounds to make a point.
The makeup artists in Dredd did a phenomenal job in transforming Headey from the elegant British thespian she is into one of the vilest piece of human garbage who has ever existed in cinematic history. Don’t believe me? Try this on for size. She took the entire living block of Peach Tree under hostage, killed multiple civilians with heavy weaponry, tortured and enslaved an innocent boy by turning him into a living computer just so she could kill two cops. Yea, she’s one bad apple to say the least.
However, her rise to power in the crime-infested metropolis of Mega-City One isn’t too surprising. The city is a meat grinder as one of the Judges put it and you either become meat or you churn the grinder. Unlike Zemo though, Mama isn’t just a product of her environment, she’s a conqueror of said environment. Imagine the ruthlessness of Cersei Lannister combined with the insanity of Scarface. To take down such a hard woman like that, you’d need one hard S.O.B. and in Mega-City One, no one meets our justice quite like Judge Dredd.
Dredd is part of an elite organization dedicated to keeping the peace through fascists rule and hard street justice. Judges are both judge, jury and executioner, able to kill criminals on the spot if deemed worthy. Seeing these two go head-to-head in a floor by floor firefight is the stuff of action movie legend, man. If you’ve never seen Dredd, I highly recommend seeing it. You’ll never look at Karl Urban or Lena Headey the same way again.
5. Loki (Tom Hiddleston – Marvel Cinematic Universe)
As much as we love Headey and Dafoe’s depictions, sometimes we like our villains to be a touch more on the charming or charismatic side. Certainly helps if they have one very kissable and weirdly punchable face. We’re talking about everyone’s (except Thor) favourite God of Mischief, Loki. From the halls of Asgard to the skies of New York to the gladiatorial arena of the planet Sakaar, the adopted son of Odin has always had a trick up his sleeve. Some would say it all stems from a deep inferiority complex due to his upbringing next to Thor.
Some would say, he’s just misunderstood and has a chance for redemption. Others would say that being a conniving, power-hungry charlatan is just his nature. Frankly, we’ve neglected the need to know why and have to come to just love watching the little devil wreak havoc on screen.
Hiddleston manages to be altogether sympathetic and altogether dastardly with just the right amount of twinkle in his eye and sinister in his voice. The man’s just a heartbreaker. We thought we’d see his redemption in Thor: The Dark World. Nope, turns out he narrowly escaped death and disguised himself as Odin. Perhaps Loki would finally patch things up with his big brother in Ragnarok? He convinces the dictator of Sakaar to throw him into a fighting pit with Hulk.
By now, we’d expect him to be totally irredeemable…right? Except for the fact that he’d just couldn’t bear to let his brother die at the hands of Thanos. Damn it, Loki! Stop playing with our emotions! For pulling on our heartstrings and pissing us off, you’ve at least garnered a place on our list.
4. Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan – Black Panther)
Our next pick comes from truly Shakespearean origins. Borne of royal nobility and common blood, Erik Stevens or in his native Wakandan tongue, N’Jadaka was raised in the harsh American intercities. There, he and his father, N’Jobu saw firsthand the cruelty and marginalization of the African community in that neighbourhood. N’Jobu had planned on arming blacks with advanced Wakandan technology so that they may rise up against their white oppressors.
The original king and Black Panther, T’Chaka, however, would not have it. Just as N’Jobu was about to kill Zuri, who had infiltrated N’Jobu’s gang as James, T’Chaka killed him on the spot. Young Eric was left abandoned in the intercity without a father. He would grow up becoming an exceptional killer, earning him the moniker of Killmonger. He would use his connections to Klaue to infiltrate into the kingdom of Wakanda to challenge his cousin, T’Challa for the throne. A prodigal son returns with a vengeance for the world.
There is a certain tongue in cheek aspect about Hiddleston’s Loki that is noticeably missing when it comes to Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger. In its place is palpable hate that carries a genuine gravity, justified from a lifetime of pain, loss and entitlement. He envies the power and luxury that Wakandans enjoy in secret while the rest of the international African community suffers.
Deep down inside, Killmonger is just a scared, angry little boy who wants to come home with his father. His noble goals, however, are shrouded in a veil of hate so thick, he’d rather die with his bile than live to see a world without his vision. The man is many things. A warrior, a prince, an exile, a monster, a revolutionary and one of the best villains we’ve seen in a long time.
3. Ozymandias (Matthew Goode – Watchmen)
This is it folks, we’re getting into the creme of the crop now. In 2008, the world was introduced to an extraordinary film that sought to deconstruct our notion of heroism. Lay bare our definitions of good and evil on the cold surgeon’s table of cruel reality. No, I’m not talking about The Dark Knight. I’m talking about the sleeper comic book cinematic masterpiece, Watchmen. Set during the cold war with the Russians and a still Nixon ran USA, the world is on the brink of Nuclear Armageddon. The golden age of superheroes and their upstanding ideals are out the door as their role in the world becomes increasingly political.
One man, however, saw a way to save the world. A superhero turned philanthropist and billionaire business mogul, Adrian Veidt, formerly known as Ozymandias. The world’s smartest man. He saw that the world was on the precipice of destruction so in an effort to defuse the situation, he launched a devastating attack on US and USSR soil. Blaming it on the god-like nuclear being, Dr Manhattan. Effectively ending the war and bringing world peace.
Holy shit! Where do I even begin with this guy? Matthew Goode as the benevolent megalomaniac Ozymandias is cold, calculating and altogether filled with “good intentions”. Few villains can ever say that their plan worked quite so perfectly as Veidt’s. We always hear the corny villains spouting hollow platitudes about the greater good. None has ever quite executed their vision with such stunning clarity and precise results quite like Ozymandias.
Do you want to know the crazy part of it all? Even our heroes ended agreeing with him because as much as they despised Veidt and everything he stood for, they could not deny the peace he achieved. It truly is something else when your villain does more good in a single act of evil than any of the heroes could have done in their lifetimes. To the man who killed millions to save billions, we crown him third place in our pantheon of comic book baddies.
2. Magneto (Michael Fassbender & Ian McKellen – X-Men Film Franchise)
What is it that makes a truly great villain? For us, it’s more than just the performance, pathos, ethos or even how far they can bench press. It’s ambiguity. Some of our favourite villains ride the fine line between irredeemable and anti-hero. They stretch our capacity for human empathy as they draw us on a deeply emotional level before shocking us on a wholly moral one. And none of our outlaws has harboured so righteous a cause and conviction like Erik Magnus Lehnsherr, otherwise known as Magneto.
From a tender age, Erik was confronted with the reality of human evil and discrimination. Erik and his Jewish family in Nazi Germany were subject to the inhuman conditions of the concentration camps. When Erik revealed his magnetic abilities, a Nazi scientist and a future leader of the Hellfire Club took a great interest in Erik. He subjected Erik to vicious experimentation before finally killing his mother to unlock his mutant abilities. Erik perceiving the injustice to the mutant community as yet another form of mindless hate, sought to rise above mankind to liberate and empower his fellow mutants to revolution.
Magneto has always proved to be somewhat of a controversial figure in our minds. There is something deeply flawed about the human condition and Erik wishes to distance that fact from himself by proclaiming his superiority or otherness from it through genetics. It’s something political regimes and religious organizations do to justify their hatred for the other side. Amazingly though, Erik is blind to this! It’s such a vivid and realistic depiction of the radical’s mindset and the dissonance they carry. To him, there is no compromise to be reached for he believes that his enemy is real and he will do whatever it takes to protect his people. He failed to do so in the past, he won’t fail them again.
We couldn’t decide between Michael Fassbender or Sir Ian McKellen so we cheated and went with both of them. It’s impossible to judge them as two separate entities when we could totally see Fassbender’s Erik’s rage and fury simmering into McKellen’s calm and calculated pride and superiority. They’re the same character in two different places in life. Regardless of rendition or film, Magneto has always been depicted as a man capable of both hate and compassion. For him, we hope he finds his peace…before he tears the earth’s apart! Take a bow and claim your silver trophy Buckethead, you deserve it.
1. Joker (Heath Ledger- The Dark Knight)
We’ve talked a lot about villains who’ve won, villains who’ve scared the living shit out of us, villains who’ve charmed our pants off and villains with complex motivations. I won’t lie, it was really easy to pick our number one here. I mean, the guy nails all the criteria we’ve laid out and then some! So without further ado, the biggest baddie in comic book films (so far) has got to be none other than Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight. He just so perfectly encapsulates the idea of villainy.
True evil is violation. It offends our sensibilities, it perverts and corrupts our ideals and sucks everything wholly into itself. It comes for the young, for the old, for the weak, for the strong and it certainly came after the Bat. Sure Bane might have broken Bruce Wayne physically but Joker he’s deformed the image and ideals of Batman. At some point, we were convinced that he was quite literally the devil, the way he tempted and destroyed Harvey Dent. And all for what, exactly? The answer: to prove that life is a joke.
Oh, but his nihilistic antics don’t just stop at the big screen. His “Why So Serious?” monologues and stories are meant to be a direct attack on our notion of pathos. The “why” of existence doesn’t matter and neither does he! We’ll never know how he got these scars, whether it be from a drunk father or misguided form of affection, and frankly, it doesn’t matter. You don’t get to know his backstory. You don’t get to rationalize his actions. You get to sit there in your seat and watch a madman burn the world around you. The funny thing is, we love that.
We secretly or openly revel in the violatory nature of the character. For the character to have truly come to life, we would have needed a performer who was as dedicated to the craft as Joker is to his worldview. Heath Ledger was just the man. He gave his all in an extreme display of method acting. He was hilarious, horrifying, brilliant and absolutely astounding in his role. So much of the dark and gritty deconstruction of superhero virtues we see today is derived from this clown prince of crime and for that, we gladly grant him the title of greatest comic book villain of all time. Period.