A hero is only as good as the villain they’re up against. Think of the iconic movies you love and you’d see, more often than not, the quality of villains has an impact on how the hero and, by extension, the movie are received.
Comic book stories have continued to experience a surge in popularity with live-action adaptations since the dawn of the 2000 millennium. This is a non-exhaustive list of some of the best comic book villains that have made their respective movies/TV shows even more well-received. Did your fave make the list? Tell us in the comments.
Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender as Eric Lensherr aka Magneto in The X-Men film series (2000 – 2019)
The X-Men movie released in 2000 is widely regarded as the movie that truly changed the face of comic book adaptations. This $75 million production looked amazing to behold, and one of the most intriguing characters it had in its rank was the iconic villain Magneto, made even more iconic by the electrifying performance from Sir Ian McKellen. By 2011, the franchise experienced a soft reboot and Michael Fassbender took over the role. He, too, didn’t disappoint. With the upcoming X-Men reboot at Marvel Studios, whoever takes over the role from these two talented actors has some really large shoes to fill.
Willem Dafoe as The Green Goblin in Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
X-Men’s success was followed by an even bigger one two year later when Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was released in theaters. If X-Men showed the world comic book movies were a force to be reckoned with, this movie solidified that movement. Willem Dafoe was cast to play iconic comic-book villain The Green Goblin alongside Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker, engraving his act in the minds of film lovers the world over. He got the chance to reprise his role again in 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home and it was still gold.
Alfred Molina as Doctor Otto “Doc Ock” Octavius aka Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man (2004) and Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
Alfred Molina’s villainy turn as Doctor Otto “Doc Ock” Octavius aka Doctor Octopus was a tragic breath of fresh air coming off Spider-Man (2002). Doc Ock started out with the best of intentions to solve a world problem but somewhere along the lines his
tentacles ambitions got the best of him. Thankfully, the villain’s arc continued to fiercer acclaim in 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, further solidifying him as one of the greatest comic-book villains to grace the screens.
Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)
Christopher Nolan is a terrific director with a unique approach to filmmaking, hence not many expected him to ever take on a comic book movie. But he did -with Batman Begins (2005)- and it was amazing. The sequel The Dark Knight was even more terrific and that’s, no doubt, because of Heath Ledger’s unforgettable performance as The Joker. It’s sad the actor didn’t live long enough to see the finished product for himself, but posterity will always remember him for his great contribution to onscreen villainy via that movie.
Tom Hiddleston as Loki in The Marvel Cinematic Universe (20011 – 2018)
Tom Hiddleston is beloved by fans around the world. Part of that is because he’s, generally, a great actor, but a large part is also because of how he’s memorably interpreted and brought Loki the trickster to life. He’s so beloved that he’s one of the first MCU second-tier characters (its first outright villain, actually) to get his own TV show on Disney+. We look forward to seeing more of Loki in the MCU, so, go, Tom!
Manu Bennett as Slade Wilson aka Deathstroke in Arrow s1&2 (2012 – 2014)
A little break from Marvel comic-books. We kick off the DC side of things with Manu Bennett’s portrayal of the fierce mercenary Deathstroke. Two years after the conclusion of Smallville, The CW kicked off the still-running Arrowverse with Arrow (2012 – 2020). The show about Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) and how he survived being stranded on a deserted island (called Lian Yu) for five years brought with it a lot of interesting backstories; one of them was that Oliver and Slade Wilson met on Lian Yu. By the time the show entered its second season, it’d fully consolidated both characters’ backstory and introduced viewers to Deathstroke in all his glory and his mission to take over Starling City (later Star City).
Tom Cavanagh as Eobard Thawne aka The Reverse Flash in The Flash s1 (2014/2015)
In 2014, the Arrowverse gave birth to its first spin-off, The Flash featuring the titular speedster renowned for being the fastest man alive. Showing up alongside Barry Allen’s debut run on the TV show was the very formidable villain Eobard Thawne aka The Reverse Flash, played by the crazily-good actor Tom Cavanagh. As The Flash’s archnemesis, The Reverse Flash is still a staple on the still-running show, but his unveiling in season 1 easily stands out as his most menacing of the entire show run.
Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk aka The Kingpin in Daredevil s1-3 (2015 – 2018)
With the increasing success of the MCU on the big screen, it became a no-brainer that the behemoth parent studio wanted to also dominate the small screen. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was already doing good things on the ABC network, and Daredevil, in 2015, came on board to breathe new life on the Netflix side of things. The show was a spectacular success. Charlie Cox was a natural to play the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen, and Vincent D’Onofrio stood tall and menacing as the villain Wilson Fisk aka The Kingpin.
Fans have been disappointed in the time following the cancellation of Daredevil and all the other MCU-Netflix shows, but with D’Onofrio’s recent return in Marvel Studios’ Hawkeye and an announcement of a new season of Daredevil, it looks like we’ll be eating well again soon enough.
David Tennant as Kilgrave in Jessica Jones (2015)
Jessica Jones isn’t as popular as her in-universe, somehow-frequent collaborator, Daredevil, but during her live-action debut in 2015, the show managed to give us an iconic villain in Kilgrave, played to bits by talented British actor David Tennant.
In summary, the first season of Jessica Jones follows the eponymous character, a former superhero, who opens her own detective agency after her superhero career comes to an end at the hands of Kilgrave. You best know Kilgrave returned to Jessica’s life, and it was a messy reunion. In my opinion Jessica Jones is as great (if not better) a comic book adaptation as Daredevil is regarded.
Josh Brolin as Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019)
What Marvel Studios did with the Infinity War saga was unprecedented. The Infinity Saga is a saga of films made up of the first twenty-three films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), encompassing Phase One, Phase Two, and Phase Three. The saga began with Iron Man and concluded with Spider-Man: Far From Home.
Technically, Thanos’ run as the main villain of the saga came to an end in the 22nd film, Avengers: Endgame, but I thought the full facts might come in handy for you someday.
Thanos was a formidable villain for the Avengers; if in doubt, go re-watch the two final Avengers movies.
Anthony Starr as Homelander in The Boys (2019 – till date)
The Boys exists to remind us of how humans continue to idolize anyone who seems larger-than-life even when, clearly, they, too, aren’t perfect.
If Superman is the boy scout and standard for all that is good and right with the superheroic side of the world, Homelander is the red pill for the hard truth that as long as superheroes live in the real world with the rest of humanity, they too are susceptible to all the messiness that comes with posing as a human. A large part of the reason we all love The Boys is because of Anthony Starr’s ice-cold performance as Homelander; yeah, I know.
Looking for something else Anthony Starr has been in? I suggest you go check out Banshee. It’s not a comic book adaptation but a brutal crime drama rated 18+. You’ll love it.
Paul Dano as The Riddler in The Batman (2022)
Rounding off our list is Paul Dano’s still recent portrayal of the popular comic book character The Riddler.
While some people might disagree with his inclusion on this list, I think a large part of why Matt Reeves’ The Batman works is because of the way the villain is written and portrayed – different, chilling, and enigmatic. If you’re not the biggest fan of this Riddler’s villainy, I’d say give it some time, it’ll grow on you.
Did you enjoy our picks? Which comic-book-based villain(s) is your favorite, and did s/he make this list? Do tell me in the comments.