Every great hero is defined by his nemesis. A true villain is not only characterized by his own evilness, but often he also has a direct link with the protagonist. In other cases, the villain is an independent force who goes his own way and simply finds the hero on his path.
The genres with the clearest hero/villain dynamics are action movies, superhero films, and crime stories. There is no cinematic Batman without a Joker, as there is no detective without a criminal to catch. As we will see, though, there are very different types of villains, many of which are found in very different types of movies.
This list puts the stress on the cleverness of the villains: cinematic conflicts become special when the antagonist is not only evil, but also presents the traits of a capable or even genius person. It is not a coincidence that many names on this list are those of iconic and well known characters.
As a final warning, in order to best explain the villains’ motivations and schemes, the entries will have spoilers.
15. Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men)
Before the release of “The Dark Knight,” the title for most iconic villain in a 21st century movie had to go to Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem. He instantly became recognizable for the contrast between his almost comical hairdo and his horrendous actions. Chigurh is an hitman, and little else is known about him. What is certain is the absolute coldness that pervades him, even when he decides the fate of his victims with a coin toss.
The concept of “Unstoppable Evil” can be found in many novels by Cormac McCarthy, the author of “No Country for Old Men,” and Chigurh is certainly a good example of it. With a mission to accomplish, he stops at nothing and proves to be relentless and adaptive. Only an unexpected and completely casual accident stops him near the end of the film, an ironic twist from McCarthy’s novel that the Coens must have appreciated.
14. Vincent (Collateral)
“Collateral” (2004) was one of the first films by Michael Mann in which he experimented with digital cameras, a trait that became more and more relevant in the legendary director’s filmography.
Aside from this technical point, the film is mainly notable for its tight plot and the performance of the two main actors, Jamie Foxx as a timid taxi driver, and Tom Cruise as the ruthless gun-for-hire known only as Vincent. The two meet on a fateful night, when Vincent has a multiple killing job to do, and he hires the taxi driver to drive him around Los Angeles.
Vincent is depicted as a man who is pure method; his modus operandi has him perfectly organized and ready to react to any situation. Not much is revealed about his personal life, but he is clearly a professional. At one point, he launches into a nihilistic tirade aimed at freeing Foxx’s character of his doubts.
It is ironic that Vincent’s ultimate demise comes from the taxi driver himself, who in the few hours that have passed seems to have taken a page or two from Vincent’s book. Killed by his own philosophy.
13. Hans Gruber (Die Hard)
It is argued sometimes that the definitive Christmas movie is not one involving Santa Claus, or the meaning of Christmas, or something of the sort: the real Christmas movie from American culture may actually be “Die Hard.” This point, even if it is a joke, proves the ultimate cult status of the movie, and the penetration it has had into the collective memory.
The villain of the movie has consequently gained his own popularity: we are talking about Hans Gruber, played by Alan Rickman, who would go on to leave a mark in more recent cinema as another type of villain, Professor Snape.
Gruber is the head of the group of terrorists that take control of the building where John McClane is. Not only he has planned the elaborate heist, but he also shows great skill in adapting the plan to the new situations that develop in the moment. During the 1980s, and even after, Gruber became the main reference when it came to the action movie villain.
12. Howard Payne (Speed)
Howard Payne was portrayed by Dennis Hopper in the surprise hit “Speed” (1994). He describes himself as “eccentric,” and he certainly is a complex figure. Formerly a bomb squad officer, he turns to criminality once a work incident makes him unable to continue being a bomb defuser. He uses his vast knowledge to get rich, while showing his true, ruthless nature.
Payne kills whoever is necessary in order to get what he wants, and his hatred toward Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) is fueled by the fact he ruined one of his plans. The intricacy of his criminal actions prove that behind his monstrous disregard for human life there are traces of true genius. It is fitting for his last words to be “I’m smarter than you,” even if this fact doesn’t stop his inevitable death.
11. Raoul Silva (Skyfall)
Javier Bardem gave us the most memorable James Bond villain of the Daniel Craig era. He is at the same time an homage to the classic Bond antagonist, a mirror figure to Bond himself, and an original, modern version of the classic villains of the series.
Partially inspired by the Dark Knight’s Joker (they both organize elaborate plans to create terror in the city, and at one point they both intentionally get caught), Silva is a former spy who knows how to act in a field operation. However, he is also a technological genius, proving that sometimes the real threat sits behind a screen. He feels more grounded in reality than many Bond villains of the past, and his intelligence only enhances the threat he poses to Bond, M, and the whole MI6.
10. Emperor Palpatine (The Empire Strikes Back)
The most famous villain in the original Star Wars trilogy is certainly Darth Vader, but the leader of the evil Empire, Palpatine, is the real mastermind the Rebels have to defeat. The prequel trilogy reveals how he came to power, through an elaborate scheme that ultimately puts him in control of the Senate and gives him the power to rule the entire galaxy.
The prequels go into detail about his ideology and motivations, while in the original trilogy he is much more of a ominous figure who pulls the strings from the dark. Combining the six films, we get the picture of an individual of extreme power, both in his use of the force and his ability to control and sway enemies and allies.
9. John Kramer (Saw)
Horror cinema is defined by the character of the killer. Sometimes he is a relentless killing machine, à la Michael Myers in “Halloween,” and other times he is a calculating monster with seemingly infinite tricks up his sleeve to torture and finish off his victims.
No character in recent cinema history fits this last type better than the Jigsaw Killer, portrayed by Tobin Bell. His main trait is the cleverness he employs for the torture machines he creates for his victims, who are inevitably put in front of excruciating and strenuous acts of survival, only to eventually fail them and be punished.
The character was an obvious source of horror film gold from the beginning, which maybe justifies the endless series of sequel of this franchise more than other cases of worn-out and tired premises that get stretched out.