Superheroes have been adapted for the screen nearly as long as movies and television have existed, and as long as there have been superheroes, there have been supervillains. The most iconic characters are usually ones that have been portrayed time and time again, so more than one actor has lent their likeness to the same character. Sometimes it can almost feel as though there are new versions of the most beloved heroes every year – and a hero is not a hero without a foil. You need one to have the other. They complete each other.
Fans are almost (if not more) eager to see these notable villains each time their favorite hero is revived. It becomes a question of how the relationship will evolve in a new adaptation, and how the chemistry of new actors will peel back new layers of old favorites. Of course, some versions are more successful than others – either for their accuracy to the source material or their sheer audacity. Some actors have brought characters perfectly to life, while others have fallen short of audience expectations.
Let’s take a look at the actors who portrayed these ten villains and see who comes out on top!
10. General Zod: Terence Stamp vs. Callum Blue vs. Michael Shannon
General Zod is one of Superman’s most famous foes. As a fellow Kryptonian, he shares all of Superman’s impressive powers once he’s on Earth: flight, strength, x-ray vision; you name it, he’s got it. But he’s also a violent warlord intent on dominating Earth and ruling it, which quite obviously goes against Superman’s ethics. He is an example of what Superman would be like if he was power-mad instead of thoughtful and kind.
The character was first brought to life on screen by Terence Stamp in 1978’s Superman, and then returned as the main antagonist of 1980’s Superman II. The WB show Smallville had a much more convoluted Zod storyline, with him taking up residence in frenemy Lex Luthor’s body before being resurrected as a clone (with the much less threatening name Major Zod), portrayed by Callum Blue. Most recently, Zod was played by Michael Shannon in 2013’s Man of Steel.
Unfortunately for Mr. Blue, Smallville‘s Zod can be discounted fairly quickly. It wasn’t necessarily a bad performance, but he simply isn’t as memorable as his evil Kryptonian colleagues. (The character was somewhat better served by actor Michael Rosenbaum during the Lex possession.) That leaves Stamp and Shannon. Many feel Stamp defines the character, especially considering the overall mixed reaction to Man of Steel. While the Superman movies of the ’70s and ’80s are undeniably campy to modern eyes, Stamp’s Zod still remains a cool, ominous threat. He is scary in part because of how unflappable he seems. Shannon’s performance is exactly the opposite: brutal and belligerent. Both are valid, effective interpretations of the character. But it has to be said that when you think of Zod, there is probably one person who comes to mind first.
9. The Green Goblin: Willem Dafoe vs. James Franco vs. Dane DeHaan
The Green Goblin is one of Spider-Man’s main antagonists and also a mantle worn by a few different characters, usually Norman Osborn, the father of Peter Parker’s friend Harry. After Norman’s death, Harry takes up his father’s supervillain work out of a vendetta against Spider-Man. The abilities of the Green Goblin are gained through scientific interference, which lends him superhuman powers and/or a terrifying visage, depending on the version, and he also uses various technologically advanced gadgets. He is perhaps best known for being responsible for the death of Spider-Man’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy.
Willem Dafoe’s Goblin appeared in 2002’s Spider-Man. With his scenery chewing split personality (a result of the serum that turned him into the Green Goblin), he is not altogether un-reminiscent of the Joker, especially considering the gruff voice and cackling laugh. Comparisons aside, it’s still a great performance as he nails both aspects of the character, Norman and the Goblin, as well as the mania that defines both in different ways. James Franco took up the title in 2007’s Spider-Man 3 and, like much of that movie, he just feels kind of absurd, though he had the added benefit of being a friend-turned-foe that made the stakes of the fight semi-interesting.
Dane DeHaan appeared as Harry Osborn and, subsequently, the Green Goblin in 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2. His origin story differed from what had come before; instead of taking the mantle on from his father, he shared his father’s fatal illness and it was searching for the cure that triggered his transformation. In many ways, his performance combines the best of what came before him: Dafoe’s intensity and Franco’s bond with Peter. DeHaan’s Goblin was truly monstrous, it’s just a pity he didn’t end up getting to explore the villain with quite as much screen time as his predecessors. He was creepy and sinister, much more threatening than Franco, but just not quite on Dafoe’s level either.
8. Kingpin: Michael Clarke Duncan vs. Vincent D’Onofrio
Kingpin, whose real name is Wilson Fisk, started his comic book life as an enemy of Spider-Man, though he came to be defined by his hostile relationship with Daredevil. Kingpin is a crime lord, the most powerful in New York City, and he’s always drawn as an imposingly large bald man with a distinctly Mafioso style of dress.
In 2003’s Daredevil, Kingpin is played by Michael Clarke Duncan in a version that very much recalls the comic book character with his three-piece suits and cigar smoking. Vincent D’Onofrio gained critical praise for his portrayal of the villain in Netflix’s 2015 television series Daredevil, where the series focused more on the dark backstory and twisted humanity of Kingpin – who, notably, is referred to almost exclusively by his real name, not his moniker.
Both men are as physically imposing as the role requires, making Kingpin’s power visibly clear, and their performances fit with the style of the film. Duncan’s is more stylized to match the heightened reality, while D’Onofrio’s goes along with the Netflix show’s more gritty approach. However, Duncan ends up feeling a little like a cardboard cutout of a threatening crime boss in a comic book, where D’Onofrio’s tapping into Fisk’s insecurities and softness made for a strange but strangely compelling performance. There was simply more depth to D’Onofrio’s Kingpin.
7. Lex Luthor: Gene Hackman vs. John Shea vs. Kevin Spacey vs. Michael Rosenbaum
Lex Luthor is another incredibly iconic villain, so much so that with each new iteration of Superman there’s an expectation that he will appear: it’s a matter of when, not if. Luthor is a genius, a billionaire, a businessman, and a scientist; he pretty much does it all. His charming exterior is a façade to keep him from arousing suspicion for his numerous shady goings-on.
Gene Hackman played Luthor in the Superman movies of the ’70s and ’80s and his version of the character is fairly comedic, mostly concerned with amassing power and money as opposed to having a direct issue with Superman himself. The character next appeared on film in 2006’s Superman Returns, played by Kevin Spacey, a good choice and great actor bogged down by a terrible movie. While still bringing a sense of humor to his performance as Lex, Spacey’s version of the character had a darker bitterness.
Lex Luthor has also appeared on television twice, in both long-running live action Superman shows. In the ’90s, he was portrayed by John Shea on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman as a wealthy humanitarian whose secret misconduct is known only by Superman. Ultimately, though smoothly smarmy, his Lex was just not all that memorable.
Smallville took a different route, having Michael Rosenbaum play the character as a good friend of Clark Kent’s who turns slowly villainous over the course of the series. For an occasionally very silly show, it was a fascinating turn on an old story and Rosenbaum was a standout in the series. He managed to humanize the character.
6. Two-Face: Billy Dee Williams vs. Tommy Lee Jones vs. Aaron Eckhart
Two-Face is the alter ego of Batman character Harvey Dent, a formerly upstanding lawyer in Gotham who is driven insane when acid is thrown in his face. It results in his distinct appearance: one half of his face completely normal, and the other half distorted and scarred. He is also usually pictured wearing a suit that is different on either side to correspond with the differing halves of his face, and carries around a coin that he flips to determine the fate of his victims.
Dent is portrayed by Billy Dee Williams in the 1989 Batman movie and, though he was originally supposed to, he did not go on to play Two-Face in later films. That dubious honor eventually went to Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever (1995). The character was revived again in 2008’s The Dark Knight, played by Aaron Eckhart. Considering he was never able to portray Dent’s other half on film, it isn’t really fair to put Williams up against other actors who got to paint the entire picture. Williams’ take on Two-Face very well might have been incredible, but we’ll never really know.
As is the case with many Batman villain comparisons, the earlier movies adhere to a campier, more comics-accurate aesthetic that doesn’t always come off well whereas the later films are much grittier and more focused on realism. It can be difficult to compare two such opposing styles. However, Jones’ farcical performance lacked nuance and balance (all Two-Face, no Dent), and the less said about Batman Forever as an overall film, the better. Eckhart’s version of the character leaned into the inherent tragedy of his situation, which made for more interesting viewing. Eckhart’s version of Two-Face is a good deal more sympathetic; the movie spends a fair amount of time with Dent pre-accident so when he does turn from good guy to grief-crazed killer, it has a greater emotional effect on the audience.
5. Doctor Doom: Julian McMahon vs. Toby Kebbel
Victor Von Doom is the chief nemesis of the Fantastic Four, though he has made appearances across the Marvel comics universe. An inventor with magical abilities, he is also the ruler of fictional country Latveria and known for his head-to-toe armor. He is arrogant and power-crazy, intended as a character without any humanity who is constantly trying to assert his superiority over others.
In 2005’s Fantastic Four, Julian McMahon appeared as the character, a brilliant businessman in constant competition with hero Reed Richards. In the accident that transformed the titular four, Doom developed his hard metal exoskeleton and superhuman powers. In the 2015 reboot of the Fantastic Four, Toby Kebbell played Doctor Doom as an unfriendly computer-programmer who travels with the other main characters to another planet, where his transformation is triggered by material found on the surface of the planet.
Neither movie is exactly high art; the reboot was one of the biggest flops of the year. McMahon does a more than serviceable job in the role, being appropriately egotistic and menacing. Kebbell’s Doom looked pretty good but suffered from the vagueness and lack of direction that infected the entire film.
4. Magneto: Ian McKellen vs. Michael Fassbender
Magneto is one of the most complicated villains in Marvel comics history, and he borders on anti-hero status, especially in the more recent films. An incredibly powerful mutant with the ability to control magnetic fields, Magneto also has a more aggressive approach to mutant civil rights than his former friend Professor X, who leads the X-Men. Magneto is a Holocaust survivor, making his intense efforts to protect mutants from suffering the same fate very understandable, even if his methods cross the line.
Two actors have portrayed Magneto on screen (even crossing over in 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past): Sir Ian McKellen in the first three films of the franchise (from 2000 to 2006), with Michael Fassbender taking over the role in 2011. This comparison is slightly different than the others considering both actors are embodying the character within the same world, just at different ages.
McKellen’s Magneto is coolly commanding and dryly humorous, and plays the character carrying around all the weight of his history, as one would expect from someone older. Fassbender’s Magneto, being younger, is a little brasher but maintains a similarly powerful presence.
3. Thunderbolt Ross: Sam Elliott vs. William Hurt
General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross appears primarily in the Hulk comics, where he is both an enemy of the Hulk and father-in-law to Bruce Banner. He hunts the Hulk obsessively, even after learning that the creature and his son-in-law are the same person (Ross never liked Bruce all that much either). Eventually he becomes the Red Hulk – apparently the best way to destroy one’s enemy is to become one’s enemy.
Ross has appeared in both Hulk films (and is set to appear in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War), first played by Sam Elliott in 2003’s Hulk and then again by William Hurt in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. Hurt will be reprising the role in the next Captain America movie as well.
Very little is memorable about the first Hulk aside from how bizarrely it was shot, and Elliott’s performance is much the same. In a lot of ways, he is merely a generic army type and doesn’t make a very strong impression. The Incredible Hulk is only marginally better as a film, but Hurt projects real authority while also making Ross feel like a believable, layered person.
2. Sabretooth: Tyler Mane vs. Liev Schreiber
Sabretooth is most commonly a villain in X-Men stories, often going up against Wolverine thanks to their difficult history with one another, as well as certain surface similarities they share like quick healing factor and claws. Sabretooth is often presented as fairly animalistic, with heightened senses in addition to the fangs and aforementioned claws.
Tyler Mane played Sabretooth in X-Men, with Liev Schreiber taking over the role in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Mane’s Sabretooth is a henchman of Magneto’s whereas Schreiber’s is Wolverine’s half-brother, which differs from their comic book history but works to emphasis the eternal competition between the two characters.
Mane physically embodies the character (while still managing to look a bit like a rougher castmate of Cats) though considering his part in X-Men is only tertiary, he doesn’t get to do more than be a general threat and have a couple of cool fight scenes. Schreiber is able to delve more deeply into what makes the character tick, while also lending Sabretooth a natural gravitas and menace.
1. The Joker: Jack Nicholson vs. Heath Ledger vs. Mark Hamill vs. Cesar Romero
The Joke is not just one of Batman’s most popular foes, but also one of the most popular villains of all time. Many variations of the character have existed even in comics, as through the decades he ranged from a deranged killer to a more kid-friendly prankster. He has had a few origin stories, but the most familiar is that, thanks to the chemical waste that apparently runs unchecked in all superhero universes, he was driven mad and given his signature appearance. The Joker is Batman’s opposite in every way: a killer whereas Batman never kills, darkly humorous whereas Batman is deadly serious, and brightly dressed while Batman is more of an all black kind of guy.
The Joker has been brought to the screen most notably by brilliant actors Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger in 1989’s Batman and 2008’s The Dark Knight respectively, but it would be remiss not to also mention Mark Hamill’s voice acting as the Joker in several animated films and video games. Voice acting is its own kind of art, and Hamill has received numerous accolades for his work as the Joker, especially for the variety and nuance in the Joker’s laugh. He became fairly definitive as the voice of the character, lending the performance both an appropriately exaggerated effect and an unhinged silliness. In addition to these three actors, Cesar Romero played the man in the clown makeup in the ’60s Batman TV show and 1966’s Batman: The Movie, although his performance was more campy than anything.
Ledger and Nicholson often face the most direct comparisons considering the talent and strength of both actors. Nicholson’s Joker was campier, more in line with a cartoon or a comic in his look and choice of jokey weaponry. However Ledger’s version is a tour-de-force, even winning him a posthumous Oscar. Anyone who comes after is going to be compared to him. While perhaps not the most “accurate” it’s the most inventive and intense.
Winner: Heath Ledger
Disagree with some of the calls we made? Let us know in the comments!