In a memorable scene from Whit Stillman’s film, The Last Days of Disco, one character explains a theory of what fuelled contemporary environmentalism to another. He semi-flippantly tells her that the re-release of Bambi in the fifties, the era of the “Baby Boom” Generation, galvanized contemporary environmentalism because no one wants to identify with the nefarious hunters who kill Bambi’s mother. In essence, he explains that cartoon villains imbued baby boomers with genuine contempt for anyone or thing that assails nature or wildlife. Perhaps that theory is nothing more than a whimsical divagation in a film full of whimsical divagations. However, if taken at face value, the character’s theory attests to the unusual power of on-screen villains to repulse, embitter, and, in turn, unite us.
As the film industry inundates its viewers with villain after villain, it can be difficult to winnow out the qualities of a truly iniquitous and indelible villain. In most narratives, a villain is like a moral compass pointing in the wrong direction. Morally resplendent protagonists often stand in complete opposition to these foes, espousing an ethic of peace, all-inclusiveness, and freedom for all. Especially in American cinema, where contentious ideologies often get filtered through film narratives and characters, villains often embody fascism and authoritarianism. These villainous qualities seemingly never fail to foster the audience’s contempt. Some evil characters, however, represent amorality as opposed to immorality—a notable example of which is The Joker from Batman. The Joker’s evil is his lack of belief in any moral template, and the world to him is less of a structure and more of a playground in which to wreak havoc. The Joker is evil because his victims—and by extension, us as viewers—care. Whether immoral or amoral, though, evil characters tend to assail the audience’s notion of righteousness, and they are the quintessence of what the audience collectively finds reprehensible. As such, villains are windows into society’s fears—both conscious and unconscious.
Certain villains muddle this simple equation of righteous and unrighteous. Before he admits to being Luke’s father, Darth Vader is the classic villain, a merciless, virulent evil that crushes everything in its path. But Darth Vader’s admission that he is Luke’s father creates an existential crisis for Luke and the audience. The line separating good and evil is not as stark as it was before Vader’s disclosure. The line of questioning shifts from “How do we stop this villain?” to “How much of the villain is inside us?” Indeed, Vader’s villainy is twofold: not only does he represent the corrosive social evil that society wishes to vanquish, but he leads the audience down the murky and unforgiving road of introspection and self-doubt. Villains like Vader amplify their iniquity by unsettling the line that separates good from evil.
This list thus looks at ten classic villains in film. These villains all stand in opposition to their narratives’ respective protagonist. Whether immoral or amoral, wholly evil or once-good evil, these characters are bad. Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive, so please feel free to respond with your list of classic villains in the comments section.
10 Nurse Ratched—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
In Milos Forman’s classic, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a film adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel, Louis Fletcher’s character, Nurse Ratched, is the narrative’s surprising villain. As nurse of the psyche ward that McMurphy, Jack Nicholson’s character, gets sent to, Nurse Ratched rules with an iron fist. Her imperturbable, cold demeanor suffuses every scene she is in with harsh bitterness. Her position of power within the ward amplifies her nefariousness, as she has uncontested control over her patients. Her quasi-fascist methods of dealing with her patients lead one to kill himself in a despairing attempt to escape reproach from his mother. Sometimes villains are the people we least expect.
9 Amon Goeth—Schindler’s List (1993)
There is a certain gravitas to villains based on real life people. Given the subject matter, there is a good deal of gravitas throughout Steven Spielberg’s classic film, Schindler’s List, a narrative about Oscar Schindler and Itzhak Stern’s harrowing attempt to save the lives of Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust. Ralph Fiennes plays the greatest villain from the film, Amon Goeth, a virulent, small-minded Nazi commander of a concentration camp in Poland. In the film, Amon Goeth practices his shooting each morning by picking off Jewish prisoners from his balcony. The real Goeth, in fact, did that horrible shooting. Like many of the passionate Nazi leaders, Goeth believes in his anti-Semitic ethic, which makes him all the more irredeemable and incorrigible. With Goeth as the central villain, the film illustrates the horrifying reality of the Holocaust.
8 Roy Batty—Blade Runner (1982)
Rutger Hauer’s character from Blade Runner, Roy Batty, is a replicant, a man-made clone that looks and thinks like a human but has a shelf life like any consumer product. Batty leads a renegade group of replicants who want to avoid expiring, and thus search for their creator. Of course, mayhem ensues, and Harrison Ford’s character, Rick Deckard, must bring Batty down. In the climactic scene, Batty and Deckard battle in a decrepit building before finishing their dual on the building’s roof. Batty is a unique villain for two reasons. First, humans created Batty, so his character illustrates the potential downfall of creating sophisticated artificial intelligence. Second, Batty’s iniquity stems from a desire to be human, to have the liberties that humans take for granted. Indeed, audiences want to feel compassion for Batty, but Batty proves he will do anything to get what he wants—and that includes killing.
7 The Alien—Alien (1979)
Perhaps the lesson to take from Alien, Ridley Scott’s science-fiction classic, is to never become an astronaut, especially for some corporation that lacks transparency. When the astronauts aboard Nostromo rescue their colleague who has been attacked by some alien life form, they unwittingly catalyze their demise. The Alien moves through the ship, picking off crew member after crew member until Sigourney Weaver’s character, Ripley, is the last person standing. The Alien is a powerful villain because it represents the abject, that inexplicable thing that upsets everyone’s sense of themselves and the world. Without knowing what they are dealing with, the crew members struggle fecklessly to eradicate the evil aboard their ship. Most of the crew members do not get a good glimpse of the Alien until it is too late.
6 Keyser Soze—The Usual Suspects (1995)
Legend has it that Bryan Singer, the film’s director, did not tell his actors who was going to be Keyser Soze until the last minute. Singer’s plan worked, as doubt and suspicion pervade The Usual Suspects. Although everyone wants to find Keyser Soze, no one knows anything about the elusive villain. The final scene discloses to the audience who, in fact, Keyser Soze is, and the disclosure never fails to amaze. Keyser Soze’s elusiveness is precisely what makes him so evil. While Soze passively watches in the open, cloaked only by his pseudonym, the other characters do his bidding. Sometimes the greatest evil is right under our nose!
5 Jack Torrance—The Shining
What starts out as a relaxing, if solitary, winter turns sour in Staley Kubrick’s 1980 film, The Shining. Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, a man who initially takes the job of hotel caretaker to afford himself time to write. Slowly, yet perceptibly, Torrance slides into insanity, and, instead of his family’s guardian, he becomes a crazy killer. Torrance’s descent into depravity is the film’s most shocking element, and the final scene in which he stalks his son through a snowy maze is dark and suspenseful. Like Darth Vader, Jack Torrance reminds viewers that great evil could reside in anyone.
4 Al Capone—The Untouchables (1987)
The Untouchables is a timeless narrative about the cops trying to get their guy. In this film, however, “the guy” just so happens to be Al Capone, who is played by Robert De Niro. Like the other villains from this list, Capone is unforgiving and shows little mercy to his lackeys. In one scene, Capone takes a baseball bat and beats the head of one of his employees in, reifying his iniquity in the process. This film tends to rely on bits of camp to establish the agon between good and evil. The Eliot Ness-led police force is made up of morally upstanding cops who, of course, juggle family life with their demanding work schedules. Capone, though, represents evil throughout. His demise comes through tax evasion, a powerful lesson highlighting that mundane infractions can vanquish great evil.
3 The Wicked Witch of the West—The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Dressed in black and horribly ugly, the Wicked Witch of the West possesses all the classic signifiers of evil. The Wizard of Oz is a film about imagination, so her comportment is fitting in that it is appropriate for a fairytale. Though the film is rather old, the Wicked Witch has not lost her power to horrify new viewers of the film. She teases poor Dorothy, and uses all her tricks to keep Dorothy from reaching Oz. Dorothy’s fear, in fact, amplifies the Witch’s iniquity, as the Witch is so contemptuous while Dorothy is so lost. In classic fairytale fashion, the forces of good surmount the forces of evil, as Dorothy finds her way home and water melts the Witch.
2 The Joker—Batman (multiple films)
Whether it’s Jack Nicholson’s version or Heath Ledger’s, The Joker has left the comic book page to become one of cinema’s notable villains. As mentioned in the opening, The Joker is an amoral villain who sees moral structures as things to corrupt. Indeed, corruption is his only tenet, and he will kill whomever stands in his way—friend or foe. While Nicholson’s portrayal of The Joker is campy—and memorable for its campiness—Heath Ledger’s portrayal is visceral and terrifying. In The Dark Knight, The Joker flaunts his amorality in the faces of a crime syndicate, policeforce, and patrons of Gotham who all need some kind of order. With the collapse of order comes the collapse of people’s sense of well-being—or so The Joker thinks.
1 Darth Vader—Star Wars (1977)
Darth Vader is perhaps the most recognizable villain in American cinematic history. He shows his subjects no mercy and no forgiveness. He disparages Obi-Wan Kenobi’s adherence to the ancient Jedi code and stops at nothing to squash the Rebel Alliance. His shocking admission that he is Luke’s father complicates Vader’s villainy in that it highlights that good and evil are cut from the same cloth. His dying words to Luke in Return of the Jedi do little to soften his nefariousness.