Everyone has their opinion about what makes a great villain. My personal opinion is that the greatest villains are the most perfectly set up to exploit the lead character's flaw. (This is what makes Iago so effective against Othello.) But when it comes to the great villains of cinema, they each seem to exhibit something unique. When I decided to write this article, I decided to cross-reference many "Greatest Villain" lists and see which five characters showed up most consistently at the top of these lists. Then, I curated the top 5 greatest movie villains of all time.
If you are interested, here are the lists I used:
After narrowing it down to five, I explored each character. I tried to identify what was unique about these villains and why they consistently rank high among many other great antagonists. These are my findings in no particular order.
USA Today: 45
From No Country For Old Men, Anton Chigurh is effective as an antagonist because of his ability. He seems to be an unstoppable force, more intelligent than anyone he goes against. He functions almost like a grim reaper. But I believe that the true genius of this character is his specificity.
The oddities that surround Anton Chigurh (the haircut, the cattle gun, the accent) make up a human that is so uncanny; he becomes nearly inhuman. And yet, idiosyncrasies are what make us up as individuals, and so he's a very real human. And that's scary.
USA Today: n/a
Norman Bates, from Psycho, is so terrifying because we can never truly understand him. While the term "psycho" isn't precisely clinical, the idea of someone whose brain works fundamentally different than ours is scary because it is a person that cannot be reasoned with. It's why zombies or The Terminator are effective antagonists.
But what makes Norman Bates particularly horrifying is that he presents as a human. He perfectly encapsulates both human and monster, essential for any horror film.
USA Today: 5
From The Silence of the Lambs (and its sequels, prequels, etc.), Hannibal Lecter is one of the most compelling antagonists despite being behind bars most of the film. Part of this character's "charm" is his ability to understand Clarice Starling's fear and exploit it. He's a psychological villain for the majority of the film (until his escape, where the audience truly sees how depraved he can be.)
Even though he doesn't directly oppose the main character, he undermines her confidence simply because he can. (And most of these are done through monologues, an essential staple of any screen villain.)
USA Today: 2
The Joker, specifically from The Dark Knight, is the type of antagonist with a clear goal and is only opposed to the lead character by the lead character fighting them. To understand The Joker's motivations is to see that Batman is an obstacle to his goal, not an end himself.
The Joker's unwavering devotion to his personal cause makes him formidable, particularly in the way that despite his belief in chaos, he's able to orchestrate several carefully laid plans. He might be the perfect modern movie villain.
USA Today: 1
From A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader consistently showed up on the lists.
An interesting detail is that he's not particularly effective in terms of his goals. Relative to other movie villains, he's not particularly cruel. And he's not exactly a great foil for Luke. So what makes him loom so prominent in the audience's memory?
My theory is that it's a combination of his screen presence (a combo of the figure of the impressive David Prowse and the booming voice of James Earl Jones) along with his tragic backstory and ultimate redemption.
He's a villain that becomes more complex the more we learn about him, and the fear of the unknown that surrounds his character in A New Hope slowly gives way to a deeply flawed father figure that barely redeems himself at the end of his life in Return of the Jedi. So while I disagree that he's the greatest villain of all time, I will concede that he has one of the most affecting character arcs of all time.
There are so many great antagonists, and it wasn't easy to use these lists to narrow down what I perceived as the top 5 greatest movie villains of all time. And this is strictly limiting my search to films, so villains from books and television and video games aren't present at all.
When creating your villains, look to the antagonists. You felt that you were the scariest, the worst, the most effective, the most charming, etc. That can give you clues as to what villainistic qualities are going to be best for you. Do a deep dive on those characters, try to figure out what makes them tick, and then replicate your twists and ideas.
One character that barely didn't make this list here, but showed up on many, was Hans Landa from Inglorious Basterds. He's probably the most memorable antagonist in recent years (along with Anton Chigurh.)
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