Villains are a lot more interesting than heroes. Well, they should be, anyway. Not a lot of movies get it right when it comes to bad guys these days. Not even with franchises we’ve celebrated in the past for having iconic adversaries. We got one of the most boring Bond villains in 2015, for instance. And a forgettable central dinosaur in Jurassic World.
In some ways, however, Hollywood seemed to be on a progressive track. This was the first time Marvel actually had some of the best villains of the year, albeit on the studio’s Netflix series, rather than on the big screen (up there they still gave us one of their most mediocre villains yet in Ant-Man’s Yellowjacket). Also, there were many big bads in 2015 that were hilarious without having to be in spoof films and without being character spoofs themselves.
As we see movie villains become more complex or represent real issues in the world, though, it’s hard to spotlight them as favorites in an entertainment sense. In 2015, we saw such systemic adversaries as the Catholic Church and the industry and culture surrounding pro football. We can’t name those the “best” villains anymore than we can include the Indonesian killers from the documentary The Look of Silence, especially not with a numerical ranking.
Before we get to that ranking of the villains who can be treated so lightly, check out a video highlighting an apparent trend this year of movies having female villains. We probably left a few out (forgive me as this is the first attempt at serious video editing I’ve done since 1996, and back then it was all with Betacam decks), because there were too many to remember.
Quite a few of those seen in the above video are among our top 15 of 2015, listed below. You’ll notice this year was strong for appreciating some villains for their appearance above anything else. Hey, it’s a visual medium and we like when villains are cinematic.
15. Ultron (James Spader) in Avengers: Age of Ultron
He may have been shockingly stupid for an AI who’s hooked into the internet, but Ultron’s personality and physical design are enough to keep him from being the usual forgettable MCU villain. Anyway, plenty of bad guys are mentally deficient or have dumb master plans. This one is still enjoyable to watch, primarily thanks to James Spader playing an evil Tony Stark/Iron Man. The only real problem is there’s not enough of him.
14. Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
This villain also has a forgettable scheme, and that’s okay. She’s one of the most alluring and stylish villains we’ve gotten in years. She’s Bond girl and Bond villain, femme fatale and mastermind wrapped in one, and that wrapping is glamorous ’60s fashion. Debicki proves here that if she’d been born earlier she could have been one of Hitchcock’s leading ladies. She’d have been too good for him (like a few actual Hitch stars), just as she’s too good for this movie.
13. Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) in Kingsman: The Secret Service
Jesse Eisenberg’s upcoming portrayal of Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman seems too obvious in its casting as a way of making a comic book villain akin to his own performance as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Jackson’s Valentine is already a great cartoonish take on that tech entrepreneur thing, equally hip and lethal. He’s a much, much, much better Bond villain this year than Christoph Waltz’s in SPECTRE. That Valentine is responsible for the church sequence also makes him one of the most horrendously deadly of the bunch.
12. Trumper (voiced by Omid Djalili) in Shaun the Sheep Movie
Humorously doofy yet genuinely threatening in an escalating manner, animal grabber Trumper is a perfect nemesis to the animated sheep and farmer of Aardman’s latest. To a degree, he is certainly a cliche for his profession. Still, he has a sad back story that isn’t known but can be felt. I believe that he has character development, even if it’s not all laid out. It’s on the screen in the typically brilliant expression Aardman puts into their stop-motion characters.
11. Brinda (Maya Rudolph) in Sisters
There’s very little to Brinda as a character, yet Maya Rudolph makes her stand out through her performance. She needs more fun roles like this. I also like how we get a lot of who she is through the complaints and ridicule of the two main characters, who aren’t very nice people. Brinda isn’t truly an evil woman and probably feels bad about just how much damage she winds up doing. Her judgment is just really fucked up.
10. Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) in Furious 7
Between this and his turn as the dumb spy in Spy, Statham has got to do more comedy. His role in the Fast and Furious sequel isn’t quite comedic on purpose, but it is definitely silly the way he keeps showing up wherever the heroes are – especially since they’re technically trying to find him the whole time anyway. Inspired by a joke from Spy and his performances in that and this have me wanting to see him do a remake of Face/Off where he plays both the Cage and the Travolta roles, and of course then vice versa. Confusing, sure, but also likely brilliant.
9. Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) in Black Mass
Depp’s performance as Bulger may not be any better than anything he’s done in the past decade, but I think he’s always great, it’s just the movies that aren’t. Black Mass is no exception, while being as scattered as others are excessive. He’s still over the top, just more frighteningly so, and he’s a powerful presence in an otherwise ineffective production. He might be the best Dracula, within this part, since Bela Lugosi.
8. Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain) in Crimson Peak
Speaking of old-fashioned gothic monsters, Chastain is absolutely wonderful in Guillermo del Toro’s romantic horror flick. Outside of the production design, she’s the only great reason to see the film. Her villainy comes out of her passion, and that’s always a fantastic and frightening element in a bad guy or woman. You can’t reason with that sort of character but you can possibly empathize with them.
7. Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) in Kingsman: The Secret Service
Gazelle’s blade prosthetics are the coolest, scariest weapons extending from the body since Freddy Krueger’s razor-spewing gloves. That’s how you do a henchman or henchwoman. Never mind giving them any personality or anything like that. They’re tools of the big bad and should feature some element in their costume or otherwise on their person that makes them look and function as such.
6. Shannon Whisnant in Finders Keepers
I wouldn’t normally include a real person on a list of best villains, at least not from a documentary (Depp’s Bulger isn’t completely a portrayal of the real man), but Finders Keepers plays on the idea of villainizing nonfiction film characters by setting Whisnat up as the bad guy – this is a doc made by people behind The King of Kong, after all – before going deeper and more sensitive in its portrayal of him and his adversary in the battle over a prosthetic leg. By the end of the film, if we’ve laughed at or judged him (not necessarily being wrong in doing so), we do wind up with additional perspectives that have us realizing he’s not a good or bad man, and neither is anyone else in the story.
5. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
It’s too early to discuss this character too in depth, but it’s perfect how he’s handled, with his mask on and off. There’s a lot in the villainy of Kylo Ren that is steeped in Star Wars tradition but also a lot that is very understandably new in the approach and portrayal. I do wish, however, that the mask didn’t so often look like a duck bill when looked at straight on.
4. Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) in Inside Out
Sadness a villain? In the context of the story, she sure is. She’s Joy’s nemesis from the start and like many villains isn’t aware she’s so bad. And like many villains, her complexity is explored enough that she becomes a hero by the end, albeit again without her effort. She is the embodiment of sadness in a little girl, and if that’s not symbolically evil on a surface level than you’re not thinking about Inside Out as much as it’s begging for you to.
3. Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) in Spy
There possibly hasn’t been a funnier villain, male or female, in a movie that’s not lampooning something. No, not every spy comedy is a spy spoof. This is simply a hilarious spy movie, one with so many extremely humorous performances (Miranda Hart tragically being the most under-appreciated) that the fact that Byrne stands out is a big deal. As a villain within her story she kind of sucks, but for the movie audience she’s a treasure.
2. Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) in Mad Max: Fury Road
More than anyone in the new Star Wars movie, including Kylo Ren, this guy is the closest thing to a new Darth Vader we’ve gotten in decades. He’s probably more despicable as a person, but characters like this aren’t supposed to be looked at in a realistic sense. He’s an imaginatively conceived and portrayed monster both genuinely menacing and amusingly cartoonish at the same time. He’s by far the most memorable villain of the year.
1. Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) in Cinderella
If costumes alone were all one needed for an iconic villain, Blanchett’s wicked stepmother would already be an equal of Immortan Joe, just not with such fantastical dress. Blanchett is also one of the greatest actresses of our time, though, and puts more into this live-action adaptation of a classic Disney animated villain than is necessary. She’s over the top and deliciously so. She’s like Depp in how she obviously has a lot of fun but also takes a lot of care in Performance, with a capital ‘p.’ Her best hamming, too, comes through great inspiration that is particularly enjoyable to those of us who see the source. For her Lady Tremaine, Blanchett goes for a combination of Joyce Carol and Joan Crawford. Does anyone really care about Cinderella in this fairy tale when someone like Blanchett has so much command of the screen?