Warner Bros. recently announced an aggressive slate of films based upon DC Comics properties which will share a single cinematic universe, an answer to the successful franchise which Marvel Studios has built since 2008’s Iron Man. The DC slate opens with 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and will continue the same year with Suicide Squad, which director David Ayer recently described as “The Dirty Dozen with supervillains.”
In the comics, the Suicide Squad boasts DC’s B-list villains, characters like Deadshot and Captain Boomerang. However, if rumors now circulating prove true, the cinematic interpretation of Suicide Squad may boast A-list villains like Lex Luthor and the Joker. Reports claim that bombshell actress Margot Robbie has been cast as Harley Quinn, and that Oscar-winner Jared Leto is in talks to play Joker.
In any case, the roster of DC Comics villains portrayed in live-action film is about to explode. Before that happens, let’s consider where the existing rogues gallery ranks. Here are the top 10 cinematic portrayals of DC Comics villains.
#10. Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow
When it was announced that Christopher Nolan would be rebooting the Batman franchise years after Joel Schumacher piloted it into the ground, no one could have predicted how definitive the result would become. Among the bold moves made in re-imagining the property was featuring lesser known villains, including the Scarecrow.
Actor Cillian Murphy took what could have easily been a camp character and grounded him in a believable reality. Dr. Jonathan Crane served a vital narrative purpose befitting his nature as a criminal psychologist obsessed with fear. Fear stood as the dominant theme in Batman Begins, as Bruce Wayne turned his fear against the criminals holding an unholy grip upon Gotham City.
#9. Tom Hardy’s Bane
Tom Hardy’s growth as an actor has been stunning. Recall, this was the virtual unknown who played a younger clone of Jean-Luc Picard in the final film featuring The Next Generation cast. He came into Christopher Nolan’s orbit to be cast in Inception, and soon found himself tapped to play Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.
The stylistic choice to distort Bane’s voice in that peculiar way divided audiences on whether it was silly or menacing. But Hardy’s performance can’t be faulted. His physical dominance and casual swagger convey a villainy wholly unconcerned with resistance.
#8. Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck
Batman Returns introduced an entire generation to the work of Christopher Walken. His trademark mannerisms translated perfectly to the vile, dismissive, and murderous Max Schreck. True, Shreck was an original character created specifically for Batman Returns who never appeared in the comics. Nevertheless, he stands as one of the best villains portrayed in a DC Comics films. It’s easy to overlook, in a story featuring both Danny DeVito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, that Shreck is the primary villain. Shreck created Catwoman! He manipulates everyone around him without the slightest hesitation or regret, exhibiting next to no redeeming qualities aside from an intermittent concern for his son.
#7. Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul
Nolan pulled a fast one on audiences in Batman Begins, officially casting well-known Japanese actor Ken Watanabe as “Ra’s al Ghul.” The big-name casting proved an effective means of theatricality and deception, concealing from audiences that the real Ra’s was Bruce Wayne’s mentor Ducard, played by Liam Neeson.
The twist reveal of Neeson as al Ghul instantly raised the film’s stakes. Now, Bruce was confronted by his former master, along with the might of the League of Shadows. Instead of organized crime, Bruce now found himself struggling to keep the Devil’s Head from destroying Gotham City.
#6. Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor
The greatest criminal mind of our time! Sure, Hackman was pure camp as Lex Luthor in the original Superman films. This was a comic book villain in the old school sense of the term, evil for evil’s sake, maniacal to the point of madness, and wholly self-aware. But Hackman nailed it. He owned the character and filled every scene with contagious enthusiasm. He was likeable. You almost felt sorry for him when he lost. But the portrayal never failed to convey the menace which Luthor presents. This was a man who would stop at nothing to demonstrate his intellectual superiority, even if it meant killing hundreds of millions of people in the process.
#5. Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian
There may be some debate over whether Watchmen’s Comedian proves a legitimate villain. Then again, that’s Watchmen’s charm, its shades of grey. There are no clear good guys or bad guys, just complicated people dealing with a dark hyper-reality.
In the final analysis though, it’s fair to consider any character who attempts to rape someone a villain. So we shall.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan deserves a better career than he’s had since this portrayal. It’s difficult to present a compelling and even sympathetic portrayal of a violent, murderous rapist. But Morgan pulled it off.
#4. Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey “Two-Face”
He got that great line, featured in one of The Dark Knight’s trailers. “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” It foreshadowed the demise and dark rebirth of Harvey Dent, from white knight defender of Gotham City to the corrupted visage of Two-Face.
It takes a capable actor to convincingly juggle the psychological complexity of a split personality. Enabled by an incredible script, Eckhart made us believe that a good man could become so disillusioned with the system that he would abandon all principle and substitute raw chance for justice.
#3. Jack Nicholson’s Joker
We have Tim Burton to thank for the resurrection of the comic book film. After the third and forth Superman films, which grew increasing ridiculous the further they got from Richard Donner’s influence, Hollywood was reluctant to invest in similar properties. Burton put comics back on the map with 1989’s Batman, and the vicious portrayal of the Joker by Jack Nicholson had a lot to do with it.
Up to that point, most people’s image of the Joker was painted by Cesar Romero’s 1966 portrayal, jovial and campy. Nicholson instilled the Clown with horror. He was bad enough as the gangster Jack Napier. After a chemical bath and a botched facial surgery, a new madness took over and accentuated his murderous tendencies.
#2. Terence Stamp’s General Zod
With apologies to Michael Shannon, there will never be a Zod like Terence Stamp. The original Kryptonian super-villain, fugitive of the Phantom Zone and would-be conqueror of Earth, Stamp managed to convey greater menace while attacking a small Texas town than did Shannon while wiping out half of Metropolis. There’s just no topping that measured tone, that piercing glaze, all punctuated by the booming demand to “Kneel before Zod!”
Man of Steel really wasted the character, working too hard to humanize him. The whole point of Zod is to present a stark contrast to Superman, to answer the question: what would someone with no conscience do with these powers? For Shannon’s Zod, his Kryptonian abilities were an afterthought as he agonized over restoring his lost planet. Hello, you can fly and punch through mountains, and all you can think about is terraforming? Yawn.
#1. Heath Ledger’s Joker
It’s the easy pick, but the right one. Heath Ledger’s now legendary performance as the Joker will go down in film history as one of the all-time greatest in any genre. Who would have thought that this pretty boy romantic lead could offer the definitive portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime? Ledger took what Nicholson did and pushed it even further, presenting a war-painted anarchist whose motivation seemed as grounded in reality as Christian Bale’s Batman. And that’s what made him so terrifying. When he hovers over the hospital bed of Harvey Dent, detailing his devotion to chaos, he presents a compelling case. We fear he may be right, that our plans and morals may be futile, and that’s what makes the character so effective.