Not every movie villain is interested in being evil. Some are misguided or wrongly believe that they are completely in the right. They see the supposed heroes of the story as hindrances to their righteous cause.
Let’s examine 10 bad guys who never think of themselves as “bad” guys, but as heroes:
1. Annie Wilkes – Misery
The maddening thing about Annie Wilkes isn’t that she’s psychotic, but that she talks so politely and apologetically to maimed author Paul Sheldon, even after she does horrific things to him. She loves the man because of the fictional world he has given her in his novels. But she also hates him for taking it all away from her. In Annie’s mind, she is saving her favorite character by forcing the creator of that character to bring her back to life – or else. Better not get writer’s block.
2. Dr. Bolivar Trask – X-Men: Days of Future Past
While just about every X-Men movie has a villain who doesn’t think of himself as such, X-Men: Days of Future Past has the best one. In the throes of the Cold War when America was on the verge of losing the Vietnam War, Dr. Bolivar Trask offers a radical idea to world leaders: Stop fighting each other and start fighting the real enemy. Mutants are a common enemy that can finally unite humanity. Trask doesn’t see himself as evil for dissecting mutants and creating genocidal robots. Those are necessary steps to make the world a better and safer place for the human race.
3. Principal Ed Rooney – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Ferris Bueller is a menace – a bad influence on his fellow high school students. If they see him get away with skipping school, they might follow in his footsteps, spreading belligerence and chaos everywhere. Or so Principal Ed Rooney thinks. Which is why he takes matters into his own hands and tries to bring Ferris down. But all he manages to do is get himself into a lot of trouble in scenes that probably inspired Home Alone, which was also written by John Hughes.
4. John Doe – Seven
John Doe doesn’t murder innocent people in Seven. In his eyes, each of the people he kills has committed one of the seven deadly sins, and are worthy of death. He never raises his voice or shows a hint of anger. He’s calm and quiet, even as he describes horrific things he’s done. He’s just sending a message that society needs to shape up. His goal could be called noble, but the ends don’t justify the means.
5. Leonard Shelby – Memento
Wait a minute, isn’t Lenny the good guy in Memento? After all, he’s just trying to find his wife’s murderer. Or so we think through most of the film. Whatever his intentions were at the start of his quest, they have since become twisted. He seems totally innocent each time he loses his memory, but he is also quite guilty because he manipulates himself into committing murder after murder. At the end of the film (or the beginning, I suppose) it’s clear that he has no intention of ever stopping his killing spree. He has an unlimited supply of targets based on the clues he’s left for himself.
6. Col. Nathan R. Jessup – A Few Good Men
Did Col. Nathan R. Jessup order the Code Red at the start of A Few Good Men? You’re darn right he did. And for good reason – to him, at least. His famous monologue, which begins with the even more famous line “You can’t handle the truth!” establishes his reasoning for everything he’s done in this film. He deserves both respect and pity because he was just doing what he thought was right. And he feels like a martyr when he’s carted off for his crime.
7. Ra’s al Ghul – Batman Begins
Ra’s al Ghul isn’t out for power or world domination in Batman Begins. Quite the opposite, actually. When a city or civilization reaches a peak of immorality and corruption, his organization, the League of Shadows, steps in to restore the balance. They’ve been toppling regimes for thousands of years, and Gotham City is just their latest target. He sees himself as completely moral, fighting against injustice. His methods may be extreme, but he justifies them with seemingly airtight logic.
8. Tai Lung – Kung Fu Panda
Tai Lung is a tragic version of the heroic Po in the first Kung Fu Panda film. They’re both adopted as babies, trained in the art of Kung Fu by Shifu, and assured that they are the Dragon Warrior. Tai Lung feels cheated out of his destiny when he learns he is not to be made the Dragon Warrior by Shifu’s superior. Tai Lung is the strongest fighter, and thus, he should be the Dragon Warrior. But Shifu was the true villain for planting that idea in his head. Everything Tai Lung does is because he believes he has been treated unjustly, and for good reason.
9. William Foster – Falling Down
William Foster just wants to go home. He spends the whole movie standing against unfairness in the form of urban racism, gang warfare, out-of-control inflation, lazy construction workers, snooty golfers, and more. When William reaches the final confrontation with a veteran cop, he is genuinely surprised to learn that he is the bad guy. “How did that happen?” he asks. No matter. He still comes up with a creative way to feel like the good guy in the end.
10. Dr. Zaius – Planet of the Apes (1968)
In the original Planet of the Apes film, Dr. Zaius is the Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith in a world dominated by highly evolved apes. Zaius lobotomizes intelligent humans and does everything in his power to protect his ape society from the scourge of man. He does this because he has been warned that humanity will lead to the apes’ downfall. At the end of the film, as he violates his scientific integrity, he justifies his actions by saying that he is attempting to save the world he loves.
Good to Be Bad
When villains think of themselves as heroes, it creates a lot of tension and drama because we can sympathize with them and think of them as antiheroes. I’m sure there are many other examples of villains that fall into this category. If you think of any that I left off this list, feel free to let me know in a comment below.
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Great article, as usual. Two villain/heroes I’d add to the list are Khan from Star Trek Into Darkness and Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) from Law Abiding Citizen.
Khan’s one and only goal is to rescue his crew from the clutches of the evil Admiral Marcus. Granted, his plan involves a little bit of subterfuge and some revenge against his captors, but at its core his purpose is rather noble.
Clyde Shelton is basically a carbon-copy of John Doe from Seven, albeit with a heavy dose of retribution added to his motives. His goal is the same as John’s though, in that he wants to tear down the system by exposing just how corrupt it is. He wants to teach morality by punishing those he deems “guilty” in the most jarring ways possible. I know he’s supposed to be the villain of this movie, and Jamie Foxx’s character is supposed to be the hero, but I always find myself rooting for the widower to defeat Foxx’s lawyer.
Thank you very much. I still need to see Law Abiding Citizen. I’ve heard it’s really good. That’s such an ironic title if he’s like John Doe in Seven. Wow.
I hadn’t thought about Khan like that. You’re right. In his new incarnation, he’s not out for anything except saving his crew members. It’s a pretty cool take on his character.
Ricardo Mantolban said his method of approaching playing Khan was that Khan believed he was doing the right thing.
It’s always interesting how people can sometimes justify what horrible things they have done… in a way it’s almost more evil because they don’t even recognize why what they’re doing is horrible… they’re so cut off it seems… though it’s incorrect to call them antiheroes… antiheroes are still the hero of a story but they don’t follow traditional hero qualities… sort of like the crew in the show leverage… because they’re a bunch of thieves and con artist… they steal, cheat, lie, threaten, basically break every law in the book… and yet we see them as the good guys because they’re helping people… even though their back stories are full of them only helping themselves…
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Yeah, I guess Lenny from Memento and William from Falling Down could be considered antiheroes, but the rest are pretty much straight villains.
It’s definitely scary to think of someone who thinks they’re doing the world a favor by being evil. Thank you for your comment. I’ve never seen the show Leverage. I’ll have to add it to the list of things to watch. 🙂
I haven’t seen the other but yeah I definitely agree with that of Memento… which was a crazy movie… he’s definitely the sort of character it’s hard to judge if he’s good or bad… especially with his memory being messed up that way…
Great insights. I think the moral of the story is to not let Hollywood (or anyone else for that matter) decide who the hero is. Decide for yourself.
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When I read the title, I imediataly think about Magneto and Ra’s Al Ghul. Great article.
Thank you. I thought of including Magneto, but I guess I’ve never thought of him as a true villain. He’s a competitor to Xavier, but there’s always some existential threat or a human who is more of a villain in the X-Men films.
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Yes, you’re right.
While I concur that Dr. Zaius is the main antagonist and the film builds him as an intolerant bigot and a fanatic, in the end he really isn’t the villain he was made out to be, which is why I love Planet of the Apes. In the end he was shown to be far more aware of man’s history than he ever let on. The ending almost exonerates Zaius. His scolding of mankind’s behavior and his cryptic revelation that man had made a desert of the forbidden zone ages ago only minutes later is proven absolutely correct as Taylor collapses before the ruins of the statue of liberty, himself a misanthrope who feared this outcome, now stuck with it the rest of his days.