Erik Killmonger, Hans Landa, and the dastardly Phoenix Buchanan top our critics poll of the best movie villains of the 21st century.
Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: Who — or what — is the best movie villain of the 21st century?
Monique Jones (@moniqueblognet), Just Add Color, Mediaversity Reviews, SlashFilm
I think the best villain I’ve seen this century has been Killmonger from “Black Panther.” I hesitated giving this answer since it seems cliche, especially for me simply because “Black Panther” is one of my favorite films. But I truly feel the Killmonger brought so many different facets to what a villain could be.
To be honest, my title of Best Villain is a tie between Heath Ledger’s Joker and Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger because both are demented philosophers who hit on actual, thought-provoking nuggets of truth. They challenge the heroes of their respective universes and, indeed, make the heroes better people by providing them with more clarity about the types of heroes they want to be. But Killmonger gets the edge since he speaks to some tacit issues within the Black diaspora, issues that hadn’t been discussed in a superhero film, much less a “regular” film, in the way they were tackled in “Black Panther.”
It was very refreshing to see a character call out how colonization ruined the relationship of the diasporic Black tribe to the point where Africans still on the continent and Black Americans distrust each other. Indeed, the true villain of “Black Panther” is colonialism, if we’re speaking in a historical sense. But as far as the film goes, Killmonger gives me everything I need as a foil to T’Challa.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG), News Editor for Wicked Horror, freelance for Birth.Movies.Death, Vague Visages, The List
With all the jokes recently about unsuspecting viewers catching up with “Green Room” instead of the Oscar-winning “Green Book,” I’ve been thinking about Jeremy Saulnier’s near-perfect punk rock horror movie even more than usual (which is A LOT). His film’s antagonists are skinheads who trap the clueless band-mate heroes of the story in the titular room after they’ve witnessed a heinous crime, planning to kill them to keep them quiet. When things start to escalate and get a bit messier than intended, the Nazi group’s leader is called in. Rather than a Hitler ‘stache-sporting loon, it’s Sir Patrick Stewart’s mild-mannered and even more mildly spoken (a microphone was sewn into his jacket so he could speak as low as possible) Darcy who shows up to take care of business.
The great man has had a lot of brilliant roles over the years, but Darcy is unlike anything else he’s ever done (Stewart was reportedly so terrified upon initially reading the “Green Room” script he had to turn all of the lights on in his house and pour himself a stiff drink before finishing it). A quiet, cold, and completely terrifying white supremacist running a backwoods music venue, who happily proclaims “this is a movement, not a party” to his cheering supporters, Darcy looks like the grandfather you might visit down the country on weekends. The kind of older gentleman who keeps a pack of Werther’s Originals in his jacket pocket at all times. But Darcy shows his teeth after luring the Ain’t Rights into a false sense of security with his polite, reasoned discussion tactics.
Stewart underplays it so much that when he finally utters the N-word in a passive, almost throwaway manner, it chills your blood cold. Likewise, whether he’s organizing the deaths of innocent people or instructing his minions to clean up after the blood is spilled or to even spill their own to distract the cops, Darcy’s poise never cracks. He barely raises his voice even once, immediately apologizing for his outburst. Even when he’s walking away from a pointed gun, Darcy remains stoic. This is a leader utterly convinced of his own superiority to the point he can’t even fathom being killed himself, and so he strolls confidently, slowly away. When faced with certain death, with defeat, Darcy simply refuses to give in. He’s terrifying precisely because he doesn’t feel the need to shout about it.
Deborah Krieger (@debonthearts), Bust Magazine/Moviejawn
Characters like Killmonger and Magneto are nominally villains because they’re presented in opposition to the designated heroes, even when some parts of their philosophies and/or motivations ring true. So I’ll have to go with Colonel Hans Landa of “Inglorious Basterds,” even though it’s such a clearly obvious choice that it’s going to probably going to be on this list at least five more times. It’s the role that brought Christoph Waltz into mainstream American film, and for that alone we should be grateful. While “Inglorious Basterds” is overall an entertaining movie, with scattered moments of delight and horror, that opening scene at the French farm is where Landa takes over the film and does not let go. He mixes the cunning of villains like the Joker with Sherlockian deduction skill and a downright frightening politeness, serving up cruelty and casual hatred with a sprightly air and a wide, wide smile. The “Jew Hunter” creates such a strong impression in the first scene that you can’t wait to see how he will turn up next, even as you also root for the Basterds to get him and bring him to justice (and carve that swastika in his forehead). It’s not for nothing that Tarantino considers him the best character he’s ever written.
Joel Mayward (@joelmayward) Cinemayward.com
While Heath Ledger’s Joker, Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa, and Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh all come to mind, I think the most insidious and unsympathetic contemporary movie villain is Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. I find the gradual failing of one’s own mind and body to be both tragic and terrifying — it’s the sense of feeling absolutely helpless as a person succumbs to their own mortality. Twenty-first century cinematic masterpieces about Alzheimer’s include “A Separation,” “Away from Her,” “Poetry,” “Still Alice,” and last year’s underrated “What They Had.” “The Notebook” and “Logan” are worth mentioning here too; I’d include “Amour” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” as similar films about people who suffer the aftermath of a stroke, and you could certainly add films about cancer or other incurable diseases. While terminal illness sometimes ends up used as a trite motif for imbuing a sentimental romance with pathos, when a film handles the experience with care and authenticity, the results can be at-once heartbreaking and therapeutic, the etymological definition of empathy: suffering with other people.
Anne McCarthy (@annemitchmcc), Teen Vogue, Ms. Magazine, Bonjour Paris
In “The Devil Wears Prada,” editrix Miranda Priestly – played with subtle deft, poise, humor, and savage-ness, by the untouchable Meryl Streep – is a more subdued villain. And a complex one, too. (Are all villains though?) What separates her from other villains, and makes her especially villain-esque, is the lengths to which Miranda will go to put herself (and her magazine) first, above all else – common ethics, promises made, and more. Villainry is found in many forms, yet I’ve always found it especially devastating and dark when its execution includes betrayal of trust. Miranda was trusted (mostly) by those closest to her, like Nigel (Stanley Tucci, shining); and then, in an act of betrayal, she turned around and knifed his career in the back.
Mike McGranaghan (@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat / Screen Rant
Thanos wiped out half the people in the world, including several prominent Avengers, so he’s probably the obvious — but deserving — choice. There have been other recent screen villains who demonstrated more charisma or outright menace. None of them have pulled off an act of such mind-blowing evil, though. There’s no doubt that the impact of his actions sent chills down the spines of most audience members at the end of “Avengers: Infinity War.”
Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail, Film Festival Today
Jack Bryan’s 2018 documentary “Active Measures” examines the Russian disinformation campaign and manipulation of American media leading up to the 2016 United States presidential election, offering an effective argument for why Russian leader Vladimir Putin is the great villain of our time. Putin pops up again in Maxim Pozdorovkin’s even more recent “Our New President,” assembled from Russian news clips and social-media footage celebrating the election of Donald Trump. Then there are the numerous documentaries about the horrors in Ukraine, from the 2015 “Winter on Fire,” the 2017 “Breaking Point” and the heartbreaking, elliptical 2018 “The Distant Barking of Dogs,” in which Putin may not figure as a direct character, but is always there, somehow, lurking in the background like a shadowy Mephistopheles. Cinematic evil is all the scarier when it’s real.
Don Shanahan (@casablancadon), Every Movie Has a Lesson and Medium.com
I’m drilling down from comic book movie heights and spy film theatrics to a setting and scale of film claustrophobically smaller. My pick of the best villain contained his sufferers in the dark-wooded walls of the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music and vocally meted out his clashes and punishments with a range of plainly-stated negatives rising to shattering roars of revulsion. Constantly gushing with vitriol inches away from his targets, J.K. Simmons coiling and striking as the unforgettable Terence Fletcher in “Whiplash” carried more destructive force than any superpower or pending global disaster. The guy who voiced an animated M&M and pitched insurance on TV commercials went well past dastardly heebie-jeebies and the silly sarcasm of looking for photos of Spider-Man to a tangible plane of sheer menace I’ve never seen matched or exceeded before or since. That performance and role was absolutely bonkers and I love it.
Dewey Singleton (@mrsingleton) eatbreathewatch.com, cc2konline.com, insessionfilm.com
I don’t know how anyone wouldn’t pick Hannibal Lecter in “Hannibal.” Hopkins performance as the good doctor with questionable eating habits is one of the top three performances that I’ve watched in my lifetime…. period.
Danielle Solzman (@DanielleSATM), Solzy at the Movies/Freelance
The best movie villain of the 21st century is Barry Keoghan’s portrayal as Martin in Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” This is a character who should go down as one of the greatest cinematic villains of all time. Every time he appeared on screen, I just wanted to hit him. An arguably close second for me at the moment would be Isabelle Huppert’s performance is “Greta.” Both performances make me go WTF.
Andrea Thompson, Freelance, The Young Folks, The Chicago Reader
There are so many great 21st century villains to choose from, but the one that’s made the greatest impression on me is Rose Armitage from “Get Out.” Like the best villains, she speaks to our times, specifically the role white women often play in furthering racism. Such complicity went mostly unexamined until the 2016, when we finally had to talk about the fact that about half of white women voted for Trump.
The Armitage family would most likely still be able to perpetrate their horrific crimes without Rose, but I doubt they’d have gotten away with it so long and so effectively. Rose knows just how women like her are viewed, and she uses that image expertly, effectively coming off as a loving, free-spirited girlfriend, not just to Chris but to us as well, right up until she tells him, “You know I can’t give you the keys, right babe?” In that moment, who Rose really is becomes clear, and the mask comes off. Or rather, her costume does, as she pulls back her hair into a tight ponytail, and spends the rest of the film in an icily patrician wardrobe.
Even all this isn’t enough to convince some (white) people, as Allison Williams was shocked when she still had to deal with questions from audiences who seemed to be searching for a way to make Rose a victim. It’s a testament to how white women are at once privileged and stereotyped to nearly always be portrayed as victims of violence rather than enablers, and just how far some will go to further that privilege at any cost. Rose may be an extreme form of this phenomenon, but it is a real one, and the fact is that there are real Roses in the world who continue to do real damage.
Oralia Torres (@oraleia), Cinescopia, Malvestida
The 21st century is full with villains! After the hype for anti-heroes (which one could argue are villains telling their stories), both in TV and in movies, and the ongoing superheroes genre, it’s hard to think about only one best movie villain. There’s too many options! And, well, with the current political and social landscape, it’s hard to think of movie villains scarier than real-life malefactors.
I’ll use this space to write about one of the best villains coming from the superhero movie realm: Hela, from ‘Thor: Ragnarok’. Goddess of Death, and Odin’s first-born, Hela was Odin’s right-hand during his stage of conquest and consolidation of Asgard; once he decided nine territories were enough, he banished Hela and erased her from Asgard’s official history to present himself as a benevolent ruler. Under Taika Waititi’s command, Hela becomes a stand-in for Europe’s thirst for colonization and exploitation of foreign territories, as well as the violent legacy demanding to be recognized, from one side and the other. It’s the 21st century, and we continue (and will continue) to deal with the devastating consequences of Europe’s (and the United States’s!) imperialist stage, from systemic racism and classism to foreign exploitation of resources and foreign intervention during crisis; seeing a villain embody tangible and ever-present politics was a brilliant move, as it also presents a possible yet utopic solution to deal with this past. As a movie villain, Hela is magnificent and terrifying for everything she symbolizes -because white women in power can replicate and uphold imperialistic and murderous politics, too!-, and has the most stylish clothing ensemble any criminal has had in forever.
Ethan Warren (@EthanRAWarren), Bright Wall/Dark Room
Florence Pugh’s turn as Katherine, the protagonist and eventual villain of “Lady Macbeth,” is fascinating in large part because she begins as a deeply sympathetic character, offering an engaging perspective on a world that’s set up entirely to use and abuse her. As we start off with an affinity for Katherine’s minor acts of rebellion, we’re primed to be accepting as those transgressions deepen by nearly imperceptible degrees into cruelty, and then sadism, and finally outright sociopathy. It’s only once Katherine has demonstrated just how far her survival instinct will take her that viewers are forced to look back and consider at exactly which point she lost their allegiance—if, in fact, she ever did. By forcing us to confront our own blind spots and tolerances—and, of course, by virtue of a virtuosic performance in an underusing masterpiece that’s both austere and ruthless—Pugh’s Katherine earns her place in the pantheon of 21st century villainy.
Clint Worthington (@clintworthing), Consequence of Sound, The Spool
He may not be the most menacing villain in the world, but that’s almost precisely why Hugh Grant’s Phoenix Buchanan in “Paddington 2” is one of 21st-century cinema’s greatest villains. You can have your Jokers and your Anton Chigurhs; give me a smarmy-for-days Hugh Grant leaning into every droll instinct the English actor’s ever had, a man having fun in the midst of a filmic landscape filled with morally complex assassins and universe-killing Titans. Obviously, Grant’s playing an outsized version of himself, a washed-up actor hawking dog food while dreaming of past glory, but there’s something lovable about the 90s rom-com star taking his natural charms and winning smile in a far more insidious direction. Phoenix is a preening narcissist, a man who disappears into his roles because they reflect his own desire to be capital-I Important – has there ever been a more enjoyable skewering of the self-centeredness of the stage actor, and of Grant’s stammering aw-shucks persona specifically?
And those outfits: Grant is having the absolute time of his life skulking around cathedrals and rooftops as nuns, knights in full armor, tramps, and so forth, Pheonix giving Grant the opportunity for the kind of chameleonic pantomime he didn’t get during the peak of his career (and only in fits and starts in “Cloud Atlas”. That enthusiasm seeps through the screen like so much marmalade, infectious like so many of “Paddington 2″‘s other considerable joys. By the time Phoenix offers up his take on “Rain on the Roof,” with a “captive audience” in tow, we don’t care how poorly he treated Film Twitter’s favorite bear.