The chilly menace of Darth Vader as he threatens the entire universe. The creepy, psychotic smile of the Joker. The soulless evil of Lord Voldemort. Who do you think is the greatest supervillain in cinematic history? Can data science give us an answer? Join us on the dark side to find out.

Who is the greatest supervillain according to the data?

This is a bit of a trick question because there's no way to objectively quantify who is the greatest supervillain. You'd run into problems straight away trying to determine what constitutes 'greatest'. Is it the scariest? The one with the biggest crime empire? The one with the biggest secret lair filled with a wall of cameras watching your every move? Or the one most likely dangle you over a pool of sharks or feed you to a pet tiger? Oh wait, those last ones are all Bond villains. But you get the point, the options are endless.

What about a list of top supervillains?

Since it's too difficult to pick just a single greatest supervillain, maybe a list of the top eighteen supervillains in cinema history will be easier. We thought we'd take a look at who some experts and movie buffs picked. The first place we had to look is the iconic American Film Institute's (AFI) list of the top fifty heroes and villains of all time. AFI chose to define a villain as "a character(s) whose wickedness of mind, the selfishness of character and will to power are sometimes masked by beauty and nobility, while others may rage unmasked. They can be horribly evil or grandiosely funny, but are ultimately tragic." When making their picks, AFI also asked the panel of jurors to consider the cultural impact and lasting legacy.

We also looked at the Complex and Time Out's lists, which were compiled by the team of film writers and reviewers on staff. To make sure we also got the opinions of our regular cinema goers, we also included the crowdsourced Empire Online and Ranker lists. Now that we've covered our bases, let's take a look at this data visualized with a ranking plot.

Here are your top 18 supervillains according to the data!

The ranking plot automatically placed each publication in alphabetical order but straight away we can see that loads of the villains mentioned by Empire Online also appear on the Ranker list (albeit in a different order), and these two lists share the most commonalities. This makes sense as they were the only two that were crowdsourced - the other lists feature more eclectic picks like Mr. Potter (It's a Wonderful Life) and Alex Forrest (Fatal Attraction). Complex has its top pick as John Doe (Se7en), a name no other list nominated.

Create your own Ranking Plot!

But looking at this ranking plot, can we pick out a clear winner? Unfortunately, not really. If we had to pick, it'll be Darth Vader (who appears in all five lists), just beating The Joker (who appears in only three but occupies top spots). Rounding out the top three is Hannibal Lecter, who makes it onto four lists and is generally ranked highly.

Do our supervillains have any commonalities that make them more likely to top the lists?

This led us to wonder, is there a magical formula to create a supervillain? Are there any traits they all share?  Let's investigate gender first...

Surprise surprise, the overwhelming majority of supervillains are male. Women continue to be vastly underrepresented on the silver screen, supervillains or not, with reports that in 2017, just 24% of leads in the 100 highest-grossing films were women.

I think we're long overdue for a woman supervillain, don't you?

What about race? Well, this probably also doesn't surprise you, but the majority of villains on the list are white. Of the 70% of white supervillains, only 5% of them are women. The next category belongs to those of an undetermined race. These include such luminaries as The Wicked Witch of the West, Freddy Krueger and Sauron (please, Lord of the Rings fans, do not write to tell me that Sauron was actually an Elf a long time ago or something.)

CORRECTION: I've been informed by an esteemed colleague that Sauron was actually a Maiar which is some kind of spirit (again, Lord of the Rings fans, please do not write to me to correct this correction). 

supervillains race pie chart

Let's move on to age. Is there an age in which regular folks or even villains turn into supervillains? The answer according to data is no.

In fact, most of our supervillains are of undetermined age. This includes delights like the Alien from Alien and Scar from The Lion King. It also includes characters like Agent Smith from The Matrix and someone who is technically a god, like Loki.

supervillains pie chart

Beyond that, most of our supervillains seem to be heading towards middle age. Maybe it's the mid-life crisis effect?

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What is the top motivation for supervillains?

Let's say those factors above like gender and race and age are all things that our supervillains are born with and therefore out of their control. What about the motivations for their dastardly crimes? Now, the following correspondence analysis may not have been the best way to visualize this, we admit. Mostly because the overlap in similarities between Revenge, Obsession, Power/Control, means that we have quite a few supervillains clustered closely together. But it does reveal some common motivations and who falls where.

Obviously, we can see that motivations of power and control, obsession and revenge are shared by most. We can see a couple of main clusters.

  1. The group including Darth Vader and Lord Voldemort that are evenly split between World Domination and Power/Control.
  2. The group clustered towards Profit/Greed including most of our crime lords and Phyllis Dietrichson (Double Indemnity).
  3. A tight cluster around Obsession, including Alex Forrest (Fatal Attraction) and Hannibal Lecter.

Then there are those of undetermined motivation which includes HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey) and the poor old Shark from Jaws, who is probably just trying to catch a meal and survive.

How does it all end for supervillains?

You might be expecting that it always ends badly for supervillains. The good guys always prevail in the end, right? But does this hold true? And is there a relationship between motivation and how things end up for our supervillains? Let's take a look at the data with the help of a Sankey diagram.

It's true, most of our villains did end up rather deceased, but it's perhaps not as big a disparity as you might think. However, don't confuse alive with a happy ending, some of those poor buggers clinging to life may as well be dead. But were there any particular motivations that led to a particular result? Well, if you're the jealous or obsessive type, you may want to look away now. It seems like jealousy and obsession only lead to particularly nasty outcomes like death or exile. The same goes for revenge, so if the movies teach us anything, it might be to turn the other cheek when we feel wronged. However, if you are motivated by a desire to cause chaos and advance anarchy, your prospects look okay.

Create your own Sankey Diagram!

So it seems like the Greatest Supervillain of all Time (the GOAT Supervillain, if you like) is pretty undecided. If you picked Darth Vader, you can feel pretty confident in your choice. If you picked anyone else, I look forward to you arguing your case with me! See you around the Dark Side.

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