14 Best Villains from Movies, TV Series, and Comics (1939-1992)
. . . it was more fun playing a villain-type character.— Jean Carson on why she played Daphne in The Andy Griffith Show (1962-65)
Why We Like Fantasy Villains
Villains do have more fun. They speak to the mischievous, practical joke-pulling segment of our personalities. We have grown used to seeing them in television drama and action shows, as well as the new classic movies that have become a part of our lives.
If my life had been destined for television or film, I would have always chosen the role of a villain. To me, there is not as much pressure to do well as a villain as there is with playing the hero. So what if you miss a line? You are a villain. You are not expected to be perfect. To hear these words from a director, “Be as bad as you want!” would be the proverbial "music to my ears." And if you think about it, it really takes hard, dedicated work to be a convincing evil actor. You have to really move the audience with your evil ways, which can be tough if you have just been seen in a film where you were cast as a lily-white hero with pristine white wardrobe. The hero of the film hasn’t really any bar to reach, for he or she is always good, nice, and clean-cut.
1. The Wicked Witch of the West
The Wicked Witch of the West, played by Margaret Hamilton, superbly filled the role of a fictitious, fantasy villain in the movie classic The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Dorothy, played by a young Judy Garland, clashed with the old biddy schoolteacher Miss Gulch (Hamilton), who wanted to take Dorothy’s dog Toto away from her for being a menace.
To avoid losing her dog, Dorothy decided to run away from home but changed her mind and got trapped in her house during an F-5 tornado. Miss Gulch appeared on her bicycle in the winding currents of the tornado as part of Dorothy's illusion. The house dropped down in the fantasy land of Oz, where life was sweet, kind, and easy.
The problem, however, was that Dorothy’s house fatally landed on The Wicked Witch of the West’s sister. This caused The Wicked Witch of the West to begin a campaign of evil revenge against Dorothy and her newly found partners, Scarecrow (Hunk/Ray Bolger); Tin Man (Hickory/Jack Haley) and Cowardly Lion (Zeke/Bert Lahr).
The most ambitious scene was where The Wicked Witch of The West launched her army of evil, winged monkeys to capture Dorothy and her pals.
2. Biff Tannen
Biff Tannen, played by Thomas F. Wilson, was the starring bully in Back to the Future films. He was the epitome of bullies, a smart-alec to the bone. He was short-tempered and violent. He used fowl language and pushed innocent people like Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) around at will, but viewers eventually learned to love Biff with his clumsy thinking and living.
The most memorable moment was in the first Back to the Future when George McFly (Crispin Glover), Marty’s dad, had taken enough from Biff at the school dance and let Biff have it with a hard, left hook, sending Biff spinning to the ground.
3. Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom was probably the most gated villain ever to appear on the pages of the mega-famous Marvel Comics. Doom was one of many archenemies of The Fantastic Four, who always seemed to have the answer to Dr. Doom’s dark scheme to take over the world. In present day, Dr. Doom and other comic book villains would most definitely take a second look at the world before planning to overtake it with their evil doings. After all, the shape our world, at times, already seems pretty grim--international economic uncertainties, global warming, and wars breaking out most every month somewhere in the world. The villains simply wouldn't have much to do and, in fact, might be quite bored.
Many villain experts said that Dr. Doom was the prototype of the supervillain Darth Vader in the Star Wars films. Both had similarities. Dr. Doom wore a hideous mask, a dark cape, and, if he could talk, probably would have had a rough, raspy voice like Darth Vader to intimidate the innocent folk in comic-book land.
It's only fitting for DC Comics to have Doomsday as one of Superman's villain nemeses. Look at this villain's getup. A person could get really cut trying to shake hands with this character--and embracing him after a good play Doomsday made in sports would be suicide.
I really don’t know why the artists and writers at DC Comics had to create Doomsday. Perhaps they were just plain running low of really evil characters to fight "The Man of Steel."
5. Don Altobello
Eli Wallach always had that special knack for being a villain with the ease of slicing through warm butter. His role as the slick-talking, well-dressed Don Altobello in The Godfather (1972) is only one example of his ability. Although Don Altobello appeared to be a befuddled old man with a cane, he was a lucid, Machiavellian schemer, respected by all mafiosi with relations to the Corleone family.
Other tributes to Eli Wallach are Tuco, a killer, thief, and liar in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly; Calvera, an obsessive bank robber, in The Magnificent Seven; and Gordon Gekko, a ruthless investment swindler, in Wall Street - Money Never Sleeps.
6. Green Goblin
Green Goblin, also a Marvel Comics’ super bad guy and thorn-in-the-side to Spiderman. Goblin’s special rocket helped him to fly around in order to cause havoc on innocent citizens and terrorize Spiderman every living minute they are together in an episode.
I can only imagine William Defoe’s voice as The Green Goblin’s comic-book voice, for Defoe starred as Green Goblin in one of the successful Spiderman films starring Toby McGuire (Peter Parker/Spiderman) and Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson), Parker’s on-again, off-again girlfriend.
Of all the villains who have fought and lost to Spiderman, Green Goblin remains as one of the most popular bad creatures in Spiderman history. Goblin easily beats out Doctor Octopus.
7. Hannibal Lecter
Hannibal Lecter, played by acclaimed and award-winning actor Anthony Hopkins, literally carried the hit movie Silence of The Lambs that co-starred Jody Foster as Clarice Starling, an F.B.I. Agent who had to interview Hannibal Lecter, a serial killer incarcerated for brutal acts of cannibalism. The interview was to help Starling gain insight into the criminal mind so she could capture another killer.
I think that Hopkins’ role was supplemented and complemented by Foster’s intense style of acting to help make Hannibal Lecter a memorable villain. His slithering, almost serpentine voice, saying “Well . . .hello, Clarice,” lends itself to be mimicked by villain fans everywhere.
8. Henry Potter
Henry Potter or Mr. Potter, played by legendary actor, Lionel Barrymore, was the more-than-typical villain in It's a Wonderful Life. He was a man wealthy from swindling money, crooked dealings, and using underhanded tactics to keep his powerful position in Bedford Falls.
In the story, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) lived and helped to run the Bailey Savings and Loan, the institution that helped most of the citizens of Bedford Falls to have houses, not slums. Bailey and his family had a running duel with Mr. Potter, as Potter wanted to buy the Bailey Savings and Loan, so that he would have the monopoly on all the money changing in the community.
The key moment of evil came when wheelchair-bound Potter entered the local bank only to see George Bailey’s uncle Billy, a scatter-brained alcoholic, making a deposit for George. The deposit was important because it was to keep the Bailey Savings and Loan afloat. Uncle Billy, in a moment of gloating, showed Potter a picture in the local paper of George’s brother, Harry Bailey, a war hero who saved the lives of a few hundred soldiers. At that moment, Uncle Billy unknowingly dropped the deposit into Potter’s lap. Potter stealthfully covered the money with his paper, and his assistant wheeled him out of the bank. This clumsy error by Uncle Billy caused the bank examiner to come down on the Bailey Savings and Loan. George Bailey's life tailspinned after that.
The ending is too good to spoil, so one simply has to watch A Wonderful Life to see the excellent performance by John Barrymore as the villain Henry Potter.
9. JAWS Great White Shark
This mechanical villain, a huge, great white shark that terrorizes a small, but lucrative tourist town by killing swimmers who venture out too far into the ocean. Roy Schneider plays the local sheriff who has to fight with the money-hungry mayor and city hall who do not want the sheriff arousing unnecessary fear and banning the people from swimming. I rate the shark in the hit movie film series, Jaws, about six on a scale of 10, as being one of the most convincing non-human villains of all-time in the film industry.
10. The Joker (Batman)
The Joker was one of the many colorful villains who are out to get Batman, a.k.a. citizen Bruce Wayne, in DC Comics (1940) and in the 1989 film Batman played by Michael Keaton. Jack Nicholson was chosen over many male celebrities as the witty, but dangerous villain.
The origin of Joker in this movie is a bit sketchy, but Joker, an adapted criminal name, was once a good guy employed by a chemical company. The Joker, once a lawful man, saw too many shady dealings within the chemical firm and tried to put a stop to the dangerous production of a chemical that was deadly to plants, pets, and human lives. Joker’s nice-guy character fell into a vat of the deadly chemical, but didn't kill him (a clever screen writer's twist). The accident did, however, disfigure his face enough to cause the good-guy Joker to turn evil and disguise himself to avenge big cities and corporations, regardless of what innocent people might get in the way.
Although Nicholson did an excellent job as the villain Joker, my personal favorite was played by Caesar Romero on the ABC Batman series with Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin, Batman's trusty sidekick. The Joker, I believe, has made more attempts to take Batman out than any of Batman’s other enemies.
11. Kingpin (Spider-Man)
This comic-book villain is determined to snuff out Spider-Man. Kingpin is grossly overweight, but fluent in the language and knowledge of criminal plots, exotic gang members, and weapons. Kingpin has made only a few attacks in Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man and a few attacks on an ABC's Spider-Man TV series (1967-1970).
The following video is a clip from an animated series showing Kingpin's mastery of weaponry (but not effective against Spidey).
12. Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef)
Lee Van Cleef is the ultimate villain with his beady eyes and smirk for a smile. Van Cleef could easily master his dialogue, accent, and delivery of any television western or film script, often as an outlaw gunslinger or bounty hunter. His most memorable role was “Angel Eyes” in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly that also starred Clint Eastwood as “Blondie,” and Eli Wallach as "Calvera."
13. Lex Luthor
Lex Luthor is the number one nemesis of America’s hero, Superman. The DC Comics’ version of Lex Luthor, evil genius (love that tag), is nothing like the Superman film with Christopher Reeve.
In the film, Luthor is played by Gene Hackman, who finds it necessary to smile, shoot funny one-liners, and act glib as he plots to take down the City of Metropolis. I give Hackman credit. He did make me believe that he was evil enough to cause Superman to worry about the plan Luthor had to launch two powerful rockets, both with deadly warheads, one going to the east coast and the other going to the west coast. Superman had to fly for his life to keep them both from exploding.
Although Hackman’s portrayal of Lex Luthor was not what I had counted on, I still rate Lex Luthor, the comic villain, as one of the most evil, yet charming villain that Superman ever met.
13. Norman Bates
The quiet, gentle, and soft-spoken Tony Perkins fit the cold-hearted killer, Norman Bates, in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Psycho to the letter.
Bates, who was having a mental battle within himself for wanting to be his mother as well as her son, made moviegoers everywhere delight in his mother-son dialogue in the film. When Bates foiled any girl that Mama didn‘t like, Bates' recovery from the stress and nervous energy of taking an innocent person’s life was remarkable.
I also loved Janet Leigh’s role in this movie, which did cause some controversy about scenes where she was scantily clad. Leigh and the cast of supporting actors helped build the perfect foundation for Tony Perkins as he took Norman Bates deeper and deeper into the dark world of murder and deception.
Vote for Your Favorite Villain
Of those featured above, which is your favorite villain?
None of the images used in this work belong to the author. If any image has been used improperly, please contact the writer through the "Contact Author" red link at the top of this article for removal. Thank you.
Special thanks to Marie Flint for editing and reformatting this article, previously known as "A Few of Hollywood's 'Best;' Villains," originally published in 2011.
© 2011 Kenneth Avery