Creating an engaging hero or protagonist is a cornerstone of good storytelling. After all, why should an audience try to invest themselves in a character who isn’t interesting or worth cheering for? Even morally questionable antiheroes have to be compelling somehow—otherwise it’s doubtful that viewers would have watched all five seasons of Breaking Bad.
But the playing field can’t be stacked too much on one end. Unless the antagonist is similarly well-developed and portrayed, the conflict becomes one-dimensional and boring. Even if you’re not rooting for the villain—heck, if you did that the writer probably screwed up their job—rooting against them can still be enthralling. The following ten movie villains are so well-written and well-acted that they’ve become as, if not more, famous than the heroes they fought against.
9 Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, Apocalypse Now
Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, a searing portrayal of the European colonization of Africa, Apocalypse Now is set along the Cambodian-Vietnamese border during the height of the Vietnam War. Like Conrad’s Kurtz, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (quietly portrayed by veteran actor Marlon Brando) is sought out by the protagonist, in the case of Apocalypse Now Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), a Special Forces captain who has been assigned to “terminate” the renegade officer.
Though he doesn’t appear in person until the final act of the nearly three-hour-long film, Brando’s Kurtz is undeniably the source of the dark, nihilistic presence that permeates throughout all of Apocalypse Now. Stoic, enigmatic and even wraithlike, Kurtz converses sparingly with Willard literally from the darkness of his temple home, emerging from the shadows only occasionally to read aloud from the works of T.S. Eliot or to drop a severed head in the Special Forces captain’s lap. This isn’t meant to detract from Sheen’s work as Willard—he worked through a heart attack while filming—but the older actor’s take on Kurtz is something other, something non-human. Brando was not even nominated for his work on the film, but his character’s final words—“The horror… the horror…”—are among the most quoted in cinema.
8 Roy Batty, Blade Runner
Though a box office flop in its original theatrical run and initially hamstrung by studio intervention, Ridley Scott’s 1982 cyberpunk film Blade Runner is considered one of the most groundbreaking science fiction films of all time: it’s ranked #20 on Empire’s compendium of all-time greatest movies, #1 on the Guardian’s list of science fiction films (as rated by actual scientists) and has also been preserved in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Set in dystopian 2019 Los Angeles, Blade Runner follows bounty hunter—or “blade runner”—Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford, starting the grumbly portion of his career) as he attempts to track down and eliminate four escaped Replicants (genetically engineered human labourers).
The fugitives are led by Roy Batty (Dutch actor Rutger Hauer), a combat model Replicant who quotes William Blake and at times seems more like an Arctic wolf than a person, even howling during his pursuit of Deckard in the climactic scenes. While Deckard has become lethargic and an alcoholic in his retirement—he gets his ass kicked in nearly every encounter he has with a Replicant—Batty is smart, fit and, in the words of his creator Eldon Tyrell, “more human than human.” The Replicant is so capable that he is only brought down by his genetically engineered four-year lifespan, though not before saving Deckard from a fall and uttering his poetic dying monologue.
7 Emperor Palpatine, Return of the Jedi
Though he is not a major character until the final episode of George Lucas’ original Star Wars character, the Emperor’s influence is felt from the very beginning, with high-ranking Imperial officers discussing his dissolution of the Senate in the first movie and the shadowy man himself making an appearance via hologram in one scene of The Empire of Strikes Back (where he is voiced by Clive Revill and portrayed by actress Elaine Baker, whose eyes were replaced by those of a chimpanzee using compositing in order to make him seem more unsettling). Emperor Palpatine as we know him, portrayed by Scottish actor Ian McDiarmid, is first seen stepping off of an Imperial shuttle near the end of Return of the Jedi’s first act, and he has been an irreplaceable character in the Star Wars Saga ever since, with McDiarmid playing a younger version of the role in the prequel trilogy.
In spite of the Emperor’s wizened and wretched visage, McDiarmid was not yet 40 when he first portrayed the despot, his relative youth hidden by thick prosthetic makeup and a black hood. His reedy, cackling voice and sadistic exuberance contrasted with the solemn demeanour of Darth Vader, until then Star Wars’ primary villain. Most shocking was his ability to exert genuine control over Vader (though of course, this would fail in the film’s climactic moment). As it stands, his scenes with Vader and Luke Skywalker in the final act of Return of the Jedi remain some of the series’ best moments.
6 Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs
While Sir Anthony Hopkins was key to making Hannibal Lecter one of the greatest screen villains of all time, it might surprise more than a few readers to learn that he was not the first to portray author Thomas Harris’ sophisticated cannibal. That honour goes to Scottish actor Brian Cox, who played Dr. Lecter (then erroneously stylized “Lecktor”) in Michael Mann’s 1986 thriller Manhunter, based off the novel Red Dragon. But while Manhunter and Cox’s performance are most fondly remembered by film buffs, Hopkins’ take on the character in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is regarded as one of the greatest in cinematic history and earned the Welsh thespian his first and so far only Academy Award for Best Actor.
First appearing behind glass in his basement cell in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, serial killer former psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter psychologically pokes, prods, and eventually develops a fondness for trainee FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), simultaneously using his status as a consultant to manipulate his way to freedom—albeit in a very violent manner. While Foster would also receive an Oscar for her performance, propelling her further into stardom, Hopkins’ role made him famous stateside. Considering his character is on screen for less than half an hour in Silence, that’s quite impressive. Since then, Hannibal Lecter has become so iconic he’s even the subject of a crime drama on NBC, where he is portrayed by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen.
5 The Dinosaurs, Jurassic Park
While Sam Neill and Laura Dern might have shared top-billing in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 sci fi epic, Jurassic Park is undoubtedly dominated by its main attractions, the long-extinct dinosaurs cloned by the titular park’s expert geneticists. Using a combination of animatronic, puppet and computer generated effects, celebrated visual effects supervisor Stan Winston—who had previously worked on Aliens, Predator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day—helped effectively bring the fictional amusement park’s denizens to life.
Among Stan Winston Studios and Industrial Light & Magic’s creations were the predatory, pack-hunting velociraptors, the towering brachiosaurus and, of course, the massive Tyrannosaurus rex. While Neill, Dern and co-stars Jeff Goldblum and Lord Richard Attenborough put in top-notch performances, playing off a tight script by David Koepp and the original novel’s author Michael Crichton, they were overlooked when awards season came around. However, Stan Winston and company walked away with an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
5. Agent Smith, The Matrix
Upon stepping out of a black sedan in the first scene of The Matrix, Agent Smith, as portrayed by Australian Hugo Weaving (Elrond in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit), doesn’t seem the type to be the main villain of Lana and Andrew Wachowski’s cyberpunk thriller. But Agent Smith’s sunglasses and perfectly pressed black suit hide a sharp mind and near-unlimited physical prowess that make him more than a match for hacker and freedom fighter Neo. Admittedly, stealing the scene from Keanu Reeves isn’t a Herculean accomplishment (though it should be noted that Reeves is a fine, charitable person and was also really good in A Scanner Darkly), but Weaving’s combination of sober dress, curt speech and paradoxical contempt and envy of humanity elevates him above and beyond the material.
4 Magneto, X-Men
Magneto, born Erik Lehnsherr, was unknown outside of comic fan circles prior to his appearance in the 2000 X-Men movie, but since then he has become almost as popular as Wolverine and Professor Xavier, the character featuring to some extent in all but one of the X-Men movies released to date. Magneto’s mutant power, the ability to control magnetic fields, first manifested in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. Since the death of his family, he has held almost all of “normal” humanity in contempt and has fought violently for mutant freedom and superiority, leading him to clash frequently with fellow mutant and former friend Charles Xavier.
3 The Joker, The Dark Knight
The late Heath Ledger seemed an odd choice for the role of Batman’s most famous villain when news of his casting was announced in mid-2006—reading reaction to said announcement on Ain’t It Cool News, half of the comments are eye-rolling Brokeback Mountain puns. Eight years later, Ledger’s performance as an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (the second actor to be awarded posthumously after Peter Finch for Network) and his take on the character has become more renowned than Jack Nicholson’s portrayal in the 1989 Batman.
While the Joker of the comics, animated series and previous movie was known for his dapper attire and gag-based weaponry, Ledger’s Joker resembles more the disorganized escaped mental patient he is supposed to be, haphazardly smearing his face in white, black and red grease paint, dyeing his hair an inconsistent shade of green and accentuating his Glasgow smile-esque facial scarring—the last trait being a first for a mass media depiction of the character. And rather than toting fatal joy buzzers or acid-filled lapel flowers, The Dark Knight’s Joker wields a vast array of knives, explosives and firearms. Like a snake, the murderous clown slides from potential victim to potential victim, sizing them up with an unsettling leer or flick of his tongue (a mannerism improvised by Ledger, who was irritated by his prosthetic scars). Though morally repellent, the Joker steals the show on several occasions, most notably his brutal interrogation at the hands of Batman, laughing harder with every punch he takes. A nightmarish performance from a dedicated actor.
2 Colonel Hans Landa, Inglourious Basterds
Though arguably the most evil character on this list—he is a Jew-hunting Nazi officer, after all—Colonel Hans Landa of the SS is captivating for every second he is on screen in Quentin Tarantino’s alternate history World War II epic Inglourious Basterds. Played by polyglot Austrian-German actor Christoph Waltz, Landa sees himself as a detective—“a damn good one,” in his words—and styles himself less after the higher echelons of the Nazi party and more after Sherlock Holmes, revelling in his eccentricities and producing a calabash pipe during interrogations in a vaguely intimidating move.
Though the movie’s lead heroes, Lieutenant Aldo Raine and Jewish theatre owner Shosanna Dreyfus, are expertly played by Brad Pitt and Mélanie Laurent, they simply give Landa that much more to play off of. Alternating between deliberately hammy and intense, Waltz’s SS colonel is a joy to watch, if not someone to root for, like when he ecstatically cries “Bingo!” (as seen above). Karma catches up to him in the end, but it did more positively for Waltz, the actor walking away from the Oscars that year with an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
1 Loki, Thor
Like Magneto before him, Thor’s archenemy Loki was practically unheard of outside of Marvel Comics fandom until 2011, when English actor Tom Hiddleston appeared as the two-faced Asgardian in the Kenneth Branagh-directed Thor. The stage-trained actor lent Loki a Shakespearean air, playing him as a grand, if petty, manipulator akin to Othello’s Iago (coincidentally, Hiddleston had previously portrayed Cassio in a 2008 production of the tragedy). Hiddleston’s take on the character has proven to be immensely popular, and he has reprised the role as the main villain in The Avengers and as a duplicitous ally in Thor: The Dark World.