Everybody wants to be a hero, but villains have so much more fun. As Maleficent slinks back into theaters this weekend, let’s look back at some of our other favorite icons of evil from the movies.
My favorite villains are those who are justified in their actions. They may be jerks or have a little too much bloodlust, but in the end they’re doing things for the right reasons and they earn a sliver of sympathy from the audience because of that. That delicious mess of loyalty (when handled correctly) is anything but boring. Killmonger has every reason to take the throne back in Black Panther, for example, and Ferris Bueller’s principal was just doing his job.
I can’t help but think of the masses of the Tethered, led by Red (Lupita Nyong’o) in Us. Perhaps it’s my lifelong fear of doppelgangers, but that film has stuck to my bones more than any other in recent memory. The most haunting element of it is that the Tethered are owed their due. They might be going about it in an overly vindictive way, but can you blame them? While the film suffers from some glaringly obvious missteps in the mechanics of its mirrored worlds, the terror struck in me by the hordes of jump-suited people emerging from the underground is one of the most unsettling things I can imagine.
Many screen villains are graduates of the wild-eyed, arm-waving, cackling-laugh school of acting where caricatures reign supreme. One of the first to tone it down, speak in a near-whisper, and lace dialogue with lethal doses of venom comes not from the world of organized crime or the pages of a comic book. No, this villain hails from the rarefied, sophisticated milieu of “the thea-tah,” and she – yes, she stalks her prey and spins her web with the focus and precision of a black widow spider.
Eve Harrington, the title character in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s masterful All About Eve, is an insidious cancer who quietly infects a group of egotistical, easily flattered theater folk who can’t see beyond the marquee lights of Broadway. Impeccably played by Anne Baxter (who earned a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar nomination for her devilish portrayal), Eve is blinded by those bulbs, too, and her burning desire for stardom drives her to weasel her way into the life of stage diva Margo Channing (Bette Davis) by adopting a pitiful persona and concocting a fictional tragic backstory that Margo and her friends buy hook, line, and sinker.
The sycophantic, soft-spoken, and duplicitous Eve gloms onto Margo like one of those alien face-huggers, first becoming her personal secretary, then her understudy. What she really wants is to take over Margo’s life and career, and her sinister plot to do so involves Machiavellian manipulations, ruthless blackmail, and brazen seductions. When Eve drops her fake smiles, breathy voice, and sugary-sweet demeanor and brandishes her claws and fangs, she makes tigresses and cobras look tame. Rarely has anyone so deliciously realized a movie villain or played it with as much understated relish. Eve is evil personified, and Baxter brings her to brilliant life.
Far too many movie villains are brilliant and diabolical at the beginning of a movie, then lose their cool and become screaming, raging psychopaths by the final frame.
That’s why Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) in 1988’s Die Hard is such a breath of fresh air. Here’s a guy who looks more like a banker than he does a bad guy, and he’s a threat to our cop hero John McClane (Bruce Willis) not because of his physicality, but because of his intellect and his ability to think fast and adapt just as quickly as our hero can.
Rickman could have played Gruber in many ways, but his calmness under pressure (even when he’s enraged, Gruber can control his anger) makes him one of the best on-screen villains we’ve seen.
While it’s very tempting to go with Roy Batty, I think he’s ultimately too sympathetic to be a “villain.” Instead, I’d like to pivot to one Thulsa Doom. As any good villain should, his time on screen in Conan the Barbarian is relatively brief, but he gets in the movie very early and is basically like hot fire every time he’s in a scene. Though not especially physical (he often exudes a still calm), when he speaks, it’s impossible not to be drawn to him and to his face.
In another important movie villain attribute, he’s portrayed by a beloved actor (James Earl Jones), one who easily could play in any role (good, bad, character, etc.), but is delightful and fearful as the villain. By the time the audience meets Thulsa Doom for the second time and hears him speak, he has an unquestionable authority to go with a terrible charisma, but he also has a wariness and condescension that he uses when speaking about his own past. His evilness is always certain, but he’s also, subtly, fallen from the belief system that the protagonist’s family had ascribed to (and were laid out in the opening). He kills Conan’s mother and later his love, and in both instances, the actions are as vicious as they are effortless.
By the end of the film, Thulsa Doom feels so powerful, and so full of himself, that he tries to co-opt Conan, if at least for a moment. So many stories are ultimately bound by the relationships (or lack thereof) between children and their parents. Conan’s quest to avenge his family and his people (and again his love) momentarily becomes stuck when Thulsa Doom loquaciously asserts himself as true inspiration for everything that Conan has become.
Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)
One thing many of my favorite movie villains have in common is that they were all played by Gary Oldman. Whether it’s the corporate tyrant Zorg who takes matters into his own hands in The Fifth Element, drug-addled DEA agent Norman Stansfield in Léon: The Professional, or even the racially confused drug dealer Drexl Spivey in True Romance, Oldman seems to really relish being the bad guy, chewing up all of his scenes with aplomb and intensity. One of his best roles was also villainous, though we can be forgiven for thinking him heroic, and that was as the title character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Sure, he murders hundreds in battle, and survives by sucking the life force out of others, but we can’t help rooting for the count in his quest to fulfill an eternal love.
No hero has more colorful villains than James Bond, and no Bond villain is as iconic as Goldfinger. The conniving billionaire is so obsessed with gold that he concocts a devious scheme to break into Fort Knox – not to steal the gold there, but to irradiate it so that his own reserves will be more valuable. He’s like a petulant child who not only wants to have all the best toys, but insists on breaking every other kid’s toys so that they can’t have what he has.
To be fair, this gold obsession may not be entirely his own fault. I mean, his first name, Auric, even means “gold-like.” His parents basically named him Goldy McGoldfinger. Can we really be surprised that he has an unhealthy fixation with the stuff?
Despite the inherent silliness of his conception, the character comes across as very sinister and intimidating as portrayed by German actor Gert Fröbe, even though most of his dialogue had to be dubbed over by another actor because Fröbe didn’t speak much English. He even gets perhaps the single best witticism in the long-running franchise:
James Bond: “Do you expect me to talk?”
Auric Goldfinger: “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”
That scene alone cemented the character as one of the all-time greatest movie villains.
The possibilities here are endless. Tell us your favorite movie villains in the Comments below.