We live in a world obsessed with heroes, there’s no denying that. Be it older screen heroes like Humphrey Bogart or Errol Flynn to the more contemporary superhero craze, or even the (long overdue) evolution of the female screen hero, there’s little question that the world we live in finds itself in dire need of a steady supply of heroes. And with heroes on the mind, it begs the question…what of the villains? Everybody knows that you can’t have a good hero without a proper villain, but when will they get their due? That’s what we’re going for today, and we’ve taken some time to compile a list of the very best villains in movie history, and we’re going to outline them today and why we think they’ve earned on a place on this list. Was this a difficult list to make? You bet! We couldn’t believe how many awesome screen villains we managed to come up with, but we’ve successfully whittled it down to bring our readers the 25 greatest villains in movie history.
25. Ernst Stavvo Blofeld (James Bond Series)
It’s difficult to talk about 007’s most iconic villain as a singular entity given that he’s been played by a different actor in almost every film appearance. Despite the frequent appearance changes, Blofeld remains a classic villain primarily because he’s the epitome of the evil genius archetype that is often the subject of parody (most famously in the Austin Power films). Set aside the lampoons though and it’s not hard to see why Blofeld is still considered such a great villain to this day. Although primarily featured in the early Bond films, Blofeld has managed to leave a sizable mark on the franchise as a whole, to the point where last year’s Spectre brought the character back after an absence of over three decades. Blofeld’s various world domination plots and Persian cat tropes gave him pop culture infamy, but it was his involvement in the murder of Bond’s wife Tracy (Diana Rigg) at the end of 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that truly cemented his place among cinema’s greatest villains.
24. Ivan Drago (Rocky IV)
Embodying all of Cold War Russia in his towering physical form and unflinching bloodlust, Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago is one of the most perfect villains in movie history from an allegorical standpoint. Of course, there was little in the way of subtlety to Drago’s characterization, as the steroid-enhanced boxer literally kills American patriot Apollo Creed in the ring, striking a symbolic blow against the United States in the process. A product of a different time, Drago represents the Soviet menace in physical form, which only adds to the power of his eventual defeat at the hands of perpetual underdog Rocky Balboa. Ivan is so detestable that even his fellow Russians start cheering for Rocky as their epic clash unfolds. There may not be much to him other than brute strength and a lack of remorse, but sometimes, that’s all you need to make an excellent villain.
23. Amazing Amy (Gone Girl)
If you need proof that women can be just as diabolical as men, look no further than the female lead of Gone Girl. David Fincher’s 2014 adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s thriller novel is anchored by stellar performances from its two leads, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, but it’s Pike’s turn as the pathological “Amazing” Amy Dunne that steals the show. Initially depicted as a victim, Amy’s about-face midway through the film is a walloping twist that upends viewer expectations like few films before or since. Amy’s most villainous moment is arguably when she murders her ex-boyfriend Desi Collings in cold blood to make her feigned kidnapping story more believable, but her ensnarement of her husband in the film’s closing moments with a revealed pregnancy may be her most unsettling moment. No wonder Pike earned herself an Academy Award nomination for her performance.
22. The Child Catcher (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang)
If you never watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as a kid, you can count yourself lucky that you were spared having your dreams haunted by the film’s pedophilic supporting antagonist. Seriously, his name is literally just “the Child Catcher,” which while a succinct summation of his role in the film is also extremely disturbing. The reason the Child Catcher stands as one of film’s greatest villains is because of how unsettling his entire persona is. This is a man whose only job is to lure children away from their homes with lollipops and ice cream and imprison them for Vulgaria’s Baron. Superbly acted by Robert Helpmann (who contrary to what his performance may suggest actually adored children), the Child Catcher works so well because he preys on our real life fears of child abduction. At least we can all take solace in the fact that there’s no way a children’s movie made today would be able to get away with including a character like this!
21. Col. Hans Landa (Inglourious Basterds)
Quentin Tarantino has given us some memorable villains over the course of his filmmaking career, but Inglourious Basterds‘ “Jew Hunter” Colonel Hans Landa may well be the best of the bunch. The role that made Austrian actor Christoph Waltz a star in North America, Waltz plays Landa with gleeful aplomb, stealing every single scene he’s featured in. The film’s opening is arguably his strongest work, as Landa slowly convinces a farmer harboring a Jewish family to give up their location. Tarantino has a knack for building a level of sustained dread in many of his films and Landa’s presence only enhances this feeling. Of course, Nazi villains are a dime a dozen in film history, so it takes something pretty special to make one standout. Fortunately, Waltz was more than up to the task and gave us one of the best Nazi villains of any era.
20. Roy Batty (Blade Runner)
One of cinema’s most sympathetic villains, Blade Runner‘s Roy Batty is truly the film’s most intriguing character. Played with the perfect blend of icy candor and manic desperation by Rutger Hauer, Roy is the menacing beating heart (do androids have hearts?) of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic. A rogue replicant nearing the end of his 4 year lifespan, Roy’s plight is worthy of our sympathies, while his despicable acts of violence hold us at arm’s length. Contrary to popular belief, a good villain doesn’t necessarily have to be “evil,” which is a term that doesn’t really apply to Roy Batty. Roy could have easily been a straightforward killer android bent on humanity’s destruction but thanks to Hauer’s characterization, it’s difficult to decide whether Roy or the Blade Runner sent to kill him (Harrison Ford) is a worse person, which is the mark of a truly memorable villain.
19. Alex DeLarge (A Clockwork Orange)
Although Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) is for all intents and purposes the lead character in Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, he is definitely no hero. Alex is a physical embodiment of society’s base desires run rampant: rape, violence, and just general delinquency are the name of the game for Alex. Alex’s bid for all-time villain status is sealed by the infamous rape scene set to Singin’ In The Rain, which was so disturbing that Gene Kelly actually walked away after meeting McDowell at a party years after the film came out, so disgusted was he with the way his song had been tainted by Kubrick’s film.
18. John Doe (Se7en)
One of two Kevin Spacey performances to make it onto this list (more on the other later), the actor’s turn as John Doe, the serial murderer at the diseased heart of David Fincher’s thriling Se7en is without a doubt one of the most memorable villains of all time. Even though we don’t actually see John Doe until the film’s final act, his presence is felt in almost every frame. From the expertly-made opening credits that feature entries from Doe’s diary to the grisly crimes he carries out, we know to be afraid of Doe well before he’s revealed. And when he does finally arrive on the scene, Spacey delivers an absolutely bone-chilling performance with his limited screen time, culminating in one of the most horrifying plot twists you’ll likely come across. His name may have been unremarkable, but as a villain, John Doe is anything but.
17. Emperor Commodus (Gladiator)
The role that helped put Joaquin Phoenix on the map, the Roman Emperor Commodus is vile, deceitful, and a complete coward – all attributes that make him an awful human being but a truly fantastic villain! Gladiator‘s most thrilling conflict lies with its hero Maximus (Russel Crowe) and his quest for revenge against Commodus, who ordered the murder of Maximus’s family, but the secondary conflicts surrounding Commodus’s own twisted relationship with his family is just as compelling. Crowe may have won the Oscar for his lead performance, but it’s really Phoenix that steals the show. This is a villain that imprisons his adversary, challenges him to a duel, and then mortally wounds him because he’s too afraid to face him as equals. Those are some truly despicable actions and they’re what makes Commodus such a captivating villain to watch.
16. Amon Goeth (Schindler’s List)
All respect to Christoph Waltz and his Inglorious Basterds performance but when it comes to the greatest Nazi villain in cinematic history, it’s hard to beat Ralph Fiennes’ turn as the cruel, sadistic Amon Goeth from Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. The evil commadant of Plaszow death camp, Goeth is the kind of guy who gets his rocks off by using Jewish prisoners as target practice. It only becomes more horrifying once you realize that Goeth was a real person and not fictional character. Cold, callous, and mentally unstable, Goeth is a terrifying reminder of the cruel depths of the Nazi regime and sadly, his actions are not dissimilar to those carried out by countless other men during World War II.
15. Biff Tannen (Back to the Future Trilogy)
It’s a shame you don’t see Thomas F. Wilson in much these days because his turn as meathead villain Biff Tannen in the Back to the Future movies is one of that series’ biggest delights. Biff’s trajectory over the course of the trilogy is one of cinema’s most fascinating, as he transitions from schoolyard bully in the first film to full-on time travel megalomaniac in the sequel. By the time Back to the Future III rolled around, it seemed like we’d seen everything that could be done with Biff, which is probably why the film featured his great-grandfather Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen, the old West gang leader who tries to hang protagonist Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox). While technically a different character, Buford still retained all of Biff’s worst qualities and then some, further cementing the Tannen clan as one of cinema’s greatest villainous families.
14. Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood)
Greedy and devoid of sympathy, oil tycoon Daniel Plainview represents the cold, unfeeling aspects of American capitalism and the lengths a man will go to achieve monetary gain. Day Lewis had already built a reputation for turning in memorable performances as cruel villains by the time Paul Thomas Anderson cast him in 2007’s There Will Be Blood, but his take on Plainview is much more than just a retread of earlier work. It’s clear from the opening frame that Plainview is not a good man, but the true extent of his depravity is slowly revealed over the course of the film’s runtime, enhancing the suspense to almost unbearable levels. A sense of dread hangs over the entirety of There Will Be Blood, meaning that by the time Plainview murders his nemesis (Paul Dano) with a bowling ball in the final scene, it’s difficult to not feel emotionally exhausted and devastated.
13. Agent Smith (The Matrix Trilogy)
Hugo Weaving simply doesn’t get enough credit. Although the Matrix trilogy as a whole is considered one massive disappointment, one aspect that definitely never fails to disappoint is Weaving’s scenery-chewing turn as lead antagonist Agent Smith. An AI program run rampant, Smith’s trajectory over the course of the Matrix trilogy is arguably much more interesting than that of the series protagonist Neo (Keanu Reeves), as Smith is able to throw off the proverbial shackles of the Matrix itself and begin to reshape it in his image (literally). The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions are not great films, to be sure, but they’re improved considerably by Smith’s mere presence, which is a pretty good indication of his strengths as a top-notch villain.
12. Norman Bates (Psycho)
You can’t realistically talk about the greatest movie villains without bringing up Norman Bates, the highly-disturbed motel proprieter of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psycho. Norman Bates deserves a spot on this list for the infamous shower scene alone, but it’s the slow reveal of the character’s true level of psychosis that makes him a standout villain, even half a century later. Norman Bates has transcended Hitchcock’s original film to become a cultural figure; he even has his own origin story of sorts in the critically-acclaimed TV series Bates Motel.
11. Bill The Butcher (Gangs of New York)
Another incredible Daniel Day-Lewis performance that earned him an Oscar nomination, it’s not unreasonable to say that Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York as a whole would not work without Day-Lewis’s supporting work as the film’s antagonist, Bill “The Butcher” Cutting. Based loosely on the real-life figure William Poole, Bill the Butcher is the brutal leader of the Natives street gang, who pretty much oppose all immigrants (but especially the Irish). While Bill is a terrifying villain, Day-Lewis finds a quiet humanity in the character, as evidenced by his fatherly disposition towards his young protege Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio). The rest of the time though, Bill is a menacing, twisted figure and easily the most memorable part of Gangs of New York. Day-Lewis deserved every bit of his Oscar win for the role, as his Bill the Butcher easily stands as one of cinema’s greatest villains.
10. Frank Booth (Blue Velvet)
The world lost an icon in 2010, when renowned actor and legendary badass Dennis Hopper died due to complications surrounding prostate cancer. One of the greatest actors of his generation, Hopper made a living playing troubled or rebellious characters, though none were quite so troubled as Frank Booth, the despicable villain he portrayed in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Originally released in 1986, Blue Velvet is a neo-noir mystery film that also stars Kyle MacLachlan and Isabella Rossellini, and mixes Lynch’s signature surrealism with elements of mystery and horror, although nothing in the film is more horrible than Hopper’s Frank Booth, a sociopathic criminal with sadomasochist desires and a proclivity for blackmail. To his credit, Hopper plays Booth with a type of evil glee, something manic and unhinged that helps convince the audience that the criminal is a truly disturbed individual. It’s one of the most terrifying performances in the history of cinema.
9. Anton Chigurh (No Country For Old Men)
We’d like to tell you that the scariest thing about Anton Chigurh is his haircut; unfortunately, that isn’t the case, as Javier Bardem’s terrifying villain from Ethan and Joel Coen’s No Country For Old Men doesn’t earn the number nine spot on this list by his poor choice of barber. A hitman hired to retrieve a sizable bounty (millions in drug money that’s since been found by a Texas cowboy), Chigurh is horrifically distant while he rambles about the Southern landscape, brutally murdering individuals through a variety of means, including via captive bolt pistol (the air tank looking weapon he’s seen with in most promotional material, for the few who haven’t seen this masterpiece already). A tour de force performance which helped Bardem rise to superstardom, Anton Chigurh remains one of the most intimidating villains we’ve ever seen.
8. T-1000 (Terminator II: Judgement Day)
James Cameron kind of painted himself into a corner when he released Terminator in 1984; if you’re going to do a sequel, how do you come up with a more iconic villain than a steel-bound, time-travelling Arnold Schwarzenegger? The solution to this question is actually quite genius, and saw Cameron not only conceiving a dastardly villain who was just as terrifying (the T-1000, played to excellence by Robert Patrick) as the Terminator, but making the Terminator the protagonist just so the T-1000 could beat him up and let audiences know who was the real badass around those parts. It’s a clever move, and it resulted in the T-1000 earning a place as one of movie history’s most iconic villains. Between its single mindedness and its ability to shape shift via its liquid metal form, the T-1000 rates near the top of terrifying movie robots (and villains in general).
7. Keyser Soze (The Usual Suspects)
While many of the villains on this list earned a spot due to their overwhelming ability to inspire terror face to face, Keyser Soze (we’re going to try and avoid spoilers on this one, because it’s really all about the twist with The Usual Suspects) inspires terror by reputation alone. A criminal mastermind who maintains a reputation so intimidating that most individuals refuse to even mention him by name (and all those who have seen him perish under mysterious circumstances), Keyser Soze earns his place on this list by being the focus of one of cinema history’s greatest twist endings, and his role in the film is tied intricately to the slowly unravelled mystery that takes center stage in this intriguing neo-noir film released in 1998. While we won’t go into any further detail (although to be fair, if you haven’t seen it before this point the odds are it’s been spoiled for you already), but let’s just say that we agree that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.
6. The Joker (The Dark Knight)
It’s unfortunate that most conversations regarding The Joker (at least in Christopher Nolan’s excellent Batman film series, anyways) begin with lament as they speak of the untimely death of Heath Ledger. What’s even more unfortunate is that some blame the late actor’s unbelievable performance in The Dark Knight as the catalyst for his abuse of sleeping medication. Whatever the case may be surrounding Ledger’s death, he left behind one of the greatest and most captivating performances of a villain ever, and the fact that he did this while giving a new take on an established character makes it all the more impressive. Ledger, who won a posthumous Academy Award for his effort, plays The Joker as a terrifying mix of gleeful anarchy and angered menace, and his trademark laugh and mannerisms have set the bar extremely high for anyone else looking to play the character in the near future.
5. Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street)
For a film list concerned with villains, the horror genre was noticeably devoid of good villains, as we felt that we wanted more from our bad guys than lumbering villains with chainsaws or machetes. That said, there is one horror movie villain who deserves a spot on this list, and that’s Freddy Krueger, the notorious dream walking, kid scaring and finger blade slicing baddie who has been terrorizing youth and adults alike since his first appearance in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Played to excellence by Robert Englund, this serial killer kills his victims in their dreams, and with the terror of both Krueger and falling asleep overwhelming, A Nightmare on Elm Street remains one of the more solid slasher flicks you can get your hands on. While Krueger appeared in a litany of other films (both in his own series and in others), his eerie introduction is probably the best overall iteration of the character.
4. Hans Gruber (Die Hard)
No list of film villains would be complete without Hans Gruber, the notorious villain played by Alan Rickman (in his first film role!) in 1988’s Die Hard. One of the best action movies of all time, Die Hard gave the world a legendary everyman protagonist in John McClane, the wise cracking NYPD police detective whose Christmas takes a wrong turn when terrorists take over Nakatomi Plaza, where he’s attending a party for his wife. However, it also gave us one of cinema history’s most intelligent, calculating and devious villains in Gruber, the mock-extremist who really just wants to steal a whole bundle of cash before retiring to an island with sandy beaches and fruity cocktails (just listening to him say this brings joy to our hearts as we imagine old Hans kicking back with a soft cover and a pina colada). A role which kickstarted Rickman’s films career, Hans Gruber remains one of our most beloved (and feared) villains of all time.
3. Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
While she hasn’t taken the number one spot on this list (those remain filled by more iconic villains), there’s a good chance that Nurse Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher in 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is the most terrifying film villain of all time. Fletcher, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress in this role, is as scary as they come, but the performance is so tuned down and quiet that you can’t help but notice the evil present in most everything she does to torment the individuals of her psychiatric ward. A horrific manifestation of ultimate power gone wrong, Nurse Ratched answers to no one, and her manic and extensive approach to maintaining order represents the worst that humanity has to offer. Does she swirl a cape or menacingly twist her moustache? No, but then again, she doesn’t have to…she can just orchestrate that lobotomy you didn’t know you wanted.
2. Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs)
It’s a testament to the strength of his performance that Anthony Hopkins was nominated for an Academy Award for his turn as Hannibal Lecter, the most notorious serial killer (and cannibal) in cinema history. What’s even more impressive is that Hopkins did it with less than twenty minutes of total screen time, as he doesn’t even function as the primary antagonist of this film (that said, he’s by far the most intriguing element of it). Lecter, whose wicked intelligence affords him a certain strange charm despite his cannibalistic impulses, remains one of history’s most iconic film villains despite the fact that he actually spends a good deal of time helping Clarice Starling, as played by Jodie Foster, in her attempts to capture a different serial killer.
1. Darth Vader (Star Wars)
Could any other villain sit atop this list? We’ve been waiting for someone to take this crown away for years, but no matter how many villains waltz across the screen, we’ve never seen anyone intimidate and captivate in the way James Earl Jones did as Darth Vader in Star Wars: A New Hope. Vader has remained an integral and iconic part of cinema history since the release of A New Hope in 1977, and despite the appearance of a new trilogy of Star Wars films on the horizon, we’re willing to bet nobody there (or anywhere, for that matter) will come close to topping the menacing, breathy presence that audiences everywhere have come to recognize as Vader’s. In cinema history, the Dark Side reigns supreme in bringing us the greatest villain of all time.