5. Bane (The Dark Knight Rises)
This is probably the worst movie on this list, but it still manages to stand as a good movie. Just one that disappoints on many different levels. It couldn’t help but do so, coming on the heels of one of the best movies ever made. But in one regard, it doesn’t disappoint. Tom Hardy comes in and kills it as Bane, delivering one of the best villains in the game. The choices he makes are great, but they are choices one wouldn’t expect. They’re big choices. That big and decidedly unfitting voice he puts on is great. On its face it seems bad, but in context with the big and hulking presence he has, it works.
It’s the dichotomy of the thing. His voice is calm and collected, but those eyes of his are filled with rage. He’s a bomb waiting to explode. We get little bursts of his power and brutality in the first half of the movie, but we don’t really understand how much of a threat he is until he takes down Batman with ease.
It’s a rampage. But what’s even more scary about him is how he is able to rally Gotham to his side. He takes on the fears and issues of the time, of class and wealth inequality (still relevant, btw). Taking the city by force may seem like a movie designed to get people to not side with you, but his systematic take down of the Gotham elite and revealing their hypocrisy/corruption easily turns them to his side. So much so that most of the city seems to be all in on this revolution.
Bane is a man with smarts, albeit not as smart as he could have been thanks to the Talia Al Ghul revelation taking away a lot of his success. But that’s neither here nor there. Bane is a terrifying presence, a hulking beast of a man that is equal parts brains and brawn. He can tear you apart while quoting some terroristic line of nonsense while sounding like a quirky British professor.
4. Ego the Living Planet (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2)
Marvel has a villain problem. This is mentioned before, but it needs repeating. It goes beyond being an issue of writing or performance. There’s this feeling that the movies have been rejiggered to take out as much of the villain as possible to feel a bit safer. Even the first “Guardians” had this issue. But with all the confidence of the success that first one brought him as well as the confidence of Kevin Feige, James Gunn came out and delivered an even better entry that betters every element here (except for Pratt, who has seemingly regressed talentwise in many respects).
That goes doubly for the villain, as Ego is a captivating and surprising villain. He isn’t played as a villain at first, but as time goes on things feel a little bit off. More and more this feeling rises until Ego reveals his ultimate goal and he becomes the best villain in the MCU out of sheer scale of his monstrousness.
It’s not very subtle to have a villain named Ego whose primary motivation is his ego fueling his motives to eradicate anything lesser than him so he can occupy more space in the galaxy. A man whose ego allowed him to create life all over the galaxy and sees nothing worthy in that. His children mean nothing to him if they can’t further his needs. He’s a God and he’s all-powerful on his planet.
This whole package is masterfully portrayed by Kurt Russell, he himself a living legend who has made an entire career out of playing against his Hollywood good looks. The charisma oozes off of him and we want to like him.
We convince ourselves that nothing is wrong. But at a certain point we can’t ignore it anymore and he doesn’t even try to hide it. And the topper? It all works thematically in the movie, a movie about everyone being unable to let go of their issues regarding their creators. So to have the bad guy be the living incarnation of bad creators is a sly piece of work from Gunn. It all may seem unsubtle, but it’s packaged in such a bright and poppy exterior that people seem to ignore it. Ego is great and the other two Marvel movies in 2017 have proven that Ego was the exception and not a course correction.
3. Doc Ock (Spider-Man 2)
The Raimi Spider-Man movies made sure to go out of their way to personally tie the villains to Peter Parker. No random bad guy that Spidey needs to stop just because, thematically relevant or otherwise. It’s always someone tied to Parker. Green Goblin is the father of his best friend, which leads to hijinx thanks to a misunderstanding regarding the Goblin’s death. Sandman turns out to be Uncle Ben’s real killer. Venom is a colleague that Parker screws out of work. But the best of the bunch, the one that works on every level is Doc Ock in “Spider-Man 2.”
The second film is still the best Spider-Man movie and one of the best comic movies to this day. Raimi just clicked on this one and it all came together. Getting a classic actor like Alfred Molina to bring life to this tragic figure and make him threatening, while also getting to the broken core of the man, is wonderful.
You get to know him and by the time he’s in full-on bad guy mode, you care about the outcome of the fights. Raimi’s perfection in the director’s chair helps to take full advantage of the power set for Ock, and his return to work on Spidey helped him understand better how to portray him, so you get some truly amazing action work.
Ock feels like Ock. His motivations work. His connection to Parker works and never feels hamfisted. He has a plot-based reason for being in the movie, unlike Goblin or Sandman/Venom. Spider-Man and the MCU have been trying to top the work in this movie, with each villain worse than the next (minus Vulture who is just okay). So while they may have gotten a better Parker/Spider-Man recently, Doc Ock is hard to beat.
2. Magneto (The X-Men Series)
In the discussion of comic book villains, Magneto is always in the running for best villain. It’s always him or Joker in the number one spot. And for good reason. Magneto is right. It’s a hard thing to say, but he’s right. People always like to say that he is Malcolm X to Xavier’s MLK, but that’s a bit reductive and kind of insulting to Malcolm.
For one, Malcolm would never slaughter innocents to protect his own. He was never a supervillain. But one can’t help but understand why the comparison is made. Magneto’s deep cynicism regarding the human race’s capacity for tolerance is proven right. Time and time again, he is right. Xavier may want to hold on to hope, but Magneto is there to keep Xavier on his toes. The comparison also doesn’t work on a 1-1 level because they differentiate the level of connection that each man has to the fight.
Whereas Malcolm and MLK come from the same place of being black men in a horrible time for black men, Magneto and Xavier don’t share the same background. The smartest move made with Magneto was to make him a Holocaust survivor. He has seen the darkest parts of humanity and will do anything to see that it doesn’t happen again. But it’s that drive that turns him into the monsters he grew up with. He espouses a master race ethos in the mutant vs. human debate.
All of this is brought to life with perfection in the X-Men series, a series that hasn’t been consistent in its depiction of its characters. But Magneto has been done right with two actors now. They just get him. From the full-on villain he is in the first one to the begrudging ally in “X2” to the sympathetic but ultimately broken man he is in the Fassbender entries, Magneto is electrifying to watch. An all-timer villain is done justice on the screen.
1. The Joker (The Dark Knight)
When it comes to comic characters being brought to the big screen, there’s an interesting balancing act when it comes to the faithfulness of the translation. How much do they look like their characters, how closely do they hew to their background and motivations. For a long time there was an imbalance, as studios seemed embarrassed to go full-on comic with this stuff. Always trying to balance the scales by having a comic book hero and de comic-ing the villains.
The Joker falls in this middle ground where he feels exactly like the comic character even though Nolan does his best to make him feel real. His look isn’t exactly like the character, although he looks like the Joker without question. White face, green hair, red smile. But he’s grimier and looks like he smells. Disheveled as all hell. But it’s the soul (or in Joker’s case, lack thereof) that makes this sing.
Joker is chaos incarnate. He was born from the depths of hell when Batman came to Gotham and he only has one mission: mess with the Bat. Use and destroy whatever he can to do so. Turn the Bat’s city into a warzone, kill his loved ones, and turn his hero into a villain. He has a way out of every situation, taking every variable into account. For a man who claims to be winging it, he knows what he’s doing. We know nothing about him, getting two different explanations for his facial scars as a means to screw with his victims.
It’s a far cry from the over-explained Joker in 1989’s “Batman.” He’s a giant question mark. And in the end? He wins. He beats the Bat. Joker has so many cards on the table that Batman thinks he wins by stopping one problem, but there was the whole Two-Face issue going on behind the scenes. He is the smartest, scariest and most downright capable villain to ever grace a comic movie. Hell, he may be the best villain in any movie, period. The Joker is elemental and there are layers to his evil. No need to humanize or understand. The only thing to do is fear him.