In most stories, villains are destined to lose. The heroes will inevitably foil their plans, they’ll make simple mistakes and as a result the villain comes off as looking completely incompetent, even if they’re supposedly effective. But there’s some villains that manage to avoid that. They’re so efficient and savvy about their evil that even if they ultimately fall, we have to be impressed by all they accomplished beforehand. A lot of these bad guys even manage to triumph in some way even when the heroes defeat them. And some of them even win completely. They wisely avoid all the pitfalls typical villains fall into and even comment that they’re aware of the cliché and won’t fall for it. They’re genuinely entertaining to watch because of this.
So let’s take a look at some of the savviest villians out there and admit that even if they’re bad, they’re good at what they do. Do you have a favorite on-the-ball villain? Say so in the comments!
Loki from Marvel Comics
As with most villians who have a long history in comics, Loki has made plenty of foolish gaffes throughout his career, but his more recent incarnations definitely bear mentioning as impressive, mostly because Loki realized he had become predictable and doomed to failure as villain. Looking back on his string of schemes, he realized that he wasn’t really living up to his name as a chaotic trickster and he was now “boring”.
So he engineered it so he would die saving Asgard from a crisis he bought about and be reborn as a child with no memory of his past crimes and personality like that of before he turned to evil. Knowing himself as he did, he knew his child self would be smart and unpredictable enough to save the day several time and also be a genuinely good person who would prove himself beyond a shadow of a doubt and win the hearts of many.
But he also wanted to keep his old self, with his memories intact. So he arranged it so he would be restored to his child self after a period, effectively “killing” that version of himself. Whew! You’ve got to admire a villain who realizes they’ve slipped into a rut of failure and goes to such lengths to stop it
Toffee from Star vs The Forces of Evil
The villains from Star vs the Forces of Evil were hilariously incompetent…that is, until Toffee came along. He started out pretending to be a minion, but soon had successfully taking over the organization, ousting the former boss. From there, the villain group went from ludicrously ineffective to terrifyingly effective. His plan to destroy Star’s wand was successful (it partially reformed, but this may have also been part of the plan) and before disappearing in the explosion that ensued, he smiled in satisfaction. It’s still unknown what his full plan was, but it seems he got exactly what he wanted.
Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars
Though Palpatine ultimately lost, how he rose to power is definitely impressive. While putting on the facade of a goodhearted public servant, he took over the Republic though deception and subterfuge, instigating the Clone Wars and nearly wiping out the Jedi. He even successfully manipulated Anakin into joining the Dark Side- though that eventually backfired on him. He transformed an entire Republic into his own Empire and by the time everyone realized what he was doing, it was too late to stop him.
Kingpin from Daredevil
Kingpin from Netflix’s Daredevil quickly proved himself formidable in several ways. He was so feared as a crime boss it took Matt forever to even find out his name. And throughout the show, even as Matt won many victories, he was able to stay one step ahead of him for most of the show. He successfully managed to frame him for murder and then when it looked like things were falling apart and Matt was going to be able to expose how shady he was to New York- he went public. The timing was so impeccable that just as Ben Urich was writing his article blasting him for operating in the shadows, he went on TV talking about how he could no longer operate in the shadows. Even when he couldn’t manage to kill Matt, he successfully manipulated him into killing a potential business rival. It was truly an example of impressive villainy.
Thanos from Marvel Comics
Thanos is the Marvel Universe’s counterpart to Darkseid. He has such incredible godlike power that he is able to take out half the heroes of the Marvel Universe with the snap of a finger. He would be unstoppable if it weren’t for the fact he feels deep down he is not worthy of the ultimate power and allows himself to be defeated as a result.
Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender
From the second she showed up on Avatar, Azula showed she was a force to be reckoned with. She was relentless and unstoppable in her pursuit of the Avatar. She flawlessly infiltrated the stronghold city of Ba Sing Se and made its agents and soldiers her own, outsmarting even the devious Long Feng. Her coup can best be summed up by the exchange between them when she took over- Long Feng told her she’d beaten him at his own game. She replied, “Don’t flatter yourself. You were never even a player.”
Azula then successfully manipulated her brother, Zuko, into betraying his uncle and coming to her side. She was even smart enough to attack Aang while he was powering up. She would have killed him were it not for Katara’s quick intervention (in fact, she did- he visited the Spirit World and everything before Katara bought him back). But even with that, she knew she couldn’t assume the Avatar was dead without seeing his body- so she told her father Zuko killed him, knowing that if the Avatar did turn up alive, he would now be blamed instead of her.
Azula probably would have continued to triumph if it weren’t for her fragile mental state. Having her friends rebel made her realize she couldn’t control everything and all her issues- her desperate desire to please her father, the fact she felt unloved by her departed mother- came boiling to the surface. She lost herself and lost the fight as a result, but she sure was formidable before that.
Darkseid from DC Comics
Though Darkseid is often delayed or stopped by the heroes when he threatens Earth and other planets, he is never truly thwarted- after all, no matter what happens, he still rules and enslaves the entire world of Apokolips. He can’t be imprisoned and even death is often temporary. He’s subjugated several other planets in addition to the one he rules. He’s powerful on a godlike level and can basically do whatever he wants. On Superman the Animated Series, he very memorably murdered a man in front of Superman and there was nothing Supes could do about it.
In the series finale of the cartoon, Superman invaded Apokolips and actually managed to overpower Darkseid, only to discover he’d won the battle but could never truly win the war. When Superman showd that he had defeated Darkseid and declared the citizens of Apokolips free, rather than using the opportunity to escape they chose to rescue their tyrannical ruler. Darkseid’s hold on his subjects was so intense that he can never truly be defeated, even when he technically beaten. As he told Superman with satisfaction “Here, I am God.”
Littlefinger from Game of Thrones
Littlefinger from the A Song of Ice and Fire series has been responsible for many of the deaths in the series and has so far managed to stay under the radar unscathed. He assassinated the Hand of the King and manipulated things so Ned Stark was executed. He aided in Joffrey’s assassination as well, successfully retrieving Sansa (who he has a weird affection for because of his crush on her late mother) from him and securing a better king for Westeros. He set in motion a civil war and murdered Lysa as well- now he’s more powerful than he’s ever been and well on the way to seizing more power.
David Xanatos from Gargoyles
David Xanatos from the cartoon Gargoyles was so clever about his villainy that he even got a TV Trope named after him- The Xanatos Gambit. According to the page “a Xanatos Gambit is a plan where all forseeable outcomes benefit the creator- including ones that superficially appear to be failure.” In other words, David would arrange things so that he would benefit even if the heroes managed to succeed in thwarting his apparent plan.
An example of this is the episode “Leader of the Pack” where David sent a robot to break the mercenary group he funds, The Pack, out of prison. The plan was thwarted and the Pack was defeated by the heroes, but David achieved his true plan. The leader of the group, a woman named Fox who was David’s true love, refused to escape the others, just as David knew she would. Her refusal to escape impressed the Parole board and she got off early thanks to her good behavior. This was David’s true motivation all along and he achieved that goal perfectly. In addition to this, he got to test out his robot. Win-Win for everyone. You have to admire a villain who knows how to win even when he loses.
Chara from Undertale
Chara from Undertale deserves special mention, though the “villainy” part is really the fault of the player later on. Chara’s revenge plan against humanity as a child was extremely elaborate and well thought out, especially for a ten-year-old.
They poisoned themself and successfully convinced their adopted sibling Asriel to absorb their soul when they died. Under the guise of returning Chara’s body to the place they were born, Asriel was then able to cross the barrier separating humans and monsters. Then when the humans saw this monster with the dead body of a child, they assumed the monster killed the child and attacked. Chara’s plan would have successfully started an all-out war between monsters and humans that would have easily destroyed the humans they loathed, but Asriel balked at the idea of killing at the last second.
Of course there would have been simpler, more fool-proof ways to carry out this plan- such as Chara killing a monster and absorbing their soul and then crossing the barrier- but one can assume Chara felt affection for the monsters and didn’t want to do that. (The horrible way they chose to kill themself may also indicate genuine suicidal feelings as well).
But when you, the player, start killing monsters left and right, you awaken Chara’s spirit and seemingly show them that ruthlessly killing everything is the best way to do things. After this, Chara takes over and you become truly unstoppable, defeating every monster in your way and destroying the world. Chara (and you, the player) are such effective villains that you win permanently. And if the player tries to back out of destroying the world at the last minute? Chara kills you too, showing them they are truly not in control anymore. That’s scary.
Ozymandias from Watchmen
Ozymandias was so good at being a villain that he did what very few of them manage- he won. He successfully managed to manipulate everyone in the entire story- murdering the Comedian, framing Rorschach and even faking an attempt on his own life. Then he manipulated the entire planet, faking am alien invasion (and causing a huge death toll) in order to unite the warring countries against a common threat.
Probably one of the most memorable parts of the comic was when Ozymandias explained his complex plan, and when Nite Owl vowed to stop him, said “I’m not a Republic serial villain. Do you seriously think I'd explain my masterstroke if there was the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome? I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”
Dude knows his tropes. And because the other heroes wanted to maintain the world peace he’d created, he even got off scot-free.
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