Who are the best movie villains? Although we’re usually supposed to root for the good guy, let’s be honest with ourselves: we all like a bad boy, don’t we? No matter the genre, we all know that the key to a good movie isn’t just a protagonist you can root for, but also a compelling villain.
In terms of what qualifies a ‘best movie villain,’ there’s more than one way to go about it. You could be describing a villain that you love to hate; a villain with a complicated backstory that makes you feel for them; or a villain that is so diabolical — so rotten to the core — you can’t help but be fascinated by them.
It’s impossible to list every good movie villain out there, but we’ve done our best with this guide here, as we rank iconic villains from worst to best which you might recognise from some of the best movies of all time. So, without further ado, here are the best of the baddies.
14. Wicked Witch of the West —The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Margaret Hamilton’s chilling performance as the Wicked Witch of the West wasn’t just impressive because of her quotable moments (“I’ll get you my pretty — and your little dog too!”), but also because she set the blueprint for so many iconic villains to come. Yet, if you watch Wicked! the musical, you might get an entirely different perspective on Elphaba. Just wait for the Wicked movie release date.
13. Biff Tannen — Back To The Future movies (1985-1990)
Every time something went wrong in the Back to the Future movies, you can bet fucking Biff Tannen or one of his stupid relatives was behind it. When it comes to universally-despised villains, our generation has Joffrey — but when it comes to our parents, you can bet Biff Tannen is among the worst of the worst. As well as being a nasty bully, he also proved to be villainous in every single timeline, from attempted rape to even murder throughout the ’80s and ‘90s movies. He was especially despicable, in my opinion, in the time travel movie Back to the Future 2.
12. Regina George — Mean Girls (2004)
This list might contain cannibals, sadistic nurses, and literal war criminals, but there’s nothing more diabolical than a bitchy teenage girl — that’s what Mean Girls put forth, anyway. Rachel McAdams stars in the Mean Girls cast as Regina George, playing her to perfection in the cult classic teen movie, leaving you shaking in your boots but also thinking, deep down, that she’s kinda cool.
11. Agatha Trunchball — Matilda (1996)
Some villains have an underlying softness, anti-hero vibes, or motives for their actions that at least, in part, make sense. But family movie foe Miss Trunchball is irredeemably evil because of the sadistic delight she takes in playing swingball with little girl’s plaits and even inventing the Chokey: let alone actually chucking children in there. And let’s not forget the fact she not only stole Miss Honey’s home and inheritance but almost definitely bumped off her dad, too. The best kids movies have the best bad guys.
10. The Evil Queen — Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)
The blueprint for wicked stepmothers in Disney movies. You’d have to be a pretty messed up person not just to try to repeatedly murder your stepdaughter, but to do so because she’s… prettier than you? The Evil Queen ticks all the boxes not just in terms of bad parenting/murderous intentions, but also in her sinister transformation into a cackling, manic witch brooding by a cauldron. The Disney villain is mean, she’s murderous, and she’s also very scary.
9. Lord Voldemort — Harry Potter movies (2001-2011)
On the surface of it, dedicating your life to chasing down a teenager as soon as their term at school comes to an end makes you quite a weak and lame villain, but the more we learn about Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies, the more we realize how he was so terrifying, people daren’t speak his name. As well as dabbling in some very dark shit, the Harry Potter villain also remorselessly killed and/or tortured anyone who stood in his way without a second thought, led his own death cult, and had some pretty extreme views about “pureblood” wizards and the like.
8. Saruman — Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003)
As one of the Lord of the Rings movies‘ few “morally grey” characters, snakey Saurman makes Game of Thrones‘ Littlefinger look like a Girl Scout. With his vast intelligence and potential for good, seeing the extent power can corrupt even the wisest of people definitely poses a lot of philosophical questions, and of course, Christopher Lee helps to elevate this Lord of the Rings character to another level. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.
7. The Terminator — The Terminator (1984)
What makes T-800 played by Arnold Schwarzenegger such a great character in the robot movie series is that he’s not only one of the best movie villains but also ends up being one of the best heroes, too. As well as having one hell of a redemption arc throughout the Terminator movies, he’s also an overpowered cyborg who can do all these robot fight scenes which are objectively cool and fun to watch.
6. Hans Gruber — Die Hard (1988)
Arguably, the true villains of Die Hard are the people that believe it’s a Christmas movie, but Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber is pretty memorable too. I know we aren’t supposed to root for the guy engineering the Nakatomi Tower heist, but Hans is so suave, it’s impossible to not respect him on some level.
A lot of action movie villains rely on big guns or muscly henchmen, but all Gruber needs to outmanoeuvre everyone is his sharp mind and continual ingenuity; which is what makes his ultimate defeat all the more satisfying. Yippie Ki-Yay, motherfucker.
5. Hannibal Lecter — The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
We all know that The Silence of the Lambs is one of the best horror movies of all time, and a major reason for that is Anthony Hopkins‘ magnetic performance as Hannibal Lecter. As a cannibalistic serial killer, he should be irredeemably evil and impossible to like.
Yet, his charisma, unique moral code, and relationship with Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) make us continually drawn to him, which is both a testament to how well-written the character is and a damning indictment of how easily swayed we can be by people who we are supposed to hate.
4. Thanos — Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Avengers: Endgame (2019)
This Marvel villain is truly one of the worst: killing one adoptive daughter, continually torturing the other, pillaging whole societies without a second thought, and stopping at nothing to achieve his vision.
The thing that sets Thanos apart from most is his sheer power: he’s one of the only villains in superhero movie history that managed to outwit the good guys and ultimately ‘win’, albeit for a short while. And while his solution for overpopulation in the MCU wasn’t… ideal, you’d be lying if you said you couldn’t see where he was coming from even a little bit.
3. Emperor Palpatine — Star Wars movies (1977 — 2019)
Who else could keep up villainous antics in not one, not two, but three Star Wars movie trilogies? The likes of Darth Maul and Darth Vader are probably the bad guys you remember most, but the thing about Emperor Palpatine is that even when he’s not on-screen, you can bet he’s in the background pulling all the strings.
This Star Wars villain is literally responsible for every bad thing that happened in all the films, and while Vader might be the muscle, he’s the one with all the power. There was a lot wrong with the Star Wars prequels, but Ian McDiarmid’s evolution from subtle manipulator to fully-fledged Sith lord and Emperor is very rewarding to watch.
2. Joker — The Dark Knight (2008)
Heath Ledger’s iteration of the Joker is an Oscar winner for a reason, as he strikes the perfect balance between mania and menacing, playful and brutal. The Joker as a standard Batman villain has been done to death, but what set Ledger apart in Batman movie The Dark Knight was his ability to capture the essence of the character’s comic book origins while also doing something completely new by bringing a dimension of darkness to the character that is completely new.
And that’s why he takes the top spot in our list of the best Joker actors ranked.
1. Nurse Ratched — One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
The thing that makes Nurse Ratched the best movie villain of all time isn’t just her blatant sadism and abuse of vulnerable people, but the fact she is able to get away with it all while hidden in plain sight. Her armour is her nurse’s uniform, and Louise Fletcher’s chilling calmness and matronly bedside manner while inflicting such loathsome and inhumane torture makes her all the more unsettling and detached.
If you’ve had enough of bad guys on the big screen, maybe the small screen will be more to your tastes — here are the best TV series of all time. Or, check out our guide to new movies starring the bad guy with all you need to know about the Joker 2 release date or the Venom 3 release date.