The depictions of villains in films always come off as the most nuanced and memorable parts of superhero movies. You can only have a good superhero story if the villains have the same charisma as the heroes trying to stop them. Long before the day of cinematic franchises, these villains were played by high-profile actors who brought immense respectability to these roles. Not many people wanted to get in the shoes of the Joker after Jack Nicholson won an Oscar for his portrayal of the clown prince of crime, and it took nearly 20 years for someone to step up to the plate.
Villains are best when they are irredeemable. Good villains cause mayhem to disturb the status quo, either to spark the flames of change or impose their views and break the structure of their world. A great villain is unrelenting and chaotic but has a clear purpose. Creating a tragic figure to empathize with is the norm, so finding a true villain solely motivated by chaos is way more interesting than someone who might have turned out to be good given a different set of circumstances.
With that in mind, these are our picks for the most irredeemable villains in superhero movies.
20 Hela – Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Played by Cate Blanchett, Hela is the main antagonist in Thor: Ragnarok. They retconned her in the MCU to be Thor and Loki’s sister. Hela is resentful for being locked away by Odin after proving to be a more formidable warrior than him, but also lacking humility and overall common sense. Hela was the first bearer of Mjlnoir, but she never really needed it as her power is nearly infinite, but so are her wicked ways. She proves to be a challenge to the God of Thunder by killing thousands of Asgardians and making Thor summon Surtur to beat her, thus condemning Asgard to oblivion.
19 The Joker – The Dark Knight (2008)
Heath Ledger’s legendary interpretation of The Joker in The Dark Knight left such a widespread imprint to the point of making subsequent actors take on the role to try and emulate him. The version of the character, as conceived by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, is a full-on anarchist who is continually a few steps ahead of the game from everyone. The man single-handedly outsmarts Batman, Commissioner Gordon, and the whole GCPD. He also manages to corrupt Harvey Dent to the core, and it’s only defeated when the common folk of Gotham City (and hardened criminals) refuse to partake in his mind games.
18 Jigsaw – Punisher: War Zone (2008)
Jigsaw is the Punisher’s main arch nemesis, something strange given the character’s long kill count record. He’s been adapted twice by Hollywood. The recent incarnation, played by Ben Barnes, is more of a tragic figure with close ties to Frank Castle. However, the most comic-accurate depiction of Jigsaw is played by actor Dominic West for 2008’s Punisher: War Zone. This hardened criminal goes crazy after being pushed into a glass grinder and deformed by Castle. Jigsaw would make his life’s mission to ruin Castle by any means necessary, something he accomplishes in the film by putting Frank in a conundrum where he has to choose to kill his assistant Micro or get the villain.
17 General Zod – The Man of Steel (2013)
Lex Luthor has put Superman through the grinder more than once, but that’s nothing compared to the impossible feats of General Zod, played in Man of Steel by Michael Shannon. The leading General of a rebel force on Krypton, Zod, sought to preserve Krypton’s heritage by taking the planet’s genetic codex by force. Jor-El takes the device and imprints the Codex in Kal-El’s blood before sending him to Earth. Years later, Clark would activate the mechanisms of a crashed Kryptonian ship, sending the call out to Zod, who’s been traveling through space after escaping the Phantom Zone. His ultimate mission is to reclaim the codex, colonize the Earth, and transform it into New Krypton by any means necessary.
16 Ultron – Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
There’s a classic meme making the rounds online telling how Ultron went online for five seconds and immediately knew everything he needed to understand the human race and that we had to go. It may be an unfair assessment but not so distant from reality. Ultron is the most nihilist foe the Avengers faced, with no regard for life or need for it. His ultimate goal is far from world domination in Avengers: Age of Ultron, as there’s no middle ground with the sentient AI; he wants humanity gone because of the inherent complexity that represents the burden of being a human in the current world, including all societal nuances.
15 Amanda Waller – The Suicide Squad (2021)
Flawlessly played by Viola Davis once again in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, this no-nonsense government matriarch is the equivalent of Nick Fury in the DC Universe with one key difference: this woman will do everything in her power to make metahumans bend the knee to her whims. For Waller, no secret is too big, and no family tie is too sacred. She will hold hostages or kill anybody who stands in her way. Villains don’t get the chance to reform under her watch; they are their stock of cannon fodder to take care of the shady dealings of the US government that regular superheroes don’t or won’t touch. She can hold anyone accountable and call on favors from big guns like Superman to keep other powerful entities in check.
14 The Green Goblin – Spider-Man (2002)
Let’s talk for a minute about generational evil here. The Green Goblin, as played by Willem Dafoe, has made life hell not for one but for two generations of Spider-Men on the big screen. Debuting for the first time in 2002’s Spider-Man by Sam Raimi, the villain discovered Peter’s secret identity and endangered his loved ones. When he was sent to the MCU after Doctor Strange’s botched spell, he led the charge when all villains went rogue after Peter offered to cure all of them. He went on to beat the living hell out of Peter and kill his aunt May in the process. He would come very close to being killed a second time if it wasn’t for the timely intervention of Peter 3.
13 Bane – The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Many people make the misguided argument that this fearsome antagonist was the mere muscle of Thalia Al Ghul in The Dark Knight Rises, when he was much more than that. Bane devised many plans to take over Gotham while Talia played possum. The charismatic villain, played by Tom Hardy, is the best version of the character ever put to screen. The musclebound brute is scarred and requires assistance to breathe, but this doesn’t make him one bit less menacing as his imposing presence asserts each time he’s on the screen. Plus, unlike his comic book version, Bane went all natty to break Batman and strip him of everything he’s got.
12 Ra’s Al Ghul – Batman Begins (2005)
Ra’s Al Ghul has always been one of Batman’s most formidable foes. The echo terrorist follows the same principles as Thanos, believing overpopulation will be humanity’s downfall. In the Christopher Nolan films, he’s the head of the League of Shadows and is brilliantly played by Liam Neeson in Batman Begins. This organization has existed for centuries overseeing the collapse of empires and entire civilizations to rebuild them anew. This time, his eyes are set on Gotham, a city he regards as one of the most corrupted pinnacles of society in the history of humanity and one that he’ll do everything in his power to break and destroy, even after his untimely passing.
11 William Stryker – X2: X-Men United (2003)
The X-Men had to fight multiple foes during their tenure at 20th Century Studios. Although Magneto is their main antagonist for most of the story, he’s always playing both sides at his convenience. However, one man was able to unite both fronts in the mutant war in X2: X-Men United.
William Stryker, brilliantly played by Brian Cox, had a single vision: the complete annihilation of all mutants on Earth. Working as deep state cover agent and the main head of the Weapon X program, he kidnaps most of the team, including Charles Xavier. Striker steals the technology for Cerebro, the mutant location system, to weaponize Charles’s brain and kill every mutant on Earth by inducing strokes.
10 Ares – Wonder Woman (2017)
The God of War exists in the DCU as the avatar to instill conflict among men and the one behind the events of World War I, according to Wonder Woman lore in the first film. Played by David Thewlis in Wonder Woman, this God mask is behind the face of a benevolent Sir Patrick Morgan, a diplomat trying to break a peace treaty with Germany. Behind the scenes, the man instills the flames of conflict by developing chemical weapons and ensuring their widespread use on the battlefield. Diana must fight God to a standstill and negate his mischievous ways to defeat him finally.
9 Carnage – Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021)
Nobody is more irredeemable than Cletus Kasady in Spider-Man lore. A serial killer by conviction, Kletus had a rough childhood, but we are pretty sure even a good family couldn’t set him on the right path. With a deep fascination for Eddie Brock and his writings, he summons the reporter to play mind games with him and reveal the secrets of every hidden corpse of the people he has killed in Venom: Let There Be Carnage. The Venom symbiote catches a glimpse of Kasady’s drawings in his cell and helps Eddie expose the secret. Enraged, Cletus asks for a final interview, where he bites Eddie, getting some of his blood into his system. This creates Carnage, a new symbiote that maximizes Kletus’s killing skills without remorse.
8 Black Manta – Aquaman (2019)
With a mysterious origin, the man named David became Aquaman‘s most formidable foe after having his plans to ransack a ship foiled by Arthur, who left him and his father to die after saving the crew. David forges an alliance with Ocean Master, who loads him with weapons. David’s sole mission is to kill Arthur and avenge his father. Their longstanding feud is the stuff of legends in the comics, where Black Manta killed Arthur’s firstborn, chopped his hand off, and attempted to rape Mera. While their beef hasn’t been elevated to such levels in the films, it’s more than likely we’ll get to see these sworn enemies dance at least one more time before the DCU is rebooted.
7 Ego the Living Planet – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 (2017)
It’s hard to see how a whole damn planet can be considered an irredeemable villain, but that’s precisely what happens with Ego the Living Planet in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Using Kurt Russel as his avatar, Ego has the power to terraform other sections of the universe, something he’s been planning for decades by planting his seed across the galaxy. Commanding the power of a Celestial, Ego begins taking over the universe, not before revealing to Peter Quill he’s his father and that he caused the death of his mother by planting a brain tumor after impregnating her. And you thought you had a complicated relationship with your dad.
6 Wanda Maximoff – Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness (2022)
The path to villainy for Wanda Maximoff feels justified in the eyes of many. Still, any fan can see the loss experienced by characters like Thor in the MCU, and the God of Thunder prevails as a force for good regardless of all trauma. Elizabeth Olsen has done a magnificent job of playing the trauma-bound witch.
The culmination of the character’s arc in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness resembles her comic portrayal, where she loses her grip on reality and kills many of her allies, and obliterates the world into a twisted perversion of her father’s wishes (for those still out of the loop, Wanda is the daughter of The X-Men’s Magneto). The worst part is that she’s doing it for a family that is merely a fragment of her imagination.
5 The Penguin – Batman Returns (1992)
Depicted at first as a tragic figure to viewers in Batman Returns, Oswald Cobblepot, played by Danny DeVito, was a monster in presence and heart alike. Neglected by his parents at birth due to his massive deformities, Oswald was raised by The Red Circus Gang in the sewers of Gotham City. The cold environment shaped his body like a wingless bird. His rise to fame came at the hand of shady benefactor Max Shreck, who abandoned him after Batman revealed the Penguin as a sadistic two-faced villain. He sought his revenge by kidnapping every firstborn in Gotham to drown them in the sewers, a plan that was foiled by the timely intervention of Batman.
4 Ozymandias – Watchmen (2007)
Played by Matthew Goode in the Zack Snyder classic, Watchmen, Adrian Alexander Veidt became a superhero as a means to an end. Born privileged, the man got rid of his family’s fortunes and rebuilt his empire from the ground up to prove he could do so without help. His next goal? World peace. By any means necessary. Ozymandias is not the classic comic villain. He’s brilliant beyond comprehension and can deceive even an all-watching God as he outsmarts Dr. Manhattan. He builds a giant conspiracy with so many threads that no one could stop him. When his former allies realized what was happening, it was too late to stop him. He united the world by creating a common enemy everyone should fear.
3 Doomsday – Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Doomsday was conceived as the unstoppable force that has to face the immovable object that is Superman. Explicitly created as the only character able to kill Superman, Doomsday has had a lengthy presence in multiple TV shows. He was the big brute to beat in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice with an unlikely origin. Created using Kryptonian eugenics, the monster was conceived by enhancing the dead body of General Zod. With his strength multiplied tenfold, it took the combined efforts of Superman and Wonder Woman to defeat the menace, who refused to go out without claiming the life of Superman. (Don’t blame Batman, he was out of his element here, plus he created the Kryptonite spear able to kill the monster)
2 Thanos – Avengers Infinity War & Endgame (2018)
Thanos is the most pragmatic villain on this list. The finest acting from Josh Brolin in the both Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame gives us an irredeemable villain with whom there’s no point in arguing, as he is hell-bent on a mission to rid half of life in the whole damn universe. Thanos is not pushed by nihilism or his love of death as he is in the comics.
Thanos’s motivations come from the firm belief that there are not enough resources to sustain the universe. He’s undertaken this mission for many years before we met him in the MCU. It’s unknown at which point he finds out about the infinity stones. Still, once Thanos learns about a tool that can help him achieve his life mission with a snap of his fingers, he will not stop at anything, and he’ll sacrifice anyone to make sure he accomplishes what he’s set out to do.
1 Darkseid – Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
If there’s a single regret we get from seeing the Snydeverse go, is that we’ll never get to see his version of Darkseid in action. Ray Porter made such a brilliant impression playing the character that it is hard to picture someone else in the role. You may think this spot belongs to Steppenwolf, but he was a lost errand boy for Darkseid in both versions of Justice League, who banished him from Apokolips to conquer backwater worlds in his name. A strike of luck allowed him to find the Anti-Life equation on our planet, which brought Darkseid’s attention to our planet. After the League defeats Steppenwolf, Darkseid declares that Earth must be conquered using the old ways, which would have meant all-out war on all fronts for Earth’s heroes, as seen in the flashbacks depicted in the film.
This story originally appeared on Movieweb