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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