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10 Outstanding Supervillain Performances from Accomplished Actors

Casting a superhero film is a tricky thing: if the villain is too likable, the audience will root for them over the hero. If the villain is played poorly, the viewer cannot wait to see them fail. Supervillain performances in film run the gamut, from the campy to the horrifying. Throughout the history of film as a medium, we have been mesmerized by iconic portrayals of supervillains. It could be their dark wit or their sinister presence, but either way, they often steal the show.

There have been some outstanding supervillain performances by many accomplished actors. These are the performances that people walked away from the theatre talking about. Recently, these performances have even started to gain critical acclaim and showbiz accolades. They have been ingrained in pop culture, leaving an enduring impression on cinema. The supervillain performances on this list have been delivered by celebrated actors and have left their indelible mark on cinema history.

10 Ian McKellen – X-Men Films

20th Century Studios

Sir Ian McKellen is a cultural icon, with a career spanning over sixty years. First appearing on the British stage as a Shakespearean actor, McKellen brings that extensive experience to his role as Erik Lensherr/Magneto in the X-Men films. He brings gravitas to the character of Erik, a Jewish mutant Holocaust survivor who can control metal. McKellen, an openly gay man, imbues his performances as Erik/Magneto with a firm stance on freedom from persecution.

As the character progresses through multiple films, it leads the audience to wonder whether Magneto has a point after witnessing how many times mutants and their rights are attacked by humans. McKellen’s Shakespearean chops also make him a formidable villain in the restraint and control he possesses, particularly in tense scenes between Magneto and Professor X (McKellen’s real-life best friend Patrick Stewart) where these acting titans show the true disparity in their characters’ ideologies, despite their deep respect for each other.

9 Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight

Heath Ledger Joker Dark Knight
Warner Bros.

Where Ian McKellen’s performance as Magneto is taut and controlled, Heath Ledger’s Academy Award-winning performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight is pure and utter chaos. Ledger’s final completed performance as a hideously scarred anarchist is an exercise in mayhem, with the story behind the scars that make up his smile constantly changing. He leads the audience down into the depths of Gotham’s criminal underworld, and they watch him weave through it with sickening ease, wreaking havoc everywhere he goes and pushing Batman (Christian Bale) to his absolute limits.

Prior to landing this role, Ledger’s career had taken a steady climb, from the high school romantic comedy 10 Things I Hate About You to his Oscar-nominated performance in Brokeback Mountain. In The Dark Knight, Ledger’s take on The Joker as a sociopathic terrorist is so fully realized, it even causes his co-star Michael Caine to forget his lines during shooting.

8 Gene Hackman – Superman

Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor in Superman the Movie
Warner Bros. Pictures

In director Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman: The Movie, veteran actor Gene Hackman portrays evil genius billionaire Lex Luthor. Prior to appearing as Superman’s greatest foe, Hackman had already won a Best Actor Oscar for playing Detective “Popeye” Doyle in The French Connection. Hackman’s performance as Luthor is funny and menacing, with the actor’s gravelly rumbling voice displaying an incredibly dry wit and full-on megalomania. The supervillain plans to detonate a nuclear missile in the San Andreas Fault and sink the West Coast of the United States into the ocean, leaving all the desert land he purchased as the new coastline thus making him the owner of the most expensive real estate in the world.

At moments, Hackman chews the scenery (his yelling of “Ms. Teschmacher!” stands out) but overall, his performance is layered enough to be grounded in this bright adaptation of the quintessential comic book superhero.

7 Michelle Pfeiffer – Batman Returns

Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns
Warner Bros.

Tim Burton directed the darker, more mature film Batman Returns, the sequel to his 1989 original. In this installment, Batman (Michael Keaton) faces off against The Penguin (Danny Devito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) to save Gotham City. Pfeiffer’s performance as Catwoman and her alter ego Selina Kyle is nothing short of iconic. After Selina is pushed out of a window to her assumed death by evil industrialist Max Schreck (Christopher Walken), she awakens and returns home to have one of the great all-time cinematic mental breakdowns.

Once she fully transforms into her mysterious counterpart, Pfeiffer brings slinky physicality in a skin-tight vinyl suit and sensuous vocal delivery as a woman who has nothing left to lose. Selina and Bruce Wayne have chemistry both in and out of costume and Pfeiffer’s performance highlights the duality at the center of the story. Before slipping into Catwoman’s costume, Pfeiffer was on a hot streak, having already been nominated for two Oscars back to back.

6 Michael B. Jordan – Black Panther

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Michael B. Jordan walked onto Black Panther already established as a rising star in Hollywood, with memorable performances in HBO’s The Wire, 2013’s Fruitvale Station, and 2015’s Creed. His performance as Erik Stevens/Killmonger in the epic 2018 Marvel film was a tour-de-force, spotlighting his versatility. Killmonger is out for revenge with his eye directly fixed on the throne of King T’Challa/Black Panther (the late Chadwick Boseman). Killmonger knows that Wakanda has the resources to end the oppression of Black people worldwide and intends to see that through, by any means necessary.

Jordan delivered a complex performance and made Killmonger, a character who could easily be portrayed as a stoic stack of muscles, more multifaceted. His performance earned him acclaim from critics and a 2018 MTV Movie Award for Best Villain. Jordan did not just bring his immense presence, but also a well of raw emotion that made Killmonger that much more compelling to watch.

5 Michael Shannon – Man of Steel

general zod man of steel michael shannon
Warner Bros.

Set to make his return to the character of General Zod in The Flash, Michael Shannon first stepped into the villainous role in Zack Snyder’s 2013 Superman film Man of Steel. In the film, Superman (Henry Cavill) has to go up against Zod and his crew, who have escaped from the Phantom Zone. They arrive on Earth and Zod means to transform it into a habitable planet for Krpytonians, killing all of humanity in the process.

A noted character actor for films like Take Shelter and Bug, Shannon also earned an Academy Award nomination in 2008 for Revolutionary Road. Shannon portrays Zod in this film with intense energy, making him a powerful opponent for Cavill’s Superman. Zod is solely interested in the protection and proliferation of his people after the destruction of Krypton, and he does not care what or who he has to sacrifice in order to do that.

4 Alfred Molina – Spider-Man 2

alfred_molina_spider-man_2_hero (1)

In Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, Alfred Molina plays the scientist Dr. Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus, opposite Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Octavius is a scientist on the verge of a breakthrough in fusion technology. When his own hubris causes the tragic accident that results in him losing his wife Rosie (Donna Murphy), he becomes the villainous Doc Ock. Spider-Man has to fight to stop Doctor Octopus from destroying the city with his rebuilt fusion machine.

An accomplished actor on the British stage, Molina found success in American films, earning acclaim and award nominations for his performances, including a Golden Globe nod for his work in the 2002 biopic Frida. Molina brings a sense of tragedy and poignancy to his role as Doctor Octopus. His character’s drive to succeed costs him his wife, but that does not stop him from trying to recreate the experiment that killed her. He recently reappeared in the role in 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home.

3 Tom Hiddleston – Thor, other MCU projects

Tom-Hiddleston-As-Loki-Marvel (1)
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

In Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, the noted Shakespearean actor and director brings that classical grandness to the story of god of thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth), his trickster adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and their battle for the throne of Asgard. Hiddleston previously worked with Branagh on stage plays in England. In the film, Loki manipulates Thor into disobeying their father Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) orders which ultimately breaks an already shaky truce between the Frost Giants and the Asgardians. Odin takes Thor’s power and banishes him for his defiance while Loki continues clawing his way to the throne.

Throughout the film, Hiddleston leans in to the villainy, making Loki a cunning adversary. Hiddleston’s Loki became such an instant standout that Disney and Marvel gave the character his own streaming series. He holds his own against acting royalty Hopkins in their dramatic scenes together. If ever there were a charming, witty villain, it is Loki.

2 Willem Dafoe – Spider-Man

Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin in Spider-Man 
Sony Pictures

Already a two-time Academy Award-nominee, Willem Dafoe brought to life one of the most iconic characters in Spider-Man’s gallery of rogues: Norman Osborne/The Green Goblin. For director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Norman Osborne’s company Oscorp is in the process of locking a deal with the military to develop weaponry and biological enhancements for soldiers. He tries an experimental serum, and it goes horribly wrong, giving him enhanced strength and splitting his mind in two, birthing the Green Goblin.

Once Norman figures out Spider-Man’s secret identity, he tries to kill everyone Peter Parker loves. Dafoe’s performance is by turns hilarious, chilling, and unnerving. There is a standout scene in the Osborne home where Norman talks to himself as the Goblin in the mirror. The rivalry between Norman/the Goblin and Peter/Spider-Man is tense, made moreso by the fact that Norman is the father of Peter’s best friend Harry (James Franco). Like Alfred Molina, Dafoe reprised his role as the Green Goblin in the MCU film Spider-Man: No Way Home.

1 Mark Hamill – Batman: The Animated Series, multiple Batman animated projects

Batman: The Animated Series - Joker
Warner Bros.

There have been many iconic portrayals of The Joker across media, but one of the most enduring is the voice performance by none other than Mark Hamill. Hamill has been voicing the Clown Prince of Crime since 1992 in the iconic Batman: The Animated Series. Hamill is most well known for playing Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars franchise.

Throughout his tenure as the character, Hamill endowed his portrayal of The Joker with a level of lunacy and danger unseen in any other. He has played opposite the grim and grizzled vocal work of the late Kevin Conroy as Batman in both the television series and multiple animated films, including Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. His voice work is unhinged in all the best ways. Hamill and his unmistakable cackle have gone down in pop culture history as one of the definitive depictions of a quintessential comic book supervillain.

This story originally appeared on Movieweb

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