Being good can be so boring sometimes. It’s the bad guys who get to have all the fun and are often the ones who make the biggest impression on the audience. Every great hero deserves a great villain, but sometimes the bad guys are great enough to stand on their own. Looking at the worlds of film, television, video games, and literature, I’ve picked out 40 of the greatest villains of all time. These characters will stand the test of time and leave an impression on audiences long after the story has come to an end.
Of course, like I talked about in “What Makes a Great Villain?” it’s all subjective. So let me know what you think!
A note of clarification before we dive in. These are villains, which can be either antagonists or protagonists in a story. There are no anti-heroes here. Sorry, Deadpool. But maybe a later list will highlight my favorites!
40. Professor James Moriarty – Sherlock Homes
A villain suited for the greatest detective of all time has to be one of the smartest men on the planet. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, Moriarty only appeared twice. But it’s a testament to the strength of the character that he has appeared so frequently and is so well known in mainstream culture. Of course, that’s what happens when you’re the man who caused Holmes’ (apparent) death via tumbling over the Reichenbach Falls. In recent years, Andrew Scott’s frighteningly deranged version in BBC’s Sherlock and Jared Harris’ rage-filled interpretation in Sherlock Homes: A Game of Shadows have given new life to the character.
39. Sauron – The Lord of the Rings
While The Dark Lord is the villain who causes The Lord of the Rings saga to exist at all, he’s more of an idea than a person. In fact, this embodiment of pure evil plays even less of a role in J.R.R. Tolkein’s books than Peter Jackson’s film adaptations. While The Fellowship and the forces protecting Middle Earth must fight countless orcs, trolls, and many more sent by Sauron, they never come in direct contact with their main enemy. Of course, The One Ring is a manifestation of his dark power, keeping his presence alive throughout the story.
38. The Shredder – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles themselves, their enemy The Shredder, aka Oroku Saki, has alternated between frightening and funny over the decades. In either case, he’s always been their most dangerous enemy and is the reason for their existence. His mix of iconic armor and consistent presence in film, TV, and comic books has made him just as recognizable as his enemies. Plus, he’s skilled and strong enough to fight, and possible beat, four highly skilled ninjas by himself without the aid of his deadly Foot Clan.
37. The Trinity Killer – Dexter
A sick, sick man who just happens to look like any friendly neighborhood dad you’d run into at a soccer game. But it’s this dichotomy that makes John Lithgow’s Trinity Killer such an astounding villain – one minute dancing the herky jerky in a parking lot, the next taking a life in a bathtub. While being compulsively driven to kill his victims in an endless cycle of metaphoric violence, he seems to be able to maintain a healthy home life. It’s this balance that keeps Dexter from killing him out of curiosity, and ultimately leads to tragedy that cements him as an unforgettably disturbing villain.
36. Elmer Fudd – Looney Tunes
What makes Elmer Fudd great is that even though he seems to be a constant threat to Bugs Bunny, he never really feels that threatening. In fact, he serves to make our quick-witted protagonist seem even smarter. While constantly out “hunting wabbits” with his trusty shotgun, Fudd is constantly tricked, slapped around, and general shown to be a fool. But he’s always so darn joyful and funny, even when he’s finally fed up with his enemy, that you can’t wait to see these two come to blows once again.
35. Newman – Seinfeld
If Seinfeld has a villain, it’s Newman. While he may be friends with Kramer, he and Jerry simply loathe one another. The Lex Luthor to Jerry’s Superman, not only does Wayne Knight’s Newman stop by to sneer at the star of the show (“Hello … Jerry”), he often actively tries to make his life worse. Of course, this typically takes the form of some trivial matter, like making his barber mad at him or not inviting him to his millennium party, Newmanium. This vindictive United States Postal Worker makes Seinfeld a better show and supplies some of its most vague, yet menacing threats. “Just remember, when you control the mail, you control … INFORMATION.”
34. The Rogues – DC Comics
This is sort of a cheat. Like all DC superheroes, The Flash has a wealth of supervillains that he faces on a regular occasion. However, unlike the enemies that face Batman or Superman, Flash’s are intrinsically linked to one another as The Rogues. These criminals are men with a code of honor, setting them apart from others, and only the desire to stay afloat in life. Although they’ll take a life to do so, especially The Flash’s. Captain Cold, Mirror Master, Weather Wizard, Pied Piper, The Top, Captain Boomerang, Heat Wave, and more – each typically have a single iconic power, but together they are a formidable threat.
33. The Predator – Predator
A potent blend of mystery, danger, and appearance make The Predator a classic example of both science fiction and horror villainy. With so many humongous military men on screen, only a character physically powerful, diabolically cunning, and armed to the teeth can pose a potent threat. The character is also the subject of a great multi-part reveal as the movie goes on. First revealing that an invisible enemy is stalking our heroes, then showing him to be a masked alien, then finally revealing his horrifically frightening face. There may be three Predator and two Aliens vs Predators films, but only the first is what makes this alien threat as a great villain.
32. Cruella de Vil – One Hundred and One Dalmations
Cruella is a woman so overcome with greed and pride that she’ll do anything to get what she wants. Depending on her mood, anything from forced joy to overwhelming rage will flash across her skull-like face as she tries to force those around her to bend to her every whim. While she is at first simply an overbearing annoyance to Roger and Anita, she quickly becomes a real threat when she sets her eyes on their Dalmatian puppies, capturing them and eventually chasing after them in her roadster from Hell. Anyone willing to hurt puppies is as nasty and cruel as anyone else on this list.
31. Venom – Marvel Comics
A slobbering, fang-filled alien monster with a taste for brains with all the powers of Spider-Man? You can see why Venom has been one of the most enduring and dynamic comic book villains of the last 20 years. Being a symbiote, Venom latches onto its host and bonds with them, giving them power beyond belief but multiplying their evil nature. Forget the lame Topher Grace version in Spider-Man 3, the real Venom is an unleashed psychopath that sometimes turns into an antihero depending on the will of its host at the time. Definitely the last Spider-Man villain you’d like to meet in a dark alley.
30. Ra’s al Ghul – DC Comics
Unlike many of Batman’s foes, Ra’s al Ghul is usually not out to destroy The Caped Crusader. Rather, it is simply that the hero gets in his way as he tries to conquer the world. In fact, he respects his opponent, referring to him as “Detective.” He also deduced Batman’s true identity, needing only his own wits to draw the conclusion. In his heart, Ra’s believes he is doing the right thing and is actually saving the world by destroying the billions of people who are harming it. Think of him as the ultimate tree hugger. Of course, having power and respect are part of the endgame as well. In comic books, Batman Begins, and countless TV shows, Ra’s is one of Batman’s most enduring enemies. And also his classiest.
29. Deathstroke – DC Comics
Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke, is a mercenary with enough skills and resources to rival anyone in the DC Universe, including Batman. Even while missing an eye! With enhanced reflexes, sped-up healing factor, and a total lack of conscience, Deathstroke is ready and able to carry out any contract, no matter who he has to take out. Mix these deadly skills in with some major family issues and a killer costume and you have a villain that is a formidable opponent to any hero. It’s no wonder why DC has pitted him against everyone from Green Arrow to the Teen Titans.
28. Brian Moser – Dexter
No one in their right mind would want to be brothers with Brian, but you can’t help but sympathize with him. While Dexter was exposed to the murder of his mother at a very young age, his brother Brian was old enough to truly understand the horror that was unfolding in front of his eyes. Without the guidance of Harry, Brian went completely off the deep end. He only came back to bring Dexter fully into the darkness and being forced to kill him was one of the lead character’s most powerful moments in all eight years of the series. Seeing visions of Brian would always mean Dexter was in store for rough times ahead, but also some of the best parts of the series.
27. Azula – Avatar: The Last Airbender
While Zuko makes for a solid villain in the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, his sister is a far more terrifying opponent when he becomes a conflicted antihero. The Princess of the Fire Nation’s sanity is barely hanging on by a thread, and you can be sure that it will snap before the series ends. Not only is she filled with psychotic rage that she directs at her opponents, she is one of the greatest firebenders in the world. Her pursuit of Aang and Team Avatar turns the second and third seasons into breakneck chases filled with dynamic action.
26. Captain Hook – Peter Pan
Peter Pan’s archenemy is part bumbling, part dangerous, but all villainous. With his band of pirates, he constantly seeks to destroy his foe, but is always outwitted. His mix of silliness and consistent outrage make him larger than life. Plus, his fear of crocodiles, specifically the one who took his hand, makes him unique among Disney’s villains, since they typically have no fear. Still, his skills with blade and hook make for fantastic sword fights and his overblown pirate look makes him one of the most easily recognizable evildoers in all of Disney’s films.