The 7 Best Hero and Villain Pairings in Movies, Ranked

What's the best thing about cinematic heroes? Watching them take down equally awesome cinematic villains!
The 7 Best Hero and Villain Pairings in Movies, Ranked

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A hero is only as good as the villain he finds himself up against. That's often why some protagonists are just so boring to watch—their villains are uninteresting, unchallenging, and ultimately bland.

A good villain can challenge our hero in ways they would never have anticipated, exposing their weaknesses and reducing them down to their smallest, most vulnerable forms.

In the same vein, the interplay between a worthy hero and a powerful villain forces our protagonist to grow and overcome their flaws to reach victory. That's what makes their journey compelling to watch.

And that's why certain hero-villain pairings remain so iconic over the years. Here are my picks for the best heroes and villains that work so well together that they continue to be fulfilling and memorable.

7. Rocky Balboa vs. Ivan Drago (Rocky IV)

Trailer for Rocky IV (1985)

It's 1985 and Ronald Reagan has just entered his second term in office. Nationalism is at its peak in the United States. Enter, Sylvester Stallone.

Recognizing that the iron was hot, Stallone set out to create a film that dramatized the battle between the US and the USSR—but instead of the tactical and strategic nuances of the Cold War, he focused on one man from each country as they pummeled each other's faces in.

Rocky Balboa versus Ivan Drago is one of the greatest hero-villain combos because, if nothing else, it captures all the posturing of the Cold War and makes it all look a little silly.

As well as this, Drago was a boxing machine that killed Rocky's best friend. Montage after montage, this rivalry reaches feverish pitches.

6. Vincent Hanna vs. Neil McCauley (Heat)

Trailer for Heat (1995)

A man must live his life according to a set of iron-clad principles—or, at least, so says Neil McCauley. A career criminal, he's cool-headed and always composed, even in the most dire of situations.

His opponent? Vincent Hanna, a drug-addled cop who's by no means even-tempered. The two are polar opposites, yet they share a respect for each other that may turn deadly.

What's key to remember here is that they're fighting against each other because they both want the same thing: to live life right on the edge. However, due to their respective professions, this pursuit brings them in contact with one another again and again.

As a bonus, Vincent Hanna versus Neil McCauley is one of the best hero-villain pairings for the fact that it was the first time Al Pacino and Robert De Niro shared the same screen together!

5. Llewelyn Moss vs. Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men)

Trailer for No Country for Old Men (2007)

Anton Chigurh is a sadistic, unfeeling killing machine. However, unfortunately for him, he's trying to track down a man who's used to operating under difficult conditions: Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam War veteran who was born to survive.

In No Country for Old Men, both want the case full of money—and both will go to extreme ends to ensure they end up with it.

Anton Chigurh will kill without a moment's hesitation and Llewelyn Moss will abandon his entire life for a bit of extra cash.

However, what makes this hero-villain pairing so compelling is the fact that they barely interact with each other. In fact, in this neo-Western, the final confrontation between the two never comes!

While many consider this to be disappointing, it's impactful because it's strangely true to life. The conflict between these two demonstrated an important step in the right direction for the genre.

4. T-800 vs. T-1000 (Terminator 2: Judgment Day)

Trailer for Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

The T-800 and the T-1000 may have been built for the same purpose, but now their goals are in stark opposition with the other: one is programmed to protect John Connor, the other is programmed to kill him.

In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, James Cameron succeeded not only in upping the stakes above the original film, but also in creating a dynamic pairing between an unusual hero and villain: the ultimate battle between neutral good and neutral evil.

By humanizing the T-800, the T-1000 seemed that much colder, more callous, and more menacing. Though their opposing goals made their scenes cinematic gold, it was the evolution of the T-800's humanity that made this rivalry so captivating.

3. Ellen Ripley vs. The Xenomorph (Alien)

Trailer for Alien (1979)

Ellen Ripley should have always been the captain of the Nostromo. If she was, everyone would still be alive and the Xenomorph would never have even entered the ship, let alone killed everyone.

The fact that she lives is proof enough that Ripley and the Xenomorph are worthy foes. Ripley is the only one who possesses the ballsy, no-nonsense attitude that puts the Xenomorph at risk of annihilation. No matter the catastrophe, Ripley is always there to step up and take charge.

The Xenomorph is a perfect organism as far as highly-aggressive killing machines go. However, Ripley's brains and will to live keep her one step ahead of the creepy alien intruder. That's why Alien remains one of the best sci-fi horror films ever made.

2. Ryan McMurphy vs. Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)

Trailer for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Nurse Ratched is the overseer of a ward of mental patients. When a new man is admitted into her care, sparks immediately fly—the kind of sparks generated by aggressive friction, not romantic chemistry.

Why? Because she stands for cold, clinical order while he represents the chaotic, reckless embracement of life.

These two make such a good hero-villain pairing, not only for their inherent power imbalance, but also because they're emblematic of the power struggles of the time.

Whereas Nurse Ratched represents the immovable status quo, Randle McMurphy exhibits the unstoppable force of 1960s counterculture.

Unfortunately, this story has no happy ending. Much like the real world, the countercultural dreams and revolutions are quashed as authority remains firmly in the hands of those who abuse their power.

1. The Joker vs. The Batman (The Dark Knight)

Trailer for The Dark Knight (2008)

The thing that makes The Joker such a compelling villain for The Batman is the symbolism of each: The Joker is a mad dog while The Batman is the guardian of Gotham who wants to keep that hound tethered.

It's worth noting that they're always butting heads because they're actually competing for the same goal: the best for Gotham.

But they see things in diametrically opposed ways, with Bruce Wayne wanting to keep things orderly and The Joker wanting nothing more than to plunge the city into unadulterated anarchy.

Moreover, the greatness of this rivalry goes beyond just the characters. It's the depth of performances by both Christian Bale and Heath Ledger that elevate this pairing to legendary status, making the entire film—and their hero-villain chemistry—second to none.