Most movies have a main character to center their story around, and since we’re typically meant to identify with them, they’re usually the hero – or they’re supposed to be. But we’ve all had that experience of watching something and realizing, if perhaps slowly at first, that if the movie wasn’t working so hard to make sure we saw things from this person’s point of view we might see them very differently – up to and including recognizing them as terrible, terrible people if we met them in reality. Here are ten movies where it’s hard to ignore that the good guy just… isn’t good.
Note: For purposes of clarity, this particular list focuses mainly on characters who’re meant to be accepted as the hero but where the facts of the story say otherwise; which is why you won’t find historical figures whose respective film biopics “whitewashed” problematic parts of real history – that’s a different list. You also won’t find characters like Jordan Belfort or Charles Foster Kane, because even though they may not have recognized themselves as villains, their movies absolutely did.
Here are 15 Movie Heroes That Are Actually Awful.
15. KING KONG
Most modern (read: post-1930s) King Kong movies ask audiences to view the titular giant ape in the context of sympathetic descendants like Mighty Joe Young: A misunderstood good guy too big to not cause havoc wherever he goes. But that seldom jibes with the facts onscreen, where Kong is fairly dark figure that really only the meant-to-be-scary original film will acknowledge as such.
Sure, it’s not cool for the American film crew (or oil workers, depending on which version) to yank Kong out of his natural habitat, but while he was there he’s more than happy to (it’s implied) either devour or fail to protect who knows how many human sacrifices were made to him on Skull Island (and gorillas, which Kong appears to be a variation of, are predominantly herbivores) up until he happened to find Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow appealingly different-looking enough (unpacking that is a whole other list…) to not kill. And while that protectiveness extends to his later Manhattan rampage, it doesn’t stop him from casually murdering dozens of people (including one woman who’s crime was looking sort-of like Ann) on the way.
14. PAUL KERSEY (DEATH WISH)
The hero of the once mega-popular Death Wish movies shares commonality with a few other names on this list in that their status at dubious heroes is the result of the character being rendered less complex by a series of sequels.
While the pitch-dark original Death Wish (the story of an affluent New York architect who becomes a vigilante after the rape/murder of his wife and daughter) makes it pretty clear that Charles Bronson’s anti-hero is suffering from something close to suicidal depression (hence the title) as he becomes virtually addicted to deliberately making himself a target for muggers and other small-time criminals whom he then shoots dead and confronts the murky morality of a police force that wants to cover up his actions before anyone finds out he actually has (supposedly) lowered the crime rate by, arguably, becoming a serial-killer with a socially-acceptable pool of targets.
But so many audiences chose to read the film as a simplistic morality play (an average man “taking back the streets,”) that subsequent Death Wish sequels increasingly presented Kersey as an outright hero – changing the pop-culture perception of the original film from an indictment of a failing society to an endorsement of “good gun with a gun” lawlessness.
13. UNCLE SCROOGE MCDUCK
Popular fiction is rife with ultra-wealthy gentlemen who consider themselves do-gooders while also (“somehow…”) making sure they come out rich on the other side; and Uncle Scrooge is easily animation and funny-animal comics’ preeminent example of the type – I mean, just look at the name.
It’s not that Uncle Scrooge doesn’t do good, but he’s definitely got some issues. Much of his wealth comes from business ventures where his penny-pinching is part of a running joke, and while he (or, more often, his nephews and associates) do tend to act heroically while traveling the world on adventures, said adventures are typically undertaken in the pursuit of treasures to plunder – and unlike Indiana Jones (who’s professional grave-robber status is pretty problematic in and of itself) Scrooge McDuck’s “discoveries” aren’t going into a museum for the public good. And setting aside the frequency with which his actions unleash unplanned supernatural disasters (as in his sole cinematic outing, DuckTales: Treasure of The Lost Lamp), his tendency to store all that wealth in a giant Money Bin rather than in banks means he’s likely skipping out on a lot of taxes that could be helping out the citizens of Duckburg – along with being kind of a terrible business decision, considering how much interest he’s not accruing.
12. DOMINIC TORETTO
The Fast & Furious movies have done an admirable job of staying relevant by gradually shifting their focus (and genre) with changing action-movie tastes, starting out as a gritty “inspired by a true story” (sort of) crime thriller in the late-90s but by now transformed into a preposterous adventure franchise where a variety of international spy agencies and world governments inexplicably rely on a team of street-racers to maintain global security – pretty much just because Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson vouches for them.
All well and good, but it also mirrors how unwilling audiences originally were to accept that Vin Diesel’s charismatic gang-leader Dominic Toretto actually was the villain (or one of the villains) in the original film – and not only that, he and his crew weren’t exactly “tragic” or “socially-conscious” antiheroes a’la Robin Hood or the like; they’re just a bunch of a car-obsessed crooks running to a highway-piracy operation to fund their (also illegal and dangerous) hobbies. The series has tied itself in knots to recontextualize its protagonists as outright heroes, but they never really needed to bother – fans have been in the tank ever since Toretto’s first gravelly monologue on the subject of (as he pronounces it) “Fambly.”
11. PETE “MAVERICK” MITCHELL
Tom Cruise was already a movie star touted as the “next big thing” when he signed up for Top Gun, but his turn as hotshot Air Force pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is unquestionably what turned him into a bonafide box office powerhouse – and it’s a testament to his star power that he was able to get audiences worldwide rooting for the character when, once you think about it, Maverick seriously stretches the definition of a “good guy.”
The idea is that we’re meant to sympathize with Maverick’s quest to become “Top Gun” and root against the various colleagues and authority figures who’d rather see him grounded (especially his rival, Val Kilmer’s Iceman); but it’s not like they don’t all have a point: Maverick is a reckless, self-involved and dangerously disturbed guy whose skills are constantly undercut by his crippling Daddy Issues. And while it’s one thing to root for a charismatic “bad boy” in any other sort of competition… this is the military! These people are in charge of incredibly dangerous weapons of war, and entrusted with making split-second decisions in the pursuit of national and indeed global security. Maverick is the sort of recruit who’s absolutely liable to start a war because he was sad that day – why are we rooting for him to have access to stinger missiles, again?
10. SETH (SUPERBAD)
Superbad is an adorable and heartfelt coming of age story… in as much as recognizing that Superbad was not in fact as adorable and heartfelt as you may have found it in High School is a pretty good sign that you’ve come of age.
Yes, the subject of teenagers awkwardly grappling with sexuality and romance has long been fodder for comedy; and the basic idea of two dweeby losers running the urban gauntlet to procure booze to gain access to a big party is as fine a scenario for such things as you can ask for. But Superbad leaps over the line into “WTF?” territory when Jonah Hill’s Seth explicitly explains that he and Michael Cera’s Evan should be the ones to ensure alcohol is onhand so that women “out of their league” can be more easily persuaded into sex – or, as Seth puts it, “We can be that mistake!” That the character seems to have no clue that he’s essentially planning to commit date-rape? Creepy. That the movie doesn’t appear to have much of a problem with it either? More so. But hey, that “McLovin” sure was funny… right?
9. JAMES BOND
Okay, granted, there’s some moral ambiguity built into the very concept of James Bond: He’s a spy and a government/military-backed assassin, which by definition means his job is to do “bad” things for (ostensibly) the greater good – i.e. thwarting the KGB, Spectre or whoever else he’s dispatched against that week. God save The Queen and all that.
Well, okay… but even if we’re grading on a “patriotism curve,” 007 still does some pretty questionable stuff. Depending on which era you’re watching in, he’s multiple levels of a virulent misogynist (even the thoroughly-modern Daniel Craig Bond has a pretty loose relationship with the word “consent”) and even when that’s not going down it feels an awful lot like he runs up a hefty tab of fancy living and extraneous killing on the company card pretty-much just because he can. Sure, he gets results, but it often feels like MI6 is keeping a (barely) functioning psychopath on the payroll because his tendencies are occasionally useful.
8. THE ROCK (SAN ANDREAS)
Okay, so the character’s name was Raymond Gaines, but as far as San Andreas was concerned, Dwayne Johnson was essentially playing “The Rock” again… except for that part where The Rock is a good guy, since here he’s kind of a selfish jerk.
When a record-setting Earthquake turns California into complete chaos, L.A. Fire & Rescue Specialist Gaines abandons his post and responsibilities pretty-much immediately in order to go looking for his own estranged family members. We’re meant to like him because he’s at least more committed than the guy his wife was going to leave him for previously, who turns coward in the middle of the quake, but it’s hard to ignore that “Ray Gaines” doesn’t just not do his job of helping rescue anyone else, he also keeps commandeering vehicles and rescue equipment for his own ends – who knows how many people died so that The Rock could re-audition for World’s Greatest Dad?
7. DIRTY HARRY
This is sort of a tough one, since the original Dirty Harry is pretty upfront about the title character not being a good guy: Harry Callahan is alternately despised or feared by his fellow San Francisco cops, his nickname bestowed not because of badassery but because he’s the guy they dump the least pleasant jobs on and he’s self-hating enough to take it. Yes, everyone remembers Harry getting self-righteous about the rights of “That little girl!” versus the rights of accused serial-killer Scorpio, but for some reason we forget that Harry makes it clear the moment the kidnapping happens that he assumes the kid is already dead and is exclusively interested in killing Scorpio. The film’s setup is profoundly (and deliberately) nihilistic, imagining late-70s San Francisco as so apocalyptic a place that an acknowledged psychopath like Harry Callahan really is the only hope to stop Scorpio’s none-too-subtle Zodiac Killer stand-in.
Unfortunately, Hollywood couldn’t leave well enough alone (see also: Death Wish); and a series of sequels leaned increasingly hard on selling Harry as an outright hero while also ratcheting up the level of violence and “shoot-first” policing he got to deploy against the bad guys. The result is that a “franchise” that started out as a grim battle of wills between two unhinged killers gradually morphs into a run of films that lionize the kind of brutal “tough on crime” police violence that drives entire protest movements today; whereas in the original, even “Dirty Harry” doesn’t think Dirty Harry is the kind of cop who should be admired: When his superiors lament the idea that Harry knows how to use a nasty weapon like a switchblade, his response is to agree with them.
6. EVERYONE (REVENGE OF THE NERDS)
The novelty in Revenge of The Nerds was supposed to be making the guys who are usually the butt of the jokes in other rowdy college comedies into the heroes, which is a solid enough premise that you can (theoretically) understand how they ended up making four of these movies.
Sadly, in hindsight, it’s hard to ignore a weirdly vindictive undercurrent that casts a sour cloud over all the supposed underdog-empowerment: The “good guys” are indeed victims of some pretty obnoxious bullying, but according to the film that gives them cause to cheat, steal and commit fraud along with multiple felony assaults – and this is all happening after the narrative has drawn a shaky (to say nothing of gross) explicit parallel between the picked-on “nerds” and the Civil Rights Movement by having them become a branch of a Historically Black Fraternity.
But most of all, it’s downright despicable that even though The Nerds official enemies are the evil football-playing Alpha Betas Fraternity (they forcibly evicted the heroes from their original home and continued to terrorize them after), the “good guys” focus much of their energy on tormenting a sorority that (at worst) helped the Alphas pull one prank: Not only do they break into the sorority house to steal underwear and harass the girls, they install video equipment to spy on them in the nude; and in the film’s most-infamous moment the nerd leader uses a Halloween mask to have sex with the girlfriend of the head Alpha – without previously revealing that he’s not actually her boyfriend. In reality, that’s called rape; but in Revenge of The Nerds it all works out okay because (wouldn’t you know it?) it turns out nerds are secretly better at sex than jocks. Yikes!
5. TYLER DURDEN
Is this one cheating? Maybe. As with Dirty Harry, Fight Club is pretty damn explicit about Tyler Durden being a fascist nutcase, and in this case there were no sequels to make missing that point the official policy of a broader franchise.
And yet, somehow, Fight Club has managed to earned a massive fanbase that doesn’t seem to understand the film at all, with the founding of “real” fight clubs and the unironic quoting of Durden’s self-aggrandizing declarations somehow still being a thing almost two decades later. In the end, Fight Club’s enduring popularity with audiences who don’t seem to understand that it’s making fun of them stands as an example of doing your job too well: The film offers such a plausible look at how fascist demagoguery actually works – with Durden spewing “empowering” macho nonsense about how much his cadre of self-pitying middle-class losers are owed by the world (and how violently they deserve to claim a “better” one) – that some real-life dudes somehow missed that all he ends up creating is a pack of not-particularly-bright terrorists.
4. ADAM SANDLER (BASICALLY EVERYTHING)
Few people are going to argue that Adam Sandler isn’t a guy who’s paid his dues, takes care of his friends (the Grown-Ups movies are effectively a jobs program for Friends of Adam comedians who’re between jobs) and gives back to his roots by bringing film productions to the New England area. And he’s had plenty of funny moments in a career that’s spanned a landmark stint on Saturday Night Live and a run of hit feature films.
But it’s also hard to ignore that he’s made a career mainly out of playing a succession of characters who’re ostensibly “heroes” despite their exploits and personalities being built around character flaws like extreme narcissism (Billy Madison), lack of impulse control (Bobby Boucher) and propensity for violence (Happy Gilmore) that audiences are asked to accept as heroic traits essentially because they mean well or vent their issues on villains. Almost all of Sandler’s films are a variation on this theme, where we root for the personal enrichment of obnoxious jerks because they’re “relatable” regular guys. Whoopity doo.
3. V (V FOR VENDETTA)
Alan Moore’s original V For Vendetta graphic novel used its originally serialized format to pull off a twist that still wows to this day: (SPOILERS) After spending roughly half the story getting audiences to fall for the mysterious “V” as a charismatic hero, we find out that the brutal kidnapping and torture of V’s young protege Evie was actually masterminded by V himself – ostensibly to demonstrate the horror of his own experiences, but in practice to drive her just as mad as he is. In revealing the “hero” to be very nearly as twisted as his enemies, the twist itself reveals the true depths of the story’s dystopia – a world where reason and decency have been so thoroughly defeated that fascism and anarchy are all that’s left to fight over the carcass. Bummer.
The V For Vendetta movie, on the other hand, reproduces the twist (along with much of the novel’s most memorable moments) faithfully… but seems to almost deliberately miss the actual point, contriving and recontextualizing the final act in order to present V’s actions as essentially justified, with Evie seemingly emerging okay and V’s implicit victory rendered as a moment of triumph rather than Moore’s downbeat cycle-of-insanity. More troublingly, the switch appears to exist strictly for matters of politics: Whereas Moore’s 1980s version of the story was a double-edged slam on both Thatcherism and the more anarchic movements that sprang up in response to it, the movie reworked the story into a one-sided swipe at the post-9/11 Bush Administration – leading to an oddly schizophrenic film that keeps insisting that a “hero,” who’s clearly a twisted lunatic, is actually an unambiguous good guy.
2. FERRIS BUELLER
The difference between a “bad boy” and “bad guy” in terms of movie archetypes is the way the word “boy” denotes childhood and thus a certain degree of powerlessness. The appeal of pre-pubescent anarchy-machines like Dennis The Menace, Bart Simpson or the rowdier Little Rascals as characters is that their scattershot troublemaking can be understood (if not “forgiven”) as rebellion against those with more power – which, for children, means pretty much everyone – in this context, a certain level of “just because” mischief can be not only understood but even related to…
…for kids. What makes the titular protagonist of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off a little hard to take is that he still acts this way as a young adult (he’s about to graduate High School, remember) in a movie that doesn’t seem to have an issue with that.
Yes, in terms of the story, Ferris has an ulterior motive in teaching his friend Cameron to stand up for himself to his domineering dad, but the film makes it clear that Ferris pulls this stuff all the time; and, well-intentioned or not he still causes a bunch of collateral havoc, torments waiters and servicepeople for kicks and ruins the career of his principal (who, really, is just doing his job when you think about it) for kicks.
Plus, what exactly is this guy “rebelling” against? Ferris Bueller is a white dude from the suburbs with well-off parents whose own narcissistic monologues confirm that he already gets whatever he wants and is as well positioned in life as could be hoped for – when you’re already set for life, causing havoc for kicks doesn’t make you an anti-authoritarian rebel… it makes you a bully. 80s kids (who typically saw this movie when they themselves were much younger than Ferris was supposed to be) may have identified with him as a fellow put-upon youth, but viewed in hindsight he just seems like a sociopath who’s a few short years away from becoming The Wolf of Wall Street.
Speaking of guys who only seem cool until you stop and think about it, consider Bruce Wayne: A guy who says he wants to save Gotham City but rather than spending his limitless fortune fixing obvious systemic problems (corrupt police, craven politicians, failing infrastructure, rampant unemployment) blows it all on buying rubber armor and bat-themed weaponry to brutalized small-time criminals and the mentally ill.
But hey, y’know, something sad happened to him once as a kid. That makes it all okay.
Can you think of any other heroes who are actually terrible people? Let us know in the comments!