Christopher Nolan’s Villains Ranked from Worst to Best


In terms of intricate plot development and its interaction with story themes and ideas, there are few directors working today more significant than Christopher Nolan. His mind-bending story ideas and meticulousness have made for some of the most entertaining and engrossing high-budget movies of the last twenty years, but Nolan has also created some of the most interesting movie villains of recent history. The tension of his films is often predicated upon the abilities of his villains, and the quality of the antagonist can consequently make or break the movie.

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Since Christopher Nolan’s movies have created some of the most compelling (and surprising) villains on-screen over the last couple of decades, it seems appropriate that there should be a ranking of them, from least to most compelling. This is a ranking based on how well they function as villains: how good they are at ratcheting up the intensity of the plot and playing as the counterpart to the protagonists of the film. Since some of these characters are surprise villains or involve dramatic story twists, here is your spoiler warning.

12. Talia Al Ghul in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’

Played by Marion Cotillard

Image via Warner Bros.

The Dark Knight Rises had a perfectly compelling villain already in Tom Hardy’s Bane, who worked well as the counterpart to Batman in the story. It was Bane who defeated and banished Batman, ransacked Bruce Wayne’s armory, and put Gotham City under a pall of fear. Wayne’s return to the city and revival are motivated by his drive to save the city and take down Bane in their final clash. When it is revealed in the final act twist that the real villain behind the scenes was Talia Al Ghul (Marion Cotillard), it is an unnecessary addition that doesn’t really do much of anything for the plot, and arguably subverts the story arc and drama that was provided by Bane up until that point.

11. Dr. Mann in ‘Interstellar’

Played by Matt Damon

Matt Damon as Dr. Mann in Interstellar
Image via Paramount Pictures

Matt Damon in Interstellar plays the once-heroic Dr. Mann whose long isolation warps his mind until he sabotages the mission of human survival in order to save his own skin. The film production did an excellent job of keeping Damon’s involvement in the project a secret, and so both his presence in the film and his villainous twist were well-concealed until the movie hit theaters.

Dr. Mann is in an odd place in the lineup of Nolan’s villains; he is a decent villain in his own right and does an admirable job of displaying the themes of self-interest and the flaws of misplaced faith in abstract scientific calculations. Despite all of that, somehow he still comes off as a glorified extra in the movie. The film itself had a compelling plot about human survival and the struggles involved in it before Dr. Mann was introduced, and ultimately, not too much is lost from the drama of the movie if he is cut out of it. He makes an interesting impact in his limited capacity and accelerates the climax of the movie, but he is not a villain so central to the story that he is irreplaceable.

Interstellar
Release Date
November 7, 2014

Runtime
169 minutes

Main Genre
Sci-Fi

10. Sator in ‘Tenet’

Played by Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh as Sator in Tenet
Image via Warner Bros.

Kenneth Branagh is an excellent actor, and his turn as a villain is suitably sinister in the mind-warping plot that is Tenet. His menacing growl and devious plans always have him one step ahead of the game, leaving John David Washington’s Protagonist grasping at straws and continually playing catch-up in a high-stakes spy game that bends the rules of time (as well as the audience’s tolerance for complex inaudible dialogue).

While Branagh makes for a suitably vile character, Tenet is a movie where the fascinating story concept itself tends to overshadow all the characters in it. When your protagonist is simply named Protagonist, it is a pretty heavy signal that the story itself is more important than the characters in it. While the concept is compelling, the villain of Tenet is easy to lose in the unending layers of intersecting timelines.

Tenet
Release Date
August 22, 2020

Runtime
195

9. Scarecrow in ‘Batman Begins’

Played by Cillian Murphy

Cillian Murphy as Scarecrow in Batman Begins
Image via Warner Bros.

Scarecrow is not classically imposing or menacing, but can turn on a dime and become completely terrifying when the audience least expects it. Cillian Murphy plays the role of Dr. Jonathan Crane to the hilt in Batman Begins, lulling his victims and the audience into a false sense of security over his pencil-pushing, unimposing exterior before completely flipping the script in a psychologically terrifying turn.

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The first scene where he dons the Scarecrow mask is a perfect encapsulation of this: the initially quiet bespectacled Murphy slowly slides into slightly creepy territory as the audience senses that something strange is afoot before he becomes instantly menacing while introducing a key element of the plot of the movie. One thing that detracts from his overall success, however, is that he is ultimately overshadowed in the end by the other villain of the movie.

8. Bane in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’

Played by Tom Hardy

Tom Hardy as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises
Image via Warner Bros.

The better villain in The Dark Knight Rises is the one who really should have been the focus of attention the entire time. Tom Hardy’s Bane pushes Christian Bale’s Batman to the limit by acting as a sort of evil twin: everything that Bruce Wayne has learned to do, Bane can do better. The showdown beneath the city proves Bane as a force to be reckoned with, as he subverts the darkness Batman has used as his ally and turns it on the hero, while punishing Wayne for his hubris in seeking out and underestimating his opponent.

7. Ra’s Al Ghul in ‘Batman Begins’

Played by Liam Neeson

Liam Neeson as Ra’s Al Ghul in Batman Begins
Image via Warner Bros.

In a “surprise villain” twist that worked much more effectively than that of Talia, Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul in Batman Begins was an excellent counterpart to Bruce Wayne in the origin story of Batman. The villain is a thoroughly fleshed-out character, shifting from the strict but supportive mentor character of the first act to the obsessed avenging force at the end of the movie. While it was a late reveal, Neeson’s character made a perfect opponent for Batman to overcome in the first film. The man who taught him everything he knows about fighting is the one he must surpass in order to establish who he really is as a hero.

6. Mal in ‘Inception’

Played by Marion Cotillard

Marion Cotillard as Mallorie Cobb holding out a gun in Inception.
Image via Warner Bros.

The villain of Inception works so well because she is an element of the plot concept itself, and part of the dreamscape that is the foundation of the story. Mal is a character in a world between worlds: an integral part of every dream the hero has, she is the manifestation of the troubled mind of Leonardo DiCaprio’s main character. She flits in and out of different roles in the story, depending on the scene — in flashbacks she is not the villain, but the troubled woman losing her grip on reality. In the labyrinth of memories, she is the untroubled counterpart to Cobb. Consequently, she works as both a compelling villain and a tragic, sympathetic character condemned to a half-existence in a man’s troubled memory.

Inception
Release Date
July 15, 2010

Runtime
148

5. « The Enemy » in ‘Dunkirk’

Perhaps the most curious villain on this list is that of Dunkirk. While it is debatable whether Dunkirk even has a villain, per se, if the villain is the source of tension and antagonistic force in a story, Dunkirk has one of the best villains in all of Nolan’s movies: “The Enemy.”

The Enemy is nominally German forces encroaching on the fleeing Allied troops on the beach at Dunkirk. As such, there is no individual character embodying the antagonist; nonetheless, the antagonist is present in practically every scene of the movie, as the knowledge that The Enemy could be around every corner heightens the tension to such a point that the audience can be tempted to look over their shoulders in fear. Like the Xenomorph in Alien or the shark in Jaws, The Enemy is a potent villain because it dominates the story through its absence. It could be anywhere, and it is consequently everywhere.

Dunkirk
Release Date
July 19, 2017

Runtime
107

Main Genre
Drama

4. The Great Danton and The Professor in ‘The Prestige’

Played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale

Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, and Scarlett Johansson as Alfred Borden, Robert Angier, and Olivia Wenscombe, performing on stage in The Prestige
Image via Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

The villain of The Prestige is another difficult entry on the list, as it is difficult to say who the real villain is. Is it Hugh Jackman’s Robert Angier, who tries to pin a murder on his rival? Is it Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), who takes pleasure in thwarting Angier at every opportunity? Is it rather their stage personas, “The Professor” and “The Great Danton, » that drive them to their rivalry?

Whatever the true answer is, the result is fascinating. In a movie that is all about the devious structure of magic tricks, the two main characters acting as both protagonists and each other’s antagonists leads to a story and climax that has to be watched time and time again due to the fantastic twist at the end. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it here, but these are a pair of characters that demand attention.

The Prestige
Release Date
October 20, 2006

Runtime
130 minutes

Main Genre
Drama

3. Walter Finch in ‘Insomnia’

Played by Robin Williams

Will Dormer (Al Pacino) holding Walter Finch (Robin Williams) by the collar in Insomnia
Image via Warner Bros.

In one of the more overlooked movies on this list, the dark psychological drama of Insomnia is driven by the compromised conscience of detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and his interactions with the mystery writer Walter Finch, the murderer of a teenage girl. In another excellent example of casting against type, Robin Williams plays an utterly chilling villain who slowly seeps his way into the story; first through anonymous phone calls, and finally in person. Throughout the movie, he shows an uncanny understanding of the tension in the mind of Dormer, and plays it to sadistic effect, toying with Dormer until the hero reaches his breaking point.

Insomnia
Release Date
May 24, 2002

Runtime
118 minutes

Main Genre
Drama

Writers
Hillary Seitz , Nikolaj Frobenius , Erik Skjoldbjærg

2. Leonard Shelby in ‘Memento’

Played by Guy Pearce

Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, holding out a polaroid in Memento
Image Via Newmarket

The villain of Memento is another one who waits to make an appearance. While there are a handful of baddies throughout who show their petty vices, the true villain waits until the very end of the story for his dramatic twist reveal. In a story that places the audience in the position of the protagonist with amnesia by playing the scenes of the plot in reverse order, the movie begins at the climax, where the protagonist tracks down and shoots the man who murdered his wife.

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As the plot moves forward (or backwards?), however, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) moves back towards the beginning of the story. When the moment finally comes, the audience finds out the truth that has been at the heart of the plot the entire time. Shelby already took his vengeance years before but had no way of moving on with his life. Instead of moving on, then, he lays a false trail for himself to follow, knowing full well that he will never remember that he set himself on a wild goose chase. His pursuit of purpose is subverted and thwarted by a villain from the very start, but it is only at the end of the movie that the audience finds out that the true villain is Shelby himself.

Memento
Release Date
May 25, 2001

Runtime
113 minutes

1. The Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’

Played by Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight
Image via Warner Bros.

Heath Ledger’s Joker is easily the most iconic villain on this list, and for good reason. The role that won Ledger his posthumous Oscar hits all the aspects of a compelling villain: he is determined, vindictive, sadistic, and inescapably perceptive of all the flaws of human nature and society. He pushes Batman to his limit, not by being physically imposing, but by finding his way into the fears and consciousness of the central characters of the story.

As a villain who takes exception to moral codes and rules of behavior, the Joker acts as a force of chaos, destabilizing any institutional thinking or structure he finds along the way. He pushes Batman to the limit of his moral restrictions, convinced of his own philosophy that everyone is corruptible, and becomes a villain when they are pushed hard enough. Batman, asserting the moral integrity of human nature, pushes back. The masterstroke of the hero/villain dynamic in The Dark Knight, though, is that Batman does not get a simple victory. The thesis of both characters is proven right, as the people of Gotham make a moral stand for the good, while their hero Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) falls and becomes the villain, forcing Batman into a necessary lie to save the hope of the city.

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