By Eric Rezsnyak
An essential part of a good cartoon — hell, any good story — is a compelling, unforgettable antagonist. And when it came to 80s cartoons, kids were served up countless bad guys who were, literally, iconic. With eye-catching designs made to sell toys, dramatic voice work, and shocking nefarious plotlines, the villains of 80s cartoons in some ways overshadowed the good guys we were supposed to be rooting for. As the Great Pop Culture Debate tackles the Best 80s Cartoons as part of Season 7 of the podcast, we also took a moment to decide the Top 10 80s Cartoon Villains. Read on for our picks!
10. Mumm-Ra (“Thundercats”)
“Thundercats” is a wild ride in general, a needlessly overcomplicated set up that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but with totally rad lead characters and threatening villains. It was intensely 80s, which is probably why every subsequent revival attempt has been a flop. The series’ main antagonist, Mumm-Ra, LOOKS like a total badass, whether he’s in his creepy old-ass mummy version (Mumm-Ra the Ever Living), or his roided-out super saiyan version (Mumm-Ra the All Powerful). He should be way higher on this list — except that he has a HUGE Achilles heel. All it takes to send him screaming back to his evil pyramid is for him to see his reflection, even accidentally. And he punks out. To be honest, Mumm-Ra sucked. But he looked cool, and in the 80s, that was, like, totally important!
9. Gargamel (“The Smurfs”)
Serving us Derelicte fashions long before Derek Zoolander entered the picture, “The Smurfs” main threat, Gargamel, gave balding, bat-faced middle-aged white men the representation they so badly needed in 80s cartoon. Why did Gargamel want the Smurfs? Depends on the day. Sometimes he wanted to extract their Smurf Essence — Gargamel, you nasty — to make him a more powerful sorcerer. Sometimes he wanted to eat them. But I primarily remember him wanting to transform them into gold. Does that make any sense? No, it does not. Just get a Smurfing job, Gargamel. Think of the time you would save not chasing tiny blue beings who frolic in mushrooms, and you also get medical/dental and a 401K. Gargamel’s evil plans were fairly limited in scope, and he was overwhelmingly a loser. But he does get points for having Azrael, easily the best cat sidekick of 80s villains. (And there were several!)
8. Dr. Claw (“Inspector Gadget”)
Another owner of an evil cat sidekick, Dr. Claw has the distinction of rarely being shown full on. Primarily he would be shown from the back, sitting in a giant chair, with only his enormous metal gauntlet fondling a lever or petting the aforementioned pussy. When he finally was fully shown, he served up Evil Christopher Lloyd, and I think we can all agree that in this case, less was definitely more. But Claw gets villain points for some fairly elaborate evil plans that had Gadget on the ropes. And while not canon, in my heart I believe he was an international fisting sensation for most of the 1980s. An icon!
7. Cobra Commander (“G.I. Joe”)
“G.I. Joe” baddie Cobra Commander gets a lot of things right when it comes to being a bad guy. He is in control of an extremely powerful paramilitary force. He has a well-stocked bench of henchmen (and women!). He had some elaborate plans, and would have achieved world domination several times over had it not been for those pesky Joes. He also had not one but two great designs, between the full metal helmet and the draped cloth mask, and is voiced by one of the all-time greats in 80s cartoons, Christopher Collins (more on him in a minute). In Destro, he also has an essential ingredient for a top-tier 80s cartoon villain: an openly contemptuous second-in-command just waiting for the opportunity to replace him. Why is CC not higher? Because he himself is not much of a threat. Although I say that, and I’m pretty sure the man behind the hood is currently serving as Governor of Florida, and may be running for the presidency in 2024. So let’s circle back on that in a few years.
6. Venger (“Dungeons & Dragons”)
One of the less-well-known villains on the list, I’m ranking Venger high for the following reasons: he was an extremely powerful wizard; he was genuinely terrifying to the heroes and viewers alike; he had a terrific bad-guy design; he had a compelling backstory (he was the son of the Dungeon Master!); and he had some pretty audacious schemes. He was also voiced by Peter Cullen, AKA Optimus Prime. While Venger might not have the name recognition of some of the other characters on this list, he makes up for in actual threat level and conceptual punch.
5. Pizzazz (“Jem and the Holograms”)
Pizzazz didn’t need magical powers or a well-armed militia to keep Jerrica Benton/Jem on her toes. Pizzazz was simply That Bitch. A spoiled rich girl named — gasp! — Phyllis (PHYLLIS!), all Pizzazz needed to need to run the world was charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent, which she had in spades. The Misfits were correct: their songs WERE better. An unrepentant bitch who knew how to rock a white tiger print, highlighter hair, and too much face make-up better than anyone in ANY decade, Pizzazz will always be THE moment. Unfortunately, 80s America was obsessed with bland, blonde girls, leaving her used up and cast aside. Justice for Pizzazz!
4. Hordak (“She-Ra Princess of Power”)
Part robot, part alien, with a dash of macabre thrown in for good measure, Hordak gets big villain points for successfully conquering a significant part of Etheria and maintaining control for the entirety of the OG She-Ra run. How many other cartoon villains actually won and remain in power? Hordak’s gallery of sidekicks lack the style and substance of some of the other bad guys on this list — for every kickass Dream Weaver or Catra there’s a Leech or a Grizzlor, who are just…there. On the whole his crew pales in comparison to the stacked deck of the Princesses of Power. Hordak also loses points for his frankly goofy transformation powers. As imposing as his base design is, he becomes far less scary when he turns into a rocket with a face on it. Who thought that was a good idea?
3. Skeletor (“He-Man and the Masters of the Universe”)
Ranking Skeletor is tough. In some categories I think he’s probably top of the heap. Design is 10/10. Henchman crew — Beast Man, Evil-Lyn, Tri-Clops, Mer Man, etc. — is peerless. Snake Mountain headquarters is probably the best of all 80s villains. Voice by Alan Oppenheimer is utterly iconic. He remains a meme king to this day. So why isn’t Skeletor higher? Because the guy literally never won (in the ORIGINAL series, not counting the recent Netflix reboot). Plot after plot failed, usually for the stupidest reasons. And while the guy was ripped, and had (poorly defined) magical powers, he never really seemed particularly threatening to either the good guys or the viewers. All that power, all those henchmen, and Skeletor can’t make any ground against that boob He-Man and Masters of the Universe? We can’t want you to succeed more than you do, Skeletor…
2. Shredder (“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”)
While Skeletor never felt truly threatening (in the original!), Shredder absolutely did. Clearly a skilled warrior, with a terrific design that was instantly dangerous looking and an army of Foot Soldier, robots, and various mutant sidekicks at his disposal, Shredder was never a joke to the viewers, even if the Turtles themselves seemed increasingly dismissive of him. You get the feeling that were it not for the Turtles, Shredder and his crew legitimately could have taken over the world, or at least the city. Very few other villains on this list have that same BDE. Shredder loses cool points for not being the Big Bad, and Krang — while being a legit threat — was also often played for laughs. The fact that Shredder reports to the talking brain thing is…not a great look.
1. Megatron (“Transformers”)
Megatron is my pick for the best 80s cartoon villain. Let’s count the ways in which he rules. Imposing design? My dude even makes a metal pageboy hairdo look butch. Cadre of threatening soldiers at his command? The Decepticons were legitimately threatening and frequently had the Autobots on the ropes. Iconic voice acting? Frank Welker checking in. Sweeping evil plans? This dude wanted to strip Earth’s resources, wipe out the Autobots, and rule Cybertron with his iron fist (literally). We love an ambitious queen! He also gets points for having THE absolute best example of a bitchy, openly hostile second-in-command in Starscream, voiced by the previously mentioned Christopher Collins. And if the 1980s animated film is considered here, Megatron actually WON, arguably, killing his seemingly untouchable good-guy rival and performing wholesale slaughter on the Gen 1 Autobots. And his name is MEGATRON! What is more badass than that? Finally, he literally turns into a gun. You tell me a bigger villain to America’s children since the 1980s than guns. I’ll wait.
Do you agree with our picks? Did we miss your favorite 80s cartoon villains? Tell us about it in the comments, and don’t forget to listen to our Season 7 episode on the Best 80s Cartoon!