When it comes to the superhero movie thing, villains are the fuel that keeps them burning bright. The best superhero movies tend to have a great villain at the center. Sometimes a great villains can be stuck in a mediocre movie, or a great movie can have a mediocre villain. It tends to be rare when those cases happen, as a blockbuster comic book movie needs a villain that works well enough to make these typically apocalyptic narratives work.
As we reach the end of 2017’s output of superhero cinema with “Justice League” arriving soon, it seems like as good a time as any to take a look back at some of the best villains in the game.
10. Valentine (Kingsman: The Secret Service)
James Bond is a superhero. There are no capes or tights involved in the Bond series (for the most part), but it’s a super hero series if there ever was one. So Matthew Vaughn taking on a project based on a comic that is a supremely over-the-top riff/satire of the James Bond mold is going to steer even more into the superhero frame. And much like the best straight-up superhero movies, Bond and his ilk work best when they got a great villain to bounce off of. And this riff on Bond has a great villain in Valentine.
What makes Valentine work is that he isn’t outwardly villainous in his look or in his demeanor. He doesn’t scream villain. There’s also the fact that he isn’t completely in the wrong. The world is dealing with a severe population and global warming crisis. Something does need to be done. But it’s in the way that he goes about achieving his goals that is some supervillain crap.
Creating tech that is going to be funneled into the middle to lower classes to make them wipe each other out in a rage-induced fury is something else. His self-righteous insistence is the truest sign of his villainy. He doesn’t see the immorality of what he’s doing and the suffering that is caused at his hands.
For a man who physically can’t stand the sight of blood, he is sure willing to spill a lot of it. He’s a man who knows his limitations but is sure of his plan. He’s got a kickass henchwoman in Sofia Boutella’s knife-legged assassin. He’s got the money and the lair. This is top tier superhero villainy in the most overtly superhero inspired Bond-esque movie.
9. The Abomination (The Incredible Hulk)
This is gonna be a bit controversial, but screw it. The MCU has a real villain problem, in that most of their movies don’t have any really worthwhile villains to fuel their plots. They tend to be bland pieces of production design with rote motivations that barely justify their feuds with the heroes. They never really stand up as real threats to the heroes either. But in the redheaded stepchild of the MCU, that problem doesn’t really exist. It gets around those issues and delivers a villain that is thematically relevant and is worked into the plot naturally, giving the Hulk a real threat.
Emil Blonsky is a born-to-kill soldier, a man designed to go to war. But age has rendered him less of a threat than he believes he should be. Finding out that there’s a beast out there accidentally created by a super-solider experiment is all he needs to go on an obsessive quest to capture and harness that beast’s’ power.
He takes an untested version of that serum and starts to lose it more and more until he finally has Banner in his grip, and uses his blood to finally become war incarnate in the monstrous Abomination. He purposefully goes on a journey to become Hulk, but gives up everything that makes Hulk the Hulk. He will always be Abomination from here on out, no changing back.
Within this form, he is conscious, but that consciousness is mad and dedicated to chaos. The Hulk may be formless in the mind and outwardly looking like a mad dog, but he has Banner in there somewhere so he can be aimed in a good direction. There’s heroism in Banner, none of which is present in Blonsky by the end. The dark flipside of Banner and his journey to control the Hulk is Abomination is capable of going toe to toe with Hulk. This is a good villain in a criminally undervalued movie.
8. General Zod (Man of Steel)
Get mad again, as a Zack Snyder movie will be defended here. After years of complaining that the last Superman movie (“Superman Returns”) didn’t have Superman throwing a single punch, Snyder delivers a movie with a second half that is essentially one long ass action scene where Superman throws down with aliens nonstop.
The head of those alien bad guys is General Zod and he is a real issue for Supes. On his first day on the job, he has to fight a genetically modified super soldier from another planet with the same exact power set as him. So Superman is on his heels for the vast majority of that fight. When he finally gets the upper hand on Zod, he has to make a quick decision to save lives and it’s not the ideal one. It’s the choice that forces Superman to do better than he has done and save lives no matter what.
But a villain that helps sell a massively destructive super fight isn’t all that makes a good villain. It’s that he is a massive threat to the world and to Superman’s beliefs. He’s genocidal, but he isn’t a madman. There are no delusions of grandeur. It’s a single-minded drive to resurrect his people. No one else matters.
In a universe where Superman is the only Kryptonian not created to be something, it only makes sense for him to have to fight someone that is made to be what he is. Superman chooses to be good. He can’t be anything else, despite that fact that it could be easy to be a bad guy. Zod is what he is and can’t change. Not to mention that by the end of the movie, Zod is the last remnant of Superman’s past life. He is his final test to choose what he calls home.
In a fight for Earth’s future or Krypton’s past, Superman chooses Earth and severs the ties that bind. Zod is a tragic villain in his Terminator-like ways. Watching him realize he can’t bring Krypton back is kind of sad. Understanding where a villain is coming from helps to make a villain memorable. We get Zod. He’s really bad. But we get him. And seriously, his fight with Superman is the first (and still best?) cinematic example of what a super fight would look like.
7. The Penguin (Batman Returns)
A common trait with the villains on this list is that they are dark inverses of the heroes they do battle with. Penguin is another winner in that regard, as he is really a vile inverse of Batman. Just a gross little roly-poly flip side to the Bat. He was abandoned as a child by his mega-rich parents and raised by penguins to become a physical manifestation of them.
Now a grown man, he puts on a mask of respectability to become a self-proclaimed hero to Gotham while really being a heinous cretin looking to do damage to the city that turned him into a freak. He captures the attention of Gotham by putting on a good image, a damaged little boy looking to do good. He turns Gotham against Batman, since Batman is a mystery to the city. But when push comes to shove, Batman easily turns the tide and reveals Penguin for the creep he really is.
Once this comes to pass, Penguin is no longer a real threat. He tries for a biblically inspired piece of revenge against the city, but it’s no rough thing for the Bat. Nor is he a physical threat. Batman handles that pudgy little prick with ease. What makes him a great villain is using their differences to play Gotham against Batman. It’s a pretty ingenious ploy, one made even more ingenious in a world where we have our own little spoiled rich boy in the highest office in the land.
6. Loki (Thor/The Avengers)
The trickster incarnate. He could have been a really difficult character to bring to life, as an actor would need to be able to play smart and smarmy and cagey and smug and villainous and pitiable. Loki is a character made up of smarts, even though he has enough physical strengths to put up a decent fight against his more brutish brother.
He’s Machiavellian in his movies, pitting people and their insecurities against each other. Playing the good guy while working behind the scenes to get what he wants. To what end? Why is he doing this? We get the hints that he’s been a troublemaker his whole life, sowing discord wherever he goes simply because he can. But you also get the sense that there’s a real middle child thing going on with him, as his massive jealousy of Odin’s treatment of Thor helps to fuel his actions. It’s a Napoleon complex, essentially. But there’s no real easy answer to this, as we get layers to him.
There’s some good in him, but he can’t help himself. He’s chaos incarnate, a direct refutation to Thor, who is being bred to be a forbearer for order. So by the time we get to “The Avengers” and he’s doing the bidding of Thanos to take over the Earth, Loki has pretty much descended into pure chaos. Just looking for power where he can get it. He’s not as chaotic as someone like the Joker, but he’s not as defined in his villainy as a Zod. The grey areas in Loki make him pretty fascinating.