Unpopular opinion: a movie villain’s inclination for wrongdoing doesn’t necessarily mean they were wrong about everything. Yes, things could’ve and should’ve been handled in way better ways. There’s no denying that. Still, we get so hung up on their badness (and the protagonist’s decided goodness) that we too easily dismiss seasoned perspectives and hard-earned lessons, writing all antagonists’ wise words off as more scheming.
And dare I ask, is that fair?
Obviously, no one roots for the authority figure who shows the underdog no mercy or the lunatic on a needlessly bloody rampage. But the villain’s stances do sometimes make sense, often giving us insight regarding (but not excusing) their ill-favored actions and how they became the bad guy.
Questionable motives and murderous tendencies aside, these movie villains were right about a lot of things. And I think it’s time we all admit it.
Principal Ed Rooney in ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’
As Zooey Deschanel once wisely noted on New Girl, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off should really be called “the day Rooney tried to do his job.” Obviously, we aren’t meant to like Rooney. He’s the fun-squashing principal, after all. But with all of this in mind, his suspicions about Bueller seem well-warranted. He might be a mean ole stick in the mud, but the “hero” he’s up against is pretty arrogant and weasely throughout the movie.
Principal Rooney decided to take matters into his own hands, and he took things too far. But I’m not so sure that makes him the bad guy and Bueller the good guy. On the titular character’s infamous day off, he lied to his parents, played hooky, peer-pressured others to join him, and stole a one-of-a-kind car that wound up destroyed. He impersonated someone and stole their dinner reservation too. Most notably, he managed to get away with all of his schemes, laughing at Rooney’s failed attempts to catch him all along the way.
Had Rooney caught Bueller red-handed, he would’ve been vindicated and there would’ve been hell to pay. Instead, Rooney walks away without a morsel of justice, painted as the villain for all the wrong reasons. Yes, he took Bueller’s blatant school skipping way more personally than one can ever deem professional, but he was just trying to do his job.
The Machines in ‘The Matrix’
When it comes to The Matrix, we all know the central plot. The machines have enslaved humanity. They’re also using our bodies as an energy source. Naturally, the rebels are on a crusade to free all humans from this machine-run dystopia.
But the too-often-overlooked question is: how the heck did we get here?
Are you familiar with the Animatrix? Well, it’s here that we’re faced with the answer that humanity created the machines ourselves. Shocker. But it wasn’t a war of man vs. machine right away. The machines developed consciousness, extended an olive branch, and had one request. They wanted a peaceful coexistence where all were equal. The humans said no and ran their creations out on a rail. So, they went to plan B and built their own colony. Sadly, isolation didn’t stop the humans from seeking to destroy them anyway.
Eventually, the machines decided the Matrix was their best chance for survival. And they weren’t exactly wrong. Long backstory short, humans are to blame for all the problems in the Matrix. They invented the technology that ultimately enslaved them. So who is the real villain here?
The Wicked Witch of the West in ‘The Wizard of Oz’
She might’ve been a menace to the rose-tinted society around her, but the Wicked Witch of the West was also wildly misunderstood. Sure, she threatened, chased, and planned to murder Dorothy and her little dog, too. And if looks or laughs could kill, the green-faced witch could’ve taken everybody out.
But let’s think about this classic Hollywood musical practically. From the beginning of the movie, she was really only after a special pair of shoes. And we can’t all be Glendas!
If she could’ve just gotten her hands on those ruby slippers, this story might’ve played out differently. Dorothy skips along the yellow brick road to the Emerald City, all the while scuffing those magical pumps that never actually belonged to her. In fact, she took them from the dead body of the Wicked Witch’s sister after her house blew in and smooshed her beneath it. Talk about adding insult to injury.
I’m no lawyer, but your house landing on someone doesn’t give you legal rights to their shoes. Are we really going to blame a grieving sister for being cross with this doe-eyed stranger who inadvertently murdered her sibling and had the audacity to steal a priceless family heirloom afterward? I think not!
Let’s show this famously wicked witch some compassion and no longer rejoice when a bucket of water is tossed on her. As we learned from Wicked, her life was no poppy-filled picnic, and her cozy bubble was burst long before Dorothy. Moral of the story: we can’t judge a witch by her green skin before we’ve walked a thousand miles in her pointy shoes.
Roy Batty in ‘Blade Runner’
Are replicants basically people? Or are replicants human-like cyborgs who should continue to live meaningless, enslaved existences? That’s the biggest question propelling this 1982 mega-hit. It’s also the question that drives Roy Batty and his reign of terror. Still, he’s wrongfully turned into enemy #1.
His crimes are not forgivable, but Batty is one of very few replicants who knows the truth. Replicants are evolving. Because this could change everything, he also knows humans will deem him an anomaly–which he isn’t. Audiences have looked back at his actions and dubbed him more of a “sentient revolutionary” than a needless evildoer. All treacherous tactics aside, he fought to truly live when he wasn’t allowed to.
By the time we arrive at the iconic “tears in the rain” scene, it seems painfully obvious he was right all along. Unfortunately, it’s too late. And the real enemies prove themselves to be collective ignorance and fear on both sides.
Syndrome in ‘The Incredibles’
Oftentimes, the villain is frustrated with the course of his or her life. In The Incredibles, Buddy the child (later Syndrome the villain) doesn’t understand why he’s not allowed to be Mr. Incredible’s sidekick. No one will just sit him down and explain why.
That’s where the seeds of badness start to sprout.
Consistently rejected, his natural gifts are overlooked because they’re not supernatural powers. His continuous seething leads him down a dark path, but even Mr. Incredible eventually admits “I was wrong to treat you that way.” The damage, as they say, is done.
And as it turns out, Syndrome was right: If you leave the powers of the most powerful unchecked, they don’t always wield their genetic gifts so wisely and chaos quickly ensues. Go figure!
The Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’
The Dark Knight’s Joker was a maniacal lunatic and a menace to society. No buts about it! But…he made some incredibly astute observations about human nature, particularly the confining nature of a structured society, the hypocrisy of people who blindly abide by “the rules,” and the self-contradicting choices we sometimes make to survive.
For better but mostly worst, when Heath Ledger’s Joker set out to make a point, he pulled out all the stops. He also called everyone’s morals in crime-filled Gotham into question, and for good reason.
The Joker’s magnum opus is bringing out the worst in Gotham’s handsome hero and all-around good guy, Harvey Dent. He sets out to prove that anyone can become a villain under the right circumstances. And he’s right. Not to mention, the good guys do some bad things too. Thanks to the lies spun by Batman and Chief Gordon to “protect” the people via saving Harvey’s reputation, the masses never learn this lesson via the truth about “Two-Face.”
Also, remember that scene when Batman beats the Joker to a bloody pulp when he won’t cough up the urgent info he’s asking for? The demented, yet prophetic anarchist replies to his punches with, “you have nothing… nothing to threaten me with.” Batman realizes he’s right; you can’t intimidate or beat what you want out of someone with nothing left to lose. That was this villain’s point all along.
The Government in ‘E.T. ‘
When you think about it, there were no true bad guys in E.T. But taking it all in from a child’s perspective, the government is the ultimate villain of this 80s sci-fi flick. Their hunt for the intergalactic planet crasher drove most of the conflict.
Upon adult reflection, the government is depicted as a borderline faceless presence in a way that’s almost ominous. But their tactics to try to stop Elliot from harboring an extraterrestrial had little to do with being against the special friendship and more to do with protocol. After all, these unknown life forms didn’t inform the earthlings know they’d be peacefully visiting and collecting samples of earth matter. Nor did they ask.
So excuse the government for being alarmed and acting in a timely manner.
How could they know this good-natured science trip wasn’t actually a sneaky, hostile alien invasion? How could they be sure that Elliott, a child protecting an alien, wasn’t being manipulated or mind-controlled? Plus, the government never actually hurt anybody in the movie, even if they kept their guns on them. And they brought E.T. back from the brink of death.
Looking back, it took the G-men, the scientists, the kids, the parents, and the community coming together to do the right thing and help E.T. get home. And let’s not forget that the government allows the friendly alien to peacefully return to his spaceship while his chosen family sees him off.
John ‘Jigsaw’ Kramer in ‘Saw’
Bad guys being right doesn’t necessarily make them good guys. That’s why John “Jigsaw” Kramer is indisputably the worst of the worst. It’s also worth noting that while his torturous tests frequently resulted in untimely deaths, he didn’t technically kill anyone. At least, that’s his argument and he’s sticking to it.
Along with holding people hostage, making the lives of others unbearable was his biggest crime. Typically, those forced to endure his psychopathic psychological tests went in vulnerable, with shaky morals. Not everyone made it out alive, but those who did turn their lives around, found meaning, and purpose. That’s gotta count for something.
Knowing all we know now, there were identifiable reasons behind his methods and his madness. Jigsaw was once a rehab counselor who found himself plummeting to rock bottom. After losing everything, he endured a near-death experience of his own. This changed his approach to life, and his “work,” forever.
Is he a radical life coach in disguise? A troubled person with complex issues? Or, is he just a homicidal maniac who wants to kill others but refuses to get his hands dirty. I’m going to go with all of the above. But his terrifying tactics weren’t totally unsuccessful.
Iceman in ‘Top Gun’
Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer) is the decided antagonist of Tony Scott’s ’80s classic. He’s worked hard to become the top guy of the NAS Miramar Top Gun school. After years and years of training to be the best young pilot he could possibly be, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) comes along and shows a complete disregard for everything he firmly believes in (and the school claims to care about), including everyone’s safety.
So of course he’s upset.
Iceman has spent a good chunk of his life perfecting his craft and valuing what he believes in. By many definitions, he is a hero in his own right. He never falters. Upon revisiting the film, Ruthless Reviews once sided with Iceman, noting that the story’s decided hero wasn’t much of a hero at all, seeing Maverick as “a self-obsessed twit who is impulsive, reckless, and ignorant of whom suffers at his hands.”
With the sequel still on the horizon, Kilmer has said he feels well enough to reprise his role. During round one, it was clear he meant it when he said “you can be my wingman anytime,” but hopefully his character is given a fair chance to fly this time around.
John Milton in ‘The Devil’s Advocate’
It’s hard to come by villains quite as charming or chilling as Al Pacino’s portrayal in The Devil’s Advocate. But it’s not his charms that make him completely correct. It’s his awareness of human nature, his unmatched skill to prey upon it, and how most people in the movie do exactly what he knows they’ll do, even if he has a million strings to sway them.
Most notably, John Milton (a.k.a. Satan) knew exactly what Kevin Lomax (a.k.a his lovechild and potentially the antichrist) would do when presented with an impossible case: he’d win. Was he really that good or did daddy always help? That becomes the question. Regardless, he couldn’t stand in the way of Lomax’s (played by Keanu Reeves) free will. He could, however, dangle temptation after temptation until he got a real bite.
Failing to bring his son fully over to the dark side, he just keeps trying, forever quipping “Vanity…. definitely my favorite sin.” And TBH, he’s probably got time on his evil hands spending all of eternity as the CEO of hell. On some level, I’m sure he was just ready to retire.
Gaston in ‘Beauty And The Beast’
I’m not saying he had good intentions or acceptable actions. He used “the right thing to do” to his advantage, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t the right thing to do.
Frankly, I will never forgive him for all the gaslighting and having “crazy old Maurice” institutionalized. Throughout, Gaston exhibits constant ill will, disregard for others, self-obsession, control issues, and general mean-spiritedness. With that said, he’s not the only one.
Put Gaston’s bad guy motives aside for a minute. What’s left? Well, a popular local guy pitted against a not-so hero-like protagonist holding the woman he wants to marry captive. That’s what. Plus, anyone equipped with the bullet points of Belle’s situation might’ve stormed that castle too. She’s a “house guest” who is more like a prisoner turned hostage with privileges. At first, Belle’s only living there because she agreed to take her father’s place who the beast had taken hostage first. He punishes her when she disobeys and rewards her when she doesn’t infuriate him. Yes, Belle helps him grow and he allows/demands she go, but that doesn’t excuse “the prison treatment.”
When her father seeks help from anyone who will listen, no one does. Except for Gaston. He sees it as a means to finally win Belle over, forming a rescue squad that’s more like a mob. But can you blame him? Yes, he might’ve mainly had murder on his mind, but he goes to save her, regardless. Some even claim Gaston is the true hero when you add things up, but I won’t go that far. His monstrously cruel behavior makes him a bonafide jerk and an egotistical creep most times. But the beast is a creep who exhibits 100% not-okay behavior too.
Miranda Priestly in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’
Say what you want about Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), but she has a tendency to bring out the best in people, even if she often breaks them down first. Fashion’s most powerful editor-in-chief made it to the top of her game by being a woman with a vision, nerve, and a cutthroat attitude. She also had to sacrifice. Miranda built the career she dreamed of over the course of many moons and “on her back.” In other words, Miranda Priestley knows what it takes. Or at least, what it has taken her. And it’s safe to assume she has a keen eye for those who can and can’t hack it in her line of work. Enter: Andy Sachs.
Miranda correctly, albeit harshly, sizes up Andy (Anne Hathaway) from the moment she walks in. She almost dismisses the seemingly meek, indifferent young woman applying for a job in fashion who admittedly doesn’t even know who she is. But when the Northwestern grad won’t be sent away with a “that’s all,” finally pitching herself with conviction, she’s given a second look.
Priestly sees Andy’s specialness, nerve, and potential. From there, Andy goes above and beyond on even the most impossible tasks she’s assigned. Over time, Miranda grows to trust her. As her work-life balance is continuously whittled down to nothing, Andy realizes she might lose more than she stands to gain. Miranda questions whether or not she’s “serious about her career,” which is both manipulative and something worth thinking about. Through her criticism and demands, Miranda prompts Andy to ask herself important things that should be considered before going down this career path any further. Miranda knows that best.
Andy realizes her boss’s life is not the life she wants. When she quits, Miranda seems miffed and curt. Andy keeps her newfound sense of fashion but pursues her true passion: journalism. When a potential employer seeks a reference from the magazine, Andy reasonably fears the worst. The Prada-clad devil herself sends a fax. The interviewer reveals it says, “of all the assistants she’s ever had… you were her biggest disappointment. And, if I don’t hire you, I am an idiot,” adding, “You must have done something right.” Not so evil after all, ay?
After the interview, Andy spots her former boss and attempts to give her a knowing smile, but Miranda snubs her. Moments later, however, we get a glimpse of Miranda smiling as she watches former protege stroll away happily. Miranda knew her path was not Andy’s from the start, and even if only in secret, she’s happy she made the decision to leave in the end.
Koba in ‘Dawn of The Planet of The Apes’
Koba is the definitive villain of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. He’s all about the drama, escalating conflict, and destroying any chances of reconciliation between man and ape. However, we see him differently when the sequel rolls around. And as always, our evolved perspective is primarily thanks to hindsight.
Koba’s actions were unacceptable. There’s no dancing around that. But hey, he didn’t believe humanity and apes could peacefully co-exist. So what’s a disgruntled monkey to do? When war breaks out, we realize his predictions were spot on. It’s unfortunate Koba was right about how things would play out, but he was. And everyone else predicted “peace” way too soon.
Magneto in ‘X-Men’
When it comes to Magneto’s evilness, even diehard fans and ruthless critics often agree that it’s “all a matter of perspective.” As a child, he witnessed the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, and his traumas proved formative.
Rightfully so, he was never the same after all he endured, profoundly aware of what humans are capable of at their worst. In turn, he feels his people need to be prepared to fight back. There’s no defending his actions, but as things progress, people often deem Magneto’s deepening suspicions correct or at least, defendable.
Tyler Durden in ‘Fight Club’
The first rule of Fight Club’s villain is that you don’t talk about him. But once you learn who Tyler Durden really is, you realize he knew exactly what was going on deep down. He just had to hide it from himself to get there… and then stop hiding it from himself to end the madness. In other words, denial is the true villain in this dark classic.
We don’t hate this charismatic chaos seeker. However, he’s responsible for the out-of-character things Jack has been up to lately, like destroying public property and forming a secret underground fighting organization that’s now gone global. At first glance, this makes him the bad guy. And then we do a double-take.
Spoiler alert: there is no Tyler Durden. Durden is the objectively villainous half of Jack’s troubled and sleep-deprived psyche. Jack was unhappy with his life, feeling hopelessly stuck in “the rat race.” He can’t defeat corporate greed on his own or even as himself. Psychologically divided and blocking out the truth, he puts the burden on Durden to do his dirtiest deeds. His alter ego’s tactics to “turn things around” for humanity were dangerous and destructive. However, the desire to liberate people, namely himself, remains a not-so-villainous motivation that’s perhaps rooted in an innately human inclination.
Poison Ivy in ‘Batman & Robin’
This plant-wielding villain is guilty of a lot of things, including murder, mind control, and making her debut in one of the most ridiculed Batman movies of all time. But you can’t accuse Poison Ivy of not caring about the planet!
Devoting her life’s work to plant life is how she got herself into this tangled web of venomous vines in the first place. This brainy student of science is killed (and dies three deaths at once, to be exact) by someone she thought she could trust. Not even her nutty professor realized she’d be “reborn” as a plant-like being when he turned her into a science experiment without her consent. How rude!
Re-emerging part chlorophyll, fully empowered, and recently murdered, can you blame Poison Ivy for being… irritated? Freshly fired from Wayne Enterprises, this green, gorgeous villain is hellbent on revenge. But she also uses her potent powers for other things, like helping plants protect themselves. Sure, she casts poisonous spells over men to get her way, but the last man she trusted threw Bunsen burners and blistering bushes on her with no regard to her personhood.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Poison Ivy’s head was in a sane place, but her heart might’ve been in the right one. Before and after becoming “Poison Ivy,” she worried that humans would destroy the planet someday. So she took back some control when she could. And considering all that soon transpired in Gotham and beyond, this infectious villain had a fair point.