Updated: Jul 8
After I posted my list of Top-10 movies, a friend asked me to post my Top-10 villains. This seemed like an honorable quest until I discovered I couldn’t find ten villains who got my attention. Why am I having difficulty picking ten villains? Surely there are thousands of worthy meanies who I can pluck from their heinous lairs.
I believe I'm struggling because fiction must be entertaining, and that includes its worst evildoers. Even they must give me some amount of enjoyment.
For me, a fictional baddie may achieve great villainous status only if he or she affects me in the following ways:
I must relish my dislike for him or her.
I must be impressed by how excellent he or she is at being a villain.
The villain must never back off from his or her evilness. He or she must never stop being sinister.
The villain can’t be so repulsive that he or she makes the story unpleasant for me.
I must have at least a bit of empathy for the villain.
If the villain is too much of a jerk, then my experience is spoiled. This is what happened to me when I watched the movie, Cape Fear (1962). I came away from that feeling run down because Robert Mitchum did such an extraordinary job of being a real creep. His performance caused me to hate the character (and even Robert Mitchum for a while). That just made me feel bad. This also happened to me when watching the movie, The Martian (2015). The NASA director in that story was so heartless (clearly a cardboard 2D fill-in villain) that the movie should have been entitled, The Jerk Running NASA, and, Oh By The Way, There’s a Man Stranded on Mars.
When I see villains on the screen or on paper, I want to feel,
Disapproval but not bitterness
Abhorrence but not pain
Disgust but not hatred
Judgement but not resentment
With all this said, here are my Top-7 villains in order of movie release date. I’m sorry I have not yet found ten.
Mrs. Danvers (Rebecca, 1940). Mrs. Danvers shows unrelenting pathological devotion to the late Rebecca de Winter and never stops tormenting the frail, new Mrs. de Winter. (Note that the first name of the new Mrs. de Winter is never mentioned in the movie.)
Tony Wendice (Dial M for Murder, 1954). The conniving husband first plots to murder his wife and then frames her for murder when she kills her assassin. He’s so intelligent and polished that he does all this while simultaneously making his wife think he’s on her side. His words and demeanor are so smooth that it’s nearly impossible not to stand in awe of him. And because his wife’s character is not perfect either, it’s possible to feel just a bit of sympathy for him.
Darth Vader (Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977). Darth Vader’s commitment to crush the rebellion is unflinching and impersonal. He displays no weakness and never stops being intimidating. He harbors no personal hatred, gives no vile speeches or lectures, and has no need to rationalize or defend. He just does his job. And, unlike any other villain on this list, he is never defeated. What happens in the end (Spoiler alert!) is he realizes he’s on the wrong side. He then changes sides and acts accordingly.
Roy Batty (Blade Runner, 1982). Replicants (androids) are given emotions to make them more acceptable by humans. However, replicants are also given a limited lifetime to restrict their influence on society. Roy Batty is a replicant consumed with only one thing: trying to figure out how to extend his limited lifetime.
Joker (Batman, 1989). “I made you, you made me. I mean, how childish can you get?” I love it when villains deliver great lines. The Joker in Batman delivers many. He clearly relishes his villainy. When he’s in a scene, all eyes are on him.
Shrike (Mortal Engines, 2018). Shrike is a terrifying and apparently indestructible man/machine, but he's all emotion. Torment and sadness consume him. The shred of humanity within him feels only agony and loss. Someone, please give him some relief.
Marissa Wiegler (Hanna, TV series, 2019). Marissa never tires from hunting Hanna and her father. The truth behind her sweet smile is, “I’m going to kill you the moment your back is turned.” It’s never clear whether she’s driven by responsibility, guilt, obsession, or somehow even love. She’s doing her job, and what’s wrong with that?
Here are several notable runners-up that I could not get myself to add to the Top-10 list.
Kahn (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1982). The backstory to Kahn, who is driven entirely by revenge, is well developed in the story. In fact, the same actor (Ricardo Montalbán) plays Kahn in the original TV Star Trek series. One of the first scenes in Star Trek II picks up after the Star Trek TV episode featuring Kahn leaves off.
President Snow (The Hunger Games, 2012). I dearly want to put him in my Top-10 list of villains, but I just can’t. He meets most of my criteria, and he has some great lines, such as, “It's the things we love most that destroy us,” and even better, "Oh, my dear Miss Everdeen. I thought we had agreed not to lie to each other." But, he feels too much like a placeholder villain—the person the audience is supposed to hate.
Brixton Lore (Hobbs and Shaw, 2019). What’s most interesting about Brixton is he is not the chief antagonist of the story, but a puppet of the chief antagonist whom we never see. He’s the “bad guy,” as he calls himself, and the viewing audience does feel some sympathy for him because of how he’s treated by the unseen chief antagonist. But his character is kept within a narrow range of behavior and mannerisms, making him less dynamic.
Alec (I See you, 2019). Alec's character (hiding with his girlfriend in someone's home) spans the full gambit from villain to hero. Is he the antagonist or the protagonist? Should we root for him or wish for his demise?
Tyler Durden (Fight Club, 1999). Tyler seems to know all the protagonist's weaknesses, fears and deepest aspirations and exploits them continually throughout the story with great intensity. He never stops steering the the life of the protagonist until the end. I don't know why he's not on the top-ten list.
There’s always hope
Someday I’ll find three more villains who sufficiently impress me. There seems to be a lot of copying of fictional ideas in Hollywood nowadays. Villains, like everything else, are falling victim to the copy-everything mentality that’s saturating the movie screens.
Or, maybe the world no longer welcomes a true villain. That would be nice.