Think back to the supervillains that have been translated from comic books to the big screen. How many of those performances would you consider truly memorable? How many were cool and exciting? How many brought something to the role that was unexpected -- but it worked? How many gave faithful adaptations that upheld the spirit of the character?
Surprisingly, I don’t think there are very many. As a matter of fact, I can only think of six.
1. The Joker (Heath Ledger)
Heath Ledger‘s transformative performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight was more than a revelation. Ledger created a shocking, electrifying character who grabbed the screen and refused to let go every time he was on it. He wasn’t a monster, and he wasn’t a man. He was something in between, a self-made “agent of chaos,” as he described it. His signature laugh was there, but everything else about how Ledger chose to portray this iconic supervillain was new, and in a word, incredible. When he was first cast in the role, I don’t think there was a fanboy alive who didn’t have reservations about that youngish dude from Brokeback Mountain and Lords of Dogtown playing a role with such extreme gravitas as the Joker. But Ledger proved us all wrong. He was, simply put, the best thing about The Dark Knight, and he deservedly won an Academy Award for his performance. His tragic passing before the film came to theaters has only increased his (and the movie’s) legend.
2. General Zod (Terrence Stamp)
Power. For Zod, as portrayed by the great Terrence Stamp in Superman II, power was his single-minded focus. Well, that and revenge against the son of Jor-El, of course. Fortunately for him, both of his desires led him down the same path. Until Heath Ledger came along, there was no more memorable superhero movie villain than Zod. He was devoid of anything resembling comic relief (he left that to his cohorts), exuding menace and authority with his every breath. His baggy black costume was hokey, but Stamp rose above such material concerns. All one needed do was look him in the eye to see his level of commitment, obsession, and scariest of all, intellect. Lex Luthor may be Superman’s eternal nemesis, but no one has ever gone toe-to-toe with him the way that Zod did. He was a despot, a cruel, merciless dictator in-the-making, and Terrence Stamp embodied him so fully that the screen itself practically crumbled under his gaze.
3. Magneto (Ian McKellan)
Casting Ian McKellan as Eric Lensherr was the single smartest decision Bryan Singer made for X-Men. (Hiring Hugh Jackman to play Wolverine was a close second.) X-fans thought McKellan was too old to play the part, but Singer rightly pointed out that the story called for a man old enough to have plausibly been a Jewish internment camp resident during the Nazi holocaust. And there are few actors alive today with the kind of screen presence to make us wholly believe in a man who has the power of magnetism. Like all the great classic baddies, Magneto is the hero of his own story, and his drive to change the world comes from the deep scars of his youth. His megalomania starts out as a noble crusade: he wants homo sapiens to accept mutants as equals. But somewhere along the way, he decides that seeking co-existence with normal humans is pointless. McKellan played Magneto with a kind of wicked nobility, a genius with an insane plan to enforce equality on earth by turning humans into mutants. Focused, charismatic and even a little world-weary, his best line in the movie was when he disapprovingly mumbled under his breath, “Young people…”
4. The Joker (Jack Nicholson)
I didn’t want to include the same character twice on this list, but it’s impossible to ignore Jack Nicholson‘s delicious performance as the Joker in Tim Burton‘s Batman. Long before Ledger turned the Joker into a chaos-loving punk to be afraid of, Nicholson reinvented the character that was remembered at the time only as the silly, over-the-top campy villain from the 1960s Batman TV series played by Cesar Romero. Like Romero’s version, we laughed along with Nicholson’s Joker (I don’t remember ever laughing at Ledger), who relished the smile permanently etched onto his face and always had a witty joke handy, no matter the occasion. Like Ledger, Nicholson wanted to watch the world burn, but we actually enjoyed watching the catharsis he achieved upon getting revenge against the mob boss who’d betrayed him. His crowning moment was when he gathered all of the crime lords of Gotham into a single room and terrorized them into submission by burning their most powerful member alive, and then leaned into the dead man’s face and declared, “I’m glad you’re dead!”
5. Red Skull (Hugo Weaving)
The prolific Hugo Weaving has played many a memorable character in his day. Agent Smith. Elrond of Rivendell. Masked, anonymous vigilante V. Megatron. Like every other part we’ve seen him play, he fully inhabited Captain America‘s Johann Schmidt, aka the Red Skull, making him a villain you love to hate. The Skull’s unwavering focus on the destruction of the free world is all too believable today. But Weaving’s accomplishment is as much a marvel of prosthetic makeup as his acting. This is a character that’s been in comic books for ages, functioning as the perfect counterpoint to Captain America’s goodness, so fans had huge expectations of what he would look, sound, and behave like on film. Weaving’s always great, and he more than delivered. We knew he would. But we had no idea how much he would literally disappear inside the Red Skull’s skin.
6. Doc Ock (Alfred Molina)
Spider-Man 2 was undoubtedly the best entry in Sam Raimi‘s trilogy. It had a strong story that drew from some of the best moments in the character’s comic book history, it showed us the best portrayal of Peter Parker we’d ever seen, and it boasted the best villain of the trilogy. Alfred Molina turned the pudgy, bespectacled one-note from the comics into an amiable scientist and a fellow genius for Peter to compare notes with, who is turned evil by the same mechanical arms that make him so powerful. And oh, those brilliant arms… You know, if you’re going to do giant mechanical arms grafted onto a human being, this had to be the coolest way to do it. They were believable, functional, even perfect, with just a touch of Giger to their intricacy. Most of the villains in Raimi’s trilogy were cartoonish bad guys; Doc Ock was the only one with actual emotional depth.
Did we miss any? Don’t be shy. Tell us your favorite superhero movie villain and why you think he or she should have been included. Please note that we included only villains that were adapted from superhero comics, not all movie supervillains in general.