It took a surprisingly long time for the first superhero to meet the first supervillain.
In 1938, Action Comics No. 1 launched the superhero genre by introducing Superman and pitting him against … the abstract concept of malfeasance in the criminal justice system (he delivered a signed confession that exonerated a woman about to be executed for murder). For the next dozen issues, he faced petty criminals. Only in 1938 did Superman finally meet a foe truly worthy of his time: the mad scientist known as the Ultra-Humanite. Clad in a distinctive outfit (a white one-piece that evoked both a doctor’s coat and a ball gown), prone to arrogant monologuing, and bent on conquering the world, he began a proud tradition of over-the-top antagonism.
These days, superhero fiction still thrives in the four-color page, but far more people find their tales of costumed adventuring on the silver screen. The genre is unstoppable at the box office, and it wouldn’t have gotten as big as it is today without solid supervillainy. Marvel Studios’ Black Panther just introduced one of the best of the best in Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, and we felt the time was ripe to see how where he fits in the ultra-baddie canon. We proudly present to you a definitive list of the 25 best movie supervillains of all time.
Our stipulations were as follows: Each character had to be one of the primary antagonists in a superhero movie (meaning we didn’t include larger-than-life villains in non-superhero movies, e.g., Hannibal Lecter) that had a theatrical release (sorry to all the straight-to-video releases and TV movies out there). In searching for our winners, we generally looked at three criteria that are essential to top-flight mega-nasties.
The great ones are visually interesting — that doesn’t necessarily mean a costume, just character design that leaves an impression and expresses what the person is all about. They also have to be remarkable in the screenplay — they usually reflect something relevant back at their respective heroes and have a clever (and at least somewhat intelligible, which is all too rare) master plan. And finally, they have to be played by actors who know how to light up the screen. There are quite a lot of generic Big Bads out there, but the finest ones are often even more exquisite than the folks we’re supposed to be rooting for. Let’s go into the secret lair, shall we?
25. Gwen Grayson / Royal Pain (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) — “Sky High”
Buena Vista Pictures
The charming teen flick Sky High is the most unjustly overlooked work of our two-decade-old superhero boom. If you’re one of the many who haven’t seen it, you should probably forget you even saw this entry, as it spoils the big twist. But it’s more important to praise the film than protect it from spoilers, so let us offer accolades to the great Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who turned in a great villain performance before she became the sought-after supporting actor she is today.
Gwen Grayson appears at first to be a stereotypical teenage love interest for the adolescent protagonist, and she does the best she can with that early material, but once she reveals herself as the film’s grudge-bearing antagonist, the magic begins. Winstead wears grievances with the best of them, growling and scowling her way into your heart, and it’s exciting to see the movie subvert your expectations about what an actress like her can do in a picture like this.
24. Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) — “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”
When Warner Bros. announced that Jesse Eisenberg would be playing Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, one could’ve been forgiven for assuming it would just be a retread of his performance as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. After all, his Zuck had many of the classic elements of past Lex depictions: insatiable avarice, preternatural calm, eternal condescension, and smugness for days. But Eisenberg and director Zack Snyder chose a different path, one that veered more toward giddy insanity than cool imperiousness.
Lex’s plot is nonsensical and his character design lackluster (at least the wig is memorable), but his portrayal is one of the film’s highlights. Unlike your average Big Bad, he has virtually no charisma; indeed, his hornet’s nest of tics and grins is supremely off-putting. In a film that stumbles on so many other points (though not as many as its critics claim), Lex’s ability to provide discomfort is something of a virtue. You really want to see this guy go down, not because you fear a world where he’s in charge, but because you’ve met guys like him before and they drive you nuts.
23. Col. Stryker (Brian Cox) — “X2”
20th Century Fox
The X-Men have succeeded as a franchise in comics, television, and film in spite of the fact that their antagonists so routinely have the same gist as one another: They’re bigots. Lazy creators routinely give us little reason to be interested in specific anti-mutant crusaders, merely using them as mouthpieces for simplistic prejudice. And then there’s Col. Stryker. Brian Cox and the team behind X2 did as good a job as anyone ever has at crafting a mutant-hater. He’s a stout, plainspoken, Vuhjinyuh-accented black-ops spook, endowed with Cox’s talent for threatening whispers and unsettling half-smiles.
We certainly want him to lose, but he’s not motivated by dull bigotry: In a remarkable early scene, Stryker reveals that his son is a mutant with devastating mental abilities who drove poor Mrs. Stryker to a power-drill-induced suicide. Who wouldn’t get a little monomaniacal? Ultimately, we watch Stryker with fascination because he is a perfect, fleshed-out vessel for our suspicion about the biases and tactics of our own government. Mutant superheroes may be an implausible concept, but there is no worse real-life supervillainy than the use of state power against a minority population.
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