Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

Ranking The 10 Best And 10 Worst Villains In Superhero Movies

Features
by The Playlist Staff
May 1, 2014 4:00 PM
38 Comments
  • |

It's only May (and even then, only just May), and we're already into our second superhero movie of the year, with this week's "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" following hot on the heels of last month's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." This is only kicking off our regular summer programming of battles between good and evil and wisecracking aliens/mutants/mutant aliens come to save/destroy the world/Galaxy/Universe, and the dualism that every superhero film relies on means that every hero needs an adversary, or in the case of Peter Parker these weekend, about four hundred of them (none of whom, as our review relates, are very compelling). Because, hey, everybody loves a bad guy, so why not cram in a whole shedload?

Of course, we don't always love the bad guys, do we? We often don't even love to hate them, or to be frank, even remember them a lot of the time. It's too early to know how Peter Dinklage's Bolivar Trask in "X-Men: Days Of Future Past" and Lee Pace's Ronan The Accuser in "Guardians Of The Galaxy" will match up, but because "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" has put bad guys on our mind, we've delved back through the dime-store racks and picked out the ten best, and ten worst, villains in superhero movies to date. Agree? Disagree? Mutating with rage into a scaly telepath who's planning to blow up the sun with a death ray fired from a volcano? Let us know in the comments section.

The 10 Best

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. Villains weren’t the strong point of “Batman Begins” (we always found Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul rather hammy and cliched), but 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’s a representation of an almost Ayn Rand-ian point of view, afraid of exceptionalism, and portrayed as a would-be egalitarian, 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.

Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

38 Comments

  • xcxc | June 28, 2014 8:00 AMReply

    you did not like the lizard?!! what the hell???

  • The Thing Is | June 5, 2014 11:23 PMReply

    Tom is a solid actor, but Loki is lamer than lame.

  • Jeàn | June 3, 2014 7:26 AMReply

    What about Red Skull?

  • Rob Del | June 1, 2014 8:25 PMReply

    The Incredibles was filmed in 2004, Disney bought Pixar in 2006, so The Incredibles is not a truly Disney film.

  • Mystery Men | May 12, 2014 12:24 AMReply

    Casanova Frankenstein. That is all.

  • Grego | May 8, 2014 1:55 PMReply

    I don't understand why people are so quick to say that the ending of DKR undermines Bane? It simply gives him a new backstory, and he was PARTNERS with Talia, not her slave or anything. The end does nothing but enrich the character.

  • berndard | May 3, 2014 8:56 PMReply

    1. The Joker
    2. Magneto
    3. Bane
    4. Syndrome
    5. Doc OCk
    6. Ra's Al Aghul

  • Franka | May 3, 2014 8:42 AMReply

    Finally, a good villains list. There's so many shitty ones on the web.

  • Spit | May 3, 2014 5:47 AMReply

    Murphy's Scarecrow did indeed "appear" in all three Nolan Bat films-- and that's about it. His cameos in the second two films were silly filler. If Nolan didn't know what to do with the character, he should have cut him loose, or had the nuts to file him away permanently at the end of "Batman Begins." The second two appearances were a waste of Murphy's time and did nothing for the story.

  • Emperor Zerg Rush | May 2, 2014 7:42 PMReply

    Over the years, as I've reflected on it - The Incredibles is really dark for both a Pixar and Disney film. Not heart wrenchingly dark on par with Bambi or anything but just kind of... dark (and not really dark in a comedic nature). Syndrome (presumably) dying after getting sucked into a turbine? The deaths of many superpowered beings? Hell, when Mr. Incredible finds Gazerbeam's remains, it's just outright morbid. I love that film and am equally hopeful for an even better sequel but I have to wonder if they're planning on carrying over the dark and disturbing tone to it.

    I also think you guys wrote off McMahon's Doom a little too easily. I'm not saying there's no justification behind doing so but if you cut away the crap framework they decided to slap onto him character-wise, McMahon does play Doom adequately.

  • Remy | May 2, 2014 7:40 PMReply

    Jamie Foxx in "Amazing Spider-Man 2" reaches "Batman & Robin" levels of awfulness.

  • Yup | May 2, 2014 8:53 AMReply

    What about Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor in that suckass remake Superman Returns? I know it's a terrible movie and wish I could unwatch it, but since you're listing terrible movies like Batman & Robin...

  • Sanker from India | May 2, 2014 2:40 AMReply

    No offence fanboys, but Jack Nicolson's joker was absolutely horrible performance. It was like him playing a version of or spoofing his own iconic unhinged brilliance of the 70s. Kinda like what Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have been doing in the last decade.

  • F. Davis | May 1, 2014 11:50 PMReply

    Loki was what made The Avengers awful.

  • montr | May 3, 2014 8:57 PM

    I dont think either are awful Both are overated though

  • Darin | May 3, 2014 9:40 AM

    I would have to seriously disagree on both parts. The Avengers was certainly not awful, and Tom Hiddleston's Loki was spot on.

  • Josh | May 1, 2014 11:44 PMReply

    No Robert Redford?

  • Adam Scott Thompson | May 1, 2014 11:13 PMReply

    "Farrell brings a kind of white-rapper swagger to the part, but a House of Pain kind of swagger..."

    That shit had me rollin' with the homies.

  • Ben | May 1, 2014 9:05 PMReply

    Haha, somehow nobody seems to like Superman IV but me :(
    Nuclear Man was my favourite villain of all time during my childhood. That fight on the moon, so pumped.

  • Crazyxcrazy | May 1, 2014 7:50 PMReply

    BANE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    This list can fck off already

  • cirkusfolk | May 1, 2014 7:48 PMReply

    These lists are kinda all over the place. And no Blade, Hellboy, Sin City villains? Nick Stahl or Elijah Wood were definately creepy mothers.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | May 1, 2014 11:15 PM

    The Blade villains were wack sauce (the antags in Part 2 are the best of the worst). Same for Hellboy, honestly.

    And Stahl and Wood, to my mind, didn't command enough screen time -- and scenery -- to merit making this list.

  • tristan eldritch | May 1, 2014 7:08 PMReply

    Bane definitely shouldn't be on the list. Some godawful re-imagining of the Humongous with a campy, Sean Connery underwater voice - and a demonisation of Wall St. protests to boot? Get outta town.

  • Andy | May 1, 2014 5:39 PMReply

    Interesting point about Bane relating to James Whale's Frankenstein. When the film came out Nolan talked about Bane being a classic film monster. I see a connection?!

  • Christian | May 1, 2014 5:31 PMReply

    Loki is too theatrical and self-aware. Bane was a thematically ambitious villain. He was a hardcore terrorist with ambiguous motives.

  • Slen | May 1, 2014 4:58 PMReply

    The backstory of Lizard was needed in the film. He does why he does nt for his arm but for his wife. It adds a great layer to him and would have been a slight addition to making him anti-hero rather than villian.

  • That Kid | May 1, 2014 4:58 PMReply

    "A man so accurate he can kill someone with a peanut" that has got to be the funniest thing I will read all day

  • tristan eldritch | May 1, 2014 7:00 PM

    Eh, he does actually literally kill somebody with a peanut.

  • Chris | May 1, 2014 4:55 PMReply

    Your analysis of Nicholson's Joker is bullshit (regardless of whether you like or don't like the movie or performance), because it relies on the absurd logic that, if the actor's persona or personality is part of the performance, then they're not really acting. Or, as you argue, not giving a "performance, per se" at all. It's such an empty argument. Most actors bring a certain persona to the roles they play - that doesn't mean that each role is not still its own performance, because of course it is. There are some actors that transform completely from role to role - PS Hoffman, Tom Hardy, a few others - but most actors (especially the movie-star type) bring their persona to the role. That doesn't diminish the level of performance, or acting, in the work of Nicholson, or Denzel Washington, or Paul Newman, or Tom Cruise, or Morgan Freeman, or Jimmy Stewart, or Cary Grant, or any number of other stars. Such a lazy argument.

  • Dr. X | May 1, 2014 4:51 PMReply

    Dr. X!

  • Joshua | May 1, 2014 4:47 PMReply

    Elijah Price owned an art gallery, not a comic shop.

  • WibbleWobble | May 1, 2014 4:42 PMReply

    Bollox!, I cry.

    Arnie is one of THE BEST things about the travesty that is Batman & Robin, he's one of those great film stars (and I say "film star" because he really isn't an "actor") who knows what's going on around him. This ain't some dim-witted wannabe, he KNEW how camp and tragic this all was and he plays it perfectly in my opinion - even getting a few short, quiet moments for his character that he genuinely nails.

    Put Poison Ivy and Bane from Batman & Robin in his spot - you are doing yourselves a dis-service and going for the cheap laugh... His iced-based puns may be painful, but he nails them.

  • BEF | May 1, 2014 6:05 PM

    ^^ I agree ... put Uma #1 and drop Arnie and Tommy Lee Jones, they weren't bad. they played the bad ideas better than they should've.

  • Werty | May 1, 2014 4:27 PMReply

    Bane shouldn't be on the list. I'd replace him with Aaron Eckhart's Two Face.

  • Bale | May 1, 2014 5:32 PM

    Both Bane and Two-Face deserve to be on this list.

  • oogle monster | May 1, 2014 4:10 PMReply

    I love Marion Cottilard but she was terrible in TDKR and should be included in this list.

  • anonymous | May 3, 2014 1:15 PM

    I thought she was fine up until her last scene. That was poorly done.

  • Hipster Burger | May 1, 2014 5:35 PM

    Terrible? Not even close, mate. She did just fine. If I had to criticize Talia it'd be the very casting of Marion because it feels like a repetition of Inception (JGL as well). Hardy's Bane had no resemblance to Eames in Inception.

Email Updates