Greatest Movie (and TV) Villains...well...some of them
There is nothing like a good villain. So many of the movies seen on the big (and small) screen are defined by the bad guys that inhabit them. We asked some of our staff to give us their picks for greatest movie (someone cheated and gave us a TV villain...cough, cough...El Capitan!) villains of all time.
Please note: Our Warpath is not saying you should or should not watch any of these films but rather staff members are debating what makes a character the greatest villain. Some of the films cited may have content that might not be appreciated by all audiences.
Darth Vader: Star Wars (1977 - End of the world)
He is more machine than man. Vader is the true villain — Anakin Skywalker fallen from grace. He is the promise of redemption cut off abruptly, like a flower just blooming before the first frost. But unlike the shriveled flower, the destruction of Anakin forges a new and powerful beast.
Wise as he is strong, he is aided by supernatural ability through the Force and his mind has been formed into a cold and dark citadel by the loss of his love. The love and hate expressed by Darth Vader are the two most vibrant pieces of his character. They make him a true and remarkable villain while also being a total and substantial hero.
Love has been his downfall. False — unwieldy love controlled only by feelings and not by his true heart has been his downfall. This love made him betray everything he believed in — his order, society, and his greatest friend — in exchange for power to save his wife.
And yet his greatest ally and the source of his unrelenting, untameable strength that burned like a nova in the stars was his hatred. The hatred he bore himself for not saving his love, Padme, the hatred he bore his evil master for his own constant torment, and the hatred he bore the order that raised him and trained him. He was a general and a soldier, a dark priest and a devotee, a marshall of cold terror and a doer of his lord's will.
Darth Vader had all the power of the stars’ fire in his heart. He destroyed temples and laid waste to cities. There was no man that crept out of the slime of the earth whose heart could remain so unmoved in the midst of his own carnage and death. He is the confined villain, enclosed in his own metal hell.
He is the destroyer of worlds and the revenge of the Sith. But beneath his opaque helmet, inside the torn and burnt body, his soul aches with a wretched love. That face haunts and taunts all at once. Her soft cheeks and strong eyes command his love, but this love sears when awakened. So looking through his reddened, mechanical lenses, with every crack of bones from his choking hold and every hack of his saber through melting flesh, his pain is numbed and his wretched love subsides.
More machine than man — perhaps not. He is the god of death and life. The savior and the saved. He is Vader, the dark and imperial prince.
Hans Gruber: Die Hard (1988)
So my reasoning is simple...the greatest villain must be the one who fights against the greatest hero of all time. Greatest hero is the one and only John freaking McClane so therefore the greatest villain...Hans Gruber. It would be an honor to die at the hands of Bruce Willis in any movie but the German Die Hard villain takes the cake. Yippie-Ki-Yay!
Walter White: Breaking Bad (2008 - 2013)
Walter White is truly the greatest villain of all time (after you get past seeing him constantly in a pair of gross whitey tighties). If you don’t know who I’m talking about, I dare say that you’ve never seen a true villain at work.
We have seen through our lives so many villains but I think they are mostly the same. Like if you’ve watched the 12 Star Wars movies, then you’ve seen the same, unrealistic villain 12 times, each time with a new name and look.
The genius of Walter White’s villainy is his realistic nature. He’s a desperate chemistry teacher, trying to support his family, living paycheck to paycheck. When he’s diagnosed with cancer and has a year to live, fearful that he will leave his family in pools of debt, he turns to the only thing he knows - chemistry. But his chemistry is the science of cooking meth.
The character development of Walter White is intense, dark, deep, and real. You see a man compromise his beliefs to build one of the largest meth empires. You see a man transformed into a monster — all for his family.
Walter White is the greatest villain of all time because he is unlike most villains we come across whom we simply watch from afar. With Walter White, we are on the journey beside him. In his excitement, dilemmas, passions, fears, and justifications, we are with him.
He takes us down every dark and cold crevice. We become attached to Walter White, and there comes a point in time when we must make an important decision — do we remain our virtuous selves and hate Walter for what he is doing, or do we support him and turn into a monster ourselves?
This is a real villain, who takes you on his hell of a journey that no Star Wars villain can take you on.
Anton Chigurh: No Country For Old Men (2007)
“He’s a peculiar man. You might even say he has principles. Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that. He’s not like you.”
Anton Chigurh is fascinating to me because he is unfeeling and unreadable. He carries out his work in a ruthless and efficient manner, acting with an eerie calm found only in those who truly believe in their cause or who truly believe in nothing at all. However, he behaves according to a code based on the dictates of Fate. He believes that Fate is the governing power in nature, and he views himself as an instrument of Fate.
His devotion to Fate is demonstrated most clearly in his tendency to show “clemency” by using a coin toss to determine his course of action, namely whether or not to kill his would-be victims. Usually however, he is not inclined to grant opportunity and acts with the precise, decisive hand of Fate.
But the greatest appeal of Anton Chigurh is that he is a villain who wins. It is rare to find a villain who is triumphant at the end of the story, especially one as confusing and unlikeable as Chigurh. He is confident in himself and acts with impunity, making serial murder, while avoiding the law, look like child’s play. Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, Chigurh emerges triumphant, while his target, a man named Llewelyn, is left dead in a motel.
And in a twisted sense of justice and honor, Chigurh finds Llewelyn’s wife and, after offering her the fate of the coin, kills her in order to fulfill a promise he made to Llewelyn. His principles come to light here as he honors his code of conduct while respecting what he believes to be Fate, and once his work is finished, he simply vanishes until he wishes to be heard of again. He is in control.
John Doe: Seven (1995)
What makes a villain great? Should we call them great, or should we say infamous? It’s debatable depending on your perspective, but certainly a great villain possesses skill.
The skills portrayed by John Doe (Kevin Spacey) in the psychological thriller Seven reveal the genuinely unnerving psychopathy of the film's primary antagonist. John Doe is a serial killer, but his modus operandi is what sets him apart.
Driven by what he purports is a righteous indignation against sinners, he justifies his disturbing punishments by claiming that he is called by God. Indeed, it is the poignantly religious aspects which are paramount in his methods.
John Doe punishes his victims by making them suffer death at the hands of their own predominant sin. The movie's title reveals this primary motif which comprises seven victims for the seven deadly sins. The preparation and precision which Doe displays in his terrible work is astounding, and the vicious nature of the deaths parallel the grotesque quality of sin. In a sense, his work is poetic and assuredly ironic.
The first man dies after being strapped to a chair and eating so much that he destroys his body. Gluttony was his sin. Another man is completely emaciated and on the precipice of expiring as he is strapped to a bed representing sloth. The list goes on, but the ending is what blows viewers away.
John Doe turns himself in, claiming to show detectives Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) where the last 2 victims are. He directs them to a desert area and has a box delivered to them. The box contains the head of Mills's wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) who was pregnant when he murdered her. Doe claims to have done this out of Envy, and his punishment is now to die at the hands of Mills. Detective Mills struggles, but shoots Doe in the head, disturbingly bringing Doe’s plan to its culmination...Mills represents Wrath.
HAL 9000: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
There are so many great villains in film history. So many that have struck a chord of fear or terror or just disgust. But the one villain that still puzzles me and impacts me more than any other is HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
HAL is a computer on a spacecraft headed for Jupiter for some reason unknown to the crew onboard. He is a realistic example of artificial intelligence full of subtleties and sober emotion. There is nothing exaggerated in his antics like so many of our villains that are simply caricatures of evil. He is real to us. And this is the first attribute that makes him so effective as a villain.
HAL is also terrifying. Normally our villains are humans that can change and be reasoned with. But HAL is a computer. Everything is a cold calculation. There is no deterring him from what he has decided needs to happen. And that is the most horrifying evil to encounter- an evil where you have no chance at changing. His mind is not just made but is, by its nature, impossible to change and all you can do is hope that you survive the onslaught. Even when HAL is being shut down (which is a scene that you must see before you die!) you are still on the edge of your seat terrified and wondering if even then he might win out.
Unlike so many of our villains today, HAL is complex and puzzling. He believes that his actions are necessary in order for him to complete his mission, to be what he was designed to be. He does not believe himself to be evil, but those around him certainly do. And this is one of the most intriguing concepts that a villain could present to the audience.
HAL is not faulty. He is not broken, twisted or deranged. Most of our villains are evil through and through or are in error. They might still have good in them or might convert in the end but no villain is accomplishing exactly what he was created to do and at the same time is the instrument of death and evil around him.
Can HAL be evil if he does not know the difference between good and bad? Is he evil just because he is acting poorly or is evil something only possible in someone with intelligence? Does he have intelligence? Is it possible for a computer to one day think as we do? Or if not, can they come so close to us in intelligence, that they should be culpable for any bad act that is committed by them?
So many questions come up when watching HAL accomplish his work and to me that is what a great villain does. Not only should they work against the protagonists in the film, but they should challenge us in the audience to question the things around us.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Has there ever been a more effective villain than Hannibal Lecter? Dr. Lecter spends about 15 minutes on screen but you feel like he is present in every scene because of his marking character. The moment you first see Hannibal, a shiver runs down your spine as he sizes up Jodie Foster’s character and the audience at the same time. His snakelike quality is unnerving right from the start and makes you unsure at every moment.
Hannibal is not the strongest villain you will ever see but I am sure that he is the smartest. Every line comes from a brilliant mind that can run circles around you until this good old cannibal doctor has you right where he wants you. He is a genius monster always in control — and that is what is most terrifying about Dr. Lecter.
He is always ten steps ahead of everyone else. Everyone’s his chess piece. There is nothing more unsettling than being a pawn in someone else’s master plan...besides being on the menu with some fava beans and a nice chianti.
He is a genius who will destroy you in a game of wits if you challenge him, but also a monster whose masterplan may very well be to play cat and mouse with you until you’re found and made his evening meal. Hands down, Dr. Lecter.
Bonnie Parker: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
What makes one villain worse than another? How can we measure evil? I think that a villain, like a hero, is greater the more he veers from the path expected of him. This may be why we feel differently about women doing something consciously cruel — because if we expect anything of them, it is that they be nurturing. The female villain is a reminder of what is horribly possible.
Bonnie Parker was one half of the infamous duo Bonnie and Clyde. She grew up as a pretty normal girl in Texas in the 1920’s and when she was 19 she met the ex-con Clyde. Apparently the attraction was immediate but cut short when he was imprisoned two weeks later. She smuggled him a gun in jail and from there they began their two year crime spree, terrorizing the southern states in stolen cars, murdering, robbing, freeing prisoners and capturing cops.
Bonnie is an embodiment of all that is unnatural in a woman and she is so terrifying because there is no understandable motive such as jealousy or greed or some provocation. Her choice of the criminal life just doesn't make sense. We can try and see a motive of love but it is clear she wasn't wicked for Clyde — she was wicked for herself. She could have followed him without actively initiating and participating in his crimes but she was gladly up front and center as an enabler and encourager at the one hundred or more felonies the Barrow gang committed.
Bonnie wrote poetry which lets us see into her heart a little:
“Even Helen of Troy would look seedy/If she followed the pace that I went.”
She knew beauty, she knew the ideal, and she was proud that she was nothing like it. It would be a comfortable explanation to write her off as ignorant or mad, but we can’t. We’re left with no explanation for her deliberate criminality.
Unlike almost all villains who are deluded with visions of success, Bonnie knew she wouldn’t win. She was totally hopeless and desperate. This might be the cherry on top — she didn’t even have a cause or an end goal. All this evil for what?
“Some day they’ll go down together,
They’ll bury them side by side.
To few it’ll be grief,
To the law a relief
But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.”