While Batman v Superman didn't have the most captivating villains in cinematic history, it in no way reflects DC's track record with on screen bad guys that share a commanding presence. From Superman: The Movie to The Dark Knight Rises, these villains are threatening, power-hungry and awesomely evil.
All of the supervillains on this list must come from a DC film, but more than that, they must be unique and captivating while being able to stand the test of time. Repeats are allowed, so you might see your favorite comic book foe appear on here more than once.
With that in mind, get ready to indulge your dark side as we take a look at the 14 Best DC Movie Villains.
14 Michael Shannon as Zod (Man of Steel)
Even though he got his neck snapped, and was more recently turned into one of the most shoehorned-in villains of all time in Batman v Superman, Zod was actually a formidable force to be reckoned with in Man of Steel. While there have been other incarnations of Zod in the past, Michael Shannon brought something new to the table to give the Kryptonian radical a higher sense of purpose.
Shannon's Zod is menacing military man, and single-mindedly dangerous. His only goal is to resurrect his lost species, even if it means wiping out humanity in the process. He is tyrannical and rules with an iron fist, but as an audience we understand his motives. While he is certainly evil, he does so for what he believes is the greater good, conjuring up a real life image for an authoritarian dictator. While Shannon certainly delivers a formidable performance, his place on our list could have been a few spots higher if he was only in a stronger movie.
13 Tom Wilkinson as Carmine Falconi (Batman Begins)
While Wilkinson is perfectly cast as a chief mafioso, he unfortunately only plays second (actually third banana, in our eyes) banana until the real baddies of Batman Begins arrive. That’s too bad, because the actor has a threatening on screen presence that allows him to tell anyone off, including Prince of Gotham Bruce Wayne. Carmine Falconi is a menace like few others, with the sort of power that allows him to control everyone around him like puppets.
He’s knocked down to a supporting villain, which means he never gets his time to show why he’s the then-king of crime in Gotham. Nonetheless, Wilkinson delivers a key performance in the movie, one which is ultimately the catalyst that fuels Bruce to take up the mantle of Batman. While he’s eventually overshadowed by Scarecrow, and later on Ra’s Al Ghul, Wilkinson’s Falconi is a solid supporting baddie in his own regard, which more than earns him a spot on this list.
12 Matthew Goode as Ozymandias (Watchmen)
While Zack Snyder has come under attack for his bloated Man of Steel, and more recently the even more bloated Batman v Superman, comic book fans sometimes forget that he made a pretty ballsy adaptation of Watchmen back in the day. Important to that films' ballsiness is hero-turned-mass murderer Ozymandias, played by Matthew Goode, who realizes that the only way to save the world is to destroy a good chunk of it.
Ozymandias’ evil plot might seem dastardly upon first viewing, but the realization that tragic events usually bring people together is eerily profound. The former superhero is spookily stoic when it comes to his regard for human life, until that demeanor is explained to serve the greater good. Goode plays the character with a demeanor as sympathetic as it is psychopathic, one that makes audiences nod their heads and become disgusted with him all at once.
11 Liam Neeson as Ra’s al Ghul (Batman Begins)
After the death of his parents, Bruce Wayne searched for a path to challenge the corrupt, and maybe on some psychological level, a father figure that could take him under his wing. To his surprise, he found both in an Asian jail cell when he was unknowingly visited at the time by Ra’s Al Ghul, a sophisticated supervillain perfectly played by Liam Neeson.
While fans of Batman would notice he doesn’t share the supernatural origins of his comic book counterpart, Neeson plays the character with a grounded realism that was just what audiences needed after the sickeningly campy Batman & Robin. As the leader of a vigilante terrorist group, Ra’s al Ghul is a haunting symbol of the world we live in, where there are no clear cut lines between the righteous and the malevolent. While he is now overshadowed by the other villains of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, Neeson’s al Ghul was a great starting point for what was to come in in the next few films.
10 Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor (Superman Returns)
There’s no denying that Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was an overly nostalgic mess unable to find a beat within its own drum. The plot was unbearably dull, moving at a snail’s pace, and the production was further crippled by Brandon Routh’s somewhat lifeless take on the Man of Steel. That being said, there is at least one silver lining in the film: Kevin Spacey’s captivating take on Lex Luthor.
Spacey has never missed the mark when playing a well-off snarky bad guy, which makes him the ideal casting choice for playing someone like Lex. The actor balances the overly theatrical and menacing undertones of the character to find a mix that's equal parts charisma and intimidation.
While not as iconic as another entry on our list, Spacey’s take is significantly more nuanced than Jesse Eisenberg’s frenetic performance, which conjures up more images of Kramer from Seinfeld than Superman’s archrival. Spacey is more than convincing in the role, and while his evil plan once again revolves around real-estate (a trope that has been done to death by this point, and still barely makes sense) he still captures the essence of Luthor without going overboard.
9 Tom Hardy as Bane (The Dark Knight Rises)
The only foe who truly pummeled Christian Bale’s Batman in hand-to-hand combat, Tom Hardy’s Bane is a hulking presence that uses fear and intimidation at 10 times the capacity of the Caped Crusader. Even with the unnecessary critical backlash of his vocal performance, Hardy is a colossal nonpareil presence on screen, making both his strength and technical prowess a force to be reckoned with.
As opposed to the invidious rendition of the character in Batman & Robin, Bane in the The Dark Knight Rises is able to come up with a meticulous plan that cripples Batman, steals from his armory, traps all of the cops in Gotham underground, and hold the entire city for ransom with a nuclear bomb. He’s a smart, calculated terrorist that at times all too well captures the frightening day-to-day paranoia we live in today, and Tom Hardy's ability to breathe life into a character whose face is mostly covered is truly remarkable.
Although the character’s impact is somewhat diminished in the film's final act, Bane is still an intimidating and unstoppable force of nature in Nolan’s trilogy with his undying plan for all of Gotham to fall underneath his feet. It doesn't hurt that he was given some of the most quotable lines in comic book movie history, either.
8 Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow (Dark Knight Trilogy)
Back in 2005, Christopher Nolan’s decision to feature a less than obvious villain like Scarecrow in Batman Begins raised a few eyebrows to say the least. The Joker, Riddler, Penguin and Two Face are certainly more recognizable villains than Dr. Jonathan Crane’s Scarecrow, but the director and actor Cillian Murphy proved that they certainly knew what they were doing. Batman Begins has major underlying themes that deal in fear and paranoia, a perfect setting for Scarecrow to really take hold and resonate with audiences.
While the character doesn’t have the most commanding physical presence, he more than makes up for it with his icy demeanor and demanding confidence. Murphy plays Crane with a quiet significance that is unsettlingly disturbing. As Scarecrow, the character becomes even more frightening, especially when he’s throwing hallucinogenic nerve gas into your face. While the plot eventually overshadows him with main baddie Ra’s Al Ghul, Murphy’s Scarecrow is a frightening and reserved villain that is the only major foe to be featured in all three of Chris Nolan’s Batman movies.
7 Danny DeVito as the Penguin (Batman Returns)
Before Batman Returns was released in 1992, the Penguin most associated in the minds of the masses was Burgess Meredith’s rendition in the campy Adam West movie. Meredith portrayed the villain as a crafty menace, and while the performance is solid, it's set to a backdrop of the silly and cartoonish.
Enter Danny DeVito, who made Oswald Cobblepot a disgusting, odoriferous, and distorted creature twisted by the harsh upbringing he suffered from his less-than-nurturing environment. For being raised by penguins, DeVito’s performance is indeed animalistic. He has a personal vendetta against all of mainstream society, and plans to tear it apart from the inside by running for the mayor of Gotham.
His quest for power only fuels the anger that stems from his abandonment issues, making him quick to lash out at all those around him. Thanks to DeVito’s layered performance, the Penguin is a villain that is one part detestable, and one part pathetically sympathetic for his unending search for a sense of belonging.
6 Aaron Eckhart as Two Face (The Dark Knight)
Of all comic book movies, no evolution from hero to villain has been so beautifully captured than that of Havey Dent’s fall from grace. Unlike Batman Forever, where the villain’s backstory was a secondary afterthought, The Dark Knight weaves the character through a psychological disaster that makes the character that much more sympathetic and relatable. Harvey Dent’s undying desire to weed out the corrupt in Gotham is a portent of the more evil things to come.
After being betrayed by the men inside Commissioner Gordon’s precinct, Dent is left horribly disfigured, and even worse, forced to live with the fact that the love of his life was viciously murdered. Pushed to brink of his mental threshold by the Joker, and eventually breaking that threshold, Dent makes his transition to Two Face and begins his murderous path of vigilante justice.
Dent is one of Eckhart’s finest performances, albeit one that was overshadowed a bit by the film's big bad. The fall of Gotham’s White Knight, however, is the backbone of The Dark Knight, capturing both sides of justice and corruption in one flawed character.
5 Jack Nicholson as the Joker (Batman)
Before The Dark Knight came along, there was only one definitive onscreen performance of the Joker, and it was played by Hollywood legend Jack Nicholson. Nominated for 9 Oscars and winner of 2 by the time of his casting, Nicholson brought a certain gravitas and weight to Tim Burton’s production. Both actor and director transported the viewer on a twisted ride through the Clown Prince’s creation, transitioning from small time crook to Batman’s dangerously sadistic arch nemesis.
Nicholson’s Joker has a deadly sense of humor, and he’s not afraid to use it. Together with his crooks and cronies he kills rival mob bosses, places a deadly nerve gas within Gotham, and does everything he does best by relentlessly pushing the buttons of the Dark Knight. Nicholson laughed with a sadistic glee as he overindulged in acts of violence and mayhem in the pale moonlight, and so did the viewer. While the character was eventually surpassed by another interpretation, Nicholson’s rendition might be the one that more completely embraces the source material, which will always get points from loyal comic book fans.
4 Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor (Superman)
While there have been other notable incarnations, especially Michael Rosenbaum’s from Smallville, many still see the face of Lex Luthor as Gene Hackman. In Richard Donner’s Superman, the harsh businessman stands for greed, tyranny, decadence and power, and offers the perfect mirror image of Reeve’s Superman. While the Man of Steel does his best to uphold the American way of life, truth, and justice, Hackman’s Luthor spits on that code by endangering the general public in a quest for ultimate authority.
Repeat viewings of the 1978 Richard Donner film today certainly reveal some dated effects and attempts at comedy, and you have to you have to take this into account when reviewing Hackman’s performance. He certainly wouldn’t hold up with DC’s now dark aesthetic tone, but at the time, this Lex Luthor was the arch nemesis archetype. He is certainly a formidable foe for Superman, and manages to get the drop on the Kryptonian thanks to his self-proclamation of being “the greatest mind of our time.”
Luthor’s arrogant disregard for human life makes him an even greater threat. He’s the kind of guy that would kill millions for some beach front property, or make pacts with General Zod for complete control of Australia. Mirroring the villain’s power trip, Hackman steals every scene he’s in, which is Lex Luthor in every sense of the word.
3 Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman (Batman Returns)
Although Anne Hathaway did a completely serviceable job with Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises (who simply wasn't enough of a villain to qualify for this list), fans of the Batman franchise will always associate the villain with the skin tight leather suit and certain ferocity Michelle Pfeiffer brought to the table in 1992’s Batman Returns. Though edged with supernatural elements, and covered head to toe in patented Tim Burton deathly-pale white makeup, Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is full of life. constantly riding that thin line between classic anti-hero and full blown villain.
Burton’s creative decision to turn Catwoman into an aggressive and volatile vigilante is a perfect concept for Batman Returns. She is the ideal thorn in the side for the Caped Crusader, immorally indulging herself in vigilante justice in ways Batman never could. Fueled by vengeance against the despicable Max Shrek, Catwoman slashes and claws to make her name known in the city of Gotham. Pfeiffer’s ability to play the character that’s right on the brink of insanity is a masterstroke, making Selina Kyle both erratic and fascinatingly sympathetic. Like Bruce Wayne, Kyle suffers with the burden of dual personalities, which makes her failed love affair with Batman all the more tragic, and even more compelling to watch.
2 Terence Stamp as General Zod (Superman II)
With all of its endless production problems, including the change of director halfway through, it’s nothing short of a miracle that Superman II turned out to be as good as it is. A large part of that success should be credited to Terrance Stamp’s terrifying portrayal of General Zod, who steals every scene that he’s in. Even years later, with superior special effects and a more reality-based performance from Michael Shannon, Stamp’s Zod is still the clear frontrunner for the character.
Stamp delivers all of his lines, as cheesy as they might be, with a cool, threatening authority. When Zod says something, you listen. His total disregard for human life as playthings to be toyed with makes him far and away the most threatening villain in the original Superman movies. Still, with all of his crazed actions and thirst for control, Zod never loses his cool. He commands a presence that makes everyone’s eyes in a room dart towards him, and not just because he can pancake cars and blow up buildings with his heat vision.
Some critics today will tell you that this performance is overacted and overblown, but that's the whole reason why it works. Stamp’s power-crazed performance gives Zod a personality that’s distinguishable from any other, and in turn makes Shannon’s updated rendition seem a bit on the bland side of supervillainy. Indeed, it’s hard not to get chills as the Kryptonian general busts into the White House, and strictly imposes his will that the President “kneel before Zod.” Now that’s commanding.
1 Heath Ledger as the Joker (The Dark Knight)
Honestly, what other performance could this top spot be awarded to? Heath Ledger’s take on Batman’s arch nemesis doesn't just make him the best live-action DC villain of all time, but one of the best antagonists in cinematic history. The actor elevates the term “super villain” into the undefinable, creating a creepy collage of the psychopath and the anarchist with a total disregard for the consequences of his actions.
While Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker embraced the source material’s comical behavior, Heath Ledger’s performance is leaps and bounds more sadistic and frightening. Although it's far from what a superfan might call a faithful interpretation, director Christopher Nolan and Ledger transformed the character into a haunting agent of chaos — blowing up hospitals, assassinating government officials, and shoving pencils through eye sockets in the process.
Every scene that Ledger inhabits in The Dark Knight is stolen by the Joker. Unlike other villains, the Clown Prince of Crime isn’t concerned with power trips or money. Rather, he displays despicable acts of violence and anarchy solely based on the fact that he enjoys these things. He’s the kind of character that relishes in watching the world burn, continuously pushing Batman to the edge of his moral code in the process. While Jared Leto’s Joker is shaping up to be promising, Ledger’s take on the Joker will forever have a special place in fans’ hearts for the staggering amount of dedication he put into the role, and changing people’s perceptions on what a comic book movie could achieve.
Did we forget to include your favorite DC baddie? Disagree with the rankings? Be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments.
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