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Ranking The 10 Best And 10 Worst Villains In Superhero Movies

Lex Luthor, Mr. Freeze and everyone in between.

5. Alfred Molina as Dr. Otto Octavius in “Spider-Man 2” (2004)
Spider-Man has one of the most colorful and iconic rogues’ galleries in comic books, so it’s rather disappointing how badly they’ve been brought to screen on the whole, as this week’s “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” continues to demonstrate. Arch-nemesis the Green Goblin has been botched not just once, but three times, while Venom, Sandman and The Lizard were all mostly or wholly botched. But one of Spidey’s most famous bad guys was pulled off with aplomb, in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2,” easily the best of the five-strong franchise to date. The film does use the same mentor-turned-adversary structure of the first film, but in a much more refined way, with Alfred Molina’s Otto Octavius causing a terrible accident through hubris, robbing him of his wife and melding him to his metallic tentacles. The script makes the smart decision to make Octavius have a kind of multiple personality disorder through his new metallic friends, which keeps the good-hearted man at the film’s center even as his actions become ever more dastardly. Molina, so often underrated as an actor, gets one of his best big-screen showcases here: he can go broad enough to chew scenery in Raimi’s big, bold comic book vision of the universe, but lends real pathos and warmth to his relationship with Peter Parker. Plus he looks great in the costume, which not everyone would.

4. Ian McKellen as Magneto in the ‘X-Men’ films (2000), (2003), (2006), (2014)
Perhaps the recipient of the most compelling back story of anyone on this list, Magneto is fascinating partly because he is easily read through another lens as a hero striving to avert a mutant genocide, having already lost his family to The Holocaust. This richness of history, and the complex, political nature of much of Magneto’s motivation, requires an actor of considerable depth to convey, and luckily, Bryan Singer netted never-less-than-brilliant Shakespearean actor Ian McKellen for the role. Opposite Patrick Stewart’s Dr. X (and seriously, is there anything more adorable than the real-life romance between these two guys?) the pair take the intellectual arguments and thorny confrontations that by rights should be the bits of the film where the teenaged audience is all, like, “ugh, two old guys talking,” and makes them among the most gripping sequences, especially for fans of subtext and those of us who dig an intelligent effort to knit a fictional universe into our own real one. McKellen’s Magneto can be cunning and ruthless, but he is, paradoxically for a mutant, one of the most human of villains, the most sympathetic and comprehensible, and the one who most clearly demonstrates that the path to hell can truly be paved with the best of intentions. It’s a coup for the reboot franchise to have got an actor as good as Michael Fassbender for the role this time around, but we have to say that the fact that we’ll see McKellen’s defining version of his character passing the baton is one of the things that most has us looking forward to ‘Days of Future Past.

3. Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor in “Superman” (1978) and “Superman II” (1980) (not “Superman IV”)
How much we truly admire Hackman’s portrayal of Superman’s self-dubbed nemesis, and how much we love it out of sheer nostalgia for our our younger selves for whom “Superman” films were without qualification the Greatest Films Ever Made, proved too difficult a question to parse, so we stopped trying. Hackman is a scenery-chewing, comically exasperated, why-I-oughtta type of villain, but in the bright, bold world of Superman, with its clear virtues and ludicrous plots for World Domination (or simply continental — one of our favorite moments in ‘II’ is when Zod asks Luthor what he wants in return for delivering Superman, and Luthor replies “Australia”) that makes him the perfect Lex. Even to the children watching, there’s an ambivalence to Hackman’s portrayal (that we never really got with Kevin Spacey’s more sinister, Machievellian riff) because half the time, while we know he’s the bad guy, and is Doing Bad Stuff, he seems to be having way more fun (balloon escape!) than any of the good guys. Props of course have to go to his retinue of Ned Beatty as Otis (“Mr Luthor! Mr Luthor!”) and Valerie Perrine as Miss Tessmacher, who up the comedy quotient even further, but the tone of these first two films, loopy but with real stakes, is arguably best embodied by Luthor, the result of taking an actor as usually restrained and controlled as Gene Hackman, and letting him off the leash. 

2. Terence Stamp as General Zod in “Superman II” (1980)
There’s a bit in “Superman II” where Terence Stamp, in his immortal role as arch-villain General Zod, shoots lasers from his eyes. This special effect, aside from probably blowing our unformed minds when we first watched it, is almost entirely superfluous, because Stamp’s eyes do the job their own. Without a doubt the smoothest, most implacable, and best-looking villain on this list, there’s an icy, alien, reptilian ruthlessness that Stamp brings to Zod that makes his incarnation, despite the cronkiness of the special effects and the famously mish-mash nature of the Donner/Lester film, a completely defining villain for the Man of Steel. Matching him power for power and not suffering from the debilitating disease of “caring about people” Zod is Supes’ equal, and so for once the stakes are high, because you know this is the one guy that Superman can’t, if push came to shove, shove harder. But it’s the solemn, chilling glee with which Zod scorches his path to ultimate power that makes Stamp’s version indispensable. Where Michael Shannon played Zod as a brawny, raging, bellowing thug, Stamp is so much more chilling by being almost effete — lithe, sardonic but so in control he makes Superman seem gauche. Frankly, if you gotta kneel before someone, you could do worse than Terence Stamp in black PVC.

1. Heath Ledger as The Joker in “The Dark Knight” (2008)
Eternally proving that premature fanboy outrage over casting can always, always be disregarded, the announcement that Australian actor Heath Ledger would play Batman’s most famous foe, The Joker (previously brought to life by as legendary a figure as Jack Nicholson) inspired uproar from certain segments of the fan community. “Probably the worst casting of all time,” wrote comments sections. “I am not seeing this movie if he is in it,” they continued. “I won’t be able to watch it. I’ll keep expecting him to have sex with Batman,” added one particularly enlightened fellow. Well, the comments boards, as usual, were wrong: Ledger was a phenomenal choice, reinventing the character just as thoroughly as Nolan had brought new life to Batman in the previous film. Never playing to the crowd like Nicholson had, Ledger makes the fantastic choice to make the Joker funny, but only to himself, and it’s an immediately unnerving, twitchy turn in which almost every choice the actor makes goes against the grain in constantly surprising and satisfying ways; it’ll likely forever change the way the character is thought of. The performance was hugely acclaimed — indeed, it’s likely to be the only acting turn in a superhero movie ever to win an Oscar — and should have turned Ledger into the megastar he deserved to be. Sadly, he passed away of an accidental overdose six months before the film’s release, so the performance stands only as a reminder of his enormous promise.

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