Here at SYFY WIRE, it’s no secret that we enjoy celebrating the things that we love. Sometimes that takes the form of unranked lists. To us, that’s love.
Join us as our entire staff celebrates anything and everything in genre through our series of “25 Greatest from the last 25 years” lists. They are all unranked, because all of the people, movies, shows, comics, props (and so on) have equal standing for us.
No story of heroes is any good without an awesome villain to counteract them. Luckily for us, genre gives us the vast majority of the best villains in history. Over the last 25 years we’ve seen villains that laugh, use the Force, rise from the grave, and rule with an iron fist. And, honestly? Sometimes the bad guys and gals are more interesting than the hero. With that said, here are our 25 favorite love-to-hate villains from the last 25 years.
Kai Winn Adami – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
A Bajoran religious zealot, Winn's stories are one of the few times Star Trek got really deeply into the spiritual beliefs of an extraterrestrial race. Winn believes the ends justify the means. Couple that with a Machiavellian nature, a compelling performance by Louise Fletcher and a big impact on the show as a whole, and we were hooked. Also, she won more often than she lost and wore great hats, which just ups her appeal.
The Borg – Star Trek: First Contact
Star Trek has encountered a LOT of alien races over the various movies and TV shows in the franchise, but few are as chilling as the Borg. They are a cybernetic humanoid race stripped of all humanity -- led by a queen who looks like the product of H.R. Giger doing drugs at a bondage convention. Their cold calculation and lack of emotion make them infuriatingly addictive.
Catwoman – DC Comics, Various films, Series, Games
Catwoman is sometimes a villain, sometimes a hero, sometimes an antihero, and always looking out for number one. Her journey over the last quarter century very much mimics Joker’s, hitting hard across multiple media and always giving us a slightly more morally ambiguous take on Batman. But damn if Catwoman doesn't always look like she's having FUN, whether breaking into a penthouse or buying litter for her multiple cats (P.S. her apartment probably smells). How can you not love someone who drops lines like "Batman knocked me off a building just as I was starting to feel good about myself"? Leaving Batman at the altar (in the comics) didn’t exactly endear her to us, but she was somewhat tricked there. We’ll let it go.
Doctor Doom – Marvel Comics
While Doom may not yet have reached big screens in a way that satisfies many comic book fans, he’s still one of the best characters on the printed page. His bravado, intelligence, and brash, overwhelming sense of pride take egotism to a new level, but it is definitely his color (as is green). We’ve seen Doom in recent years destroy and reshape the entire multiverse, skin his love and wear her flesh as armor, send a child to Hell … and somehow come out the other end of it all redeemed. Seriously. And we STILL like him.
The Joker – DC Comics, Various films, Series, Games
The last 25 years have been incredible to The Joker, Batman’s #1 foe. From Batman: The Animated Series to the Arkham games to Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight to comics (particularly stories from Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo) to a whole horde of other media, he's become entwined into the fabric of our culture.
No matter what story in whichever medium, the Joker is nuts. And that insanity, with its reckless chaos and ambigious motivations, makes him terrifying. He's the complete antithesis to the uber-logical Batman -- the yin to his yang, the light to his dark. And proof that evil delivered with a smile is always best.
Daleks – Doctor Who
EXTERMINATE! If we didn’t include the Daleks, they’d probably just jump right out of the screen and start screaming that word at us. At first glance, they’re such a silly villain. Basically upside-down trash cans with a plunger attached that don’t say much more than that first word, you’d be forgiven for laughing at them at first. But when you see the pure hatred they have for the Doctor, and really, for anything that’s not Dalek, they become much scarier. And cooler.
Kingpin – Daredevil on Netflix and Marvel Comics
The Kingpin, Wilson Fisk, is right there alongside Loki as arguably the best villain in the entire MCU, and definitely the best from the television arm. His nuance and ability to assess situations -- he always looks like he’s calculating your next 50 moves before you even know you’re going to do 10 -- makes him dangerous. He’s also ruthlessly violent when he needs to be, in case you forgot the car door incident. But he's also capable of doing good (remember how, in the comics, he saved New York while trapped in the Dark Dimension?). We hoped that the king would rise again in Daredevil Season 3, and boy did he ever.
Cersei Lannister – Game of Thrones
Cersei is a sociopathic narcissist who loves power. Better, she NEEDS power and is convinced that the world needs HER to be in power (because no one can rule better. Obviously). For Cersei, to breathe is to manipulate. While there's something incredibly entertaining in watching a deplorable person carry out deceitful actions with flair (see: drinking wine like a boss while the sept blew up), Cersei's real power is her perseverance. The Game of Thrones is tough. She was tougher. Not as tough as a pile of Red Keep rubble, but still pretty tough.
Joffrey Baratheon – Game of Thrones
Seeing Joffrey choke to death, poisoned on his wedding day, was a supremely satisfying moment for Game of Thrones fans, though the gruesomeness of it all made it slightly less so. Still, this inbred, entitled brat who tortured animals and people, treated everyone like they were below him, and had absolutely zero chance of ever being anything even approaching a competent ruler 100% had a terrible death coming to him. And it was glorious.
Benjamin Linus – Lost
This one’s controversial. There are definitely people who would argue that Ben Linus wasn’t simply a villain – was never a villain – even though he was indisputably the antagonist of at least the second and third seasons. His calm demeanor was often terrifying, and his complexities, especially those revealed in one of the best episodes of the entire series, “The Man Behind the Curtain,” gave him possibly the most depth of any character on the show. Ben's mastery of manipulation means you never 100% know where his true motives lie. He keeps all of us on our toes -- and we wouldn't have it any other way.
Draco Malfoy – Harry Potter
Harry’s chief rival -- or at least he perceived himself to be -- Draco rarely succeeded in being much more than a nuisance to Potter and his pals, even when he finally pledged himself to the Dark Lord. You never knew whether to hate him, pity him, understand him, or just want to ignore him, and that made him a great villain. Usually, he wound up just pushing Harry, Hermione, and Ron in the right direction in spite of himself, and they ended up with at least a grudging respect, if not some semblance of friendship.
Humanity – Everything
Yeah, us. We're basically the bad guy in 90% of sci-fi (the villains in The Walking Dead aren't zombies. It's other people). So, yeah, we suck. But also we're awesome. So there.
The Master – Doctor Who
As much as The Doctor wants to save all life and protect time and space, The Master wants to rule and control it. He takes the title of “Time Lord” a little too seriously -- he thinks he should be using his abilities and the technology of his people to rule. What makes this character -- basically a walking, talking id -- so great is that he and the doctor are two side of the same coin; they're both renegades who are fervent in their beliefs. Just one's sort of more evil. Also, the Master's accent always sounds better because doing bad things always sound better if you're Scottish.
Malcolm Merlyn – Arrow
The doppelganger villain may get slightly overused in comic book adaptations, but in the case of Arrow it can be forgiven, as more John Barrowman is never a bad thing. His Malcolm Merlyn isn’t singularly evil, he’s not always entirely selfish, and he doesn’t even necessarily want Oliver Queen dead. That’s what makes him so effective, as he genuinely believes he’s always doing the right thing, even if it is only right for him or his interests. Sadly, this is one villain we probably won’t be seeing more of, at least for the time being.
Moriarty – Star Trek: The Next Generation
A 19th-century villain known primarily as the archnemesis of Sherlock Holmes, Professor James Moriarty is a bit out of place on a starship. However, an AI version of Moriarty, programmed for the holodeck, makes perfect sense. Star Trek: The Next Generation's Moriarty is so advanced that he gains sentience and succeeds in taking over the Enterprise in an effort to escape virtual life. It’s a truly inventive use of a public domain character, and a fascinating early look at AI. Though Moriarty has been portrayed very well on other modern takes on Sherlock Holmes, this use of him was brilliant; through placing a 19th-century character in a 24th-century setting, the true (evil) genius of the character was on display.
Negan – The Walking Dead comics and TV
What makes Negan so terrifying is he so rarely actually loses it or truly gets angry. Instead, Negan is just fully confident that his way is the right way to survive in the post-apocalypse world, and he’s willing to kill anyone to make that happen. It’s just a simple transaction to him, really. The scariest part? It really works, for quite a while. Also, Negan has turned swearing into an art form, and his best friend is a barbed-wired baseball bat named Lucille.
Sheev Palpatine, Darth Sidious – Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy and The Clone Wars
Operating entirely in the shadows for most of the original Star Wars trilogy, we got to truly meet Darth Sidious in the prequels and the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Here we saw not just a cartoonish old man, but a truly conniving villain. He played the long game, manipulating and running both sides of a war as the leader of both armies, corrupting the Jedi from within the entire time, and no one figured it out until it was too late. On The Clone Wars, he also had one of the top 3 lightsaber/Force fights of the series when he came to find his old apprentice Darth Maul, and his brother Savage Oppress. Here, we saw just how deadly and powerful Sidious really was.
Penguin – Gotham
Yeah, Batman has some great villains, doesn’t he? While Gotham has done an incredible job with their interpretations of Joker, the Riddler, and more, no star shines as brightly as Robin Lord Taylor’s Penguin. He’s unquestioningly evil, and can equally chew scenery, share a quiet moment, or go absolutely berserk. His resilience – he’s been put through more and nearly killed more than anyone else on the show – is ever-impressive, as well. Truly, this has been the definitive version of the character in multimedia.
Kylo Ren – Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Kylo Ren is more complex than he may seem on the surface. Rather than struggling to turn away from villainy as many tragic villains have in the past, he’s struggling to remain on the dark side of the Force. He feels the light calling, pulling him back, but he’s convinced the dark side is the only way to get what he (and Supreme Leader Snoke) wants. His fits of rage, and his super cool Force freeze power don’t hurt his appeal, either. He loses his mind completely in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, uttering his iconic refrain of “Let the past die, kill it if you have to.” In case his brutal murder of Han Solo didn’t convince you that he was bad news, perhaps his insta-coup of the entire First Order did.
Rita Repulsa – Power Rangers
Any child of the 90s needs no explanation for why Ms. Repulsa is on this list. Those not familar with the television show might be confused why this alien witch person who is played by one actress (well, two played her in the TV show) while (poorly) dubbed by another would be included. See the words "poorly dubbed" from the last sentence for the entire reason why. Anyway, Rita is always scheming and trying to take over the world, always failing, and it's the best. Props to Elizabeth Banks for having fun with the role in the 2017 movie and giving us the greatest scene in cinematic history involving a donut, but 90s Rita is where it's at.
Agent Smith – The Matrix
“Mr. Anderson.” Who knew just addressing someone by name could be so powerful? It was in the mouth of Agent Smith, who served to show us what an unstoppable force in the Matrix could be, until Neo managed to supplant even that. Still, Agent Smith’s casual demeanor in constantly returning to stop Neo and his cohorts is just plain fun to watch, as frustrating as it surely was for the characters.
Spike – Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Woah, Spike fans, take a step back, and put down the pitch forks. Yes, Spike definitely had his redemption arc and became the hero in the end, but yes, he was also a really terrible villain for several years, first. He killed Slayers, terrorized Buffy and her family, and the people of Sunnydale in general. But his ultimate desire to be better and do better was what made him so compelling. His obsession turned into love, his selfishness turned into sacrifice, and Spike became all the better for it.
Thanos – Marvel Cinematic Universe
Thanos is incredibly smug, and he loves to sneer through a monologue. Though Loki used to appear on this list, he proved to be more chaotic neutral than true villain. Thanos, on the other hand, is nothing but big bad. A big bad who isn’t wrong, either— the resources of this universe are not infinite, and pretty much everything is doomed. Still, wiping out half of existence with one snap is an awful way to fix things. He sees himself as the ultimate hero making the ultimate sacrifice, and that just makes him so worthy of our anger. It also makes him utterly entrancing to watch.
Darth Vader – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Okay, so first you might be saying "Wait, your rules are that the villains in question had to be from the last 25 years. Vader was in the original trilogy." True - except that he was ALSO in Rogue One. With that rule out of away, the last 10 minutes or so of the film, which saw Darth Vader in a live-action rampage unlike anything we’d ever experienced, was AWESOME. This was Vader unleashed, using Force chokes and throws, stabbing and slicing with this lightsaber, and just releasing every bit of his fury. Honorable mention to Vader in Star Wars Rebels, too, where he fought two young Jedi as if he was swatting gnats, and had an epic battle with his former apprentice, Ahsoka Tano.
Venom – Spider-Man comics
While created in the 1980s, Venom came into his own in the 90s and 2000s. Fluctuating between all-out villain and “Lethal Protector” for years, Venom and the nature of the symbiote has been nearly constantly reinvented, even spending time as a full-on heroic super soldier attached to Flash Thompson. Still, it always ultimately comes back to Eddie Brock, who with the symbiote shows off what Spider-Man and The Punisher would be if they merged (with a dose of the Hulk for good measure). Also Venom just looks cool. That counts for a lot. Tom Hardy brought out Venom's heroic side in his solo movie, but you can tell that this symbiote is just itching to truly break bad.
These were OUR choices. What did we miss? Be sure to sound off in the comments about the villains YOU love to hate from the last 25 years.
And be sure to check out all of our "25 Greatest" lists here.