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The Biggest 'Dune' Villain Hasn't Even Appeared Yet

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The following story contains spoilers for Denis Villeneuve's Dune with some background from Frank Herbert's 1965 novel.

There are a lot of contenders, but it would be hard to argue against Dune, director Denis Villeneuve's 2021 adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 novel of the same name, being one of the year's biggest movies. And a big movie needs a big villain, right? The film mostly focuses on the interplanetary political warfare between House Atreides (led by Oscar Isaac's Duke Leto) and the Harkonnens (led by Stellan Skarsgård's portly Baron Vladimir).

And while Baron Harkonnen—and, to a lesser extent, his nephew Beast Rabban (Dave Bautista)—serve as the story's primary antagonists, there are a few references to the fact that an unseen but quite powerful character known as "the Emperor" is really pulling the strings behind all the drama we see unfold.

One of the ways Villeneuve's Dune remains loyal to Herbert's novel is by mentioning, but not necessarily depicting the Emperor, and making viewers read between the lines about what that character's agenda and motivations are without even seeing as much as what he looks like, let alone where he lives or how he carries himself.

Photo credit: Warner Bros.
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Who is the Emperor in Dune?

Emperor Shaddam IV is the leader of the entire universe in Dune, and is the person who has assigned House Atreides and Duke Leto to take over Arrakis from the brutish Harkonnens.

In the world of Dune, Shaddam IV is the 81st person from his House (called "House Corrino), and while he's powerful, he's not a very convincing leader. As Dune eventually explains, he wasn't sending House Atreides to Arrakis for any sort of merit-based reason, but rather because he was concerned that Duke Leto—because he's so noble and likeable—would be able to rally the Landsraad (the funny Dune word for the collection of powerful houses in the Universe) to eventually overthrow him.

For this reason, the Emperor (again, all off-screen, and in the book, sort of in the background and in the shadows) aligns himself with the Harkonnens, giving them the help of his Sarduakar (an elite military force, trained on a prison planet) to overthrow House Atreides and kill Duke Leto. He's insecure and worried about his power being zapped.

The end of the Dune movie also refers to the Emperor's own house arrangement. Like Duke Leto, Emperor Shaddam IV has a Bene Gesserit wife named Anirul. And it's worth noting that Bene Gesserits can choose the sex of their children. But unlike Lady Jessica—who went against the Bene Gesserit's order and gave birth to Paul, a male, to give Duke Leto an heir—Anirul gave birth to five daughters. So the Emperor has no rightful heir.

So, at the end of Dune, when Paul is talking about "making a play for the throne," the implication is that he will align himself with one of the Emperor's daughters and depose of the Emperor himself—making him the rightful leader of the universe. Paul's plan, as he promises the Fremen, is that he will be a powerful Emperor, and a powerful ally to them. We'll see how this all plays out in Dune: Part Two.

Who should play Emperor Shaddam IV in Dune: Part Two?

Previous adaptations have strayed from Herbert's book and introduced Shaddam IV far earlier. David Lynch's 1984 adaptation featured José Ferrer in the role, and the 2000 Sci-Fi Network mini-series had Giancarlo Giannini in the part. Alejandro Jodorowsky had a wild and outside-the-box idea for the role for his (eventually aborted) adaptation: to cast the legendary surrealist artist Salvador Dalí!

Photo credit: Universal
Photo credit: Universal

It's a big character, and leaving him out of the first film entirely means he should have an even larger role in the sequel. And that means a major bit of casting. In theory, this should be someone on the level of the other key political players: Oscar Isaac, Stellan Skarsgård, and Javier Bardem for starters. And Villeneuve's Dune has an excellent cast across the board, so we have no reason to expect anything less.

One inspired choice for the Emperor who can both match the talent and star-power of those key players is a two-time Academy Award winner himself: Mahershala Ali. Ali won his Oscars for grounded roles in Moonlight and Green Book, but he's got experience in the Sci-Fi genre, playing a convincing villain in Alita: Battle Angel and a loyal military leader in The Hunger Games series. Ali playing the Emperor would be a wonderful way for him to use his star-power and screen presence. And how cool would it be to see him work with Denis Villeneuve?

Photo credit: Chelsea Guglielmino - Getty Images
Photo credit: Chelsea Guglielmino - Getty Images

That said, Ali may already have his big-budget movie hands full for the next couple years; he's entering the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the titular character in Blade. So let's think of a couple more backup ideas.

The Emperor should be someone powerful, and maybe even kind of cool. But they also need to be able to express that insecurity and ruthlessness that's so important to a character who tried to use political maneuvering to eradicate his potential challengers. One suggestion that's been floated online is Bryan Cranston, who so brilliantly played these sorts of notes in the later seasons of Breaking Bad. A couple other potential names to consider: Michael Shannon, Laurence Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito, and Mads Mikkelsen (we're probably legally obligated to mention those last two for any villainous roles).

No matter which way Villeneuve and company go for Dune: Part Two, it will surely be exciting. The movie is due out on October 20, 2023, so production may begin as soon as next summer—which could mean that we start hearing casting news fairly soon. We'll be waiting with baited breath.

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