What would a movie be without an antagonist? The counterpoint to our hero, villains exist in fiction to provide urgency to our main character’s quest and largely set the plot in motion. After all, where would Daniel-son be without Cobra Kai and Johnny to fight? Or Schwarzenegger’s Dutch without the Predator? Or Indy without the Nazis? In movies where their stories flatly hum along until they reach their goals without any real conflict–but there’s no fun in that.
As previously discussed, 1980s films were great at creating easily identifiable characters whose motivations were practically announced by a ticker that ran on the bottom of the screen: if you were a garbage man, you were covered in dirt, crude, and rough-and-tumble; if you were a cab driver, you were either an Indian immigrant complete with turban or a slob New Yorker in a dirty t-shirt chomping on a cigar. In short, subtly was not the 1980’s strong suit.
The same went with its film villains, only more so: villains were visually, behaviorally, and overtly evil. No shades of gray or hidden depths: bad guys in 80s films were monsters.
From the low-key antagonists in comedy films who may just be snobby a-holes to our protagonists to action film villains that fell on just this side of being literally Hitler, it was easy to figure out who was the Bad Guy and exactly what made them just the worst. Let’s take a look at some of the best 80s villains and see what makes them just so bad.
Indiana Jones franchise
René Belloq: Let’s start at the top with the Nazi sympathizing, artifact-selling piece of shit René Belloq. Pretty much the opposite of Indiana Jones, Belloq is a wealthy, pretentious archaeologist who is first seen stealing a golden idol from Indy–who just survived the perils of a booby-trapped temple to retrieve it–by surrounding him with armed natives. This already makes him hateable in the audience’s eyes, so when he shows up later collaborating with Nazi scum (and of course Nazis are just the worst), again to exploit Indy’s work for his own gain–this time the actual Ark of the Covenant–the audience is primed to watch his demise.
Hey, Nazis are gonna Nazi–that’s just what they are, and they’re easy garbage to target and hate. But it takes a special kind of awful person to side with them and play for this odious team because personal gain and a promise of self-preservation are paramount. While some Germans were “just following orders” Belloq chooses these gross beings and their agenda just to make a buck and continue living the high life. In short: human garbage.
How We Know He’s Evil: He wears an all-white suit, is chauffeured around, steals from our noble-minded protagonist, and you know, pals around with Nazis. Also, he’s French.
Great Comeuppance: When those Nazi scum (spits on ground) open the Ark, his goddamn head explodes. Take that, collaborator! If only a few bars of “La Marseillaise” played directly after this.
Mola Ram: Not much to say about this one; he’s the evil high priest of the Thuggee cult who performs tortuous human sacrifice and is a big, bald, evil dude that reigns from a ring of fire. He’s pretty much the Devil incarnate.
How We Know He’s Evil: It’s easy to figure out he’s evil because duh, he’s obviously evil. He’s a monster-man that does horrifying things like enforce child slavery and practices live human sacrifice for evil purposes. I mean, come on.
Great Comeuppance: Indy calls upon Shiva as Mola Ram stands by a gorge holding the Sanskara Stones, which burn him, and then he falls into the water and becomes some lucky crocodiles’ lunch. Good: fuck that guy.
Dr. Elsa Schneider: Although Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade technically had a main villain–the duplicitous Walter Donovan–there is not enough character development that gives his character the type of villainy that Dr. Elsa Schneider gets throughout the film. She’s the femme fatale that dupes both father and son Jones (carrying the creepy undertones that sort of arrangement entails) to be yet another eeevil Nazi fuck.
She’s also the first dame in this franchise that is not a straight love interest but a full-on antagonist to Indy: cold but alluring, smart and misleading, but ultimately greedy and crooked, Elsa is probably the most complex female character in the Indiana Jones franchise.
How We Know She’s Evil: By completely fucking over both Dr. Jones for the sake of finding the Holy Grail. Plus she’s a Nazi–and even then she tries to save her bacon with Jones.
Great Comeuppance: She falls into a goddamn bottomless chasm that she created for being a greedy, awful person that wanted the Holy Grail for herself, completely ignoring all warnings that the Grail could not leave the cavern they found it in. Bye, pretty evil lady!
The Rocky franchise is an odd example of having antagonists but largely no proper villains in the 1980’s films–possibly because they’re professional boxers and their fighting is literally just business as usual. One-time foe Apollo Creed ends up being one of Rocky’s best friends, while Clubber Lang and Thunderlips are just opponents in the boxing ring. Heck, that worthless sack Paulie is one of the worst characters in the series but he doesn’t do much but just leech off of Rocky’s good fortune and nature. However, there is one clear-cut villain in the films in the 1980’s: Ivan Drago.
Ivan Drago: A genetically altered boxer representing the USSR, Drago is an emotionless powerhouse with a punch that should–if its recorded force is accurate–knock somebody’s head clean off their body.
How We Know He’s Evil: He kills Apollo Creed in the ring. Oh, and he’s a no-good Commie.
Great Comeuppance: He loses a boxing match to Rocky. Kind of underwhelming, considering that he, you know, killed somebody. But 1985 USSR being what it was, he was probably murdered shortly thereafter. USA! USA! USA!
Back to the Future Franchise
Biff Tannen: The antagonist of generations of the McFly family, Biff Tannen is a jerk throughout the franchise, bullying George McFly in the 50’s and the 80’s, stealing the time machine as an elderly man in 2015 to change the past,and then–in an alternate timeline–being a wretched multi-millionaire that had George McFly killed and forcing Lorraine to marry him. Marty could have solved a lot of problems by just going back and killing him shortly after George stands up to him at the “Enchantment Under The Sea” dance to win Lorraine’s heart, but the Back to the Future films weren’t about easy answers.
How We Know He’s Evil: Where to start? His attempted rape of Lorraine in the first movie is a prime example, but he’s a bullying, cruel asshole at every turn–even his ancestors and offspring are complete bastards. In fact, if Marty killed Buford Tannen in 1885, he could have stopped this garbage genetic line at the source.
Great Comeuppance: Oh so many: his car and self being covered in manure–twice; getting his lights punched out by George McFly; ending up as George’s lackey at the end of the first film. Still, if Marty just took him up a hundred feet in the flying DeLorean and dropped him from there, all of this unpleasantness could have been avoided in the first place.
Action Movie Villains
Victor Maitland: Maybe not the most identifiable name among this rogue’s gallery of fictional villains, Victor Maitland was the bad guy in the top-grossing film in the US of 1984, Beverly Hills Cop. A wealthy art gallery owner that’s smuggling drugs into the country and played to dead-eyed perfection by Steven Berkoff, Maitland is the kind of snobby, condescending asshole that 80’s films loved to construct so that the audience knew to hate them on sight.
How We Know He’s Evil: For one, he’s a rich jerk that thinks he’s better than you but also because inexplicably he’s such a hands-on boss that he personally kills Axel Foley’s friend even though he could have gotten dozens of his lackeys or officials he’s bribing to do the deed instead. If you’re that wealthy and powerful but still need to viscerally murder, you’re probably a bad person inside. Also, he shoots Foley and takes a woman hostage, which is just bad cricket, old sport.
Great Comeuppance: Dies in a hail of justified bullets. I mean, fuck this guy, right?
General McAllister and Dr. Joshua: The leaders of a heroin smuggling operation, these assholes have a whole team called the Shadow Company in Lethal Weapon that they use like their literal personal army: they blow people up, kidnap them, and in general are the horde that our heroes Riggs and Murtaugh have to fight through before getting to the boss levels of McAllister and Joshua.
How We Know They’re Evil: Two people running a heroin smuggling operation since the Vietnam War in America that send their goons out to do their dirty work? Yeah, they’re evil. Also, they just look evil throughout: one has an evil turtleneck while the other is played by the always terrifying Gary Busey.
Great Comeuppances: McAllister gets blown up real good after some stupid grenades detonate in his escape car; Dr. Josh gets gunned down by Murtaugh and Riggs after playing the “take a cop’s gun” game.
Hans Gruber: The cold, calculated terrorist leader of an armed team that takes over Nakatomi Tower in Die Hard, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) kills indiscriminately just to take $640 million in bearer bonds. Intelligent and ruthless, Gruber literally made villainy his full-time job.
How We Know He’s Evil: He’s foreign, so that’s a significant 80’s mark against him.
Great Comeuppance: One of the greatest! He falls slo-mo to his death from the top of Nakatomi Tower. RIP Alan Rickman.
Clarence Boddicker: The sleazy, murder-happy crime boss of Old Detroit in RoboCop runs a rough drug racket and is a deeply unpleasant fellow who indiscriminately kills cops and his own gang members alike. Played by Kurtwood Smith, his gritty performance may come as a shock to people who only know him as Red from That 70’s Show–or make it amusing.
How We Know He’s Evil: In his first scene, he and his gang torture, dismember, and kill Alex Murphy–who becomes RoboCop as a result–and he’s having a hell of a good time doing it.
Great Comeuppance: While trying to beat RoboCop to death with a steel pole, he gets gruesomely stabbed in the neck by RC. Blood squirting everywhere, he falls into muddy water and dies an ignominious death.
Darryl Revok: As a homicidal telekinetic, Darryl Revok is a terrifying bad guy in David Cronenberg’s Scanners. Introduced by exploding another telekinetic’s head, Revok is revealed to be a dangerous psychopath bent on creating a master race, one exploding head at a time.
How We Know He’s Evil: If making a guy’s head explode didn’t clue you in, Revok’s awful plan is to create a generation of telekinetics like him by distributing a drug to pregnant women that makes these so-called “scanners” for….reasons?
Great Comeuppance: He gets into a scanning duel with our hero Vale and ends up getting absorbed into Vale. So, good job?
Predator: An alien hunter simply known as “predator” to the audience but doesn’t actually have a name in the film comes to Earth to hunt the most dangerous game: man!
How We Know It’s Evil: Just by looking at this thing, you can tell it’s evil. It’s literally an inhuman monster that kills for sport. Maybe this is cool from the society of unbelievably gross-looking creatures it comes from, but that shit don’t fly on Earth.
Great Comeuppance: It blows itself up in a gigantic explosion while trying to take out Dutch. No dice! USA! USA! USA!
Terminator: A cyborg from the future that comes to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor before she gives birth to the leader of the resistance in the future, The Terminator just mows down everything in its path to try and kill this woman.
How We Know It’s Evil: Did you just read the description?
Great Comeuppance: Ironically crushed to death in machinery. But don’t worry–he’ll be back.
Xenomorph: The perfect killing machine, the xenomorph species has acid for blood and breeds via parasitic infection in living beings.
How We Know It’s Evil: Just look at the durned thing–it’s not here to be your friend.
Great Comeuppance: By first getting a badass beatdown by Ripley in an exosuit and then blown out into the vacuum of space. USA! USA!