- Some of the best characters in cinematic history are defined by some of the worst qualities imaginable
- Here’s how the best movie villains to ever grace the silver screen stack up against each other
- Check out more stuff about Hollywood here
No compelling story is truly complete without an antagonist; Jesus had Satan, Sherlock had Moriarty, and mine has an inescapable case of imposter syndrome and crippling anxiety. However, there’s something about movie villains that puts them in a class that’s all their own.
I’m sure plenty of film majors could write thousands of words to explain why that’s the case, but you don’t need to have a degree in cinema to grasp the impact of the evil icons in the Hollywood pantheon capable of leaving a mark in a variety of ways.
In some cases, bad guys manage to come across as cool or badass to the point where you find yourself rooting for them to prevail over the heroes. There are also plenty of occasions where you can’t help but respect the sheer scope of their evil genius or their capacity for depravity, and others where it’s impossible to shake the memory of the kind of creepy character capable of haunting your nightmares for days (or weeks) on end.
You’ll find all of those and more featured on this list comprised of the 50 unforgettable villains we stacked again each other on our quest to determine which one reigns supreme.
50. Biff Tannen—Back to the Future
Biff was a jackass, but he was a jackass in that quintessential high school bully way that everyone knows and loathes.
It’s a tough thing to capture an archetype and make it feel real, but Biff managed to tap into something primal in all of us, and by the time he got punched out by George McFly, everyone watching felt the satisfaction that came with it.
He’s the ultimate dick, and who hasn’t dreamed of punching out that dude?
49. Jame Gumb—The Silence of the Lambs
You know, the other villain from The Silence of the Lambs?
The man you probably know better as “Buffalo Bill” doesn’t possess the dimensions of Hannibal Lecter, but it’s hard to find anyone creepier than Jame Gumb.
Just say it with me, since I already know it’s running through your head: it rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.
48. General Zod—Superman II
We’re talking about the O.G. Zod as opposed to the one from the Man of Steel version, which is primarily because Terrence Stamp managed to tap into Zod’s unearthly mixture of arrogance and power in a way that made it feel like he was a dude who could actually slap Superman around and get away with it.
It’s almost impossible to find worthy villains for Superman because, well, he’s Superman, but Stamp’s Zod is the closest anyone’s ever come, and the reason why the various Superman stories keep going back to that well. Kneel before Zod, indeed.
47. Warden Norton—The Shawshank Redemption
Warden Norton represented every corrupt, inflexible bureaucrat who’s ever lived. He’s a sniveling shithead who clings to whatever meager power he has and uses it to ruin lives just because he can.
That’s something that makes anyone shiver. He’s the man of our most realistic nightmares.
Barnes was the perfect avatar for the madness of war, for power and violence that exists for its own sake. He was the devil on Charlie Sheen’s shoulder in Platoon, luring him down a path of utter darkness, into a jungle of madness, and it’s impossible not to see that as a metaphor for Vietnam, war, and America’s involvement.
He is the dark heart of the American nightmare.
45. Magua—The Last of the Mohicans
Magua was so nasty that by the end of the movie even his own allies were basically like, “Damn, dude. You’re super messed up,”
Brought to life by Wes Studi, he was basically a sociopath, cold, brutal, and utterly without mercy. Hell, a poor girl threw herself off a cliff rather than be with him. Now that’s a bad guy.
44. Khan—Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
We’ll go with the original again. Sure, Ricardo Montalban doesn’t exactly instill the same sort of cold menace as Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan, but he’s still the one that brought Khan to life and made him Kirk and company’s deadliest enemy.
In the entire Star Trek universe, one villainous name stands above all others: Khan.
Sure, the Borg are more apocalyptic, Q a bigger pain in the ass, but nobody made Kirk’s sphincter shrink up like Khan, and that counts for a whole hell of a lot.
It’s not easy to make a dude whose head is a literal pincushion the ultimate avatar of hellish terror, but that’s exactly what Pinhead managed to be.
He wasn’t just a bad guy—he was a messed up S&M demon who would literally tear your soul apart. That’s the kind of villain you don’t want to mess with.
42. Gollum—The Lord of the Rings
To be honest, Gollum was kind of pathetic. He was basically just a sad, old junkie—but anyone who’s dealt with sad, old junkies knows that they can be some of the most dangerous villains of all. They’ll cut your throat without thinking just for a taste of their precious.
There was nothing cool about Gollum, but thanks to Andy Serkis, he’s a bad guy no one will ever forget.
41. Johnny Lawrence—The Karate Kid
Johnny Lawrence, brought to life by the sublime William Zabka, is the ultimate psycho jock bully. That movie doesn’t work if Johnny and his goons don’t spend all their time terrorizing some poor new kid just because he’s, well, the poor new kid.
He had the perfect asshole personality and the perfect asshole face, and that all combined to make the perfect 80s movie asshole.
40. J.D. —Heathers
This is Christian Slater’s crowning moment. He’s cooler than cool as J.D., and even though he’s a murderous psychopath, you still kind of want to root him on as he brings anarchy to the vapid world dominated by the Heathers.
Still, he’s straight-up murdering people, and he’s not about to let even his girlfriend stand in his way. That’s a bad guy, even if he is so damn cool.
39. Walter Peck—Ghostbusters
Oh God, Walter Peck; the man everyone loves to hate. He’s the embodiment of smarmy bureaucracy, just a tremendous dick who ruins things for everyone.
He is the apex of William Atherton’s remarkable run of smarmy 80’s bad guy douchebags.
38. Dean Wormer—Animal House
He is the prototype for every asshole college dean, the original face of a character type that has been used to the point of cliché. And it’s been made into a cliché because Dean Wormer was just that great as a bad guy, the ultimate establishment prick, a humorless jerk who served as the perfect foil for the degenerate revolution started by the slobs of Animal House. There have been many imitators, but none have been as great as the original.
37. John Doe—Se7en
It starts with the name. He’s a phantom, a ghost, he could be anywhere and anybody. And as the movie goes on, you’re shocked time and time again by both the horrible murders he commits and his twisted ingenuity.
By the time heads start ending up in boxes and Kevin Spacey’s face gets linked to the serial killer with no name, a legendary movie bad guy has been born.
Who is he? We’ll never really know, and that’s what makes him so terrifying.
36. Bill—Kill Bill
Bill would probably rank a little higher if he had more screen time, but David Carradine managed to work wonders with what he had. Nobody’s cooler than Bill.
I mean the mean spends two entire movies trying to kill Uma Thurman’s character just because she left him, and when she finally does, well, kill Bill, he goes out like a total boss.
35. Frank—Once Upon a Time in the West
Most bad guys are flashy, but Frank was different. Frank just seemed sort of like an ordinary dude, except he didn’t really have a soul. He was cold, indifferent, and utterly untouchable, and that’s what made him such an unforgettable villain.
There was nothing there to appeal to, no mercy to be had, and that’s scarier than the wildest psychopath. The fact that Frank was portrayed by Henry Fonda of all people made him that much creepier.
34. Alonzo Harris—Training Day
This is Denzel at his swaggering, menacing best depicting police corruption at its worst; a man who can shout “King Kong ain’t get s—t on me!” and make it utterly believable.
He is evil hiding behind a badge, and that’s something that strikes a chord with everyone.
33. Eve Harrington—All About Eve
Eve was the O.G. psycho stalker best friend to a point where was so unforgettable that she eventually became a cliché who has since been parodied in other movies and television shows over and over again.
However, clichés can always be traced back to a moment (or, in this case, a character) that was pure genius—and Anne Baxter’s Eve was, well, the Eve of the unhinged stalker game.
32. Mr. Potter—It’s a Wonderful Life
Greedy businessmen are a staple of film villainy. They represent the dark heart of the American Dream, and Mr. Potter is one of the earliest (and best) examples of that.
He ruins lives, destroys families, and takes over whole towns just because he can. He is Ebenezer Scrooge and Mr. Burns all rolled up into one despicable package. In short, he’s a magnificent malevolent force.
31. Count Rugen—The Princess Bride
He’s the six-fingered man! He killed Inigo Montoya’s father!
If those mean anything to you, then you know damn well why he’s on here.
30. T-1000—Terminator 2
Prior to this movie, it was hard to imagine anything capable of measuring up to Arnold’s O.G. Terminator. Then, Robert Patrick’s ice-cold, liquid metal Terminator came along and showed everyone how wrong they were.
29. Agent Smith—The Matrix
Speaking of homicidal machines, The Matrix wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable if Agent Smith and his distinct cadence weren’t hanging around making virtual hell for poor Neo and the gang. He gave a face and a voice to a faceless and voiceless foe, and in the process became one of those bad guys that no one will ever forget. Admit it, you heard him drawling “Mr. Anderson…” as soon as you saw his name.
28. Michael Myers—Halloween
That mask. That slow, inexorable stalking. That ability to survive literally anything you throw (or shoot) at him.
Michael Myers is iconic, and if there was an Mt. Rushmore of horror villains, he’d be on it.
27. Steven—Django Unchained
As cartoonishly villainous as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candy is, the real bad guy in Django Unchained is the power behind the Candy Land throne: the self-loathing, institutionalized Steven, played with simmering menace by Samuel L. Jackson.
His heart is rotten, his soul mortgaged, and he’ll do anything to maintain the system and the life that’s done it to him. He’s twisted, cruel, and just a tad sympathetic because beneath it all, he’s also a victim, and that combo makes for some of the very best movie bad guys.
26. Jason Voorhees—Friday the 13th
If you close your eyes and imagine the perfect horror movie monster, which will probably end with you picture someone being stalked through the woods by a man with an old-school hockey mask on his face and his trusty machete in hand.
Jason (like Michael Myers) is horror movie royalty for a reason: he never stops coming, and the perpetually frozen mask somehow makes him seem even more inhuman than he’d be if had tentacles and fangs hanging out of his face.
25. The Xenomorph—Alien
This is the most terrifying movie alien ever, and at the risk of disrespecting Signoury Weaver, it’s the real star of the franchise.
There’s just something inherently unnerving about the creature’s design; you only need a mere hint it may pop up on screen before your eyes being to widen, your heart begins to beat faster, and you realize your fingernails are digging into the palms of your own hand
There’s also no tragic backstory or other factors to explain the motivations of what is simply a ruthless killing machine that only exists to ruin the existence of anything it encounters. That, my friends, is evil in its purest form.
24. Leatherface—The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
It’s a chainsaw-wielding redneck psycho who wears the skin of his victims. What else do I need to say?
Leatherface is probably the first great modern slasher movie monster. He upped the ante for everyone that followed, and very, very few—if any—have managed to outdo him.
23. Alex DeLarge—A Clockwork Orange
Villain? Antihero? Victim of society? It doesn’t really matter what you label him; in the end, he’s still a psychopath who gets off committing heinous crimes while singing show tunes.
He’s maybe the most transgressive movie bad guy ever (somehow both complex and sickeningly simple) and arguably Malcolm McDowell’s finest creation.
22. The Queen—Snow White
Jealous, vain, and mad with power, the evil queen in Snow White will always be the archetype for, well, for the evil queen that has popped up in pop culture time and time against.
She may not be the fairest of them all, but she is definitely one of the most unhinged. The Queen is far from the first person forced to grapple with a midlife crisis after spending way too long talking to a mirror, but she’s almost certainly the only one who’s decided the best way to deal with one is poisoning a teenage girl with an apple.
21. Frank Booth—Blue Velvet
Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth is a gas-huffing, sadomasochistic psychopath with a moral compass that constantly points in the direction of the heinous acts he seemingly needs to commit like most of his need air to breathe.
I mean, go big or go home.
Hooper’s complete dedication to Booth’s dark insanity is what makes him so unforgettable; he’s bizarre, fascinating, and—most notably—completely and utterly evil.
20. Max Cady—Cape Fear
Whether you prefer Robert Mitchum or Robert DeNiro—and really, can you go wrong either way?—Max Cady is one of the most fascinating movie bad guys of them all: a charismatic Southerner convinced his path of one of righteousness and hell-bent on revenge.
He’s colorful, seductive, and—oh yeah—completely unhinged. If you’re a pro wrestling fan, you probably know him as Bray Wyatt. That’s how unforgettable the character is: people are still trying to recreate the magic all these years later.
19. Colonel Hans Landa—Inglourious Basterds
He may be a fairly over-the-top caricature of a Nazi officer, but the reason Hans Landa was such an effective villain is that his various quirks and eccentricities served as a facade that could instantly crumble to reveal the genuine menace constantly lurked beneath the surface
Only an actor like Christoph Waltz could find the balance between caricature and genuine evil and turn it into something unforgettable, and thankfully, he did.
18. Amon Goeth—Schindler’s List
Goeth may have one major thing in common with the previous entry, but the two men could not be more different.
Of the many movies that have depicted the horrors of Nazi Germany, none manage to cut to the terrifying heart of that horror quite like Schindler’s List, and the character of Amon Goeth is the biggest reason why.
This was no cartoon or no supervillain the audience could count on to eventually have their plans foiled by Indiana Jones or Captain America. This was pure human evil; a terrifying look at the unbridled sadism that fueled a man who committed just a tiny sliver of the countless acts of senseless cruelty the regime he embodied deemed an enemy.
17. Gordon Gekko—Wall Street
“Greed is good.”
With those three words, Gordon Gekko summed up the essence of an era fueled by the capitalistic excess that defined it and the mentality that united his character and the many others; those who appear to be aspirational figures at a quick glance who are really actually cautionary tales about twisting the American Dream into a living nightmare.
The sleazy and morally bankrupt character Michael Douglas portrays is unforgettable not only because of how much we hate him but why hate him: he is everything wrong with the system that had its flaws exposed and exploited by the people he represents—but it’s still hard not to be jealous of what he was able to reap by doing so.
16. Daniel Plainview—There Will Be Blood
Daniel Plainview is the spiritual cousin of Gordon Gekko, but instead of being a symptom of a disease, he is the disease: a capitalist spirit who served as the backbone of America’s frontier before twisting the spine to the point of paralysis due to an insatiable hunger for more, more, more.
Daniel Plainview would devour the whole world and still be left unsatisfied. He’ll drink all of your milkshakes, and it still won’t be enough. This is the darkness we all desperately try to ignore, the steaming engine of America that feeds on, well, that feeds on our blood. The fact that he’s brought to life in such over-the-top fashion by Daniel Day-Lewis makes it all the better.
15. The Wicked Witch—The Wizard of Oz
Like the Queen in Snow White, there is an endless need for people to reinvent the Wicked Witch, to see things from her point of view, to try to understand. But to hell with all that: she’s just plain nasty.
She spends all her time terrorizing a teenage girl and her tiny little dog just for fun. She sets straw men on fire just because she can. And she does it all surrounded by a legion of flying monkey slaves. This is not a woman you want to screw with.
14. Freddy Krueger—A Nightmare on Elm Street
The dude literally haunts your dreams, has knives coming out of his hands like the world’s most deranged version of Wolverine, drives you insane, and then murders you all while dropping one-liners. Now that’s multitasking.
Freddy is Freddy. He’s the star of the show, and the best slasher film bad guy of them all.
13. Loki—The Avengers
Who doesn’t love Loki? It doesn’t matter if he’s supposed to be the Big Bad because he’s just so damn likable. Sure, he’s kind of a dick, but he’s smart as Einstein, as smooth as Marvin Gaye, and… okay, so maybe I have a little man-crush on Loki, but that’s okay, that’s the point. Everyone does.
What makes Loki really click is that he’s a character with genuine pathos. There is depth here that you don’t often get to see in a villain, especially in a so-called comic book villain. He’s the quintessential movie villain you end up cheering for because you want him to be good so very badly, but you also love that he’s so bad.
12. Annie Wilkes—Misery
This is why any celebrity’s sphincter probably tightens up whenever anyone tells them that they’re their biggest fan. Annie Wilkes was completely devoted – and completely nuts, and the terror she inflicted on poor James Caan worked so well precisely because she wasn’t just some raving psychopath.
She was just a weird lady with a screw loose who tapped into a really, really dark place. You never see her coming, and that’s what makes her so scary, and Kathy Bates completely nailed it.
11. Keyser Soze—The Usual Suspects
Keyser Soze is a weird case because you never really see him until the very end of the movie. Then again (spoiler alert!) you really end up seeing him the entire movie, you just don’t know it. That’s what makes him so cool.
His name is whispered like he’s the devil himself, only he’s been sitting there in the police station the whole time, disguised as a lowly cripple. The mystery, the fear, the genius, the effortless transformation from pathetic gimp to arrogant cool by Kevin Spacey—it all adds up to one of the best movie villains ever, even if no one still quite knows anything about him.
10. Nurse Ratched—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
She’s the face of cold cruelty, of indifference where all that’s needed is a dose of compassion. But she also represents the cold indifference of society to mental illness, the barely disguised contempt, the judgmental disgust. She is The System personified, and once she has you, no one can hear you, no one can save you.
Louise Fletcher absolutely nails all of that with her performance and gave us a character that became the cultural template for all nightmare caregivers and autocratic bureaucrats to come.
9. Hal 9000—2001: A Space Odyssey
Never has a villain been so calm, so self-assured, so… inhuman. And that’s the terror that lies at the heart of Hal, that amoral calm that doesn’t think twice about exterminating an entire crew in the middle of space simply because it judges it to be the best course of action. This is the true face of malevolence because there is nothing human to appeal to, no feelings to touch. Hal is smarter than you, and therefore superior to you. I’m sorry, Dave.
8. Hans Gruber—Die Hard
He’s the urbane terrorist who makes John McClane’s life a living hell, and no one could have played him except Alan Rickman, who perfected the insouciant arrogance and the bored sneer disguising his rapacious hunger and greed.
The movie doesn’t work nearly as well without him, as proven by the countless sequels. He’s Hans Gruber. He’s smarter than you, he’s more stylish than you, and you? You’re just in his way. It’s just business.
7. Norman Bates—Psycho
His very name is a buzzword. You don’t get that without being one of the best characters of all time.
You get a perfect mental picture whenever you hear the name, don’t you? You see the deranged momma’s boy, completely unhinged. You see the knife flashing in the shower, you hear the soundtrack screech. You see Norman Bates and everything that has come to represent.
6. The Terminator—The Terminator
What really needs to be said here? It’s Arnold in probably his most famous role, the badass killing machine who speaks one or two short words at a time, shows no emotion, and never stops coming.
It’s the goddamn Terminator!
5. Pazuzu—The Exorcist
Pazuzu is the name of the demon that possesses poor Regan in The Exorcist, and this is not a dude you want to step to. Pazuzu absolutely terrified audiences when the movie first hit theaters, and although people have become more jaded over time, the idea of a demon possessing a little girl and forcing her to say and do the most outrageous, vile things is still pretty powerful.
Most horror movie bad guys are servants of evil or manifestations of it. Pazuzu is evil itself.
4. Anton Chigurh—No Country for Old Men
Those eyes, man. Those cold, dead eyes. That flat voice. That… well, everything really.
Javier Bardem brings Anton Chigurh to life in perfectly realized soulless detail and not only turns him into a bad guy but an avatar for everything soulless and evil about our world. He decides men’s fates on the flip of a coin. He is indifferent and inhuman.
The scariest thing is this isn’t a robot or a computer or a creation of science fiction. It’s a person. Nothing is more terrifying than that.
3. The Joker—The Dark Knight
Heath Ledger’s last stand is also his most magnificent, as he turns The Joker into a symbol of anarchy, a man who, well, just wants to watch the world burn. It’s a stunning performance, one of the most magnetic and charismatic in movie history, and you can’t take your eyes off of him.
It’s especially stunning because it’s all too easy to get lost in a world of camp with this character, but Ledger grounds him in an all too human sort of madness. No one knows who he is or where he came from, or why he’s doing what he’s doing. You can’t reason with a man without a motive.
You can’t find his weak spot, and that’s maybe the real genius of the character. It lets him be whoever you need him to be, and in The Dark Knight, he’s exactly the sort of villain we fear most in these strange and terrible times.
2. Dr. Hannibal Lecter—The Silence of the Lambs
He’s maybe the smartest man alive and, oh yeah, he eats people. That, uh, that kind of makes him a bad guy even if he’s technically helping Jodie Foster catch another serial killer from inside his cell.
You know a character has transcended the medium when people start using him as a reference point in real life. Just think of all the times you’ve seen or heard people joke about some crazy freak being hauled around in that infamous straightjacket and mask.
It only worked because Anthony Hopkins completely crushed the part. This is his golden moment. He manages to capture that brilliance, the arrogance, the complete sense of control, and the ever-present menace of Lecter, and the result is one of the best movie characters of all time.
1. Darth Vader—Star Wars
His very name is a synonym for “bad guy” in our culture. It’s that simple. When someone truly heinous enters the world stage, what do people do? They immediately compare him to Darth Vader and make jokes about the imperial theme playing whenever he enters a room.
He’s menace personified, he’s power in a black mask and cloak, and underneath it all, he’s tragic in a way that’s almost Shakespearean. He’s the perfect movie villain.