In Brief: It’s rare a baddie gets a fair crack of the whip, when it comes to screen-time, their story being heard, or pretty much anything. Even Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost couldn’t change that; it did ask questions though, and at least try to show the grey areas between the black and white of good and bad. We’re programmed to want the good guys to win. It starts when we’re children. The Big Bad Wolf, the troll in The Three Billy Goat’s Gruff. You get the picture. Anyway, things aren’t always as simple as they seem, so we take a look at five on-screen villains (very specific versions of them, as acted by specifically named actors, as most have various representations over the years), investigating if they’re truly evil; if so, to what extent? We also investigate and assess which is the most frightening and why.
Ming (Max Von Sydow in Flash Gordon – 1980)
Insatiable is a good word to describe Ming. he wants absolute power. No questions. Yet, he does offer Flash a kingdom. Really, it’s probably just him resentfully recognising that he simply doesn’t have the capacity to rule everything at once. He has to have his enforcers; even then, they’re not safe. Ming shows just how truly merciless he is by having his own flesh and blood subjected to excruciating pain. There’s no doubt about it, he’s evil. Given, we don’t find out anything about his upbringing. Still, it’s a pretty clear-cut case. He’s evil. No more proof is needed than him demanding the poor ruler of a planet he has blasted into oblivion throws himself onto his sword, just to pledge fealty. That sort of cruelty is what makes Flash realise that there is no hope for him. He has to go.That, and he can’t let Ming have his wicked way with Dale. That’s his job . . .
Max Von Sydow does an absolutely incredible job of making a quietly menacing villain. There doesn’t need to be a huge show of power, by way of endless declarations of intent, or loud cries of “off with their head”. Everyone knows. A mere look by the late Sydow (who sadly passed away earlier this year) was enough to know that the Emperor has spoken. That voice, too. So instructive and direct, but with a slight mockery in it too. There are few who had such on screen charisma, and really Ming couldn’t have been the villain he was without the commanding presence of this powerhouse of a performance. He was the coldness that it’s in unadulterated evil, and showed his utter contempt for life by toying with his subjects, making them the toys in his game.
Looking back it’s undoubtedly one of the performances by an all out evil adversary. Ming has no desire for redemption. It’s not beyond the pale to say he might not even have a concept of that. All that matters to him is his desire to dominate everything (including Dale Arden), have his fun and then once he’s bored, expose of that which he caused him to grow weary. He states and justifies this position during the forced wedding of Dale Arden to the almighty Ming The Merciless. He’s mystical, cold and just about as sinister as they come. Don’t let the camp costume fool you, Ming is among the most evil of villains and for a movie seen by children truly chilling creation.
Fearsome Fiend Factor: 3.5/5
Darth Vader (David Prowse& James Earl Jones in Star Wars: A New Hope,The Empire Strikes Back & Return of the Jedi) 1977, 1980& 1983
Irreconcilable. That’s definitely true for a large part of the story of Darth Vader’s life. Something else true is that in terms of the first three films, Darth Vader is the most interesting character. He’s fully fleshed out, with a back story that has a turning point for him. This makes him mysterious, as well as asking some very important questions about what may have led to that, whether it was something done to him, or if there was something within him that was “activated”. The truth, as we find out via Hayden Christensen’s Anakin in “the prequels”, is a little of both. But we’re not concerned with Vader before he was Vader (though it can’t not get a mention), but the collaboration between two actors, who made one of the villains of the modern cinematic age.
From the first moment he’s seen on screen, there’s no doubt that Darth Vader is cool. He just is. Before you even see him speak you’re like “What? Who is that guy?” Then, the breathy voice is just something else. It’s more than just sinister, it’s deeply unnerving and you’re not quite sure whether he’s human. What you do know, straight-off is that he means business. It isn’t long before that’s proven, as he begins to dish out orders that you know will come with punishment if they aren’t carried out, unquestioningly. The sheer terror that he can wield gives instant darkness to what is largely a romp. Vader encompasses all of the darkness of the saga, early on.
The choice to have two actors collaborate and play this incredible character was inspired. Both elements are so vital to his legend. The imposing height and physical appearance and movement, wonderfully performed by David Prowse — (something often overlooked) shows his might, whist the voice of the unmistakable James Earl Jones had children the world over cupping their hands over their mouths and slowly repeating famous lines, that he first made famous. Of course, the most famous is “I am your father” (amusing when you that children would say this to one another). Perhaps that’s one way to truly understand how cool Darth Vader is as a movie villain. few kids wanted to be a “baddie” when they playing make-believe. Darth Vader changed all of that, as any kid who got to be him ( I always argued to get to be him) also got to end any discussion before it could progress to an argument. The force choke saw to that!
And now to the pressing issue: is Darth Vader evil? No. He’s just sort of very bitter on a galactic scale. He definitely has a much longer than average processing time, to work out his “issues”. Darth Vader shows that it’s entirely possible for all of us to succumb to the temptation of resentment’s pull, and to turn our back on love and openness, after a bad experience. What matters is the choice he makes in the end, and that’s what his story is all about. Despite years of emotional anguish and the physical pain of his condition (that would probably make any of us a bit moody), he comes good. Darth Vader’s story is about the slither of light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel. As long as you can still see that, then you can’t be classed as evil; evil can be in a person, inhabit their soul, but also eventually be extinguished from it. Darth Vader proves that.
Fearsome Fiend Factor: 3.0/5
General Zod (Terence Stamp in Superman II) 1980
Indomitable. At least for a while, as he sees Superman have his powers removed. Zod’s another one with a plan, who was rejected by the powers that be. General Zod had a plan that he claimed would save all of Krypton, Superman’s home planet. He was cast out as a crank and made to feel that his stature as a scientist, and indeed a citizen of Krypton, was secondary to those in power. Yes, the process was democratic and he was voted against fair and square, but still, he watched an entire planet burn, that he thought he could save. So, once his insurrection was quashed he was put in a sort of time prison, The Phantom Zone. basically, eternity trapped in a pane of glass. This is important in getting to grips with this guy, and his baggage. But enough of the story, to the General himself!
Terence Stamp is General Zod. Always will be. Forget whoever the other actor is, in whichever later film he appeared in. It’s all about the black-bin bag, shiny vinyl look and the smugness of him lording it over mortals, on Earth. After escaping from The Phantom Zone, Zod and his accomplices decide that they shall rule the Earth, as their right is such. Unlike Superman (Kal-el) they don’t want to stop disasters and avoid planes that are about to crash from doing so. Zod is everything that Superman isn’t. Stamp’s Zod is perfectly opposed to Christopher Reeves’ Superman (who nobody has ever come close to being as good as. Nowhere near; they never will). He is superior and wants to be worshiped, holds human life with no regard at all. For him, the Earth is simply there as his plaything. He deems himself to have a right to rule it, and do so how he sees fit. Stamp is all of the superiority that Reeves does not feel. He’s bitter and wants to punish Superman, above all else. He knows the best way to do that is via hurting humanity. Stamp flounces about the planet and demands he be treated as the God he says he is. It’s his absolute conviction and belief that this is the natural order of things that makes him so brilliant, and a legend among space tyrants.
Perhaps the nature of anyone who wants power is a good place to start, in ascribing evil to Zod. The only way to measure him is against Superman. It’s who these two people are inside that cause their external selves to be visible to others. Definitely, Zod is self-important. That may be said of any General, though. Anyone who wants to get to that position has to be perfectly comfortable with dishing out orders to others. The role itself requires subordinates. maybe it’s inevitable that he wishes to place the Earth under his command, and not surprising that he sees resistance as something to be crushed. Yes, he is brutal and wants to rule with an iron grip, but it must be stated that he did want to rule, and didn’t want to simply destroy everything. Evil , in the pure sense isn’t the most accurate way to describe him. He’s basically a tyrant, who will shed blood if he is opposed, but would prefer to subjugate people peacefully. Maybe his punishment was a bit severe, but he takes it a bit far. He’s a very bad guy, but beneath the slightly BDSM costume, isn’t the root of darkness and evil, but he does need to be stopped. Luckily, he is.
Fearsome Fiend Factor: 3.7/5
Khan (Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek II: Wrath of Kahn) 1982
Insane. Before his cementing as the single most dangerous foe The Enterprise ever encountered (as says Spock), Kahn demonstrated his ambition to take over the entire Universe. He’s a product of eugenics, along with his crew of the U.S.S. Botany Bay. He’s human, but enhanced, including a thirst for power and increased ambition. The establishing of this takes place in the events of “Space Seed” in Star Trek (TOS) in 1967. Whilst the same character, Kahn Noonien Singh is played by Ricardo Montalban, the version of him we see in 1982 in Star Trek II: Wrath of Kahn is much more devastating. In short, he’s been exiled to a planet with a hostile environment for some time.
The decision to have Kahn return as the chief villain of the second big-screen adventure for is absolutely inspired. Montalban manages to give a truly chilling development. In effect he’s imprisoned in an open-air cell. He has learned to adapt and to survive, and it’s perhaps no shock that his fury has time to develop and to start to be the driving force of his life. He wants revenge and wants Captain Kirk to see that he has indeed contributed in making a monster. Now, that monster is on the loose and is coming to give some serious payback to the person he holds responsible for his fate. The slow delivery of his “charges” against Kirk, and his will to carry out his plans is something that Montalban captures so wonderfully. A truly brilliant actor, who was always going to have to be something massive to compete with William Shatner’s Captain Kirk.
During the film there is a reference to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the great epic poem which deals with Lucifer’s expulsion from Heaven, by God. Kahn captures all of the thematic content of this, and presents himself as a being who had had his fate decided. In doing so, he utterly justifies any of what he deems necessary. He will go to any lengths to achieve his aim, as he now considers it to be some sort of divine purpose. His unwillingness to bend is captured well in “that” scene, where he gets the awful bug and watches as it enters Chekov’s helmet, then his ear. Kahn narrates the event and in doing so sort of vindicates his means to an end as unavoidable. It’s his seeming invulnerability to being affected by seeing others suffer that is a sort of a superpower.
It must be said that Kahn wants to protect what are left of his crew, and is also driven by something that he didn’t ask to have. He had no choice in having superior ambition. No, that doesn’t mean that he just can’t help it and should get a free pass. What it does mean is that he was created, and it’s possibly that which first made Kirk take some pity on him. All that changes when Kahn’s actions result in Spock having to sacrifice himself. He goes too far and pushes Kirk past his limits. Not a good idea; in some ways, Kahn’s genius is that he ends up making Kirk have to be like he is. As Kahn has others to protect it’s unfair to say he is inherently evil, but he’s definitely capable of extreme cruelty and at times has no remorse whatsoever. He’s up there with the worst of them all, in the best possible way.
Fearsome Fiend Factor: 4.6/5
Thanos (Josh Brolin in Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame) 2018&2019
Inevitable, by his own declaration. The character is pretty much a take on the Greek concept of the personification of death, Thanatos. That dude was a small player, a bit part, in the many Gods, Goddesses and the like. The MCU version of Thanos certainly isn’t. He’s the culmination of twenty films. When he did finally arrive he didn’t mess about. Additionally, it was the worth the wait to see him and find out things from his own perspective, that put a very different spin on things than him simply having his motivations told to us by our heroes. We got to hear him tell us why he was so set on his mission.
First appearing on screen in Avengers Assemble (2012), in the post-credit scene (that the MCU is now legendary for), Thanos was shrouded in mystery. He was after the infinity stones. That much was clear. It wasn’t until we saw him depicted as Josh Brolin’s incarnation that we really got the low-down on why he wanted the stones. All we knew up until then was how far Thanos was willing to go to get what he wanted. This will have been nothing new to fans of Marvel comics, who will have seen him get up to all sorts, over the years. Whilst we’re focusing on his role in the MCU, and so on the big screen, it’s only fair to at least mention his status as a villain in comic-book lore. if for no other reason than to point out he’s not always been and out and out bad-guy. He’s teamed up with lots of superheroes over the years, for many reasons.
The big question: is Thanos evil? It’s maybe not as cut and dry as that. He’s capable of evil deeds, and cruelty in the extreme. His treatment of Nebula shows that; no doubt, to her, he’s evil (the version who gets tortured, anyway). To look at the evidence objectively means accepting that to him, he was doing the best thing for the bigger picture of existence. He was re-installing order, bringing about peace from the chaos that has become. Those who had loved ones taken don’t think that, though. There are examples of him having mercy. He does choose at random who goes. He spares Tony Stark. This doesn’t make him eligible for an award or anything, or necessarily even redeem his other awful deeds. What Thanos is, is complex. It’s why he was such a good villain and the wait and build- up to him paid off. You see two very different sides to him in both the films that concern his story arc (two versions of him both at different points along their scheme). He’s such a good character that despite him being decapitated, with the use of time-travel now an option (and soon, probably other ways of having dead characters appear in different guises, via the Multiverse etc.,) it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see him make another appearance, this time teaming up with established heroes . . .
Fearsome Fiend Factor: 4.3/5
And there it is. Kahn takes the trophy. He’s responsible for what happens to Spock, and the creepy crawly thing is just the stuff of nightmares. Maybe they should be measured by their acts alone, and if so then Thanos would win hands down, as he is responsible for the most life being taken. Even Ming only wants to mess with Earth, before ruling it. In some ways that’s the same as General Zod. Darth Vader is a different beast, altogether. He is terrifying, does destroy Leah’s home-world and murders a great many, but soon the mask is what shields his acts. Kahn does all he does with a human face and the look on it when he watches Chekov suffer is more frightening than any others’ on the list, when they are carrying out their dastardly deeds. It’s the notion of quiet pleasure that he takes, and the slow creeping evil that is slowly consuming him completely that sets him apart. Post your own lists, debate this, discuss alternatives and state your cases! Just remember, be nice and maintain respect. Otherwise, you’ll get Chekov’s treatment . . .