While, at least in theory, we cheer for the victory of the heroes, it is often the villains that define a work, and certainly the villains tend to get the best lines, best music, and commonly the coolest "style" in a work.
This probably partly stems from the fact that villains are more "free" than the heroes; they get to do what they want rather than what they should or must. In addition, the villains tend to be in control, the ACTIVE force, in the story, at least up until the end; the heroes spend much of their time reacting rather than being directly active themselves.
Still, there are good villains, bad villains, and "meh" villains… and a few, a very few, that stand out so much from the others that they say "This is what you should aspire to, if you seek to be on the side of evil. Look, and see what a true VILLAIN can be!"
So I herewith present a list of my top ten villains from various forms of fiction!
Number 10: E. P Arnold Royalton
E. P. Arnold Royalton, almost always referred to simply as "Mr. Royalton", is the head of Royalton Industries in the movie version of Speed Racer. Played with scenery-chewing relish by Roger Allam, Royalton is a powerful and wealthy industrialist who has no conscience nor pity for any below him. He believes wholeheartedly in the dog-eat-dog world of corporate warfare – not merely wholeheartedly, but passionately preaching the gospel of the corporate game: "That's what racing is about. It has nothing to do with cars or drivers. All that matters is power, and the unassailable might of money!"
One of only two "normal humans" on this list, Royalton wouldn't be nearly so fun a villain if he weren't capable of wearing a convincing mask,and wear it he can. Even though we know he has to be a bad guy, he seems to be the ideal of the corporate man – one who climbed from nothing to the top, and yet remembers what it's like to be at the bottom – perhaps a bit overeager to impress, but then, many at the top are. The moment when Royalton tears off that mask is actually quite horrifying; it is a very Jekyll-and-Hyde moment, and Speed's utter shock resonates with us.
Royalton demonstrates the pitilessness and vicious nature of evil – and, ultimately, its pettiness.
Number 9: Prince Koura
There's something about an evil sorcerer that's hard to beat for a villain, and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad offers us one of the best: Prince Koura, nobleman, visionary, and master of the blackest arts of magic, after a mystical prize which can grant the wearer youth, a crown of untold riches, and a shield of darkness. Played magnificently by Tom Baker (who later became famous as the fourth incarnation of The Doctor), Koura is not merely powerful but intelligent, skilled, and physically quite competent as well.
Koura's primary magic is the ability to bring the unliving to life, ranging from creating a homonculous from his own blood to serve as a spy to animating a multi-armed statue of Kali and sending it against his foes. He uses it only reluctantly, however, because the use of magic quite literally drains the life out of him; he ages noticeably after each significant feat of magic. This shows, also, his tenacity and dedication to his mission; he is willing to risk his own life to achieve this goal, and does so repeatedly.
At the same time, Koura shows us something very rare in true villains. He has a servant and companion, Achmed, who repeatedly tries to dissuade Koura from continuing the quest, or failing that to at least refrain from the use of his magic. Koura shows that he appreciates Achmed's concern and the basic wisdom of his advice; moreover, when the climactic confrontation is approaching, he sends Achmed to safety, not wanting to risk his life as well. This consideration and understanding that ones' servants should be well treated is a startling and gratifying feature in one otherwise so dark; it shows a much greater intelligence than most bad guys are allowed to have.
Prince Koura also is quite willing to face people physically; he shows himself to be roughly equal to Sinbad himself in swordsmanship, and had he not become overconfident, the movie would have had a much darker ending! The combination puts him here, at number nine!
Number 8: Ellsworth Toohey
The second of the two "normal humans" on this list, Ellsworth Toohey is the main villain in Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead. Overall, The Fountainhead is in my view not as good a novel as Atlas Shrugged or her much shorter work Anthem. None of the main characters are as likeable as, say, Hank Rearden, and their motives/personalities are more difficult to understand. Perhaps the most likeable of them is the non-villain antagonist Gail Wynand.
But despite the less-impressive nature of the book as a whole, Rand's depiction of Toohey is spectacularly creepy. Toohey is, in modern terms, an extremely high-functioning sociopath; a classical weak, glasses-wearing, bullied geek as a child, Toohey has focused his genius (and he is, indeed, a genius) on learning how to manipulate people. He could, of course, use this talent to improve people's lives, drive people towards the areas they will most excel in, and generally be a force for good.
Instead, Ellsworth Toohey focuses on manipulation through subtle destruction. He uses poisoned versions of classic therapy and group dynamics to undermine confidence where it is justified, and build it up where it is not; he encourages the glorification of the incompetent and the destruction of competence wherever he finds it. He does this on small scales (watching his careful and precise demolition of everyone in his circle of "friends" is horrific) and on large scales, setting events in motion which are intended to destroy huge corporations – or individuals who normally are considered powerful and capable.
As the villain, Toohey eventually "gets his" – in what I think of as one of the most understated Moments of Awesome ever written – but it is something of a Pyrrhic victory, because the cost to shut him down is immense. It does not begin to make up for the damage he has done, and it isn't clear that he will not be able to start his venomous manipulations up again somewhere else.
For being one of the most politely vile adversaries I have ever read, Ellsworth Toohey gets the Number 8 slot on my list.
Number 7: Van Helsing's Dracula
I've reviewed Van Helsing elsewhere, and in that review I made a clear point that Richard Roxburgh's version of Dracula made that movie. As a nod to the old Universal and Hammer films, Van Helsing doesn't have sympathetic vampires; these are damned souls, some of them cursed and desiring release from the demonic drives that have taken them over, others enjoying the freedom and power of their transformation.
None enjoy their undead state more than Dracula; he even mocks the angsty, conflicted vampires of more modern times, with a monologue of how terrible it is:
"I have no heart, I feel no love. Nor fear, nor joy, nor sorrow. I am hollow... and I will live… forever."
Followed immediately with a cheerful, triumphant laugh, and
"I am at war with the world! And every living soul in it! But soon... the final battle will begin."
Contrary to his little speech, it is clear that this version of Dracula does feel most emotions, twisted though they might be. We see him happy, angry, if not loving at least aware of the difference between having people who are only afraid of him and people who worship him, and certainly he shows fear when he realizes that Van Helsing has become the one thing that might destroy him.
It is the casual, confident, and humorous air that he brings to the monstrous which makes Roxburgh's Dracula so impressive. He is much more powerful than many other depictions of the King of Vampires, but more importantly he has a marvelously fluid ability to transition from urbane monologues and amusing bon mots to scenery-chewing rants and back again, often while pacing evenly along walls, floor, and ceiling.
This version of Dracula is also, to some extent, genre-savvy and aware of the clichés that he likes to fulfill, and those he finds less amusing:
Velkan: I would rather die than help you!
Dracula: Oh, don't be boring; everybody who says that dies.
Ultimately, it is his cheerful embrace of his own monstrous nature that brings this version of Dracula to the Number 7 position on my list!
Number 6: Yardiff Bey
As I said earlier, an evil sorcerer is always a good choice for a villain. Yardiff Bey is the main antagonist/villain in Brian Daley's Coramonde dualogy. At first he seems a standard "evil Vizier" type, having arranged to get the good king (the Ku-Mor-Mai) out of the way and now runs the kingdom through the Queen and her son. But as the plot progresses, it becomes clear that Bey is much more than this. He is a master of manipulation, long-term thinking, and layer upon layer of backup plans. It is not possible to defeat him with a single stroke; you need to break multiple plans of his before he is even close to vulnerable.
He is also not at all averse to personal confrontation, and in addition to a huge array of magical powers, Bey has many allies and specifically designed sorcerous devices, up to and including a giant flying fortress called "Cloud Ruler" which uses magicotech approaches – binding a fire elemental inside a casing that allows its fire to be channeled as a set of rocket/jet drives. He has also replaced one eye with the eye of some unnamed but terribly powerful monster which, when uncovered, fires an almost irresistable beam of power at whatever Bey is looking at; unfortunately it also derives its power from the user's soul, so Bey can't use it often.
What makes Bey stand out is how, even when faced by things beyond his control or, sometimes, knowledge, he makes the correct deductions and at least attempts to take the appropriate actions. When his well-ordered plan to take over Coramonde and associated lands begins to fray at the edges, he examines all elements and comes to the correct conclusion that it is the outside factors – represented by the two natives of Earth, Van Duyn and Gil MacDonald – which have caused all of the problems, and MacDonald's military knowledge and presence which is the current issue. He then moves to destroy MacDonald by a remote mechanism – no personal confrontation, no warning, just "oh. That's the problem. Let's kill him quickly."
When that goes sour, Bey goes and throws himself on the almost nonexistent mercy of the demonlords he serves, and manages to talk his way – calmly and rationally, despite his terror – out of punishment and actually into a more powerful position than he was previously with them. He then proceeds to engineer worse activities to bedevil, distract, and/or destroy his adversaries.
Given what I like to read, one can be sure that Yardiff Bey is eventually defeated, but he does indeed do more than well enough as a villain to get him the Number 6 slot in my countdown of villainy!
Number 5: Mr. Bester
Walter Koenig was best known for his role as the fiercely Russian Pavel Chekov on the original Star Trek series. Played with a slightly-exaggerated accent and a definitely over-the-top Russian nationalism, Chekov was otherwise the "boy wonder" of the show, being played as younger, more innocent, and more naïve than most of the other crewmembers.
As Alfred Bester (named deliberately after the author of The Demolished Man), P-12 agent of the Psi Corps, Koenig got to play a character that was very nearly the polar opposite, and demonstrate that he could play any role he wanted. Unlike many of my favorite villains, Bester rarely, if ever, chewed the scenery; he was always quiet, polite, and often had quite a sense of humor:
Lauren Ashley: We don't often see a sense of humor in Psi Cops.
Alfred Bester: Reports of our depression are vastly exaggerated.
He was also very much a villain; not merely a policeman working for a corrupt regime (although he was certainly that), Bester is one of the top people in the Corps and believes – wholeheartedly – that the telepaths (which is their term for all psionics, really) are the next stage of human evolution and that regular humans are outmoded and to be pushed aside for the far superior species that follows.
Bester will use every tactic at his disposal to get what he wants – but he is far, far too clever to be easily tricked into overstepping himself. He is also very aware of how much he is disliked by most, and meets hostility and threats with poison-candy smiles and the most polite yet deadly ripostes.
At the same time, his loyalty to "my people" – the telepaths – is complete and real. He will risk his life and make difficult bargains in order to protect the telepaths of Psi Corps, or those he believes can be brought to join him.
This combination – plus his powerful position with the Earth Government and Psi Corps – allows him to generally manipulate things so that he is just this side of being dispensable by the Babylon 5 crew. They may want to throw him out the airlock, but he knows precisely the right buttons to push in order to keep himself alive, even when Babylon 5 declares its independence:
Captain John Sheridan: [Bester arrives in a Psi Corp Starfury] Mr. Bester, we no longer have any ties to Earth or to the Psi Corps. So we don't have to put up with *you* or your games. Now, I am sitting on four brand new uni-directional pulse cannons. Give me one good reason why I shouldn't blow you out of the sky.
PsiCop Alfred Bester: Because you're curious. Kill me and you'll never know what brought me all the way out here. I think if you weigh that against the brief satisfaction of blowing me out of the sky, you'll do the right thing.
Bester's smiling, pleasant exterior hides someone usually as cold and implacable as a steel blade, but he is, ultimately, very human – allying himself with Babylon 5 for the sake of the woman he loves, and in the end falling in love with a normal human woman.
But despite his humanity, he remained, mostly, a monster, and especially for the hideous things he did to Michael Garibaldi, Bester gets himself the Number 5 villain spot.
Number 4: Emperor Palpatine
Immediately recognizable to almost any fan, Emperor Palpatine is the ultimate Big Bad of the Star Wars saga; he is, in fact, the trope image for the trope "Big Bad".
Here we return to dramatic, scenery-chewing villany, and Ian McDiarmid proves that he can chew it as well as anyone in this role-of-a-lifetime, perhaps role of several lifetimes. Originally an older man was being considered, but ultimately McDiarmid was selected to play the role in old-man stage makeup – a decision which turned out extremely well, since it allowed the same actor to reprise that role in the prequels as a reasonably-aged "elder statesman", Senator Palpatine.
Ironically, McDiarmid's work as the ostensibly younger Palpatine, slowly pulling strings both as Palpatine and "Darth Sidious" to make himself ruler of the Galaxy, is one of the few truly worthwhile parts of the prequel movies. Palpatine dominates his scenes, even when just being the soft-spoken, apparently kindly Senator rather than the Sith Lord. He shows his acting ability in stark contrast to most of the other actors (whose roles appeared to be more constrained by direction), able to switch between a genuine-seeming sympathy and support and a diabolically cunning and malicious glee whenever the occasion demands.
Palpatine is a man who enjoys his work. He's rarely at a loss, and rarely truly angered; it's clear that many of the times he appears angry, disturbed, or confused are just more manipulation tactics. Driven to extremes by his use of the Dark Side, the Emperor still maintains an iron control of his every faculty, only making mistakes at the very end of his career. Up until then, his most famous quote is literally true:
"All that has transpired here has done so according to my design!"
In his original appearances in Return of the Jedi, Palpatine also brought us to the understanding of the potential power of the Dark Side, in a way that Darth Vader, towering and threatening presence though he was, could only hint at. He knew everything that was happening, and possessed powers of the Force that we hadn't even realized were possible. His only real mistake was in forgetting that Luke – unlike his father – had not been raised around Palpatine, and thus hadn't been "worked on" long enough to be completely confused and misdirected by the Emperor.
And even with that mistake, it was a very, very near thing.
So a salute to one of the most recognizable of all villains, coming in at Number 4!
Number 3: Marc C. DuQuesne
Doc Smith's Lensman series is generally considered his magnum opus, but it was in his (mostly) earlier Skylark series that he created his finest villain – and, in some ways, perhaps his finest character: Marc C. "Blackie" DuQuesne.
Designed as the opposite number for the hero Richard Seaton, DuQuesne was physically identical in build but visually contrasting, with darker skin and black hair and eyes which earned him his nickname. He and Seaton were also equal in intellect.
But where Seaton was basically an all-American clean-cut young man who happened to be a physics genius, DuQuesne was a scientist robber baron, with the intent to take over the world and re-make it in his image of what it should be – and he damn near did it, more than once. DuQuesne was ruthless, brilliant, methodical, and dedicated, willing to endure whatever was necessary in order to achieve his goals.
What kept him alive was that he was also a man of his word: once he gave his word to do something, he would do it, and do it without hesitation or stint. When circumstances forced him to ally with Seaton, he would act fully as a member of Seaton's crew, and Seaton would act as his, without a second thought.
While DuQuesne often appeared to be almost a villainous Vulcan – cold emotionless analysis, a machine – he was not without emotion, and could be surprised, frightened, or even engaging and affectionate under some circumstances. He appreciated other people's ability, especially when it didn't get in the way of his goals.
DuQuesne only really failed because he was, mostly, a one-man show. He only could connect with people in specific ways, and truly felt he was so superior to most other people that he had no patience for cultivating their good will. This was, of course, his true mistake; Seaton stayed ahead of him not because Seaton was smarter – both Seaton and DuQuesne acknowledge that the other guy is at least as smart as they are – but because Seaton made friends easily and honestly. He gained alliances with multiple other species because he was straightforward and genuinely interested in making the universe a better place. Because of this, Seaton often got "freebies" – information or material handed to him by people who he had allied himself with, that DuQuesne would either have had to work out all by himself, or steal once he learned of its existence.
This is of course unsurprising; villains are like that, often, and if you don't give the bad guy SOME kind of disadvantage your heroes may be screwed.
What is somewhat surprising – and a moment of awesome – is the endgame of the series. DuQuesne, Seaton, and Crane (Seaton's partner) are in the middle of wiping out the implacable and utterly nasty Chlorans while rescuing all the humanoid species in the same galaxy, in one of the most titanically overpowered sequences in fictional history. But a few of the Chlorans catch on and launch a counterattack that takes out Seaton and Crane, leaving Marc C. DuQuesne in sole control of the most powerful starship in the universe (perhaps the most powerful starship ever conceived) and his two major adversaries dead or unconscious.
DuQuesne sticks with the program, finishes wiping out the Chlorans, and keeps things going until Seaton and Crane are back on their feet. At that point… he gives up his war against Seaton. He won't ally with him, but he will leave the Galaxy and go far, far away to where he and Seaton need never conflict again.
It was fascinating to watch his evolution as a character, and for his coldly honorable brilliance I put him at Number 3 on my Villain List; he also, of course, was honored by my creating a namesake for him in Grand Central Arena.
Number 2: Davros
There's villains who want to take over cities. There's ones that want to take over the world. There's others who want revenge for some (real or imagined) slight against their people or reputation. There's others that just like killing.
But then there's the Omnicidal Maniac. This guy doesn't want rulership. He wants the ultimate expression of power: wiping out everything. Maybe he just hates life. Maybe it's the only way to prove his genius. Maybe he's in love with death itself. But for whatever reason, he really, truly, means to KILL 'EM ALL, and that means you, your family, your planet, everything.
And if you look under the dictionary for "Omnicidal Maniac", a picture of Davros should be the first thing you see.
Davros is the megalomaniacally insane creator of Doctor Who's longest-running and most popular adversaries, the Daleks. His existence was something of a retcon, but for modern audiences not all that much of one; Davros first appeared in the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) serial Genesis of the Daleks, and became an instant hit (in a villanous way).
Like many of the great villains, Davros is capable of multiple moods and expressions depending on his needs and situation. Unlike all the others on this list, Davros himself is physically not merely fragile, but nearly helpless; burned terribly by an accident (probably caused by his own arrogance, but we never know for sure), Davros is confined to a self-powered chair which serves as his life-support system, control center, communications net, and defense. Davros is blind, though he seems able to see through a cybernetic eye he has implanted in his forehead, and has the use of only one arm – and that not terribly well.
It is not clear whether his accident had anything to do with unhinging his mind, but unhinged or not, Davros remains brilliant beyond easy description. The Doctor has faced many adversaries throughout his career, but it is doubtful that any of them – with the possible exception of the Doctor's opposite number, The Master – has ever given him the same amount of trouble, or run him into so many corners.
Davros is not merely intelligent; he is also quite cunning, and has many times used his apparent helplessness as a ploy or a lever to get concessions. In addition, he can play the concerned, philanthropic scientist to the hilt, with a gentle, almost musical voice of pure reason.
Using these tactics, he maneuvered both his own people, the Kaleds, and their adversaries, the Thals, into a final pitched war that would end with the extermination of both. While he was doing this, he created the first of his most infamous inventions: the cybernetic organisms called Daleks.
The constant radiation and poisoning of their world was slowly mutating the Kaleds (and Thals), and Davros determined that the ultimate end of this degeneration would be a hideous tentacled blob. He set about creating a cybernetic shell which would shelter and empower the mutant within. Believing that positive emotions such as love, remorse, pity, and friendship were weaknesses, he also genetically engineered out any predisposition to these emotions in the Daleks.
The Doctor was sent to try to stop this "genesis" of the Daleks, and in one memorable moment tries to convince Davros that the Daleks must be destroyed, that they are a destructive force too evil to be released:
The Doctor: Davros, if you had created a virus in your laboratory, something contagious and infectious that killed on contact, a virus that would destroy all other forms of life, would you allow its use?
Davros: It is an interesting conjecture.
The Doctor: Would you do it?
Davros: The only living thing, a microscopic organism reigning supreme... A fascinating idea.
The Doctor: But would you do it?
Davros: Yes... Yes...
[raises hand as if holding the metaphorical capsule between thumb and forefingers]
Davros: To hold in my hand a capsule that contains such power, to know that life and death on such a scale was my choice... To know that the tiny pressure of my thumb, enough to break the glass, would end everything... Yes, I would do it! That power would set me up above the gods! AND THROUGH THE DALEKS, I SHALL HAVE THAT POWER!
There we see the omnicidal maniac's own mind, laid bare by Davros' words. And at that point, of course, Davros drops his quiet, reasonable façade and CHEWS THE SCENERY AS IS HIS DESTINY!
When overexcited or angered, Davros' voice rises in pitch and insistence and gains an electronic overtone that echoes that of his creations.
Ultimately, of course, Davros had an ironic death; the Daleks he had created saw him as just another not-Dalek, and cared nothing for his being their creator. He was exterminated by one of his own creations.
But death… ah, death is not the end for Davros. He returned, the Daleks seeking him out and reviving him when they realized that they were constantly being defeated. It is something of a cycle; the Daleks call on Davros' help, but often try to imprison or betray him. As they cannot conceive of any of the more positive emotions, the idea of gratitude or even of simple forethought seems to elude them. Fortunately for Davros, his tremendous intellect always provides him with the forethought and preparation to survive even his own childrens' betrayal.
His greatest appearance following that debut was in the two-part New Who story, The Stolen Earth/Journey's End, in which he demonstrated his insanity and brilliance with some of the most inspired Large Ham ranting the small screen has ever seen; trapping the Doctor, playing on the Doctor's own doubts and fears in a manner showing that he is, indeed, very capable of understanding people far better than most think:
Davros: The man who abhors violence, never carrying a gun, but this is the truth, Doctor: you take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons... behold your Children of Time, transformed into murderers. I made the Daleks, Doctor, you made this.
The Doctor: I'm trying to help.
Davros: Already I have seen them sacrificed today, for their beloved Doctor. The Earth woman who fell opening the Sub Wave Network.
The Doctor: Who was that?
Rose Tyler: Harriet Jones. She gave her life to get you here.
[flashback of Harriet Jones]
Davros: How many more? Just think, how many have died in your name?
[more flashbacks of the people who have died helping The Doctor]
Davros: The Doctor, the man who keeps running, never looking back because he dare not, out of shame. This is my final victory, Doctor. I have shown you yourself.
But Davros doesn't need to rely on psychology; he has also created the most over-the-top weapon in the history of television: the Reality Bomb, a space-time weapon that will disintegrate all matter throughout the multiverse, back to its component subatomic particles,and he – and the Daleks – intend to use it, and then rebuild the universe in their image.
A salute to the maddest mad scientist in the Whoniverse, sitting here at the penultimate position in my villain countdown!
Number 1: Orochimaru
The journey to the top has seen a lot of villains, and there are many more excellent villains who aren't on this list. Picking the top dog in this contest some years ago would have been very, very hard.
But not any more.
Orochimaru is the longest-running single adversary in the very long-running anime and manga Naruto/Naruto Shippuden. Once, he was one of the Three Legendary Sannin, top-skilled shinobi or ninjas (under Naruto's definition of "ninja", which isn't the usual one) for the Leaf Village who were the equal of nearly anyone else in the world; the other two were Tsunade (who later became the Fifth Hokage, ruler of the Leaf) and Jiraya (the Toad Sage, who became Naruto's teacher and remained one of the most powerful warriors in the world until his death).
Orochimaru is often described as "twisted", possibly because of the deaths of his parents at a very young age, but in his earlier days, while a bit creepy in an Addamsesque way, he showed some sympathy and empathy for other people, particularly Tsunade, whom he appeared to have a personal affection for. He was even shown as crying when she lost the person most dear to her.
But Orochimaru was always a bit… different, and it seemed that these events, along with the pain of his past, triggered a change within him. He began to seek out answers to the riddle of death itself; not merely because he wanted to not die, nor because he wanted to stop the losses he had been pained by, but because he had a far greater purpose: he wished to become the greatest shinobi who had ever lived, mastering every technique ("jutsu") in the entire shinobi world. That seemed a task beyond even the most brilliant person to accomplish in a single lifetime, and besides, if he died, what if someone else invented a new technique afterward? He'd never have learned it.
"I want to obtain all the techniques and gain a true understanding of everything in this world. The first one to mix blue and yellow called the new colour "green". I want to do something similar to that. If blue is the chakra, then yellow is the seal, and green is the jutsu… Just as there is no end to the variety of colours, there are so many thousands… tens of thousands of techniques in the world as well. But in order to obtain every possible technique and truth, it would require an eternity. Only one who understands everything after spending such time on this can be fittingly called the Ultimate Being."
Wanting to fight back against death is not uncommon. Being a high-functioning sociopath is also not terribly uncommon, at least in fiction. In such fiction, it's also not terribly unusual for someone to be a genius at whatever the key powers of the universe are. The combination is terrifying. Orochimaru sought the answer to death and life through experiments forbidden in any civilized world, while learning an uncountable number of combat and medical techniques that made him an ever-more-formidable adversary. When his experimentation was discovered, he fled… and found a way to get his own village of willing test subjects.
Orochimaru has everything a great villain should: a long-term vision, physical power, genius, and a worldview that stands against anything that good and just people believe in. He is possibly the smartest villain I have ever seen in fiction. He makes David Xanatos (Gargoyles), the Trope Namer for Xanatos Gambit, look like a complete amateur in playing the chessmaster, while also being the equivalent in Naruto's world of an expert in medicine, biology, chemistry, physics, military weaponry, martial arts (both mundane and supernatural) espionage, small-unit tactics and large scale strategy, as well as ancient lore. And he uses this knowledge carefully and with forethought that goes multiple layers deep.
That part is very important; by making backup plans for his backup plans for his backup plans, Orochimaru is free to take his expertise directly to the battlefield whenever it looks convenient or a possibility for a swift advancing of his fortunes, because he has already provided for any possibility of defeat. Even if you think you kill him… you haven't; remember that his first and still ongoing goal is complete and total immortality.
On top of all this, Orochimaru has style. Even when he's outmatched, he can appreciate the skill and power of his opponent (the only exceptions I can think of is when it appears he is really, truly going to die, which makes sense given his purpose; whenever there's some reasonable escape for him, defeat is just an amusement). He knows how to make a dramatic entrance, how to unveil a new power to maximum shock-and-awe, how to speak quietly with creepy menace and how to rant to the heavens.
Orochimaru has arrogance in his abilities, but he also can temper his pride when needed; in the latest sequence, he has chosen to oppose the Big Bads of the season because their plan would ruin his own, and having done so, shows a DuQuesne-like tendency to fulfill that commitment in spirit as well as letter. He's pulling out all the stops to assist – healing those injured, fighting alongside his former teacher, rallying others to the cause, and in short showing why he used to be one of the greatest heroes of the Leaf.
There isn't a single characteristic of a great villain he lacks, and in power, skill, and long-running menace he is utterly unmatched. In shonen anime, where the villain of the season often becomes next season's second string, and the third year's comic relief, it is very rare for a villain who was the principal adversary in an early season to retain his threat rating; by contrast, Orochimaru is still possibly the most formidable character we have encountered, more than a decade into the universe of Naruto.
For all of this, he has taken the top spot in my Villain Countdown!