In most stories, you’re meant to root for the underdog. Your hero is part of a rag-tag group of rebels, outnumbered and outclassed; a lone lawyer challenging a powerful corporation, or the system itself; or an average joe going up against the snobby rich guy to win the girl’s heart. If your hero is disadvantaged, down on his luck, or bound for failure, it makes him sympathetic, and makes you hope that they will overcome the odds. It’s convenient to forget, of course, that the protagonist of the piece is destined for success, unless you’re reading something a bit darker. The only real underdog in a movie is the villain, who is, no matter how clever their plan, almost always doomed to failure. So if you want to support a real underdog, root for the evil overlords, the mustache-twirlers, the henchmen-chokers. It’s more fun that way.
Because villains are meant to lose, films get a lot more freedom with them than they do the hero. Everyone has got to like the hero in order for the film to work, which limits their personality to a certain number of easily likable traits, usually a combination of funny, hot and brave. On the other hand, there’s an infinite variety of ways that people can be evil, from throwing a kitten in a blender to making friends with your grandma only to insult her home-made ginger snaps. Since villains have smaller roles, you can cast talented character actors instead of the week’s pretty face. And there are few things more fun for an actor than hamming it up in a cape and goatee. Because of this, villains often end up being the best part of a film.
In honor of the new pro-Villain movie Despicable Me, we’ve listed some of the villains that we think aren’t just threatening or scary or effective, but actually better characters than their story’s heroes. They’ve got enough depth, or at least enough potential, to carry a film on their own, without any boring goodie-two-shoes bringing them down.
The Patriot - Col. Tavington
Jason Isaacs is one of those actors who always gets cast as a villain, and it’s easy to see why, since he’s turned arrogant smirking into an art form. But even for villain in a Mel Gibson film, Col. Tavington is completely over-the-top, mustache-twirling evil. It seems particularly out of place in The Patriot, because it’s historical fiction and it’s not like the Revolutionary War is one of those obscure wars everyone forgets about (sorry, Spanish-American). It ends up working against the film’s intentions; Tavington spends so much time and effort being dastardly that you almost start admiring him for his hard work. (Avatar has a similar issue with Col. Quaritch) Plus, Mel Gibson’s ongoing antics make it difficult to cheer him on in any film, so watching Jason Isaacs antagonize him for two hours can be pretty cathartic.
Gangs Of New York - Bill The Butcher
A friend of mine suggested that I put William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting on this list, but I objected. Not because I don’t love the deranged patriot, but because it was clear to me when I thought back on Gangs Of New York that it was about Bill, and the kid from Titanic was there in a supporting role. But according to almighty Wikipedia Amsterdam Vallon is the protagonist, and Leonardo DiCaprio gets top billing, to my great surprise. DiCaprio is fine in this film, but it’s really tough for anyone to make an impression when they’re going up against Daniel Day-Lewis. His Bill the Butcher is so charismatic that it’s hard to understand why they didn’t just make the movie about him, except I guess it’s tough to have a hero who kills people with meat cleavers all the time. I hold out hope that Scorsese will realize how awesome a Bill the Butcher spin-off could be.
Star Wars Prequels - Palpatine
When you think Star Wars villain, your first thought is probably Darth Vader. The problem is that we already had a bunch of films focusing on him, and they didn’t turn out very well. As loath as I am to say anything positive about the Star Wars prequels, Emperor Palpatine is one of the few characters to emerge from the series relatively unscathed. His appearances in Revenge Of The Sith are among the few entertaining scenes in the entire prequel series, between the film’s opening ironic rescue attempt and the surprisingly effective “code 44” sequence. Ian McDairmid may overact like hell in the role, but he’s one of the only actors who remembered to act at all. Palpatine is still a disappointment compared to his magnificently evil original film self: for one his incredibly boring plan to overthrow the government was maybe 90% speeches. But at least the guy has got a life goal, which is more than we can say of our heroes. Not one of them has aspirations any more complex than getting away from sand and doing Natalie Portman. Palpatine may be an evil dictator, but you really can’t blame him for conquering people this stupid.
Blade Runner - Roy Batty
It’s tough to even classify replicant Roy Batty as the villain of Blade Runner, since he’s ultimately so sympathetic. By the time you get to the “tears in the rain” scene, it’s easy to forget how menacing Roy is through most of the film- physically threatening as well as genuinely, disconcertingly strange. Including Roy on the list isn’t a dig against Deckard, who is a decent protagonist in a a generic, Noir-y way, but there’s no doubt the Batty is the more developed, interesting character, and one of the main reasons that people keep returning to the film.
Avatar: The Last Airbender - Azula
How did a villain on a Nickelodeon cartoon get so freaking smart? I’ll admit to watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, even though I’m outside the intended age range, because the show is action-packed, funny, and beautifully animated. But the show peaked in season 2 with the introduction of Azula, the Fire Nation princess who proved to be as cunning and vicious a villain as ever appeared on children’s television. You know how there’s this unwritten rule in fiction that whenever anyone is transforming, whether it’s the villain is turning into a giant snake or the heroes all combining into Voltron, the opposing party will just stand around and wait for them to finish rather than attacking them when they are clearly distracted and vulnerable? Yeah, well Azula’s having none of that. Or that when the hero is defeated, the villain says “no one could have survived that!” and just leaves? That's not going to fly either. We don’t necessarily want her to complete her goal of taking over the world, but if we had to choose an evil overlord we’d want one as cunning and ruthless as Azula. It’s a shame that M. Night Shyamalan is bound to mess her up too.
Heroes - Sylar
When Heroes was in its prime (its short, short prime), Zachary Quinto's creepy, hilarious Sylar was a highlight of the show. Once Heroes was in the crapper (the long, long crapper) Sylar was really the only thing the show had going for it. They inevitably drove the brain-stealer into the ground as well, with ill-conceived redemption arcs and love interests, but Sylar managed to stay entertaining and sympathetic long after we gave up on Peter and Hiro. Probably because he spent a lot of time trying to kill Peter and Hiro.
The Matrix - Agent Smith
Inevitably, there’s a point in a film where the villain sits down with the hero and lectures him about why he’s right and the hero is wrong. The way this usually goes, Sir Sinister explains that his dog got run over when he was six and therefore all people are bastards and deserve to be enslaved, and Captain Patriotism will counter that people are good and can overcome adversity, and then beat the villain into submission. But every once in a while, the villain has a point. And that can be really scary.
For most of the first Matrix movie (the only Matrix movie, for those of you still in denial) Agent Smith is a good villain: he’s relentless, emotionless, and played by Hugo Weaving. But once he captures Morpheus and explains his pet theory- that humanity is a virus that needs to be destroyed, he crosses the line to great villain. It’s a simple idea, and not an especially profound one, but that’s what makes it effective. It’s plausible and pulls of the rare feat of making Agent Smith both more relatable and more terrifying. The Wachowski Bros. don’t back away from the implications, either, exploring in the (nonexistent) sequels whether humanity deserves to survive. It’s heavy stuff for a movie most people love in Middle School.
Metropolis - Rotwang
Metropolis can be an alienating film to a modern viewer. Which is understandable, since it’s silent, German, and half-missing. But because mad scientist Rotwang is basically an archetype, the things that seem like weaknesses in the film’s heroes work with him. For instance, the theatrical acting style favored seems distractingly over-the-top on the good guys, but pretty standard for mad scientists, who receive an overacting license alongside their diploma when they graduate from evil graduate school. Rotwang becomes the most relatable part of the film because he’s the most familiar and understandable to a modern audience. And also because everyone loves old-fashioned robot science.
Die Hard - Hans Gruber
Alan Rickman is another actor who was born for villainous roles, and few are better than he at conveying sheer contempt. He just does it with such panache it’s hard to hate him for it. The ultimate lovable Rickman villain is Hans Gruber, who is so charming and clever that it’s hard to begrudge him the occasional murder.
In my head, when the screenwriters of Die Hard sat down to write the script, their concept for Hans Gruber was to create an antagonist who combined the fun of a Bond villain with the mental capacities of a person who was never dropped on their head as a child. It’s a potent combination, as Gruber tempers his Goldfinger-esque one-liners with a genuine intelligence that allows him to get the best of McClane again and again. Plus, he pretends to be hostage to get close to McClane, which is such an obvious and awesome idea that it actually makes me embarrassed for action films, as a genre, that no one had ever thought of using it before. Die Hard proves how much a strong villain can improve a film, because overcoming a great villain makes the hero look even better. By the end of the movie we were rooting for John McClane, but we didn’t want Hans Gruber to die either. Would it really have been so bad to let him get away with the money?