***There are MAJOR SPOILERS for many films and television shows ahead. Proceed at your own risk.***
Villains will always have a special place in the heart of fans. Face it, they make all the best stories possible. And yet despite their evil deeds, villains often compose a large percentage of our favorite characters. It is no accident things are this way. No matter how you slice it, the Joker is far more fascinating than Batman, Darth Vader is more intriguing than Luke Skywalker, and Loki is a lot more fun to be around than boring old Thor.
As 2014 winds down, it’s time to look back at the best villains from the past year. Who made an impact on the villain scene this year? We’ve seen some brand new baddies as well as some fresh interpretations of classic villains.
Candidates who unfortunately didn’t make the list include villains who had potential but aren’t quite fleshed out enough to make an impact. Think Ronan the Accuser, Shredder, or Bolivar Trask. One villain who could have ranked higher, LEGO Movie’s President Business, turns heel a little too quickly. Some of this year’s villains have done great work in the past, like Magneto or Smaug, but don’t appear on this list.
The criteria for top villain will be based on villainous actions that they did this year.
Additionally, to qualify as a villain, there must be a thoughtful intelligence behind their actions. A monster that acts on instinct is not a villain. Neither is a character that operates as just a plot device. Ultimately what a top villain requires is a strong internal motivation, a collection of evil deeds, and a delicious endgame.
Let’s look at the top 10 villains of 2014.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s lackluster reception may indeed signal the end of Marc Webb’s rebooted Spider-verse. However buried behind the convoluted storylines is a terrifically campy performance by Jamie Foxx. Quibbles about the overstuffed sequel aside, Electro offers a memorable example of a victim-turned-villain. Overlooked, underappreciated, and always self-pitying, Max Dillon is the sort of tragic figure that blends in well to these big costumed morality plays.
Importantly Max has a pre-transformation connection to Spider-Man over whose heroics he fantasizes. In Max’s unstable mental condition, it makes sense that his obsessive tendencies would not pair well with the gift of unlimited electricity. There’s a memorable scene in Times Square in which Electro watches Spider-Man’s image overshadow him on the giant monitors in quick succession. In a flash, jealousy changes Electro from helpless victim to vengeful executioner. He may have started off as a freak accident but soon he decides that Spider-Man is the real source of all of problems. There always needs to be a good reason for the villain to turn against the hero and Electro nails it.
Perhaps Electro’s greatest tragedy is that the plot even denies him the chance to be the big villain in his own movie, replacing him with Green Goblin in the finale. Tough luck, Max.
9) The Inquisitor
Coming in fairly low on the list is the main villain of Star Wars Rebels, due mainly to his rather limited screen time. However what we do see from the Inquisitor shows a lot of promise. In his first major debut the Inquisitor sizes up Kanan’s fighting style in an instant, identifying his master and revealing an impressive display of Jedi knowledge. This short moment shows us that this is no ordinary imperial goon. We’re dealing with a highly capable and fearsome agent of the Dark Side.
In one of the most exciting television moments of the year, the Inquisitor also introduces his spinning double-bladed lightsaber. Surprising for a show set after Order 66, we still get a decent amount of lightsaber combat via the Inquisitor and even see him pull off a lightsaber throw. It’s no accident that he reports directly to the top villain of all time, Darth Vader himself. Overall, it brings great pleasure to once again see a Star Wars villain ordering around imperial officers and fighting alongside a squad of stormtroopers. Meanwhile, the Inquisitor’s backstory and his training as a force user remain largely mysterious. Hopefully there is much more scheming, wrangling, and Jedi-hunting to come.
8) Captain Cold
The Flash is a zany and welcome addition to superhero television, albeit one that hasn’t taken much time to build up its often one dimensional villains. It’s mostly okay given the excellent development of Barry Allen, his powers, and an impressive supporting cast. But there’s one villain so far that shows great potential after just a single measly episode. On a show chock full of dangerous metahumans, Leonard Snart is the one bad guy that has no powers but already he looks to be one of Barry’s greatest threats.
A career thief who doesn’t hesitate to kill when necessary, Snart’s true power resides in his keen mind. Even after his initial encounter with the Flash, he already knows how to get into Barry’s head. Snart deduces that the fastest man alive will do anything to save lives, even let the bad guy get away.
It doesn’t help of course that Snart carries a cold gun specifically designed to impair and even kill the Flash. Aside from his ruthlessness, Snart also exhibits the type of criminal intelligence that sees superheroes as an exciting obstacle to overcome rather than an immediate threat. The moment between Snart and the kid in the museum tells us exactly what type of villain this is: a villain with personality. And from the look of things, next time we encounter Captain Cold he won’t be returning alone.
7) The Winter Soldier
There were two reactions to the Winter Soldier’s reveal in Captain America: The Winter Solider, “Who is that guy?” and “Yeah I already knew from the comics/internet.” However the reappearance of a mostly unrecognizable Bucky Barnes was undergirded by some of the best action sequences in any Marvel movie to date. The fact is the Winter Soldier impresses with sheer physicality. Whether he is putting a hole in the chest of Nick Fury or easily intercepting Captain America’s shield throw, this is a force to be reckoned with. He is seemingly unstoppable.
His hidden identity makes him all the more fierce to Steve Rogers and his allies. After seeing Roger’s jaw-dropping exploits aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel at sea, the Winter Soldier’s ease in holding his own against Captain America seem all the more remarkable. If Bucky exhibits one major drawback, it’s that at the end of the day he is just a mere pawn in the hands of Hydra with no volition of his own. Hopefully this will be amended in future movies. Still, the Winter Soldier is exactly the kind of direct physical threat we want to see more of in our villains.
6) Dr. Mann
He was the best of us, or so we are repeatedly told throughout the first half of Interstellar. In a surprise move hidden from trailers, posters, and even entertainment sites, the brilliant Dr. Mann makes a major appearance on an ice planet. And things are not what they seem.
With no faith in the dying human race and no courage to face death for himself, Dr. Mann belongs to an interesting variety of villain. He cares only for the greater good of the human race and believes he is pursuing the welfare of his species by rejecting personal attachment and resorting to murder. Despite all his extravagant reasoning, we know he is just a sophisticated version of the same evil we see all the time.
What makes Dr. Mann better than the common villain is that he is unbearably annoying. It’s one thing to leave an innocent man to suffocate to death halfway across the universe. It’s an entirely another thing to justify your crime with a whiny monologue about how you were lonely and the reminder that death will bring you memories of your children. Dr. Mann is a villain not only by his deeds, but by his irritating self-pity. There is nothing to like about him and sometimes that’s good.
5) Agent Ward
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. struggled through its first season but everything changed when Hydra dismantled Nick Fury’s entire agency. But what really sweetened the deal was when Agent Ward came out as a double agent. Ward has a personal history with each member of Coulson’s team. This is no random bad-guy-of-the-week but a former member of the main cast. After surviving life-threatening situations together and entertaining romantic notions with two members of the team, Ward had earned their trust, even despite his frigid manners and occasional hostility.
The best part of Ward’s reveal is that there is little lingering doubt inside him over his decision. He is simply carrying out his mission. From the very beginning, he was a double agent with no attachments. Nothing about his betrayal is personal to him. He’s just doing his job.
Ward has never been a great character, but his turn as a Hydra operative ironically redeems him. The truth that he has been working with the Clairvoyant all along and has contributed to the utter collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. hits Coulson and his team hard. However it also gives the ragtag group a unifying purpose. Ward’s betrayal also gives a boost to some of the underdeveloped characters like Skye who confronts him directly and Fitz, and Simmons whom he sends to the bottom of the ocean. However further glimpses into Ward’s backstory still create some sympathy for this otherwise amoral assassin and offer the possibility of redemption in the future. A good villain indeed.
No doubt the finest performer in an uneven but commercially successful blockbuster, Angelina Jolie’s sly portrayal of Maleficent outshines many of the lackluster elements around her. She skillfully inhabits this sympathetic queen who experiences betrayal, revenge, and finally redemption. Despite the happy resolution and twist ending, Maleficent still works as a great villain. Even before her sadistic mutilation at the hands of Stefan and her full descent into villainy, Malificent is already an efficient warrior-leader willing to defend her kingdom at all costs. And she is not an apologetic sort of person. As she grows in compassion for Aurora, she doesn’t grow any warmer toward her father contributing to a rather spectacular death at her hands.
Whether its commanding her army with savage ferocity from the skies or cursing a newborn princess, Maleficent is quite comfortable with shaping the world around her into something sinister. When her wings are cut off by the man she trusted, she embraces this darkness wholeheartedly. While the film sinks a bit under the special effects and revisionist details, its crystal clear that Maleficent’s evil is born from pain, war, and betrayal, not randomness. If the ending is not wholly satisfying, thankfully Malificent’s slow transformation back from evil witch into a very peculiar fairy godmother is both measured and sensible.
Gotham, the strange story of a world before Batman, is really the story of two aspiring men and their struggle to make a mark on their city. Along with the cynical Harvey Bullock and a young Bruce Wayne, the reckless detective Jim Gordon works to bring order and balance to a city in turmoil. But never far away, the ambitious and ruthless Penguin also seeks to climb the highest rungs of the criminal underworld. Perhaps the most violent member on this list, the Penguin definitely carves out his own spot as an unhinged criminal mastermind making a name for himself.
From the outside Penguin seems like just another henchman, and a sniveling coward at that. But slowly and surely we see that he is both dangerous and crafty, willing to suffer patiently as he works toward his endgame. He works both sides, infiltrates powerful crime families, and brutally dispatches anyone who gets in his way. We see just enough of his master plan to realize that he is fairly brilliant in his own demented way.
By keeping Penguin on Gordon’s side and making him subject to the abuse of his bosses, the show somehow manages to make this waddling psychopath come across as somewhat likeable. Just barely though.
Reprising his appearance from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar’s lieutenant Koba makes a daring introduction in Dawn leaping through the air to spear an attacking grizzly bear. This is one dangerous ape. Following the rule that bodily scars equal villainy, Koba is the rather rare villain whose motivations are mostly understandable and even quite justifiable up to a point.
It is Koba, not Caesar, who assesses the actual threat that the humans present, which includes shooting Ash, concealing guns behind their backs, and stockpiling weapons for an imminent assault. The humans are not trustworthy, something that Caesar is unwilling to recognize. Koba’s scars are all the proof he needs to make that judgment. And while his attempted assassination of Caesar and hasty declaration of war are morally wrong, everything else he has done up until then make pretty good sense.
Koba is a complicated villain, not because his goals are evil but because he ultimately appeals more to his animal nature instead of his moral and ethical duty as a sentient creature. It is clear that he relishes in the violence, indulging his taste for revenge against a species who operated on him like a lab experiment. Perhaps what makes Koba resonate so strongly with audiences is that his descent into evil very much resembles a human one.
If Deathstroke is perhaps a little over the top in terms of his Mirakuru-fueled madness, he all but makes up for it with the sheer cruelty he inflicts upon Oliver Queen and everyone he holds dear. Presumed dead by Oliver, Slade Wilson suddenly reappears in Starling City with an unknown agenda. Very quickly he makes it known that his one purpose is to destroy Oliver’s whole world.
In possibly the finest villainous moment of the year, Slade takes an unexpected tour with Oliver’s family around the Queen mansion while Team Arrow struggles to mobilize against him. Yet even the combined efforts of Sara, Felicity, Roy, and Diggle are not enough to stop Slade who easily thwarts their sniper and escapes unharmed. He walks into Oliver’s house, befriends his mother, charms his sister, and makes a mockery of the Arrow’s whole operation. He knows all of Oliver’s secrets and relishes the chance to exact a long painful vendetta against the show’s endlessly tortured hero.
But what really sets Deathstroke apart is his method. He is not interested in killing Oliver but simply making his life a living hell. Slade kidnaps his sister with the goal of driving the two siblings apart using Ollie’s own secrets against him. And in an act of pure depravity, he forces Oliver to make the same unthinkable choice that Dr. Ivo forced on him back on the Island between the death of his sister or his mother. Without hesitation Deathstroke brutally impales Moira with his sword. Killing the hero’s unarmed mother in front of his eyes and leaving him to suffer must rank among the worst villainous acts of all time.