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Near the end of The Incredibles, Syndrome — who’s been hyperaware of the ruinous trope — is caught monologuing. It’s not his downfall, but he’s also not one of the smartest movie villains. He simply knows the usual hamartia. You might call it pride, you may laugh at it, but the monologue is an important part of understanding where a villain is coming from and revealing all the gory details of a complex plan. At the least, it’s almost a narrative necessity for a movie that focuses solely on the hero.
The thing is, intelligence is not a pre-requisite for being a movie villain. It actually doesn’t even seem to be that important when you dig through all the mustache-twirlers out there. Even menacing baddies like Voldemort aren’t particularly smart, just evil and nose-less.
Is also isn’t all about getting away with it. That’s definitely a nice touch, but the key to an intelligent villain is creating a deeply involved plan that works (or would work) despite an impressive counter-force. Simply put, a smart villain demands a smart hero.
10. Tom Ripley
If you’re going to steal someone’s identity, make sure it’s someone with an insane amount of money and free time. Ripley is a devious mind whose showiest acrobatic skill is his ability to mimic people who he’s only just met. He’s also fairly adept at covering his tracks, manipulating others and creating plausible alternative realities to sell to anyone who grows suspicious.
The only reason he’s not higher up on the list is that he relies too much on improvisation (although grace under fire is itself a useful trick). For Ripley, that jazz takes shape in the form of bludgeoning heads. A smarter villain would have kept a far lower profile, and probably wouldn’t have resorted to as much violence.
On the other side of the coin, there’s a madman like Jigsaw in the Saw films, who plans so far ahead that his machinations fall into place even after he’s been laid into the ground. For what it’s worth, he’d be on this list, too, if the later movies didn’t make him dumber and dumber and dumber as they saw fit. For Ripley, he proved himself with some excellent gambits, but it all amounted to a mental joyride with an inevitable outcome.
9. Catherine Tramell
The fact that men often think with their southbrains isn’t part of advanced physics or anything, but Catherine Tramell exploits that in some outstandingly interesting ways in Basic Instinct. She breaks rules, she hides out in the open and all but announces to the police that she’s an insane murderer, yet she still manages to get away with everything. She also manages to fool our brutalized hero into killing perhaps the one person who loved him, and she remains on top at the end.
She uses her fair share of improvisation, too, but so much of her plan is so bizarrely premeditated that it creates a fake rabbit hole for Nick to tumble down. A hunter who knows her prey, she tells him to his face that she’ll end up killing him…and he still wants to have sex with her. You might think Nick is stupid (and he’s definitely uneven), but he’s clearly an accomplished detective with significant skills. That’s exactly why he makes a better mouse to play with then her rock star ex-boyfriend (and why that’s the story we ultimately get to see).
8. The Joker
For this, we’ll look to the Dark Knight incarnation. Cesar Romero’s version was wildly entertaining (and cackle-y!), but not exactly smart. Meanwhile, Ledger’s human tornado seems to be several steps ahead of the world’s greatest detective and the entirety of Gotham PD. Even when they set an overly elaborate, death-faking, identity-swapping plot to capture him, he adds even more complexity to the mix by 1) knowing about it and 2) using it to wreak havoc inside the jail.
Yes, he ultimately ends up hanging by Batman’s thread, but even then he remains zen about it — like going to the insane asylum is no big deal because there wasn’t going to be anything good on TV later anyway. He’s crazy intelligent, and he sticks to his nihilistic guns — which is more than you can say for most villains whose philosophies go out the window once money or power entrap them.
7. Eleanor Iselin
Perhaps one of the most impressive cogs in a larger assassination machine, Iselin has to keep a lot of plates in the air to get the queen of hearts to kill the presidential nominee. For the most part, she does everything right, even as Marco becomes an inquisitive thorn in her side.
This is a desperately intricate plan — brainwash a bad soldier, brainwash his colleagues to think he’s a hero, push your husband to the top of the party rank, then get your assassin son to kill the presumed party nominee so that your popular husband will be able to run for president, thus allowing you to pull strings behind the scenes.
Keeping all of that straight takes a formidable mind and a deck of powerful playing cards. In the end, communism wasn’t a red herring. Thanks, Mr. Green.
6. Miranda Priestly
You don’t rise to the kind of prominent position Priestly achieves without proving yourself more capable, cunning and intelligent than your enemies. The question with something as subjective as fashion (or taste) is if convincing people that you’re toweringly bright or tricking people into thinking it actually proves your high level of intelligence. Try not to injure yourself with that one.
She’s also sharp as a tack on a minute-to-minute basis and uses her brainpower for pure, unadulterated douchebaggery. Then again, she’s the leader of an empire whose offhand scoff could mean the movement of millions, so maybe being a dick comes with the territory. Plus, more than most other villains, she’s able to maintain her hold on power for decades.
5. Hans Landa
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Wait for the cream, here’s a baddie who was not only sharp enough to detect the presence of state enemies throughout the country, he was clever enough to spot a golden opportunity and take it.
Imagine that for a moment. You’re middle management for a currently strong military power who has seized control of most of Europe, there’s no obvious sign that your influence is on the downswing, and yet when you stumble upon a truly moronic scheme to take your side down, you agree to help destroy your own leadership instead of exacting revenge on a pitiful insurgency.
That takes unbelievable foresight, and Landa thinks of every single detail when negotiating his surrender. Except for trusting a guy who can’t pronounce any Italian words correctly. Shopping at the local grocery in Nantucket is probably going to be tough with that swastika-shaped scar. Still, even as tragically deserved as it is, that doesn’t take away from the brainpower it took to shift from one position to the next in a treacherous game of chess.
4. Oliver and Cheryl Lang
The couple from Arlington Road are like Mrs. Iselin and Hans Landa if they both got away without any consequences whatsoever. You may think their goals were convoluted, but they get away with a heinous crime — the explosive death of hundreds at an FBI facility — and manage to blame it on the guy who’s been hunting them.
Outsmarting the smart. It takes initiative, impeccable thinking and the ability to rent a van.
What’s more, this isn’t the only time they’ve pulled it off. Not only are they the rare example of terrorists in movies who get away with evil, they do it through sheer force of will and incredible planning (not giant muscles or a load of henchmen). And they do it more than once. They might even still be out there.
3. Hannibal Lecter
Let’s all laugh at the people who thought they could hold Hannibal Lecter in a makeshift prison inside what looks like a Holiday Inn ballroom. It’s also hilarious to see how giving him food required placing themselves inside his cell. Inside. Because that seemed safe, right?
We can chalk some of it up to stupid guards, but there’s no doubt that Lecter is a true man of evil genius (cue the song). To wit: he had to have sat in his cell listening to Brahms and thinking, “After I take out the guards, I’ll cut one of their faces off to wear…yes…this is shaping up nicely.”
Using your enemies to help you escape is a classic smarter-than-thou move, but adding “Wear a Dude’s Face” to your to-do list is a mark of pure (mad) brilliance.
2. Verbal Kint
Yes, we’ve reached a point where getting away with things is a big part of the puzzle. After all, being smarter than most villains is pretty easy, but being smarter than the heroes is a tall order in a world that loves happy endings.
He even outsmarts the audience, and Bryan Singer managed to outsmart all of his lead actors — forcing them to each think they were Keyser Soze.
Now here’s what will really bake your noodle: is Verbal or “Kobayashi” the real Soze? The faxed-in artist’s sketch looks like generic bald guy, and they both definitely drive off into the sunset at the end.
1. HAL 9000
Sorry, humans. There are some genuinely brilliant meatsacks doing dirty deeds, but HAL 9000 has far superior memory and computing power.
Granted, Eagle Eye is proof that “being a computer” isn’t enough to earn a top spot here (because behind every smart machine is potentially stupid screenwriting), but our pal the Heuristically programmed Algorithmic computer is beyond human comprehension.
Even more, his downfall had nothing to with his brain. It was really his lack of arms, legs and general mobility.
The point? Go humans!
Correction: A previous version of this post referred to him as “Verbal Kent” instead of “Verbal Kint”. Our apologies. Verbal Kent is nowhere near as smart.