The 10 Greatest Superhero Movie Villains of All-Time
Without a great adversary, what good is a superhero? Without someone to punch in the face, Batman would just be some rich schmuck driving around in a weird-looking tank. Without someone on the receiving end of his shield, Captain America would just hang out at the V.F.W. all day. So let’s celebrate the villains. Let’s bring on the bad guys and give them their moment in the sun. With Avengers: Age of Ultron introducing another memorable baddie in the form of James Spader’s titular metallic menace, let’s take some time to run down the 10 greatest superhero movie villains of all time.
10. Obadiah Stane
The Film: Iron Man
Played by: Jeff Bridges
Quotable Quote: “How ironic, Tony! Trying to rid the world of weapons, you gave it its best one ever! And now, I'm going to kill you with it!”
Why He’s Great: The greatness of the first major villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe begins and ends with the casting of Jeff Bridges, one of the most watchable actors of, uh, ever. Although his early scenes make Obadiah Stane look like a wise mentor (a role Bridges has played before), that creepy shaved head and beard combo give away his real intentions. Stane is a huge threat for Tony Stark long before he gets in the Iron Monger armor for the big action climax, using his corporate know-how to silently run circles around the future Avenger and setting him up to perish before he gets his first Iron man suit. Sure, Stane isn’t very deep or complex, but if there’s one thing director Jon Favreau understood, it was the pure joy inherent in watching an actor as awesome as Bridges wear a giant robot suit.
Most Memorable Act of Villainy: Midway through the film, it’s revealed that Stane has been the mastermind behind all of Tony’s recent woes. After collecting the remnants of the first Iron Man armor from his terrorist allies, he orders the execution of everyone on site with the same level of emotion that goes into ordering lunch.
9. Neville Sinclair
The Film: The Rocketeer
Played by: Timothy Dalton
Quotable Quote: “A what? Spy? Saboteur? Fascist? All of the above.”
Why He’s Great: The Rocketeer offers its fans a lot to love, but Neville Sinclair may be the highlight of the whole thing. Inspired by the fascinating conspiracy theory that actor Errol Flynn was a Nazi spy, this sleazy baddie is a Hollywood megastar known for starring as swashbuckling romantic heroes. But he’s also a damn dirty fascist traitor who wants to bring our hero’s jet-pack technology to the enemy overseas. Timothy Dalton has always been at his best when a movie really allows him to chew the scenery (see also: Hot Fuzz) and he obviously delights in the chance to play a villain with a mustache that was made for twirling.
Most Memorable Act of Villainy: Since he does most of his villainy in secret, Sinclair doesn’t have that big moment ... just lots of little moments (where he’s a dick).
8. The Penguin
The Film: Batman Returns
Played by: Danny DeVito
Quotable Quote: “My dear penguins, we stand on a great threshold! It’s okay to be scared. Many of you won’t be coming back. Thanks to Batman, the time has come to punish all God’s children! First, second, third and fourth born! Why be biased? Male and female! Hell, the sexes are equal with their erogenous zones blown sky high! Forward march! The liberation of Gotham has begun!”
Why He’s Great: Anyone hoping for a comic book-accurate take on Oswald Cobblepot, aka the Penguin, needs to look elsewhere. Those looking for a wonderfully grotesque and deranged monster created by Tim Burton when he was at the peak of his powers will find a lot to love. Danny DeVito’s sewer-dwelling-mutant-turned-Gotham-City-mayor is the stuff of nightmares, a cartoon character re-imagined as the boogeyman. Someday, we will get an “accurate” version of the Penguin in a Batman movie and he won’t be nearly as fascinating, sympathetic, or horrifying as this one.
Most Memorable Act of Villainy: It’s difficult to top adopting a whole bunch of kids with an army of terrifying circus freaks.
7. General Zod
The Film: Superman II
Played by: Terence Stamp
Quotable Quote: “Come to me, son of Jor-El. Kneel before Zod!”
Why He’s Great: There is no way Terence Stamp’s take on General Zod would happen today. Just look at Michael Shannon’s take on the character in Man of Steel, which was all furrowed brows and screaming and being real. There’s nothing real about Stamp’s Zod, which is why he’s such a joy to watch. He’s regal, pompous, and totally in control of his absurd power. He’s also truly silly, but Stamp sells every cartoonish moment and every ludicrous action scene with his amazing voice and icy glare. He spends the entire movie walking a tightrope, balancing campy and menacing like a pro. We will never quote the new Zod, but we’ll keep on quoting this guy until the day we die.
Most Memorable Act of Villainy: You don’t get much more evil than using your laser vision to change Mount Rushmore into your own visage. That’s just wrong, guy.
The Films: Thor, Thor: The Dark World, and The Avengers
Played by: Tom Hiddleston
Quotable Quote: “Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”
Why He’s Great: Everyone loves a scoundrel. How else could we explain our love for Loki, the evil bastard who turned against his own brother and tried to conquer Earth with the help of the most powerful villain in the Marvel Universe? It’s all about Hiddleston, who imbues the Norse trickster god with so much charm, wit, and humor. He’s a nasty piece of work, but unlike so many of his stoic Asgardian brethren, he seems like he’d be a ton of fun at a party.
Most Memorable Act of Villainy: Sure, it really sucked when he opened a portal above New York City and led an alien invasion of Earth, but he’s the guy who impaled Agent Coulson and that’s just plain unforgivable (although Coulson’s resurrection on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has removed some of that scene’s raw power).
5. Lex Luthor
The Film: Superman Returns
Played by: Kevin Spacey
Quotable Quote: “Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don’t share their power with mankind. No, I don’t want to be a god. I just want to bring fire to the people. And I want my cut.”
Why He’s Great: Gene Hackman’s take on Superman’s archenemy may be more famous, but Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor in the wildly underrated Superman Returns is the far better performance. Hilariously deadpan and believably ruthless, this is the Luthor we wish we could have seen in more than one movie. Channeling his inherent charm as well as his ability to perfectly embody ice cold sociopaths, Spacey picks and chooses bits of his performance from all over the place. Sometimes, he’s channeling Hackman. Other times, he’s drawing from the comics. Often, he’s just doing Kevin Spacey, hammy but not too hammy. Since the newest version of Lex Luthor on the horizon appears to be a radical reinvention, Spacey’s take may very well the best representation of classical Luthor we will see for quite some time.
Most Memorable Act of Villainy: It’s a toss-up between the scene where he finishes signing a dead woman’s personal fortune over to himself with her lifeless hand or the scene where he shanks a weakened Superman with a shard of Kryptonite. You pick.
4. Dr. Otto Octavius
The Film: Spider-Man 2
Played by: Alfred Molina
Quotable Quote: “You’ve stuck your webs into my business for the last time!”
Why He’s Great: Although far more sympathetic than his egotistical comic book counterpart, Alfred Molina’s take Otto Octavius, aka Doctor Octopus, aka Doc Ock, is about as soulful as supervillains get. Emotionally wounded and painfully human, we can’t help but feel for him, even when he tries to destroy Spider-Mana and his allies. Doc Ock could have just been a really cool special effect (and 11 years later, those robotic tentacles are still kind of amazing), but Molina lets us understand the mad scientist attached to all those extra arms. He even manages to sell his last-minute transformation from city-destroying baddie to redemptive, self-sacrificing hero, a beat that must have looked impossible on the page.
Most Memorable Act of Villainy: This guy had the nerve to abduct Aunt May and dangle her off a building. Look man, kidnap and dangle as many Mary Jane Watsons as you want! Leave the old lady out of this!
The Films: X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, and X-Men: Days of Future Past
Played by: Ian McKellen
Quotable Quote: “You are a god among insects. Never let anyone tell you different.”
Why He’s Great: The scariest thing about Magneto is that he’s probably right. His people are threatened and humanity will never fully accept mutants living among them. The X-Men have always existed on morally gray ground, with the lines between good and evil constantly merging and shifting. The best of the movies (and the comics) acknowledge that Magneto has a point and that his extreme methods only came about because he was backed into a corner. Thankfully, the movies have an actor as strong as Ian McKellen to sell his conviction.
Most Memorable Act of Villainy: As easy as it can be to sympathize with Magneto’s mission, everyone can agree that he crossed a very big line when he tried to use William Stryker’s reverse engineered Cerebro to kill every non-mutant on the planet.
2. The Red Skull
The Film: Captain America: The First Avenger
Played by: Hugo Weaving
Quotable Quote: “Yggdrasil. Tree of the world. Guardian of wisdom. And fate, also. And the Führer digs for trinkets in the desert.”
Why He’s Great: Unlike most superhero movie villains, who are tweaked in some way when they make the jump to the screen, Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull looks like he literally walked out of a comic panel and into the movie. It’s a remarkable accomplishment and a high watermark for how comic-book villains can look in the movies. Thankfully, Weaving’s performance lives up to the makeup. With his Werner Herzog accent and remorseless sneer, he creates a bad guy worthy of Chris Evans’ noble Captain America, an evil Nazi scientist with super strength that is literally everything you want out of an evil Nazi scientist with super strength. The chances of Weaving returning for a future film look slimmer than ever, but maybe that’s for the best. More time spent with the Red Skull may only diminish the brilliance of his lone appearance.
Most Memorable Act of Villainy: He’s a Nazi with a skull-face. He makes sitting around and doing absolutely nothing look evil. But we’ll give it to his climactic plan, which is to bomb every Allied city into dust.
1. The Joker
The Film: The Dark Knight
Played by: Heath Ledger
Quotable Quote: “Why so serious?”
Why He’s Great: A lot of elements, several of them deeply unfortunate, conspired to make the late Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker the pop culture event of 2008. Now, seven years later, not even all of that relentless, rabid fanboy hype can diminish what is undeniably an incredible performance from an incredible actor. We never learn a thing about this version of the Joker. He arrives fully formed, destroys the lives of every major character in Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, and then exits, having had a great time at the expense of an entire city. He’s a wrecking ball, spiraling through the movie and destroying everything and making it look like a grand ol’ time. Ledger’s creepy voice, awkward posture, and disturbing tics ensure that each and every one of his machinations is as memorable as possible.
Most Memorable Act of Villainy: This iteration of the Joker did a lot of gnarly stuff, but we still haven’t gotten over the scene where he makes a pencil “disappear” into a henchman’s head.