Poll Position: Bringin' it

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?

22 Responses to Poll Position: Bringin' it

  1. John says:


    Yeah, it’s a tight race between McKellen, Stamp and Ledger for me. I agree, Heath will probably run away with this poll because he’s so fresh on everyone’s mind. This is not to take away from the genuine brilliance of his performance, but one must try to establish a bit of distance so see clearly.

    An important part of consideration, I think, must be the overall creative context of the film. Nicholson’s Joker would not in any way be appropriate for the Nolan films, and vice versa. The first two X movies were very good attempts at humanizing a clearly fantastic and, let’s face it, sometimes silly concept (“Whaddathey call you? ‘Wheels?'”). McKellen’s (dare I say it?) very human Magneto went a long way to making that work.

    But for my money, I gotta go old school. Maybe it’s because I was all of, what, 10 years old when Terrence Stamp spat out the above line, so full of arrogant malice and contempt that I could *believe* that a man could be trapped in a piece of space of mirror across the galaxy and be really pissed off about it. That line seared into my young skull full of mush and never let go.

    They say that a hero is only as good as his villain. Christopher Reeve’s Superman was so well-done, so well-defined and well-realized…Stamp’s Zod was his antithesis in every way, and he was fantastic.

  2. collex says:

    It’s a tough one there. ther is a lot of great performance. I unfortunately cannot comment on Zod because I never saw Superman 2.

    It’s a tie between Ledger-Mckellen-Nicholson in my book, and I think I’m going to go with McKellen, just to give him some chances against Ledger.

    However, I am the only one who loved Colin Farrell’s Bullseye? I think it’s the greatest performance of an actor who don,t know how to choose his roles (Alexander, Miami Vice, The New World) and it is Bullseye that makes the Darevil movie watchable.

  3. Jeff Hebert says:

    I have to confess, Collex, I couldn’t make it through the entire “Daredevil” movie. It was that bad.

  4. Cory says:

    Thomas Haden Church as Sandman…nuff said

  5. DJ says:

    I chose Heath because I love Heath Ledger(even before Batman) and his Joker was terrifying,real and just…wow. My second choice is Magneto though because I just thought he was great in all three of the movies.

    Jeff- I LIKED Daredevil. It was a fun movie for me even though it has it’s flaws.(the fight scene in the playground) I don’t get why people are hating on it so bad.

    Another one on the list I think would be good is Kroenen(played by:Ladislav Beran) in the first Hellboy film. His character was powerful without having to speak and I loved every scene he was in.

  6. nate says:

    i feel the same way as collex in regards to the whole ledger-mckellen-nicholson thing. I cast my vote for ledger because, as john said, he is the freshest on my mind

  7. Moonshade says:

    It’s a really tough choice between McKellan and Ledger. McKellan brought a wonderful gravitas and sense of humanity to Magneto that is great to watch.

    In the end, though, I’ve got to go with Ledger. Not just because he’s fresh in my mind, but because his Joker is such a chilling character. His performance makes me want to learn more about the character, what makes him that way, and that turns what could have been just a two-dimensional creep into more of a complete person.

  8. amathakathi says:

    I agree with the ledger, nicholson, and to a lesser extent, mckellen view. Hackman was also a great comic-to-movie villain. In the end I chose Ledger like everyone else because it is an incredibly powerful performance, even so Nicholson came close.

    As for missed out villains, That Yellow Bastard (Roark Jr.) from Sin City played by Nick Stahl was a great villain. He was disgusting and diabolical, and a bizarre combination of power and weakness.

  9. HalLoweEn JacK says:

    I havent’ voted yet, and don’t know if I will. The diffferent perspectives from which to judge the ‘best’ are too distinct to be merged or supersede each other.

    For pretty much the reasons Jeff stated, Ian McKellen would win the ‘best actor interpretation’ – I seriously prefer the Magneto of the films to the magneto of the comics for all of those reasons (I’m also a big fan of the White Wolf roleplaying game Aberrant [THE best superhero roleplaying system from a mechanics point of view – you can argue against this but you’re automatically wrong] and McKellens Magneto has strong resonances of that games Public Enemy Number 1, Divis Mal, who I always viewed as a mor believeable version of Magneto.) Magneto of the films is SUCH a believeable villains, and McKellans personal take on that, including the homosexual subtext of ‘mutation’ which surfaced so beautifully in the films, was superb.

    That being said, the ‘best Villain’ would have to be Ledger’s Joker – while he acted his ass off in that role, the script and conceptual framework he was acting within was SO well done. The scene on the boats towards the end was so incredibly tense the first time I saw the film, and the Jokers genuine surprise when they didn’t blow up was such a defining moment of that character as it showed that he truly believed in his broken view of humanity (granted he has a lot of evidence to support his views). Anyway, the character was aweseom (honestly, the scene with the Joker in a nurses uniform confusedly slamming the detonator button was one of the funniest things I’d seen in a while), he was, in short, great at being a villain.

    The other’s don’t get a look in from me.

    As for Bullseye – sorry, he doesn’t get my vote of support either. And Sandman, infact all of Spiderman three, has been known to send me into vitrolic rants about big budget movie quality control that resulted in my graduate students last year buying me a spiderman doll as a farewell present.

    I would have rather seen a small nation be fed and clothed and have to amuse myself with stick figure animations in the corner of my diary than have movies like Spiderman three be made. I would rather watch Daredevil again. Hell, I would go so far as to say I would probably rather watch Starship Troopers two again, than Spiderman 3. At least Starship troopers two didn’t cost anything to make (it looks like a couple of guys hired an country airport’s hangar for the weekend) and didn’t waste a further few billion on international advertising and product tie ins (It still makes me a little angry every time I see PLAYSTATION 3 written in that font – I think that is subconsciously the real reason I haven’t bought one yet). Spiderman 3 was JUST THAT BAD.

    You can argue against me, but you are wrong for even thinking of doing so and should possibly be considered an enemy of the people if you even attempt it.

  10. HalLoweEn JacK says:

    Sorry. I coulnd’t help but rant.

    Spiderman 3. Just. That. Bad.

  11. kryptkal says:

    This is a though one. It’s a close tie but I’d have to say Ledger’s Joker becasue he just became that part so completely it is hard to spearate his Joker and say it was just a performance. Likewise, I felt McKellen really delved into the role of Magneto (who has always bene my favorite mutant)and gave him a sense of menace and “humanity” at the same time. Besides he kept a sincere sympathy and respect for Xavier that I some incarnations/adaptations of the X-Men leave out (which is a very bad thing- Ultimate X-men).

    So it’s close but Ledger just beats out McKellen because he is so enveloped in the role that the identity of Heath Ledger just dissapears completely. Sort of ironic; rest in peace Mr. Ledger.

  12. collex says:

    Jeff- Well Daredevil is a movie with a sever case Villainscenestealeritis. Which means that while the vilains of the movie were stellar and awesome, the heroes sucked, sucked,sucked.

    Batman Returns is another movie with the same problem. And Shazam! (DC Captain Marvel) is a comic book with this problem.

  13. Cory says:

    I have to start a slow clap for jack cuz that rant wasin truth….true…but I only think Sandman was great for the fact that he actually played a reluctant villain, and not some guy who can turn into sand and beat the shit out of some cops, but not a man in a suit…

  14. DJ says:

    I have to continue this slow cap making it grow just a bit louder. Awesome ran. I also hated Spiderman 2 and my dad who is easy to please when it comes to superhero movies was like “That…sucked!”

  15. Jose Inoa says:

    Yo, howzabout Scott Paulin as the Red Skull, or Sandra Hess as Andrea Von Strucker/Viper? Better yet, Roger Daltrey as Vlad the Impaler! I mea-

    [uh, whomever is reading this, Jose’s head just exploded.]

  16. Frankie says:

    My vote is for McKellan.

  17. The Imp says:

    A note to Jeff (oh, and the Oscar voters): the dead guy always wins. *rolls eyes*

    I can’t believe no one mentioned Alfred Molina as Doc Ock.

    My vote went to Nicholson though. He was a major part of why I started getting ‘serious’ about reading comics. (If that’s not a contradiction in terms I don’t know what is. :D)

  18. Jeff Hebert says:

    Dang it, Imp, I knew I was forgetting someone! I meant to put Molina in, I thought he did a great job.

    And comics IS a serious medium! No one would make fun of you for saying that Hitchcock got you serious about watching movies, or that John Irving got you serious about reading funny novels. Comics are a legitimate medium, no need to feel weird that you enjoy them.

  19. Darkton says:

    …and, as I expected, the top review goes straight to Ledger’s Joker, as it comes from The Dark Knight, a movie which makes sure that nobody is allowed to like anything that’s not it.

    I think Ledger was good, I just think TDK is sapping up votes for other things, like DaFoe’s Goblin, or Spacey’s Luthor.

  20. godOfPLague says:

    I am giving this to Ian Mckellan I did not thin he fit magneto at all I would have prefered maybe malcolm macdowell.

    But you know what In the second and third movies there were only two people That kept me coming back Magneto and wolverine. Prof X was well cast but never had anything to do.
    Rogue was nice but those two stole the show.

    Heath was awesome but I never really had any doubts there

  21. godOfPLague says:

    You know what I’m comin out and just sayin it Michael Rosenbaum kicks kevin spacey square in the rucksack as lex luthor… And he is in FREAKIN SMaLLVILLE. Rosenbaum plays him as the guy who could be your best friend with just a hint of quiet menace beneath the surface.

  22. Darkton says:

    Well, I wouldn’t know about that. I haven’t seen Smallville.

    And I never heard of MacDowll. Which Magneto did he do?