In movies, there is always a protagonist and an antagonist. No matter what story it is, there also has to be these two kinds of characters present. While the ‘hero’ plays an important role, the villain plays the second most important role. But in the multiple decades of cinema and entertainment, who have stood out as the greatest movie villains of all time?
1. The Joker – The Dark Knight
In the DC Comics universe, Batman is undoubtedly a fan favourite and has been portrayed in countless Hollywood films. However, what is Batman without his greatest adversary, The Joker?
The Clown Prince of Crime has been played multiple times, with the likes of Cesar Romero, Mark Hamill (animated), Jack Nicholson, the late Heath Ledger, Jared Leto and now most recently, Joaquin Phoenix.
Out of all these candidates, Ledger’s performance has to be the most memorable. Ledger’s interpretation of the character was fashioned around portrayals in the graphic novels Batman: The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth.
This version of the Joker represents themes of chaos, anarchy, and obsession. He craves to upset social order through crime, and defines himself by his conflict with Batman.
2. Loki – Avengers
The Marvel character, who shares his name with the Norse god of Mischief, is arguably one of the best movie villains in that universe. He has appeared in a few Marvel movies, more than any other Marvel villain, not counting gratuitous cameos by the eventual Big Bad, Thanos.
What makes him stand out is the fact that, he is not simply an evil-twin of his corresponding hero. Instead, he has a character arc that makes you empathise with him. When he was first introduced in Thor, he was the vengeful adopted son of Odin who desired the throne. Subsequently, he evolved and by the time Thor: Ragnarok came, he began a redemption arc. It also helped that actor Tom Hiddleston brought a Shakespearean approach to the character.
3. Hannibal Lecter – Silence Of The Lambs
One of the great movie villains in the past 50 years is Hannibal Lecter, from the movie The Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal the Cannibal was one of the key characters that inspired audiences to beg for stories, movies and TV that feature him.
Admittedly, actor Anthony Hopkins brought in a performance that was truly chilling. That infamous scene with Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, where he made a sound with his tongue and lips, was terrifying, to say the least, which he later admitted was improvised.
4. Lord Voldemort – Harry Potter
The Harry Potter books and movies was a phenomenon among children and young adults. He grew up in an orphanage, which means one way or another he was left behind. He has magical abilities that his age mates feared, and that drove him to hate them for being the odd one out.
Then one day he’s off to Hogwarts hoping to find out about his magical ancestry, and comes to find out his mother was the magical one. She could have saved herself with magic but chose death over her son.
As for his father, he was a Muggle he was named after yet he abandoned him when he found out about magic and never came for him. This explains much of Voldemort’s psyche, including his genocidal hatred of Muggles and his attempts to leave behind the name Tom Riddle. He hates himself for his life circumstances and takes those flaws out on other people.
All in all, it makes him a slightly sympathetic villain and gives him a proper motive to hate Muggles.
5. Freddy Krueger – Nightmare On Elm Street
Freddy Krueger is one of horror’s best movie villains. Since his debut in Wes Craven’s 1984 film A Nightmare on Elm Street and over the course of nine films in 27 years, Freddy Krueger has become the greatest of the supernatural slashers.
He was even popular enough to feature in the Mortal Kombat 9 video game as a playable character.
6. Scar – The Lion King
The lion with the scratch on his eye, hence the unfortunate name, is the best Disney villain of all-time, hands down. Jeremy Irons really pulled out all the stops to make Scar the most conniving, sneaky villain of all time.
He is a master manipulator and managed to guilt-trip Simba into running away. As an added bonus, he has a killer singing voice and you cannot help but sing ‘Be Prepared’. It is no wonder that he is one of the best movie villains in Disney.
7. Max Cady – Cape Fear
Max Cady is the epitome of creepy. His sole intent was to terrorize the family of his former lawyer Sam Bowden, and succeeding, until Bowden pulls a gun and ends the reign of terror without further conflict. Bowden lives happily ever after, Cady goes back to prison, the end.
8. Jack Torrance – The Shining
“Here’s Johnny!” This one sentence alone is enough to send anyone screaming or wetting themselves. That iconic scene of Jack Nicholson’s demented face peeking through a hole in the door and uttering those words are enough to give you nightmares. Torrance is not completely a movie villain in the classic sense of the term.
First, a movie villain must impersonate an antagonist position with the hero of the story, he is the cause of evil or bad things happening to the hero. In The Shining, Torrance is at first presented as the central character and in some way he is the protagonist of the story.
But he is also the father who brings his family to keep in order a closed resort during the winter. He is the bringer of evil since the Overlook Hotel is supposedly haunted. The last element stated as supposedly, the haunting of the hotel, is never really clear and depending on the reading of the film you choose to pick out, the spirits might be visions of Torrance’s mind.
9. Anton Chigurh – No Country for Old Men
Chigurh is a thrilling and captivating villain who has caused so much trouble for the main characters of the movie. He is regarded as the best antagonist in cinema history because of his mysterious personality and the audience’s opportunity to identify him.
“Coldness” is one of the dominating features of Chigurh, a total disconnect from the usual terms of human interaction. One scene where Chigurh talks to a gas station clerk. It was a routine interaction which quickly becomes awkward when Chigurh refuses to accept typical conversation tropes like small talk.
His coldness makes him stand out; even in the blazing Texas desert, he looks as pale as a ghost. He acts like one too, often haunting graveyard-like scenes of mass death, or flitting away unnoticed in the background of the world. After all, the most unforgivable crime in his book is when people “see” him, and the only way to survive an encounter with him is to forget you saw him at all. He personifies creepiness to the core
10. Magneto – The X-Men
Magneto is a character that has been explored from basically infancy to death. His whole motivations/backstory/beginnings is really interesting if you haven’t read it. Basically its a semi unique and deep character arc: he’s a Holocaust survivor that essentially becomes an advocate of genocide.
Due to all these elements, Magneto comes across as sympathetic at times. He’s a very deep character. No matter how evil he is, he just wants his people to be safe. He didn’t have the power to stop the Nazi’s when he was young, but now that he HAS the power he sort of goes into overprotective mode. He views everyone who isn’t a mutant as a Nazi. So even if you don’t root for him necessarily, but you can at least understand him.