For the overview of what’s going on here and the first four villains on the list check out this post.
6 – Captain Louis Renault (Casablanca)
Louis is a villain. Let’s make that clear from the get go. He extorts money from businesses, abuses his power to carry on affairs with desperate women and shows no loyalty to anyone. He even conspires to see his prisoners murdered. He stands in the way of the heroic Victor Lazlo and frequently backs the greater villain, Major Strausser. His heart is his least vulnerable spot.
Yes, he is a villain redeemed. Even he can take only so much and finally breaks down and throws in his lot with Rick, Ilsa and Victor. But he was never, even for a second, a good person before.
Louis displays the full breadth of what can be accomplished with a good villain. What he does isn’t good but it is understandable. He’s over a barrel with the Nazis and with everyone else in town is getting theirs, why should Captain Renault be any different? We also understand why, when it comes down to the wire, he makes a break to the other side. He’s had enough of seeing his friends on eggshells. He doesn’t want to be looked down on anymore. And maybe it feels better to be a good guy than a bad guy, too. A lot of stories have tried to replicate Louis’ character arc in the decades since Casablanca. What few of them understood was that his greatness as a sympathetic character is partly defined by his gleeful and almost entirely unrepentant villainy.
5 – Brigid O’Shaughnessy (The Maltese Falcon)
The greatest strategist on this list is also the original femme fatale. (Bet you weren’t expecting that.) This classic villain takes Sam Spade and his partner on a wild ride from beginning to end, ruthlessly manipulating the detectives, cutting down enemies and dodging blame like a nonstick pan decades before Teflon would be invented.
O’Shaughnessy might be a surprising pick given how thoroughly all the characters in this story were outwitted – the prize they were fighting over was worthless, after all. She also doesn’t seem like much of an opposing force. After all, she actually wants Sam to get the Falcon for her, so they’re not working at odds… or so it would seem. But since she is the murderer of Sam’s partner, and that’s something he has to clear up as a matter of principle, they are at cross purposes, even if Sam doesn’t know it.
Brigid is a study in understated villainy. While nothing she does seems bad on the surface once the full depths of her character is understood, the degree with which she’s ruthlessly manipulated people for her own goals and the lack of feeling she shows when those she exploits die speak powerfully to how twisted she’s become in her pursuit of the Falcon. She’s a cold woman and has a well deserved spot on this list.
4 – Dio Brando (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure)
He murders a dog. He does it by tying up the animal and tossing it in a garbage incinerator to burn to death when the trash is disposed of. The sound of the poor creature kicking against the door as it burns will haunt you for life.
Not convinced of his villainy yet? He also poisoned his foster father, who had raised him with care and love. He tried to steal the Joestar (yes, really) family fortune from his foster brother and willingly became a vampire to facilitate his ambitions. He stole the body of Jonathan Joestar after killing him and, after a hundred years at the bottom of the ocean he returned with the power of Stand to threaten the Joestars once more. It would ultimately take three generations of the Joestar lineage to bring an end to Dio, a man of unfathomable talent, charisma and ambition but very little notion of human kindness or decency.
Much of Dio’s impact lies in his presentation. From his arrogant boasting to his clever manipulations, Dio is always the spitting image of someone we have known and hated, whether for good reason or not. That very mundane kind of loathing, combined with his incredible power and generations spanning threat, combine to make him a very unsettling kind of evil. Dio is the kind of villain we all hope to eventually get away from.
He’s also the reminder that we never really will. The sheer scope of Dio’s life and impact on the world is staggering. Although it would take a hundred years and the efforts the six heroes known as the Stardust Crusaders to end Dio for good the results of his actions echoed through every chapter of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, a comic that has run for nearly thirty years. While presentation earned him a spot on this list the sheer scope of his villainy is enough to push him to fourth place.
3 – Darth Vader (Star Wars Episodes IV, V, IV)
In 1977 Darth Vader walked through an airlock, over the bodies of his enemies and into cinema legend as one of the most recognizable villains to ever grace the silver screen. He projected menace and power, crushed his enemies and nearly pulled a hero from the path of righteousness. His silhouette alone is instantly recognizable. To bring him to life required the towering presence of a bodybuilder, with a stunt double to fill in for his lightsaber battles, two separate costume designers, one to build his suit and another to craft his skull like helmet, the boneshaking bass voice of James Earl Jones and a sound design team to add in the uncanny rasping of his breath. Any character portrayed in film is a mix of multiple contributors but Vader combined the parts so thoroughly, made each piece so much a part of the identity, that to remove one would be to destroy the character in his entirety. Like a chimera or Frankenstein’s creature, Vader is many parts stitched together into a single whole. His very existence is somewhat monstrous.
Yes, I’ve said that all before. That doesn’t make it any less true now.
But Vader is also an example of something else – he is a villain redeemed. In spite of his unsettling presence, no matter the depths of the evil we see him endorse, he’s also a villain who is redeemed. From the human perspective redemption is not about atonement, which is a thing we cannot do, but about repentance. Many people have protested that simply saving the life of his son should not be enough to turn Darth Vader from the path of damnation because it couldn’t make up for all the wrongs he’d done.
He let Alderaan blow up. In one of the few things the prequels did to increase the impact of the original trilogy, he murdered children. (You may now commence the hate.) Let’s face facts – it wouldn’t matter what Vader did it wouldn’t make up for the wrong he’d done.
Vader’s moment of redemption come’s when he repents of his evil, demonstrates that by throwing off the evil that bound him (literally) and seeking forgiveness from the only person he could before he died – his son, Luke. In this character arc Darth Vader shows the tragedy of a true villain. For all his evil he never got close to peace or happiness.
2 – Legato Bluesummers (Trigun)
On the planet of Gunsmoke the descendants of a failed human colony fleet eek out a meager existence, doing their best to keep failing technology running while outlaws run rampant and threaten the peace. One of the greatest outlaws – supposedly – is Vash the Stampede, a gunslinger of superhuman abilities and endless bloodlust.
Or not. Vash is actually a goofball who would rather eat pancakes than shoot his gun and bends over backwards to keep everyone, even his enemies, alive to see another day. He loves life, his own and others, and he wants everyone to get all they can out of it.
Legato Bluesummers is his exact opposite.
As the commander of the Gung Ho Guns and the chief minion to Vash’s sociopathic brother Millions Knives (yes, really) Legato has only one purpose in life: To show Vash that his philosophy is worthless.
Where Vash tries to lift people up and inspire them to perfect themselves, Legato’s first attack is carried out by a man who was bought a slave and spent most of his life training to become a killing machine for the sole purpose of fighting Vash. Where Vash delights in times of peace for the people around him, Legato uses his powers to control them into forced suicides, reveling in the horror they feel as they realize they can no longer control themselves.
Did I not mention the Gung Ho Guns all have superhuman powers? They kind of need them to fight Vash. Even the names of Legato’s subordinates are on point – Monev the Gale, Dominique the Cyclops, E.G. Mine, Rai-Dei the Blade, Leonof the Puppetmaster, Gray the Ninelives, Hoppered the Gauntlet, Zazie the Beast, Caine the Longshot, Midvalley the Hornfreak and Chapel the Evergreen.
But they all answer to Legato, and it’s no wonder given that he can take over their body pretty much any time he wants. Ultimately, not even Vash can beat Legato’s powers. Vash is immune to control, sure, but he has friends who aren’t. And Legato doesn’t need to kill Vash, he just needs to prove that Vash’s commitment to not killing is untenable. So he asks Vash who should die.
And as Vash’s finger squeezes the trigger, Legato smiles. When he dies, he’s won.
Legato Bluesummers is the villain at his most horrifying. By standing against everything that’s good in a hero he calls those values into question and by breaking the hero he reminds us that nothing is certain, even those things most worthwhile.
Legato is also the villain at his most necessary. Because when Vash slowly pieces himself back together, collects himself and asks if it’s still worthwhile to stand by his values he decides it is. And that makes the story all the stronger. It’s what makes Legato Bluesummers such a valuable villain to understand. And it’s what makes him the strongest villain on this list, perhaps one of the best ever written.
So why is he number two? Well, my friends, that’s because we need to talk about…
Baron Klaus Wolfenbach (Girl Genius)
When Bill and Barry Heterodyne traveled the length and breadth of Europe, saving towns, defeating monsters, discovering SCIENCE! and generally making the continent a better place, Klaus Wolfenbach was right beside them. When they united the continent and Bill got married Klaus went off to parts unknown. Three years later he returned with his son on his back to find his two best friends missing, his castle in ruins and all the old feuds raging once again.
That was when he decided, in his own words, “No more negotiations, no more second chances. We did it my way – and it worked.”
Now Klaus Wolfenbach, lord of Castle Wolfenbach, keeper of the Pax Transylvania, rules all of Europe from the mountains of Romania to the walls of Paris. He expects local rulers to keep public works in order, does his best to keep taxes fair and generally tries not to intervene in local politics unless there’s another childish spat brewing. There’s no room for heroes in the Wolfenbach Empire, the Baron’s troops have a handle on things – and Klaus has put all the monsters to work anyways, thankyouverymuch.
The Corbettites keep the trains running through the wastelands and most people can live halfway comfortably without ever having to leave their city-states. The exceptional can catch the eye of the Baron or a local Spark and turn their genius to science, so long as they leave certain kinds of research to the Baron. Life goes smoothly in the Wolfenbach Empire. It’d be nice if Klaus could enjoy it.
The strangest thing about Klaus is that the whole iron-booted overlord schtick doesn’t sit well with him. He doesn’t want to babysit petulant children like the local lords and ladies, he doesn’t enjoy power half as much as his research, he hasn’t seen his wife in years. But…
There are the Heterodynes. No one’s sure what’s happened to them and Klaus sure seems to miss his friends and he takes their legacy pretty seriously, to the point where he lets people write or perform any kind of nonsense about their adventures they want, no matter how bad he looks in the story (so long as it’s funny), just to keep the legacy alive. And there’s the Other, the mysterious being who waged war with all Europe for two years before vanishing into the mists of history along with the Heterodyne brothers. Perhaps most of all there’s the sense of responsibility. He just can’t seem to step away and leave Europe to ruin itself.
If that means he has to hunt possible Heterodyne heirs over hill and stream to make sure they stay out of trouble, seize any artifacts of the Other and incarcerate everyone related to them, carve his way through the Other’s brainwashed servants, imprint his own personality on his son to keep him from the Other’s influence and ultimately lock an entire town outside the flow of time…
Well, these are the compromises one must make.
Nothing demonstrates Klaus’s potential for villainy than his treatment of his son, Gilgamesh. You see, Klaus is a good father. Maybe even a great one. He makes time for his son, teaches him the ropes of life, both as the ruler of a large nation and as a scientist. When Gil goes out and wins his first great battle Klaus drags himself out of his hospital bed, ignoring his doctor’s orders, and watches it happen. As Gil emerges victorious he returns to bed, considering the pain and potential long term consequences of his actions a small price to pay for witnessing his son’s success. He’s a tough but fair and, in many ways, doting father.
That doesn’t keep him from driving a wedge between Gil and his romantic interests and later engaging in preemptive brainwashing to keep Gil from being influenced by the Other.
Klaus is riddled with contradictions like this. He takes in the Heterodyne’s minions, the Jaegers, because in the past they were feared across the continent. And he owes the Heterodynes, so he’ll look after what’s theirs. He then turns the Jaegers into his own personal storm troops and makes their reputation even worse. He keeps the peace with an iron heel that breeds even more unrest than existed in the past. He approaches every problem with an attitude and desires that are understandable, even normal. But his methods and the outcomes are frequently horrific.
Klaus is the everyman’s villain. Not because he’s normal – in fact, he’s a spark, a mad genius with an intellectual capacity beyond the merely mortal. He comes from a long line of sparks and holds a hereditary title. He’s charismatic, more than a little lucky, dresses great and has the respect of pretty much every other monster out there. But people can have all those things and never amount to anything. What drives him to villainy – friendship, idealism, family – those are things we all understand.
It makes his villainy all the more relatable, disappointing and, sometimes, inspiring. We’d all like to know or be someone like Klaus. It’s very easy to say we wouldn’t go as far as he would but, as the man himself reminds us, actually making good on that promise can be very hard.
The best part about Klaus is that his story isn’t finished. That’s the biggest reason he’s a wildcard on this list, we don’t know the full breadth of his plans, motives and circumstances yet. Until we do he could be anything – a villain, redeemed or otherwise, an antihero or even a hero in his own right, if a very dark one. Until we know for sure he has to be a bit of an enigma to us, and for this reason he’s not officially ranked on this list. Although with all I’ve said, how could he be anything but the best?