Movie villains are supposed to be utterly unlikable. In fact, that’s kind of their sole purpose. After all, how can we root for the good guys if there’s no one on the other end of the spectrum to compare them to? Let’s face it, without Voldemort, Harry Potter would have just been an entitled, privileged kid getting up to all sorts of mischief at his exclusive boarding school. (We already wrote about why Harry is basically the worst character ever.)
But whilst we might love to hate those pesky villains, sometimes their actions are somewhat justifiable. Whether due to a dodgy past that has set them on the wrong track or simply having a perfectly valid explanation for their antagonising the hero, these are 20 movie villains whose actions were basically justified.
20. Arthur Fleck – Joker
2019’s Joker examines the man behind the mask (or makeup, if you will) of Batman’s future nemesis, showing a troubled loner battling both his own mental health problems and a cruel, uncaring world. There’s no justifying his actions at the film’s end, but it is alarmingly easy to understand his descent into madness, and maybe even empathise with his dire outlook on life.
19. Snape – The Harry Potter franchise
As a wise man (Sirius Black) once said, “the world isn’t divided into heroes and villains”. And no one exemplifies this statement more than Severus Snape. Though he is decidedly cruel to the title character throughout the Harry Potter series, we eventually learn that Snape has in fact been charged with protecting Harry, a duty he honours in memory of his unrequited love, Harry’s mother.
18. Roy Batty – Blade Runner
Blade Runner’s rogue replicant Roy Batty was literally built for war, with a genius-level intellect and immense physical strength – but with no idea how to manage his emotions. Imagine the mental strain it would take on a person to have a programmed-in death date, as Roy and the other replicants do. It’s understandable he would resort to cruelty in search of more life.
17. Syndrome – The Incredibles
The Incredibles’ Syndrome is bitter and jealous, prepared to kill scores of innocents to achieve his obsession with becoming a superhero. As unsympathetic as this may make him, it’s rooted in childhood trauma over the blunt rejection of his one-time idol Mr Incredible, who rejected the young buddy off-hand due to his lack of born superpowers, whilst ignoring the youngster’s clear potential as an inventor.
16. The Machines – The Matrix series
At first glance, the Machines of The Matrix are the definition of evil, given they’ve enslaved humanity and forced them to exist in an artificial reality whilst feeding off their human bodies. Still, if you’ve seen Animatrix, you’ll know the Machines were ultimately persecuted by the very people who had created them, forcing these wily AI to create the Matrix in order to survive.
15. Magneto – The X-Men series
Magneto has been persecuted his entire life, first as a Jewish child in the Holocaust, then in adulthood as a mutant. It’s only natural that his experiences would leave him with no faith in humanity, convincing him that mutants should fight back. This may put him at odds with old friend Professor Xavier, but it makes it hard to declare Magneto genuinely evil.
14. Gollum – The Lord of the Rings
Gollum is clearly a victim of circumstance, corrupted by the Ring to the point that by the end of his manipulation he was barely even human. We might frown at his lack of self-control, but it could be said that it is Gollum’s open nature and hunger for knowledge that allowed him to become susceptible to the Ring’s allure.
13. The Grinch
Beneath the Grinch’s grumpy facade is a heart full of pain and torment. The 2000 film reveals that as a child, the Grinch was bullied and ridiculed, leaving him with low self-esteem and feelings of alienation, which explains his anti-social nature. Happily, by the story’s end the Grinch sees the error of his ways and opens himself up to others once more.
12. King Kong
In the original 1933 version of King Kong, the giant ape of the title is typically considered the antagonist, considering how much damage he does and how many people he kills. However, considering he has grown up alone in a jungle wilderness only to be stolen from his home and turned into a tourist attraction, it’s understandable that Kong would feel pretty hard done by.
11. Frankenstein’s Monster
Assembled from dead body parts, Frankenstein’s Monster should not exist – that’s the moral of both the original novel, and every subsequent screen adaptation. Whilst he may try to integrate himself into society, the Monster is invariably shunned due to his appearance and his origins, which are in no way his own fault. This informs the tragic undertones of every telling of the Frankenstein story.
10. The Wicked Witch of the West – The Wizard Of Oz
With her sickly green complexion to her iconic cackle, The Wicked Witch of the West is one of cinema’s most iconic villains. But if you take a close look at the events of The Wizard of Oz, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy. After all, Dorothy has just killed her sister, and all she wants is her lost sibling’s ruby slippers back.
9. Killmonger – Black Panther
Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens is a child of Wakanda who grew up impoverished and oppressed in America, and is furious that a country with the power to save his struggling community decided instead to abandon it. It isn’t hard to be sympathetic to that anger, especially when it’s so obvious by the end of the film that Killmonger has done what he truly believes is right.
8. Principal Rooney – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’s Dean Rooney is about as close to a cartoon character as you can get in a live action movie, with a sadistic grudge against Shermer High best-loved rogue. However, Rooney is simply going above and beyond to do his job. After all, if word gets out that Rooney was soft on one kid who played truant constantly, academic anarchy would ensue.
7. Yzma – The Emperor’s New Groove
Yzma stands apart from most Disney villains. Though incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable of both magic and politics, she’s sidelined by the dim-witted, generally incompetent Emperor. Yzma wants to rule, but only so she can restore order to her homeland and stop having to babysit a rich kid who has no idea how to rule responsibly. Who can blame her for turning him into a llama?
6. Gunnery Sgt. Hartman – Full Metal Jacket
Full Metal Jacket’s Sgt. Hartman single-handedly cemented the stereotype of the aggressive drill sergeant, which was based on actor R. Lee Ermey’s personal experience of being in the military. Hartman’s harsh approach might seem like bullying, but his approach is intended to harden the young men up for the real horrors of war, and he does still take time to congratulate those who perform well.
5. Sid – Toy Story
At first glance, Toy Story’s Sid seems sociopathic, dismembering and reassembling defenceless toys just for the thrill of it. However, we know for a fact that Sid has no idea that the toys are alive, so in his mind he’s just harmlessly playing. Even if he is acting out anti-social fantasies, isn’t it better that he’s doing so with what he thinks are inanimate objects?
4. Prince Nuada – Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Many fantasy villains are unambiguously evil, but Prince Nuada’s personal mission is a whole lot more nuanced than that. Yes, he wants to bring about the end of humanity and take over the world, but for the simple fact that his race was there first. Nuada’s motive isn’t pure vengeance but allowing his community to live freely and openly, as humans have done for centuries.
3. Scar – The Lion King
Scar has the mind of a military strategist, he’s a master manipulator and he’s pretty good at double-crossing. Even so, Scar is right that Mufasa’s reign is not serving everyone equally, since the hyenas are starving and on the brink of revolution. Surely efforts should be made to include all species in the kingdom, even if Scar fails to bring this in a balanced way.
2. Miranda Priestly – The Devil Wears Prada
Miranda Priestly is essentially the boss from Hell, given the extreme demands she makes of her employees and her apparent total lack of gratitude. Still, she’s at the top of her game, lives under a constant spotlight and has to resist takeover attempts from friends and rivals alike on a daily basis. Of course all that pressure is sure to make somebody a perfectionist.
1. Javert – Les Miserables
Les Miserables’ Javert has long been criticised for his dogged pursuit of a probation-breaking criminal. However, Javert is not unfeeling – he lets Jean Valjean go when his sentence is up, and doesn’t goad him daily or make his life harder when he’s in prison. Over time, he even becomes more understanding of the nuance of good and evil, which can’t be said of all villains.