A lot of times it’s the villain that makes the movie more than the hero, especially when it comes to comic book adaptations. Just as Marvel has churned out its share of quality cinematic villains, DC has also presented some great baddies over the years who often times do, in fact, steal the show. A lot of DC’s cinematic bad guys set the standard for the genre and today we’re gong to look at those characters as well as newer takes on the company’s iconic rogues gallery just in time for their villain-centric film based on one of their most well-known villains, “Joker”. Before Joaquin Phoenix turns in possibly one of the best villain performances in DC’s history here are my picks for a few that have already shined above the rest. These are my choices for the Top Ten DC Villain Portrayals in Film.
For this list I looked through the filmography of DC and picked out villain portrayals that I felt stood out from the pack. Whether its because of the quality of the acting or the ability of the performers to adapt the source material or even their ability to add their own personal touch, this list will be looking at the best of the best DC cinematic villains taking into account lasting legacy, popularity, memorability and my own personal opinions for that special touch.
For the sake of this list I considered different portrayals of any given villains to be their own candidate so it is possible, even probable, that you will see different takes on different characters here. One thing I chose NOT to include is any villain that served as an anti-hero. I focused only on characters that served as actual villains in their films even if they later changed their ways, but characters like Harley Quinn who was a villain turned hero and didn’t actually serve as the bad guy in “Suicide Squad” will not be represented here. I did also exclude Mark Hamill’s take on The Joker from “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” as well as the villains from “Batman: The Movie” as I argued those performances were more prominent on the small screen.
Which big screen take on a DC villain was your favorite? Let me know in the comments below and look for my review of “Joker” coming soon.
10. Aaron Eckhart as Harvey “Two-Face” Dent
While it takes some time for Harvey Dent to embrace the dark side in 2008’s “The Dark Knight” he more than proves himself a worthy secondary villain after he finally becomes the coin-flipping Two-Face. Following the death of his love Rachel Dawes in a trap set by The Joker to force Batman into an impossible choice Dent embraces the Joker’s dark outlook and adapts the idea of chance into a life-or-death game of his own using his lucky two-faced coin. Throughout the film Dent is presented as Gotham’s White Knight, a public symbol of justice that both the viewers and Batman can get behind. After he loses everything though, including half of his face, Aaron Eckhart portrays Dent as a broken man who has lost his faith in a system he once believed in and takes justice into his own hands although not near as righteously as the Batman he so heavily supported. While he’s not a true villain for long he leaves a lasting impression and his actions force Batman to compromise himself to preserve the hope Dent once provided for the city.
9. Liam Neeson as Ra’s al Ghul
Liam Neeson’s take on Ra’s al Ghul from “Batman Begins” is often overshadowed by other villains of Christopher Nolan’s series, but he deserves much more respect than he tends to get. Neeson has made a career resurgence playing tough, capable badasses on the big screen and his turn as anarchist Ra’s al Ghul, who serves as a teacher and mentor to Bruce Wayne pre-Batman and later his first true foe when he teams with Scarecrow in a plot to destroy Gotham from the inside out, is probably one of his best. Neeson is a convincing mentor who wins over both Wayne and the audience with his charm before finally revealing himself to be the villain in the closing act. He brings a compelling portrayal to the screen of such a simple villain who you almost come to respect for his devotion to his mission. Best of all he has no powers or special abilities, he’s just Batman’s equal in both skill and strategy and, in some ways, superior to the hero providing the Dark Knight with a truly great first challenge in his crime fighting career.
8. Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt / Ozymandias
Before Thanos’ destroyed innocent lives for the greater good with the snap of his fingers Ozymandias showed his willingness to end millions of lives to save billions. For me “The Watchmen” is one of the most underrated movies in the superhero genre and part of that is due in no small part to the surprise villain. Once a devoted member of the Watchmen, the genius Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, realizes that humanity can never find peace without a common enemy and seeks to make Dr. Manhattan that very enemy using devices the Doctor helped him develop to eradicate multiple large-population cities in the blink of an eye. Matthew Goode perfectly portrays the ego and poise required of such a character to go to such lengths with almost zero remorse. Ozymandias’ confidence, fighting skills, connection to the heroes and strong, seemingly unbreakable convictions make him not only one of the best DC villains in film, but one of the most complex. He does what all good villains should do by making you legitimately question whether or not he’s right or wrong.
7. Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor
The original big screen enemy of Superman, Gene Hackman’s take on the usually bald-headed evil genius is now legendary. Hackman perfectly captured the sarcasm, whit and ruthless drive for profit that has come to define the character in 1978’s “Superman: The Movie” and went on to serve as a supporting villain in the sequels as well. While numerous other actors, including Kevin Spacey pre-controversy and Jesse Eisenberg, have put their own spin on the character in years since the original cinematic version of Luthor still holds true as a memorable, almost Bond-like villain willing to sacrifice human lives for the sake of profit. What makes Hackman’s version of the megalomaniac so memorable even today is his willingness to talk down to and throw verbal jabs at Superman, a hero that could snap him in half without breaking a sweat. I still laugh seeing him tell Superman to just come in when the hero breaks down his door. That swagger and confidence alone makes him one of the best DC cinematic villains of all time.
6. Terence Stamp as General Zod
While Lex Luthor might have been the first threat to Superman, the hero truly met his match in the much beloved sequel, 1980’s “Superman II”, in the form of Terence Stamp’s General Zod. While Luthor sought financial gain Zod was more of a true megalomaniac seeking power and demanding respect by making his “subjects” kneel before him. Merciless and arrogant as any villain could be, Zod is Superman’s equal in almost every way and proves to be a true threat for the Kryptonian even without the muscle mass. He sees Earth as a planet to rule, plain and simple, and sports an ego so massive he actually gets bored with how easy he finds humans to be to conquer. Terence Stamp’s take on the character perfectly captures the mindset and persona of a madman with an insatiable thirst for power and control and while Michael Shannon’s more sympathetic take on the warlord in 2013’s “Man of Steel” deserves an honorable mention Stamp’s version is still the baddy that almost all other Superman villains are compared to even to this day.
5. Tom Hardy as Bane
Tom Hardy is one of today’s most talented chameleon actors, able to mold himself into almost any role demanded of him. His take on the physically intimidating, scene-stealing Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises” is by far one of the most impressive examples of his talent as Hardy not only put on muscle for the role he also adopted a strangely pleasant accent to offset his physique, giving us and Batman a villain we’re not sure how to approach. He also managed to provide plenty of expression and emotion while wearing a mask that covered most of his face. Combining gentleman-like qualities and a respect for his opponent with a ruthless temper and anarchist ideals, this version of Bane more than made up for the more comical take incorporated into “Batman & Robin” in the 90s and gave us a truly intimidating individual who we could really believe could break the Bat, in more ways than one. Even if he is revealed to be merely a lacky, Bane still holds a special place in DC’s big screen history.
4. Danny DeVito as Oswald Cobblepot / The Penguin
Possibly one of the most perfectly cast villains in terms of image alone, Danny DeVito provided his iconic take on the Penguin for the 1992 Tim Burton sequel “Batman Returns”. Giving the Penguin a menacing personality as a jaded animal of a man set on punishing Gotham for his being rejected by the world for his deformities, DeVito’s turn as the famous umbrella wielding baddy comes with a nice touch of humanity that makes you feel for him and appreciate his motivations even if we don’t agree with his extremist methods. DeVito’s naturally small stature actually compliments the Penguin’s backstory as a deformed being and his ability to shift between charismatic politician, world-weary orphan we can empathize with and menacing maniac with more than a few tricks up his sleeves helps give the Penguin a perfect intimidation factor. DeVito could have been THE standout villain from “Batman Returns” if not for another villain I’ll get to in a second, but the Penguin still stands on his own as one of the creepiest DC villains ever to appear on the big screen.
3. Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle / Catwoman
Catwoman almost shouldn’t qualify for this list as she ends up helping Batman in the end, however she did serve first and foremost as a foe to the Dark Knight before changing her ways. Michelle Pfeiffer brought the character to life in “Batman Returns” with the now iconic, stitched together leather outfit and a sharp tongue and claws to match as well as her iconic whip. Pfeiffer’s take on the character has become the definitive villainess performance in comic book movies but not just because of her good looks. Pfeiffer gave us an anti-hero unafraid to see the humor and irony in situations and was more focused on small crimes than larger-scale world domination. With that she saw Batman as more of a thorn in her side and a toy to play with rather than a legitimate roadblock which made their exchanges all the more enjoyable to watch especially when the sexual tension came into play. Anne Hathaway put her own, respectable spin on the character in “The Dark Knight” where Catwoman was more of an anti-hero than a villain, but Pfeiffer’s interpretation remains the most memorable for good reason.
2. Jack Nicholson as Jack Napier / The Joker
While number one might be obvious at this point, I couldn’t go without putting Jack Nicholson’s take on The Joker on this list and I have him here as the runner-up. The antagonist in Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” film, Nicholson was born to play The Joker bringing a sense of humor and relentlessness to the character that even today makes people joke that Nicholson wasn’t acting, he was simply being himself. An iconic look with iconic lines and an unforgettable laugh, Nicholson’s version of the Joker may have been overshadowed by later versions, but this has long been the version all others have been compared to. Although other versions like Heath Ledger and Jared Leto’s interpretations have embraced different, grittier approaches to the role, Nicholson’s take is arguably the most loyal live-action interpretation of the character to the source material taking elements from Cesar Romero’s original live-action version in the 60s and building on them brilliantly. Nicholson’s Joker would go on to influence the character’s history and evolution in the years that followed setting a high bar that only one man so far has managed to top.
1. Heath Ledger as The Joker
It’s an uninspired choice for sure, but who else could be number one? While Jack Nicholson’s version of The Joker is iconic, it’s now overshadowed by the only super villain performance in history to ever win an Oscar. Heath Ledger provided possibly one of the best all time villain, and maybe one of the best performances of all time period, in 2008’s “The Dark Knight” bringing a more anarchist approach to the Joker with an voice, personality and even face paint scheme that he designed all on his own. The Joker is an enigmatic baddy throughout the film with both the audience and Batman unsure of what he’s planning next and few solid details of his identity and true origins ever revealed, leaving everything about him open to interpretation even to this day. Ledger’s dedication to the role helped redefine what a comic book villain could be, on either the page or screen, and earned him a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as a result. Ledger’s inspired rendition of the iconic Batman villain is still remember as one of the best in the medium over ten years after he shocked the world in a most unexpected way and remains the highlight aspect of a film that changed comic book movies, and in some ways cinema itself, forever.