Iconic Villains of the 21st Century
The Wicked Witch of the West.
They are some of the movies' iconic monsters and villains. The ones that audiences love to hate or were terrified by. They have stood the test of time to be cultural touchstones of what makes a memorable villain. But what are the modern equivalents? Which modern movie villains will be thought of as iconic villains, 30 years from now? Well, what makes a villain memorable like a Darth Vader or Jason Voorhees? It is their look, their performance and their memorability amongst audiences that allow them to persevere. Below are some of film and TV’s most memorable villains from the last 20 years.
He Who Shall Not Be Named. The Dark Lord. Tom Marvolo (Marvolo? No wonder he hated his parents) Riddle. The xenophobic, mass-murdering, wizard terrorised the wizarding world and audiences with his snake like appearance.
Voldemort is not properly seen until Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire when he’s birthed in a cauldron from a weird, skeletal foetus-lookin thing into an albino snake-human hybrid. However, he still has ways of attempting child murder, whether it be hiding under the cultural insensitive turban of (white) Professor Quirrell or seducing and possessing a minor (gross) with his personal diary.
Very little of Voldemort’s atrocities are seen in the films; only talked about in hushed whispers. That intimidation of his name and legend is enough to make audiences feel the dread that the characters feel.
It is Ralph Fiennes performance as Lord Voldemort in the later films that made him an iconic villain. His overall appearance has been mocked relentlessly online, including a less than menacing laugh, but he is still identifiable to even non-Harry Potter audiences as Voldemort. His whisper of a voice is chilling and makes up for one-dimensional villain motivations as essentially Wizard Hitler.
The Night King
I know, any mention of Game of Thrones now whips people into a frenzy about “tHe WoRsT eNdInG eVeR” but hear me out. While only briefly seen, Winter Season Darth Maul has had a lasting impact on the show. Those piercing blue eyes and that stone cold…well everything really.
The Night King was first properly seen at the end of Season 4, Episode 4 (Oathkeeper) in a truly terrifying introduction. A White Walker delivers a baby to the King, in his evil mysterious lair before turning the baby into a member of his legion of Wights. The unknown setting of the icy castle (think Elsa but emo) adds to the mystery as to who the Night King is and what he wants.
He then doesn’t reappear until Season 5, Episode 8 (Hardhome), when the Wildlings defend themselves from the Wights. As Jon Snow helps evacuate people, he is watched from above by the Night King and three other Wights, like the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And then he performs his signature move. His ‘Raising the Dead’ arm raise is the ultimate flex on Jon Snow and humanity, showing the power he has, and the near invulnerability the Wights possess.
As the series progresses, he appears more frequently, with a glimpse into his creation as a First Man transformed by the Children of the Forrest who turns against them. It is that mystery that makes him memorable. Like a force of nature, he just is. Fitting given the comparisons drawn between the Night King and climate change; both results of mistakes of people in the past and has no agenda and will kill everyone and thing.
His ending may not have been the climactic showdown against Jon Snow people hoped for, but it is still a fist pumping moment when Arya flips the tables on him and turns him and the Wights to dust. It would not have been as satisfying had he not been such an eerie presence.
Kinda cheating to have a Darth Vader knock-off as an iconic villain, but Kylo Ren/Ben Solo is beyond a Vader imitation and even lamp shaded as a “child in a mask”.
The Master of the Knights of Ren first appeared in the teaser trailer for The Force Awakens with the reveal of his famous cross guard lightsaber, reminiscent of the reveal of Darth Maul’s double-bladed lightsaber. Much like the rest of TFA, most of Kylo was kept secret like his appearance or parentage. The fact he isn’t a deformed monster adds a layer of complexity to him and how he strives to live up to his grandfather’s legacy.
Then he commits one of the most horrific things for Star Wars fans, and one of the most on-brand things for the Star Wars franchise. He has a fractured relationship with his father (the Skywalker saga is built on daddy issues) and kills the beloved Han Solo, instantly making him one of the most hated characters in Star Wars (behind Jar Jar).
Then, instead of just following the obvious trajectory and have Kylo fall even further down the dark side, audiences gain an insight into his inner conflict about obeying Snoke and struggling to kill his mother, Leia. Then he flips the script again and becomes the scared little neo-Nazi that he is; a power hungry, momma’s boy.
In The Rise of Skywalker, he backtracks on that arc and is ‘healed’, physically and spiritually and reborn as Ben Solo in what is a rushed, but fitting conclusion to one of the best aspects about the Sequel Trilogy and best character arcs in Star Wars.
The appearance and voice of Vader, with the unique weapon of Maul and the character arc of what Anakin should have had in the Prequels, Kylo Ren is the combination of the best parts of Star Wars villainy.
Unlike other villains in this list, Gollum made a technological impact by being the first motion captured performance. Andy Serkis, the pioneer of the Mo-Cap performance technique, continued to use it in the 2005 King Kong and Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy, and helped breathe life into the grotesque CGI creature, Gollum.
The Hobbit formerly known as Smeagol, is like Yoda’s crack-head cousin with the unique speech pattern, frayed hair and gangly body. His obsession with the One Ring of Power resulted in his body rejecting any other form of substance and only needing the Ring’s power to sustain him. Serkis physically evokes a cross between a monkey, a cat and a spider with how Gollum moves. He moves on all fours like a monkey but can easily manoeuvre on his legs; crawls like a cat stalking something with the climbing agility of a spider. He is an unsettling sight to behold and only made more uncomfortable to watch by Serkis’ very impressionable voice.
The raspy hiss of “My precious” is synonymous with Gollum, and Serkis who while giving a great physical performance, also plays two separate characters as Smeagol and Gollum making him an empathetic character. We all have our vices and sometimes they turn you into albino, skeletal creatures. On a more spiritual and emotional level, at least.
Hmppfh blrturj fdmnao fjstankln!
*takes off mask*
That’s better. Now as I was saying…
Tom Hardy’s Bane certainly has made a cultural impact with his garbled speech the subject of countless memes and impersonations. Like most of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Bane is grounded in reality and not the drug-enhanced gargantuan that he is in the comics. Instead of a hyper-realistic Luchador, Bane becomes a jacked-up revolutionary who physically breaks The Bat and fights to tear down the corrupt capitalism. He also has the flare for dramatic by blowing up a football stadium; performing a mid-air break out and staging a mini-war in the streets of Gotham between his militia and the GCPD.
Hardy’s performance even made such an impact to be included in the DC animated comedy series Harley Quinn which presented a comic accurate Bane with the personality to match the whinny voice. Like a cross between Sean Connery and Darth Vader, Bane delivered endlessly quotable lines.
“You merely adopted the dark. I was boarne in it. Mooulded bahy it!”
“Noboady cared who I was till I put onnn tha mahsk!”
Sure, he goes out in the most anticlimactic way, but that iconic mask is still beloved; now more so than ever. With COVID-19 resulting in reasonable and good people wearing masks, nerds have taken the opportunity to find an excuse to own their own Bane mask. The mask on online costume stores or stores like Etsy were sold out, despite the fact that they are not approved masks against spreading the virus.
Well, some people just wanna watch the world burn. Wait…isn’t that the other guy?
And you thought my jokes were bad.
The Clown Prince of Crime was seen in live action with Caesar Romero and Jack Nicholson who bring their own manic energy to the role. Yet, Australia’s own, the late great Heath Ledger blew everyone away and redefined the Joker. Ledger’s Joker was less of a criminal trickster like previously depicted and more of an anarchist with a twisted sense of morality and reality. He was completely unhinged and nothing encapsulated this Joker more than the Pencil Trick.
After bursting in on a meeting of the Gotham Mob, the Joker starts making demands the mobsters scoff at. He demonstrates how he understands Batman better than they do in that he knows how Batman is an icon that cannot be killed, only to come back as a martyr. After antagonising one of the mobsters, Joker changes the topic to a magic trick before brutally slamming a henchman’s head into an upright pencil. To top it all off, he exits the room by threatening to detonate his vest of grenades. The Joker is intelligent, destructive and terrifying. He is, as he calls himself, “an agent of chaos”.
His legacy was unfortunately tainted when in 2012, a mentally ill man stormed into a theatre in Colorado that was playing The Dark Knight Rises and shot and killed 12 people. All under the self-titled moniker of ‘Joker’. Then in 2019, the media became concerned with similar incidents following a string of public mass shootings in the US and the upcoming release of Joaquin Phoneix’s award-winning turn in Joker. What ultimately happened was that people danced down some stairs and wondered about ‘SoCiEtY’.
Still, nothing has yet to top Ledger’s performance that signalled a newfound appreciation for the superhero genre. However, as Joker says to Harvey ‘Two-Face’ Dent, if a truck full of soldiers gets blown up, nobody panics. What this final villain does, made everyone start losing their minds. And he did it, with the SNAP! of his fingers.
Thanos first appeared in the mid-credit’s scene of The Avengers in which most people responded ‘Huh?’. Long time comic book readers would have recognised that famous ridged chin as the Mad Titan, who is on a quest to please the embodiment of Death (comic nonsense) by wielding the 6 Infinity Stones. Then for the next 6 years, audiences watched as Thanos faced his ultimate challenge…to get out of his goddamn chair. While the Avengers and soon-to-be allies encountered the Infinity Stones, Thanos made his return in Guardians of the Galaxy where he…sits in a chair and tells other to get the Stones, just like he did in The Avengers. In the mid-credits of Age of Ultron he admits that it is time, to “do it myself”. Then 3 years later he finally makes his move.
Infinity War is Thanos’ movie. The movie works to establish his background, his goal, motivation and make him the best kind of villain; one who the audience can appreciate their goal but question their methods. His introduction demonstrates his power without the Stones help as he single-handedly puts The Hulk in his place and tortures Thor. The directors, the Russo brothers, also give a comic book villain of moment of humanity when Thanos sheds a tear over having to sacrifice his favourite ‘daughter’ Gamora for the Soul Stone.
Unlike other villains, his plans for mass genocide are not driven by hate but a twisted morality that to save the universe from over-population, he must destroy half the universe. But this is a superhero film, so of course that won’t happ-SNAP!
While most die-hard fans knew there was going to be a Part 2 to Infinity War, general audiences were shocked when Thor failed to hit Thanos’ colossal head and allowed Thanos to sit back and watch the sunrise over his ‘grateful universe’. What makes Thanos’ win all the more heartbreaking, besides the emptiness of people being ‘dusted’, is watching the normally resolute Captain America realise they lost with a breathless “Oh, god”.
He is such an intimidating villain that he can only be defeated when all the universe heroes assemble to fight as one. Once Iron Man makes the biggest sacrifice does Thanos taste his own medicine. While he was introduced in 2012, all it took was 68 minutes of screen time across Infinity War and Endgame to make him one of cinema’s most threatening and complex villains.
What are your thoughts on the biggest baddies of the 21st century (in film and TV at least)? I’m sure I’ve missed some, so feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments.