Most villains are used as plot devices to build and shape the story of the hero, but some antagonists are so intriguing by themselves that they completely overshadow the main character. Charismatic villains are the car crash of characters; horrible, disturbing, and yet impossible to look away from. Despite committing unspeakable and irredeemable crimes, each person has a largely intangible quality that draws the eye of viewers everywhere.
To be charismatic, villains must possess some form of attraction or charm, no matter how twisted, that can influence those around them by sheer force of their personality. They are complex, clever individuals who build unique and complicated relationships with the main characters.
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Charismatic villains often give glimpses of humanity and multifaceted motivations that the audience can relate to. However, their actions are cloaked in a complete disregard for the laws of society and a lack of conscious.
These six iconic antagonists have become arguably just as famous as—or more famous than—their heroic counterparts. Their consistent widespread popularity is a result of a compelling personality coupled with a willingness to do whatever it takes to get what they want—a combination that viewers have long found fascinating.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter
Dr. Hannibal Lecter of The Silence of the Lambs is a former psychiatrist who has been imprisoned for killing and eating his victims. FBI trainee Clarice Starling is assigned to interview Dr. Lecter in hopes of finding a lead on another serial killer.
Dr. Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins, uses Starling’s weaknesses and desires to manipulate her into trading personal information in return for guidance with the case. Lecter becomes fascinated by Starling and helps lead her to the killer before finally escaping from his cell.
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Dr. Hannibal Lecter is the poster boy for being compelling precisely because he is so confusing. It feels as though cannibals should be rudimentary, primal beings incapable of higher thought. Lecter goes against everything that audiences and Clarice expect him to be. He has a code of conduct and yet is unfettered by societal norms. He is striking in his dark humor, intensity, and master manipulation. Dr. Lecter embodies the uncanny, but also sports flawless manners (besides the whole cannibal thing, of course) and a surprising respect for Clarice.
He is composed, enjoys fine art and music, and is always one step ahead of everyone else. In the midst of chaos and the vulgarity of the criminals around him, Lecter is calm, seemingly always in control of his emotions and desires.
Despite being behind bars, Lecter maintains the power and the upper hand throughout the film.
The Dark Knight’s Joker is arguably one of the most famous and iconic villains throughout film and television history. The film was one of the last that Heath Ledger acted in before his tragic death, and he received several awards posthumously.
The Joker is, as he says himself, an agent of anarchy. He is the polar opposite of Dr. Lecter, delighting in the pain and chaos he orchestrates, and acting largely on impulse. Although the casting of Heath Ledger certainly didn’t hurt his magnetism, the real draw of the Joker is that he doesn’t fit into any sort of category. His sole motivation is to reveal the darkness in others and to disrupt the social order. He is at once totally unguarded and blunt, while also mysterious and impossible to pin down.
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The Joker is indulgent of his every whim, and is constantly playing a character while also mortally human in his scars and tragic past. And most importantly for any good villain, he is always one step ahead, outsmarting and outmaneuvering his every rival.
Killing Eve’s lead antagonist, Villanelle, is a skilled assassin who revels in her job and the money that comes with it. Jodie Comer’s portrayal of the childlike and flamboyant character charmed audiences even as Villanelle committed brutal kills.
Despite having all the characteristics of a psychopath, Villanelle becomes a significantly more complex and relatable character throughout her relationship with and growing obsession for Eve Polastri, the M15 agent tracking her. Behind her constant shopping trips and attention-seeking plots is a wickedly smart femme fatale who is unapologetic in what she wants and how far she will go to get it.
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Although Villanelle’s casual cruelty doesn’t make for someone we’d want to hang out with, it is difficult not to get swept up in the dramatics and excitement that follow her every step.
Truly, only Alan Rickman could portray a German terrorist in such an intriguing way. Hans Gruber of Die Hard plots to break into the Nakatomi Plaza in order to steal $640 million in bonds. Throughout the film, Gruber goes head to head with New York cop John McClane, with the two trading barbs and beatings.
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Gruber’s dry sense of humor, cool and composed manner, and striking appearance steal the show, overshadowing even his most violent of moments. Gruber is impeccably dressed, controlled, and even-tempered throughout the heist. Even the many obstacles presented by McClane seem to do little more than annoy Gruber.
Although Gruber’s actions are measured, he is constantly surprising viewers with his evolving and multifaceted schemes.
Tom Hiddleston plays the God of Mischief in Thor and several of the other Marvel Universe films. Loki is the adoptive brother of Thor, who he resents for being their father’s obvious favorite. Loki is constantly switching sides and acting in his own self-interest, making for an unpredictable and mysterious character.
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Throughout the franchise, Hiddleston plays a silver-tongued, deeply flawed individual who is almost laughably bad at pulling off his evil schemes. Loki is at once both unfazed in his failure and over-the-top dramatic in his actions. He is one of the more sympathetic characters on our list, with several redeeming factors. His sibling rivalry, although held on a larger scale than most people can relate to, is both endearing, and, at times, heartbreaking.
His dry wit and Hiddleston’s good looks don’t hurt his charm, either.
Another complex and surprisingly charismatic Marvel Universe villain is Kilgrave, of the show Jessica Jones. However, David Tennant’s character is far less ambiguous than the trickster god, and comes with approximately zero redeeming qualities.
Kilgrave developed the ability to control other people’s minds and actions as a result of experiments his parents performed on him as a child. After Kilgrave was abandoned by his parents, he grew up unchecked in his powers, using them to abuse those around him.
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As a rapist, murderer, and abuser, Kilgrave is the perfect example of the vast distinction that lies between being charismatic and being likable (or at the very least, being a decent human being). Tennant’s portrayal of a villain who does unspeakable things and yet still maintains an aura of charm is chilling in its complexity.
Kilgrave is resilient, ruthless, and, unlike many of the other villains listed, leaves scars both physical and emotional long after he leaves.