During the early 2000s, I loved the 100 Years… series of movie lists released by the American Film Institute, counting down film’s top Laughs, Thrills, Passions, and such. They served as a great introduction to the cinematic highs of various genres, some of which I knew and others I got to experience vicariously for the first time. It’s really a shame that they stopped after 2008; I would have at least liked another ten-year update of the Top 100 Movies list.
Yet one list seemed like it could particularly use an update. In 2003, the AFI counted down the top 50 heroes and top 50 villains, and I couldn’t help but notice that the only villain from the 21st century was Denzel Washington’s crooked cop in Training Day at #50. Over the last 19 years, though, there have been plenty of other villainous characters that I think could have earned placement on that villain list. Therefore, I thought I’d do my own updated villain countdown for the current century, leaving heroes for another time.
I’m not necessarily in favor of celebrating evil, but a memorable villain can make a good movie great and a bad movie watchable. One villain I do think should be on the list is Mr. Smith from The Matrix series, but he’s technically ineligible since the first film was released in 1999. And sidenote: I’m ignoring TV, as much as I’d like to include Ben from Lost, Bill Cipher from Gravity Falls, or Kyubey from Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Thus, with consideration for how iconic each has become, here are my own picks for the top villains of the 21st century:
- Mr. Glass from Unbreakable/Glass
Unbreakable was an unconventional superhero movie, and true to M. Night Shyamalan form, its villain proved to be a surprise. Samuel L. Jackson’s brittle-boned antagonist seemed so harmless at first, yet his role as a mastermind and the unhealthiness of his comic book fascination became clear by the end. I laughed during a recent rewatch of Parks and Recreation where they ask what Mr. Glass is up to and “Why no sequel?” Of course, we did get one this past year, with mixed results, but the “strength” of the character remains.
- President Snow from The Hunger Games series
A mere vaguely threatening presence in the first Hunger Games film, President Snow proved just how ruthless and dastardly he was in the next three. From blackmailing Katniss to ordering the deaths of countless citizens, he became an increasingly dangerous mastermind, and Donald Sutherland played him with an icy pragmatism right up to the very end.
- Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2
I think it’s telling that of the original Spider-Man trilogy villains, only Doc Ock hasn’t had some kind of “reboot” in the Spider-Man films since. (Well, at least in live-action; Into the Spider-Verse went a little different with its version.) I think that’s because of how perfectly Alfred Molina became the character, brought to life with an awesome mix of CGI and puppetry. Uniquely sympathetic due to his Jekyll-and-Hyde complex with his robotic arms, he remains one of the franchise’s best villains.
- The Babadook from The Babadook
Few horror films have genuinely scared me like The Babadook, thanks largely to its titular creature. This Australian scarefest features a picture book that described the top-hatted terror in detail, letting people’s fear and suspicion make it real and inescapable. As movie monsters go, it’s definitely up there with the most chilling, even more so due to what it represents psychologically.
- Voldemort from the Harry Potter series
Granted, I haven’t seen any of the Harry Potter films, but the reputation of Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort precedes him. The very name of He Who Must Not Be Named has become synonymous with villainy, so even if I only know him by cultural presence, the significance of that presence deserves placement on any list of cinematic villains.
- Captain Barbossa from The Pirates of the Caribbean series
I had considered putting Bill Nighy’s Davy Jones on the list, but in the end, Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa won out. With his smarmy dealing and sneering delivery, he’s just the perfect pirate antagonist, whether as a skeleton or less-than-trustworthy ally, and Rush always looks like he’s having a blast. Plus, he’s got one of the best surprise entrances in movie history.
- Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds
Another film I haven’t actually seen all of, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds nonetheless delivered a villain for the ages in Christoph Waltz’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Hans Landa, the wicked Nazi “Jew Hunter.” Able to shift easily from casual courtesy to racist murder, he’s a true psychopath, and his opening scene alone was enough to convince me of his placement here.
- Magneto from the X-Men franchise
As far as which version of the character, take your pick. Whether played by Ian McKellen or Michael Fassbender, Magneto is the ideal archrival to Charles Xavier, bitter enough about his traumatic past to hate all non-mutants. He’s suffered so much that you can’t help but sympathize with him, even as he uses his power over metal to cause havoc. Plus, he’s not too different from Charles in his end goals; he’s just far more ruthless in his means of achieving them.
- Pennywise from It and It Chapter Two
I still haven’t gotten around to watching the latest version of Stephen King’s It, but I must give props to Bill Skarsgård for helping this incarnation of Pennywise the Dancing Clown rival the great Tim Curry’s. His frightening painted face has become an instant icon of scary clowns (just look at the Halloween costumes), so that makes him the most recent entry on the list.
- Joker from The Dark Knight
“Why so serious?” Speaking of clowns, we mustn’t forget the other Oscar-winning villain role on this list. You’re welcome to include Joaquin Phoenix’s most recent version of the Joker here, but I have Heath Ledger in mind. I can’t help but wonder if the darkness required to personify the Joker contributed to his death, but he certainly made the role his own and, in effect, his legacy. Edgy and grimy to match the underworld of Gotham, his Joker is a compulsive liar and a true criminal mastermind, a man whose goal is simply, in the words of Michael Caine’s Alfred, “to watch the world burn.”
- Sauron – The Lord of the Rings films
Few villainous images are as iconic as the Eye of Sauron. Watching from atop the tower of Barad-dûr, it’s an all-watching representation of evil, especially the evil of the One Ring, the source and reason for Frodo’s quest across Middle-earth. I could easily have sided with Saruman, the Ringwraiths, or Gollum as well, but Sauron is the big bad to end all fantasy big bads.
- Thanos from Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame
Yet when it comes to big bads, who can question Thanos, the final boss of 20+ films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? No other villain has achieved his goals as successfully as did Thanos in Infinity War, and it has to be a new height in villainy to wipe out half of all life in the universe. Marvel has often been criticized for its weak villains, but Thanos blew them all away (literally) and may well be the best villain of the new millennium.
And here are some other contenders that could deserve placement on a list of 21st-century villains, a list of nefarious runners-up, so to speak:
Loki – Thor, The Avengers, etc.
Red Skull – Captain America: The First Avenger
Ultron – Avengers: Age of Ultron
Killmonger – Black Panther
Severus Snape – Harry Potter series
Syndrome – The Incredibles
Davy Jones – The Pirates of the Caribbean 2 & 3
The White Witch – The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
No-Face – Spirited Away
The Green Goblin – Spider-Man
Other Mother – Coraline
Eris – Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas
Kylo Ren – Star Wars: Episodes VII-IX
The Armitage Family – Get Out
Daniel Plainview – There Will Be Blood
Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) – Star Trek into Darkness
Raoul Silva – Skyfall
Owen Davian – Mission: Impossible III
Solomon Lane – Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and Fallout
Bane – The Dark Knight Rises
Smaug – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Immortan Joe – Mad Max: Fury Road
Annabelle / The Nun – The Conjuring franchise
David – Prometheus and Alien: Covenant
Anton Chigurh – No Country for Old Men
Patrick Bateman – American Psycho
Jigsaw – Saw franchise
Kevin Wendell Crumb – Split and Glass
Wilson Fisk/Kingpin – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
So do you agree? What cinematic villains would you suggest are worthy of such a list? I’d love to know what you think!