The Villainy Hall of Fame
Hot take: The Dark Knight isn’t the classic it’s made out to be.
Now that you’ve likely closed this internet window and blocked me on social media for such heresy, let me explain. I remember leaving the theater thinking I just saw the greatest movie of all time, but after viewing this movie dozens of times I came to realize one thing:
We got tricked into thinking we saw a great movie because of an iconic performance of one of the greatest villains of all time. Heath Ledger was so good as the Joker, that he convinced us we saw a better movie than we did. Having re-watched this film many times, the plot and sequencing make absolutely no sense, and the choreography and cinematography are well below any modern Marvel movie, and there are ridiculous plot devices everywhere.
Such is the power of compelling villainy. Arguably the most iconic portrayal of one of the greatest villains of all time sold us all on the greatness of the film. It could even be argued that the entire reason Batman as a character is even good is the caliber of his rogue’s gallery, many of which are more compelling than he is. So before I get into the list of the best villains of all time, let’s look at some characteristics that go into making a great villain, many of which I drew upon for my work, The Witchbreaker Saga.
1. Motivation: It is not enough to be generically evil. One can get away with this as Tolkien and Rowling did if everything else is completely bulletproof, but most cannot.
2. Perspective: Every great villain believes they are the good guy. There needs to be REASONS they do what they do, that make logical sense to them.
3. Challenge the hero: Ideally, the villain should make the hero question themselves, and reflect upon their own values, and even in defeat leave a lasting impression, irrevocably changing the hero forever.
4. Be a legitimate threat: The villain has to get a win at some point, otherwise they aren’t credible. If the villain never gets a big one over on the hero, are they really a plausible threat?
5. Intellectual Roots: It helps if the villain’s motivations are rooted in legitimate philosophy, giving intellectual depth to their characters.
6. Over the top: You can get away with having few of these traits as long as you go sufficiently over the top on any one or two of them. One note villains can work, if they are sufficiently outrageous.
There are only a handful of villains I know of that check every single one, and I’ll go over them at the end. Now, with these qualities in mind, let’s look at the best of the bad.
10. Cersei Lannister: In terms of machinations, I’m not sure there’s a better modern female villain than Cersei. Even though several characters from GOT such as Ramsay Bolton or even Joffrey could make this list, it’s Cersei who pulls the strings from beginning to the end.
9. Dr. Doom: Despite poor showings in two movies, comic fans know the real deal. Capable of outsmarting heroes on multiple levels, running an entire country and using diplomatic immunity lands the good doctor at the forefront of legendary comic villains.
8. Darth Vader: As far as badass villains go, I’m not sure you can do any better than Vader. I will say however, I love what they are doing with Kylo Ren, he is so different from the original badass, yet still compelling. Vader’s presence is so intimidating, he doesn’t need a philosophical lesson or intellectual superiority to land near the top of any pantheon of villains.
7. Professor Moriarty: It always helps if your villain is the intellectual equal of the hero, and very few adversaries have become more legendary than Sherlock Holmes’ rival and math genius, Moriarty. Sherlock Holmes’ deductive powers are near supernatural, so without the dark mirror of Moriarty, perhaps Holmes would not have become as legendary of a character.
6. Dracula: Hundreds of incarnations over the years, and yet we never tire of one of the original horror icons. Few villains combine history, brutality, romance, and survival necessity the way Dracula does. Vampires have become an iconic villain type, so the king of vampires reigns supreme at the top of the list.
5. The Joker: Gotham’s resident chaos agent has come in many forms over the years, and he does a few things really well: He is an over the top legitimate threat that is the perfect parallel to the hero. He doesn’t just cause havoc; he’s killed many over the course of his career. You will not get a deep philosophical lesson from him, but his theatrics and homicidal attitude score him a place among the best of the best.
4. Thanos: One of the very few to tick nearly every box. His Malthusian philosophy coupled with the fact that he won and wiped out half of humanity means he exists in rarified air among villains. Brains, brawn, and badass equals a foe that required the entire Marvel universe to bring down.
3. Anton Chigurh: One of the few to actually give me the creeps. Javier Bardem’s iconic role as the cold instrument of fate in No Country for Old Men displays not only Terminator like aggression and brutality, but intelligence and toughness. As far as unenhanced humans go, they don’t come more cold and calculating than Chigurh. Unlike the Terminator, Chigurh succeeded and killed everyone, even people unrelated to the central conflict, simply because he promised to do so.
2. Magneto: Again, another that ticks nearly every box you want in a villain. Magneto sees the oppression of mutants as the same situation as the Holocaust he experienced as a child, giving his character a history and gravitas nearly unmatched among villains. In addition, he has defeated the X-Men many times, and it could easily be argued he’s justified in many of his actions. For years, I thought he was the most compelling villain ever created. Until the next one.
"Do it?" Dan, I'm not a Republic serial villain. Do you seriously think I'd explain my master-stroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome? I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”
The masterstroke at the end of Watchmen was one of the greatest acts of villainy ever put to page or screen. And, it could be argued that it worked exactly as planned in uniting the entire world in peace. The best villains are not only smart, strong, and cunning, but believe 100% in what they do. Ozymandias beat everyone, and in the ultimate ends justify the means moment, executes his plan and fulfills every criteria listed above to arrive in the hall of fame of villainy.
Interestingly, many of these plans involve ushering in world peace or achieving a noble end through horrific actions others are unwilling to execute. So, with all of this said, who did I miss? Let me know on social media!
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*MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD*
It’s hard to overstate how much these films have meant to a significant portion of the population. Many of us literally grew up with these larger-than-life icons as a new pantheon of gods, not to be worshipped, but existing as a heightened form of aspirational achievement. Many of us grew up thumbing through pages of colorful comics, watching as these heroes fought fantastical battles against gods and humans alike. As a child of the 80s, only a handful of the most iconic heroes received even the most cursory glance from the mainstream, as only Superman and Batman possessed enough cache to achieve mainstream cinematic appeal. For many of us, an Avengers film was only a pipe dream, as only Spiderman on the Marvel side had enough muscle to break into the mainstream in the 90s. That all changed in 2008. I remember standing in CompUSA, a now defunct computer store, and watching the trailer for the original Iron Man movie. Even in that moment, an actual Avengers movie seemed like a near impossibility given all the moving parts involved. In addition, my favorite character in the comics, Captain America, had virtually no mainstream credibility, and had only been seen in the most ridiculous of B-Movies, with most people not having any idea who Steve Rogers was.
And now, here we sit, more than a decade later, and what we once thought impossible has happened. Marvel has not only strung together an unprecedented level of quality across 22 films, but ended the entire saga in the most fulfilling way possible. Endgame is the culmination of over 70 years of Marvel storytelling in the comics, and more than a decade in film. That such an ending could ever hope to live up to the hype seemed absurd, and yet here we are, by all accounts having likely witnessed the greatest arc of movies in history, brought to a satisfying conclusion. For this review, I need not harp on the greatness of Robert Downey, Chris Evans, or Josh Brolin and the incredible depth they brought to their characters across this entire saga. Marvel’s casting has been impeccable and remains so here.
LAST WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
It’s incredible that this movies use a mechanism I hate with a burning passion and still succeeds: Time Travel. I absolutely despise when storytellers undo having written themselves into a corner by whipping out the old time travel trope and fixing everything. I started to hate it in this film as well once I realized that was the direction things headed after the early, shocking demise of current timeline Thanos. I still don’t buy their repeated explanations for quantum realms, divergent timelines and the like. Yet, this is the only storytelling mechanism I can think of that would allow for a suitably epic finale. Thanos retired and destroyed the stones, completely within his character. Any attempt to bring him back into the war after this action would have seemed fake and out of character. No, in order to bring forth armies and a final battle worthy of this film, only one thing could do it without poisoning the characters: time travel. So, for the purposes of the movie, one must set aside the obvious paradoxical scenarios that these situations bring about, and just have fun.
One staggering scene after another, we see the characters lurching back and forth through time in alternate angles of scenes from the older movies. I couldn’t categorize the sheer amount of call backs and fan service moments if I had to, so suffice it say that each of these scenes is a joy to watch as they live through events from previous movies at different angles in an attempt to undo Thanos’ snap and bring back the half of the population he disintegrated. This all leads to numerous time bending shenanigans, which results in likely the most over the top insane battle ever put to screen. As expected, the CG effects and cinematography are top-notch, which leads me into the small criticisms of the film.
They use the CG so heavily that it appears slightly synthetic, but given the scale of events that’s a serious nitpick. I already voiced my general displeasure with time travel, so I won’t belabor the point despite being able to pick out many timeline and sequencing problems. Another issue I had was with the appearances of Captain Marvel. She shows up as the ultimate badass in the first ten minutes, then disappears all the way until the finale where she shows up at the exact moment necessary to wreck Thanos’ plans. Another criticism that one might level at the film is that it’s too “fan-servicey” and by that I mean the film would be almost unwatchable to anyone not already invested in these characters and events. My last criticism would be on the portrayal of Thor. I can’t say I was a huge fan of turning him into trembling fat guy, but I guess the logic is that he’s experienced so much loss it finally broke him failing to stop Thanos.
Despite a couple of characterizations I wasn’t a fan of, I couldn’t have been happier with the portrayal of both Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. The two were responsible for the biggest moments in the film, with the latter’s stellar moment producing an eruption of cheers in the theater. As a fan of Cap, I couldn’t have asked for a better send off than what he got, kicking ass, living happily ever after, and passing the shield on to the next generation. Tony’s arc was equally satisfying, starting out the MCU as the arrogant playboy prima donna, all the way up through alcoholism, and finally giving his life to save the world. They sent both of the iconic Avengers off in spectacular fashion, and it will be interesting to see how they are replaced going forward. Downey and Evans set the bar incredibly high, and I wouldn’t mind a few more time travel shenanigans to get the two back in the game at some point.
While I’m here, I’ll address the big moment of Captain America lifting Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer. There seems to be some confusion how that was possible so I’ll outline it briefly. The enchantment specifically says: “Whoever wields this hammer, if they be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” So, the question of whether the hammer can be lifted becomes one of worthiness. We saw in Age of Ultron that Steve could shift, but not lift, the hammer. This leads to two conclusions:
1. He wasn’t worthy at the time given he still held onto the secret of the death of Tony’s father at the hands of Bucky. Once absolved of that secret, his worthiness was clear.
2. He was worthy, he just elected to not show off and bruise Thor’s ego in front many people at the party.
Either way, this was a moment I was sure would happen, given he’s wielded the hammer multiple times in the comics, but it still came off as an incredible moment. All in all, if one is a fan of the Marvel universe, and given how much money it’s making that’s looking like an ever increasing colossal number, then this is the greatest finale possible for this arc. As a matter of fact, I have difficulty even imagining them topping Endgame, but then again, I can imagine quite a bit, especially with 70+ years of comic stories in the tank.
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