Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.
In this week’s installment, we’re saluting the actors who are very good at being bad. People flock to comic-book movies to cheer on the costumed crimefighters — there’s a reason they’re called superhero films, after all — but these stories are often only as great as the villains they confront. A fantastic bad guy forces the hero to dig deeper and risk more in order to save the day — and sometimes, he can also expose something dark and troubling within the good guy, which only adds to the drama and fireworks. With that in mind, here are our Top 5 greatest villain performances in a superhero film.
Ian McKellen, Magneto
In the 20th century, Sir Ian McKellen was merely a celebrated Shakespearean actor, a formidable presence of both stage and screen. But in the last 20 years, his career has been radically reinvented. Many know and love him as the wise, warm wizard Gandalf of Peter Jackson’s J. R. R. Tolkien adventures, but he’s just as memorable as the snide nemesis to Patrick Stewart’s Professor X in the X-Men films.
Starting with 2000’s X-Men, McKellen has brought a sinister, slightly haughty edge to his portrayal of Magneto, who wants nothing more than to wipe out humanity and prove to Charles Xavier that his faith in people is utterly misguided. His English accent conveying contempt and intellect, McKellen plays Magneto as the most self-satisfied of all bad guys, eternally pleased with his own superiority and lording his potent mutant powers over everyone in sight. There’s a flair to Magneto’s evil that McKellen paraded in four X-Men movies — most recently in 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past — that left no doubt that the veteran actor was having a ball. Michael Fassbender is a fine performer, and he’s done a decent McKellen impression in the prequels, but he can’t duplicate the master’s regal presence.
Michelle Pfeiffer, Catwoman
Catwoman is often the villain who reluctantly ends up teaming with Batman in the end – before of course slinking back to her own story afterward – but Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in Batman Returns was such a powerful character that she damned near wipes out everyone else in the movie. (Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito and Christopher Walken are all wonderful actors, but you keep waiting for them to leave the screen so Catwoman can come back.)
Pfeiffer’s Selena Kyle is at first demure and scared, but Pfeiffer makes sure you see the fire flickering just beneath, and when she emerges as Catwoman, whip snapping, claws bared, you don’t realize just what you’re reckoning with until it’s too late. The final Tim Burton Batman movie is weird and a little bit crazy, but deep down, it’s about scared, lonely people trying to connect and trying to understand their power and place in this world. Pfeiffer is formidable, sexy and unstoppable.
Gene Hackman, Lex Luthor
The most inspired thing about Hackman’s portrayal of Lex Luthor is how sneaky he is. At many points, Hackman’s Luthor is buffoonish, a cartoon character you can’t help but laugh at. But he’s sort of counting on that: while you’re underestimating him, he’s taking over Australia and damn near blowing up half the world. Hackman is the rare actor who can be comedic and dangerous at the same time, and Luthor is a versatile enough villain that he can either destroy you himself or wait until aliens visit the planet and wait for them to do it so he can pick up the pieces. You laugh at Hackman’s Luthor … until, suddenly, you don't.
Terence Stamp, General Zod
Imagining the pitch meeting for the first Superman sequel is quite a trip. So there are three aliens from Superman’s planet and they’re all dressed in black leather and one of them doesn’t talk and they're led by a sneering Eurosnob with Freddie Mercury facial hair.
The key to making Stamp’s General Zod so formidable, and so immortal, is that, honestly, he thinks taking over Earth is sort of a dumb job that’s completely beneath him. Just the way he says “humans” drips with contempt; this place isn’t even worth his time. Even the way he taunts his enemies, demanding they kneel before him, oozes superiority; he does his best to amuse himself with these humans, but they make it so hard. Terence Stamp plays Zod as the all-powerful omnipotent being he is, and the way one probably would be if one were to exist: sort of over it. Oh, also: he has the powers of Superman. OK, OK, we’re kneeling, we’re kneeling!
Heath Ledger, The Joker
Batman fans are very particular about their favorite portrayal of Joker. Some stand for Cesar Romero’s campy, creepy turn in the original TV series. Others insist that Jack Nicholson perfected the role by mixing bug-eyed insanity and a dark sense of humor in Tim Burton’s big-screen Batman. And there are folks who gravitate to Mark Hamill’s underrated, lunatic portrayal in the 1990s animated series.
But with all due respect to those different factions of passionate supporters, come on: It has to be Heath Ledger. Batman’s greatest villain received his most indelible depiction in 2008’s The Dark Knight, which pit the Joker against a Batman (Christian Bale) who was wondering if it’s time to hang up the cape. As played by Ledger, the Joker is a nightmare presence free of morals, ethics or even logic — as Michael Caine’s Alfred warns Bruce Wayne, he’s a man who just wants to watch the world burn, and there’s no rationalizing with a force of nature like that.
Prior to The Dark Knight, Ledger was one of his generation’s most compelling stars and respected actors, receiving an Oscar nomination for his tender, troubled performance in Brokeback Mountain. Three years later, the sweetness and sensitivity were wiped clean, replaced with only the Joker’s unholy menace and wicked glee. It’s been 10 years since Ledger’s tragic death, and that time has done nothing to blunt the razor-sharp impact of his turn in The Dark Knight, which deservedly won him an Academy Award. No matter how many times you see the film, he terrifies and amazes you all over again. It’s a work of art.