News Ticker

MIND MELD: Bad Guys We Love to Hate: The Best Film Villains in SF/F/H (with Various Videos of Villainy)

We’ve already talked about literary villains, so we asked this week’s panelists about bad guys (and gals) of the big screen:

Q: Who are some of the best villains in science fiction, fantasy, and/or horror film?

Read on to see their responses (and the videos I included, unbeknownst to them)…

Nar Williams
Nar Williams is the host of Science of the Movies on Science Channel. In the show he interviews filmmakers and explores the technology behind making movies. He also hosts, produces, and writes the show Heads Up! with Nar Williams on CraveOnline, where he previews the best upcoming movies, video games, and comic books. Nar regularly contributes to Current TV’s Rotten Tomatoes Show as a film critic and writes about sci-fi and sci-tech on his blog,
  1. The Joker (The Dark Knight): The crazy bastard put a phone-triggered bomb in the stomach of one of his own henchman. ‘Nuff said.
  2. Agent Smith (Matrix Trilogy): He really hates humans – especially our smell. Every time he growls “Mr. Anderson…” I think, “How inconsiderate! His name is Neo! He wants to be called Neo!”
  3. Gollum (Lord of the Rings Trilogy): Screw Sauron, even simple Samwise Gamgee knows who the real villain is in Tolkien’s epic. Seriously, the split personality once known as Smeagol is so thoroughly made of betrayal he evens betrays himself at one point (“Go away, and never come back!”) …Hate that guy.

Honorable mentions: T-1000 (Terminator 2), HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey), and the obnoxious Scottish guy with dreadlocks (Children of Men).

Ben Peek
Ben Peek is a Sydney based author. His books include the dystopian novel, Black Sheep, and the autobiography, Twenty-Six Lies/One Truth. He keeps a blog, which includes the weekly comic, Nowhere Near Savannah.

Me, I’m going to go with the James-Woods-voiced Hades, from that old Disney flick, Hercules.

A lot of villains in spec fic films aren’t real interesting to me. Sure, I’m a kid from the eighties, so I got a soft spot for Darth Vader, but these days I enjoy the Robot Chicken clips that make fun of him a little more than the films. The aliens from the Alien franchise are fine, if you ignore the majority of the films they appear in (same goes for predators), Heath Ledger’s Joker has a disturbing similarity to Brandon Lee’s Crow, and Rutger Hauer looks like a bad Billy Idol in Blade Runner, just to pick a few real obvious choices for best villain. But Hades? The character is voiced by James Woods–James Motherfucking Woods!–and the guy is having a ball, so much so that you can ignore all that Disney All-Ugly-Children-Grow-Up-to-Have-True-Love-and-Super-Powers nonsense and just chill to the rapid fire delivery that plays to Woods’ humour.

Mike Resnick
Mike Resnick is the author of 50 novels, 200 short stories, a pair of screenplays, and the editor of 50 anthologies, as well as the executive editor of Jim Baen’s Universe. According to Locus, he is the leading award winner, living or dead, of short fiction. His work has been translated into 22 languages.

I think the most visually stunning was the devil in the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence of Fantasia.

The most dangerous: Arnold Schwarzenegger in the first Terminator.

The most ominous/evocative: Jonathan Pryce’s Mr. Dark in Something Wicked This Way Comes.

The most over-the-top (children’s division): Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard Of Oz.

The most over-the-top (adult division): Peter Sellers interpretation of Dr. Strangelove.

The most dangerous extraterrestrial: The alien in Alien.

The closest thing to a true villain: Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange.

Chris Preksta
Chris Preksta is best known as the writer/director of the Captain Blasto web series, for which he was nominated for two Streamy Awards. His short concept film The Mercury Men (filmed prior to the series) was featured at San Diego Comic Con (2008), the Brainwash Movie Festival (awarded Best Film, 2008), and the Action on Film Festival (awarded Best Science Fiction Film & Best Visual Effects, 2008). He was also a top three finalist at the Tribeca Film Festival Nintendo Showcase for his short film The Nintendo Office.

That’s an EASY question to answer: DARTH VADER. Not only does he have the single best costume in cinema history. Not only can he stop lasers with his hand. But he KILLS HIS OWN MEN. That is the epitome of evil, that he’s willing to cut down even those that serve him. As a kid you’re not really afraid of strangers, burglars, monsters, or even Satan himself. But you are most definitely afraid of Darth Vader.

Edward M. Lerner
Edward M. Lerner worked in high tech for thirty years, as everything from engineer to senior VP. His recent novels are Small Miracles (a medical nanotech thriller released October 13th), the cyber thriller Fools’ Experiments, just re-released in paperback, and (with Larry Niven) the interstellar epics of the Fleet of Worlds series. Lerner blogs at SF and Nonsense.

In a companion Mind Meld about literary villains, my mind ran to horror and sympathetic villains. Thinking SFnally, my mind has gone in a totally different direction. Or off the rails … you decide.

(A strange and curious thing, the human mind. Perhaps that’s another Mind Meld topic.)

The villains who come to mind today are (a) alien and (b) really out to get us. One might call them sociopaths, but then the “alien” aspect trumps. Why should an alien have any social concern whatever for another species? It’s not like humans have a strong track record of empathizing with whatever new human societies they run across. Think, say, of the conquistadores.

Okay, on to examples. Some of my favorite film bad “guys”:

The governator/terminator, of the original The Terminator. He knew what he wanted and he went after it. No unexplained emotional baggage stayed his metal hand. Rip off that hand and he’ll keep coming after you with the stump. Ditto the “bad” – aka, not reprogrammed by humans – terminators in the sequel movies.

The acid-for-blood alien(s) in the Alien series. Other species are mere breeding grounds; we humans get the consideration termites would give a fallen tree. Apparently I enjoy Energizer Bunny tenacity. In Aliens (the second installment of the series, and my favorite), it’s a great moment – if not for the Sigourney Weaver heroine – when we see that the queen alien has escaped the about-to-be-nuked factory aboard the fleeing humans’ spaceship.

The predator of Predator. He’s the hunter and we’re prey. More sticktoitiveness. In Predator 2, the bad guys – for all their monomaniacal predatory focus – are fair-minded enough to honor a human prey’s victory. Nothing says a sociopath can’t be classy.

And to show I’m not merely a sucker for eponymous movie villains, I’ll add Ra from Stargate.

On my last visit to Mind Meld, I was all for empathetic monsters. The thing is, monsters are one-of-a-kind beings. They’re reflections of the humans who made, shaped, or evoked them. If the monster lacks a human element, it reflects badly on us. But the situation in SF differs. Why should the aliens care about us or our problems?

Extraterrestrial biological entity, artificial intelligence, or beyond-the-singularity transhumans: they can carry off an attitude of Die, human vermin. Some days that’s just entertaining. Please pass the popcorn.

Gary Farber
Gary Farber started working in science fiction in 1974 as a slush reader for Amazing Stories and Fantastic Stories. After a hiatus from 1978 through 1985, he worked as a freelance, and inhouse, reader, proofreader, copyeditor, copywriter, editorial assistant, and dogsbody for many major sf publishers. He’s largely retired from publishing. Gary became active in fandom in 1971, age 12, doing fanzines, working on conventions, including as Director of Operations for two Worldcons and retroactive Vice-Chair of the 1978 Worldcon. Gary institutionalized Worldcon displays on sf fanhistory, and created the fan lounge, in 1977. He was highly active on Usenet from 1995-2001, and has been blogging at Amygdala since 2001. Gary has also had lifelong major chronic depression, and believes more people should talk publically about their experiences with emotional and mental illness.

Here’s what I think is most interesting about that question: some of the best sf has no villains. The villain is the universe, or the problem to be solved, or the mystery to be answered, or the character’s own traits and faults to overcome. Or the human or alien villain may merely be an obstacle to overcome in the protagonist’s quest towards a larger goal.

Another thing: when we do have human (or alien) villains: no one, other than by authorial fiat, is a villain in their own story.

When there is a villain, human or alien, in any good story they’re simply in a conflict with the protagonist(s), but have perfectly sound justifications in their own minds. If they don’t, one of two things is going on: they’re either cardboard characters in a cardboard story, or they’re archetypes.

In Contact, one of my favorite sf films, there is a question to be answered: is there intelligent life out there? In the course of finding an answer to that question, problems had to be solved: how do we determine if that life is out there? How do we contact them once we know it’s there?

The major “villains” in the film are mankind’s superstition, the threat of religious extremism overcoming rationality and science, and that grand traditional thematic villain of movie sf: mankind’s fear of the unknown and The Other. There’s a minor human representative of short-sightedness and ego, the presidential science advisor, David Drumlin, played by Tom Skerritt, but his role, and what minor “villainy” attends to it, is relatively trivial to the overall story. A more menacing “villain,” insofar as the film has one, is National Security Advisor Michael Kitz, ably played James Woods, who brings all his usual guy-you-love-to-hate mad skillz to the part, as he variously questions the wisdom of alien contact, and in the end claims it’s all a huge hoax, a trick. His villainy lies first in his inability to conceive of life in the universe at all, and secondly in his inability to conceive that life that isn’t human might have other than petty human concerns, such as conquest, or some other classically evil intention.

Kitz, though, is merely a personification of these general failings of much of humanity, a theme reflected in so many earlier classic sf films, such as the original The Day The Earth Stood Still, where essentially the same story is played out: our human failings of fear and nationalism, and our difficulty in overcoming these failings, are the true villains of the film. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in evil aliens, or in evil human nations, but in ourselves, in strains of humanity itself, and the fears and failings at play in all of us.

We see this same science fiction morality play told yet again in 2010: The Year We Made Contact, the film that could never be as great as the unsurpassable 2001: A Space Odyssey, but which remains one of the best realistic science fiction films yet made. The villains to be overcome, again, are nationalism, militarism, and Cold War fears; a lesser fear is that of artificial intelligence, as the viewer is led to wonder if HAL, who was the only villain of 2001, will again, apparently inexplicably, turn homicidal.

But 2010 resolves the apparent villainy of Hal in 2001 — and the subplot made far more clear in the book of 2001 than in the movie, of Heywood Floyd’s role in programming HAL — by explaining that it was never HAL’s fault at all that he went “insane,” but simply that his human masters had programmed him with contradictory orders, and the order that won out in the first film was “protect the mission”; in following that order as best he could, HAL tried to kill all his passengers, but, really, it was nothing personal.

And in 2010, Heywood Floyd’s (now played with vastly more emotion by Roy Scheider) doubts about HAL are put paid to by the extremely rational computer scientist Dr. Chandra (Bob Balaban), who never feared artificial intelligence at all, and who was enraged to find that the true villain of the previous movie/expedition was Heywood Floyd, who was truly responsible for HAL’s actions, and whose worries about HAL persist in 2010 right through until the end, when Floyd realizes he has to trust HAL with the truth, and armed with the truth, HAL is saner than most humans, including those in the White House and the Kremlin.

(Ironically, even Arthur C. Clarke, the great idealist and humanist, was unable to imagine in the early Eighties, when he wrote the story of 2010: Odyssey Two, published in January 1982, that the Soviet Union might collapse long before 2010, and even before 2001, and the Cold War would no longer exist by then.)

Time and again in many of the best sf films we often see that the true villains are far larger than any mere flaw of any mere single person: in Blade Runner, the true villainy lies in creating artificial humans to serve as slaves, and not granting these almost-humans and equal-to-humans and greater-than-humans anything resembling a full lifespan, let alone their freedom.

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, once again, human fears of alien life arethe villains of the story. There are no human villains at all. Fear of the unknown is the only villain, and we see remarkably little of that. (Okay, Roy Neary’s wife thinks he’s gone wacky, but she’s no villain — and if your spouse starts obsessively playing with the mashed potatoes, you might have some doubts, too.)

In the recent WALL-E, we once again have an artificial intelligence as antagonist, the ship’s autopilot, Auto, but once again, the AI isn’t at fault; the fault lies with the human programmers, the Buy n Large corporation, who have programmed Auto to prevent the ship Axiom’s returning to Earth, where the corporate villain — personified by the ever-sleazy Fred Willard — has left Earth to be abandoned in the sea of consumerist garbage Buy n Large, and humanity’s lesser qualities, have left beyond.

Now, it’s certainly true that plenty of science fiction movies — which I’m not going to define the borders of! — have more traditional human villains, the same sort of villains found in all the other genres: westerns, mysteries, melodramas, courtroom dramas, police dramas, romances, and so on. But what’s interesting and different about some of the better sf movies is that they go in a different direction than the other genres, and are able to. And that’s one of the ways we can tell that they are, indeed, science fiction, and not (only) in some other genre or mode.

I could go on giving example after example of science fiction movies reflecting this general approach of much — certainly by no means all, as science fiction is large, it contains multitudes — genuine sf in any medium: that human individuals aren’t truly villainous, but that our own worst qualities can be our own worst enemies, and that often we have no enemy beyond the nature of the universe, or no true enemies at all: we merely have problems to solve, and we must use our brains to solve them. (And if a point of science is involved, it’s that much more science fiction.)

To close out this point that sf need not have human or alien villains, I need only mention two other words: Star Trek. (To be sure, the movies go far more towards character-based villains than the tv show did, and the better movies were those that did so, but, still, neither Star Trek: The Motionless Picture, nor Star Trek IV, had any villains at all.)

Then we can turn to the neighboring genre of science fantasy and, as we must, to the Star Wars films. What I find most interesting about the story George Lucas chose to tell in his full, six-part, story is that we see the full story — however flawed in the telling, and it is — expand greatly in the jump from one film to three, and yet again in the jump from three films to six. (I’ll set aside delving here into the flaws of Return of the Jedi, and those of the prequel films, although I do believe the prequels got better with each film, and each jump away from Jar-Jar Binks, and Anakin-the-child, because, hey, space limitations.)

The jump from the original film to the first trilogy changed the story from a literal villain-with-a-black-hat who was simply evil because he was evil, to a story of a human being who had, somehow, journeyed from a once-good man into something “more machine than man now,” but who was in the end able to find his own humanity just long enough to save his son, and, oh, yes, the Galaxy.

In jumping a the story up to six movies, we fill in the backstory of just how Anakin Skywalker, who started out as apparently good-natured, good-willed, and virtuous a kid as any normal kid, and more so than many, could slowly evolve, through succumbing to greed, fear, envy, and a lust for power, into the worst kind of villain, the one we saw show up in the black helmet with that damned annoying breath that would have made him truly lousy at Force Stealth, in Star Wars (or, if you prefer, Star Wars: A New Hope).

And that’s, for all the flaws in Lucas’ dialogue, and clumsy exposition, a pretty interesting story, although it’s also a story that has nothing whatever to do with science fiction, save by setting and incidentally. (Which is why I put it in the camp of science fantasy: it’s a story about magic powers with a futuristic setting, and remains, ultimately, what James Blish called a “call a rabbit a smeerp” story: a story that could be removed from its pseudo-science setting and remain exactly the same story – but that’s another argument.)

Of course, Lucas simply pushed off the unexplained Evil Villainy onto the Emperor, a figure who remains simply evil and villainous because HE’S EVIL AND VILLAINOUS, BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!, but Lucas’ tale of Anakin-into-Darth allows us to imagine that some similar backstory might be told of Palpatine and his own youth. (And perhaps that story is told in the Expanded Universe of Star Wars; please forgive me that I haven’t followed the EU beyond a minimal level, and, besides, this Mind Meld is strictly about movies.)

When we turn to look at strict fantasy, we see something very different from what’s possible in science fiction: we see a great manymore Evil Antagonists who are Evil simply because of authorial say-so.

Sauron is, in the movies of The Lord Of The Rings, Simply Evil. (In the books we know that he’s essentially a fallen angel, but the movies don’t go there.)

Disappointingly, Denethor, Steward of Gondor, is changed in Peter Jackson’s movie version from the complicated man of the book into a raving lunatic, simply because there’s so much story to cram into even the expanded version of three movies that there apparently isn’t time to explain Denethor’s far more understandable and interesting motivations as given in the book, where he simply wishes to do his best to protect Gondor, has insufficient reason, as he sees it, to trust that Aragorn is truly worthy of being King, and, worst of all, has been fed in all his doubts and fears by the Great Liar, Sauron, via Denethor’s use of the palantír.

But regardless of how much or little the principle that no realistic villains are villain in their own minds is adhered to in either Jackson’s LOTR, or in any fantasy films, we can’t have the same dynamic science fiction is at least capable of: no real living villains at all.

In fantasy, as in the neighboring genre of horror, the villains may be supernatural, or may be humans, or may be fantastic, or may merely be humans influenced by the supernatural or fantastic, but the stories, by definition, can’t be that of the rational versus the irrational, or of humans versus a rational universe, because by definition, a universe of fantasy or supernatural horror isn’t a rational universe, although it may be one in which Good can triumph over Evil (or not, particularly in horror), which is another kind of story altogether.

Of course, what the question we’re asked to answer here, and what many readers might be looking for, is something far simpler than all this damned airy theory I’m throwing at you: who are the juiciest, most memorable, most despicable, most scary, most delectable, most fiendish, most hatable, villains in the world of science fiction, fantasy, and horror movies?

Others can give you easy lists of those, but, dear reader, the answer is clear: the true and worst villains of sf, fantasy, and horror movies are the movie executives who ruin them with notes and commands that water down and destroy the story, render it incoherent, take it away from the creators’ intentions, slash the budgets, and recut the movies to give them happy endings.

You knew that.

Steve Davidson
Steve Davidson is an author of paintball books, an editor of a paintball website, and a FAN. Of Science Fiction. He curates the Classic Science Fiction Channel, champions author A. Bertram Chandler on the Rim Worlds website and blogs as the Crotchety Old Fan, where he very much enjoys shaking his old man stick and flipping his propeller beanie at all and sundry. Steve also reviews Science Fiction and Fantasy books and films for a variety of sites including SFReader, Ray Gun Revival. His most recent review will be appearing shortly on Tangent Online.

Who are some of the best villains in science fiction, fantasy and/or horror film?

This of course begs the question – what do you mean by best?

Best as in effective? Best as in meanest, vilest? Best as in the most reviled?

My assumption for answering the question is that what is meant by the best is the most appealing – either through character, actions or effect.

Once I had determined to use that as a yardstick, I was struck by the fact that when you get right down to it, villains in science fiction films are, more often than not, not really individual characters.

Take Alien for instance, the iconic SF/Horror flick. Is the villain the aliens? No, the villain is in fact the corporation that sacrificed a spaceship crew and potentially endangered all life on Earth for the sake of profit.

How about 2001: A Space Odyssey? The villain is not HAL, it is a government or collection of governments, human frailty and the risks of exploring the unknown.

Take another Kubrick film – A Clockwork Orange. Alex and his Droogs are the bad guys? Nope. Society is.

Destination Moon? The perils of exploration once again. Forbidden Planet? Man’s inner nature. The Day the Earth Stood Still? Us. The human race. (I speak here of the original. In the remake, Keeanu Reeves is clearly the villain….); Metropolis – society; Things to Come – human nature; I, Robot? Corporate greed. Terminator? Corporate greed. Wall-E? The seven deadly sins/human nature.

And of those films that do have a bad guy, more often than not it is a monster of some kind – usually following their natural inclinations and only dangerous because they have impinged on our world, or we upon theirs. Kong was fine on the island. The Mole People weren’t a problem until we broke into their world. The creature in The Thing is trying to survive in a hostile and alien environment. The Blob – out of its element.

There are in fact very few SF films that have a clear villain. War of the Worlds – the Martians (but note – not an individual); Invaders from Mars – the Martians; Invasion of the Saucermen – the saucermen; Invasion of the Body Snatchers – the pods; Plan 9 From Outer Space – someone in a tinfoil hat.

Only when science fiction becomes science fantasy do we really begin to encounter clear cut villains. Darth Vader and the Emperor from Star Wars, Ming the Merciless from the Flash Gordon serials (and features made from the serials), Killer Kane from Buck Rogers, various and sundry from the Star Trek franchise (and more often than not a collective, unknowable force – Borg, V-ger).

Although my choices are limited, there is a standout amongst them and that would have to be Ming the Merciless. Ming does not need a mask or scuba gear to be menacing. Ming enjoys torture and (implied) rape (pure bad guy entertainment). Ming destroys (or tries to) entire worlds on a whim. Ming offers no explanations beyond a simple and unadulterated “because I can”. And probably because Ming was the very first truly evil bad guy I ever saw up on the screen.

Gary Westfahl
Gary Westfahl, who teaches at the University of California, Riverside, is the author, editor, or co-editor of twenty-three books about science fiction and fantasy, including the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits, the three-volume The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the recently published Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature. He contributes reviews and commentaries to the Locus Online and Internet Review of Science Fiction websites, and in 2003 he earned the Science Fiction Research Association’s Pilgrim Award for lifetime contributions to science fiction and fantasy scholarship.

I’m sorry, but try as I may, I cannot muster any strong emotional response to any of the extravagant, larger-than-life villains often found in science fiction films who are presumably the intended focus of this discussion. They simply do not seem real to me, and not because of their amazing abilities or implausibly intricate schemes. Rather, it is the fact that typically they fully understand the villainy of their actions and not only accept, but even relish, their own extraordinary evilness. Such individuals are found in everyday life, but they are rare.

The sort of villains that we do regularly encounter, and that I most readily despise, are the people who do evil things because they are too stupid, or too blinded by self-interest or parochial beliefs, to recognize that they are in fact doing evil things. In other words, I hate the villains who incredibly believe that they are really heroes.

Thus, one character who inspires visceral loathing every time I view his film is Tom Stevens (Hugh Marlowe), the boyfriend of Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) in the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Having brilliantly deduced that Helen’s housemate Mr. Carpenter is actually the alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) after her son Bobby (Billy Gray) tells him exactly that, and having confirmed his story by getting jewelers to verify that Klaatu’s diamonds resemble none found on Earth, Stevens rushes to the phone to tell the Pentagon where Klaatu is hiding, refusing to listen to Helen’s pleadings that his actions might prove catastrophic for the entire human race. Since the authorities have been asking citizens to contact them with any information about the alien, Stevens can readily believe that he is doing the right thing, and he is further motivated by a selfish desire to win the world’s admiration and respect as the man who brought an end to the alien menace. It is heartening to watch Helen angrily reject this creep, and to recognize that even though Stevens’s actions lead directly to Klaatu’s death, his subsequent resurrection and safe return to his home world, along with his stark warning to humanity regarding the true nature of his mission, ensure that Stevens has not only lost a future wife, but also will gain nothing from his traitorous deed.

This raises an interesting question: in the warped, wretched remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, which character most closely corresponds to Tom Stevens? It is not the character named “Tom,” who has little to do in this version of the story, but rather Klaatu himself (Keanu Reeves). Like Tom Stevens, Klaatu believes he is doing the right thing by endeavoring to kill every single human on the planet without warning in order to preserve Earth’s natural environment. Further, since his race obviously embraces a peculiar moral code which values pristine biospheres more than intelligent beings, there is an element of self-interest in his genocidal activities; one can even imagine that, if he returns to his peers and reports his success in saving Earth from its own nasty inhabitants, he might anticipate receiving some sort of reward – exactly like Stevens. Klaatu further proves that he is a rotten so-and-so with a few random murders and acts of petty theft. And our opinion of him cannot change because he ultimately discerns some merit in the human race and decides to turn off his engines of mass destruction; for heaven’s sake, if a man starts firing a machine gun into a crowd and then decides after ten seconds that this is a bad thing to do and stops shooting, does that make him a hero?

The final puzzle is why anyone would choose to transform one of science fiction film’s noblest heroes into a despicable scoundrel, but delving into it would demand consideration of different sorts of villains driven by stupidity, self-interest, and parochial beliefs – namely, the executives who oversee contemporary Hollywood films.

Mike Brotherton
Mike Brotherton is the author of the hard science fiction novels Spider Star (2008) and Star Dragon (2003), the latter being a finalist for the Campbell award. He’s also a professor of astronomy at the University of Wyoming, Clarion West graduate, and founder of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for Writers ( He blogs at

Science Fiction

  • Terminator
  • Alien
  • Predator
  • Darth Vader (in the original 3 films, not the prequels)
  • The Borg (Queen)
  • Martians from War of the Worlds
  • Governmental Bureaucracy in Brazil
  • Roy Batty in Blade Runner


  • Sauron
  • Queen from Narnia
  • You Know Who!
  • Joker in the new Batman


  • Jason
  • Freddy Kruger
  • Michael Meyers
  • Hannibal Lecter
  • Dracula
  • Shark from Jaws

Not unsurprisingly, horror films and sf/f with strong elements of horror lead to the most memorable villains. There are plenty of fine films that lack explicit villains and are more complex than simple good vs. evil stories, but a great villain can really steal the show. Hannibal Lecter was an important subplot of Red Dragon, but eventually emerged as his own franchise. Some are complex like Lecter, some mindless like the shark in Jaws, but there is a wide spectrum of possibilities to explore.

Kevin Maher
Kevin Maher is the host and curator of KEVIN GEEKS OUT, a monthly video-variety show in NYC. This month he geeks out about another favorite Villain: Vincent Price!

My 4-year-old son recently asked, “Is King Kong a bad guy?”

Good question. Can we hold wild beasts to our own moral guidelines? Does Godzilla contemplate the difference between good and evil? Is the Blob just an unethical alien, or just a hungry creature working his way along the intergalactic food chain?

I don’t think we should call giant monsters “villains” (the exception being the shark in Jaws: The Revenge, who is actively stalking the remaining members of the Brody family.)

My idea of a good villain is one who is decidedly sinister, thoughtful, and a man (or woman) of action.

My favorite example is Peter Cook’s interpretation of the Devil in 1967’s Bedazzled. Cook was at the top of his game playing “George Spiggot”, a with-it, Mod Lucifer. He’s a fully realized Fallen Angel (and much more fun to watch than, say, Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate.)

Cook’s Satan is not mindlessly hell-bent on devouring souls just because he’s the devil. Instead, he’s a complicated character who wants to return to Heaven.

Along the way he steals every scene from Dudley Moore – literally one-upping Moore’s “Stanley Moon” character each time he wishes for something. For example, Stanley wishes to be a pop star who drove women wild. * POOF! * He’s instantly transformed into a heartthrob; singing, “Love Me!” on a “shingdig!” style TV Show. But as soon as his song ends, Cook appears an emotionally detached, David Bowie-esque musician (the front man of Drimble Wedge & The Vegetation) He steals Stanley’s thunder, entrancing all the girls with monotone lyrics like “you fill me with inertia.”

That’s a villain: disarmingly charming, compulsively evil, terribly witty, and always one step ahead of his victims, using “monkey’s paw” evil irony for their silly wishes.

S. Andrew Swann
S. Andrew Swann is the pen name of Steven Swiniarski. He’s married and lives in the Greater Cleveland area, where he has lived all of his adult life. He has a background in mechanical engineering and — besides writing — works as a database manager for one of the largest private child services agencies in the Cleveland area. He has published 17 novels with DAW books over the past 14 years, which include science fiction, fantasy, horror and thrillers. He has recently sold a pair of paranormal historical fantasy novels to Bantam. His latest book is Prophets, a sequel to the epic space opera Hostile Takeover Trilogy. Other books include Dragons and Dwarves (DAW), an omnibus reprint of Dragons of the Cuyahoga and Dwarves of Whiskey Island; and Lilly’s Song, the first novel in the Wolfbreed series (Bantam). Upcomg is Heretics, the sequel to Prophets

When talking about genre movies, it’s a good idea to distinguish between a villain and a monster. SF/Horror film, especially in the early days, often made use of monsters as the main antagonists. Monsters are a force of nature, they aren’t subject to human reasoning or motivation, they exist to be escaped or destroyed. Villains, on the other hand, chose the path they’re on, have reasons for what they do (and may quote them at length) and, unlike a monster, can be legitimately a character in the story. Dracula is a great villain, the zombies in Night of the Living Dead are solely monsters.

So greatest SFnal filmic villains? Darth Vader gets props as one of the most iconic SF villains, an achievement made in the first two films that unfortunately led to some bad narrative choices in all the subsequent movies. However, much closer to the top is HAL from 2001:A Space Odyssey, for generating a creepy vibe from almost the first scene, communicating emotion solely through dialogue in a supposedly emotionless monotone, and being a frighteningly believable mass murderer. More obscure, but similarly creepy is the director Christof, from The Truman Show, who brings every unsettling aspect of self-important artistic hubris to the screen, the artist as God, if only for one man. Agent Smith from the Matrix gets a vote, if only for Hugo Weaving’s chilling line delivery.

Summer Brooks
Summer Brooks is the Executive Producer for FarPoint Media, and co-host on The Babylon Podcast and Slice of SciFi. She’s contributed to the Battlestar Galactica collection So Say We All and to The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy, Vol 3, and is hard at work on pulling together guidebooks on a couple of SF TV shows that are close to her heart.

I tend to hold my movie villains to high standards, because you have less time to define them than in books or a TV series. If the hero gets through too easily, or is on too formulaic a path to glory and victory, where’s the fun in that?

That said, my tastes in genre movie villains varies, depending on the type of movie I’m watching.

My favorite SF movie villains would have to be Agent Smith from The Matrix, and the Operative from Serenity. There’s a similarity between those two, from their unquestioning belief in the system they are killing to protect, to their missions being the greater part of their identity. The martial arts skills also bring tears of joy to my eyes.

I also think it’s curious that my favorites here suffer defeat through a radical paradigm shift thrust upon them by the heroes, but that’s for a different essay.

Honorable mention: The Terminator, with that whole relentless pursuit and unwavering focus on the mission thing again.

My favorite fantasy movie villain would have to be The Kurgan from Highlander, with Magneto from the X-Men films a very close second. The parallels here would be the unwavering belief in their own superiority, the sheer power of their will, and the faith in their abilities to conquer all comers and become the unconquerable “king” of their realms.

Honorable mention: Emperor Palpatine, from the Star Wars Prequel trilogy. Yes, from the prequels. The Emperor in the original trilogy was unimpressive to me, not worthy of being Darth Vader’s master. But in the prequel, we see the Machiavellian levels of manipulations within manipulations, and the pulling of strings that wouldn’t pay off for nearly two decades. Seeing that path made Palpatine worthy of the title of Master, and was also the best story line of that trilogy.

Special “over the top” award: Profion, from Dungeons & Dragons. Jeremy Irons chewing the scenery more passionately than you’d see at a Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is the single thing worth watching in that movie. It’s damned funny, too, easily topping Frank Langella as Skeletor in He-Man. Someone needs to make a special edit containing just Jeremy’s scenes.

For horror movies, I am biased. Freddie and Jason have lost their power over me, through what seems like 212 poor quality sequels that were, at best, the same movie again and again. So I must go with Candyman at the top of my list, because a chill factor still remains there for me.

Honorable mention: Ash from Alien. The tension Ash brought to those scenes, for me, was more intense than most of the scenes involving the critter.

Honorable critter mention: The shark from Jaws. The scariest things are the ones you can’t see.

In movies, the villain has to ramp up the tension with their presence, and the pressure through their actions. If the audience doesn’t feel that tension and that pressure, how can we believe that the hero feels it, or has anything to truly be concerned about from the villain?

When it works, we get memorable movies, and bad guys who can make more of an impression than the good guys.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

11 Comments on MIND MELD: Bad Guys We Love to Hate: The Best Film Villains in SF/F/H (with Various Videos of Villainy)

  1. joshua corning // October 14, 2009 at 2:00 am //

    The Nothing in the Never Ending story.

  2. Seems with this topic we’ve been down this road before…..

  3. OOps I forgot to read the opening disclaimer. I’d say the bad guys played by Basil Rathbone. Classic

  4. Zorg from The Fifth Element!

  5. At risk of being a bit argumentative of fellow Melders, but in hopes of some interesting debate in the comments:

    Mike Brotherton:

    • Darth Vader (in the original 3 films, not the prequels)

    How is Darth Vader of Return of the Jedi, the man who compassionately saves his son at the cost of his own life, by killing the actual villain, the Emperor, and thus also overthrows the Galactic Empire, and is shown to be a redeemed man, who has once again become a Jedi, re-united with Yoda, Obi-Wan (and Qui-Gon Jinn, if you accept the revised version), and who has restored balance to the Force, and restored the Republic, a villain in any way?  He’s the hero of the movie.

    • Roy Batty in Blade Runner

    How is Roy Batty, the man/replicant who chooses to show mercy for Deckard, when Deckard is helpless, and whose life Batty spares, and who is merely fighting for his own life and that of others like him against the inhumane bastards who enslaved his kind, a villain?

    Kevin Maher: “My 4-year-old son recently asked, ‘Is King Kong a bad guy?'”

    No, not at all.  He’s a kidnap victim.  The villain is the kidnapper, Carl Denham. 

    S. Andrew Swann: “However, much closer to the top is HAL from 2001:A Space Odyssey, for generating a creepy vibe from almost the first scene, communicating emotion solely through dialogue in a supposedly emotionless monotone, and being a frighteningly believable mass murderer.”

    Did HAL 9000 have free will?  Is it possible to do evil, or be a villain, without free will?

    Summer Brooks: “My favorite SF movie villains would have to be Agent Smith from The Matrix, and the Operative from Serenity. There’s a similarity between those two, from their unquestioning belief in the system they are killing to protect”

    If we’re discussing only the first Matrix film, I’d again ask if a computer program has free will.  (In the two sequels, Smith most definitely has free will — but this is overtly stated to be the result of Neo “killing” him at the end of The Matrix, and explicitly freeing him from his programming and disconnecting him from The Machines. 

    This question of free will points to an excellent piece of visual sf, though not movie sf, but rather, tv sf, I’d suggest: neo-Battlestar Galactica, in which the Cylons start off appearing to be “villains,” but are eventually shown to be — and this is the point of the series — human in all ways that are important, including having free will, plausible motivations, confusion, conflict, and are, in the end, no more or less villains or evil than the humans who once considered them inhuman “toasters.”

    To answer my own question with my own opinion: if you don’t have free will, you have no agency, and thus cannot be evil, and therefore cannot be a villain: all you are is a tool or a victim.

  6. How about Clancy Brown as The Kurgan in Highlander? 

    He freaked me out as a kid.

    Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter (those movies count as Horror, right? I mean – a prerequisite is watching a movie through: A. your fingers, B. a blanket or C. with all the lights on from the other room with a blender going so you can’t hear anything and lots of people around you cuz there’s safety in numbers, right?)

    Ralph Fiennes creeps me out as Voldemort in the HP movies.  That smashed in nose, the serpent’s voice – if I were ten, he’d make me pee my pants a little.

    Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes in Misery took the ‘villain’ to a completely different level.  She was sweet, endearing even.  You wanted to like her.  She said such amusing things.

    Then she got out the wood block and the hammer…

    The Overlook Hotel / Jack Torrance from The Shining.  You could say that the hotel was the villain, Jack was simply it’s pawn.  Either way, YEEESH!

    Violator from Spawn.  I would agree that this was a terrible movie / adaptation, but John Leguizamo gave an over the top performance as this creepy clown character (as if there were any other type of clown character).

    General Zod. If you disagree, he’ll make you kneel before him…

    Norman Osborn from Spider-Man. Arguably the best of those movies, Willem Defoe captured this character’s essence; he was creepy, driven, manipulative, powerful and relentless.

    Khan.  what? I need to explain? Pfft.

    Reavers from Serenity.  Sort of like Zombies but not Zombies.  Definitely scary, definitely creepy and ugly and and…  *shivers*  Yeesh!

    Jayne Cobb: “Ain’t logical. Cuttin’ on his own face, rapin’ and murdering – Hell, I’ll kill a man in a fair fight… or if I think he’s gonna start a fair fight, or if he bothers me, or if there’s a woman, or if I’m gettin’ paid – mostly only when I’m gettin’ paid. But these Reavers… last ten years they show up like the bogeyman from stories. Eating people alive? Where’s that get fun?”


  7. The Nothing, Zorg, Annie Wilkes, Reavers, etc.  All good villains!

  8. Big kudos to Kevin Maher for including Peter Cook’s Lucifer from the original Bedazzled. That’s one of my favorite flicks of all time!

  9. joshua corning // October 14, 2009 at 6:55 pm //


    <i>How is Darth Vader of Return of the Jedi, the man who compassionately saves his son at the cost of his own life, by killing the actual villain, the Emperor, and thus also overthrows the Galactic Empire, and is shown to be a redeemed man, who has once again become a Jedi, re-united with Yoda, Obi-Wan (and Qui-Gon Jinn, if you accept the revised version), and who has restored balance to the Force, and restored the Republic, a villain in any way?  He’s the hero of the movie.</i>


    How did he do all that when if, instead of fighting, Luke and Vader and the Emperor all had a nice cup of tea and the end result would have been the same?

    ie the emperor would have been dead, the death star destroyed and the rebels would have won with or without any help from Vader or Luke.

    Sadly the Ewoks were the heroes.

    By the way the Villain of LOTR is Gandalf….at least in the books. In the movie it is not so obvious. Jackson regrettably picked the mainstream yet inaccurate view that he was some sort of good guy.



  10. Major props for Bedazzled! That’s very fun movie and the devil is awesome.  Almost as good as Sam Wise in the show Reaper (who I consider to be the best devil evah!)

  11. Gary,

    Vader in the first trilogy could be considered the villain by advocates of the Empire, since he chose to singlehandedly stage a coup.  I might even be able to ask a Sandtrooper I know to come up with a theory on that viewpoint… I know his argument on who really kiled Owen and Beru Lars was one I had difficulty refuting  🙂

    As for Agent Smith, I would argue that the agents were indeed independent of the system, fully able to tap into all the resources they need to “police” the net, but wholly indoctrinated.  If the system were controlling them completely, why would it need the agents in the first place?

    The free will argument, for me, has a flaw: Does someone who is committing villainous acts because of or on behalf of a belief in system or worldview that they’ve been fully indoctrinated to believe is the best/only way truly have free will?  Free will depends on free and open communication and education.  Does free will exist in a situation where a person doesn’t know they can have a choice?

    SF examples: the telepaths raised by the Psi Corps in Babylon 5, and the children being raised and trained by the Jedi Academy.  Because of their natural abilities, they are scooped up by an organization dedicated to using those abilities, involving them in special training and special education, even imbuing them with a devotion to support the only system they’ve known their entire lives.  The same argument might also include the original Clone Troopers.

    My opinion is that it’s oversimplistic to nullify their actions by calling them victims, or tools or cannon fodder.  It’s a good starting argument, but we are so much more complicated than that  🙂

    and ditto on Ray Wise’s portrayal of the Devil in Reaper… absolutely fun!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: