Greatest 'Bad Guys' in Movie History
Villains. We love to hate them for threatening our heroes and putting the world/galaxy/universe in mortal peril time and time again (seriously, how did Loki escape the Avengers so many times?). It’s been said that movie protagonists are only as good as their adversaries, and we have to agree that it’s hard to imagine James Bond without Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
While bad guys are fun to watch on screen, when it comes to dramatic storytelling, the hero has to overcome obstacles in order to grow, change and, ultimately, save the day. Stories about heroes facing their inner demons are legion, but it's just not the same as when he or she is facing off against a truly vile, evil malefactor.
Using various criteria — including the invaluable IMDb — we ranked the baddest of the bad guys here for your spiteful enjoyment. (Note that we say bad "guys" because we saved female villains for another time. Sorry, ladies!)
We’ve chosen these 25 villains based on various criteria, not the least of which is how many nightmares they caused us (and our kids).
25. John Kreese
Played by: Martin Kove
Movies: "The Karate Kid" movies (and the subsequent "Cobra Kai" television series)
Years Released: 1984-1990, 2018-Present
Good-Guy Opposition: Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio)
Bottom Line: John Kreese
Sensei John Kreese ran his dojo like a military boot camp, which isn’t surprising considering that the guy whose students menaced Daniel LaRusso through three movies had a backstory that included a stint in Vietnam (which was interestingly fleshed out in some seriously dark flashbacks on Season 3 of “Cobra Kai”). But, apparently, nobody told Kreese that his karate students were just, uh, kids, not cadets.
Thankfully, Kreese is just fiction, and from all indications, actor Martin Kove is a sincerely nice guy in real life. But he’s so identified with Kreese that you can actually “hire” him to record a “No Mercy!” message for you on Cameo.
24. Biff Tannen
Played by: Thomas F. Wilson
Movies: "Back to the Future" movies
Years Released: 1985-1990
Good-Guy Opposition: Marty McFly and George McFly (Michael J. Fox and Crispin Glover)
Bottom Line: Biff Tannen
Biff was such a putz that he couldn’t even get his insults right, like telling Marty to “make like a tree and get out of here.” But when we weren’t laughing at his clumsy insults, we were certainly scared as the imposing Biff bullied Marty’s dad George in both 1955 and 1985 — before Marty went back in time and taught his pop how to stand up for himself.
In the “alternate” timeline in “Part II,” Biff had taken over Hill Valley and put a giant casino at the center of town. It’s little mystery that series co-writer Bob Gale announced in 2015 that Biff was partly based on a certain recent former president.
23. John Doe
Played by: Kevin Spacey
Year Released: 1995
Good-Guy Opposition: Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman)
Bottom Line: John Doe
Just for a moment, set Kevin Spacey’s real-life sins aside. While he has been justly excommunicated from Hollywood for various accusations of sexual assault, it cannot be denied that Spacey is one of the most gifted actors around. It’s impossible to say whether his inner demons drove him to antisocial roles like President Frank Underwood on “House of Cards,” but it’s undeniable he was damn good at it. Spacey’s most spine-chilling work was in “Se7en,” in which he was the evil serial killer “John Doe,” murdering people based on the Seven Deadly Sins.
Just wait for the final one, Wrath, to see how truly depraved John Doe’s plans were.
Played by: Josh Brolin
Movies: The Marvel Cinematic Universe
Years Released: 2012-2019
Good-Guy (and -Gal) Opposition: The Avengers
Bottom Line: Thanos
The demigod villain Thanos had no less than the domination of all creation in mind, and it was up to the assembled Avengers to put his schemes on ice over nearly a decade of cinematic adventures. As portrayed by Josh Brolin, the mad superbeing from another realm mean schemes included destroying half of all life in the universe to, uh, bring balance or something like that.
(Don’t fret: Even those Avengers who got vaporized were back for the big finale of “Avengers: Endgame.”)
21. HAL 9000
Played by: Douglas Rain (voice)
Movie: "2001: A Space Odyssey"
Year Released: 1968
Good-Guy Opposition: Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood)
Bottom Line: HAL 9000
It’s been said that the supercomputer HAL from “2001” was, ironically, the most “human” character in that lengthy trip through outer space courtesy of auteur Stanley Kubrick. While that might be an exaggeration, HAL was actually a case study in cognitive dissonance long before that term had entered cultural parlance. Programmed by his makers back on Earth not to lie, HAL malfunctioned thanks to also being instructed to conceal the true nature of the Discovery mission from the human astronauts — with deadly results.
Actor Douglas Rain gave HAL a cold but unforgettable personality thanks to his vocal talents.
20. Alonzo Harris
Played by: Denzel Washington
Movie: "Training Day"
Year Released: 2001
Good-Guy Opposition: Jake Hoyle (Ethan Hawke)
Bottom Line: Alonzo Harris
What if the inmates were running the asylum? Or, worse, what if the cops were worse than the criminals they were supposed to be policing? That’s the moral puzzle at the center of “Training Day,” in which rookie narc Jake Hoyle (Ethan Hawke) is shown the ropes of L.A.’s underground by the seasoned officer Alonzo Harris (Washington, who added yet another Oscar to his mantle for the role). The crooked Harris not only robs drug dealers and fleeces his cop buddies as part of Jake’s education, but he also tricks Jake into smoking PCP so that if he rats on Alonzo, he’ll be in hot water himself.
Washington is magnificent, and despite the film coming out in the wake of 9/11, when police were justly viewed as heroes, “Training Day” found its audience, and Washington took home his second little golden man.
19. Sgt. Barnes
Played by: Tom Berenger
Year Released: 1986
Good-Guy Opposition: Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen)
Bottom Line: Sgt. Barnes
Writer/director Oliver Stone had been searching for a way to make sense of his time serving in Vietnam, and thus he created a fictional counterpart named Chris Taylor (Sheen), a greenhorn whose unit is commanded by the psychopathic Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger). Barnes, his face battle-scarred and his voice gravelly, is bereft of any remorse or sympathy, and at one point, he even guns down a fellow American, Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe).
Many works of art over the centuries have posited that war gives certain men “permission” to act without check or restraint, and Stone presents Barnes as the ultimate warrior unleashed in a conflict where, it often seemed, there were no good guys.
18. Gordon Gekko
Played by: Michael Douglas
Movie: "Wall Street"
Year Released: 1987
Good-Guy Opposition: Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen again)
Bottom Line: Gordon Gekko
The personification of 1980s corporate excess, Gordon Gekko told a roomful of shareholders that “greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” It’s a great line, and credit must go to screenwriter Stanley Weiser (who co-wrote the script with director Oliver Stone), although Weiser is on record as saying that too many aspiring brokers took his message to heart in the wrong way.
Gekko is a demon, singularly focused on gain and wrecking anything in his path — and nearly corrupting young Bud Fox (Sheen). Michael Douglas’ suave performance earned him a well-deserved Oscar, but we can’t help wonder what Gekko might make of the recent GameStop business?
(And the less said about the 2010 sequel, the better.)
Played by: Bill Skarsgård
Movies: "It" and "It Chapter Two"
Years Released: 2017, 2019
Good-Guy (and -Gal) Opposition: The Losers’ Club
Bottom Line: Pennywise
“Can’t sleep, clown’ll eat me. Can’t sleep, clown’ll eat me.” — Bart Simpson
Only Stephen King could conjure an evil clown from outer space who feasts on children in the sewers beneath an otherwise peaceful Maine small town. The book “It” became a miniseries in the early ’90s, with Tim Curry as Pennywise the clown, but the time came for the beastly bozo to get the big-screen (to be read: R-rated) treatment in a two-part saga that ran nearly five hours. For our money, the first film is the scarier of the two, considering that Pennywise menaced our heroes when they were still preteens — which is the precisely right age for them to be terrified while finding their inner strength to fight back.
Sweden’s own Bill Skarsgård is demonstrably nightmarish as Pennywise. And in another connection to the King universe, Bill’s brother Alexander recently played Randall Flagg, aka the Dark Man, in the miniseries “The Stand.”
Played by: Ralph Fiennes
Movie: "The Harry Potter" movies
Years Released: 2001-2011
Good-Guy Opposition: Harry Potter (Daniel Ratcliffe)
Bottom Line: Voldemort
It was fun to not only watch the wizardry students of Hogwarts grow up over the course of a decade of onscreen adventures but to also see the actors portraying them transition from children to young adults over the series. But every hero needs a villain, and the vilest of them all was Voldemort, the notorious and powerful Dark Wizard of Potterlandia.
Ralph Fiennes, no stranger to villainous roles (remember “Schindler’s List”?), brings the right note of serpentine menace and cruelty to the malignant magician you love to hate.
15. Bill “The Butcher” Cutting
Played by: Daniel Day-Lewis
Movie: "Gangs of New York"
Year Released: 2002
Good-Guy Opposition: Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio)
Bottom Line: Bill “The Butcher” Cutting
Daniel Day-Lewis famously went years in between film projects before he (supposedly) retired in 2017 after being one of a select few actors to win three Oscars. While he didn’t win one for Martin Scorsese’s historical epic “Gangs of New York,” Day-Lewis made his first film following a five-year hiatus suitably memorable.
As Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, Day-Lewis sneers his way through a delicious performance as a 19th-century nativist gangster with a particular dislike for Irish immigrants, including our hero Amsterdam Vallon (DiCaprio). Because Marty was at the helm, bloodletting is plentiful in this three-hour yarn, much of which is unleashed by Bill the Butcher himself.
Played by: Bruce the shark
Year Released: 1975
Good-Guy Opposition: Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider)
Bottom Line: Jaws
The mechanical shark Steven Spielberg nicknamed “Bruce” — after his lawyer at the time — infamously refused to cooperate on the watery New England set of this seminal scarefest, but when it does appear on screen, the beast wreaks some serious havoc on its human opponents. (Spielberg got creative when the shark wasn’t working by using the yellow barrels as a fill-in.)
Nearly a half-century after “Jaws” torpedoed its way into the nightmares of swimmers everywhere, it remains one of the greatest thrillers ever made, thanks in so small part to Bruce’s, uh, “performance.”
13. Buffalo Bill
Played by: Ted Levine
Movie: "The Silence of the Lambs"
Year Released: 1991
Good-Gal Opposition: Clarence Starling (Jodie Foster)
Bottom Line: Buffalo Bill
Has there ever been a more twisted cinematic SOB than Jame Gumb, aka “Buffalo Bill,” whose horrifying plan is to make himself a suit from the flesh of human women? (Also, did no one tell Bill that skin, once removed, decays rather quickly?) Bill, at unlucky No. 13 on our list, kept his victims alive in a well beneath his truly creepy basement before the “harvest,” and it’s up to FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster in an Oscar-winning performance) to stop him before he finds that next “special lady.”
Actor Ted Levine is perfectly creepy as the perverse murderer, and the scene of his unsettling “dance” does as much to earn the film its R-rating as any of its rather explicit violence.
12. The Terminator
Played by: Arnold Schwarzenegger
Movie: "The Terminator"
Year Released: 1984
Good-Guy (and -Gal) Opposition: Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn)
Bottom Line: The Terminator
The Terminator is a futuristic cyborg whose unscratchable metallic skeleton was covered with living human flesh — though somehow the machine still had an Austrian accent. In the role that made him a superstar, Ahnold was the titular assassin from the future, sent back in time to murder the woman (Linda Hamilton) whose son will one day lead a resistance army against the machines.
Fun fact: Football star O.J. Simpson was considered for the role, which would have been crazy considering his, uh, legal issues a decade later.
11. Freddy Krueger
Played by: Robert Englund
Movies: "The Nightmare on Elm Street" movies
Years Released: 1984-2003
Good-Guy Opposition: The Elm Street children
Bottom Line: Freddy Krueger
Filmmaker Wes Craven couldn’t get the idea of an unsettling homeless man in a red-and-green sweater out of his mind. And when the horror maestro read a Los Angeles Times article about children who mysteriously died screaming in their sleep, the idea for Freddy Krueger was born.
Krueger was a notorious child murderer who was burned to death by a lynch mob of vengeful parents. But through the forces of evil, he was thereafter able to haunt the dreams of Elm Street’s teens, murdering them grotesquely amid their beauty rest.
As the series went on, Robert Englund gradually gave Krueger a cheeky persona as the demon himself became the star of the show. Ergo, we’ve chosen him over his killer contemporaries Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, who were silent stalkers. Craven passed away in 2015, hopefully not at the sharp fingers of his own creation.
10. Calvin Candie
Played by: Leonardo DiCaprio
Movie: "Django Unchained"
Year Released: 2012
Good-Guy Opposition: Django (Jamie Foxx)
Bottom Line: Calvin Candie
After years of Leo giving performances that required little of him other than standing there and looking pretty, it was refreshing to watch him sink his considerable talents into the vile Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 “Southern Western.” Candie, a wealthy plantation owner in pre-Civil War Mississippi, owned Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), and it was up to Django and his German dentist friend Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to free her from his dastardly clutches.
The rot of Candie’s soul was matched only by some truly unsightly dental appliances DiCaprio wore for the role, which remains one of his best ever performances.
9. Hans Landa
Played by: Christoph Waltz
Movie: "Inglourious Basterds"
Year Released: 2009
Good-Guy (and -Gal) Opposition: Lt. Aldo Raines (Brad Pitt) and Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent)
Bottom Line: Hans Landa
Few outside the international cinema circuit had ever heard of Austrian actor Christoph Waltz before Quentin Tarantino cast him as the lupine SS Col. Hans Landa in his 2009 alternate history take on the Second World War. The opening scene of “Inglourious Basterds” is a masterpiece all its own, as Landa visits a French milk farmer (Denis Ménochet) for a conversation that starts as mundane but ends in absolute horror.
For his performance, Waltz earned his first of two consecutive Tarantino-directed Oscars (the other was for “Django Unchained”) and established himself as a star on both sides of the Atlantic.
Played by: Christopher Lee
Movies: "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy
Years Released: 2001-2003
Good-Guy Opposition: The Fellowship of the Ring
Bottom Line: Saruman
Man, you just know as soon as Christopher Lee steps down those obsidian steps in the first LOTR flick that he’s up to no good, and sure enough, it’s soon revealed that the white wizard is in cahoots with the dark lord Sauron.
The late English character actor enjoyed a healthy career playing bad guys — from Dracula to Darth Tyrannus in the “Star Wars” prequels — but nowhere was he as maleficent as in Peter Jackson’s epic rendering of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth saga of good versus evil.
7. Emperor Palpatine
Played by: Ian McDiarmid
Movies: "The Star Wars" saga
Years Released: 1983-2019
Good-Guy Opposition: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)
Bottom Line: Emperor Palpatine
It was the Old Republic’s ultimate nightmare: A Sith Lord had become chancellor of the Senate and promptly reorganized it into a brutal dictatorship with himself at its head. Ergo, Palpatine was a kind of an outer space combo of Hitler and Julius Caesar, and with magical powers to boot.
The Scottish actor McDiarmid made even those loathsome prequel films (1999-2005) watchable as he chewed up the scenery and cackled his way through a poorly underwritten role. Yes, we all remember when his onetime apprentice Darth Vader tossed him to his death on the second Death Star in “Return of the Jedi,” but that didn’t stop Palpatine — and the Dark Side of the Force — from somehow returning for a curtain call in 2019’s saga-capper, “The Rise of Skywalker.”
6. Norman Bates
Played by: Anthony Perkins
Year Released: 1960
Good-Gal Opposition: Marion Crane (Janet Leigh)
Bottom Line: Norman Bates
Norman Bates/Mother’s barging in on Marion Crane’s peaceful evening shower made us all scared to ever again leave the bathroom door unlocked. Alfred Hitchcock’s most notorious film remains unsettling six decades after it shocked moviegoers the world over and not just because Hitch killed off the hero halfway through the film. Then, came the cross-dressing, necrophilia and reveal that the severely sexually repressed Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) actually harbors a murderous second personality within his mind.
If you ever see a roadside sign for the Bates Motel, even after a long day of driving, just keep driving.
5. Anton Chigurh
Played by: Javier Bardem
Movie: "No Country for Old Men"
Year Released: 2007
Good-Guy Opposition: Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones)
Bottom Line: Anton Chigurh
Clearly, the Academy loves bad guys, as Spaniard Javier Bardem picked up a golden statuette for bringing to life the morally bankrupt Anton Chigurh, whose lethal weapon of choice was a bolt stunner typically used to slaughter cattle. Among Chigurh’s many evil designs was putting some of his victims’ fate in the hands of a coin toss, telling them to call heads or tails to determine if their lives will end.
The Coen Bros.’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel also won best picture and best screenplay, even though many audiences were left unmoored by the movie’s anticlimactically abrupt ending. Either way, Bardem’s Chigurh is unforgettable.
4. The Joker
Played by: Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger
Movies: "Batman" and "The Dark Knight"
Years Released: 1989, 2008
Good Guy-Opposition: Batman (Michael Keaton and Christian Bale)
Bottom Line: The Joker
The Clown Prince of Crime remains one of pop culture’s most endurable villains since first appearing in the pages of Detective Comics way back in 1940. Many actors have channeled the chuckling criminal mastermind over the years (including Mark Hamill in the Joker’s various animated incarnations), but none have left as major an impression as Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” and the late Heath Ledger in 2008’s “The Dark Knight.”
Nicholson was suitably over the top in his baroque interpretation, which made us all laugh, but Ledger went full-tilt in exploring the pure unholiness at the heart of the supervillain in his Oscar-winning performance for director Christopher Nolan. (And while, yes, Joaquin Phoenix also won an Oscar for 2019’s “Joker,” in that film, he was the star, i.e., an antihero versus an actual villain.)
3. Hans Gruber
Played by: Alan Rickman
Movie: "Die Hard"
Year Released: 1988
Good-Guy Opposition: John McClane (Bruce Willis)
Bottom Line: Hans Gruber
Part of what makes certain bad guys so compelling is their sense of humor. The uber-mensch of sadistic humor was personified by the late Alan Rickman in German terrorist Hans Gruber, who held a Los Angeles high rise hostage on Christmas Eve as cover to steal millions of dollars in negotiable bearer bonds from its vault. Too bad unlucky John McClane (Bruce Willis), an off-duty New York cop, got in his way.
“Die Hard” is as great now as it was in the late ’80s and in no small debt to Rickman’s delightfully devious Gruber.
2. Darth Vader
Played by: David Prowse (in the costume) and James Earl Jones (voice)
Movies: "A New Hope," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi"
Years Released: 1977, 1980, 1983
Good-Guy Opposition: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)
Bottom Line: Darth Vader
Even though Darth Vader ultimately redeemed himself by returning to the Light Side of the Force, tossing the Emperor down a pit at the end of “Return of the Jedi” for good measure, we watched in horror as he murdered countless Rebels, sliced through his former master Obi-Wan Kenobi with a lightsaber and even stood by as his own daughter (sorry, should have said spoiler alert!) Leia’s home planet of Alderaan was blown to smithereens by the first Death Star.
Part of what made Vader so frightening was that we never saw his face as he was doing such bad stuff. That and the constant heavy breathing. The late David Prowse was 6.5-feet tall, giving Vader the requisite stature, and James Earl Jones complimented the character with his basso profundo vocalizing of Vader’s electronic speech.
Whether he’s dueling with a red lightsaber, murdering Jedi trainees or choking out his own inept Imperial officers, Darth Vader remains one of cinema’s biggest baddies.
1. Hannibal Lecter
Played by: Anthony Hopkins and Brian Cox
Movies: "Manhunter" (Cox); "The Silence of the Lambs," "Hannibal" and "Red Dragon (Hopkins)
Years Released: 1986, 1991, 2001, 2002
Good-Guy (and -Gal) Opposition: Will Graham (played by William Petersen in “Manunter” and Harvey Keitel in “Red Dragon”), Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster in “Silence of the Lambs” and Julianne Moore in “Hannibal”)
Bottom Line: Hannibal Lecter
Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter was a psychopathic psychiatrist with a literally bloodthirsty appetite for human flesh. Thankfully, he was caught by Will Graham, forcing him to spend his days in a rather compact prison cell. And as it takes a killer to catch a killer, both Graham and FBI trainee Clarice Starling called upon his expertise to track down serial murderers known as the Tooth Fairy and Buffalo Bill.
But Lecter was smarter than everyone, and even while “helping” the authorities, he was actually planning his dastardly escape. That’s what makes psychopaths so dangerous: They are experts at faking emotions like kindness in the service of their own vile ends.
Fun fact: Anthony Hopkins was considering retiring from acting when he was cast as Lecter. He won an Oscar, and thankfully, he’s still working.