If superhero movies are essentially an upscale struggle between good and evil, then the hero obviously plays an enormous role in how the films develop. But what about the force of evil? What about the supervillains? I would argue that if superhero movies are truly just a story about good and evil, then the various villains we root against are just as important to the films as the heroes themselves.
As such, this article seeks to honor those actors who have been able to take a supervillain role and make it magical. In order to do this, this list will examine 8 supervillain roles we loved, and 7 which didn’t quite live up to our expectations (or quite honestly were just plain garbage).
Three particular fields were looked at in the making of this list. Were the villains part of a particular good or particular bad superhero film and did they significantly contribute to the film’s success/failure? Do the portrayals stretch over multiple films or were they “one and done”? And when people discuss these various films, are the villains a major talking point, for better or worse?
More than anything else, this list is about actors who were able to look into the dark recesses of themselves and harness that for our entertainment. All facts and storylines discussed here are from the authors own personal first-hand remembrances of the films. Facts about certain comic book characters are derived from the Marvel and DC Comics webpages.
15. Amazing – Julian McMahon: Dr. Doom
I’ll admit that I actually kind of like the initial Fantastic 4 remake which debuted in 2005. Even so, I do see examples throughout the film where the casting was weaker than one would typically expect from a Marvel film. The exception to this was Julian McMahon as the nefarious Dr. Doom. McMahon’s cool, calculating persona fits perfectly with the villain and he is just unlikeable enough to pull off this difficult role. Throw in some great on-screen chemistry with Ioan Gruffudd (Reed Richards) and Jessica Alba (Sue Storm), and you’ve got one of the top supervillain roles we loved.
14. Sucked – Liev Schreiber: Victor Creed
I think while casting for Victor Creed, the producers wanted someone cool and a badass to match up with Hugh Jackman‘s Wolverine. The problem with this is that Liev Schreiber is simply too good of a villain to play Creed. Wolverine’s mutant half-brother (for the purposes of this film) isn’t a villain in the traditional sense, so much as he is someone who simply doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about other people and he certainly doesn’t care about their opinions of him. In this way, Schreiber as Creed was too despicable and vastly too easy to hate. This led to his heroic turn at the film’s end coming off flat and is the main reason for his placement on this list.
13. Amazing – Peter Fonda: Mephistopheles
If you want to talk about the inherent challenges of playing a villain, you should probably recognize the immense task of playing history’s greatest villain. Ghost Rider debuted in 2007 to mixed reviews, as many critics had issue with Nicolas Cage‘s acting as the main protagonist, however, one portion of the film which drew serious praise was the performance of Peter Fonda as the demon Mephistopheles (essentially the biblical devil). For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Ghost Rider storyline, essentially the rider is an agent of the devil (Fonda), tasked with judging wicked souls and casting them off into hell. However, the current rider (played by Cage) is able to cast off his shackles and become a hero fighting the forces of darkness. Fonda plays the role of Earth’s original evil to perfection, coming off as quite the wicked aristocrat. Good enough for #13 on our list.
12. Sucked – Ryan Reynolds: Deadpool (in Wolverine: Origins)
I will concede that the 2016 Deadpool film, starring Ryan Reynolds, is pretty awesome. However, his role as the villainous Deadpool in the 2009 Wolverine: Origins film, not so much. Though they do give us a few minutes of Ryan Reynold’s hilarity as Deadpool early in the film, he quickly disappears until the end where he has become what is essentially a mute zombie bent on destruction (no worries I understand the Deadpool origin story requires this). On top of all this, they eventually kill off the villain Deadpool, at the time casting serious doubt as to the future of this character. The greatness of the stand alone Deadpool movie doesn’t excuse how unceremoniously he was treated in this film.
11. Amazing – Jim Carrey: The Riddler
A maniacal jokester who likes to play cruel jokes on others for his own amusement, this sounds a lot like Jim Carrey to me. Carrey was still a rising star in 1995 when he was cast as one of the main villains in Warner Bros.’ Batman Forever. Despite many other stars being in the film, Carrey’s performance noticeably impressive and was one of the main highlights of the film. Carrey obviously felt comfortable as the madman who calls himself the Riddler (everyone who has seen a recent Jim Carrey interview will understand why), and it is truly a shame that this incarnation of one of Batman’s greatest foes never found its way into any other films. However, Carrey can hold solace in his being placed so high on this list of supervillain roles we loved at #11.
10. Sucked – Michael Clarke Duncan: The Kingpin
I think the best way to examine an actor’s effectiveness in a role is to view how other actors did in a similar (or the same) role. In regards to superhero movies, this essentially gives us a chance to trash the 2003 Daredevil film in favor of the recent Netflix production. One element which added to the overall terribleness of the film version of Daredevil was Michael Duncan‘s performance as Wilson Fisk. For those of you who are familiar with Duncan’s work, you know that he is at his best while playing more sympathetic characters (see Green Mile, Armageddon). This is simply not the case with the sadistic Fisk. Throw in the fact that the Daredevil writers gave little, if any, depth to the character, and you’ve got a supervillain role that is straight garbage.
9. Amazing – Vincent D’Onofrio: The Kingpin
While Michael Clark Duncan obviously wasn’t the best choice to play the Kingpin of New York, Vincent D‘Onofrio (of Law and Order and Jurassic World fame) certainly was. For those of you who have not seen the Daredevil show on Netflix, let me just start by saying how great it is top to bottom. A big part of this show is how great D’Onofrio does as the main antagonist Fisk. Able to show the viciousness and raw emotion which traditionally characterizes the Kingpin, D’Onofrio made for a much more compelling villain than Duncan was able to do in the Daredevil film, thus earning him a spot on the more positive side of our list.
8. Sucked – Danny DeVito: The Penguin
I seriously debated putting Danny DeVito‘s incarnation of the Batman villain, the Penguin, on here for one reason. I wasn’t sure if this portrayal was so bad because of anything on DeVito’s part, or if the Penguin villain is just that ridiculous. It is important to remember that many of the heroes and villains we still enjoy today were created in the golden age of comics in the late 30’s to early 50’s. As such, some of them aren’t quite as cool as we would expect modern creations to be. The Penguin is a prime example of this fact. While he’s supposed to be devious and villainous, he usually just comes off as corny. So no blame intended for DeVito, his Penguin character winds up on this list of supervillains who were plain garbage.
7. Amazing – Jon Bernthal: The Punisher
So I know I may be toeing the line between villain and hero here, but Jon Bernthal‘s performance as the vigilante, the Punisher, in Netflix’s Daredevil is way too good not to include here. Many of us were familiar with Bernthal as the monumental dick, Shane, on The Walking Dead, but the guy is a seriously good actor. Bernthal somehow makes the Punisher a sympathetic character while at the same time keeping him a total badass. He also pretty clearly beefed up for the role and his acting was a highlight of what was already a pretty damn good season. This performance allowed him to overcome his supervillain/superhero dilemma and find himself on our list.
6. Sucked – Topher Grace: Venom
I will admit going into this section that I am a huge That ’70s Show fan. Therefore, perhaps I was simply too shellshocked to see nerdy Eric as the arrogant Eddie Brock (Venom) to enjoy his role in the film. In the comics. Brock is the more athletic and popular anti-thesis to Peter Parker (Spiderman). Anyone who has seen That ’70s Show can tell you that Topher Grace isn’t the most jock-like actor that they’ve ever seen. The fact that Topher Grace himself is much more Peter Parker than he is Eddie Brock puts him on the wrong side of our list at #6. Somewhere is Wisconsin Red Foreman is shaking his head in disgust. Dumbass.
5. Amazing – Ian McKellen: Magneto
One of the most notable villains in the Marvel universe, it was unsurprising when Magneto was chosen as the main villain in X-Men at the start of the Marvel movie explosion in 2000. Cast to play the X-men’s mutant archnemesis was veteran actor Ian McKellen. As a surprise to no one, McKellen absolutely killed the role. The thing about Magneto which I think makes him a hard character to play is that he’s not a true bad guy, instead, he is merely someone who’s trying to do what he thinks is best for his people. Later X-men movies have of course revealed his backstory making him an even more sympathetic character. Despite the challenges, McKellen was able to take this role and make it his own, thus being one of the major reasons for the success of the X-men franchise.
4. Sucked – Jesse Eisenberg: Lex Luthor
Jesse Eisenberg‘s portrayal of Lex Luthor is a perfect example of the unique challenge of playing a comic book character. While you be an exceptional actor in your own right, you still have to acknowledge that the fans will already have a preconceived notion of your character. In this vein, Eisenberg’s portrayal of Luthor in Batman vs Superman would be fine if he were playing say the Joker, but his portrayal simply did not match up with any other previous versions of Luthor. Instead of playing the cool, ruthless businessman that Luthor is, he played a deranged psychopath. Major loss of points to Eisenberg for not understanding his characters personality.
3. Amazing – Tom Hiddleston: Loki
I think the easiest way to tell when a portrayal of a villain is great is when the villain in the story becomes as popular as the hero. This is exactly what happened with the debut of Thor in 2011 and Avengers in 2012. The main villain of both these films was Thor’s evil half-brother Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston. Despite his villainous nature, Loki is simply too funny and snarky to hate. Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki is one of the main reasons for the success of these two films and nets a spot for him here at #3. We also can’t wait to see what kind of role the God of Mischief will play in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War films, Part I of which is set for release in 2018. We’re willing to bet that Loki will have some sort of influence on the plot.
2. Sucked – Jeep Swenson: Bane
Jeep Swenson was cast as the villain Bane in the 1997 movie, Batman and Robin. That should tell you everything you need to know about why this role lands on our list. For those of you who have not already read my article on the 8 Superhero Roles We Loved and 7 Which Were Total Garbage, (shameless plug), Batman and Robin was a complete trainwreck. Without going into the specifics of what made this film so bad, believe me when I tell you that Swenson as Bane was one of the worst parts. Pretty much just a muscle-bound monster, Swenson brought forth none of the sophistication or cerebral nature typically associated with Bane (think Tom Hardy‘s version of Bane in the Dark Knight Rises without the offsetting accent). I don’t know if I can do justice to how bad this role (and film in general) was, but it 100% deserves its spot on this list here at #2.
1. Amazing – Heath Ledger: The Joker
Anyone who is surprised to see Heath Ledger‘s role as the Joker at the top of this list has never seen his dramatic portrayal. Contained within a great movie in its own right, Ledger‘s portrayal of Batman’s most famous nemesis still manages to stand out. I don’t think even the term, “pure greatness” adequately describes what Ledger was able to do with this challenging role. In a film where so many things were happening, attention is constantly directed back to the Joker and so many of his scenes here were simply mesmerizing. The tragedy which befell Ledger shortly after filming brought further attention to this role, but even standing alone this performance is enough to warrant a listing here at #1 on our list of supervillain roles we loved.