Movie villains come in all shapes and sizes, from various backgrounds and with diverse philosophies about the people and world around them. Some have become hated by movie-goers, while others have won the hearts of millions – occasionally even more so than a story’s heroes. One might even conclude that this is the mark of a truly compelling villain – one who is able to steal the show and garner more interest than the heroes sent to stop them.
In order to win our hearts, many villains delve into the grey area of morality, sometimes leaving behind their darker selves for more altruistic motives. Others take on a down-to-earth persona that makes them more real, friendly, and relatable than their heroic counterparts. Whatever the strategy, there’s no denying that some movie villains succeed in their ability to capture the attention and affection of viewers, driving many people to root for the bad guy. Here are the 15 most likable movie villains we can’t help but love.
15. Norman Stansfield
Some villains just love being bad. They pursue evil simply because they enjoy it. These are some of the worst and most intriguing villains in cinema. Norman Stansfield from 1994’s Leon: The Professional is one such character. Stansfield loves killing and is more than happy to take down anyone in his path, be it an assassin or small child, in order to maintain the simple drug-filled lifestyle he’s come to love.
Yet the simple joy Stansfield gets from his crummy life choices is almost enviable. We all wish we could love something as much as this man loves popping pills and shooting innocent people. He’s a man that’s found his passion, and doesn’t care what it takes to keep up with the small pleasures he finds in life. In doesn’t hurt that he’s played to scenery-chewing perfection by masterful character actor Gary Oldman, who makes being bad so good to watch.
14. Severus Snape
Severus Snape is one of the most misunderstood villains in movie (and book) history. The Hogwarts professor does tend to call out students from Griffindor, but it’s not because he just hates Harry Potter and his band of friends. Inside Snape is a lost, frightened man who was teased and bullied in his formative years. The constant pain inflicted by his fellow students at Hogwarts – including Harry Potter’s father James – led him to a dark and lonesome place within.
Cast away the cruel, gothic persona, and within lies a man willing to sacrifice himself to benefit the child of a woman he loved. Despite rejection and a lifetime of solitude, Snape is willing to take on vital tasks in order to help defeat Voldemort and give Harry Potter a chance to live a full life. That, by itself, makes Snape worth loving. It’s too bad he had to give his life, or he and Harry Potter may have been able to bury the hatchet and carry on a lifetime friendship sealed together by the love they both felt for a woman named Lily Evans Potter.
Since the X-Men movie franchise kicked off in 2000, fans of the series have been flocking to theaters to see the latest installment as mutants take on each other and the world in order to maintain their freedom and avoid the destruction of Earth. Through it all, we’ve watched as Erik Lehnsherr slowly devolved into the villain we know as Magneto, a powerful mutant who’s able to manipulate magnetic fields with his mind. And while at times Magneto has been the cause of frustration and defense among the X-Men, he’s also been revealed as a man with great passion and love.
Ever since Michael Fassbender entered the role as a young Magneto in X-Men: First Class, his charm and rugged good looks have earned him, and the character, a piece of our hearts. His desires to do right by mutants leads him down a dark path, but we can’t help but feel sorry for the guy, and wish for his success in at least a small part. Although he has a penchant for hurting innocent people, we realize much of that dates back to his time in the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he was a witness to the slaughter of thousands of his fellow Jews. It’s not surprising that such a traumatic experience would cause the young Lehnsherr to defend his fellow mutants at almost any cost. In the end, we recognize that Magneto is a flawed, broken man who, in his mind, is doing what’s best for his people, even if it means others must be hurt along the way.
12. Dr. Evil
Most of the villains on this list have very serious motives, which causes them to be hardened creatures. That’s definitely not the case for Dr. Evil. Granted, the bald supervillain enjoys killing those who keep him from reaching his goals, but his silly mannerisms and odd actions quickly make him a favorite character from the Austin Powers franchise.
Part of Dr. Evil’s charm is that he isn’t a very serious character, and the fact that his entire portrayal by Mike Myers (who does double duty as the eponymous spy) in Austin Powers is a goofy take on Erst Stavro Blofeld of the James Bond series. Dr. Evil is a far cry from the impressive acumen of Blofeld, but that’s what makes Dr. Evil so endearing. He’s simple, childish, and deeply flawed, but incredibly entertaining and the kind of person we might even want to grab a beer with after work.
11. Agent Smith
Agent Smith is Neo’s arch-nemesis in The Matrix, and an agent program in charge of clearing out any issues or viruses within the Matrix system. His serious demeanor and unique speaking cadence are both soothing and menacing. What makes Agent Smith so compelling as a character is his ability to see clearly the flaws in the Matrix and his desire to rid himself of it.
It’s an interesting situation where Neo, Morpheus, and their group of rebels work together to free the world from the Matrix. Agent Smith, who himself is meant to keep them in, also recognizes the benefits of getting out of the system, and wants to escape. These competing motives within him make him almost human, even though he’s a computer program. He recognizes the freedom that comes with being human, and wants to get as close as he can to becoming one, making him a relatable character for many people.
10. Raoul Silva
As we see in the James Bond film Skyfall, sometimes it takes a great villain to make a great hero. Raoul Silva is one such villain. The man’s clever strategy, soft-spoken charisma, and smooth smile could easily disarm almost any foe he faces. And considering these are the same tactics used by 007, it makes for some fascinating cinema. Silva’s outer shell portrays a quirky, flamboyant personality, while inside he rages with cynical revenge that drives his every move.
What makes Silva so likable is his perfect balance of cunning manipulation and vindictive cruelty. He’s an enigma that we want to hate, but instead we open our hearts to his sob story of torture by the enemies of MI6. The fact that M abandoned the secret agent-turned-bad guy fills us with empathy and a desire to see him find solace and peace. By the end of the movie, we can’t help but feel a small bit of peace to see Silva avenged, even though it comes at the cost of M’s life.
9. Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega
It’s impossible to really separate Pulp Fiction‘s Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega since their personalities and charm work best when they’re working together. It’s also hard not to love the duo and their ability to enjoy their work while getting the job done. Of course, you wouldn’t want to ride in the back seat of a car with them while they’re discussing the role of a deity in their lives. Such an experience didn’t turn out well for poor Marvin.
Winnfield and Vega are the kind of guys who would be great to take along for a weekend boat trip. As long as you’re not on their bad side, they’re an entertaining couple of guys who’ll keep the conversation going and provide a few helpful dance and shooting tips. And hey, if you need someone whacked and can pay the necessary fee, they can be very effective assassins. Be prepared to clean up after them though.
8. Detective Alonzo Harris
For many movie-goers, Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Detective Alonzo Harris in 2001’s Training Day is the reason the movie was so successful. The detective is down-to-earth, funny, and comfortable with his own moral code. Sure, that code is a bit skewed, and leads to the deaths of innocent people, but at least he sticks to it. In fact, outside the workplace, he seems like he’d be fun to hang out with. Just make sure he checks his guns at the door.
Harris is the kind of villain that you want to see again. You lament the fact that he had to die at the end of the movie (justifiably, but still disappointing), because it means he won’t be back in a sequel. Of course, that is one of the reasons he is so well liked. Viewers get a small glimpse into the life of a man who had shed his responsibility as a police officer in an effort to gain power and money, but he’s still enough of an enigma that we are left wanting more. Sometimes when we don’t get everything we want from a character, we are able to fill in the gaps ourselves, and in the case of Harris, it’s easy to create a character who is as much liked as he is hated.
7. Patrick Bateman
Christian Bale’s rendition of Patrick Bateman in 2000’s American Psycho has several qualities that people can relate to. Not his murderous, vain tendencies, but rather his desire to fit in with the people he sees every day. He works hard to keep himself fit and healthy, understands how to engage in business discussions, and has a competitive nature that many men understand and also strive for. Granted, when the crazy side of Bateman comes through, it’s easy to dismiss him as a sadistic creature with no emotional glue holding him together.
However, when we realize that the murderous sequences (or at least most of them) within the movie were only part of Bateman’s imagination, we again find another way he and we are similar. Who hasn’t daydreamed of making it big, of banking a big client, solving a serious problem, or dispatching someone who stands in our way. And while our daydreams may not be nearly as horrific, it’s easy to understand where his desires come from. Bateman’s ability to give into carnal desires within his own mind is something everyone likely hopes for in some form or fashion.
When Marvel released Thor in 2011, there was no question that many people would swoon over Thor’s impressive biceps, barrel chest, and flowing mane. However, the surprise heartthrob turned out to be Thor’s smaller, more wicked brother Loki. The Norse god of trickery and mischief stole the show for many, and continued his reign as a fan-favorite into The Avengers and Thor 2. So why all the love?
Unlike other villains who are conniving and evil, Loki was more of a flawed hero – a man who felt the blood of greatness flow through his veins, but was instead cast aside by a biased adoptive father and an overly arrogant brother. Yet despite his pitiful state of affairs, Loki doesn’t give up his quest for power. In fact, with each failure the weak god presses on, determined to build off his defeats and strive for victory. He’s the epitome of jumping back up when you fall down. These qualities make him easily relatable, despite his efforts to take on his brother Thor and the Avengers. In fact, Loki’s pitiful attempts are so endearing that we find ourselves rooting for his success, even though it would undoubtedly mean the suffering and death of millions of people.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is considered the best Batman movie of all time by many, and understandably so. In all of cinema, there are very few villains as compelling, interesting, and unnerving as Heath Ledger’s Joker. We quickly learn that the Joker has an unusual set of principles that drives him to take on anyone, be it Batman or the mob. His goal is to show that no one is incorruptible, that anyone can be pushed to become evil. And much to our surprise, we see him succeed in this endeavor with Harvey Dent, a do-gooder District Attorney who becomes
Two-Face thanks to the wiles of the Joker. So what makes such a wicked character so likable? The two biggest reasons are Heath Ledger’s masterful portrayal of the character, and The Joker’s lack of personal identity that otherwise accompanies most movie villains.
First, we’ll consider Ledger’s incredible performance as Joker in The Dark Knight. To many, this was Ledger’s Sistine Chapel, his greatest masterpiece that sadly became his last. Very few actors will reach the same quality performance Ledger did with Joker. The second reason to love Ledger’s Joker is his lack of personal identity and drive. Where so many other movie villains are in the business of gaining power, fame, money, or all three, Joker doesn’t care for those things. Instead, he “just wants to watch the world burn“. This makes the Joker a faceless evil, and one that we greatly fear, but can’t help but admire.
4. Hannibal Lecter
Who knew that one of the most frightening moments in cinema would include the phrase “fava beans and nice Chianti“? Yet thanks to the incredible work of Anthony Hopkins, Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs has become one of the most notorious and interesting characters in movie history. And even though the man was a serial killer, known for eating a musician’s entrails because he played out of tune, people are quick to point out their love for the character.
So how could a villain so frightening be so loved? The answer to that lies within Hannibal Lecter’s mind. His ability to think intelligently and meticulously puts him at a level most of us will never reach. His reasoning is sound and his logic is unmistakable, both qualities that can be used to bring down a terrifying serial killer or to cook a human liver to perfection. Hannibal Lecter’s position as an intelligent killer cries out for attention, and we can’t turn away. In fact, there are many who would readily jump at the chance to visit with the soft-spoken murderer, so long as there is plenty of unbreakable steel and plexiglass between them and him.
3. Tyler Durden
In 1999’s Fight Club, we watch as a lonely, pathetic man spirals into a world of violence, conflict, and moral discord with the aid of a soap salesman named Tyler Durden. Over the course of the film, the duo go from simple fist-fights in parking lots and basements, to building an army of anti-materialist and anti-corporate rebels hell-bent on taking down the nation’s most powerful financial organizations.
From the first moment we meet Durden, it’s obvious the man has little interest in following the rules of “the man”. Instead, he would rather cause mayhem and push people to discover their true identities – as uncorrupted beings who are free to act as they please without the shackles of society holding them back. So despite Durden’s appetite for destruction and anarchy, we quickly fall in love with his character and look forward to his successful righteous indignation against corporate evil. Even when we learn that Durden is merely a figment of the Narrator’s own broken mental state, we are pleased to see the imaginary anarchist alive and well within the heart and soul of the movie’s protagonist.
2. Darth Vader
One of the most iconic villains of all time, Star Wars‘ Darth Vader is known the world around as the epitome of “the Dark Side”. He’s ruthless Sith lord whose distaste for failure often leads to the death of an underling and a command for quick correction from those around him. But like others on this list, Darth Vader is a beloved character because of his backstory and ultimate sacrifice for a loved one.
It wasn’t surprising to learn that Darth Vader – AKA Anakin Skywalker – turned to the Dark Side because of love. His desire to save his dying wife, Padme Amidala, drove him to search for answers, and unfortunately into the influence of Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, a closet Dark Lord of the Sith who was anxious to bring Skywalker into the fold of the Dark Side. Sadly, Skywalker gave in to the temptations and ultimately became the formidable Darth Vader. Yet despite his murderous tendencies and his heartless destruction of entire planets, the once kind-hearted Skywalker surfaced in defense of his son, sacrificing himself that Luke might live on and carry forward the cause of the Jedi.
1. Norman Bates
Norman Bates is one of movie history’s most compelling characters. His quick wit, disarming smile, and friendly vibe can immediately win over anyone watching 1960’s Psycho. Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece film presents the kind of person that any parent would be happy to see their daughter bring home. When Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane encounters Bates, played with boy-next-door charm by Anthony Perkins, she is immediately disarmed. Bates is dominated by his mother, even after her death, and works tirelessly to make her happy. It’s living as a slave in his own broken mind that causes his pain, and that is something many people can understand on some level.
Even when it’s revealed that Bates has been murdering tenants at his motel, we can’t help but hope the kind-hearted, charming Bates breaks through and eventually finds peace. We hope that one day he’ll be able to shed the chains of his mother and be free.