There’s a scene in The Dark Knight (2008), the second and most beloved entry in Christopher Nolan‘s trilogy of Batman films, where the Joker (Heath Ledger) is betraying one of the mobsters he’s been working with throughout the film. He brings the guy to a warehouse, slides down a mountain of cash—half of which belongs to the mobster—and, in short order, has his men douse the money in gasoline. Then he throws a lit cigar onto the pile. When the mobster protests, the Joker reassures him that he’s technically only setting fire to his half of the money; if the mobster’s half burns with it, that’s not really his problem. As the mobster watches his money burn—if you haven’t seen it in a while, pull up this scene and soak in the agony on that poor guy’s face—the Joker ridicules him for his obsession with money and says, “This town deserves a better class of criminal—and I’m gonna give it to ‘em.”
It’s a great line from a great scene in a movie that’s filled with a plethora of both. And in a much broader sense, it reflects what Ledger as the Joker did for movies in general by reminding us what great villains can be and paving the way for “a better class of criminal.” He set a bar for villainy so high that no one has surpassed it in the last decade. But even if no one has matched Ledger’s Joker there have still been some wonderful achievements made in the attempt. 2017 has been a wonderful year for movies, and that includes its villains as well—below you’ll find some of the best.
A Better Class of Criminal: The Best Movie Villains of 2017
James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb, Split
The first standout villain of 2017 came to audiences in January with James McAvoy’s portrayal of a man suffering from dissociative personality disorder in the psychological horror-thriller film Split. McAvoy’s Kevin Wendell Crumb has, by the end of the film, 24 distinct personalities rattling around in his head. Viewers get to know several of them well and see brief snippets of a few others.
If this were a bad M. Night Shymalan movie (everyone please shed a tear as you consider the crimes Shymalan committed against Avatar: The Last Airbender), it would still be a brilliant showcase of McAvoy’s versatility as an actor. All of Crumb’s personalities feel unique thanks to the physicality and vocal distinctions McAvoy imbues each of them with. There’s Kevin himself, seen only briefly near the end of the film and horrified at what his other personalities have done; Hedwig, an easily-manipulated nine-year-old child; Dennis, a violent, perverted individual suffering from OCD; Patricia, a matronly woman who is able to command many of the other personalities and does much of the work to bring forth the Beast, Kevin’s 24th personality, a cannibalistic monster with superhuman speed and strength.
Why Kevin Wendell Crumb Stands Out
What makes Crumb such a great villain is the range we see here thanks to McAvoy—he can be unassuming and childish, cold and calculating, cruel, sadistic and violent, or any other combination of things depending on which personality is dominant at a given time; there are basically no limits to what Crumb can do because he’s not alone in his own mind.
That’s part of why it’s so exciting that a number of the personalities remain unexplored when the film is over—because Split, which was itself a standalone to sequel to M. Night Shymalan’s Unbreakable (2000), already has a sequel in production for a January 2019 release date. If there’s any justice in the world, that sequel, currently titled Glass, will allow us to spend a lot more time with Kevin Wendell Crumb and all the other people sharing his body.
Jon Hamm as Buddy, Baby Driver
There’s a scene in Baby Driver’s third act where Jon Hamm’s character, Buddy, is sitting in a diner confronting Baby. His wife has just been killed in a shootout with the police and he is very visibly a shell of a man. Baby takes a seat next to him. Buddy takes one of Baby’s earbuds and holds it close to see what he’s listening to—it’s “Never Never Gonna Give Ya Up” by Barry White, the signature song of broken men all over the world.
Buddy listens for a moment, looks between Baby and Debora, Baby’s waitress girlfriend, then begins to sing along. If you’ve never seen someone who’s dead inside sing two lines from a Barry White song, you can be sure that it’s as haunting as it sounds. It’s a relatively quiet moment and Hamm nails the entire sequence, then ramps everything up to 11 straight through to the end.
How to Break a Buddy
Buddy makes a wonderful villain because of how utterly likable he is for two-thirds of the movie and how that contrasts with what he becomes by the end. He’s a criminal, sure, but friendly enough and madly in love with his wife (Eiza González). The audience is given Jamie Foxx’s character, Bats, to put their money on as the movie’s Big Bad heading into the home stretch.
But Bats goes out early and Buddy’s wife goes down in a storm of bullets because of Baby. Seeking revenge for his wife’s death, Buddy goes from a man to an unstoppable force of nature. He becomes an ideal villain for a film noir that’s obsessed with music and cars—he stalks the parking garage that acts as the movie’s final big set piece in a stolen police cruiser while blasting Queen’s “Brighton Rock” over its speakers.
Hamm was the perfect choice for the role—ruggedly handsome, charming, and funny, but capable of playing something more menacing when the script calls for it. Buddy is a pure pulp-action movie villain which would make him cartoonish anywhere else, but in a pure pulp-action movie like Baby Driver, he shines—and stands out as one of the best villains of 2017.
Michael Shannon as Colonel Richard Strickland, The Shape of Water
Director Guillermo del Toro wrote Strickland with veteran character actor Michael Shannon in mind, making sure to have the character play to Shannon’s strengths, and it shows. If Buddy in Baby Driver is an unhinged man with nothing to lose, Strickland is the opposite—he’s a government employee who loves God and his country, dutifully married and WASP-y, living in 1962 Baltimore, but looking to the future. If this movie were made half a century ago, Strickland would have been the hero, saving Sally Hawkins’ character, Elisa, from the horrific creature that’s run away with her from the top-secret lab where she and Strickland work. In 2017, however, he’s the villain—the monster referred to in the film’s opening lines, no hero at all.
Del Toro has said that Strickland represents one of the most terrifying things in the world to him—certainty. Strickland has everything figured out; he has a wife, two children, and a good job; he knows that Communism is bad, the Russians are bad, and that there’s something that puts him above the fish-man (referred to only as “the Asset”) being housed in the facility where he works, even if it does walk on two legs. As he says, humans are “made in the Lord’s image”—and the Lord certainly doesn’t look like the Asset. He never once tries to see things from anyone else’s point-of-view because he sees no value in any opinion or belief that doesn’t line up with his own.
The best thing about Strickland in this movie, though, and what helped him land on this list, is how his villainy is revealed to the audience. It’s obvious to anyone watching the movie what Strickland thinks about “the help,” about African Americans, about everything, but there’s a finesse to del Toro’s unveiling of Strickland’s monstrous qualities.
For instance, in the aforementioned scene about being made in “the Lord’s image,” he asks Octavia Spencer’s character if she thinks the Lord looks like the Asset. She says she wouldn’t know what the Lord looks like, and Strickland says that the Lord looks like the two of them. He takes a beat, thinks it over, then says, on second thought, maybe the Lord looks more like him. It perfectly encapsulates the character’s god complex and lets the audience in on another facet of his awfulness—on top of everything else he’s said and done, he’s also racist.
Michael Shannon in the Role
Obviously, none of this would work as well as it does without Michael Shannon turning in an exceptional performance in the role, and it’s clear why del Toro wanted him from the beginning. He may just be playing the most extreme version of the most common Michael Shannon character here, but that’s still a lot of fun to watch. If there are any fans of the criminally underappreciated TV show Boardwalk Empire reading this, Shannon essentially plays a modified version of his character from that show, Nelson van Alden. But that’s not an issue, because van Alden was a solid period piece villain, and transporting him from Prohibition-era Atlantic City to 1960s Baltimore feels as natural as breathing. That it works so well is a credit to how well del Toro did when he wrote the character for Shannon.
The long and the short of it is this: there’s no such thing as a bad Michael Shannon performance. He brings a special brand of masculine intensity to every character he plays, which is perfect for a movie that uses him to show the flaws of traditional toxic masculinity. Added to that, The Shape of Water is one of (if not the) best films of 2017. That it has one of the best villains of 2017 too is just icing on the cake—run, don’t walk, to see it at a theater near you. And if you want some more information on The Shape of Water and other great movies in theaters now, check out this Last Word on Sports article on movies to watch instead of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
The heir-apparent to Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight, Adam Driver is a revelation in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Kylo Ren has quickly become the best blockbuster villain to grace the silver screen since Ledger’s Joker. That everyone doesn’t outright hate the character who murdered Han Solo in 2015’s The Force Awakens is a testament to Driver’s performance. He’s conflicted, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes utterly despicable, skilled, ambitious—and all of this while wearing surprisingly (upsettingly, for some) high-waisted pants and being totally jacked. If you say you didn’t look like a carbon copy of the “white guy blinking” meme when Driver had his shirtless scene in The Last Jedi, you’re lying to God, your country, and yourself, because that beefcake came out of nowhere to blindside us all.
All of this to say that what Driver brings to this movie that very few modern villains do is sexual tension. There’s a real will-they/won’t-they for Kylo Ren and Rey (Daisy Ridley) that’s fun to watch and isn’t really found in other hero/villain matchups these days. Avengers: Infinity War, for instance, is not going to have audiences writing romantic fan-fiction about Captain America and Thanos because of the chemistry between Chris Evans and Josh Brolin. Probably. But because Driver plays Kylo’s conflicting emotions and desires so well, it’s easy for the audience to invest in a potential romance between he and Rey—and to feel disappointed when that investment doesn’t pan out.
The Dynamics of Kylo Ren
Whereas characters like Buddy and Strickland from earlier in the list shine because they’re relatively static, Kylo Ren is a wonderful villain because he’s dynamic. His role in the story changes alongside his thoughts and emotions. Because he was still figuring things out when he was introduced in The Force Awakens, Kylo had the potential to grow and he fulfills that potential in The Last Jedi. If Kylo in The Force Awakens had too much of “prequel Anakin” in him, making him a whiny adolescent, Kylo in The Last Jedi strikes a wonderful balance between that emotional hotspot and the more menacing villainy of the saga’s better antagonists. He’s still confused, but he actually feels like a threat here. And, boy, does he have some great moments in this movie.
One of the most powerful scenes in The Last Jedi involves Kylo standing in an elevator after being belittled by the First Order’s Supreme Leader for wearing a mask in homage to his grandfather, Darth Vader. He takes the helmet and smashes it against the wall of the elevator again and again, then leaves its shattered remains behind. It’s a great visual representation of something that drives the character for the duration of The Last Jedi—the idea that you have to “let the past die. Kill it, if you have to,” if you want to move forward—and Driver nails the execution.
Whether or not Kylo’s right about killing the past being the best way forward, it’s going to be an absolute pleasure watching Driver bring the character’s arc to a close when the next movie hits theaters in a couple of years. That he has been so widely praised in a film that’s seen a lot of backlash from fans is a testament to what Driver has brought to Kylo Ren, and hopefully a sign of things to come.
There were any number of great movie villains in 2017 that aren’t represented by this list—Sylvia Hoeks as Luv in Blade Runner 2049, Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise in It, Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Michael Fassbender as David 8 in Alien: Covenant all deserve an Honorable Mention here, and it’s unfortunate that there isn’t room to do a write-up for each of them.
No one listed above may leave quite the same impression on the popular consciousness that Heath Ledger did with the Joker in The Dark Knight, but they do all leave one hell of an impression. Adam Driver is the closest to giving us the next classic blockbuster villain, and he has the final film of the new Star Wars trilogy to do it, but everyone mentioned in this article has gifted viewers with a character that’s fun or fascinating, enchanting or intriguing, and, above all, endlessly watchable. With villains like these, who needs heroes?