By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist May 1, 2014 at 4:00PM
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.