Best Movie Villains of All Time Ranked: In a statement made more than 40 years ago, film critic Roger Ebert said that “each film is only as good as its villain.” Ebert may not have been the first person to make this point, but in any case, he was an expert on movies, and it would be impossible to argue with what he has to say here. Many movies have become iconic in large part due to their antagonists, both before Ebert said this and in the years since.
The lead antagonist gives the protagonist/heroes something to fight against, and will often be the primary source of a story’s conflict. Conflict is always interesting, and so oftentimes, the better – or more compelling – the villain, the more emotional engagement a viewer will feel.
This makes a great villain something that’s always worth celebrating, with the villains below all being some of the best in film history, thanks to how evil, clever, persistent, or sometimes even understandable/tragic they are.
List of Top 25 Best Movie Villains of All Time Ranked
Darth Vader – original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy (1977-1983)
Emperor Palpatine may be the villain calling the shots in the original Star Wars trilogy, but it’s Darth Vader who emerges as the trilogy’s most iconic villain. He’s a seemingly unstoppable force in 1977’s Star Wars, is revealed to have surprising ties to hero Luke Skywalker in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, and then ultimately redeems himself in the trilogy’s final film, Return of the Jedi.
His arc across these three films is a compelling and emotional one, and his origin story is further explored in the Star Wars prequel trilogy (1999-2005). From his iconic look to his memorable voice to his ability to physically dominate almost any opponent, Darth Vader is about as good as it gets when it comes to movie villains, with his tragic past and ultimately redemptive death making him the most compelling villain in film history.
Joker – ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008)
Like Lecter, The Joker’s a character who’s been portrayed on screen to great success by more than one actor. Honorable mentions for the best portrayals of the Joker would have to go to Joaquin Phoenix, who won an Oscar for 2019’s Joker, Jack Nicholson, who played the Joker in 1989’s Batman, and Mark Hamill, who’s voiced the character to great effect numerous times.
But it’s Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight that’s given audiences the best take on the character so far, with him being played immaculately by Heath Ledger, who sadly passed away before the film’s release. It’s not the actor’s only great performance by any means, but it stands as his most memorable, with Ledger bringing an undeniably chaotic energy to the Joker, making him a key reason why The Dark Knight is such a relentlessly intense and gripping comic book movie.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter – ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991)
The one thing scarier than a physically imposing villain is a ruthlessly intelligent one, and Dr. Hannibal Lecter shines in this regard. He always seems to be at least several steps ahead of every other character, especially in The Silence of the Lambs, where he’s shown to be at his most diabolical, charismatic, and monstrous.
There’s a reason it’s Anthony Hopkins’s most iconic role; he just shines every second he’s on-screen, and it’s hard to imagine any other actor doing the same with this character (though Brian Cox and Mads Mikkelsen have both portrayed Lecter well, too). A genius, psychiatrist, serial killer, and cannibal all in one, movie villains don’t get much more impactful than Hannibal Lecter.
Norman Bates – ‘Psycho’ (1960)
Given he directed many iconic movies, there are plenty of great villains to be found within the filmography of Alfred Hitchcock. However, it’s the director’s most iconic horror movie – Psycho (1960) – that also houses the most menacing villain of any Hitchcock movie: the hotel owner with a dark secret, Norman Bates.
Bates’s villainy isn’t revealed until the film’s conclusion, which makes him a far more terrifying character on a rewatch. He’s responsible for perhaps cinema’s most traumatic murder scene of all time, and the way he looks into the viewer’s soul at the film’s conclusion is spine-chilling. He’s a great antagonist, and brilliantly portrayed by Anthony Perkins.
The Wicked Witch of the West – ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939)
Released during a groundbreaking year in cinema history, The Wizard of Oz might well be the most iconic fantasy film of all time. It adapts the well-known 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with effects and technology that were stunning by 1939 standards, and still largely hold up surprisingly well to this day.
The plot sees a young girl named Dorothy trapped in a magical realm and desperate to get back to the real world, which sets her off on a quest to do just that, all the while being followed by the Wicked Witch of the West. The Wicked Witch is probably the best-known witch in film history, and the fact she’s likely terrified countless millions of children watching the otherwise family-friendly movie is enough to make her one of cinema’s most iconic villains.
The Alien – ‘Alien’ (1979)
As far as unnamed antagonists go, none are better than the titular alien from 1979’s Alien. This acclaimed Ridley Scott movie has a premise that’s about as direct as sci-fi/horror movies come, given it follows a crew on board a spaceship trying to survive a deadly alien life form that’s roaming around the craft, deadset on taking out every human being in the vicinity one by one.
It’s sometimes known as the Nostromo Drone, and is undoubtedly the most terrifying creature from any of the Alien movies. It’s a pure killing machine, and cannot be reasoned with or even understood. Couple that with the fact that Alien presents human characters more vulnerable than any other movie in the series, and it becomes clear that unnamed movie creatures don’t get much more terrifying than this alien.
Hans Landa – ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (2009)
Quentin Tarantino has made several great crime/thriller movies, but with 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, he proved he could also make an all-time great war movie. It’s set in Nazi-occupied France during World War II, and follows numerous characters who are all fighting the Nazis in their own unique ways.
On the German side of things, the character who gets the most screen time – and makes the biggest impact – is Hans Landa, played by Christoph Waltz. Waltz is perfectly cast, and steals every scene he’s in as a viciously intimidating – and sometimes charismatic – antagonist who ultimately proves he’s just out for himself. Landa’s the best character in the film, and Waltz’s Oscar-winning performance is one for the ages.
Nurse Ratched – ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ (1975)
Jack Nicholson might be well known for playing villains, but in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he got to be the film’s central protagonist. He plays Randle McMurphy, a new patient at a psychiatric facility who inspires other patients to rebel against the authorities, with this making McMurphy a target of the head nurse at the facility, Nurse Ratched.
Ratched’s domineering and remarkably stern, and her being the complete opposite of McMurphy makes her stop at nothing to control him. She’s portrayed by Louise Fletcher in the actress’s best-known performance, and one that deservedly won her an Oscar for Best Lead Actress at the Academy Awards.
HAL 9000 – ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968)
An influential science-fiction classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film without a traditional villain, at least for the first two of its four main sections. The first part of the movie is set in prehistoric times, showing early human evolution, while the second is set in space, and revolves around the discovery of a strange object found on the surface of the moon.
The third part of the film is where 2001’s main antagonist, HAL 9000, enters the picture. HAL 9000’s a supercomputer that’s programmed to assist the human astronauts on board the same ship it is, though it eventually reveals itself to have a sense of morality that clashes with the humans on board. HAL 9000 takes the film to new heights when it comes to tension and terror, being a cold, calculating killing machine that doesn’t believe it’s doing anything wrong, giving it a uniquely menacing presence.
Anton Chigurh – ‘No Country for Old Men’ (2007)
No Country for Old Men is an acclaimed neo-noir movie that splits its time between three central characters. One’s a man who stumbles across the aftermath of a drug deal turned deadly, and takes $2 million from the site. One’s a sheriff getting on in years who’s behind on the situation. The third’s a terrifying killer named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who’ll stop at nothing to recover the cash taken from the site of the botched drug deal.
Thanks largely to Bardem’s Oscar-winning performance, Chigurh emerges as the most memorable character in the film, and one of the most terrifying antagonists of all time. He’s seemingly as unstoppable as a Terminator, and just as willing to kill those who get in his way, made all the more scary by the fact that he’s not a machine programmed to kill; he is – somehow – human.
Reverend Harry Powell – ‘The Night of the Hunter’ (1955)
Few thrillers as old as The Night of the Hunter can still get the heart racing, but this 1955 classic is simply built differently to most thrillers. It’s a movie about a preacher named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) and the way he pursues a widow for the money her husband left behind, in turn terrifying her two young children.
It’s a lean, mean, and incredibly efficient crime/thriller movie that’s tense enough to be described as a horror movie in parts. Powell is the key reason for that terror, and it’s Mitchum’s most famous character for good reason. Though the film may have been too much for viewers upon release, The Night of the Hunter has since been reevaluated as a classic of American cinema.
Pazuzu/Regan MacNeil – ‘The Exorcist’ (1973)
In many demonic possession movies, the antagonist is more or less unseen, and comes to take over the body of a character who’s otherwise not a villain. This is the case in The Exorcist, which is the high point of the demonic possession sub-genre, after the demonic entity known as Pazuzu takes over the body of a 12-year-old girl named Regan MacNeil.
Taking over someone so young and innocent makes the demon here even eviler than your average possession-happy demonic force, and it causing a young girl to do shocking things is one key reason why The Exorcist is still an alarming and terrifying movie. The idea of being possessed by something has never been more frightening in any other movie, making the villain at the center of this 1973 horror classic one of the greatest in film history.
Hans Gruber – ‘Die Hard’ (1988)
Die Hard is one of the greatest action movies of all time, and fittingly also has one of the very best villains in cinema history. His name is Hans Gruber (played to perfection by Alan Rickman), and he leads a group of terrorists who take over a high-rise building one Christmas Eve, hoping to steal a great fortune hidden somewhere inside it.
Hans Gruber is charismatic, level-headed, and smart, but not infallible, and his clashes with protagonist John McClane (Bruce Willis) – mostly over a walkie-talkie – are legendary. The two characters are wildly different and perfectly pitted against each other, making Die Hard a compelling battle of wits on top of having some great physical conflict/action, too.
Phyllis Dietrichson – ‘Double Indemnity’ (1944)
The classic film noir genre may have been short-lived, but various film noir tropes live on. And few film noir elements are more well-known than that of the femme fatale character; a figure that often shows up in film noir stories and poses some kind of danger to the usually male protagonist, sometimes having mysterious motives and sometimes revealing themselves to be villainous.
Of the villainous femme fatale characters, none are quite as memorable or iconic as Phyllis Dietrichson from the Billy Wilder classic Double Indemnity. Played by Barbara Stanwyck, she ropes an insurance agent into a complex scheme to murder her husband for money, which ultimately has devastating consequences for all involved. Stanwyck’s performance here is the one to beat, as far as classic femme fatale characters go, and she’s a key reason why Double Indemnity still holds up so well.
Gollum – ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (2001-2003)
The central villain in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is ultimately Sauron, who the heroes need to prevent from regaining his power, given that if he were to rise again, all would be lost. This does mean he’s ultimately a background character throughout the trilogy, and only really glimpsed in his physical form during the first movie’s prologue.
As such, it’s the secondary villains that inevitably make more of an impact. And though he has some competition from the likes of Saruman and the Witch-king, Gollum would have to be the best of these secondary villains. He’s a tragic, pitiful, and loathsome character, likely to inspire sympathy and frustration in equal measure, with the character expertly brought to life through a combination of cutting-edge technology and the skills of performer/actor Andy Serkis.
Jack Torrance – The Shining’ (1980)
The Shining isn’t just one of 1980’s best movies; it’s also one of the greatest horror movies of all time. It’s about a man named Jack Torrance who’s struggling with writer’s block, leading him to look after a hotel in the off-season, hoping the isolation and break from everyday life will give him the time and space to resume writing.
Jack takes his family along with him, but they eventually become victims when the hotel drives Jack mad, and he becomes increasingly abusive and eventually even violent. Jack Nicholson successfully makes what could’ve felt like an over-the-top and silly character genuinely menacing, with it being one of Nicholson’s very best performances in a career filled with absolutely great ones.
Thanos – ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ (2018)
Even the best superhero movies tend to be very upfront about showcasing battles between good and evil. The heroes might not be perfect, and the villains might have understandable motives, but it’s usually pretty clear who’s the antagonist and who’s the protagonist. Thanos – showcased most in Avengers: Infinity War – makes for a unique example of a superhero villain, because his motives are explored in-depth, seeing as he’s more or less the central character in Infinity War.
Thanos has more screen time than any other character does in this 2018 movie, and though he was featured briefly in MCU movies before Infinity War, his quest to kill untold people to prevent overpopulation is explored most within this single film. Viewers can see where he’s coming from, though his questionable methods are also a cause for concern. His quest is nonetheless compelling, and he also proves himself to be hugely powerful (even beating the Hulk in one-on-one combat before he obtains all the Infinity Stones), making him one of the best movie villains in recent memory.
The Queen – ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937)
1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is groundbreaking for being the first feature-length Disney movie and the first fully-animated feature film. Its story might not be original or surprising, but it’s still a solidly told fairytale, with the technical qualities – and what the film did overall for the medium of animation – making it an iconic one.
Of the story/character elements, the film’s villain – the Queen – is one of the most memorable. She pursues Snow White, jealous of her beauty, and is intimidating enough in her pursuit to be genuinely unsettling for any of the younger viewers who might be watching. She doesn’t pull punches, and ultimately brings about her own downfall, making her the first in a long line of iconic – and sometimes tragic – Disney movie villains.
Lord Voldemort – the ‘Harry Potter’ series (2001-2011)
Lord Voldemort might not appear physically in every single one of the Harry Potter movies, but he serves as an overarching villain for all eight films. His presence is always felt, even if he’s not always seen, though he comes to have more screen time and more of an impact on the overall plot as the series goes on, and as the films get progressively darker.
Ralph Fiennes is largely responsible for making Voldemort such a memorable villain, portraying the character with scenery-devouring devotion from 2005’s The Goblet of Fire onwards. He’s also got one of the most evil-sounding names in the history of fiction, and in-universe, he’s often literally referred to as “He Who Must Not Be Named.”
Annie Wilkes – ‘Misery’ (1990)
Misery has a wonderfully simple premise, and a setting that’s largely confined to a single house. It follows what happens after an author is “rescued” by an adoring fan who then takes him captive and forces him to change the ending of one of his stories, simply because she didn’t like what happened.
The fan’s name is Annie Wilkes, and she’s expertly played by Kathy Bates in a terrifying performance that deservedly won Bates an Oscar. Stephen King’s written some great love-to-hate villains over the years, but few are quite as monstrous – and somehow believable – as Wilkes, making her an all-time great literary and film villain.
The T-800 Terminator – ‘The Terminator’ (1984)
Though it’s the smallest and most modestly budgeted of all the Terminator movies, the original from 1984 is arguably the most ambitious of the lot. It’s a science-fiction/action movie, sure, but it also has a strong romantic story at its core, and its lead antagonist is intimidating and powerful enough to also make the movie sometimes feel like it belongs in the horror genre.
The T-800 is the type of Terminator that’s sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor in the first movie, and he instantly became iconic. He’s memorably portrayed by an unemotional and physically imposing Arnold Schwarzenegger, and his nigh-invulnerability makes him terrifying. Terminators that appeared in the sequels may have been more powerful and/or versatile, but the brute force of the villainous original is what makes the T-800 so great.
Freddy Krueger – the ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ series (1984-2010)
It turns out the only thing scarier than a slasher movie villain who’ll stop at nothing to kill you is a slasher movie villain who’ll stop at nothing to kill you while you sleep. Freddy Krueger of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies does just that, tormenting his victims in their dreams and making them fearful of sleep, for that’s the only time when they’re truly vulnerable to his violent tendencies.
Depending on the movie, Freddy Krueger can be either terrifying or hilarious, and sometimes he’s somewhere in the middle. He takes glee in what he does and has some amazing one-liners, making him constantly ride a line between despicable and ridiculously entertaining, with his presence – and unique method of stalking/killing – making him stand out from many other slasher movie villains.
The Shark – ‘Jaws’ (1975)
The shark from Jaws has unofficially been named Bruce, though the creature goes unnamed in the film itself. Whatever you want to call the shark, it’s undeniably the most famous one of its species in film history, terrorizing a small town in Jaws to the point where three men go on a dangerous mission at sea to kill it before it can kill again.
Due to the explosive ending of the 1975 film, the sharks in subsequent sequels (none of which are particularly good) are all different. But Bruce/”the shark” who appeared in the first movie was the most intimidating, and got to appear in the film that made sharks the scariest, making him by default the best Jaws villain.
Alonzo Harris – Training Day (2001)
Training Day is an iconic crime/thriller movie starring Denzel Washington as a rogue detective named Alonzo Harris who takes a rookie cop (Ethan Hawke) under his wing for his first day on the job. Harris doesn’t appear entirely villainous at first, but soon reveals some troubling behavior that makes him seem incredibly intimidating and dangerous.
It’s one of Washington’s most acclaimed performances, and he won his second of two Oscars for the role. Harris is a complex character who has a certain amount of charm while also being able to turn on a dime and become frightening in an instant, eventually revealing himself to be an iconic antagonist in the film, which he ultimately comes to dominate.
Michael Myers – the ‘Halloween’ series (1978-2022)
Like many horror movie villains, Michael Myers made a remarkably strong first impression before revealing an apparent inability to stay dead. He first terrorized the population of Haddonfield, Illinois in 1978’s Halloween after escaping from a mental hospital and going on a violent killing spree.
The plain uncanniness of his mask and the way he never speaks makes him a particularly eerie slasher movie villain, and then the fact he keeps coming back makes him all the more scary. He appears in most of the Halloween sequels, and was featured in one as recently as 2022, making him feel like an almost eternal horror movie boogeyman.
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