Every great hero needs a great villain. Audiences are supposed to support the protagonist as he or she defies the odds and the weight of expectation to triumph. But often, the bad guys are magnetic, powerful, or just plain crazy enough to pull viewers’ eyes and interests away from whatever’s happening with the hero.
Pushing a villain into over-the-top territory is a risky move, as it can so quickly backfire if the writing, direction, or performance misses the target in any way. But when such characters do land, they embed themselves in the public consciousness and forever tie those actors to those roles.
In this look at the most extravagant movie villains, both successful and failed bad guys are taken into consideration. Scenery chewing is a must, and each villain’s level of ridiculousness is a factor at play. The entries are ranked based on how memorable the villain is – for reasons good and bad.
Here are the 17 Most Over-The-Top Movie Villains of All Time.
17. Electro – The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Jamie Foxx tips his hat far too much in his villainous role in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The Oscar-winning actor takes on the role of Max Dillon who, after accidentally plunging into a tank of genetically modified electric eels, morphs into Electro, a supervillain with the power to control electricity.
Foxx plays the wallflower Dillon well in the early going, but after his incident and subsequent transformation, he doesn’t work as Electro. One might expect the opposite, since Foxx is a natural livewire, but he pushes Electro too far towards a cartoon status. On top of that, the character design is woeful — he looks like the nebulous offspring of Mr. Freeze, and taps into some of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hammy acting from that role.
16. Cyrus The Virus – Con Air
The mid-’90s brought a trifecta of Nicolas Cage action movies that have held up fairly well: The Rock, Face/Off, and Con Air. The main villain in the latter is Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom, a criminal mastermind who orchestrates the hijacking of a prisoner transport plane.
John Malkovich brings to life this calculated felon with intelligence, delivering the fluid dialogue with the assured confidence of a man orchestrating a risky jailbreak. Yet there’s a few points in which the character goes so far overboard, he might as well be falling out of the cargo hold without a parachute.
“Make a move and the bunny gets it,” Cyrus threatens at one point as the character holds a pistol to the head of the stuffed rabbit that hero Cameron Poe (Cage) plans to take to his daughter on her birthday. It’s a strange moment that, while somewhat necessary to reveal Poe’s true identity as a man just looking to get home, punctures any semblance of realism the movie has left.
Cyrus also gets a crazy death befitting a man of his elaborate scheme, as after tangling with Poe of the roof of a fire truck careening through Las Vegas, he somehow tumbles into a construction site when his head is crushed.
15. Professor Subzero – The Running Man
Though not the main villain in Paul Michael Glaser’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel, Professor Subzero is a threatening presence in The Running Man, in which various convicts, including Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Ben Richards, are forced to compete in a series of deadly challenges, a la The Hunger Games, in the hopes of a pardon.
Subzero is the first stalker thrown in the path of Richards and friends as they seek to survive the gauntlet and receive a pardon. Subzero is an unusual creation in that he’s painted a sadistic, killer hockey player. He has a hockey stick that can cut through steel and pucks that explode.
It makes perfect sense that a professional wrestler, Professor Toru Tanaka, plays the killer, as there’s a physical threat allied to the character’s skill with weapons. But what simultaneously drags down Subzero and elevates him is the requirement for him to compete on ice. He’s only effective in one environment, but it’s one in which he’s nigh unbeatable. Venture onto ice in Subzero’s neck of the woods, and it spells doom, but pull him onto sturdier ground and he’s just a regular guy with an incredibly sharp hockey stick.
14. Juggernaut – X-Men: The Last Stand
It’s somewhat appropriate that Vinnie Jones was tapped to play Juggernaut in the finale of the original X-Men trilogy. The soccer player-turned-actor was a hardman on the grass, delivering shin-crunching tackles with aplomb, and caring little for the fates of his opponents.
In The Last Stand, he’s a near-unstoppable force, with Bane or Hulk levels of strength and an eccentric costume that hews a little too close to He-Man for a villain. He crashes through walls while chasing down foes and literally runs through his enemies. But it’s the dialogue that Jones over-eggs the pudding. Lines like, “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” and “I’m the wrong guy to play hide and seek with!” might have worked had Jones toned them down a notch or two, but he sends them just a little too far over the goal. It’s a shame, because he’s an otherwise fine casting choice for the rough and tumble Juggernaut.
13. Poison Ivy – Batman & Robin
The Batman franchise has more than its fair share of over-the-top villains. While it’s easy to point at Mr. Freeze and Arnold Schwarzenegger as the more ridiculous of the trio of Batman’s enemies in Batman & Robin, it’s Uma Thurman as crazed botanist Poison Ivy who plays it up the most.
Thurman vamps her way through the movie, delivering zinger after zinger as she tussles with Batman and Robin, employs Bane to do her bidding, and forms an uneasy alliance with Freeze. She delivers her lines with alluring hateful venom and while she’s almost biting into the script, it’s appropriate, as it fits the character and the story Joel Schumacher is trying to tell.
12. M. Bison – Street Fighter
Raul Julia’s final role came in the form of General M. Bison, a military dictator with designs on ruling the world in the 1994 adaptation of the Street Fighter beat-’em-up game series.
Bison is a hyper-powered overlord who stands in the way of world peace. Between kidnapping relief workers and employing an electromagnetic suit that lets him fly and shoot lightning. Julia seems to know that he’s working on a movie that won’t work in the final cut and at the time of filming, he was suffering from stomach cancer but neither stops him from giving the performance his all, employing heightened actions and overacting to what seems like the limits of his abilities.
11. Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg – The Fifth Element
He seemed to have it all. Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg is a rich, powerful businessman with few peers, but he always wants more. His arms dealing was just the tip of the iceberg.
Zorg’s lingers most in the memory for his absurd hairstyle (which apparently starts melting when he’s under immense stress), and his wild accent. Gary Oldman takes a stock bad guy and sends him beyond the stratosphere with a swagger-filled portrayal. Zorg is obsessed with technology, as we see from his gadget-filled office. He takes almost every aspect of his business to the extreme, in fact, as typified in the multi-faceted weapons he designs.
He’d be higher up the list if he’d had more direct interaction with Korben Dallas to assert himself over the hero, but Oldman and Bruce Willis do not share any screen time. Still, Zorg’s striking appearance, with an assist from Jean Paul Gaultier’s costume design and Oldman’s performance, helped drive The Fifth Element to financial success. The movie took home $264 million worldwide.
10. Puss in Boots – Shrek 2
Puss in Boots is not on the side of the bad guys for too long in the Shrek saga, but he makes a phenomenal impact in his time batting for the other team, and Antonio Banderas walks away with the second entry in the series.
We meet the feline assassin as King Harold has invited Shrek and Donkey on a hunting trip. However, that jaunt is a trap set up for Puss to kill them. Puss, fails, however, and quickly asks if he can join the pair to make things up to them.
There’s three facets of Puss which push him over the edge as a melodramatic character. First, he’s essentially the cat version of Zorro, so he’s already a suave, sophisticated figure. Then, add Banderas’ spectacular voice work, injecting his irresistible Spanish tones into the character. Finally, he’s able to manipulate anyone into doing almost anything with his huge, adorable eyes. It’s a stellar creation from the movie’s writers, animators, and Banderas.
9. Catwoman – Batman Returns
Michelle Pfeiffer’s take on Catwoman in Batman Returns is clever and fitting. Her Selina Kyle is a meek woman, who might never have harmed a fly had she not discovered her boss’ plan to drain Gotham of its electricity. He tries to kill her, but a gaggle of cats revives her (How, you might ask? We don’t know, either). When Kyle returns to reality, she has a breakdown and reinvents herself as Catwoman, a costumed vigilante.
Pfeiffer brings an alluring fierceness to the role balanced with smarts and wit. She’s afforded a string of one-liners and she’s absolutely in charge of her own destiny. There’s a powerful distinction between Kyle and Catwoman that sends the latter to slightly camp heights, with her “Meow” both appropriately catty and overacted. She is at times a throwback character to the cartoon vibe of the ’60s Batman TV show and movie, though straddles that line with the noir tone of Tim Burton’s movie.
8. Dr. Evil – Austin Powers
It’s impossible to craft this list and not include one of the more satirical villainous creations of the last two decades. Mike Myers was onto a winner with his Austin Powers trilogy, in which he delightfully sends up the spy genre. Dr. Evil is a masterful creation, blending the visage of Blofeld with every other Bond villain prior to the Daniel Craig era.
Myers uses a heavy accent and intense mannerisms to make Evil a parody of other spy movie bad guys. He’s a character who consistently hatches schemes to take over the world and torment Austin Powers, when really all he wants is some sharks with laser beams attached to their heads. It’s disappointing that the last of the trilogy, Goldmember, humanized Evil so much by revealing he and Powers are twins and that he had a more difficult upbringing, particularly when the origin tale he recounts in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery is so much more bizarre.
7. Joker – Batman
Who better to inhabit one of the comic book world’s wildest villains than one of cinema’s wildest actors, Jack Nicholson? The multiple Oscar winner took on the psychotic criminal and archenemy of Batman in Tim Burton’s 1989 movie.
Jack Napier morphs into Joker when, during a tussle, Batman knocks him into a vat of chemical waste. He survives, but is disfigured and transformed into a creature with bleached skin, green hair, and a fixed red grin.
Though others before and since have played Joker, perhaps most memorably Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, Nicholson infuses his Joker with his playful spirit. Joker’s grin never looked better or more menacing.
Nicholson’s Joker is also more deranged than the other screen portrayals, and he uses the characters famous Joker venom chemical to cause victims to laugh themselves to death. He’s also tied closer to Bruce Wayne’s fate, as it emerges he was the criminal who killed Bruce’s parents.
This Joker takes a high spot on the ranking for Nicholson’s unmatched energy and his deeper links to Bruce’s family history. He’s forever attached to his Batman, and he’s the perfect counter to Michael Keaton’s serious Caped Crusader.
6. Jigsaw – Saw
Jigsaw is a character who weaves a complex web of connections and Rube Goldbergian relationships between a multitude of unfortunate souls in the Saw saga. Tobin Bell plays the man who tests others’ willingness to live when they don’t seem to appreciate life as much as they should, usually by placing them in traps that will bring them to their deaths if they are not willing to sacrifice a piece of themselves, physically or emotionally.
John Kramer goes to extraordinary lengths to enact his plans, constructing enormous traps – some the size of a home – to test his victims. The logistics of his efforts are mind boggling, especially when it emerges the events of two of the movies take place simultaneously. Jigsaw also has a flair for the theatrical, using the puppet Billy, the pig mask, and his Dracula-like robe.
5. Castor Troy – Face/Off
There are not many roles in which Nicolas Cage can be accused of playing his character subtly, but with Castor Troy in Face/Off, Cage reinforced a public perception of him as someone with a tendency to overact. But that’s somewhat unfair here, because Cage’s performance is layered by necessity.
What’s brilliant about Cage’s turn here is his ability to act as John Travolta’s character, Sean Archer, stepping into the shoes of Troy, essentially playing someone else who is playing himself. Cage sells Archer’s internal conflict masterfully as the FBI agent dehumanizes himself to someone of Troy’s level.
He infuses his Archer-as-Troy with a well of emotion and anguish, while still affording himself the wild-eyed expressionism audiences expect, especially in his action roles. Face/Off is a perfect vehicle for Cage’s talents, and Travolta holds up his end just as well, getting to play more flamboyant notes than in most of his roles.
4. Regan MacNeil – The Exorcist
Horror has its fair share of over-the-top characters and none are more bug-nuts crazy than Regan MacNeil. Following an encounter with a Ouija board, Regan starts acting strange and after physicians determine there’s nothing physically wrong with her, it’s determined she is most likely possessed.
In a rich horror landscape where many of the villains, particularly in younger age groups, are played for laughs, Regan is strait-laced and it is utterly terrifying. The demon within the child compels her to insult the priest’s mother, rotate her head 360 degrees, spider walk down a flight of stairs, and violate herself with a crucifix.
Linda Blair’s violent histrionics completely sell that this is a little girl who is no longer herself, one who is inhabited by another being. Her intensity and complete commitment are absolutely necessary in making this a successful movie and in crafting a character unparalleled in horror lore.
3. Norman Stansfield – Léon: The Professional
Gary Oldman features twice on this list – though he easily could have been featured more times for his body of work in the cinematic criminal underworld – is also a Luc Besson movie.
Norman Stansfield is a corrupt, maniacal DEA agent who kills the entire family of Mathilda when it emerges Mathilda’s father, whom Stansfield had employed to store cocaine, had been stealing some of the drugs.
He has a few quirks, including his adoration of classical music and his need to take a pill every so often. But it’s in Oldman’s exaggerated line delivery that Stansfield truly has his roots. Take his reading of “Everyone!” when someone questions “What do you mean, ‘everyone’?” It’s filled with both rage and comedy because it’s so extreme, with Oldman’s face shaking. It’s a scenery-chewing performance of monumental proportions, and paved the way for myriad other actors to ham things up when playing bad guys.
2. Freddy Krueger – A Nightmare on Elm Street
Freddy Krueger is literally the stuff of nightmares. A surefire placeholder on the Mount Rushmore of horror, everything about Krueger screams that he is outlandish. He haunts the dreams of the youthful, murdering them there as he does in real life. In the dream world, Krueger is practically invulnerable and can always find his prey.
Krueger’s character design is unmatched in all of horror, if not cinema as a whole. Every facet of his appearance is meticulously crafted, from the DIY knife glove down to the red and black sweater, through to his disfigured face. He’s a singular, iconic figure, and that’s down to Robert Englund’s performance as much as it is the visuals of the dream killer. Krueger becomes increasingly unhinged and comical as the franchise rolls along, which diminishes his outright menace from the early movies.
1. Frank Booth – Blue Velvet
Frank Booth is a true menace in David Lynch’s twisted suburban nightmare, Blue Velvet. Dennis Hopper’s maniacal sociopath endured as one of the most extreme, memorable villains from the 1980s.
When he first appears, Frank huffs on what’s likely nitrus oxide before engaging in some peculiar sexual activity with Dorothy. He’s forcing her into engaging in these actions, having kidnapped her husband and son to persuade her as such. Frank is violent and bad-tempered, and there are few levels to which he will not sink to get what he wants.
Hopper cocoons himself in the role, embracing the vulgar, abrasive Frank and reinvigorating his career in the process. He offers a wholly absorbing performance, and refuses to shy away from Frank’s more drastic actions.
Can you think of any other villains that deserve to be on this list? Let us know in the comments!