The Monomyth was first conceived by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 novel The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It is a literary term conceptualized by Campbell that details the stages of the hero’s journey. He identified a pattern throughout mythology and literature and condensed it down to seventeen stages. Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler would later edit it down to twelve stages and his version would be the blueprint that every film would use from then on. The Ordinary World, The Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Meeting with the Mentor, Crossing the first Threshold, Tests, Allies and Enemies, Approach of the Innermost Cave, The Ordeal, The Reward, The Road Back, The Resurrection and The Return with the Elixir.
Just like how every script has a three act structure, every film that involves a hero on a quest can be broken down to these twelve elements. But that doesn’t mean that each step is important. The formula may be ironclad but there’s one step that’s far more crucial than the others and that’s step six: Tests, Allies, and Enemies. The hero can be uninteresting and the quest uninspired but if your villain is lame, nobody will remember. The hero is only as memorable as the villain he’s fighting. James Bond is one of the most iconic characters ever but the only films anyone gives a shit about are the ones where the villain is amazing.
From the mustachio twirling, train track tying ne’er-do-wells to mask wearing slashers to universe destroying uber baddies, cinema has had a long love affair with evildoers but which one is the most dastardly?
What Makes a Great Villain?
When ranking the best of the worst, there had to be a set of ground rules.
- The villain doesn’t have to be fictional but his evil deeds must be depicted in a film. Hitler may be the ultimate evil but the film needs to depict him as the ultimate evil.
- Anti-heroes can be included based on the the strength of their villainous period. Travis Bickle and Loki, for example.
- The villains have to be intelligent beings with malicious intent. This rules out animals, forces of nature (such as storms, plagues or viruses), or characters that aren’t aware they’re doing evil. No Godzilla, no shark from Jaws and no Zombies.
- The list will be covering the character and not the performance. Which means all versions of Dracula or the Joker will be counted as a single entity.
- The villains were ranked based on influence, impact, degree of evil and style. The more Halloween costumes based on the character the better.
This is The 100 Greatest Villains Of All Time.
10. Freddy Krueger
Played By: Robert Englund
Film: A Nightmare on Elm Street [Series] (1984-1994)
For atleast five years, Freddy Kruger was a rock star. He skyrocketed past horror icon status to become an omnipresent figure in pop culture. Everywhere you looked, he would somehow appear. He had tons of merchandise, a television show, a book series, a comic series, bubblegum and even a rap song. His fame was almost immediate and equally inexplicable considering he’s a child killer but that’s a testament to his Craven’s designs and Englund’s performance, that it was never an issue. Hell, I dressed up as him for at least three Halloween’s.
I think a huge chunk of his appeal stems from the fact that, compared with his rivals in horror-film serial murder, he’s cut from a different cloth. Unlike Leatherface, Michael Myers, and Jason Vorhees, he doesn’t hide behind a mask, do there’s no discontent. The audience isn’t separated by a wall of artifice. Which means they can connect to him on at least some level.
They’re also all mutes and Freddy is a regular ol’ chatty cathy and talking, as you know, is one of the defining pillars of personality. And it’s a hell of a lot easier to love someone who talks as opposed to someone who doesn’t.
He also brings a level of creativity to his kills, that no other villain can match. Since he’s cursed to the haunted dream world, his power is only limited by his imagination. If he can think it, he can use it to kill you. Which creates for some really original set pieces.
Or maybe everyone loves him because the claws and stripped sweater remind them of wolverine on Christmas. It’s a possibility.
9. Amon Goeth
Played By: Ralph Fiennes
Film: Schindler’s List (1993)
There’s no historical figure as universally reviled than that of the Nazi. They are the go-to word for absolute evil and for good reason. It’s a political party predicated on the complete and total annihilation of an entire race of people. It’s not easy finding a more repulsive group of individuals nor is it easy finding a better example of their vile beliefs than Amon Goeth.
Based on the first Nazi to be charged with the crime of homicide and not just being a war criminal (his actions were so heinous, that they needed a new category), Amon Goeth is the main antagonist in Schindler’s List and is easily the most detestable person in a film where some people lock other people in gas chambers. When he’s not torturing Jews or shooting at them from his balcony (which he did in real life), he’s complaining to Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler about the difficulties of his job. Which involve ordering a lot of barbed wire and posts. It wouldn’t even occur to him to mention the Jew killing because that’s the banality of evil. Killing human beings is just another mundane aspect of his job. Like taking out the trash or pulling weeds. Which makes it that much more terrifying.
8. Michael Corleone
Played By: Al Pacino
Film: Godfather [Series] (1972-1974)
Although Kay (Diane Keaton) is given far less screen time in both the Godfather films, it is through her eyes we see the evolution of Michael Corleone. Starting the film as a World War II vet with a high sense of morality; through a series of family murders, he is pulled into a world he spent his entire life avoiding. In the eyes of the Corleone family and it’s associates, he is a hero who made an unimaginable sacrifice. He killed to save his father, he killed to avenge his brother but after every decision he made for the family business, another piece of his soul died until there was nothing left but a cold kingpin of crime.
His decision to kill his own brother is the best example of his downfall but I think Kay’s revelation that she had an abortion really hammers home the reality. She would rather kill her own child, then bring another Corleone into the world. Especially one by Michael.
He’s not the most ruthless crime boss on this list and definitely not the most violent but he’s a cold, damn near emotionless businessman that will eliminate any threat to the family.
7. Hans Landa
Played By: Christoph Waltz
Film: Inglourious Basterds (2009)
How many villains from all of cinema history can you think of, that match Hans Landa’s combination of charisma and air of terror? The man exudes both, sometimes in the same scene. Like a terrible inversion of Sherlock Holmes, Landa does, as his nickname suggests, hunts Jews and he’s shockingly proficient at his job. He can sniff them out like a truffle hunting pig and has no problem executing entire families.
He’s also morally complex. Disposing of Jews is only one facet of his personality. On one hand, he’ll kill traitors that betray Germany but then on another, he’ll kill Hitler himself, in order to secure the best plan for himself. He played the game as well as he could have but he sorely underestimated Aldo Raine, which would prove to be a huge mistake. Can’t win em all.
6. Alex DeLarge
Played By: Malcolm McDowell
Film: A Clockwork Orange (1971)
In the novel, Anthony Burgess omitted the final chapter from editions published in the United States for over twenty years. The fabled 21st chapter involves Alex finally growing bored with violence and resolves to turn his life around. Although that chapter is the most important in the book and actually changes the meaning of the entire novel, both critics and audiences (including the director, Stanley Kubrick) actively disliked it. It essentially hand waves away Alex’s behavior by saying that not only can anyone change but violence comes with the territory of being young.
The film doesn’t subscribe to the notion of “boys will be boys” or make excuses for anything Alex does. And it certainly doesn’t give him an out. He clearly enjoys indulging in childlike bedlam but once the film gets to the “Singin’ in the rain” bit, you realize this is more than just Bart Simpson-esque thuggery. He’s a remorseless brute that takes great pleasure in the misery of others and no amount of brain washing can stop that.
5. Frank Booth
Played By: Dennis Hopper
Film: Blue Velvet (1986)
Multiple actors turned down the role of Frank Booth because they considered the character too repulsive and intense. Hopper was the only actor fighting for the part because he reportedly said, “I’ve got to play Frank, because I am Frank!” If that is true, Hopper beats Klaus Kinski as the craziest actor in Hollywood*
I don’t believe there’s a thesaurus big enough to adequately describe Frank Booth. You’d need hundreds of variants of the words insane, manic, unpredictable, violent, and/or psychotic to properly define his actions because there is no other villain quite like Frank Booth. He kidnaps a child in order to leverage the mother into being his personal sex slave that he repeatedly abuses before and after he rapes her and that might not be the worst thing he does in this film. Instead of a bigger thesaurus, they need to just make a dictionary with his face as the definition of the word “Wild.”
*Don’t Google what Kinski did. Stay pure.
4. Anton Chigurh
Played By: Javier Bardem
Film: No Country for Old Men (2007)
There’s a scene in No Country for Old Men, where Llewelyn Moss and Carson Wells (Josh Brolin and Woody Harrelson) finally meet and they discuss, among other things, the nature of the man hunting Moss. The film stops dead in It’s tracks to have Harrelson’s character–who’s only purpose in this film is to deliver this bit of exposition–explain to Moss (and by extension, the audience) the severity of this threat pursuing him.
“You don’t understand. You can’t make a deal with him. Even if you gave him the money he’d still kill you. He’s a peculiar man. You could even say that he has principles. Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that. He’s not like you. He’s not even like me.”
He’s an unrelenting, unstoppable killing machine not unlike the Terminator but the coin flip scene between him and the nervous gas station proprietor, reveals a sadistic menace to Chigurh’s actions that the Terminator never had. Plus, the Terminator never killed people with a captive bolt pistol. In fact, nobody in any film has. Which is another example of his singular uniqueness.
3. Hannibal Lecter
Played By: Anthony Hopkins
Film: The Silence of the Lambs [Series] (1991-2001)
Created by Thomas Harris for the novel Red Dragon, Hannibal Lecter’s first appearance on screen wasn’t The Silence of the Lambs but actually Manhunter. Brian Cox did an admirable job bringing the insane doctor to life but when it comes to Hannibal Lecter, nobody fills those shoes quite like Hopkins. Winning an Oscar for less than 15 minutes of screen time, Hopkins, much like his on screen counterpart, makes a meal out of every scene he’s in.
Unlike most villains, his power comes from words, not actions. He’s a spider drawing everyone in with his charm and undeniable charisma but the second you let your guard down, he cuts off the top of your head and makes you eat part of your brain or drugs you up and makes you cut off chunks of your face. He’s the smartest person in the room, which automatically makes him the most dangerous and that’s before taking in account his willingness to kill anyone who gets in his way. I’d still have dinner with him though.
2. Darth Vader
Played By: David Prowse/James Earl Jones
Film: Star Wars [Series] (1977-2016)
There’s certain characters that redefine the term “icon.” Damn near the entire cast of Star Wars is so ingrained within the fabric of our pop culture, it’s literally impossible to separate the two. The only alternative is to mark the time before Star Wars and the time after Star Wars. It’s hard to remember or even comprehend but there was a time before Darth Vader. I don’t know what it was but I know it’s a fact.
Another fact, is that Star Wars is worth an estimated 40 billion dollars, which is an insane amount of money but even crazier still, is the fact that Darth Vader is still the face of it. Kylo Ren may be the hot commodity now but he still lacks the instant brand recognition of a Darth Vader. The series has never been more popular, which means Vader isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
1. The Joker
Played By: (Various)
Film: Batman [Series] (1989-2017)
The one unifying presence that connects every villain on this list is reason. Every villain ultimately believes what he or she is doing is right and none of them believe they are the bad guy. Not the Joker. The only reason Joker has for doing what he does, is chaos. He has no greater ambition than to create as much mayhem as humanely possible. He’s the living embodiment of anarchy and is a walking, laughing plague of violence and murder.
But the greatest and most important aspect of his character, is his adaptability. With the exception of Jared Leto (which I’ll give just the slightest amount of the benefit of the doubt to considering how heavily edited his role was in Suicide Squad. There might have been a better version of that character somewhere in that mess of a film), every actor has enough room to completely reinvent the character.
Coming off of the heels of the ’66 tv show, Cesar Romero played a Joker who was a cackling madman who holds the world for ransom with the help of a dehydration gun. He teams up with the Penguin, Catwoman and the Riddler to pull off an extremely convoluted plan that involves kidnapping the powdered remains of the United World Organization’s Security Council to hold them for ransom? It’s a bonkers plan that makes zero sense.
Jack Nicholson’s take on the Joker was little more than Jack Nicholson in clown make up and that’s not a bad thing.
Mark Hamill used his incredible voice acting talents to create the ultimate Joker voice. Odds are that it’s his voice you hear when you read a Batman comic.
Heath Ledger took the character further than anyone before or since. He’s still an agent of chaos but his chaos was methodical. His plan was to set up events to create anarchy and then create the motivation later. First, he tells Gotham to turn over the Batman and then he tells them all to kill the narc. Much like Nero before him, he’s fiddling while Rome burns but unlike the infamous dictator, he’s not fiddling out of indifference. Quite the contrary, he’s playing Gotham like a goddamn violin and loving every second of it.
The Joker is the quintessential nemesis, the definition of a scene-stealing baddie and has the longest run of quality of any villain. He is without a doubt, The Greatest Movie Villain of All Time.