We may go into movies expecting the hero to come out on top, but that’s not always how things turn out. Sometimes the villain actually wins and that’s the focus for my list today. Many other bloggers and film reviewers have tackled this list before me, but over the past few years new villains have risen to claim their own victories, so I decided to take a crack at this list myself and shed some light on some classic favorites AND some newer villains who managed to one-up the hero and have their way at the end of the day. These are my picks for the Top 10 Movie Villains Who Actually Won.
For this list I looked at specific singular villains, not cults or groups such as armies, who managed to subvert the hero and come out on top by the end of the film. These villains don’t necessarily have to get away scot-free. They can go to jail, suffer or even die for the sake of their victory as long as their plan was successful and the protagonist(s) or even the world is forced to live with the repercussions. Their plan can also fall apart and eventually see their defeat in later films as long as they initially claimed victory and forced the heroes or the world as a whole to reassess and try to defeat them again. These ruthless, cunning and often creative bad guys did their job and in many cases even did enough to convince viewers they might actually be in the right, but in reality they are meant to be the villainous ones whose perspective and goals are skewed by turmoil, distrust or a pretentiousness that keeps them from seeing or caring about the consequences of their actions.
Also, I’m not grading the specific MOVIES in this list. I am rating the villains themselves so even if the movie they are in might be subpar the evil plan and the success of said plan helped the villain stand out for consideration. Obliviously a lot of SPOILERS will be in this list so you’ve been warned.
Who is your favorite movie villain that actually won in the end? Let me know in the comments below and enjoy the list.
10. The Joker, “The Dark Knight”
Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy is one of the best three-part film series of all time but few would argue that the second entry is the best one due in no small part to Heath Ledger’s spectacular turn as The Joker. A mysterious enigma of a man, The Joker dawns makeup on his face and has taken precautions to hide his true identity as he usurps the crime lords of Gotham and takes on the Batman. Claiming to be a man without a set plan who adapts as he progresses, The Joker’s ultimate goal is to prove to Batman that rules are meant to be broken and that chaos will always win. While his plan to turn the people of Gotham against each other fails, his overarching plan actually works as he manages to use a corrupted Harvey Dent to turn the city of Gotham against their hero and force Batman to break his one rule by killing Dent to save Commissioner Gordon’s family. While there are parts of his schemes that fall through, his overall plan to turn Gotham against Batman and force Batman to betray his own convictions is a success. This results in Batman and Commissioner Gordon embracing a lie to keep the peace in the city, making Batman out to be a villain. This lie goes on to play a big part in the sequel giving The Joker the chaos he strived to create.
9. Jigsaw, The “Saw” Franchise
Whether it’s the very first groundbreaking film or the series as a whole, Jigsaw, aka John Kramer, succeeds in his attempt to create a lasting impact on the world around him by challenging victims to come face to face with their sins and embrace the human survival instinct. In the original film Kramer poses as a dead man in the center of the floor and thus is present, albeit unconscious, for the entire test. In later films Kramer is always one step ahead of his victims, enemies and even his own allies placing contingency plans to punish those who betray him or see the punishments through for targeted subjects. In eight films Kramer’s legacy has yet to be stopped even after his death. It’s revealed that he created a cult-like group of followers who see his plans through and even years later we see one of his original subjects and protégés continue his work in the 2017 reboot “Jigsaw”. Jigsaw’s goal was never to become a mass murderer, but instead to show the world the error of their ways and try and force people to embrace a culture of survival rather than taking their lives for granted. Time after time his tests might fail, but his point is made and his impact still remains on the world years after his own fate was sealed.
8. Aaron/Roy, “Primal Fear”
For me 1996’s “Primal Fear” was ahead of its time as it put the focus on an attorney working to defend an alter boy after he is accused of murdering a Catholic Archbishop. The defendant is played by Edward Norton and claims to house two personalities, the soft-spoken Aaron and the more aggressive Roy who claims to be behind the murder. This sets in motion a dramatic series of events where Aaron/Roy is eventually ruled not guilty by reason of insanity. Come to find out however this was all a cleverly presented ruse. In the closing moments of the film we see one of the coolest twists of the 90s come to light as Norton’s character reveals to his attorney, played by Richard Gere, he faked the duel personality the whole time. What’s more he claims that “There never was an Aaron” which means Roy is the true personality of this cunning movie villain. The evidence discovered during the trial gives us reason to believe that Norton’s character is a sympathetic killer, one whose duel personality was the result of abuse including forced sexual activity. However these final scenes reveal that Roy is truly just an evil killer who faked multiple personalities to get away with his crimes. Because he has been found not guilty due to insanity for his crimes the rule of double jeopardy would prevent him from being retried again and thus instead of the death penalty or prison the world will see him as a psychologically disturbed man rather than a cold-hearted murderer. Roy ends up victorious in more ways than one in this spectacular film, playing everyone around him like a harp.
7. Anton Chigurh, “No Country for Old Men”
Considered one of the greatest movie villains of all time, Javier Bardem’s Antom Chigurh from the Best Picture winning “No Country For Old Men” is a classic of modern cinema as a movie villain who not only wins, but never actually comes face to face with the movie’s protagonist. Chigurh is a ruthless hitman who is robotic in his approach to his job. He shows little to no sympathy and will kill at the flip of a coin. Throughout the film Chigurh seeks to retrieve misplaced drug money willingly killing anyone who stands in his way including his own employers. A carefully calculated killer Chigurh might be injured in his pursuit of the money, but in the end he limps away victorious ready to kill another day. He is never caught or ever even seen by the film’s Sheriff Tom Bell who is seeking a resolution to the violence that has plagued his territory and he finds a way around every side villain and even the heroes who challenge him as he pursues his target. The hitman gets his mark and leaves a trail of bloodshed and destruction along the way that Bell can’t stop. Chigurh represents the chaotic variables of the world of law enforcement and the factors out of human control. Sometimes evil is not as simple as kill or be killed. Sometimes it’s as random as a coin flip and other times it’s a bit colder and more calculated. Either ways it’s unpredictable making Chigurh a spectacularly complex villain in one of the greatest films of the last two decades.
6. Nurse Ratched, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Newst”
Another villain considered one of the best ever in cinema, Nurse Ratched is also cold and ruthless but in a more real-world way than Anton Chigurh. Played to perfection by Louise Fletcher Ratched is a nurse at a mental institution where Jack Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy is housed as he hopes for a relaxed existence in the wake of a statutory rape charge. The film sees McMurphy and Ratched at odds with each other as McMurphy tries to instill some fun and joy into the lives of the patients while Ratched proves to be cold and dry seeking order through passive-aggressive means. Despite this war of ideals being the basis of the whole story McMurphy is not the one who comes out on top after he is driven to his whit’s end and attempts to choke the nurse to death after Ratched’s threats lead a patient to commit suicide. As a result Ratched plays the victim card and McMurphy is lobotomized, eliminating him of any of his human qualities. This forces McMurphy’s friend Chief to smother him out of mercy and while Chief manages to escape there’s no getting around the fact that Ratched’s cold demeanor and carelessness for the human aspect of her patients led to not one, but two deaths and she never even cared. She goes untouched, save for a neck injury and a scratchy voice, while her patients continue to suffer from her poor treatment and her cold and calculating approach to her job.
5. Amy Elliot Dunne, “Gone Girl”
A great villain isn’t always menacing. Sometimes their downright charming and even manage to pretend to be the hero. Amy Dunne is one of the 2010s best cinematic villains because her entire goal is to get the public on her side and she succeeds. What makes “Gone Girl” fascinating is that either Rosumund Pike’s Amy or Ben Affleck’s Nick Dunne could be considered the villain, but for the sake of this list it’s Amy who gets the nod. Nick is a liar and a cheater and thus seems to deserve the punishment he gets in the film, but even by the most extreme standards Amy’s vengeance is excessive. She stages her own elaborate fake death hoping that Nick will be blamed and receive the death penalty. This leads her to use another man and end up actually killing that man, turning her into the murderer she wants the world to believe her husband to be. She has a detective discredited and somehow even manages to keep her relationship even going so far as to artificially inseminate herself with Nick’s sperm to have the child she always wanted. Despite the public labeling her husband as a sociopath that term is more suited to Amy who takes the concept of revenge and doubles down on it in brutal fashion. By the end of the film we have to wonder if it’s her who is truly the questionable person, but regardless her antics leave her held harmless and she gets everything she wanted from the situation with a child, a forcefully loyal husband and the attention she seems to crave from the world at large.
4. John Doe, “Seven”
While Kevin Spacey as a person might have become quite the real-world social pariah himself he’s also very good at ACTING like a villain on the big screen. A perfect example, and not the last on this list, is his take on John Doe in 1995’s “Seven” a story about a pair of detectives trying to get the upper hand on a killer who commits his crimes using the seven deadly sins as inspiration. Keeping his true identity a secret, the detectives and the audience only know him as John Doe and Spacey gives him a great devious personality as his story unfolds. Doe sees his crimes as art, punishing his victims for their ignorance and arrogance and is not above punishing himself as well. In the end John Doe gets exactly what he wants, goading Brad Pitt’s rookie Detective Mills into embracing the final deadly sin, wrath, as John Doe reveals he himself has embraces envy and killed Mills’ pregnant wife because he couldn’t have Mills’ life. Despite urging from his much wiser partner Detective Somerset, Mills completes the circle by killing John Doe and going to jail for his acts thus completing Doe’s master plan of Biblical murder. While normally the death of a villain would be the result of their plan unraveling, here it is the end game as Doe’s own demise was required for his plan to reach fruition. A sacrifice for a victory.
3. Ozymandias, “Watchmen”
While initially a member of the titular group of outlawed heroes, Ozymandias turns out to be the main villain of this 2009 visual epic. Living life as his alter ego and millionaire Adrian Veidt, Ozymandias concocts a well crafted plan that may not make him an all out villain but shows his willingness to compromise a hundred lives to save billions. His perspective of heroics is scewed as it’s revealed he set up multiple scenarios to kill The Comedian, jail Rorschach, and use the genius and power of Dr. Manhattan to create a machine to mimic Manhattan’s powers under the guise of energy conversion. Using his money, intellect and resources he uses that technology to destroy several of the largest cities in the world, making it look like Dr. Manhattan went off the deep end. Despite his fellow hero’s’ attempts to stop him Ozymandias succeeds even acknowledging an age old superhero trope by admitting he wouldn’t have told his “friends” his plan unless he had already put it into motion. Even when Dr. Manhattan gets the upper hand Ozymandias uses news reals to show his endgame is succeeding as the world, formerly on the brink of war, has banded together to see Dr. Manhattan as a common enemy. In his own worlds, Ozymandias felt the only way to save the world was to trick it by giving everyone a common villain, but his fellow heroes don’t see it that way. They see him as “deforming” humanity on the basis of a lie and that his endgame isn’t worth the cost. While Ozy may see himself as a hero, he’s the perfect kind of villain whose actions are destructive but make us ponder…was he truly wrong?
2. Thanos, “Avengers: Infinity War”
You should have seen this coming right? The entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe led up to an epic showdown that finally hit the big screen earlier this year and while most of us knew this wouldn’t be a one film fight I don’t think any of us were truly prepared for the conclusion we would receive. In “Infinity War” the mad titan Thanos finally puts his plan into motion to collect the Infinity Stones and secure them to the Infinity Gauntlet with the goal to balance the universe. Throughout this film we see several stories overlap as some Avengers work to protect the stones yet to be claimed while others take the battle straight to Thanos. Despite the best efforts of the Avengers however Thanos manages to obtain all six stones and with the snap of his fingers turns half the universe into literal dust including many of the MCU’s heroes. It’s a moment that had been teased for years but when it finally happened watching our favorite heroes fade away was more than some fans could bare. Thanos smiles in victory and in peace at the end of it all having won out in the end, even making major sacrifices that he himself admits were painful to endure. Thanos is a villain who feels justified with a motive that, like Ozymandias, makes us ponder if he is truly unquestionably wrong. While we have yet to see if Thanos’ victory will last in the next “Avengers” movie in 2019, he remains a victor in “Infinity War” and it’s the first time in Marvel’s cinematic history that a villain truly got the best of the heroes.
1. Keyser Söze, “The Usual Suspects”
I said it before, Kevin Spacey plays one hell of a villain and possibly his most iconic baddy is his role in the 1995 classic “The Usual Suspects”. Spacey helps bring to life one of the greatest twist endings in movie history as Verbal Kint, a small-time con man and survivor of a massacre in Los Angeles, becomes the primary witness to the disaster and the source of information about a mob boss named Keyzer Söze. Throughout the film narration and flashbacks are used to tell the story and Kint’s recollections become increasingly complicated. By the film’s end both the agent interviewing Kint and the audience are unsure of what to believe, but Kint ends up being released and given immunity all the same. It’s only then that the agent and the audience realize that the story was pieced together by observations from within the agent’s office and that Kint is really Söze having fabricated the whole story, hidding in plain site and earning himself immunity from his own crimes in the process. It’s a spectacular twist ending that showcases one of the most cunning and confident villains in all of film who manages to use slight of hand, simple observation, and careful planning to get himself out of jail while also ensuring his own story and existence lives on in infamy. Of all the villains on this list, Verbal Kint/Keyzer Söze is possibly the most impressive and fully deserving of holding the title as the greatest villain in film who came out on top.