Script written by Nathan Sharp
Top 20 Best Movie Villains of the Century (So Far)
Who doesn’t love a good bad guy? Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the Top 20 best movie villains of the century (so far).
For this list, we’ll be looking at the greatest movie villains of the century and ranking them based on a combination of their popularity, complexity, and overall contribution to film history. We will not be including animated villains on this list, as they could warrant their own list.
“The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)
It was incredibly hard to follow up Heath Ledger’s Joker, but Tom Hardy managed to do it with his brilliant portrayal of Bane. Hardy gained thirty pounds of muscle for the role, crafting a certifiable and physically imposing brute of a villain. It also helps that his physique and costume stayed within the realm of realism, as it allowed us to see Bane as a threatening revolutionary rather than a goofy comic book villain (looking at you “Batman & Robin”). And let’s be honest, that mask and voice are now iconic. Who amongst us hasn’t done “the Bane voice” at least once since 2012? Too bad about his crappy anticlimactic death, though...
#19: Terrence Fletcher
Most of the villains we’ve discussed up until this point have been notably larger-than-life-characters. But Terrence Fletcher is just a music teacher and conductor. He doesn’t weave any diabolical plots or have ambitions of world domination. And that’s part of what makes him such a standout villain - he’s the sort of antagonist that any one of us could encounter in our own academic or professional careers. As Fletcher. J.K. Simmons plays a master emotional manipulator, preying on the vulnerability and ambitions of his students on his quest for musical perfection. He’s cruel and violent and yet… he’s fundamentally human and not without sentiment or honor. Like so many real-world villains, he doesn’t see himself as one.
#18: Patrick Bateman
“American Psycho” (2000)
We love a great villain protagonist, and Patrick Bateman is among the best of the best. Many academics and literary critics view Bateman as a social critique of consumer culture and capitalism. He is shallow, rooted in physical appearances and surface level observations, and flaunts his materialistic wealth. Oh, and he’s also an insatiable serial killer, a rather bloody but apt metaphor for the unquenchable hunger of consumerism. It works well on paper, and Christian Bale brings Bateman to terrifying life for the movie. While other A-list actors like Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt were considered for the role, we think Bale was a truly inspired bit of casting. He just has that creepy look about him...
“Black Panther” (2018)
It’s not the first time we’ve said it, but the MCU, for all its strengths, has really struggled to bring compelling villains to the big screen. With Killmonger, however, they absolutely hit it out of the park. “Black Panther” was the first comic book superhero movie to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and while there were many contributing factors, Killmonger felt like a key part of the equation. Played expertly by Michael B. Jordan, Killmonger is a fully-fleshed out villain who, despite his lethal methods, has relatable and sympathetic motivations. He’s a character with real emotional depth and a powerful backstory. And when you add to that his physicality, you’ve got a villain worthy of our hero in every regard.
“The Lord of the Rings” Trilogy (2001-03)
Sauron is certainly an imposing and terrifying figure, but you can’t go wrong with Christopher Lee. J.R.R. Tolkien often pointed to Saruman to defend the criticism that “The Lord of the Rings” is too black and white in its characterizations. And we have to agree; Saruman is a wonderful villain and a brilliant example of a tragic fall from heroism into villainy. He’s the Gandalf that fell in with Sauron, the pure good who was swayed by the lure and promises of power. And the casting of Christopher Lee was genius. We couldn’t imagine an actor better suited for the role, and we saw one of modern literature’s most popular villains brought to vivid life through his genius.
#15: The Armitage Family
“Get Out” (2017)
Picture this: you meet the girl of your dreams and everything seems to be going great. After a few months, she asks you to meet her parents, and you go along with it. The next thing you know… they’re trying to sell your body to the highest bidder! The Armitage family is deeply racist, take the term “manipulative” to sickening new heights, and can only be described “evil through and through.” Theaters saw no shortage of memorable villains over the last decade, but what really makes the Armitages stand out is that, for all intents and purposes, they’re just your average family next door. They pose as open-minded and progressive, but behind closed doors, they indulge in humanity’s darkest, cruelest, and most selfish of impulses.
“Planet of the Apes” Trilogy (2011-17)
Koba is arguably one of the most sympathetic movie villains of the century, and his character arc has been widely lauded by critics and fans alike. Koba serves as the perfect foil to Caesar; whereas Caesar is thoughtful and diplomatic, Koba is bloodthirsty and hellbent on revenge. His character development is fluid and natural, and we understand how and why Koba became such a ruthless tyrant. It’s easy to make a character like that one-dimensional, but the writing, direction, and Toby Kebbell’s wonderful mo-cap performance provides Koba a surprising amount of depth. He’s a villain, but a tragic villain. And those always make for fascinating characters.
#13: Calvin Candie
“Django Unchained” (2012)
Like Joaquin Phoenix, Leonardo DiCaprio is considered among the most talented actors of his generation. Who else could take a role like Jordan Belfort and simultaneously make him both reprehensible and so magnetically charming? As DiCaprio had already proven a year earlier, however, he’s every bit as capable of turning off that charm. Playing against type as 19th century slave owner Calvin Candie, DiCaprio wholly commits to the sadistic, hate-filled, and thoroughly repulsive villain. His bigotry and racism know no bounds, but as detestable as Candie is, the manner, swagger, and quirks with which DiCaprio imbues the character makes him the sort of villain we LOVE to hate. The fact that Leo didn’t get an Oscar nomination for this scene-stealing performance is baffling.
Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-)
The MCU was the biggest movie event of the 2010s, and Loki was at the heart of it. Well, for a while, anyway. Loki was first introduced in 2011’s “Thor” before transitioning to the series’ main antagonist in “The Avengers.” Luckily, he’s not just relegated to basic comic book villainy, as he goes through an interesting character arc and takes on more antiheroic traits as the series progresses. Actor Tom Hiddleston has described Loki as a “delusional autocrat” and compares him to Edmund from “King Lear,” an apt description concerning his family lineage and immoral plots for power. Maybe we’ll still be talking about Loki in 400 years’ time...
#11: Alonzo Harris
“Training Day” (2001)
Police dramas and corrupt cop characters are a dime a dozen, but no movie has managed to do it quite like “Training Day.” Alonzo Harris inhabits many of the corrupt police officer traits, including a preference for violence and a willingness to ignore standard and lawful procedures. But he also takes his immoral dealings further than any other, which includes robbing and murdering suspects, blackmailing his rookie partner with PCP-laced marijuana, and paying to have him killed. He’s a horrible, hateful person and Denzel Washington brings him to thrilling life, earning himself an Academy Award for his efforts. He’s the corrupt cop to end all corrupt cops, and watching him scheme makes for tantalizing drama.
“It” & “It Chapter Two” (2017, 2019)
“It” is a terrifying cosmic being who most commonly takes the form of a sinister clown. Need we say more? Okay, It is a shapeshifter and reality manipulator, who knows how to appeal to the good-natured sympathies of children so that he can eat them - but only after seasoning their meat with fear. We never dreamed that someone could hold a candle to Tim Curry’s take on the titular terror, but Bill Skarsgård has turned in the performance of a lifetime to make a whole new generation of cinemagoers terrified of this monstrous villain. The horror genre isn’t short on horrific creatures, but with his unique quirks and the clear joy he takes in his work, Pennywise is a cut from a different cloth.
“Gone Girl” (2014)
There are so many ways in which this film could have gone wrong. The manipulative, “crazy” woman is a tired trope and often serves as a lazy stand-in for actual character development. Amy checks a lot of the boxes traditionally associated with this archetype, but she is anything but two-dimensional. Despite all the mystery initially surrounding Amy’s disappearance, this film takes us deep inside her mind, inviting us to understand what makes this character tick. The fact that she’s an unreliable narrator only adds to her appeal. Conniving, unflinching, and brilliant, Amy is a villain worthy of a greater hero than she ever faces, and so in the end… she wins! This is undeniably Rosamund Pike’s career-defining role.
#8: Kylo Ren
“Star Wars” Sequel Trilogy (2016-19)
No one will ever top Darth Vader in terms of iconic “Star Wars” villains, but since he only made a brief (albeit badass) cameo in “Rogue One,” it would feel like cheating to include him on this list. In Kylo Ren, however, Vader has a worthy heir and successor. Ben Solo feels like Vader’s internal struggle between the dark and light sides of the Force personified. He’s a slave to his emotions (both positive and negative); in many ways he feels like the sort of complex, tortured character that George Lucas was trying to craft with Anakin Skywalker in the prequels. A powerful force user, played with nuance by Adam Driver, Kylo Ren does the franchise proud without feeling like a retread of old ground.
#7: Bill the Butcher
“Gangs of New York” (2002)
We didn’t think Daniel Day-Lewis could be scary, but “Gangs of New York” proved us wrong. This movie was considered a disappointment by some, but even its most ardent critics agreed that Bill the Butcher made for an intriguing and relentlessly terrifying villain. Bill is the leader of the Natives, an aggressively patriotic New York gang opposed to immigration and willing to kill for their “true” American values. The story takes place in the mid 19th century but is proving eerily topical, especially in today’s turbulent and tribalist political atmosphere. Bill is a brilliantly written and brilliantly performed character who transcends his story to say something larger about America and democracy.
#6: Arthur Fleck/The Joker
The Joker is one of the most iconic villains of any medium. With this film, he proved that he doesn’t need Batman to maintain that status. Though 2019’s “Joker” had its detractors, few critics could find fault with Joaquin Phoenix’s brilliant performance. Now, mental illness is a tough subject to tackle, especially when the character in question is supposed to be a villain; there’s always a fear of demonizing mental illness. But Phoenix and director Todd Phillips did a solid job of making this character at once sympathetic and someone who lives up to his villainous legacy. When Arthur Fleck gives into his worst inclinations and embraces his Joker persona, he becomes an agent of chaos and evil - and an unforgettable one at that.
“Harry Potter” Franchise (2001-11)
Before he was brought to the big screen, Voldemort had already been established as one of the greatest villains in modern literature. As such, the risk of the live-action interpretation of the character falling short of fan expectations was incredibly high. But Ralph Fiennes pulls it off magnificently! For many fans, it was as if the Dark Lord had stepped right off the page and onto the screen. In the final installment of this epic series, Fiennes holds nothing back, fully inhabiting the role. His Voldemort is cruel and imposing - there’s danger behind every word he delivers, an inherent volatility that’s terrifying to behold. And yet, he’s also charismatic in a way that makes you understand how he seduced so many to his side.
#4: Anton Chigurh
“No Country for Old Men” (2007)
Cormac McCarthy plus Coen brothers equals glorious movie magic. On the surface, Chigurh is a hitman who is hired to retrieve a suitcase full of cash. But this being Cormac McCarthy, there is far more to Chigurh than these surface level observations. Speculation abounds regarding Chigurh’s thematic relevance and his relation to concepts of fate, death, morality, and justice. Of course, he’s also super entertaining. He carries some bizarre weapons, has a really goofy haircut, and has the skills of an unstoppable Terminator. It’s very difficult to bring a McCarthy villain to life, but the Coen brothers and Javier Bardem managed to pull it off with aplomb. We’re still shuddering over that gas station scene...
#3: Hans Landa
“Inglourious Basterds” (2009)
Quentin Tarantino has crafted some captivating characters throughout his career, but Hans Landa may be the greatest of them all. He is the very personification of evil itself - unrelenting, unstoppable, but worst of all, alluring and personable. It’s this mesmerizing dichotomy between pure inner evil and faux friendly exterior that makes Landa such a tantalizing villain. And actor Christoph Waltz pulls off the impossible by making Landa terrifying and charismatic, effortlessly interesting yet unspeakably cruel. The first farm scene alone is a masterclass in both acting and writing, and we truly believe that Landa will go down in history as one of film’s most memorable villains. Landa’s forehead swastika may be Aldo’s masterpiece, but Landa is Tarantino’s.
“Avengers: Infinity War” (2018)
Before the Mad Titan took center stage, Loki was the reigning villain of the MCU, and so he deserves a nod. Now… onto Thanos. Like many of history’s greatest villains, he firmly believes that his devastating methods are entirely justifiable from a utilitarian standpoint; he is the hero of his own story. Thanos is a formidable physical threat, but his greatest strength is his unflinching resolve. A complex, and charismatic villain, Thanos raised the bar in multiple ways. The MCU is the most ambitious worldbuilding ever seen in film and after looming over it for years, Thanos shook this universe to its core. He’s a villain without precedent, whose status is further elevated by the magnitude of the cinematic event in which he appeared.
Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.
“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” (2019)
“The Revenant” (2015)
“Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)
“Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)
We truly do live in a society. Ok, but seriously...
#1: The Joker
“The Dark Knight” (2008)
And while “society” created the Joker, nothing can top The Joker himself. While Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is fantastic, we don’t think anything can top Heath Ledger’s timeless performance in “The Dark Knight.” Ledger’s casting caused some initial controversy and doubt, but he silenced the haters with an enthralling performance unlike anything seen in comic book movies at the time. Ledger’s astounding performance, the complex writing, and the Joker’s embodiment of anarchy and disorder helped elevate “The Dark Knight” above traditional superhero fare. All Jokers will forever be measured against Ledger’s, and we don’t think any will top it. It’s a legendary performance of a legendary character in a legendary movie.