Now that you’ve seen the top ten worst villains, let’s check out my favorites.
Choosing just ten was agony. I’ve included a list at the bottom of my almost-rans, so don’t flame me until you check there. And my number one IS number one, no question.
10. Francisco Scaramanga (The Man with the Golden Gun)
Let’s start off this list with a villain who’s got two great things going for him. He’s a Bond villain; and he’s played by legendary character actor Christopher Lee. (Trivia: Lee was Ian Fleming’s cousin, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s friend. Keen, huh?)
Scaramanga is the archetypical Bond villain. He’s an assassin and a hedonist, like James Bond. He has his own island with a secret base, complete with death traps and bikini girls. He’s egotistical and clever. He has a bizarre distinguishing characteristic, a third nipple; and an affectation (a golden gun with the victim’s name on the bullet). And in the movie, he has a superweapon, the Solex Agitator. He also has his midget sidekick, Tattoo Nick Nack.
Scaramanga makes the classic villain blunders, like welcoming his nemesis as a guest. (Trivia: In the novel, Bond is brainwashed by the Soviets and tries to assassinate M. Since they can’t trust Bond anymore, MI6 sends him to kill Scaramanga, the world’s deadliest assassin. They expect Bond to fail – it’s a suicide mission.) Seriously, dude, as soon as you see Bond, CAP HIM IN THE ASS. You’re an assassin, for chrissakes. Assassinate!
A side note: Scaramanga. Saruman. Count Dooku. Rasputin. Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster AND The Mummy. Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, Professor Stone on The Avengers — Christopher Frank Carandini Lee, CBE is the greatest villain actor who ever lived.
9. Agent Smith (Matrix Trilogy)
As a sci-fi fan, there were plenty of things to dislike about The Matrix. It was derivative; none of its ideas, which blew the minds of soccer moms and middle school hessiers everywhere, were unfamiliar to anyone who had read William Gibson or Shirow Masamune. The action was ripped off from a dozen different Hong Kong martial arts films. And the lead actor had all the charisma and talent of a tube steak.
And yet, it still KICKED ASS.
Much of the credit belongs to the villain. Agent Smith starts out as just one of three (a “trinity?” Eh? Eh?) faceless Men in Black. But it’s soon clear that one of these things is not like the others. Agent Smith is more than a relentless, soulless machine. He hates. He loathes. He abhors. He yearns to destroy a world that repulses him. Because of this, he will do whatever it takes to take down the hero (Morpheus, not Neo) and his friends.
What’s more, he’s played by Hugo Weaving, whose portrayals of Agent Smith and Elrond Halfelven have made him the actor most beloved by geeks since Christopher Lee passed away. (Whaddya mean, Christopher Lee’s not dead? Didn’t being in the Star Wars prequels kill him?)
Smith is scary because he’s not robotic like a robot – he’s machine-like like a machine gun. He’s viral, unrelenting, and very angry. When Neo kills him off, it’s a great moment because relief floods over you. And when he returns in the sequel, it’s even better, because you’re glad he’s back. And back and back and back and back….
8. Souma Mitsuko (Battle Royale)
One brand of villain that unfortunately got the short shrift on this list is the psychopath. Hannibal Lechter, Frank Booth, Tyler Durden, Keyser Soze; everybody loves a charismatic sociopath. But when that sociopath is a sexy Japanese teenage girl, it tends to stick in your memory.
If you haven’t seen 2000’s Battle Royale, click away from this article and go Netflix it right now. It’s a disturbing film, and American distributors won’t touch it. A classroom of middle school kids is kidnapped, dropped on an island, and forced to murder each other until only one is left. Some try to cooperate to survive; others reluctantly become killers; but two revel in the opportunity to slaughter their classmates. One is Souma Mitsuko, Shiroiwa Junior High School, 9th Grade, Class B, Girl #11.
Pretty but unpopular, Mitsuko snaps — and gleefully sets off on a revenge-killing spree, slicing up other kids with a kama (a Japanese scythe). She doesn’t hesitate to pretend distress, or flirt shamelessly, to lure her victim into a false sense of security.
When the film’s other sociopath, Kazuo, kills her, one of the best shots in the movie is the astonished look on her face, quickly replaced with sadness.
There are a lot of unforgettable things in this violent, manipulative, brilliant film. But apart from the video “Big Sister,” sweet little Mitsuko is the most memorable of all.
7. Hans Gruber (Die Hard)
He’s a former German terrorist turned thief, a literate and fashionable killer in an expensive suit. He’s smart, confident, and wily. He can fake an American accent, and deftly handle a Heckler & Koch P7. He’s Hans Gruber, the most memorable non-super-powered villain in cinema.
It’s the role that made Alan Rickman’s career; facing off against a shoeless Bruce Willis in Die Hard. The Citizen Kane of action flicks, Die Hard hit every note perfectly, including the most important – having a great villain. The best bit about Hans Gruber is his growing, comical frustration that his brilliant plan (and it is indeed a great plan) is consistently and increasingly sabotaged by one barefoot New York cop. Indeed, failure to improvise is Gruber’s downfall. All he had to do was let McClane take his wife and go.
The audience identifies with Gruber as much as it does with McClane, and there’s a small part of you that would be perversely satisfied if Gruber did blow up all the hostages and make off with the money. And that’s the best kind of villain – the sympathetic one.
6. The Master (Doctor Who)
One villainous archetype is the evil doppelganger of the hero; a person identical in almost every way, except a dark mirror, a cautionary tale about the path the hero could have taken. Indiana Jones has Rene Belloq; Luke Skywalker has Darth Vader; Sherlock Holmes has James Moriarty; and The Doctor has The Master.
Seven actors have played The Master canonically. He’s The Doctor’s enemy, and his brother; nemesis and compatriot. Driven insane as a child by staring into the Untempered Schism, The Master seeks to dominate all reality. The Doctor heals; The Master harms.
But in a strange way, they need each other. The Doctor never tries to destroy The Master, only to redeem him. The Master doesn’t really want to kill The Doctor; he needs The Doctor to witness his triumph and suffer for it, or the victory is meaningless. In the last season ender, the mortally wounded Master refuses to regenerate and save himself, knowing that sacrificing himself is the only way to hurt The Doctor. When The Doctor thinks The Master is dead (apparently he’s not), our hero weeps openly, cradling The Master’s lifeless body. He then gives The Master a hero’s funeral by pyre, identical to the one Luke Skywalker gave his father in Return of the Jedi.
The Master is an archetypal villain in other ways as well; the black Nehru jacket and goatee, the megalomania, the cavalier attitude towards life.
Also, unlike The Doctor, The Master travels through time and space in fully-functioning TARDISes. Although he has a habit of misplacing them.
5. Darth Vader (Star Wars, original trilogy)
When I was 11 years old, Star Wars opened, and life changed forever. There was no “New Hope,” no Jabba the Hutt, the dewbacks didn’t move, and Han shot first. It was the single greatest movie in the history of the Universe, and quite possibly still is.
The next day at school, I described the film to my friends who still hadn’t seen it. The best character, I said, was the bad guy, “Dark Invader,” who fought with a sword made of light and could choke people from a distance. The first moment he appeared on the Tantive IV, striding out of the white smoke in his jet black armor and flowing cape, I was scared shitless. What the hell was that mask supposed to be? And what horror was it hiding?
Not a pasty-faced old guy or a sniveling teenager, I can assure you that.
The guy blew up entire, peace-loving planets, fer crissake. Well, Gran Moff Tarkin did, but Vader just stood there and watched!
In Return of the Jedi, I thought Vader’s conversion back to good was a bit… sudden. But I attributed that to Luke’s powers as a Jedi Master, rather than bad writing. Little did I know. I was disappointed with the final reveal of Vader’s face, but just because I wanted him to be horribly scarred and mutilated. Why did he wear that helmet all the time, just so his underlings wouldn’t know he was doughy?
I keep coming up with complaints about the original Darth Vader, but they’re affectionate taunts. He was a fantastic villain, from the costume to the voice to the mysterious past. The mysterious past that I wish had remained mysterious.
4. Magneto (Marvel Comics)
If comic book villains dominate my top five, it’s only because villainy is so central to the genre. In other types of fiction, the moral differences between the protagonist and antagonist can be subtle, confused, or even reversed. In comics, some Marvel and indie titles notwithstanding, it’s often a squeaky-clean hero versus an absurdly malevolent villain, each wearing outlandish outfits designed to clarify who’s good and who’s bad.
Our number-four villain has done some truly terrible things, but he’s not wholly evil. He just wants to save his ethnic group/human subspecies from slavery and annihilation. Is that so wrong?
Erik Lensherr survived the Holocaust to work side-by-side with future nemesis Charles Xavier in an Israeli hospital. Fleeing with stolen Nazi gold, Lensherr founded the supervillain group with the most direct and descriptive name ever, The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.
Magneto’s mutant power was control of magnetism, and his power level swung from awe-inspiring to godlike, depending on the writer. He was also a leader, at various times commanding the Brotherhood, The New Mutants, The X-Men, and the entire island nation of Genosha.
Magneto was always an exceptionally cool and well-written villain, from the earliest Silver Age X-Men comics through the “Classic” X-Men era in the 80s and 90s. He would probably have made this top ten anyway. But it’s Sir Ian McKellen’s portrayal of Magneto in the X-Men films that bumps the Master of Magnetism to epic villain.
McKellan’s pitch-perfect portrayals of Gandalf and Magneto have made him the actor most beloved by geeks since Vincent Price passed away. His Magneto is smart, wily, wise, angry, driven, an ideologue; and most importantly for any villain, charismatic. Patrick Stewart is also an excellent actor, Hugh Jackman is dead-on as Wolverine, and Famke Janssen is just smoking hot. But the one performance that stays with you when the movie is over is McKellen’s. Even in the suck-fest known as X-Men: The Last Stand, the scene where Magneto abandons Mystique was one of the most powerful in the series.
3. General Zod (DC Comics)
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Superman is the dumbest superhero ever invented. Just awful. To summarize the problem: there’s nothing less interesting than a guy who can do anything. Compare Supes with the actual best superhero ever, Spider-Man, and you’ll see the difference. It’s Spidey’s limitations, not his powers, that make him so interesting.
Superman has given us a few great villains though. It was painful not to include Lex Luthor on this list. The brilliance of Luthor is that he goes up against the god-man Kal-El with absolutely no superpowers whatsoever. He’s definitely number 11 in this top ten.
The best way to give Superman an interesting villain is the guy with no powers. The only other way is the guy with exactly Superman’s powers. Enter Zod.
Dru-Zod was Military Director of the Kryptonian Space Center, until he created an army of robot duplicates and tried to take over the planet. Banished to the Phantom Zone, he later escaped and attempted to conquer the Earth and destroy Superman. As a fellow Kryptonian, he got the same superpowers from Earth’s yellow sun.
As a comic book character, General Zod was, you know, okay. At least Superman usually has to trick him to defeat him, instead of just relying on muscle. But it’s as a film character, in the otherwise disappointing Superman II, that General Zod became a classic villain.
As portrayed by the English actor Terence Stamp, Zod is arrogant and megalomaniacal, actually disappointed that his yellow-sun powers make conquering the world so effortless. His charisma and effete British charm made him far more likable and interesting than stupid ol’ Clark Kent.
It’s Stamp’s portrayal that made “Kneel before Zod” a common geek meme, and puts General Zod near the top of this list.
2. Doctor Doom (Marvel Comics)
Ah, beautiful Latveria. Nestled where Serbia meets Romania and Hungary, this tiny Eastern European paradise features centuries-old fairyland castles, skiing, hunting, fishing and more. And it’s ruled by the greatest supervillain the world has ever known.
Victor Von Doom was born to gypsy parents. His mother was murdered by a Satanic demon, his father hounded to his grave by the Baron of Latveria. Young Victor vowed to take his revenge upon all of humanity.
Attending college in New York with Reed Richards, Von Doom used his superior intellect to master advanced science and occult magic.
He devised an experiment to communicate with his dead mother; Richards warned him it was too dangerous. Von Doom’s face was maimed in the explosion; although some say it was only a tiny scar, magnified in Von Doom’s mind to hideous proportions by his vanity.
Fleeing to Tibet, Von Doom crafted his famous steel suit, and crafted his plans for world domination. He returned to Latveria and crowned himself king.
Von Doom is the archetypal supervillain, the way Kirk is the archetypal starship captain or Indiana Jones the archetypal adventurer. He’s brilliant, fanatical, monomaniacal, diabolical and malevolent. He’s the master of both science and magic. He rules with an iron fist, protects himself with robot duplicates, and schemes ceaselessly against his do-gooder enemies. Best of all, he perverts his diplomatic immunity as King of Latveria to shield himself from prosecution. There’s nothing like taking advantage of a “hero’s” greatest weakness, the Rules.
Of any villain who is actually a human being, Doctor Doom is the greatest of all.
Note: movies like to ruin comic book villains – Bullseye, Mr. Freeze, Dark Phoenix. The worst known case of this is the pathetic excuse for a “Doctor Doom” we get in the Fantastic Four movies. There’s just one word for this guy: FAIL.
1. Sauron the Deceiver (Tolkien’s Legendarium)
He’s an occult villain, capable of changing shape, invading minds, bending wills, and spying over great distances. He’s a supervillain, complete with secret bases, hidden death traps, and countless fanatically-loyal henchmen. He’s a politician, the commander of vast armies, conqueror of most of the world, the greatest totalitarian dictator in history, casting a shadow over the whole of the Earth. He’s a monster, a werewolf, a creature of fire and iron. He’s immortal, a fallen angel, a god.
Sauron Gorthaur, the Dark Lord, the Black Hand, the Necromancer, Lord of Barad-dûr is the eponymous character of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Contrary to what you may have seen in a certain otherwise-excellent series of films, Sauron is not an evil lighthouse. He is a fallen god, born at the beginning of existence, servant of a much greater and darker evil. Turned to darkness and corruption, he seeks power and dominion over all the earth, and very nearly succeeds in getting it.
In the First Age, Sauron takes the form of a tremendous wolf, and leads the Armies of Angband in war against Elves and Men. He corrupts many servants, Elf and Man and Maia, to his cause – the absolute dominion of Melkor over the earth. He suffers a mild setback, however, when Melkor is defeated by the Valar and chained to the outside of the sky.
In the Second Age, Sauron makes his big comeback. With Melkor out of the picture, Sauron is free to claim the earth for his own. Seeking dominion over all races, he takes on a pleasant guise as Annatar, Lord of Gifts, and helps the hapless and witless Elves forge the Rings of Power. The scheme fails against the Elves (in the short term), but soon the Dwarves are corrupted and the Kings of Men of Middle Earth fall under his sway.
Sauron is “captured” by the Númenóreans, but it’s all part of his evil plan. He succeeds in utterly destroying Númenór, and returning to his homeland of Mordor, goes to war against the Last Alliance of Elves and Men. There Sauron suffers for his Achilles heel – he put too much of his power in the One Ring. It’s stolen from him, Sauron is weakened, and has to go into hiding for a few millennia.
In the Third Age, Sauron returns, tanned and rested. He quickly regains dominion over the Men of the East, and marshals his invincible forces against the West. There’s just the matter of one ring, “a trifle that Sauron fancies.”
No villain in fiction is as powerful, pernicious and frightening as Sauron. The Lord of the Rings is the only book I’ve ever read where, three-quarters of the way through, I genuinely believed the good guys could not possibly win. Sauron never even makes an appearance in the book, yet fear of him drips from every page. He is the greatest villain ever.
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In no particular order, here are some villains who just barely missed the top ten: Lord John Whorfin, The Borg Queen, Hannibal Lecter, Jerome Facher, The Terminator, The Alien, Roy Batty, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Khan Noonien Singh, Dark Phoenix, Edward Rooney, Lex Luthor, Keyser Soze, Sephiroth, Hank Scorpio, Galactus, Gaius Baltar, James Moriarty (both original and Star Trek), Desire, Sir William Gull and The Invisible Man.