By Nick Maylor
Superheroes can only rise to greatness when faced with a worthy threat. Any superhero film worth its salt has to have a formidable and interesting bad guy. Villains these days range from giant purple aliens to regular Joes who took a wrong turn. Some can wave their hands to launch actual moons at the hero; others prefer knives and guns. Some never get involved in fisticuffs at all. Regardless of what their arsenal, costume, backstory or fan base might be, a compelling villain is often a dark mirror or opposite number to the hero. With no shortage of movies and characters to choose from, I’ve attempted to boil the list down to my ten picks for the greatest performances of supervillains in live-action, theatrically released films.
The 10 best are…
10. James Spader as ULTRON in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)
It’s got to be a bit of a tricky character to handle. You’re an omnipotent robot who has serious emotional issues. Joss Whedon said that he only ever had one actor in mind to play the Avengers’ sophomoric bad guy in the 2015: James Spader. Spader provided motion capture performance for the title character and the robotic face was given more expression to allow his performance to come through. The result is an ever-charismatic foe for the team to square off against. The first film had an army of aliens. Naturally, the second has an army of robots, all voiced by James Spader. It’s a fun watch every time he is on screen. Well done.
9. Jack Nicholson as Jack Napier/The Joker in BATMAN (1989)
“Wait until they get a load of me” the gangster says, feeling jealous of the media’s coverage of the Batman. Jack Napier was named after Alan Napier, the actor who portrayed Alfred Pennyworth on the William Dozier Batman 66 television show starring Adam West. While taking inspiration from the comic-book The Killing Joke, Tim Burton’s film expands on the character’s backstory, giving him a name and crime affiliations. Nicholson smirks with glee throughout the entire performance and while his characterization of the Clown Prince of Crime would later be overshadowed, it remains a solid archetype that many actors would follow. Delightfully wicked to the core.
8. Michael Shannon as Zod in MAN OF STEEL (2013)
In the vastly underappreciated reboot of the Superman franchise, Michael Shannon provides a malicious and sinister villain worthy of challenging the Man of Tomorrow both intellectually and physically. Acting a space analogue to Hitler, Zod has been born for only one reason, to protect Krypton. After the planet’s destruction, he vows to terraform the Earth into a Kryptonian analogue, killing all of mankind in the process. More than just chewing the scenery, Shannon brings intense malice and drive to the character. A particularly effective scene is when Zod and his followers are sentenced to the Phantom Zone. Zod rages at the Kryptonian council and vows to find Kal-El, whatever it takes. Raw and intense.
7. Brian Cox as William Stryker in X2: X-MEN UNITED (2002)
I love Brian Cox. Interesting piece of trivia: he was the first actor play Hannibal Lecter (spelled Lektor) in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986). The Scottish actor is always popping up in films and was arguably a better Winston Churchill in 2017 than Gary Oldman was. In this sophomoric entry in the film series, he plays a military leader with a deep-seeded hatred of mutants due to the unfortunate nature of his son’s mutation. He attempts to execute a plan to exterminate the entire population of mutant humans using Charles Xavier as his weapon of choice. Cox is delightfully wicked throughout the film, especially in the scene’s with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine; with Cox’s character being the one responsible for the latter’s adamantium skeletal implants. An overlooked performance.
6. Josh Brolin as THANOS in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018)
This character had more screen time than any other in Avengers: Infinity War (2018), making him the film’s main character. We indeed, see most of the story unfold from Thanos’ perspective. From the minute he beats the Incredible Hulk in a fistfight to those grueling final scenes, Brolin shows that he was the right choice to take on the Avengers’ biggest threat. Using performance capture, Brolin manages to create moments wherein the genocidal titan actually appears sympathetic. The greatest villains are usually the heroes of their own story, and Thanos certainly qualifies. He believes in his mission; that it is for the ultimate good. Thanos is basically the most misguided environmentalist ever, but Brolin brings the goods.
5. Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011)
Although the character was brilliantly played by Ian McKellen in previous installments, we didn’t see the full extent of Erik Lehnsherr’s backstory and motivation until this 2011 prequel. Having suffered as a child in Auschwitz with his mother, his powers are finally unleashed when his mother is killed right in front of him by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a powerful mutant posing as a Nazi officer. Erik grows up to be filled with hatred and rage, tracking down Shaw for revenge while coming to agree with his mutant superiority ideals. Fassbender is simply brilliant as the troubled and reluctant X-Man who grows to become their most famous adversary. Fassbender displays competent dialogue spoken in both French and German (the latter of which he would speak extensively in Inglourious Basterds (2009)). Fassbender continues to play the role sublimely in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) but is overshadowed in that film by his co-star James McAvoy’s brilliant exploration of Charles Xavier.
4. Alfred Molina as Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus in SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
Still one of the best superhero films ever made, Spider-Man 2 (2004) benefited greatly from an empathetic and formidable villain in Doc Ock. Ditching the sillier aspects of the character’s costume and the more violent aspects of his backstory, the film’s Octavius is an upstanding physicist with a happy marriage and a bright future. As is common for villain origins, the scientist’s experiment goes terribly wrong, turning him into the villain. However, Octavius created his signature metal appendages for good reasons, the accident merely stops him from controlling their artificial intelligence and they begin to control him. Being of a machine mind, they strive for only one thing, complete the task they were created to serve. Octavius becomes a thief in order to fund a second experiment, losing his mind and moral compass in the process. Molina is charming to a fault and balances the character with empathy and humour. A tragic character, he is killed off by choice in order to seek redemption. One of the great antagonists of the genre.
3. Michael B. Jordan as N’Jadaka/Erik “Killmonger” Stevens in BLACK PANTHER (2018)
What makes Michael B. Joran’s performance in Black Panther so effective isn’t just that he believes what he is doing is heroic, it’s that despite playing a character who clearly has nothing but hatred in his heart, he is still sympathetic. Aside from the impressive physical condition the actor got himself into, his raw emotional connectivity bleeds through in every scene. Jordan shows that he can go from playing the underdog hero in a film like Creed (2015), then comfortably transition into the darkest and most sinister of characters. His character’s final moments are awe inspiring and tragic as he watches his first and only Wakandan sunset.
2. Tom Hiddleston as Loki in the MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE (2008-present)
It was a big responsibility being the villain that would unite the Avengers. Having proven himself to be charming and empathetic in Thor (2011), Tom Hiddleston made the trickster god deliciously twisted by the time he had returned to Earth with the Tesseract. Showing up at the beginning of The Avengers (2012) like a bat out of hell, Loki is hell bent on exacting revenge on his brother for his perceived slights and ruling Earth as King (with no pretext of even considering a peaceful transfer of powers). Despite all of the people he’s killed and the mayhem he’s caused, we love Loki. Hiddleston owns the character each and every time he appears. Of all the people who failed to make it out of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) alive, Loki’s demise was particularly sore on fans. He’s died before, but seeing him get choked out by Thanos is his (evidently) final demise, made us not want to say goodbye to the back-stabbing snake. Hiddleston does it that well.
1. Heath Ledger as The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
From the first footage of Heath Ledger’s Joker to the moment the credits rolled on the film, we experienced the hands-down greatest supervillain performance in the greatest superhero movie yet made. As I’ve mentioned before, Heath Ledger created the greatest cinematic villain since Anthony Hopkins first gave us Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Winning a posthumous Oscar (richly deserved) for a comic-book supervillain is an achievement that belongs to Mr. Ledger alone. While the Joker may be the hero of his own twisted story, his idea of heroism is pure chaos and destruction. Ledger epitomized the essence of the character and the film encapsulated the duality between the Clown Prince of Crime and the Batman’s relationship perfectly. An unstoppable force meets an immovable object. Destined to dance forever. Chaos and Order. Yin and Yang. Ledger took a deep dive for this one. We can only imagine what he could have done further with the character had he lived longer.
Nick is an actor/writer/comedian/musician from Hamilton, ON Canada. Having been a film nut since the early days of his life, Nick has had an obsession with cinema and popular entertainment. Nick has written for thecinemaholic.com and is the current Foote & Friends “expert” on all things geek/superhero/comic-book related. Nick met John when studying acting at the Toronto Film School, for which John H. Foote was director and Film History professor. The two have been arguing ever since.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickMaylor