Although great villains are an essential element of any film’s plot, they often serve little more than to present a problem for the heroes. Sometimes, however, a movie villain can be the most interesting and captivating part of the story.
Sometimes these villains get played by actors so bad at being evil that they make us root for them. Other times they’re so evil our despisal of them dominates the feature. And, sometimes, we realize that maybe they’re not as in the wrong as we initially thought.
The following ten films all feature a villain that, according to critics and audiences alike, outshined the story’s intended protagonist for one reason or another.
10 The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)
Batman has many things going for him: cool cars and gadgets, a ridiculously large amount of money, and an amazing butler who goes above the call of duty. The villainous cast that opposes Batman is what makes him a billionaire vigilante. You could take any Batmanfilm, and the villain is most likely the star of the show. In truth, we could have gone with the Penguin from Tim Burton’s Batman ReturnsBane from The Dark Knight Returns here. But, it’s Heath Ledger’s Joker that remains Batman’s most captivating nemesis.
Described by Heath Ledger himself as a “psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy,” the Joker of The Dark Knight couldn’t be more different than the campy on-screen iterations from the past.
The Joker’s lack of a clear backstory or motivation is more than compensated for by his presence. Indeed, every time he’s on-screen, something chaotic and insane occurs. Yet, it all feels authentic thanks to Ledger’s performance—which earned him a posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
9 Darth Vader in the Star Wars Franchise (1977–2019)
Original Star WarsThere are many iconic heroes in trilogy, but none that left the same impression as Vader. This is partly due to Vader’s presentation. Of course, Vader has the iconic suit, mask, and voice, but there’s also his tendency to bark orders and choke out those who don’t give him what he wants.
Vader’s arch during the original trilogy is also just more interesting than Luke’s. In many ways, it is even more interesting than Luke’s arch during the original trilogy. Star Wars is Vader’s story. From his journey to the dark side and his rivalry with his mentor Obi-Wan to the revelation that he is Luke’s father and his return to the light, Lucas gave us a villain that, intentionally or not, arguably serves as the franchise’s main character.
8 Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men (2007)
Josh Brolin was a great actor as Llewyn, an everyday man who stumbles into a dangerous cat-and-mouse game. No Country for Old Men. Tommy Lee Jones also gave a compelling performance as the almost retired, weary sheriff who became involved in something far greater than himself. Make no doubt about it, though, this is Javier Bardem’s film.
Although his bizarre haircut and vacuum-cleaner-like weapon may at first make people laugh, Anton Chigurh is truly terrifying. Cold and calculated, Chigurh’s demeanor never wavers despite the magnitude of his crimes, and Bardem’s sheer presence makes him feel like an unstoppable force. Oh, and then there’s the fact he’ll literally murder someone at the flip of a coin. The result is a character that audiences didn’t soon forget and a performance that rightfully earned Bardem an Oscar.
7 Elijah Price in Unbreakable (2000)
Unbreakable follows the story of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a security guard who doesn’t realize he’s a real-life Superman. Elijah Price (Samuel Jackson), a disabled comic shop owner, tries to help Dunn find his superpowers. In true Shyamalan fashion, there’s a twist toward the tale’s end, where we realize Price isn’t the well-meaning mentor we initially suspect. However, Price is still more intriguing and relatable than the story’s protagonist, with or without this revelation.
Whereas Dunn is impervious to injury (literally “unbreakable”), Price (aka “Mr. Glass”) suffers from brittle bone disease. Because of this, his struggles, which include a terrifying fall down a flight a stairs, make him far more relatable. But, of course, this only makes the film’s final revelation all that more brutal.
6 Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1973).
Sergeant Neil Howie, a deeply religious man, is a polar opposite to your typical movie hero. He is straight-laced and rigid, but he is also as boring as they come. This is part of the great trick that the folk-horror classic does. The Wicker Man, plays on the audience. But where Howie is the unexpected hero, there’s no doubt about the film’s villain, Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee.
Lee is wonderful as the charming pagan leader pulling strings behind the scenes of the Scottish island that bears the name. Lee played many villains in his career, including Dracula or Saruman. However, he would never forget to call. The Wicker ManHis best film. While that’s debatable, there’s no doubt that Lord Summerisle and his cooky followers stole the show here, even if Howie’s suspicions turn out to be right in the end.
5 Dr. Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
Neben den evocative set pieces, costumes and musical numbers, The Rocky Horror Picture ShowIt boasts a memorable cast of characters. But, with all due respect to Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick, there’s never been any doubt that the star of this cult classic is Dr. Frank-N-Furter, “The Eccentric Transvestite Scientist.”
Equally horny, mad, and captivating as he is, Furter, played by Tim Curry, steals the screen every time he’s on it and leaves fans eagerly awaiting his appearance when he isn’t. But, of course, Furter isn’t just promiscuous. He’s outright villainous, completely unable to see any consequences to his actions, which include murder. Still, if you’re focusing on Furter’s actions rather than his gender and social norm-defying ways, you might well have missed the point of the film.
4 Freddy Krueger in the A Nightmare on Elm Street Franchise (1984–2003)
Take any horror franchise from the ’80s, and there’s a chance the villain is more interesting than the victims. Most of the time, that’s just because the victims are a group of unconvincing teenage stereotypes. Freddy Krueger, unlike Jason and Michael Myers, is a pure source of campy entertainment.
Initially played by the talented Robert Englund, Krueger’s one-liners and sadistic presence are what kept audiences coming back for more. In fact, despite the franchise’s revolving door of protagonists, the films have amassed over $440 million to date. Add in those claw hands, Freddie’s ability to kill you in your dreams, and that iconic stripey red sweater, and you’ve got a horror villain who outshines any final girl or guy.
3 Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990)
Not to throw shade on James Caan’s performance as the bed-bound and trapped writer Paul Sheldon, but Misery’s legacy is Kathy Bates’s breakout performance as the psychotic Annie Wilkes. There’s a good reason Bates walked away with an Oscar for this performance, after all.
Wilkes is compelled to look after her favorite author’s car when it crashes in a snowstorm. However, it soon becomes clear that Wilkes’s fandom is more than just a little obsessive, and she quickly goes from carer to captor. In truth, Wilkes’s mild-mannered and seemingly kind-hearted nature only makes her infamous actions later more shocking. Add in that one particular scene involving a sledgehammer, and there’s little doubt that Wilkes is one of the most sadistic movie villains of all time.
2 Loki in Thor (2011)
Chris Hemsworth was the perfect choice for Thor as he is a badass. However, being the God of Thunder doesn’t leave much room for character depth and intrigue. Instead, it would be Tom Hiddleston’s performance as Thor’s sly brother Loki that would leave the most significant impression in this popular Marvel flick.
Loki is deceptive and conniving, treacherous, but not necessarily evil. These shades of grey make Loki so fascinating. Yes, Loki is selfish and ruthless, but he’s also a great deal more relatable and human than his more muscular brother. Loki is one of the greatest anti-villains, even though Thor may not be a great antihero.
1 Roy Batty, Blade Runner
What’s that? This list contains two films where Harrison Ford characters are overshadowed. Okay, so Ford’s Film Noir inspired Rick Deckard is a great protagonist. But, ultimately, it’s Rutger Hauer’s performance as the rogue humanoid Roy Batty that drives home the film’s themes.
Like all great villains, Roy Batty isn’t wholly evil but instead exhibits shades of grey. All he wants is to be in control of his own life. But, it just so happens that Batty’s search to understand himself leads him to become the cause of many deaths and destruction. Still, his final act proves to be a very human one, and his closing monologue, partly written by Hauer, where he laments the life he’s led, might be the most compelling in all of cinema history.