The 15 Best Movie Villains of the 21st Century, Ranked
A story is only as strong as it’s villain. We’ve all heard it before, but there’s a reason for that. It is unequivocally true. An underdeveloped or boring villain can unravel a film’s third act, deflating the climactic moments of all their heft. Pain and pleasure, light and dark, good and evil — a great film has to find the perfect the balance of hero and villain, each as strong and compelling as the other.
Indeed, the hero and the villain are often inversions of each other. People or creatures with similar beliefs and upbringings, but with one critical difference — terrible shit always happens to bad guys. They suffer in some way the hero doesn’t, and it either breaks them or it twists them up into a force for darkness. No matter what the trauma is, and the options are endless, it has to have fundamentally damaged the villain so badly they don’t realize they’re stopped being the hero of their story.
Beyond those qualifiers, the realm of villains is wide open. There are straight up psychopaths. There are heroes gone bad.There are overly ambitious Promethean creators who go two far and bring down hell on Earth. There are crusaders and persecutors; pious and judgemental forces that shut down any opposition. There are despots and demons and desperate career-climbers. The tricksters. The politicians. Whatever mold the villain takes, what matters is that they have been given the time and consideration to become a whole character with comprehensive motivations. If you don’t care about what they’re doing or don’t get why they’re doing it, none of it matters anyway.
There’s a lot of great ways to make a villain, and the century so far has been stacked with successes, but I’ve ranked the 15 best in the list below.
15. Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) - 'Whiplash'
Not all heroes wear capes and not all villains take lives. Some are content simply to ruin them. It could be argued that the true villain of Whiplash is the constant nag of imperfection, but you can’t undersell the impact of J.K. Simmons‘ Terrence Fletcher; the sinewy razor-tongued music instructor who can never find enough ways to deflate and demean his students. Fletcher spews out abuse like a broken fire hydrant, his needling insults and dismissiveness occasionally veering into low-blow territory with personalized attacks that turn intimate exchanges into weaponry.
As with all the great villains, he’s driven by a higher calling: in this case, an all-consuming drive to honor the music, to create great jazz and forge great jazz musicians in the hellfire of his fury. (Basically, the bad guy version of Ryan Gosling in La La Land.) It sounds silly, but it plays like gangbusters when he’s pitted against Miles Teller‘s Andrew, a student who’s every inch as much a true believer, and who’ll sacrifice anything and everything to be great. Fletcher sees the weakness of arrogance and he pounces, turning Andrew’s life into a bitter hell to see how far his new pupil will bend before he breaks.
14. Regina George (Rachel McAdams) - 'Mean Girls'
There’s a particular nastiness that runs rampant among certain types of teenage girls; an instinct born out of constant comparison — the pressure to claim some mantle, so establish yourself as some “type” of girl — none more coveted than the prettiest and most popular girl in school — and to defend your label from every competing young woman in striking distance. So basically, internalized misogyny. Mean Girls, one of the best and most aptly named teen comedies of all time, takes on that girl-on-girl sabotage and boasts the most vicious, backstabbing and competently cruel Queen Bees this side of Heathers.
Regina George is the girl who has it all but is never satisfied. She’s a beautiful, entitled bully; a walking, talking episode of My Super Sweet 16, except she’s far too smart to ever be so unseemly in public. A hallway Machiavelli, Regina manipulates the culture around her at will, setting arbitrary rules of “cool” behavior and watching trends bend around her like a stone in a stream. The ultimate incarnation of that too-groomed, two-faced person you just know is talking about you behind your back, George is will do whatever it takes to get what she wants. All the time. Mean Girls is smart enough to take Regina seriously, and while she’s a hard garbage person who gets some rough comeuppance at the end, she’s also a woman who knows her worth and won’t settle for less.
13. Lil' Ze (Leandro Firmino) - 'City of God'
Compared to some other molds of villains, Lil’ Ze is fairly simple. He’s a psychopath who loves killing because he is wired to. The proverbial bad seed, Lil’ Ze discovered his taste for blood as a schoolboy, committing acts of violence so heinous that he had to flee his home city until he returned to rule as a young man. When Ze comes back to take the crown, he brings another massacre with him, wiping out the heads of the drug trade so he can assume his long-desired position as king of the City of God. And then his reign of terror begins.
An utter madman who finds joy in causing pain, Lil’ Ze is barely kept in check by his trusted lifelong best friend Benny, and their criminal lifestyle offers him plenty of opportunity to pursue is taste for cruelties. Because there was no innocence in him as a child, he has no value of it in others. Man, woman, or whimpering child, it makes no difference to Ze, who’ll bloody the lot with a grin and a guffaw. Uncommonly cruel, even for the folks on this list, there is no mercy in this poisoned soul, no hope for redemption, only ambition and bloodlust.
12. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) - 'Thor'/'The Avengers'
Loki is the one truly great villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — no doubt why they’ve used him in four films already — and with due respect to his comic book and mythological origins, the credit for the success is overwhelmingly owed to Tom Hiddleston‘s dazzling performance. It certainly didn’t hurt that Loki’s multigenerational grudges and Machiavellian abilities were first introduced under the guidance of Kenneth Branagh, a known scholar of Shakespearean high drama, but it’s Hiddleston who takes on the trickster archetype and transforms it into a dynamic, singular character. In fact, Hiddleston is so charming it’s almost too easy to forget that Loki is such a dick. Remember when he killed Coulson? Not cool.
Power-hungry, entitled, and fueled by years of insecurity, Loki is always in the shadow of his brother and two steps too far from the crown he believes he deserves, He’s got a real case of black sheep syndrome that intensifies rapidly when he learns the truth about his parentage. But he’s also a raw nerve, a surprisingly emotional baddie who’s basically an inferiority complex on legs. All Loki really wants is a lot of love and attention, he’s just the poster child for negative attention-seeking behavior. He’s childish and despite his intelligence he regularly makes rash decisions without thinking through the consequences (sorry, Frigga), but the power of Hiddleston’s hyena-grinning magnetism keep you firmly on his wavelength, even in his worst moments of destructive self-pity.
11. Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae) - 'Oldboy'
Oldboy‘s Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-Tae) is one of those classic villainous masterminds who concocts a revenge plot so overly complicated that would be comical if it didn’t work so damn well. And in the hands of revenge expert Park Chan-wook, he is the driving force behind one of the best revenge tales of all time. He is perhaps the most diabolical character on the list, a man who takes the phrase “the punishment should fit the crime” to its ultimate extreme. Let’s put it this way, fifteen years of insanity-inducing imprisonment is only the first part of the plan, and it’s only when his target Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is released from confinement that the true game of revenge begins.
And that’s where Woo-jin possesses a powerful quality many villains lack — patience. This is a man playing the long game. From the moment of tragedy in his teenage youth, Woo-jin starts accruing power and connections, setting the stage for his vendetta — one that takes a full fifteen years to play out after he puts the wheels in motion (a patience that is particularly perverted and evil once you realize why the wait had to be so long). He wants nothing more than this vengeance. He is clearly brilliant and capable of great achievements, but there is only this one nasty deed and then there is nothing to live for. Driven and deadly, and just as capable of furious outbursts of violence as he is self-restrained patience, Woo-jin takes the phrase “evil mastermind” to the next level.
10. Magneto (Ian McKellen/Michael Fassbender) - 'X-Men'
Magneto is one of the most well-rounded and best developed characters to ever come out of comics, hero or villain. His life has been explored from childhood to old age, and every step along the way has been mined for narrative gold. Concentration camp survivor, Frankenstein’s monster, freedom fighter, terrorist… each new chapter is rich with moral complexity. Basically, he’s a victim of genocide that evolves into a proponent of genocide, which is an insane and outstanding character arc, and you almost understand why. Magneto always stands by his own kind, and he’s genuinely trying to make the world a better place.
That backbone of moral conflict is what makes him one of the most versatile players in the Marvel universe. He can play villain, hero, antihero, and every shade in between because the very DNA of his character is so complex and well-wrought. When Magneto is on screen, you remember that villainy is all a matter of perspective, and even while he espouses the annihilation of one race for the survival of another, you almost root for him. We’ve been lucky to get two first-rate ons-creen incarnations of the character over the last two decades – Ian McKellen, who gives the older Magneto an irresistible charm and the weight of a learned sageness, and Michael Fassbender, who plays him as the raw nerve he was as a young man. Both bring beautiful shades to the character, and equally importantly, to his deep and complicated friendship with Charles Xavier, which has always acted as the central pivot by which X-Men has best demonstrated the fine line between heroism, vigilantism, and terrorism.
9. Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) - 'The Mist'
Any belief as strong as religion has a way of making people do unspeakable things when the right pressures are applied. We’ve seen it play out over the history of the human race in wars, crusades, inquisitions, and terrorist massacres. In Frank Darabont‘s underseen gem The Mist, that plays out in microcosm through the townspeople of a small New England burb (it is a Stephen King tale, after all) who take shelter in the local grocery store when a mysterious and deadly mist rolls in. The situation is already rife with terror and the tensions of small-town gossip and neighborhood disputes, but it’s Marcia Gay Harden‘s Mrs. Carmody, the sanctimonious local bible-thumper, who turns their safe haven into a hellscape of misguided persecution.
Mrs. Carmody is the most despicable type of leader; the kind who preys on the faith and fear of others to further her own agenda. She uses her beliefs as a shield of morality while acting against every basic moral tenet of her faith. She’s self-serving and grandiose without a charitable bone in her body, a public menace who escalates a dire situation to hysterical infighting and violent judgment. On top of that, to be quite crude, she’s such a bitch. Haughty, unkind and disdainful, Mrs. Camody spews venomous barbs at every opportunity and Harden never misses an opportunity to mine her nastiness for scenery-chewing gold. King has written a lot of cataclysmic forces of evil, but it’s his human villains that always shine the brightest and in the hands of a filmmaker like Darabont and an actress like Harden, Mrs. Carmody becomes the real-life nightmare in the midst of a giant bug B-movie.
8. Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) - 'Pan's Labyrinth'
Guillermo del Toro‘s gorgeous fairy tale Pan‘s Labyrinth is filled with creepy mystical creatures and enchanted dangers, but the true force of evil comes from our young heroine’s step-father, Sergei Lopez‘s Captain Vidal. A fascist Spanish Army captain in the Second World War, Vidal is tasked with clearing out and executing the remaining rebels taking shelter in the forests.
He is a man of ideology and strict discipline, a product of military tradition, but he is also indulgent and greedy, thrilled beyond decency by his own success and violently eager to enforce his authority. But above the pedantry of rank and the luxury of success, Vidal is a cruel and sadistic ghoul down to his bones, a man who finds his joy in violence and makes a home there. And he never feels an ounce of remorse for his evils, not because he is outright psychotic, but because he feels justified by his own corrupt morality. There is no poetry in this man, only regiment. A proud misogynist, Vidal is not only an enemy of freedom, but of creativity, he is the rigid, manufactured, clockwork product of unchecked machismo and violent instinct.
7. Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) - 'Harry Potter'
Voldemort Schmoldemort. Not to undersell the terrors of a genocidal ultra-powerful wizard, but most Harry Potter fans will tell you the most vile and downright hatable creature to ever walk the halls of Hogwarts is Dolores Umbridge. Adorned with a taste for sickly sweet things, from fluffy kittens and everything pink, pink, pink, Umbridge is that pathetic sort of power-seeking villain who exploits authority for every ounce of indulgent self-affirmation. She’s a corrosive fog of daily abuse that dulls the morale of our heroes in their already dire circumstances.
A stooge for the ministry of magic, Umbridge is not fighting for good or evil in the grand scheme, but for unwavering obedience and uniformity of belief. As written by J.K. Rowling, Umbridge is hot tempered but cold blooded, exacting vengeance for every perceived slight and act rebellion, especially from Harry, with drastic recourse. As played by Imelda Staunton, she is a pursed-lip priss of a woman with an aspartame sweet voice and an etched grin of superiority that almost never falters. Basically, she’s infuriating. Professor Umbridge is not a dictator, though she fancies herself one; she’s a dictator’s pawn and she’s not even smart to know it.
6. Kyung-Chul (Choi Min-sik) - 'I Saw the Devil'
Villains don’t get much nastier and downright evil than Kyung-chul, Choi Min-Sik’s vicious, irredeemable serial killer who drives the action in Kim Jee-Woon‘s revenge masterpiece, I Saw the Devil. Kyung-chul is a firestorm of violent impulse and excess, leaving a trail of dismembered victims and grieving families in his wake as he murders and rapes his way through the world at whim.
Kyung-chul get’s the thrill of his life when he kills the wrong young woman, invoking the rage of her fiance (Lee Byung-hun) — a skilled detective in whom Kyung-chul finally finds his equal. What follows is the most brutal game of cat-and-mouse you’ve ever seen. Kyung-chul is a constant force of menace, stoking the flames of injustice that smolder in the pit of your stomach as he smirks and strides through every piece of punishment, unfazed by violence and pain. Utterly ambivalent to suffering. Min-sik, the extraordinary Korean actor of Oldboy fame, is the picture of a nightmare as Kyung-Chul, never indulging in excess ticks or easy shortcuts to telegraph his depravity, and never more despicable than he is fascinating to watch.
5. Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) - 'The Gangs of New York'
Played to perfection by the inimitable Daniel Day-Lewis, Bill “The Butcher’ Cutting may be Martin Scorsese‘s finest-wrought villain in a catalogue full of the best in the business. A xenophobic Civil War-era NYC crime boss based on the historical figure William Poole, Bill is vulgar, vile, and utterly an utterly hateful racist who advances his white “America First” agenda through violent political deck-stacking, enforcing his twisted ideals through murder, lynching and streetside warfare. A butcher by trade, Bill is a man with a fondness for cutting flesh an and intimate knowledge of anatomical weak points, both of which he regularly brings to bear on the opponents of his ideology. He’s also violently unpredictable; a bit of a punk. Bill is not an honorable man. He’ll not only stab you in the back, he’ll do it in front of the entire town, without shame, and mock you as he delivers the killing blow. And yet he is an absolute force of charisma on screen, a magnetic focal point that’s impossible to take your eyes off of.
Bill the Butcher is as fascinating a character on paper as he was in life, but Day-Lewis’ performance elevates things to a sublime level. He is simply the best artist in his trade, melting into his characters with a preternatural fluidity, seemingly creating life itself on screen like some kind of performative Dr. Frankenstein. What would look too costume-y on any other actor is inhabited with ease by Day-Lewis, who famously spent months getting into character for the film through his extensive method process. He makes every part of the character his; every tick, every intonation seems to bubble up from gut instinct, and that only makes his base instincts more visceral and terrifying.
4. Amazing Amy (Rosamund Pike) - 'Gone Girl'
[Spoilers for Gone Girl]
The magic act behind Amazing Amy is the way she makes you fall in love with her before she cuts you to pieces. Based on Gillian Flynn‘s scathing thriller of the same name, David Fincher‘s Gone Girl takes the already sharp material and grinds it to a point on his signature bleak, nihilistic leanings. As Amy Dunne, the last woman in the world you want to fuck with, Rosamund Pike is a revelation. Beautiful, polished and poised, Amy is a merciless and exacting woman who finally lets her “cool girl” mask slip, revealing the monster underneath, after she catches her husband cheating. Forget Divorce. Get out of here with alimony. Amy stages her own disappearance and sets out to dismantle his whole fucking life from the ground up by framing him for murder.
Amazing Amy is an evil genius. Calculating and relentless, Amy is rigorous in her pursuit of vengeance, following a meticulously pre-planned schedule so that she’s always two steps ahead and never looking back. And in a rarity for female villains, Amy is afforded a rich psychological profile and an uncompromising killer instinct. She gets to be just as bad as the boys, but her method of evil is distinctly feminine, both in impulse and execution, manipulating stereotype and gender dynamics to paint her husband as a murderer. Amazing Amy is a groundbreaking villain and a frightful force of vengeance, and Pike translates her from page to screen with an instantly iconic performance.
3. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) - 'Inglourious Basterds'
Quentin Tarantino is a modern day master of the screenwriting craft, and while his punchy dialogue tends hog the lion’s share of attention, his characters may be his greatest strength. And his Nazi by way of social climber, Christoph Waltz‘s Hans Landa, is possibly his best character yet, and certainly his best villain. An eager Nazi officer at the peak of the holocaust, Landa takes pride in his earned nickname “The Jew Hunter,” but he isn’t a sneering, moustache-twirling villain. He’s a downright fucked-in-the-head genius, gleeful with toe-tapping anticipation at the thought of catching and exterminating innocents. That is a moral offense so egregious, Waltz need not go farther, but he makes Landa’s mercurial murderous ways chafe even more with a thick layer of superficial geniality and professionalism.
He’s fundamentally repugnant, alarmingly competent at his grisly tasks and ever eager to carry them out with a shark-toothed grin, dancing on the graves of his victims with the music of his own self-satisfaction. But the wonderful Tarantino flourish is that beneath his monstrous acts and macabre talents, he’s also wonderfully pathetic; a conniving, ambitious careerist who believes in nothing but his own gain and mourns nothing but his own discomfort.
2. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) - 'No Country for Old Men'
Life and death are decided in an instant. Chance. Fate. Whatever you call it, the coin lands one way and a man dies. It lands the other and he lives. Death has no sentiment and no remorse. No rhyme or reason other than that’s the way it is and suddenly, that’s the way you die. This is what Anton Chigurh brings to the table. The threat of death or the promise of a new lease on life, depending on which way the wind blows. He simply just is, a force of nature, and he leaves bodies wherever he happens to be. Chigurh is violence’s random nature incarnate. And he’s fucking terrifying.
Chigurh is so effective because he is consummately defined by his beliefs, but those beliefs are impossible to fully grasp. He’s a deadly idea, abiding by a code, but not one you can easily put into words. In Joel and Ethan Coen‘s Best Picture-winning No Country for Old Men, Javier Bardem‘s Anton Chigurh is walking death, a hitman hired to retrieve a bag containing millions of dollars after a drug deal gone wrong. Dispassionate and unmoved by anything but the perceived hand of fate, Chigurh is inscrutable, and in an Oscar-winning turn, Bardem makes him unknowable, from his strange dialect and stilted speech patterns to his almost lethargic gait — a slasher killer transplanted into a prestige drama. Indeed, Anton Chigurh is the scariest bad guy this side of a horror movie.
1. The Joker (Heath Ledger) - 'The Dark Knight'
What Heath Ledger achieved as The Joker in Christopher Nolan‘s The Dark Knight is the kind of cinematic sorcery that makes people fall in love with movies. Legder, whose casting was famously maligned when it was first announced, delivered a performance that the word “iconic” was invented for, reimagining Batman’s most famous nemesis into a real-world force of chaotic terror. Ledger’s Joker never abandoned the character’s integral flamboyance and theatricality, but he twists those characteristics into perverse manifestations with violent punchlines. He makes the Joker not only thrilling but genuinely frightening.
There’s an electric unpredictability to Ledger’s Joker. He’s so volatile and unrestrained, you could almost see him shattering through the screen to come terrorize your home. That space where the audience believes anything happen is where you find the magic, and Nolan and Ledger exploit it for everything it’s worth. They understand the character in a way few other have — ultimately a terrorist and a psychopath. Likeable and charismatic, but a terrorist and a psychopath. By translating him through that filter, Ledger and Nolan turn the Clown Prince of Crime into a genuine threat; a livewire, liable to blow at any moment, but never in the way that you expect.