Superheroes would not have such a longevity without their supervillains. Lex Luthor, The Joker, Magneto, Doctor Doom, etc. are arguably much more interesting than their superhero counterparts. Even if they are not well known by the public they are a major draw. How can a hero defeat a seemingly unstoppable force?
I just saw Iron Man 3 for the second time. Fans seem to be the most critical over Iron Man 3's usage of its villains. Personally I am fine with its plot twists because everything the feature does advances its hero. Tony Stark ends up being the most complex and interesting character in Iron Man 3.
But even if the villains in the best Iron Man movie pale in comparison to other movie villains it is difficult to ignore the status that the evil characters have in pop culture. They are fascinating, provocative and sometimes even more likable than the heroes. This is the list of the ten best supervillain performances in cinema.
Honorable mention goes to two supervillains. One is Al Pacino as Big Boy Caprice in 1990's Dick Tracy. I am classifying Dick Tracy as a pulp hero, not a superhero (yes there is a difference). Although Pacino gives life to a unique comic book character in a well deserved Oscar nominated performance it is not a supervillain (he faces a normal man, not a superior one).
The other honorable mention is Michael Rosenbaum as Lex Luthor in Smallville (2001-2011). I am only mentioning live-action feature film villains on this list, but Rosenbaum's complex portrayal of Luthor is certainly well worth mentioning. The character easily stole the show and remained the most memorable and interesting character. Although Gene Hackman gave a great performance that the 1978 film needed and Kevin Spacey put his own stamp on Hackman's interpretation in Superman Returns it was Rosenbaum who really made a live-action Luthor captivating and gave the complex character layers. He made Luthor sympathetic without losing the imminent evil qualities. I am not sure why this series did not make a star out of the talented actor.
10. Tom Wilkinson, Camine Falcone (Batman Begins, 2005)
The eerie idiosyncratic Cillian Murphy as Jonathan Crane aka The Scarecrow and the professional Liam Neeson as Ra's al Ghul (not to mention Ken Watanabe's convincing decoy) deserve mention in Christopher Nolan's wonderfully written inaugural Gotham tale. But out of the many challenges facing the Dark Knight, Wilkinson's crime boss is the one that leaves the largest impact on me. His speech on fear not only defines Batman Begins but the purpose of Batman in any interpretation. Wilkinson's calculated delivery in a very well written monologue really sets up the hero and gets us rooting for him for the rest of the series. Sure other villains may be more marketable and memorable, but in one scene this British veteran forever ties himself to the Bat-mythos. His monologue is in my top five Batman moments on screen. A very underrated villain.
9. Lena Headey, Mama (Dredd, 2012)
Another underrated villain. I am not sure if I should call Judge Dredd a superhero, as he seems very much the antithesis of it. But I will take any opportunity to mention the movie Dredd, which unfortunately bombed at the box-office. Dredd succeeded as an action film in every conceivable way. Including, a memorable villain. Mama, an original character for the film, was not a physical threat but a crime boss. The kind of character that is easy to film. Although she did not throw a punch against the leading man her presence was felt throughout the film as a terrifying leader. Most villain performances in superhero movies are either too wacky and broad or just don't try at all. Lena Headey gives exactly the performance that Dredd needs. She is a commanding force for the hero to overcome and at many times throughout the film it seems that he won't. A deserving lesser known entry on this list.
8. Albert Brooks, Bernie Rose (Drive, 2011)
Like the Lena Headey this may not deserve a mention on a list of cinematic supervillains (but on the other hand it may deserve a higher slot). Both Nicholas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling have called Drive their superhero movie. I would say that Drive hits all of the major superhero tropes. A normal man with an alter ego that affects the desires of his personal life is the basic superhero story. Not to mention the scorpion jacket that is only used while Gosling is a driver functions similarly to a costume. Drive is one of the best superhero movies ever made, people just have not realized it.
And Albert Brooks in what was considered a huge Oscar snub is a large part of that movie's critical success. Part of what makes Bernie Rose such a great villain is that the audience is caught off guard as Brooks is such a comedic legend. We all rooted for him in films such as Broadcast News or Finding Nemo. Despite all of that he is a convincing despicable, villainous character.
I saw an interview where Brooks claimed this was the role he was waiting for and I believe it. He is a very bad man who does very bad things to a well-meaning person. Drive may not be a summer blockbuster but it is a superhero story featuring a very loathsome adversary. After writing this I think that I should have placed Bernie Rose higher on the list based on the great Albert Brooks.
7. Burgess Meredith, Caser Romero, Lee Meriwether, Frank Gorshin (Batman: The Movie, 1966)
I understand that the Adam West Batman series is derided by many comic book fans, but as far as fans of live-action superhero fiction go we all owe a debt to this series. Particularly its villains. Sure Adam West and Burt Ward are iconic as Batman and Robin, but the legacy of the series and its feature-length movie truly belongs to its villains.
Part of the reason why Batman: The Movie has aged better than most modern superhero films is that its villains are so much fun to watch. The Batman series featured some terrific character actors (i.e. Vincient Price, Roddy McDowall, Eartha Kitt, Art Carney, Liberace, Cliff Robertson, Milton Berle and Zsa Zsa Gabor). But the movie featured four great actors who were constantly interacting. Even modern films can only get a scene or two off of two villains interacting, but Batman: The Movie gained an entire feature off of the rapport and comedic timing of its villains.
Despite the numerous portrayals of Catwoman and The Joker, Lee Meriwether and Caser Romero still hold their own as memorable interpretations. Not to mention that 47 years later Burgess Meredith and Frank Gorshin have still given the definitive portrayals of their legendary nemeses. In fact Gorshin's Riddler has been named the all-time favorite villain performance by none other than Mark Hamill (who voiced what many, including myself would consider to be the definitive Joker).
6. Tom Hiddleston, Loki (Thor, 2011/Avengers, 2012)
I loved the Thor movie, but even its detractors have to admit that Hiddleston's Loki was absolutely captivating. Marvel apparently agreed as they made him pretty much the sole villain (at least for the majority of the film) in their magnum opus. Hiddleston can cause such an uneasiness in the audience. We never root for him but we are always captivated by him. His unachievable power grabs are so amusing that he has become an internet meme and was the hook at the end of the trailer for Thor: Dark World. I would rank Hiddleston up their with the portrayals of Hugh Jackman and Robert Downey, Jr. as perfect comic to actor relationships. Audiences love this performance and the actor clearly loves this character as well. It is a rare symbiotic relationship between performer and performance that superhero films are lucky to get.
5. Anne Hathaway, Catwoman (Dark Knight Rises, 2012)
I have mentioned on this blog before that I was really let down by The Dark Knight Rises. However the part that kept me going was Anne Hathaway's Selena Kyle, which I felt was just as good if not better than her Oscar winning performance as Fantine in Les Miserables (which I of course loved as well). Hathaway brought an energy and excitement that the rest of the movie lacked. I did not feel as if I could predict her next move. The performance was that of a smart character that posed as a helpless character. I had never been so mesmerized by the Catwoman. I honestly wished she had a spin-off of her own or that she had taken over the entire third Nolan Batman movie. Hathaway, despite how much people may look down on her as an actress, was that good.
4. Alfred Molina, Doctor Octopus (Spider-Man 2, 2004)
When you cast the great Willem Dafoe you know you are getting an evil character. With Alfred Molina, a villain is absolutely unexpected. After re-watching Spider-Man 2 (one of my favorite movies of all time) they really do not set up Octavius's change to villainy. At the start of the movie Octavius is a mentor to the lost Peter Parker. He is kind and loving. But when Molina becomes corrupted by his tentacles' A.I. he is merciless. At the time of the film's release I remember several people mentioning how Doc Ock was scary because he didn't have a mask. Molina needed no mask or cheap trick. He was menacing and single-minded, he was a good enough actor to convey exactly what Spider-Man could not beat.
I made a list of potential Spider-Man villains for future films, but in all honesty I am just hoping for someone to match this performance. What makes Spider-Man such a captivating story is that his private life effects his personal life. And no actor, not even Dafoe, has been able to do it as effectively as Molina (who has sadly not become a bigger star). He fits in the personal scenes in Peter Parker's life, he excels in the excellently choreographed action scenes and he adds his own flourishes in both of Octavius' personas. I doubt that Doc Ock would currently have such a major role in the comics (and trust me, if you aren't reading them he has a MAJOR role) if Molina did not force people to take a second look at this great enemy.
3. Dane DeHaan, Andrew Detmer (Chronicle, 2012)
I went into Chronicle not knowing anything about it. But as a comic book geek watching it I quickly realized that this was the origin of a supervillain. Chronicle is very much a story that mainstream superhero comics cannot tell. It is very slow, intentional and personal. Chronicle is the first superhero movie I have seen that has not tried to be a comic book but rather do what mainstream comics cannot.
This is undoubtably a supervillain story. The alcoholic abusive father, sick dying mother, inability to fit in with peers, sexual inadequacy. All of the motivations are there. But what Josh Trank ingeniously adds to this character is the perspective of a hero. He has a supporting cast and the best of intentions, the audience roots for him and he evolves into a supervillain.
This movie would not work without Dane DeHaan delivering a tragic, wounded performance. He is a kid that has been a victim and is committed to using his newfound powers to make sure that it never happens again. As an audience we see how his good intentions go awry, but as an audience we also feel his neverending pain. This is one of the most complex villain stories I have ever witnessed. I am intrigued to see how they follow this up.
2. Heath Ledger, The Joker (Dark Knight, 2008)
Of course this needs to be mentioned on the list. I am only placing it at number two instead of one because I dislike undisputed number ones. I have my qualms about calling this the definitive Joker or deinitive supervillain. But a great performance? I cannot even feign ignorance to that. This is one of the greatest of all time. You know it, I know it, everybody knows it.
This won an Oscar and became a cultural phenomenon that is still being continued today. Ledger brought unpredictability and an uneasiness to Batman's greatest foe. The Joker was no longer archetypal or standard, but a true foil. He stole the show in The Dark Knight as he was the much more compelling side of a complex moral dilemma.
Ledger's Joker not only existed because the audience expected to see the character, he reminded and articulated to the audience why they loved this villain. The Joker in The Dark Knight advanced the story and raised the stakes. He changed things, forever. And he created an act that was impossible to follow. For all of these reasons and many more Heath Ledger as The Joker is undeniably one of the greatest supervillain performances of all time.
1. Ian McKellen/Michael Fassbender, Magneto (X-Men, 2000/X2, 2002/Last Stand, 2006/First Class, 2011)
And here it is. The greatest live-action supervillain performance in all of film. I may be cheating by including both McKellen and Fassbender in the top slot, but Fassbender's exciting and surprising performance (which I named the best interpretation of Magneto) owes a lot to the veteran McKellen. You see a character arc throughout all of the movies, despite their differing quality.
McKellen (which was later proven by Fassbender) created a sustainable supervillain. One who did not have to die or be written out by the end of one movie. But rather an adversary who kept the franchise moving forward. By now Magneto is as synonymous with the X-Men as the marketable Wolverine. He creates moral dilemmas and uncomfortable comprises. This character is firmly at the crux of the mythos thanks to his formidable performers.
Even in the lesser effort of X-Men: The Last Stand his speech about cures remain poignant and thrilling. Ian McKellen was the actor among the X-Men's talented cast that got the audience thinking. And now Michael Fassbender has them on the edge of their seat. The combination of the two will undoubtebly be the talk of the upcoming X-Men: Days of the Future Past. For my money this is the best supervillain (if you want to call Magneto a villain) performance of all time.