As much as I love printed comic books, I fully understand that you must take alternate versions of your favorite characters and stories on their own merits when they transition to other media. When it comes to movie adaptations, moreover, you've got a lot of factors to take into consideration because the creative process is so much more dispersed than it is with a comic, where typically you've got at most two strong personalities and visions at work. How a character comes across on the big screen depends on how he or she was written, how the actor was directed, how the actor interprets the part, and more.
With that in mind, I think it's worth considering what movie villain characterization you think is "best", however you might interpret that term.
I'll discuss my thoughts after the jump and I hope to hear from you in comments about your take on the question, too.
- Magneto (Ian McKellen, X-Men): For my money Ian McKellen was the best part of the second X-Men movie, although Rebecca Romijn's almost-bare-booty smacking around of that guy in the restroom runs a real close second. He took a character that in the comics is a six foot four inch, incredibly muscular towering egomaniac and turned it into something quieter, deeper, more sympathetic, and yet no less intimidating. That's hard to do.
- General Zod (Terence Stamp, Superman II): A lot of you are probably too young to remember this performance, which is too bad, because Terence Stamp kicked this role's ass. Superman II is the "Wrath of Khan" of super-hero movies, full of soul-satisfying battle. Stamp's Zod is a big part of this; my buddy John and I both crowed with delight when we thought of him last night as we were discussing this topic.
- Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe, Spider-Man): Dafoe's a great actor, but I thought he hammed it up too much for this part. I thought the part as written was meaty enough, but he just overpowered it and came dangerously close to a caricature. John disagrees, but since this is my blog and not his, he clearly is wrong.
- Joker (Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight): I almost didn't put him on the list because it's likely he's just going to run away with it. I will say this is the best-written super-villain part ever, so he had that going for it. Still, Ledger nailed it, bringing a true sense of menace to a character that, frankly, can be a bit silly.
- Joker (Jack Nicholson, Batman): Again, a lot of you might be too young to remember this, but at the time getting Nicholson to play this role was a real coup. He brought just the right sense of dangerous lunacy to it that made the film work. It's a very different take on the character than you see in the Christopher Nolan Batman films, so you have to take that into consideration, but I think Nicholson did as much for his version as Ledger did for his.
- Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, Superman The Movie): I just love Gene Hackman, the dude can flat-out act. His Luthor was believable, fun, funny, and serious all at the same time, which is hard to manage.
- Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, Superman Returns): I hated Kevin Spacey in this role. He brings a slimy kind of sneaky-snake feel to "bad guy" parts, which I don't think fits Luthor. Hackman was a great 80's era "me first" kind of greedy capitalist, which fits, but Spacey was more of a small-time gang boss and I don't think that says "Luthor". Which is a shame, because I really like Kevin Spacey as an actor in general. I just kept thinking "This is Kaiser Sose", and not in a good way.
Looking back over the list it's awfully hard to pass over Heath Ledger. The fact that he died at the end of filming adds a real-world gut-punch to the equation that's hard to factor out, too, but his performance is simply outstanding on its own. But again, I think the part itself had a ton going for it as written. I'm torn between him and McKellen, which is tough because the latter's take was a lot more subtle, and I think most of the heft of the character on the screen came from his acting rather than from the writing.
But at the end of the day, I just can't get past Ledger. I was genuinely scared in parts of that film, and he really creeped me out.
Who would you pick, and why? Is there someone who ought to be on the list but isn't?