Top 10 Live-Action Supervillains
A hero is only as good as his villain. The rise of comic book movies and TV shows in live-action has seen many mainstream viewers enraptured by superheroes. They love the powers. They love the costumes. Above all, they love the characters, engrossed in why they fight evil and how that mission affects their lives.
Equally important, however, are those on the other end of the moral spectrum, those who use their powers for unscrupulous purposes. There’s an art to making a good supervillain.
You can throw all the special effects in the world at the screen. You can have enough evil minions to fill a city. None of that matters without a compelling character at the center and a capable actor to bring it to life.
Not many people can put on a colorful costume and still manage to be intimidating. Let’s salute those who managed to do just that. Combining sure-handed direction, stellar scripts, and exceptional performances, these are the Top 10 Live-Action supervillains to haunt our screens.
Top 10 Live-Action Supervillains (Dis) Honorable Mentions:
Cesar Romero as The Joker – Batman (1966 TV Series)
Alfred Molina as Otto Octavius/Dr. Octopus – Spider-Man 2
Liam Neeson as Ra’s al Ghul – Batman Begins
Cillian Murphy as Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow – Batman Begins
Liev Schreiber as Victor Creed/Sabretooth – X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Tom Hardy as Bane – The Dark Knight Rises
David Tennant as Kilgrave – Jessica Jones
10. Tom Cavanaugh as Eobard Thawne/Reverse Flash – The Flash (2014 TV Series)
Consumed with jealousy of the Flash’s fast-paced heroics, Thawne strives to be the antithesis of everything the Scarlett Speedster stands for. Unfortunately, after traveling back in time to kill his nemesis as a child, he is stranded in the past. This leads him to kill the Flash’s mother in retaliation.
To gain the speed energy to get back home, the supervillain must reluctantly help young Barry Allen gain the powers and skills to become the Flash. In a cruelly ironic twist, Thawne finds himself creating his own worst enemy.
One of the defining strengths of this performance is the mystery. Cavanaugh’s natural enigma draws you in, daring you to know more about him. He often directs his piercing gaze and challenging smirk toward the other characters, and every scene they share puts both them and the audience on edge. This helps carry the slow-burn storytelling.
More importantly, it creates a constant tension so thick you can cut it with a knife. It’s slightly off-putting to be in his presence, but you also want to spend more time with him to decode his psychological puzzles. That dichotomy is what sets him apart. It’s all the more appropriate when he reveals a certain fatherly pride in his mortal enemy. It’s a wonderfully unique mentor-mentee twist to complement a wonderfully alluring performance.
9. Samuel L. Jackson as Elijah Price/Mr. Glass – Unbreakable & Glass
A major theme of these films is believing in the extraordinary, and no character better exemplifies that than Elijah Price, a man with fragile bones who maintains that comic book heroes were based on elusive individuals in real life. His body may be confined to a wheelchair. His Machiavellian mind, however, is a weapon all its own, and Jackson sells every bit of it.
He remains measured—almost soothing—throughout the psychological tale. Whether he’s talking about ridiculous comic book jargon or mass murder, his calm tone holds steady. The precision in his delivery further emphasizes his unnerving intelligence. Never once do you doubt that he knows and believes in what he’s talking about. He holds all the cards, and this makes him the most dangerous one in the room. That’s hard to pull off for any actor, let alone one in a wheelchair. More than superheroes, Mr. Glass makes you believe in supervillains.
8. Terence Stamp as General Zod – Superman II
A despot from Superman’s home planet, Zod eventually finds himself on Earth after being imprisoned in an inter-dimensional jail. He then makes it his mission to not only rule the world with an iron fist, but also to exact revenge on Superman, the son of the man who condemned him.
It takes a certain presence to give the illusion of absolute authority, and Stamp has that in spades. From the moment he walks into a room, he effortlessly commands the screen with his militaristic posture and cold stare. As much as you believe a man can fly, you also believe that this supervillain is in total control.
Like with any layered performance, this composure simply hides the insanity beneath, giving way to uncontrollable fits of megalomaniacal rage. You’d think this would turn hammy and ridiculous, but Stamp injects it with theatrical madness right out of a Shakespeare play. He makes Zod into a truly operatic nemesis, one perfectly suited to this reverent tale.
7. Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck/The Joker – Joker
Of all of the crazy baddies on this list, this one feels the closest to authentic mental illness. Every twitch, every nuance, every grotesque contortion has a meaning. His sporadic fits of laughter are involuntary and actually cause him pain. You genuinely don’t want to be around this guy because you can sense something deeply wrong with him. At the same time, the fact that he’s never able to get the help he needs from the unforgiving society of Gotham gives the impression that you’re watching a real-life serial killer in the making.
With this rendition of Batman’s most iconic nemesis, the audience is taken on an uncomfortable journey of a societal reject finding what he believes to be his true self, and a huge part of why that journey is so effective is Phoenix’s passionate performance.
He portrays each stage of the transformation with such meticulous detail that he strikes a perfect chord between pitiful and petrifying. You see his demeanor and mannerisms gradually change with every scene. It’s almost undetectable until you examine the whole picture. By the end, he’s practically an entirely different person. The decision to ground the character in real mental illness was also a stroke of genius, adding another layer that Phoenix authentically pulls off. All these elements together make for a surprisingly original take on the storied supervillain that proves both tragic and grotesque. Plus, it was exceedingly refreshing after Jared Leto’s botched attempt a few years earlier (and next month).
6. Manu Bennett as Slade Wilson/Deathstroke – Arrow
Starting as a mercenary, Wilson eventually finds himself trapped on the same island as Oliver Queen. The trials and tribulations that they overcome together lead them to be brothers in arms. However, when the woman whom Slade loves is killed due to a choice that Oliver makes, Wilson comes to blows with his former comrade and is stabbed in the eye during the ensuing fight. Years later, Oliver has made it home, fighting crime as a masked vigilante when Slade seemingly returns from the dead. His vendetta still fresh in his mind, the former merc swears to destroy everyone and everything that Oliver holds dear before finally granting his enemy the sweet release of death.
No one can ever fault Bennett for his intensity. The sheer passion of his performance keeps you fixed on him at all times. He often speaks slowly and with equal parts precision and force, but he’s not just a one-note thug. He can also dial up the high-society charm when needs be.
Rather than lessen his fear factor, though, he remains intimidating even during the most casual conversations thanks to his warrior-like physical presence. Others feel so small when they’re in the room with him. He’s clearly a man capable of killing hundreds of people and will plow right through you in a heartbeat. That’s exactly the impression you want from a supervillain nicknamed “The Terminator.”
Top 10 Live-Action Supervillains continued…
5. Navid Negahban as Amahl Farouk/The Shadow King – Legion
Having lived for hundreds of years, this foreign ruler has had plenty of time to hone both his extensive intellect and his telepathic powers. Unfortunately, a battle with rival telepath Charles Xavier leaves him without a body. Unwilling to die, his consciousness latches itself onto Xavier’s son, David, feeding on the young mutant’s mind for decades and subtly driving him insane. When Farouk finally reveals himself to David, their war will shake the foundations of reality and make you question your own sanity in the process.
It was a truly inspired choice to have this worldly baddie switch between languages on the fly, using them to emphasize his mood or intent. It’s here where you feel the sophistication and offhand knowledge that comes with centuries of worldly experience, but it also has a sinister undertone. He uses it as a façade to hide his warrior bloodlust, conveyed through his deep tone and merciless glare.
Thanks to Negahban’s devilish charisma, however, you still get the sense that he’s a learned individual. Typical supervillain schlock is beneath him. Not only can he convincingly switch languages, but his refined demeanor often lapses into genuine charm. It’s an oddly alluring cycle with Farouk. You want to spend time with him, but not too much because you’re afraid of what he might do.
4. Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk/Kingpin – Daredevil (TV Series)
A mob boss who seemingly controls the entire New York City underworld and has a penchant for expensive suits, Fisk could have easily come off as a stereotypical Bond villain. What makes this portrayal so layered and, as a result, frightening is the fact that the sophistication is all a façade. Lurking inside is the anger of an abused and bullied child. When that is unleashed, it becomes an uncontrollable rage that drives Fisk to gruesomely murder anyone in his way with his bare hands.
Armed with such a character, D’Onofrio is terrifying. Though he is definitely convincing during his frenzied bouts of bloodlust, he is arguably more imposing during the quieter moments. You easily believe that he is smart enough to take over the city, but he also carries himself and manipulates his voice to give the impression that he’s trying to sound composed. It comes off as a conscious and sometimes difficult effort to maintain the calm persona that he has carved out for himself.
Not only does this add more depth to the performance, but it also keeps you on edge, as you are never quite sure if he is going to explode. D’Onofrio’s Kingpin, on top of being a devious strategist, is a ticking time bomb, which is exactly why he is on this list. You could say he’s the best supervillain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but that low bar wouldn’t do him justice.
3. Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn/Green Goblin – Spider-Man
In a desperate bid to save his livelihood, scientist/businessman Norman Osborn tests his experimental performance-enhancing formula on himself. As a result, he gains a vast increase in strength, an array of gadgets and a second personality bent on crushing anyone who gets in the way of his quest for power.
Split personalities are often a chance for actors to stretch their skills, and Dafoe takes full advantage of that chance. It’s unsettling to see the collected, uncompromising Norman slowly unravel and give way to the vicious, conquering Goblin. Pulling all sorts of his grotesque faces and effeminate body movements, he goes all-in with the sadistic glee.
It’s theatrical and campy at times, but it works for an overpowering baddie like this, especially when he switches between the two at a moment’s notice. That duality takes what could have been a cliched, cackling supervillain and elevates it to spine-tingling insanity. It’s no wonder why everyone wants him back for the MCU Spider-Man films. Lord knows that series needs some decent supervillains.
2. Ian McKellen as Eric Lensherr/Magneto – The X-Men Films
A survivor of the Holocaust, this metal-manipulating mutant has seen firsthand the prejudiced persecution that humans can inflict on those who are different. So, when mutants come into the public eye and face suspicion and fear from those around them, Magneto resolves not to let his brothers and sisters suffer as he did. Forming a gang of like-minded allies, he makes it his mission to usher in a new era. He believes that mutants are the next step in the evolutionary chain and, thus, should stand above their lowly Homo sapien peers.
It takes a seasoned actor to illicit fear from politeness and class. McKellen’s operatic turn as the Master of Magnetism meets that challenge and then some. Similarly to Stamp, he takes a potentially ridiculous supervillain and approaches it like Shakespeare.
Throughout his speeches, he maintains a dignified composure, but you still feel the passion behind that control, especially when he slows down to let each word sink in. Never once do viewers doubt that he truly believes what he’s saying. Few things are more dangerous than a true believer. Shame about his kids, though.
1. Heath Ledger as The Joker – The Dark Knight
One of this crazy clown’s scariest scenes is his gruesome “magic trick” on the mobsters. This proves ominously emblematic of a larger magic trick: pulling the curtain back on society. He knows how the status quo functions and how to manipulate it to his advantage. He aims to show the world how fragile it is by burning the whole thing down. Batman has never faced a foe like this, and audiences have never seen a Joker like this.
The anarchist approach makes this a wholly original take on the Clown Prince of Crime. He’s clearly smarter than everyone else and ruthlessly driven to achieve his goal, yet Ledger makes it all look easy and natural. He doesn’t go the predictable route of the manic prankster.
Rather, he talks in a relatively normal, sleazy voice and is prone to downbeat glee, grimly amused by gallows humor. By and large, he comes across as a regular guy, albeit heightened. That said, something’s slightly wrong, made clear by his twitchy neuroticisms, emphasis on certain words, occasional noise, or burst of laughter. These all combine to be utterly terrifying.
He feels real enough to register with us as part of the real world yet one step above to make him seem larger than life. In short, Heath Ledger’s Joker is a force of nature, and that’s why he’s the great supervillain ever put to screen.