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Big bads of the big screen

| Friday, April 21, 2023

You know who they are: the big bads, the villains, the ne’er-do-wells.

This character is a quintessential role in storytelling, the antithesis of everything the protagonist stands for. Ranging from devious masterminds to deranged sociopaths, the movies have fabricated some of the greatest villains of all time. I invite you to join me as I count down my list of the top-five “big bads” of the big screen.

5. Hans Gruber

“Die Hard” was a breakthrough film in the action genre, thanks in no small part to Alan Rickman. The antagonist of an action movie has to have a palpable energy that captures the audience. Rickman manages to make us love his presence on the screen, even as a murderous terrorist. Hans Gruber is a dapper, greedy sociopath… Really, what more can we ask for from a heist movie? 

4. The shark from “Jaws”

I think this pick goes without saying. The shark from “Jaws” is the star of the original summer blockbuster. “Jaws” plays with the innate fear the human brain has for these vicious aquatic creatures.

What makes this character so scary when compared to the others on this list is that it’s not a person. The shark doesn’t have feelings or a backstory or any redeeming qualities. It is just a murderous, soulless beast.

The entire film builds tension around just the mere idea of entering the water for fear of being mauled by a man-eating shark. The creature is so intimidating, in fact, that as much as you remember the shark and how scary and vicious it was, the actual shark only has about four minutes of screen time. The idea of something being so terrifying that it carries fear throughout the entire movie, but actually only being seen in the final scenes, speaks volumes to the weight that this movie villain has.

3. Darth Vader

I would wager this role is among the most recognizable bad guys in all of cinema. From the moment he is introduced, this character brings a commanding, foreboding, fear-inspiring presence to the movie, as suits his reputation. Anakin Skywalker could have single-handedly ended the Separatist Movement, but instead opted to topple the Galactic Empire’s entire government, commit innumerable murders and war crimes and attempt to murder his own son. Above that, throughout the movies and series, Anakin has been shown to be an incredible strategist, pilot and Jedi, making him all that more terrifying as a Sith Lord. Darth Vader has the highest kill count of any of these villains by an astronomical amount, going so far as to destroy an entire planet.

2. Colonel Hans Landa

Now, I think we can all agree that you can’t get much more evil than a Nazi.

But Christoph Waltz takes evil to a whole new level, becoming the true big bad in “Inglourious Basterds,” a movie that has Hitler as a character. Landa’s intelligence and strategy make him a formidable opponent.

What is scarier to me is that he is “the Jew Hunter” because he is ”good at it” — not even because of twisted morals or beliefs, but for sport. He views others as insects and plays games with them, a master of psychological warfare.

The unsettlingly calm tone Waltz brings to the character shows that Landa is always three steps ahead. The first scene alone sets him up as a remorseless genius who enjoys watching people squirm when caught in his net. I would argue this makes him despicable in a way no others on this list are. He doesn’t seem to want anything more, just pure sociopathic primal competition. 

Honorable Mentions

Before I reveal the greatest movie villain of all time, I’d like to give a shoutout to a few other incredible movie villains that didn’t quite make the list. My honorable mentions, in no particular order, are: the Wicked Witch (“The Wizard of Oz”), Keyser Söze (“The Usual Suspects”), Blofeld (nine “James Bond” movies), the Terminator, Sauron (“The Lord of the Rings”) and Amon Goeth (“Schindler’s List”).

1. The Joker

And finally, coming in at number one (to no one’s surprise) is Heath Ledger’s absolutely legendary Joker. Ledger was absolutely phenomenal, bringing to life one of the most infamous comic book characters of all time. The Joker is purely psychopathic.

He doesn’t want money or power. All he wants is fear, to “watch the world burn.”

There is something so strangely charming and attention-grabbing about the Joker. He is devious and likes testing people’s characters, trying to prove the inherent evil in the world. The Joker is the quintessential movie villain. He wants nothing. He loves nothing. He is simply chaos.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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