A hero is only as good as their villain. Of course, heroes require a villain to push and test them to reach their highest potential. There have been some very terrible comic book villain performances including Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, Topher Grace as Venom, Paul Giamatti as Rhino or Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. While that might be used for another list, we will be taking a look at the best comic book villain performances. Roles actors have taken on that have been so convincing and so memorable that we have no choice but to talk about these presentations on display on the big screen. We will only be covering one performance per character, as much as we love Ledger, Nicholson, Phoenix and Hamills takes on the Clown Prince of Crime we will only be taking a look at one of them. Now let’s dig into some of the best super-villain performances in comic book films.
Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman (Batman Returns)
As much as we love Danny Devitos take on the Penguin, it is the stand out presentation Pfeiffer has on the Fatal Feline in the 1992 film Batman Returns. Exploring her origins with a supernatural twist after Selina Kyle is pushed out of the window of the top floor in her work building by her boss Max Shreck. She is then surrounded and chewed on by cats before waking up like a zombie and resurrected as the Catwoman. With eight lives left she seeks revenge on Shreck, but things get complicated when Selina starts to fall in love with Bruce Wayne. Pfeiffer embodies Catwoman with her sexiness, mystery and disturbed nature that Selina struggles with. She holds up chemistry with Michael Keaton to brilliantly execute the romance between Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne. Despite what some people might say about Anne Hathaways take in The Dark Knight Rises, Pfeiffer captures the version of Catwoman that was created through the comic books.
Samuel L. Jackson as Mr. Glass (Unbreakable, Glass)
The films Unbreakable, Split and Glass have often been a subject of debate about their place as a comic book film or not, but if you watch Unbreakable you will be convinced. Elijah Price is a man who was born with a brittle bone condition called osteogenesis imperfecta, causing people to have bones that can break with even a simple touch. Price is obsessed with comic books and believes they are actually documentation about people throughout history that contained superhuman abilities. It is later revealed he is also a criminal mastermind and takes interest in David Dunn who survived a train crash without a scar. In the film Glass is when he meets Kevin Crumb, a man with split personalities and has recently learned to unleashed the beast inside of him. Price intends to finally expose superhuman people by pitting Crumb against Dunn in a battle of the superhero and supervillain. Samuel L. Jackson manages to display a man in pain who is equally as insane, as he is completely genius.
Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger (Black Panther)
By far one of the greatest villain performances to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Erik Killmonger was a boy born outside the city of Wakanda, and when he is left behind to live among the rest of the world he makes the decision to take his place among the throne of Wakanda. What makes Jordan’s portrayal as Killmonger is the way this villain is written, not often do we find ourselves sympathizing with the bad guy but it is difficult not to in this film. Jordan convinces us that while he has a message to give, and while he might go about it in a cruel and evil way, his message makes sense and we often question the hero of the story. Jordan also manages to meet the physicality to the character that makes him intimidating and believable of a force to be reckoned with. Although the fate of the Killmonger was sealed by the end of Black Panther, comic books always find some way to bring back characters and we hope to see the same from Michael B. Jordan’s version of Erik Killmonger.
Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor (Superman I & II)
While we have had many versions of Lex Luthor since his first appearance in the 1978 film, none have come close to taking on the criminal mind of our time. Lex Luthor has a brilliant mind who chooses to use his skills and genius for crime, finding himself hiding from the authorities. Taking a drastic change when a man in a blue and red tights starts to fly through Metropolis with incredible abilities. Hackman brings the essence of Luthor to the screen, while for many years people believe Lex Luthor is just a money hungry crook he is actually far from that. He already has money, Luthors hatred for Superman comes from the jealousy he has for the Man of Steel. Luthor always wants to be the most powerful and larger than life person. Hackman brings that to his performance as Luthor, accurately portraying the greed and jealousy that motivates him to be the greatest criminal mind of our time.
Tom Hiddleston as Loki (Marvel Cinematic Universe)
Hiddleston made his first appearance in 2011’s Thor. Continuing to make appearances throughout the MCU as the main protagonist in The Avengers and reappearing in Thor: The Dark World, Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War and a brief part in Avengers: Endgame. It was explained further in Thor that Loki is actually the son of Laufey, the King of the Frost Giants. After an ongoing war between the Asgardians and the Frost Giants at Jotunheim, Odin discovered an abandoned child. Odin took the child in and claimed Loki as his own, making him the brother of Thor and the second heir to the throne of Asgard. When Loki unveiled the truth of his origin, he decided to revolt against his father to try and claim control of the throne. Hiddleston’s sly and charming personality has also attributed to his often change of heart to help his brother in time of need. Despite what Loki does to make Thors life difficult, the chemistry between Chris Hemsworths Thor and Hiddlestons Loki makes for one of the most believable and entertaining aspects of the MCU.
Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn (Suicide Squad, Birds of Prey)
While many weren’t sold Jared Letos take on The Joker, Margot Robbies Harley Quinn became one of best parts of the Suicide Squad. The film accurately follows the story told in The New Batman Adventures episode Mad Love, written by Paul Dini. Psychiatrist Harleen Quinzel gets a job at Arkham Asylum and takes on the Joker as her first patient, Joker manipulates her into sympathizing him and even falling in love with him. She ends up helping Joker break out of Arkham and tries to convince him to love her. The relationship between Joker and Harley has always been a dark and abusive companionship, which was loosely explored in Suicide Squad but referenced more and made sense in the later installment Birds of Prey. Margot Robbie managed to become the definitive actress to take on Harley Quinn, bringing out the sexy crazy nature of the Cupid of Crime. She is set to reappear in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, scheduled to release August 2021 and introduce an entirely new Suicide Squad from the first film.
Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus (Spider-Man 2)
Considered the best of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, for its compelling story of Peter all as the Wall Crawler but also for Alfred Doctor Octopus AKA Doctor Octopus. Octavius was renowned professor who was creating a sustainable fusion power reactor, a device with the power of the sun that has the ability to give unlimited energy to the whole world. To assist his experiment, he creates four mechanical arms that connect directly to his spine and therefore giving him neurological control of the arms. When the project goes wrong, killing his wife and frying the inhibitor chip attached to him the mechanical arms develop an artificial intelligence and start to manipulate Otto into becoming the villain Doctor Octopus. Molina delivers a performance that shows a man in pain and unable to take control of his life or abilities, suffering the pain of losing his wife. Making him one of the most oddly understood and interesting villains to come from a Spider-Man film yet.
Tom Hardy as Bane (The Dark Knight Rises)
For Christopher Nolan’s final installment to his acclaimed The Dark Knight Trilogy, instead of using the comic book version of Bane. A Mexican wrestler from Santa Prisca and used a compound known as Venom to give him advanced strength and speed to defeat Batman. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane was a terrorist who seemed to be English in his muffled accent. He didn’t have venom attached to him, but instead was just a strong being. Aside from his strength though, Bane also had a brilliant mind that carried realistic beliefs as well as tactical combat and warfare. Hardy’s portrayal was also malicious and menacing to his enemies, forcing them to suffer rather than simply killing them. Not much is known about Bane in the film, but the ambiguity only adds onto the fear audiences endure when they see this hulking man life Batman into the air and down on his knee.
Ian McKellen as Magneto (X-Men Universe)
Sir Ian McKellen appearaed as the mutant leader Magneto in X-Men, X2: X-Men United, X-Men: The Last Stand, The Wolverine (Cameo), and X-Men: Days of Future Past. Erik Lehnsherr was a young boy when he first discovered his abilities at a concentration camp, bending a giant metal gate when he was being taken from his mother. He would meet Charles Xavier years later and assist him in bringing together the first group of mutants to become the X-Men. Erik and Charles relationship grew cold from Eriks belief in natural selection, that Mutants were the evolution and should replace humans. But Charles fought against him believing mutants and humans can work side by side and create peace. While we adored Michael Fassbender as Magneto in X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse, and Dark Phoenix. It was McKellen who first brought the metal bending mutant to film and portrayed it so well that the standard has been set, it is uncertain if we will ever get a better on screen version of Magneto.
Heath Ledger as Joker (The Dark Knight)
Who knew the pretty boy from 10 Things I Hate About You would end up creating one of the greatest comic book villain performances. What hasn’t already been said about Heath Ledgers take on the Joker, so I will try not to go on and on about this amazing portrayal. At the time Warner Brothers announced Heath Ledger would play The Clown Prince of Crime, many were skeptical and doubted what the Australian actor could do. Considering there hasn’t been another big screen portrayal of The Joker since 1989 when he was played by Jack Nicholson, who was he could going to top that. Instead of trying to recreate what Nicholson did, he made it his own. Pushing away from the campy and funny aspect of Joker, he took on the more modern version in today’s comic books. Creating an anarchist with a passion for Batman, Ledgers sarcastic and sinister take on Joker set a standard for actors who came after to try and live up too. Of course Phoenix did an amazing job in 2019’s Joker, it was Ledger who set the stones for what could even be a solo Joker movie and will go down as the greatest super villain performance in a comic book film.
Also Read: When The First Film is the Best
Keep a look out for a follow up article 10 Best Comic Book Hero Performances, where we take a look at the greatest superhero performances.