What’s good about writing these listicles is that I’m able to cover a ton of ground in a short(ish) amount of time. As such, I’ve covered the worst of the worst when it comes to comic book movie villainy. It stands then, that I should swing the pendulum the other way to detail my favorite ne’er-do-wells of cinematic comic bookery, right? Well, once again, you don’t have a say.
The Rules: Much like last time, when I formed this ranking, I took into account a few criteria. I’m covering only the main antagonist of comic book films starting from 1978’s Superman. I look to the actual performance/portrayal. Did I believe I was watching a character or just a good actor chewing the scenery? I also like to compare the on-screen portrayal against the origins of the on-paper version of the character — where I like to see a positive convergence of the tentpoles of a given wrongdoer from their pulpy origins emboldened by the advantages offered by the silver screen. Beyond those basics, I always look towards the actual fights/schemes/plans that pair the main villain against his or her nemesis (those stupid super heroes everyone loves so much). I really like to see both the savagery and the sorcery, if you will, of the baddie being bad.
Here then, are my picks. Damn the innocent.
- Michael Keaton / The Vulture — Spider-Man: Homecoming
Straight out of the gate, I’ll admit I wanted to put Mr. Keaton higher on the list. Spider-Man: Homecoming was really mostly a vehicle for Tom Holland’s pitch-perfect friendly neighborhood wall-crawler. But it was because of this, Keaton’s Adrian Toomes is such a delight. Choosing to lean into his lower register (but not freaky Birdman range, thankfully) and sinister sneers, Vulture in Homecoming is an understated nemesis. What earns him a spot on my list, more than anything, is the intelligent plotting and drive of Toomes. Unburdened with the whole anti-aging pseudo-science of the original source material, we get a villain who truly had proper motivation. In the wake of The Avengers here was a man screwed out of his livelihood by super-situations beyond his control. Michael Keaton delivers an intelligent and calculating villain who (versus many on this list) see his nemesis as a nuisance — meant to be dealt with, not obsessed over — with the sound mind to take what he sees as rightfully his. Even if he’s in the wrong. And simply put? The driving-to-prom scene alone was worth putting Michael Keaton on this list.
- Tom Hiddleston / Loki — The Avengers
I can hear several fangirls already sharpening blades over the low placing of Tom Hiddleston on my list. But I’ll say my peace and accept my fate. Specifically in The Avengers, Loki is at his most evil (saving Thor, which while good, pales in comparison to him here) — setting the Avengers up to fail at every turn. What sells Loki most to me, and what earns his spot here on my list, are his scenes opposite any Avenger, save his brother. Hiddleston’s portrayal of an Asgardian is as it should be: noble, godly, and aloof. In the face of Black Widow, Captain America, Hawkeye, and Iron Man… he sees himself a god. And while yes, he gets punched, repulsor-blasted, arrow-detonated, and Hulk-smashed… he never loses his edge. As means to the ends of Thanos, Loki more than holds his weight as the singular villain (plus an army of disposable CGI) in a film choked to the edges of the screen with heroic talent. Whereas Justice League gave us disposably-generic… Avengers gave us coldly-unforgettable.
- Jason Lee / Syndrome — The Incredibles
I dare anyone reading this to tell me I’m not allowed to include a non-comic-canon character who is animated to boot on this list. Because they’d lose their argument when considering Jason Lee’s Incrediboy-turned-Big-Bad. From his calculated efforts to capture Mr. Incredible, to his sadistic decree to destroy a plane that had just announced it had children aboard it… Syndrome is the arcitype of villainy personified. Lee’s vocal talents perfectly paint the picture of a broken-hearted would-be sidekick who chooses a dark-path due to disappointment. And as the grown-up nemesis to the Parr family, his invention-driven path-of-destruction comes both as no surprise, and nearly flawless in execution. If he’d only chosen not to don a cape…
- Josh Brolin / Thanos — Avengers: Infinity War
While many will continue to meme the purple rock-collector until Endgame… few could argue that the portrayal of the Mad Titan built up over ten-plus films could have been handled much better. Brolin’s calm, weighty performance— perfectly rotoscoped into his hulking CGI frame — quickly establishes his villain we should all fear from the cold open. Without aid of even a single Infinity Stone, Thanos dispatches the Incredible Hulk with the meticulous devastation of a seasoned MMA fighter. We watch in awe and agony as Banner’s never-over-powered angry-half is pummeled into submission. And this is all before Thanos marches slowly across the cosmos to collect his shiny rocks, and snaps away half the beings of the universe. That he joins nearly no other villains in the “actually succeeded in my evil plan” club, and retires to his weird space farm to live in peace afterwards is the dusty icing on a bitter cake. As close to the source as we were ever going to get… all completed with a performance I couldn’t recast to save Peter Parker’s desperate life.
- Alfred Molina / Doctor Octopus — Spider-Man 2
“The power of the sun, in the palm of my hand.” So sayeth Otto Octavious. On page, Doc Oc is often a morty lame duck of a villain — save perhaps his superior run as the Spider-Man himself. But in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, he is as he should be: mild-mannered, with an undercurrent of resentment and determination. Alfred Molina disappears into the role; becoming a would-be father figure to Peter Parker, a loving husband to his wife Rosalie, and a frustrated scientist under the knuckle of a rich brat. That his over-zealous excitement to complete his project eventually causes him to abandon reason to see his work be finalized cements him as a villain whose motivations we can accept (if not agree with, obviously). The only misstep to the portrayal (and not Molina’s fault by any means) we get a bit of a worthless subplot revolving around his additional appendages perhaps being sentient. Beyond that though, Spider-Man 2 remains one of the best superhero movies of all time… because in this case our villain cements the journey our hero must make by the end of the film. And that’s far more powerful than a CGI super-nova being cradled by Larry, Harry, Flo, and Moe.