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Superhero TV villains: Ranking the best to worst

A definitive ranking, from Astra to Zoom

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CBS; Netflix; The CW; Fox; ABC

Calling any villain the “best” sounds wrong; after all, no bad guy is worthy of said superlative. But when it comes to superhero stories on the small screen (of which there are now so many), there are 20 antagonists who get to be a bit more colorful, cruel, or kinetic.

To answer the question of which villains were most, well, villainous, EW pulled together a massive list of Big Bads and memorable one-off villains who put superheroes and their hero-adjacent friends through the ringer this year, and then whittled away. We were left with 20 villains who represented the “best” of villainy in 2015, a ranking based not only on memorability, but also on the effectiveness of the villain’s efforts and the impact the villain had on his/her/their respective show. Did they put up a grand fight against the hero? Did they have loftily terrifying goals? And, ultimately, did they leave an impression on not just the characters, but on us, the viewers?

Below, we’ve chosen this year’s 20 “best” villains on superhero TV in 2015. May they all rot.

20. Will Simpson (Wil Traval), Jessica Jones

Will Simpson’s intensified, pill-fueled focus makes him a force to be reckoned with, but he’s still in the nascent days of his evil-doing, and his transition into full-on villain mode was too abrupt to develop him further as an adversary for the titular gumshoe. But the man who would be Nuke likely has some dark days ahead — days that’ll be more destructive than his efforts in season 1. —Jonathon Dornbush

19. Nobu (Peter Shinkoda), Daredevil

As part of Wilson Fisk’s inner circle, the Japanese criminal thought he could take out the masked man threatening Fisk’s empire all by himself. Yes, he failed, but he did so spectacularly, in an epic duel (above) that capped off an impressive arc for a not-so-big bad. —Shirley Li

18. Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), Gotham

Penguin might’ve taken Fish Mooney out, but for a while there, she was running Gotham. Plus, only a real villain would scoop their own eye out with a spoon. —Samantha Highfill

Cate Cameron/The CW

17. Trickster (Mark Hamill), The Flash

The Trickster is the closest we’ll ever come to Mark Hamill playing the Joker in live action, and that’s fine because it’s a treat to watch. There’s a reason Mardon sprung the original Trickster from jail instead of his son: He’s demented enough to enjoy inventing and implementing a plan to kill hundreds of children on Christmas. Chancellor Agard

16. Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), Daredevil

Madame Gao might have the most chill of anyone on this list, but after seeing her throw Daredevil across a room, we definitely know there’s more to this drug lord than meets the eye. Also, she’s one of the few people who can threaten Wilson Fisk and get away with it. —CA

Eric McCandless/ABC

15. Lash (Matthew Willig), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

If you’re an Inhuman (and there are plenty of them running around on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. now), you better watch your back — Lash can rip your heart out in a second if he doesn’t like you, and he’s not going to listen to your cries for help. —Andrea Towers

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14. Dottie Underwood (Bridget Regan), Agent Carter

Sometimes, the deadliest villains are the ones you don’t expect — and who would expect prim, proper, perfectly coifed Dottie Underwood to be a Red Room-graduated master assassin hell-bent on ruining Peggy Carter’s life? Dottie put up a good fight in the finale, but odds are, she’ll be back to try her hand at being evil again in season 2. —AT

13. Zoom, The Flash

Sure, he’s the second season’s Big Bad, but his strategy so far has been to toss henchmen at Barry and Co. rather than take care of business on his own. Still, his grand plans — to become the only speedster across all worlds and universes — is terrifying, wild, and seemingly impossible for the heroes to overcome. Oh, and that dark costume and fused mouth? Even scarier. —SL

12. Captain Cold (Wentworth Miller) and crew: Heat Wave (Dominic Purcell), Golden Glider (Peyton List), The Flash

Their combined weapons (a Cold Gun for the Cap, a Heat Gun for Heat Wave, and a Gold Gun for Golden Glider) make this a formidable trio for The Flash, even if their “abilities” are somewhat hammy and their most villainous acts have amounted to elaborate robberies. Good thing Captain Cold and Heat Wave will return to do more damage (even if it’s to stop an even worse villain, see page 2) on DC’s Legends of Tomorrow in 2016. —SL

11. Theo Galavan (James Frain) and crew: Tabitha Galavan (Jessica Lucas), Jerome (Cameron Monaghan), Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), Gotham

Leading the charge of the villains for the first half of season 3, Theo Galavan — and his whip-wielding sister Tabitha — were responsible for a lot of the evil in Gotham. Not only did Theo break Jerome and Barbara out of Arkham, but he killed Penguin’s mother right in front of him. And he did all of it while being named mayor of the city he was destroying. —SH

NEXT: The Top Ten Worst Best[pagebreak]

10. Ward (Brett Dalton)Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Since his Hydra reveal in season 1, Ward has been one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most ruthless villains: He’s tried to kill his former teammates, shown little regard for humanity, and assassinated friends and enemies in cold blood. Though he got what was coming to him in the midseason finale, Ward’s a hard man to keep down: Reincarnated as an even more villainous Inhuman monster, he’ll be back to wreak more havoc on our heroes in 2016. —AT

RELATED: The 10 Best New Shows of 2015

9. Vandal Savage (Casper Crump), Arrow/The Flash

The immortal, powerful Vandal Savage is perhaps the most imposing foe Teams Arrow and Flash have ever faced, even managing to kill almost everyone before a time-traveling Flash could save them. While the heroes finished him off in surprisingly short time on the ArrowFlash crossover, you can’t keep a thousands-year-old villain down: He’ll threaten the world again in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow—JD

NBC

8. Erica Kravid (Rya Kihlstedt), Heroes Reborn

Erica Kravid is well-intentioned, but her bigotry-fueled plan to save humanity from extinction involves hunting and kidnapping EVOs (a.k.a. anyone with abilities, destructive or not) — oh, and committing genocide by letting almost seven billion people die from solar radiation. Perhaps worst of all, she has no qualms about any of this. —CA

7. Dr. Ivchenko (Ralph Brown), Agent Carter

Mind control can be a dangerous thing in the hands of the wrong people, and Ivchenko certainly didn’t use his powers for good. He caused one member of the SSR to commit suicide by walking into traffic, forced another to steal a dangerous item that would end up killing him, and even worse, tried to make Howard Stark release a deadly gas over New York City. —AT

6. Astra (Laura Benanti), Supergirl

General Aunt Astra is the personification of most people’s biggest fear in any Super-family story: What if Superman/Supergirl broke bad? Yes, she claims she wants to save Earth from dying, but she’s using an army of Fort Rozz prisoners and fear to do so. As the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. —CA

5. The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), Gotham

When viewers first met Oswald Cobblepot, he was nothing more than the guy who held Fish Mooney’s umbrella. Flash forward to the end of season 1, and he’s manipulated the city’s biggest names, created an empire for himself, and even killed Mooney, thereby making himself the official king of Gotham. —SH

RELATED: Superhero debate: Are DC and Marvel giving us too many heroes?

4. Damien Darhk (Neal McDonough), Arrow

Complex villains can open a number of storytelling doors, but sometimes a being of pure evil is simply fun to watch. Neal McDonough embodies that ideal in Damien, a bad guy who knows he’s evil and absolutely delights in it with enough charisma to steal scene after scene. —JD

Barry Wetcher/Neflix

3. Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), Daredevil

Vincent D’Onofrio raised the bar for Marvel villains, crafting not only an imposing foe for Matt Murdock, but a complicated one too. Fisk is as central to Daredevil’s success as the title character, creating a powerful, menacing, and even empathetic foil for the Man without Fear. —JD

2. Kilgrave (David Tennant), Jessica Jones

Even when he’s not on screen, Kilgrave’s power feels palpable, probably because his mind-controlling requires time and distance to wane, for victims and for viewers. And yet, even without his ability, he’s simply a sadistic man-child obsessed with Jessica — and in that vein, he not only embodies cruelty (and cruelty toward women), but radiates it through every minute of the series. —SL

1. Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh), The Flash (season 1)

As horrible as Kilgrave is in Jessica Jones, it’s Dr. Wells in the first season of The Flash who eked ahead to become the “best” villain of the year. Think about it: The man gets trapped in time, steals another man’s identity by literally melting his face off, and spends decades with his hatred of Barry festering inside him. And what does he become? A mentor to Barry when he gets his powers, so that when he finally pulls the rug out from under the speedster’s quick feet, he doesn’t just become an unexpected adversary, but a heartbreaking one. It’s a move that’s more cleverly, craftily manipulative and mind-bending than anything we’ve seen from any other villain on this list. 

Though others on this list have been more bloodthirsty or destructive, Wells is the ultimate villain, because his villainy comes from a twisted belief in empowering The Flash while also destroying him and those around him. Just watch his standout scene with Cisco, in which he reveals his true identity and his thinking: It’s mind-blowing how the character can crush Cisco’s heart both literally and emotionallyThat’s power. —SL

Do you agree with our list? Let us know: Who’s the “best” villain of all from superhero TV in 2015? Who had the most profound impact on their show — and on you? Comment below or tweet us at @shirklesxp, @jmdornbush, @samhighfill, @_atowers, and @chancelloragard.