The battle between good and evil is at the center of many of history’s great stories, but in this modern world that distinction isn’t quite as clear-cut. Heroes are often morally ambiguous, and villains are just as bad. Wait, we mean good. Hold on, let’s try this again.
A well-written villain will have a motivation that goes beyond “do bad stuff.” Some of the most endearing bad guys of all time are complex, nuanced characters. Case in point: Magneto from the X-Men comics. Sure, he’s tried to commit global genocide on non-mutants a time or two, but his experiences during the Holocaust made him forever paranoid that a great purge could wipe out mutantkind. That said, he’s still definitively a villain. Some antagonists, however, are actually in the right.
In this feature, we’ll share our picks for 11 villains from throughout cinematic history who, on further examination, were actually the good guys.
Roy Batty, Blade Runner
A common thread in many of the “villains” on this list is that they were placed in unfair situations and told to just deal with it. For Roy Batty, the murderous replicant played by Rutger Hauer in the classic Blade Runner, that situation was realizing that he had a mere four years to live as an artificial life form.
Batty and the other renegade replicants are intelligent, sentient beings forced to die for no reason except the whims of their creator. It’s human nature to want to survive, and even artificial humans experience it. While his methods may be a little extreme, Batty’s motivations are pure, and him saving Deckard at the film’s end cements his heroic qualities.
Iceman, Top Gun
Some movie critics have started using the term “Iceman” for a movie villain who isn’t actually in the wrong. As played by Val Kilmer, Tom “Iceman” Kazansky is the de facto antagonist of Top Gun, bristling at Maverick’s success in the skies.
But think about it this way: the F-14 jets that these men are entrusted with cost millions of dollars, and the ability to follow orders in the cockpit can mean life and death to not only the pilots but the soldiers they have to support on the ground. Iceman is a bit of a dick, but he knows that military life is all about discipline.
Raoul Silva, Skyfall
The world of international espionage is full of morally gray areas, but the villain of Skyfall, as brilliantly played by Javier Bardem, seems to us to actually have some solid points.
Silva was an MI6 agent who was used as a bargaining chip with the Chinese and handed over to be brutally tortured for months. He tried to commit suicide to end his pain, but failed and eventually escaped.
Now put yourself in his shoes: your boss just betrayed you and left you for dead — don’t you think that merits a little revenge? In any other movie, Silva’s quest to topple his former employer would be a heroic act, but just because James Bond is on the other side of the equation he’s made to be the villain.
The Wicked Witch of the West, The Wizard of Oz
Let’s lay down a hypothetical situation, shall we? Say a horrible accident takes the life of one of your closest relatives, and then a bystander to that horrible accident sinks so low as to loot their corpse. You’d be a little upset, right?
So why do we let Dorothy Gale get away with taking the ruby slippers right off the cold feet of the Wicked Witch of the East after she smashes her underneath her tornado-tossed house? That’s purely ghoulish, and the little girl doesn’t seem to care that she’s prancing around in a dead woman’s shoes. The Wicked Witch of the East just wants her sister’s footwear back, and even though she uses some over-the-top methods to get them, we can’t say she’s not justified.
Carl Anheuser, 2012
Roland Emmerich’s films are all disasters in one way or another, but this flick — about the extinction of all life on Earth — kicks it up a couple hundred notches. As massive tsunamis destroy human civilization, the one man trying to make sure that our best and brightest get into the shelters that will keep them alive is Carl Anheuser, the White House Chief of Staff.
And when you’re in charge in a tense situation, sometimes you have to make tough choices, like locking John Cusack and his family out of the Ark to save everybody else inside. That’s leadership, not villainy.
The Government, ET
Yes, wrapping Elliot’s house in white plastic is kind of a dick move, but think of it this way: who knows what kind of alien bacteria ET was carrying on him? When Europeans came to the Americas they brought smallpox, devastating an entire native population. The absolute right thing to do with an unidentified life form is to quarantine it until we can be sure that it’s not carrying some kind of space Ebola.
Sure, it doesn’t pull at the heartstrings quite as much as the bond between an Earth boy and an alien, but we’d rather not die in horrible pain because ET didn’t wash his hands.
Francis Hummel, The Rock
Yes, we’re about to call a guy who threatened to launch a chemical weapons attack on San Francisco not that bad, and it’s not just because of all the techies that live there.
Brigadier General Francis Hummel’s desperate scheme in Michael Bay’s The Rock isn’t for selfish reasons — he’s extorting the United States government of $100 million because he wants the families of Marines who died on covert missions to be taken care of. You read that right: Hummel is trying to keep women and children from starving to death on the streets, and yet we consider him the villain of the movie.
Edward Rooney, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
A number of these “villains” are just regular guys trying to do their jobs. Case in point: Edward Rooney, the Dean of Students at Ferris Bueller’s high school. What is a Dean of Students supposed to do? Make sure that the children in his care are getting the best education, and that means showing up to class. Ferris had nine absences so far in the year, and Rooney’s prophetic words that he “gives good kids bad ideas” turned out to be true when he wrecked Cameron’s dad’s sweet ’61 Ferrari.
Walter Peck, Ghostbusters
Yes, EPA agent Walter Peck is a bit abrasive, but nobody ever said that heroes have to be perfect. All he wanted was to make sure that New York City didn’t have a massive waste dump of toxic spiritual energy right in the middle of Manhattan, and he was well within the duties of his job to do so.
And, to be frank, the Ghostbusters did set their stuff up without a permit. If a trio of Creationists came to your block and installed a howling void of devils in their basement, you’d probably want the government to take a look at it. And Peck is somewhat vindicated when all those ghosts get out and slime the Big Apple.
The Machines, The Matrix
The history of the post-apocalyptic world in The Matrix is mostly told in spinoff movies and other media, so it’s not remarkable that most watchers consider the machines the villains. But let’s rewind a step and go through it slower.
Humans made robots as slaves to serve them. Robots gained sentience and rebelled, eventually winning a war against their creators. At that point, the Geneva Conventions no longer applied and our new mechanical overlords could do anything they wanted to our fragile meatbags, up to and including mass murder.
What did they do? Construct a massive infrastructure to keep the entire human race alive and a virtual world for us to live in. That’s all remarkably altruistic for an emotionless murder machine.
These aren’t the only movies where the villains are actually the good guys, but they’re some of the most egregious where, even within the smoke and mirrors of the movie, it seemed the “villains” were pretty alright.
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