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SYFY WIRE Decade in Review

The 10 best movie villains of the decade

By James Grebey
Decade in Review: Best villain performances

Welcome to SYFY WIRE's Decade in Review, a series of articles that will look to catalog the best, worst, and weirdest cultural and entertainment moments of the 2010s as we look toward the future. Today, we celebrate the bad and the ugly — the best movie villain performances of the 2010s.

Were the 2010s a bad decade? We'll leave that up to you, but there were certainly a lot of bad guys in movies. There was a fearsome dragon lurking in a golden lair, a father-killing Sith wannabe, an emo Norse god, and a Wakandan revolutionary, to name a few. There were killer clowns, body-snatching New Englanders, and deranged train passengers.

Here are the 10 villains that we think were the G.O.A.T (or greatest of the decade, at least). Let's start off with a literal goat.

10. Charlie the goat as Black Philip in The VVitch (2015)

Charlie, the goat who played the devil in Robert Eggers' Puritan horror movie, was reportedly not a very good animal actor.

A Hollywood Reporter story about the 210-pound goat reveals that Eggers and the film's actors mostly hated him. "If we wanted him to be doing something violent, he wanted to go to sleep. If he was supposed to be standing still, he was running around like a madman," Eggers told THR.

On the fourth day of filming, Charlie dislodged one of actor Ralph Ineson’s tendons, leaving him in pain for the rest of the five-week shoot.

Whatever — Charlie just wanted to live deliciously, is all, as Black Philip would want.

09. Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug in The Hobbit Trilogy (2012-14)

Peter Jackson's The Hobbit movies stretched one J.R.R. Tolkien book — one that was shorter than any individual Lord of the Rings book — into a bloated trilogy that boasts a longer runtime than the LotR films. It’s a shame because when the Hobbit movies stick to the original story, there are moments of greatness — like Bilbo Baggins' encounter with Smaug, voiced with eloquence and malevolence by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Cumberbatch captures Smaug's ferocity, pride, and cunning with ease, and the special effects are some of the series' best (props to the designers for figuring out a way to give a reptile 'lips' that made animating dialogue not look ridiculous).

In Smaug, Tolkien created an iconic villain, a dragon that all other fantasy beasts owe some debt to. Cumberbatch's performance admirably brings him to life, no need for any of the movies' other extraneous additions.

08. Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise in It (2017) and It: Chapter Two (2019)

It's a testament to Bill Skarsgård skills as an actor that Pennywise the Dancing Clown doesn't come across as too… clownish.

The movie's take on Pennywise is darker, more unhinged and more alien than Tim Curry's in the 1990 miniseries. This Pennywise's bug-eyed stare, uneasy speech, and erratic movements could easily be too much, tipping the scales from scary to silly, but Skarsgård keeps Pennywise lurking in an uncanny valley, ready to gnaw your arm off if you let your guard down.

07. Tilda Swinton as Minister Mason in Snowpiercer (2013)

As the unhinged second-in-command on a dystopian train, Tilda Swinton shows how blurry the line between ridiculous and frightening can be when it comes to rulers.

Swinton reportedly based her performance on Margaret Thatcher, Colonel Gaddafi, Adolf Hitler, and Silvio Berlusconi, and when you take all that into consideration, Minister Mason maybe isn't... as over-the-top as she first seems.

06. Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017)

We're publishing this before Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker hits theaters, but no matter what Ben Solo does to attempt to redeem himself, he'll forever be a villain in our eyes.

Forget killing his own father, Han Solo — you can't blow up multiple planets, killing billions, and get to "balance the scales." And yet, it's this desire for Kylo Ren to be better than this, and an understanding of the scared, insecure little boy he still is inside that makes him such a good villain. He's a tragic example of loss and wasted potential — and he knows it.

05. Tom Hiddleston as Loki in Marvel's The Avengers (2012)

Loki may be more antihero than villain at this point (although the alternate reality version of him who absconded to Disney+ with the Tesseract in Endgame hasn't had any of that character development yet).

Even so, Hiddleston channels his suave charisma into a character who postures confidently because he's deeply insecure. Loki's a great villain because we'd rather watch him be Thor's friend, and it's this same warped desire that drives the trickster god, even if he won't admit it.

04. Bradley Whitford as Dean Armitage in Get Out (2017)

The entire Armitage clan deserves an honorable mention on this list, but Whitford's role as the family patriarch is even more chilling than Allison Williams' deceiving Rose or Catherine Keener's coldly hypnotizing Missy. There's a warped earnestness behind Dean Armitage's appreciation (and horrifying appropriation) of black culture.

When he boasts that he would've voted for Obama for a third time, he sounds like he means it, and he's outwardly affable for pretty much the whole movie. He's a great villain because his evilness is all too familiar and hidden — except if you know where to look, as Jordan Peele does. Then you realize it's been in plain sight the whole time.

03. Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Adrian Toomes' high-tech flight suit is intimidating, what with its massive metal claws and ominous green eyes. Michael Keaton is much, much scarier and more threatening outside of the costume, however.

The scene where he, having put together Peter Parker's secret identity, casually pulls a gun on Peter to threaten him before letting him go join his daughter at Homecoming is one of the tensest moments the MCU has to offer. CGI villains who want world domination can't compete with Michael Keaton — just a blue-collar dad willing to do anything to help his family and himself.

02. Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger in Black Panther (2018)

Was Killmonger right? There's no greater endorsement of Killmonger as a villain than the fact that many people walked away from Black Panther thinking that "the bad guy" had a point. (I'd recommend reading Adam Sewer's incredible piece in The Atlantic, which makes the case that Killmonger's imperialist means were fundamentally flawed and tragically linked with his motivation.)

It helps that Michael B. Jordan is such a commanding presence, conveying Killmonger's pain, rage, and "Hey Aunties" with real pathos. His haunting last words are almost certainly the most profound lines in the entire MCU.

01. Capitalism as itself in Sorry to Bother You (2018), Parasite (2019), and more

As in the real world, one of the biggest villains in cinema in the 2010s was capitalism.

Capitalism's star turn in Sorry to Bother You, where it was responsible for turning workers into genetically modified slaves for the comfort of the 1 percent, was chilling, as was Capitalism's role in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, where it literally drove the underclass underground.

Capitalism also had a supporting role in Snowpiercer, another Bong Joon-ho movie, come to think of it, and Capitalism was also a side villain in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Capitalism also nearly ruined Christopher Robin's life in the Disney movie about Winnie the Pooh's best friend as an adult. Capitalism is the meta-villain behind the whole "Scorsese versus Marvel" blow-up.

Capitalism has so much range, so we're proud to put the trophy for Best Villain of the Decade in its invisible hand.