Is a hero only ever as good as their villain? Does a better baddie force the goodie to up their game? When you think about the superheroes that have worked best on the big screen, the strongest protagonists have always had the best line-up of antagonists to tussle with. It can certainly seem like the villains have more fun. The arch-nemesis role has often given actors licence to cut loose and deliver their most deliciously fun performances. The make-up, costumes, mannerisms and origin stories often lend themselves to larger-than-life interpretations; the only actor to have ever won an Oscar for a superhero movie was playing a villain.
From megalomaniacal industrialists to fallen heroes, malevolent mentors to ordinary people gone off the rails, and calculating masterminds to agents of chaos, they’re all here. Featuring fully CGI creations, ground-breaking prosthetics, and stripped-back performances, it’s a surprisingly varied rogues’ gallery.
As always, tensions were high in the Total Film office when we were whittling down the final 50, though thankfully no one was thrown into a vat of toxic chemicals or exiled to the Phantom Zone. Given the sheer volume of superhero movies in recent years, there were inevitably casualties that didn’t quite crack the list. Though the top-placed supervillain was pretty much a unanimous decision.
50. Thaddeus Sivana, Shazam!, 2019
Comic origin: Whiz Comics #2 (1939)
Played by Mark Strong
The last 80 years have seen various incarnations of evil scientist Doctor Sivana appear on the pages of DC’s comics, stretching back to the time when his nemesis Billy Batson was known better as Captain Marvel. So it’s hardly surprising that David F. Sandberg’s movie cooks up a new origin story for him, which positions him as the son of a wealthy CEO determined to get his hands on the powers fleetingly offered to him by Djimon Hounsou’s wizard when he was but a child.
“He’s a proper supervillain,” says Strong. “He gets to fly, he can create electric fields in his hands and he has seven sins in his eye that manifest themselves when he wants them to.” The end result, continues the actor, was “spooky and creepy and dangerous”, not least due to the character’s distinctive wardrobe. “He’s chosen a sort of Nazi-like leather coat with a fur collar,” the star explains. “I love playing bad guys because they always get the best clothes and the best lines.”
Shazam! might get the best of Doctor Sivana, but a post-credits sting featuring fellow supervillain Mister Mind suggests we haven’t seen the last of a bad guy Strong says is “heat-seeking ballistic evil”. “There is a tradition in the comics of Sivana and the Venusian Mindworm being partners in crime so it’s certainly a maybe,” Strong continues. “I can’t imagine anything better than hooking up with a worm.”
Most Dastardly Moment: Using the seven deadly sins to murder his dad.
Killer One-Liner: “You will beg for mercy as I feast on your heart.”
49. Max Shreck, Batman Returns, 1992
Comic origin N/A
Played by Christopher Walken
“I tend to play mostly villains and twisted people,” Christopher Walken acknowledged during press for Tim Burton’s Bat-sequel. “I think it’s my face, the way I look.” There’s no question he put his hollow cheeks and skull-popping peepers to startlingly good use as this strangle-voiced tycoon, imbuing Max Shreck with a wit as black as his power-hungry heart. In fact, he was so good, Burton was originally too scared to cast him.
Most Dastardly Moment: Shoving poor Selina Kyle out of a high-rise window.
Killer One-Liner: “Mayors come and go. Blue bloods tire easy. You think you can go 15 rounds with Muhammed Shreck?”
48. The Riddler, Batman Forever, 1995
Comic origin: Detective Comics #140 (1948)
Played by Jim Carrey Frank
Gorshin reprised his TV role in Batman ’66, but Carrey fleshed out Edward Nygma to become a highlight of the otherwise middling DC threequel. Elastic-featured Carrey leans into the fun side of being a supervillain, enjoying all aspects of the role: nerdy researcher, wannabe-Wayne playboy, lycra-clad trickster. “It was really physically taxing,” said Carrey. There was legendary behind-the-scenes tension between Carrey and Two-Face star Tommy Lee Jones, who told him, “I cannot sanction your buffoonery.” Despite rumours, Riddler hasn’t had another live-action appearance since.
Most Dastardly Moment: Hijacking Gotham’s brainwaves to steal every citizen’s personal info.
Killer One-Liner: “Tell the fat lady she’s on in five.”
47. Prince Nuada, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, 2008
Comic origin: N/A
Played by Luke Goss
Playing a twin with preternatural talents wouldn’t have been a stretch for Luke Goss, who reteams with director Guillermo del Toro after Blade II to play another superpowered baddie with daddy issues. His Prince Nuada Silverlance is an elvish warrior with questionable feelings towards his twin sister Nuala, and who tries to bring about the end of all humanity by releasing the Golden Army.
Most Dastardly Moment: Stabbing Hellboy with a magic spear that edges closer to his heart.
Killer One-Liner: “If you cannot command, then you must obey.”
46. Green Goblin, Spider-Man, 2002
Comic origin: The Amazing Spider-Man #14 (1964)
Played by Willem Dafoe
Conceived by Stan Lee as a mythological demon, Green Goblin was changed to a human villain by Lee’s collaborator Steve Ditko, and the character swiftly emerged as Spider-Man’s No.1 archenemy. When it came to Spidey’s first modern-day big-screen outing, in Sam Raimi’s 2002 game-changer, the web-slinger was always destined to go up against his greenness.
Casting Willem Dafoe as the Goblin and his alter-ego Norman Osborn, the tycoon whose chemical experiments send him insane, was a masterstroke. The actor brings athleticism – just watch him ride the Goblin’s glider – and madness to one of the most unhinged characters in the Marvel canon. Singing ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ as he fires a missile towards Spider-Man (“Along came the Goblin and took the spider out”) is particularly delicious.
While the character evolves as an embodiment of corporate greed, as Osborn vies for a military contract and kills all his rivals, what makes the Goblin so dynamic is the way he overtakes Osborn’s psyche. So the story goes, Raimi gave Dafoe Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde to read before the infamous scene where Osborn looks in the mirror, wrestling with his inner Goblin.
“You could play these scenes where it would switch from comedy to drama in a line,” enthused Dafoe, who impressively manages to bring the full force of the Goblin’s tyranny to the fore despite the restrictions of the inexpressive mask that critics likened to something out of Power Rangers (early test videos indicated that a more nightmarish design was considered).
In the end, Dafoe’s greatest weapon is his voice, full of hellish cackles and just the right side of comic-book camp. The character returned for 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, with Dane DeHaan – as Norman Osborn’s son, Harry – assuming the mantle. But Dafoe remains the quintessential Green Goblin.
Most Dastardly Moment: Dropping a tram-full of children and Mary Jane off the Queensboro Bridge.
Killer One-Liner: “MJ and I… we’re gonna have a helluva time!”
45. Ebony Maw, Avengers: Infinity War, 2018; Avengers: Endgame, 2019
Comic origin: New Avengers #8 (2013)
Played by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor
He may be the weediest-looking member of the Black Order, but he’s by far the most creepily charismatic. It’s Ebony who, at the start of Infinity War, sets the heightened stakes in stone as he preaches the gospel according to Thanos, “You may think this is suffering… no. It is salvation.” Actor Tom Vaughan-Lawlor strove for a perfect balance, “I needed to find a voice that could be declamatory in one way without hopefully being too hammy.” Hammy? Not in the least. His untimely demise (killed by an Aliens reference) is surely no reason to rejoice.
Most Dastardly Moment: Telekinetically torturing Doctor Strange using needles “designed for microsurgery”. Yeow…
Killer One-liner: “Stonekeeper, does this chattering animal speak for you?”
44. Dormammu, Doctor Strange, 2016
Comic origin: Strange Tales #126 (1964)
Played by Benedict Cumberbatch
No backstory. No motive. No morality. The Dormammu of the MCU is just a big formless cosmic virus that feeds off other dimensions (and slightly confusing timey-wimey riddles). The evil counterpart of Doctor Strange in more ways than one, he was even played by the same person, with Benedict Cumberbatch voicing the CG face of the Dark Dimension and playing him as an ultra-inflated version of Strange’s own ego, just to make the film’s big trans-dimensional showdown even more meta.
Most Dastardly Moment: Killing Strange again and again, just to try to prove him wrong.
Killer One-Liner: “Your world is now my world, like all worlds!”
43. Rasputin, Hellboy, 2004
Comic origin: Seed Of Destruction (1994)
Played by Karel Roden
The real Grigori Rasputin – “Russia’s greatest love machine” according to Boney M – died in 1916. But that didn’t stop Guillermo del Toro resurrecting him so he could help the Nazis sire a demon who would grow up and destroy the world if manipulated correctly. (“From the ashes a new Eden will rise!” the fabled necromancer declares.) Stabbed by one of Hellboy’s horns, he finally buys it when the monster that bursts from his body kills him and his lover. Now there was a cat that really was gone.
Most Dastardly Moment: Killing John Hurt.
Killer One-Liner: “Not a tear will be shed for this world.”
42: Sebastian Shaw, X-Men: First Class, 2011
Comic origin: Uncanny X-Men #129 (1980)
Played by Kevin Bacon
Half Hugh Hefner, half Josef Mengele, Kevin Bacon’s Shaw is a formidable adversary even without his ability to absorb and redirect energy. “He’s a very confident man,” says the actor, who got the role despite looking nothing like the Byron-esque sideburn sporter from the comics. “He’s a very powerful billionaire, he’s the leader of the Hellfire Club, and he has a plot to take over the world.” None of that, alas, can save him from the levitating coin Magneto propels through his noggin at the end of Matthew Vaughn’s stylish reboot.
Most Dastardly Moment: Killing Magneto’s mum.
Killer One-Liner: “We are the future of the human race.”
41: Obadiah Stane, Iron Man, 2008
Comic origin: Iron Man #163 (1982)
Played by Jeff Bridges
Played by The Dude himself, company exec Obadiah Stane was the MCU’s first big bad. Having orchestrated Tony’s kidnap and attempting a hostile takeover of Stark Enterprises, he emerged suited up as the Iron Monger, only to die in their climactic clash. But it wasn’t always so. “When I was hired it was scripted that Obadiah would live,” rues Bridges, “then they decided to kill my ass off.”
Most Dastardly Moment: Trashing downtown LA.
Killer One-Liner: “You had a great idea, Tony, but my suit is more advanced in every way!”
Click through to Page 2 to continue our ranking of the best comic book villains of all time