Movie heroes are only ever as good as their adversaries.
Great villains have stolen the show so many times with some of the most compelling screen presence in cinema.
The characters come in many forms, from terrifying and monstrous to psychopathic and deeply calculating, but the best are always utterly unforgettable.
Over the course of the past decade, we’ve seen a spectrum of bad guys added to the great cinematic pantheon, but as we set ourselves to move into the next one, we’ll be able to look back fondly on some true greats. From the anti-heroes of horror to those at the heart of insidious thrillers and gripping dramas, these are the greatest movie villains of all time.
The three-time Oscar nominee puts a human face on unbridled anarchy with his portrayal of Arthur Fleck, a troubled Gotham City clown who’s bullied and mocked until he’s transformed into a symbol for a crime-ridden city on the verge of a violent revolution. In a twisted flip of the classic hero’s journey, Phoenix dons the green hair and garish makeup of the classic villain in making Joker the star of his own Shakespearean tragedy.
Joker Movie is the type of film that defines an actor’s career, type of role & character that comes once in a lifetime. Heath Ledger’s Joker redefined the character, but Phoenix cements it as one of the greatest, darkest villains in cinematic history.
Think about this: without actually arriving or setting out on the first really active steps towards his agenda for years, Thanos managed to define a good part of the MCU. Even when he wasn’t on screen for more than a few minutes and even when stories weren’t directly about him, we all knew that everything was pointing in just one direction this whole time and the fact that he managed to even slightly live up to the hype was impressive enough.
For him to be a revelation in Infinity War and then another version of him to do similarly in Endgame is just incredible. He might have been defeated in the end, but it says a lot that it took so much to do it (and hinged on a ridiculous accident like the rat) and he single-handedly reformed the MCU in the palms of his giant mitts.
Before Thanos arrived, Loki was the only villain in the MCU to really crossover into multiple releases in a meaningful way and between Thor and The Avengers, he actually improved in his villain stakes somewhat dramatically.
By the time he was undone and exiled, he was already great, but his return from exile in The Avengers is where he really kicked on.
Far more bad-ass (including in single combat), this darker Loki was the result of being through some Stuff while he was in exile and his grand plan to take over – and punish – Earth felt way more personal and petulant than someone looking for simple dominion. He was reacting to them liking his brother more and he was doing it as the front-line of a huge, theatrical plan and it just worked beautifully.
4- Sumitra Bagrecha
As the corrupt politician, who plays master puppeteer in the game of politics, Juhi Chawla is so much at ease that it is, frankly, a little frightening. With a smile that veers on the chilling, and eyes that convey volumes more than her words do, Sumitra Devi is a politician who won’t allow anyone — be it a policeman, a party leader or a long-time aide — forget that everyone has to kowtow to her.
Nothing can stand in her way, not the greasy masses, not an inept local politician, not his lust-driven son…
Negan was a complex villain and that made him one of the most popular characters from the comic books. While The Walking Dead TV show seemed to drop the ball somewhat with him, Jeffrey Dean Morgan did everything he could to give Negan with the spirit from the comics. Negan is a bad man in that he kills people — innocent people — to prove that he is in charge. When he killed Glenn and Abraham, it was an act that many fans will never forgive him for. However, Negan is also fiercely loyal and will do anything to protect those he has sworn to protect. He is the most iconic villain in Walking Dead history and is just as much a hero as he is a villain.
6- Joffrey Baratheon
Seven gods, seven kingdoms, zero redeeming qualities — the atrocious boy king who bedeviled House Stark was a living embodiment of George R.R. Martin’s furious fantasy revisionism: If you’re a rich man with a good family name, you can get away with literally anything. In Joffrey’s case, this included torture, murder, sexual assault, the beheading of the show’s main character (R.I.P. Ned, you were too good for this world), and generally being a sneering little shit. He was so hateful that the few times he received any kind of comeuppance—an insult, a slap, a good old-fashioned regicide at the so-called Purple Wedding — are among the show’s most meme-able moments. Actor Jack Gleeson retired from showbiz immediately upon completion of the role; by scraping the bottom, he went out on top.
7- Amy Elliott Dunne
For all of the temptation there must have been around Gone Girl painting old sexist archetypes a new colour, David Fincher’s adaptation does remarkably well to avoid that. And in Rosmund Pike’s Amy Elliott Dunne it had a great, complex villain whose manipulation of her husband is just genius. He’s obviously not innocent at all, thanks to his apathetic treatment of her and his adultery, but the twists in Gone Girl are as intoxicating as Amy’s plans are clever and intricately mapped. She is, clearly, a cunning villain who has previous form in destroying people to advance herself, sometimes simply because she wanted to and her manipulation and then murder of Neil Patrick Harris’ Desi is the icing on a cake of complex, deliciously machiavellian crafting.
She wins, ultimately, which is the medicine to Ben Affleck’s philandering husband Nick’s own sins, and the genius here is that you actually sort of celebrate her victory in the end.
8- Calvin Candie
It might not be the role that ultimately won him his over-due Oscar win, but Leonardo Dicaprio’s turn as Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s Westsploitation actioner is an absolute revelation and SHOULD have been his first win.
He’s not in it a great deal and he’s only one part of an institution of grotesque racism, but Candie bears all the hallmarks of a grandiose, pantomime villain from the likes of the Bond franchise. He’s a man obsessed with appearances but completely undone in that respect by his inherent vices of violence, bigotry and evil.
9- The Armitage Family (Get Out)
Like Candie, The Armitage Family in Get Out are an allegorical construct, but they’re a lot closer to our modern home. They’re also, crucially, expertly crafted enough to actually look like real characters at the same time.
The Armitage family are a delightful achievement in twist narrative, as they’re completely convincing as a totally normal family (albeit with a slight background hum of institutional, old racism and white guilt perhaps) but then just as convincing as a group of murderous evil scientists who belong in a completely different genre at the same time.
Their plan – the perversely logical extrapolation of the fetishism of black bodies and exotic “otherness” – is as disturbing as it is horribly effective and their switch after the twist is revealed is wonderful to watch. So wonderful, in fact, that you’ll wonder how you didn’t see it all.
10- Khurram Meer
Khurram Meer from 2014’s one of the most acknowledged film Haider won hearts. Now this villain wasn’t actually evil. He was clever, so clever and cunning that people loved how well he played everyone. Performed by Kay Kay Menon, Khurram surely is one of the badass villains in Bollywood.
It’s extremely gratifying to see a character like Tabu’s Simi in AndhaDhun. She’s unpredictable, scheming and deliciously evil. It’s difficult to talk about her character without giving away spoilers, but what we can say is that to see a woman in complete control of her sexuality and use it to her advantage is refreshing. The name Simi is of course an ode to Simi Garewal’s turn as the brutal wife in Karz, but Tabu imbues her Simi with vulnerability, endearing her to us even when she’s doing the most horrible things.
12- Ramadhir Singh
A criminal cum politician, Ramadhir Singh is one of the central characters of Gangs of Wasseypur who, with his immaculate foresight, ascended to the apex of power and fame from nowhere. His son J.P. Singh is a spoiled brat with subnormal intelligence who often suffers for his nonsensical activities. But since Ramadhir Singh is a father and he can’t desolate his son no matter how appalling his actions are; he eventually affiliates with the Qureshi clan to stamp down the growing mightiness of Khans. A mastermind in classic sense, Ramadhir Singh has too many shades of darkness and is not afraid to go the bloody mile when it comes to execute venomous strategies.
13- Pablo Escobar
The Netflix series centers on real-life drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Without a charismatic actor capable of breathing complex life into the show’s version of Escobar, Narcos would be lost. Thankfully, Wagner Moura is up to the task, creating a version of the man that will haunt viewers long after Season 2 ended.
14- Hannibal Lecter
I don’t know how anyone wouldn’t pick Hannibal Lecter in “Hannibal.” There have been many cannibals in film history, but only one who could make us swear off our favorite meal: liver and fava beans with a nice chianti.
Even while caged or restrained, the evil genius is terrifying because, as Starling learns, given the chance, Lecter will eat somebody’s tongue right out of their mouth and his pulse won’t even get above 85. And when he does finally shed blood, having calculated his way to an escape opportunity, it’s gloriously stomach-turning, gentle classical music playing while Lecter beats his guards to death with a baton like a conductor leading a symphony orchestra. For his curtain call, he slips through police lines in an ambulance by wearing the face he removed from one of the dead men.
Hopkins performance as the good doctor with questionable eating habits is one of the top three performances that I’ve watched in my lifetime…. period.
15- Raoul Silva (Skyfall)
It would take a lot to dethrone the MCU’s two greatest villains, but Skyfall’s big bad was a force of nature and one underpinned by a performance even better than those of Josh Brolin and Tom Hiddleston.
As the former MI6 agent, Raoul Silva, Jarvier Bardem is a rather wonderful legacy villain, in that he exists to remind M and her government masters of the sins of their past. He might have gone rogue, but the decision to abandon him and the subsequent fallout for Her Majesty’s Secret Service is far from unjustified, even if it’s all tinged with the extremism of a mind warped by hatred and heart-break.
Like the best villains, Silva is both a counter-point to Bond and a possible alternate version of him. Silva is basically Bond’s walking nightmare – the personification of M saying “take the bloody shot” in the opening sequence and thanks to Bardem’s creepy, almost supernatural performance, he’s an absolutely stunning achievement.
16- Amma ji
Ammaji was the surprise package of NH10. What seemed like the only hope to Meera to get justice and help, became the biggest nightmare. And to see Deepti Naval with such power, it was a treat watching her menacing act in NH10.