The Best Antagonists of the Decade

Along with seeing an influx of ‘Best of’ lists reflecting on the past 12 months, most critic sites are also reflecting on the past ten years as we head into a new decade. Whilst everyone is debating what the best films and performances were, we wanted to focus on a factor that has changed dramatically since 2010: the antagonist.

Gone are the days of good verses evil, black and white morals, and moustache-twirling super-villains who are evil just for the hell of it. Of course there are traces of these stereotypes in our antagonists, but they have evolved into characters with morally complex issues that challenge our protagonist’s beliefs. We even find ourselves agreeing with the antagonists at certain points in modern films. What creates a strong conflict with the protagonist is a character who actually wants to achieve the same thing but has a morally wrong way of going about it. Like starting a war or wiping half of all life in the universe.

Without further ado, below are five standout antagonists from the past ten years. These characters have heartbreaking backstories, challenge the protagonist in interesting ways or are just downright some of the most evil beings we’ve ever seen on the silver screen. Whatever the case, all are memorable and deserve to be recognised as fantastic movie antagonists.

Amy Dunne – ‘Gone Girl’ (2014)

Amy Dunne (Rosemund Pike) in conversation with someone in the film Gone Girl.

David Fincher and Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of Flynn’s novel was at once an entertaining romp and a (not so subtle) commentary about media speculation and manipulation. What initially starts out as an intriguing mystery surrounding Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and his missing wife, Amy (Rosemund Pike), eventually turns into a cat and mouse thriller after the shocking end of act one reveal: that Amy is alive and exacting revenge on her unfaithful husband. With some fantastic writing and acting that brings the full cast to life, its Amy Dunne that takes the spotlight thanks to Pike’s performance showing just how far she will go to enact her plan. Amy isn’t just committed, she is intelligent too. The impossibly thorough plan she concocts to frame Nick for her own murder is at once genius but twisted too; whilst again showing just how far Amy is willing to take things. When the tables flip and Nick starts getting the upper hand, Amy is quick-witted enough to improvise and gain control of the situation again. That does lead however to self-mutilation and the grisly murder of one of her ex-lovers. Amy weaponisation of the media as the main idea in her malicious plan speaks volumes about media manipulation; which is more relevant than ever especially when you look at the recent UK General Election and how it was represented in certain news corporations. She manages to play the general public like fiddle, creating the image of a victim the masses root for and fabricating a narrative the world is compelled by. This is a very modern antagonist and even though she is behind some very horrific doings, much like everyone in the film, we simply can’t look away.

Terence Fletcher – ‘Whiplash’ (2014)

Terence Fletcher (J.K Simmons) conducting an intense jazz session in the film Whiplash.

Not all antagonists are murderers. Some are jazz instructors who push their students to their absolute limit to achieve greatness. In a very deserving Oscar-winning performance, J.K Simmons is absolutely terrifying as Fletcher, which we see right from the opening scene. The shaven head and stern face shows us a man with a short fuse, and protagonist Andrew’s (Miles Teller) nervous responses to Fletcher’s questions tells us you don’t want to be near him when that fuse lights up. Many of the film’s highlights come from the scenes where Fletcher explodes. He does serious damage throwing instruments at his students but what hurts most are Fletcher’s words. His bullying and abusive nature cuts deep with the students and we see through Andrew how they have long-term affects. Over the course of the film, Andrew and Fletcher build a complex relationship where they constantly clash but both have the same desire: to push Andrew into becoming a new musical prodigy. This forces us to question Fletcher’s morals and whether he is right in pushing Andrew past his breaking point both physically and mentally. The film makes you ponder that question long after the credits roll because of its exhilarating finale where the two adversaries push each other to greatness in a battle of will and wit during a concert performance. Fletcher succeeds in moulding Andrew into a star drummer, and Andrew seems to have achieved his personal desire through that, but there is a sense of foreboding as we know what Andrew has lost along the way and what he will no doubt lose in the future.  

Kylo Ren – ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ (2017)

Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) inside a futuristic room, staring at something off screen in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Before Disney ushered in a new era of Star Wars films with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, fans were concerned that we were in for another mopey teenager akin to Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) after the trailers rolled out, but thankfully what we got with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) was a complicated villain with huge internal struggles. Kylo is constantly being pushed and pulled between the light and dark side thanks to his parents Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), but also the influence of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). In The Force Awakens we were introduced to Kylo but it was in The Last Jedi where we truly understood him. Shedding light on his backstory with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) showed us that Kylo had all the potential to do good in the galaxy, learning the way of the Jedi under Luke’s watch. All it took was one fatal mistake from the Jedi Master for Kylo to turn his back on the Jedi and be seduced by Snoke and the dark side. It is a tragic story and one Driver always reminds of us through his strong performance; showcasing the many emotions bottled inside that always end up seeping out. As tragic as Kylo seems, he nonetheless commits some terrible acts and racks up a worryingly high body count. His most pivotal scene in Snoke’s throne room takes his character into an exciting direction: “Let old things die…” Kylo is betrayed by both Snoke and Luke, who are symbols of past generations, and wants to begin a new era that moves on from the failures of the Jedi and the Sith. Of course his way of going about this change is through violence and control. With the last chapter still yet to show us how Kylo’s arc will end, its impressive that he has already made his mark as an iconic antagonist.

The Armitage Family – ‘Get Out’ (2017)

A white family posing for a photo in front of a large house from the film Get Out.

Director Jordan Peele broke onto the scene back in 2017 with this tightly-written horror comedy that features a great performance from Daniel Kaluuya in the lead role. This sharp satire about race wouldn’t be nearly as memorable if not for the whole Armitage family. On the surface they seem like a relatively-normal family who welcome Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) with open arms as proudly liberal folk. The father, Dean (Bradley Whitford), states to Chris in the now ironic line that he would of “voted for Obama for a third term.” Of course there are little moments that give us the sense that something is amiss: young brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) reveals his violent nature at the dinner table in a conversation about mixed martial arts, mother Missy (Catherine Keener) using her hypnosis to transport Chris to the Sunken Place. These characters really echo the horror of wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing characters but none so much as Chris’ girlfriend and daughter of the family Rose (Allison Williams). For the entire film she is the one Chris can trust and therefore the one the audience can trust. On the surface she proves her innocence by sticking up for Chris in situations with the police and with her extended family but all that security melts away with probably the film’s most horrifying line: “You know I can’t give you the keys, right, babe?” Rose, all along, has been using the image of an innocent white woman to get her way with Chris, the authorities and countless black victims; which is one of the most horrifying aspects of the Armitage Family.

Killmonger – ‘Black Panther’ (2018)

Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) standing inside an Afro-Futuristic throne room, from the film Black Panther.

Marvel has had such a huge influence on cinema in the past decade that it was guaranteed someone from that universe would make it onto this list. Their ‘Phase Three’ feature Black Panther, deservedly so, garnered praise from audiences and critics alike for its story, world-building and visual aesthetic. Also being praised was Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the film’s antagonist to the righteous protagonist T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who was being compared to Heath Ledger’s portrayal of Joker in The Dark Knight. Killmonger absolutely stands beside Joker as a true cinematic antagonist of our time and is a fantastic example of what an antagonist should be. He wants the same thing as T’Challa, to bring peace across the world, but of course has a radical way of achieving that goal. Going further though, Killmonger directly challenges T’Challa’s beliefs of hiding Wakanda and therefore restricting aid to other black nations and communities. Killmonger wants to utilise Wakanda’s technology and reveal the nation to the world whilst T’Challa wants to keep it all a secret. The clash of ideologies between the two characters highlight the film’s themes of race, class and colonialism but Killmonger brings forth some truths that not only T’Challa hides from but what Hollywood cinema usually hides from too. It all comes from Killmonger’s backstory of being abandoned by the nation of Wakanda and its king as a young boy, a mistake the generation made back then that T’Challa wants to fix. Killmonger wants to empower other people of colour so they don’t feel abandoned like he did as a child but of course that power is through armed violence. Killmonger works because he is designed to be an antagonist we truly empathise with and is wrong not because of what he wants but how he achieves that desire. Even in his final moments, Killmonger sent shivers down audiences spines and will do for years to come.