Name the villains you love to love!
February 6, 2014 6:35 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples of charismatic and likeable villains. By which I mean the audience likes to watch them, not necessarily that they are liked by the other characters. Intriguing background with character development beyond establishing who the hero needs to kill is good too, though I'm not particularly after sympathetic villains unless they are also fun to watch/likable in their own right. I realise that charisma and likeability will mean different things to different people so I have given examples that I like under the cut. Looking at my examples I think I might just be looking for villains who are rich and/or powerful and portrayed well by the actor.

I'm thinking along the lines of the Sheriff of Nottingham played by Alan Rickman in Robin Hood Prince of Theives (don't judge me, I was young when that came out!), Alexei Volkoff in Chuck (the inspiration for this question actually). To a lesser extent - Alan Rickman's character in the first Die Hard, Christof in the Truman Show, Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor, and, hmmm I remember quite liking the Lex Luthor from Lois & Clark (*ahem* I was young!). I suspect a fair few Bond villains qualify but I can’t name any, so if you have a fave, do tell.

What I’m not looking for are examples of protagonists who are less than morally pure (eg Tony Soprano, Dexter). It's perfectly fine, in fact preferable, if the villain gets killed or is otherwise dealt with by the hero.

My examples are from tv and movies and are fairly lowbrow but books and more highbrow stuff is fine too. Thanks, Ask!
posted by pianissimo to Media & Arts (80 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Ben Linus on LOST, I think is a good example.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:37 AM on February 6 [6 favorites]

Loki--there are many, many Tumblrs devoted to him and his golden horns.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:38 AM on February 6 [11 favorites]

Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. I never saw the sequel, so I've no idea what they eventually did with the character. He was sleaze personified.
posted by jquinby at 6:38 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

Ursula from The Little Mermaid is the baddest and I love her.
posted by Juliet Banana at 6:40 AM on February 6 [3 favorites]

Boyd Crowder from Justified.
posted by MoonOrb at 6:41 AM on February 6 [15 favorites]

Darkness from Legend.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 6:43 AM on February 6 [3 favorites]

TVTropes' Affably Evil and Magnificent Bastard pages have some examples.

The Wire is full of these.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:47 AM on February 6 [2 favorites]

I don't know if likeable is the right word, but the man with the thistledown hair from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is certainly... charming?
posted by Mister Moofoo at 6:47 AM on February 6

Moriarty from Sherlock (stories and the BBC series)
posted by brynna at 6:48 AM on February 6 [11 favorites]

The Mayor from Buffy season 3.
posted by Garm at 6:48 AM on February 6 [7 favorites]

Vader and Palpatine?
posted by jozxyqk at 6:49 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

Every single villain in the old Batman TV series
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:50 AM on February 6 [5 favorites]

- The Joker from Batman:TAS - played by Mark Hamil. He was so engaging and scary, likable yet unmistakably a villain. Heath Ledger's Joker as well.

- The Collector from Demon Knight - played by Billy Zane, another charismatic and watchable villain who was unmistakably, unsympathetically villainous.

- Gabriel from The Prophecy - Played by Christopher Walken. Wow, what a role.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:51 AM on February 6 [2 favorites]

Messrs. Croup and Vandemar from Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere come to mind - actually, they're the quote source on the Beware the Silly Ones page over at TVTropes ("But you must never imagine that just because something is funny, Monsieur le Marquis, it is not dangerous."). That page has a few good examples - they're not ALL villains so they don't all qualify, but some certainly do.
posted by DingoMutt at 6:52 AM on February 6 [5 favorites]

David Bowie in Labyrinth (excluding those crotch pants, ugh)

Benedict Cumberbutton from Star Trek reboot (he played Khan)

Is Dr. Frank n Furter from Rocky Horror a villain?

Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:52 AM on February 6 [3 favorites]

A bit of a spoiler for Hot Fuzz, but Jim Broadbent is adorable and charming.
posted by mochapickle at 6:56 AM on February 6

Oh god Regina / the Evil Queen from the wonderfully trashy Once Upon A Time is this to a T. The power suits! The villain dresses! The constant plotting and scheming and backstabbing that drive the whole plot! She's so much more fun and so much easier to root for than the majority of the 'good' characters, especially in the first and second seasons, where she's constantly cooking up some ridiculous self-defeating revenge plan or nursing some grudge or other, and there are endless flashbacks to her sweeping around trying to mess with and/or murder Snow White.

She does become notably more moral and less gloriously villainous as the show goes on, which is a shame, but she's still snarky and unpleasant to all but like two people, and the flashbacks to her fucking with fairytale characters for the evil joy of it continue unabated.
posted by emmtee at 7:04 AM on February 6 [3 favorites]

All of the rascal's from the "Ocean's 11/12/13" series.
posted by alchemist at 7:07 AM on February 6

Darth Vader, back when only the first movie (or just the first two) had been released.
posted by ceribus peribus at 7:08 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

And from literature, a big one is Humbert Humbert from Lolita. He's a pedophile and delusional and probably one of the most unsympathetic characters ever, but he's so well written, and so dark, and so witty (picnic, lightning). The story takes off every time he meanders deeper into his mind.
posted by mochapickle at 7:13 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

I'm going to surprise everyone by suggesting Hannibal. That was the last thing anyone was expecting from me, I'm sure.

The Starbucked Freddie Lounds from the same TV series is another example, with the caveat that she is the target of much misaimed fandom IMO.
posted by tel3path at 7:15 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

Christopher Walken in the King of New York. I'd also say Jack Nicholson's Joker.
posted by fuse theorem at 7:16 AM on February 6

Scorpius from Farscape. "Kill her. Then we'll have pizza, and margarita shooters!"
posted by Mizu at 7:17 AM on February 6 [4 favorites]

Mark Sheppard, in pretty much everything.
-as Crowley in Supernatural
-as Sterling in Leverage (okay, he's a Good Guy, but he's still a villain)
-as Badger in Firefly
-as Ivan Erwich in 24
-as Dr. Charles Walker in Medium
-as Curtis Hagen in White Collar
posted by specialagentwebb at 7:17 AM on February 6 [8 favorites]

Hedy Lamarr from Blazing Saddles
posted by logicpunk at 7:18 AM on February 6

Silva (Javier Bardem) in Skyfall
Jafar in Aladdin
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 7:18 AM on February 6

Yes, the moment they put Scorpius in a Hawaiian shirt, I loved him.

(This is also true of the Ferengi, who were horrible, useless baddies who made no god damn sense at all until some genius in the Next Gen writing staff hit on putting one in a Hawaiian shirt, and suddenly they became skeevy little hustlers and they were awesome. Still a little silly, but silly that worked.)

I sense a rule of thumb here...
posted by Naberius at 7:19 AM on February 6

In the slightly-more-real world, Ric Flair set the bar very high for professional wrestling heels (villains) by being very good at the wrestling part of it (that is, both his technical ability and his ability to tell a story in a match) and very good at the mic work part of it. People would buy tickets just to see him get his ass kicked, but if he didn't, they'd still go away happy.
posted by Etrigan at 7:19 AM on February 6

Erica Kane is legendary.

Reportedly, one time Susan Lucci was walking around in a mall. An old woman stalked up to her with a look of hatred, and slapped her, and then turned and walked away without a word. Which is kind of an indirect compliment, I think, about her acting in the Erica role.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:24 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

In a silly example, Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb, a kids' cartoon, is very likeable and fun to watch. His plots are ineffective and his motives are often benign, but he sees himself as a supervillian.
posted by ceramicblue at 7:25 AM on February 6 [3 favorites]

Also in pro wrestling, this is pretty much the story of The Rock. He was a bad guy for years, during which they had to keep "turning" him back into a bad guy because everyone kept cheering for him.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:27 AM on February 6

The Master, from Doctor Who, particularly his original portrayal by Roger Delgado.
posted by Devoidoid at 7:40 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

Severus Snape in Harry Potter? The books but also the movies, as portrayed by Alan Rickman.
posted by apartment dweller at 7:45 AM on February 6 [2 favorites]

Paxton Fettel from the F.E.A.R. video game series. He's a telepathic/telekinetic murderous cannibal and all, but I get a kick out of him. I love the voice acting, especially in the third game. It's pretty much the only thing that saves that game for me (warning for video game gore).
posted by i feel possessed at 7:45 AM on February 6

Linda Fiorentino's character in The Last Seduction

Christina Ricci in The Opposite of Sex

And maybe not the kind of villain you had in mind, but Ricky Gervais's David Brent in the original The Office really does this for me.
posted by Mchelly at 7:46 AM on February 6 [2 favorites]

Yzma, from The Emporer's New Groove, voiced by the delightful Eartha Kitt.
posted by Thinkly at 7:50 AM on February 6 [4 favorites]

MoonOrb: Boyd Crowder from Justified.


• Hannibal Lechter in Silence of the Lambs
• Tony Soprano, plus too many other characters from The Sopranos to mention.
• Many of Tarantino's characters. Pulp Fiction is a good place to start.

Also in pro wrestling, this is pretty much the story of The Rock. He was a bad guy for years, during which they had to keep "turning" him back into a bad guy because everyone kept cheering for him.

The Rock was a bad guy?! I love The Rock!
posted by Room 641-A at 7:51 AM on February 6

I'm not sure if you'd call them protagonists or not, but Valmont and Merteuil from Dangerous Liaisons are horrible characters who are wonderful to watch.
posted by juniper at 7:54 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

Nellie Oleson
posted by brujita at 8:05 AM on February 6 [2 favorites]

As a parody-of-slash-love-letter-to the world of superheroes and super-science and costumed villainy, The Venture Bros. is pretty much packed with charismatic evil-doers, but The Mighty Monarch (and his professional right-hand woman, later wife, Dr. Mrs. The Monarch) takes the inappropriately butterfly-themed cake.
posted by emmtee at 8:07 AM on February 6 [7 favorites]

Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York! Sexiest villain ever.
posted by silverstatue at 8:10 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

Baltar from the Battlestar Gallactica reboot.
posted by OrangeDisk at 8:23 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

Dick Casablancas on Veronica Mars. Terrible, terrible character, but I love the way he douches around.
posted by Lardmitten at 8:44 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

Steve Carell as Gru from Despicable Me.
posted by hootenatty at 8:44 AM on February 6

Lestat in Interview with the Vampire.
Dracula from Coppola's version.
Robert Downey Jr.'s character in In Dreams
posted by haplesschild at 8:51 AM on February 6

Doctor Horrible from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.

One of the few stories where the villain is the protagonist. Maybe a bit more comedic than you're looking for, but an enjoyable villain nonetheless.
posted by mekily at 8:58 AM on February 6 [5 favorites]

You missed Smallville's Lex Luthor.

And another probably unnecessary vote for Loki in the new Thor movies.

The sheriff from the BBC's recent Robin Hood series.

Michelle Pfeiffer's witch in Stardust was great. And so was Mark Strong.

And does Peter Capaldi's Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It count as a villain?

Anjelica Huston as the head witch in The Witches.

Tim Curry did a fun Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers.
posted by thebazilist at 9:05 AM on February 6

I liked Gus Fring!
posted by thinkpiece at 9:05 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

Al Swearingen in Deadwood
posted by whistle pig at 9:06 AM on February 6 [7 favorites]

How about Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, or Zim from Invader Zim?
posted by DingoMutt at 9:14 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

I liked Gus Fring!

This is interesting. I thought about Breaking Bad for a bit and while I was wondering if I really liked Gus Fring I was also wondering whether or not Mike Ehrmantraut was really a villian. Stupid pathos.

I'm going to go with Hector Salamanca. DING!
posted by Room 641-A at 9:14 AM on February 6 [2 favorites]

Hedy Lamarr from Blazing Saddles
posted by logicpunk at 10:18 AM on February 6 [+] [!]

That's Hedley!
posted by Gungho at 9:32 AM on February 6 [8 favorites]

Nobody's said Magneto yet? Possibly one of the most justified villains in fiction. It's hard to argue he's wrong, leads by charisma rather than fear, and rarely mistreats his minions.
posted by Strudel at 9:46 AM on February 6 [4 favorites]

Yes to everyone who has said Boyd Crowder from Justified. He's probably my favorite character on the show.
posted by dearwassily at 9:47 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

Nicole Kidman's character in To Die For.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 9:55 AM on February 6

Prince from Lexx.
posted by jozxyqk at 10:07 AM on February 6

Another vote for Dr. Horrible, although I rather feel like Captain Hammer is the actual villain in the show. Everyone's a hero in their own way.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 10:27 AM on February 6 [2 favorites]

Merle Dixon (played by Michael Rooker) on AMC's The Walking Dead was a racist, sexist, amoral pig, yet fans of the show were devastated when he was killed off. The Internets are filled with Merle memes. He was a minor character, but they still ended up making an action figure of him (unlike most of the main characters).
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:31 AM on February 6

Cobra Commander
The Monarch
posted by Kafkaesque at 11:05 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

Regina George in Mean Girls
posted by Kololo at 11:13 AM on February 6

Atia from Rome.
Her villain status is arguable--the series is very much about showcasing a drastically different morality from what we see today--but it's easy to see her as a bad guy.

Far as I'm concerned, she's the most interesting character I've ever seen on television, hands down.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 11:22 AM on February 6

Also Nthing Dr. Mrs. The Monarch, who is an amazingly well-rounded human being (and villain).
posted by scaryblackdeath at 11:23 AM on February 6

Roger Delgado was fabulous as The Master, and also a very good Count Fosco in a BBC production of The Woman in White; a young(ish) Diana Quick was the heroine. He died far too young in a car crash I think.

Frankenstein's monster, 1931. The Mummy, 1932. Both played by Karloff as fascinatingly sympathetic characters.

In Flash Gordon of 1980 there are a number of terribly sexy villanous anti-heros. The gorgeous Ornella Muti as Princess Aura. The devilishly handsome Timothy Dalton as Prince Baron (still devilishly handsome 27 years later in Hot Fuzz.) The larger and louder than life Brian Blessed as king of the birdmen Prince Vultan. Ok so not all terribly sexy. But then there's old Ming The Merciless himself Max Von Sydow - photo does no justice to his charisma.

On a similar theme - good-humoured cheesy fantasy - the little robber girl/Great Tyrant Anita Pallenberg from Barbarella (scroll down half-way).

Amanda Donahue as the evil goddess/queen in Ken Russell's Lair of the White Worm. Not quite sure how that link will work out but if you don't want to be totally spoiled for the movie don't click it.

Bill Nighy as Viktor, vampire potentate in Underworld.

Best till last, Tilda Swinton as the Archangel Gabriel in Constantine.

I do love a good female arch-villain.
posted by glasseyes at 11:26 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

Apparently people loved and rooted for Vic on The Shield. I hated him.
posted by futz at 11:36 AM on February 6

I found Voldemort from the Harry Potter series fascinating to no end. And seconding Snape in there, especially at the end.
posted by kathrynm at 11:58 AM on February 6

Kathryn Merteuil from Cruel Intentions/Dangerous Liaisons
posted by seesom at 12:49 PM on February 6

I looked through all of this and no one mentioned Walter White. Well before the end he had become a full-fledged villain (he killed or ordered killed 30 plus). Yet he was endlessly fascinating and I rooted for him (until he joined up with Nazis).
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:51 PM on February 6

Doctor Impossible from Soon I will Be Invincible

Such a fun book if you like comic books and it's first person from his perspective.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 12:53 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]

posted by Alexander J. Luthor at 2:05 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]

Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair.
posted by betweenthebars at 2:17 PM on February 6

>Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair.

Yes! And her amazing descendant, Undine Spragg from Custom of the Country
posted by Mchelly at 2:49 PM on February 6

posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 4:59 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]

Thanks everybody! There's a couple there that I knew of but had slipped my mind (most notably Loki, Khan, Jafar, and Ben from Lost.) There are more than a few new ones for me. Looks like I have some watching and reading to do! Not sure about best answer/s because I'd be marking almost everything.

Feel free to keep them coming, and I'll add another one - Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen in Mirror Mirror. She just seemed to be having so much fun with the role!

And now, off to TVtropes...
posted by pianissimo at 5:53 PM on February 6

Gloucester in Richard III as played by Mark Rylance (on Broadway right now). Totally unexpected and hilarious.
posted by Dragonness at 9:36 PM on February 6

Steerpike, in the first Gormenghast book. Insinuating, corrupt and corrupting, often slightly repulsive and occasionally kind of awesome and magnificent. Has some pretty advanced ideas about class and equality.
posted by Kaleidoscope at 10:41 PM on February 6 [2 favorites]

Definitely Gus and Mike from Breaking Bad. They're just so damn competent.
posted by evil otto at 7:19 AM on February 7

I can't believe I forgot about Gus and Mike. I'd absolutely watch 3 or 4 seasons of their backstory, and am hoping that somehow they get worked into Better Call Saul at some point. You might just as well throw Walter in there, too.
posted by jquinby at 10:48 AM on February 7

Dr Horrible! He does laundry, he worries about a girl he has a crush on, he builds freeze-rays, he does laundry.
posted by mochapickle at 11:34 AM on February 7

The Abominable Dr. Phibes! He goes about murdering the doctors who failed to save his beloved wife's life, using the ten plagues of Egypt from the Bible as inspiration. He's completely evil and deranged in that the killings are brutal and it really isn't the fault of the medical staff that they could not save her. Also, his face is melted off, he terrorizes an innocent child, and he is portrayed by the incredibly sinister Vincent Price, elements which amplify the villain factor. Nonetheless, you can't help but admire and approve of his single-minded devotion to his wife - and that suave, sophisticated, diabolically intelligent brain - so romantic!
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 5:01 PM on February 7

Saul Goodman. Odenkirk really sells it...Robert Evans-style.
posted by ostranenie at 8:16 PM on February 7

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