The 10 Greatest Comic Book Movie Villains of All Time

The 10 Greatest Comic Book Movie Villains of All Time

Apr 29, 2013

The casting of the great Ben Kingsley as the chief villain in Iron Man 3 is the kind of thing that raised eyebrows all over the internet -- is this our next great comic book movie villain? Although the jury is still out on Kingsley (the film doesn't even open in North America until May 3), it's time to prepare for Kingsley's performance by taking a look back at the best comic book movie villains of all time. After all, he's got some fine company to keep in this category.

A special note: when it came to making this list, the decision was to skew toward more "traditional" comic book villains. After all, if we were to include every movie based on a comic in this discussion, we'd have to make room for William Hurt in A History of Violence and Jude Law in Road to Perdition. For simplicity's sake, we stuck to the more "traditional" comic book movie villains.

10. Prince Nuada (Hellboy II: The Golden Army)

The Character: Prince Nuada, a prince of a race of near-extinct elves who believes that the only way to save the magical world is to destroy the human race. Naturally, only Hellboy and his allies stand in his way.

The Actor: Luke Goss, an actor whose short but busy career has seen him bounce between forgettable schlock like Death Race 2 and Guillermo del Toro-directed blockbusters like Blade 2 and, of course, Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

Defining Quote: "Let this remind you why you once feared the dark…"

Why He's Great: The most surprising (and frightening) villains are the ones whose motivations you completely understand. Hellboy II: The Golden Army's Prince Nuada may not be an iconic comic book villain (he was invented for the film and did not originate in the pages of the Hellboy series), but he's one of the absolute best, a guy whose actions seem evil from the outside but absolutely heroic and essential when seen from his point of view. After all, he's only trying to save his entire world from extinction. Who can blame the guy? Him and Hellboy probably would've gotten along quite well if they had met under better circumstances.


9. Gideon Graves (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World)

The Character: Gideon Graves, the leader of Ramona Flowers' League of Evil Ex-Boyfriends and nemesis to Canadian slacker Scott Pilgrim.

The Actor: Jason Schwartzman, who got his start in Wes Anderson's Rushmore and has continued to push the boundaries of quirk ever since with roles in I Heart Huckabees, Marie Antoinette and HBO's Bored to Death.

Defining Quote: "Well, if my cathedral of cutting-edge taste holds no interest for your tragically Canadian sensibilities, then I shall be forced to grant you a swift exit from the premises... and a fast entrance into hell!"

Why He's Great: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is all about the title character's desperate quest to prove that he's worthy of dating the girl of his dreams and Gideon Graves is the perfect "final boss" for his adventure. A rich, powerful, well-dressed hipster type with an army of minions and a swanky club is the exact opposite of Michael Cera's borderline homeless loser. Gideon is less of a character and more of a symbol of everything that Scott isn't, but Schwartzman embodies him with enough greasy charm to make you understand why Ramona fell for him once upon a time. He's an actor who can do "loathsome douchebag" better than anyone out there and this film is the rare moment where he doesn't have to give that character type any redeemable qualities.


8. Loki (Thor, The Avengers)

The Character: Loki, a Norse trickster god and adopted brother to Thor, whose ambition for power is matched only by his seemingly infinite capacity for lying, backstabbing and conniving.

The Actor: Tom Hiddleston, a relative newcomer whose healthy career in television was simply a prelude to appearing in films directed by Kenneth Branagh (Thor), Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris) and Steven Spielberg (War Horse).

Defining Quote: "I won't touch Barton. Not until I make him kill you! Slowly, intimately, in every way he knows you fear! And then he'll wake just long enough to see his good work and when he screams, I'll split his skull! This is MY bargain, you mewling quim!"

Why He's Great: How many villains on this list required the assembled talents of Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Captain America to take them down? Just one. After his memorable and sympathetic introduction in Thor, Hiddleston truly came into his own as a great Marvel villain in The Avengers, where he threw restraint to the wind and did everything in his power to conquer the Earth and humiliate the Avengers. He also did it while being effortlessly charming, funny and, somehow, strangely likable. Hiddleston's greatest contribution to Loki is not his creepy smile or hilarious arrogance, but his charisma -- he radiates off the screen with as much force as his heroic costars. We're excited to see Chris Hemsworth's Thor back in action in the upcoming Thor: The Dark World, but we're just as excited to see the return of Loki.


7. Jigsaw (Punisher: War Zone)

The Character: Jigsaw, a violent mafia crime lord who became even more deranged when the Punisher chucked him into some industrial machinery, transforming him into a disfigured monster and a bit of a psychopath with a chip on his shoulder.

The Actor: Dominic West, who for many people will forever be the unforgettable Detective McNulty from The Wire. For those without HBO, he's one of Gerard Butler's men in 300 or the bad guy in John Carter.

Defining Quote: "Just like Uncle Sam, bro. We recruit in troubled neighborhoods. Offer a hundred grand towards a college education they're never gonna see and promise nobody ever has to go to Iraq."

Why He's Great: Dominic West has proven time and time again that he can embody a realistic character and bring true humanity to both the big and small screens. But what happens when he disregards realism, truth and humanity in every possible way? You get quite possibly his most glorious performance and surely one the strangest characters of the past decade. Although Ray Stevenson makes a fine vigilante hero in Punisher: War Zone, the film is all about West's portrayal of Jigsaw, which is over-the-top before he gets all of his skin ripped off and sewn back on in a disgusting, patchwork fashion.

It's a performance that has to be seen to be believed. Chewing on a hilariously thick New Yawk accent, West murders and wisecracks his way across the entire film, stopping only to have bizarre heart-to-heart conversations with his equally twisted brother and recruit gang members by making speeches in front of American flags. It's bonkers. It's distasteful. It's incredible.


6. Catwoman (Batman Returns)

The Character: Catwoman, a mousy office drone who, after a failed attempt on her life, transformed herself into a deadly thief with revenge as her only goal… and a certain Batman in her way.

The Actress: Michelle Pfeiffer, a bona fide Hollywood legend and three-time Oscar nominee with more memorable performances than you can count.

Defining Quote: "But a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it. You're the second man who killed me this week, but I've got seven lives left."

Why She's Great: Batman Returns is frequently disgusting for the sake of being disgusting (see Dany DeVito's nightmare-inducing take on the Penguin), but Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman is one of the few aspects of the Batman mythos that director Tim Burton gets completely right. Although certainly not identical to her comic book counterpart, Pfeiffer's Catwoman gets right what others (i.e., Halle Berry's abysmal 2004 Catwoman movie) have gotten wrong. Yes, her take on the infamous cat burglar is sexy, but the half of the attraction is her charisma, her fearlessness and the fact that she's the perfect match, both as a villain and a lover, for Batman. Although the skintight latex helps, Pfeiffer's performance is iconic because of her attitude, not her body. Anne Hathaway's take on the character in The Dark Knight Rises feels hopelessly bland and vanilla in comparison.


5. Doc Ock (Spider-Man 2)

The Character: Dr. Otto Octavius, a brilliant scientist who found four robotic tentacles permanently attached to his back following an experiment gone horrible wrong. His mind shattered, he continued to work toward his goals by any means necessary, even if it meant the death of a certain web-slinging superhero.

The Actor: Alfred Molina, an always-working British character actor with roles in everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark to An Education. His filmography is practically a document of every film made in the past 30 years.

Defining Quote: "I want you to find your friend Spider-Man. Tell him to meet me at the Westside Tower at three o'clock…Find him. Or I'll peel the flesh off her bones..."

Why He's Great: Dr. Octopus feels like a character who would be hard to get wrong on an aesthetics level. He's a mad scientist with four robotic tentacles attached to his back. How cool is that? While you really can't screw up Doc Ock's appearance, you can certainly make him deeper and more interesting than he probably has a right to be and you can do that by casting Alfred Molina in the role. Spider-Man 2 is one of the best superhero movies ever made (it's near perfect, really) and some of the credit has to go to Molina, who somehow manages to give a character named Dr. Octopus a soul. Fluctuating between remorseful and sadistic with a moment's notice, Molina does the impossible and crafts a megalomaniacal supervillain who also just to happens to be the kind of guy you'd like to sit down and have a cup of coffee with… if he didn't have those robotic tentacles, of course.


4. General Zod (Superman, Superman II)

The Character: General Zod, a Kryptonian soldier imprisoned in the Phantom Zone for crimes against his planet who escaped, made his way to Earth, gained the same powers as Superman and decided to take over the world.

The Actor: Terrence Stamp, a steely British thespian cut from the same mold as Sean Connery and Michael Caine, who has made playing dangerous men look easy for half a century.

Defining Quote: "Come to me, Superman! I defy you! Come and kneel before Zod! Zod!"

Why He's Great: You can trace all cinematic comic book villains back to Terrence Stamp's General Zod, who, over 30 years after Superman II hit theaters remains an upper-tier bad guy. That's a bit of a miracle, actually. Much of Superman II is a big 'ol cheese fest (especially when compared to its quieter, less silly predecessor) and on paper, the character of Zod is a recipe for disaster. But it's all about the casting. Most actors will take the famous line mentioned in the "Defining Quote" section above and make it camp, but Stamp, an actor who has never not looked intimidating and ruthless, makes it sound less like comic book silliness and more like a command from a narcissistic megalomanic who's really getting off on his newfound superpowers. Stamp's entire performance is a tricky balancing act, requiring him to lend gravitas to a villain who has no right to be this good. 


3. Red Skull (Captain America: The First Avenger)

The Character: The Red Skull, a ruthless Nazi scientist whose attempt to re-create the super soldier serum that made Steve Rogers into Captain America only transformed him into a hideous monstrosity.

The Actor: Hugo Weaving, a fearless Australian actor whose bizarre but great early work (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, anyone?) has been overshadowed by his memorable work in geeky films like The Matrix, V For Vendetta and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Defining Quote: "You are deluded, Captain. You pretend to be a simple soldier, but in reality you are just afraid to admit that we have left humanity behind. Unlike you, I embrace it proudly. Without fear!"

Why He's Great: Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull is dream casting. Speaking with a genuinely amazing Werner Herzog-ian accent, Weaving chooses to underplay the role, letting the sheer ridiculousness of his makeup seem like the natural extension of a madman instead of his defining characteristics. It's strange to see a less-is-more approach taken to an evil Nazi with a mutated red face and an army of laser-wielding soldiers, but the result is something truly scary. We know this guy is a supersoldier. We know that he's a Nazi. We know that he has a skull for a head. We know that he plans to detonate weapons of mass destruction all over America. Would screaming and scenery chewing make him more effective? The fact that Weaving plays him reasonably straight only makes him more sinister.


2. The Joker (The Dark Knight)

The Character: The Joker, a mysterious, clown-faced terrorist made all the more frightening by his seemingly random, inexplicable motivations. There's a reason he's Batman's greater villain: he has all of his talents for chaos but none of his sense of justice.

The Actor: Heath Ledger, the exceptionally gifted late actor whose brief career included incredible performances in films like Monster's Ball, I'm Not There, Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight, for which he was awarded a posthumous Oscar.

Defining Quote: "Why so serious?"

Why He's Great: Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight has become so famous, so iconic and so endlessly quoted that it's a little startling to revisit it five years after the fact and remember just how great it really is. If anything, the performance has gotten more unsettling over the years. We may know next to nothing about who the Joker really is, but Ledger embodies him with so many unexplainable quirks, tics and habits that we're able to wonder who the hell this guy is and what he really wants without getting any real answers. Like Batman, his greatest weapon is the fact that no one knows who he is -- the less you know about someone, the more likely it is for them to surprise you. In the case of Ledger's Joker, that surprise usually involves a pencil to the eye.


1. Magneto (X-Men, X2, The Last Stand, First Class)

The Character: Magneto, the leader of the Brotherhood of Mutants and believer that his species should dominate the planet. A witness to decades of mankind atrocites, he sees a future where the human race is no more and his people inherit the Earth.

The Actor: Ian McKellen, who for millions of people, is Gandalf the Grey in Lord of the Rings… but he's also a living legend of the British theater scene, a force of nature who can out-Shakespeare you in his sleep.

Defining Quote: "You are a god among insects. Never let anyone tell you different."

Why He's Great: Magneto isn't just a great comic book villain -- he's one of the great villains in all of modern fiction. As mentioned above, the greatest bad guys are the ones who don't think they're bad at all and Magneto sees himself as a heroic revolutionary fighting for the future of his people. Ian McKellen has appeared in three X-Men movies to date (and will be in the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past) and in each of them he's lent the character of Magneto such gravitas that you can't help but feel your loyalties shift. There's a reason why members of the X-Men have a habit of jumping ship and teaming up with their archenemy: When you're a "good guy" fighting for people who hate you, there's a strong chance you're fighting for the wrong side. The fact that we can watch McKellen's Magneto and think, You know what? He has a point,  is a testament to both the character and the performance.

Categories: Features, Geek
Tags: Iron Man 3
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