It’s good to be bad. Villains are always the most interesting characters, because they lack a moral compass and base their decisions often on emotion rather than rational thought. They’re fun, exciting, and unpredictable, whereas heroes tend to be bland and generic. It’s because of this dynamic that fans often like the bad guy more than the hero, even though the good guy always wins. That can be disappointing when in their heart of hearts, fans really wanted the villain to come out on top.
Throughout the years, movies have made villains into heroes or creatures of pity, leading audiences to cheer for them in the hopes of a happy ending. They’re the bad guys you love to hate and villains with a heart of gold. Take a look at some of the iconic movies and villains that audiences found themselves rooting for despite all odds.
15. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Tobe Hooper created the 1974 horror classic featuring the mask-wearing maniac Leatherface. A group of teens seek out their old ancestral homestead in the middle of nowhere and stumble upon a house. One by one, Leatherface uses chainsaws and meat hooks to kill and butcher them until only the final girl remains. It turns out the house is occupied by an entire family of cannibalistic psychopaths, including the cross-dressing Leatherface.
In many ways, he’s a sympathetic character that fans can’t help but love. He initially murders the teens out of fear, because they broke into his house. He’s under the complete thrall of his family and is afraid of them. As far as we can tell. this oversized mass murderer is nothing more than a child. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for the teens, as their terrible decision making makes it hard to root for them. When the main character escapes in the end and sees Leatherface dancing in the street, fans can’t help but feel glad that the depraved lunatic will live on to terrorize more teens.
14. Nightmare on Elm Street
Freddy Krueger is a very bad guy. He’s not an anti-hero or a morally duplicitous villain — he’s a child murderer that wound up haunting people’s dreams. And yet we love him.
Wes Craven created the bladed-glove-wearing psychopath in 1984. Krueger killed several children on Elm Street, but couldn’t be convicted because of a technicality. Parents from the neighborhood came to his home and burned it with him inside. Krueger died in the fire, but his spirit lived, and he takes his revenge by invading the dreams of his killers’ children and ending their lives in bloody horror. Nightmare on Elm Street is a movie where the villain is designed to be the most interesting character. The film’s other characters are mere mortals, but Freddy’s a wise-cracking murderer with a metal claw hand and sweater straight from the Christmas sale bin. The teens, even Johnny Depp, have little depth and are barely more than fodder for the cool ways Freddy kills them. Gore-loving audiences quickly stop focusing on the teens’ survival and start cheering on the new and inventive ways he slays them.
13. Friday the 13th
The Friday the 13th series of movies have had some of the most ridiculous plot lines in cinematic history. The main antagonist, Jason Voorhees, has gone to Manhattan, hell, and space, all for the sake of continuing his murderous ways. As a child, he drowned at Camp Crystal Lake while the careless counselors that were supposed to be watching him were getting it on. This causes his mother to go insane, and she takes revenge years later by killing the camp counselors.
In the second film, it turns out Jason is alive and murdering people as revenge for killing his mother. Jason is a cold hearted, murderous beast, but he loves his mom. Is his Achilles heel the reason why you end up rooting for him? Voorhees represents all the kids who have been picked on and ignored, and the camp counselors are obvious stand-ins for their bullies. The audience lives vicariously through the unstoppable killing machine because he’s defeating the self-involved cool kids that let him die as a child. Little did you know that the Friday films were one big anti-bullying campaign. Bullying stops here, indeed.
12. The Usual Suspects
The Usual Suspects follows the interrogation of Verbal Kint, a small-time conman and one of two survivors of a boat explosion pulled off by the criminal mastermind Keyser Soze. Kint (played by Kevin Spacey, who won his first OScar thanks to his work in the film) narrates the story through a series of flashbacks to FBI agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri). Along with a group of other more hardcore criminals, Kint and co. are brought together as suspects in a gun robbery. They wind up getting together and running a job set up by Soze through an intermediary. The group is tasked with one more job, and if they refuse, their loved ones will be killed.
At the boat, the mysterious Keyser Soze kills all the main characters except for the crippled Kint and a Hungarian who was on the boat when it exploded. Kujan lets Kint go just as the Hungarian is able to create a sketch of what Soze looks like. As the fax machine prints out the sketch, Kujan sees Verbal’s face just as the con man exits the police station. His gait changes as he walks down the street, stretches out his “paralyzed” hand, gets into a car and drives away, revealing himself to be Soze. It was a shocking ending, and the audience couldn’t help but clap for Soze, who created the whole story on the spot and fooled everyone.
Tony Montana (Al Pacino in a career-defining role) starts out Scarface as a Cuban refugee with nothing and ends it as a multi-millionaire drug kingpin. How can you not root for a classic underdog character like that?
Tony lives in a Cuban refugee camp and gets his green card by killing an enemy of mob boss Frank Lopez. He, along with his best friend, Manny, and cohorts Angel and Chi-Chi start working for Lopez. He quickly moves up the drug chain, earning millions of dollars, but because of excessive cocaine use begins to act paranoid. He pushes everyone away, including his wife, Elvira, and sister, Gina. He hits rock bottom when he kills Manny for sleeping with his sister, only to find out they had married the day before. His wife shoots him, and she is killed just as a group of heavily armed assassins invade his compound. Tony fights them off, but is ultimately slain.
The audience is emotionally invested in Tony from the very beginning and, even though his life is in shambles, wants him to come out on top. Fans find themselves hoping for redemption for Tony. They want him to see the error in his ways and live happily ever after. Once he kills Manny, they realize there is no coming back from that, but at least he goes out like a total badass after introducing everyone to his little friend, right?
10. The Dark Knight
There is no doubt that Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight will go down in history for far more than just being an epic villain. The film is the second in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and it’s inarguably the best of the three, thanks in large part to Ledger’s unconventional take on the Clown Prince of Crime.
Bruce Wayne sees a hopeful future for Gotham, thanks to the efforts of District Attorney Harvey Dent, who vows to take on the mob bosses. The Joker visits the masters of the criminal underworld and offers to kill Batman for half their money. He ends up toying with the Dark Knight, causing the death of the woman the Caped Crusader loves and disfiguring Dent, physically and emotionally.
Batman and the Joker are two sides of the same coin. Batman represents order and the Joker chaos, and both accomplish their goals through violent means. As great a job as Christian Bale does in the cape and cowl, he’s simply outshined by Ledger’s Joker (and he knows it). The audience is drawn in by the madman’s insane ramblings, which surprisingly manage to make more sense than anything you can understand coming from Bale’s throaty growling. By the end of the movie, you realize The Joker has a more realistic view of humanity and the world is not as black and white as the hero wants to believe.
Predator has captured imaginations since the first film (and the creature of course) first hit the scene in 1987. A group of special forces operatives (led by Arnold Schwarzenegger) go to into the jungle and rescue hostages from insurgents. All was going to plan until an extraterrestrial hunter comes and kills off the team one-by-one with only Schwarzenegger’s character, Dutch, remaining.
The Predator doesn’t want to enslave the Earth or hijack our resources like most other aliens in movies. It just wants to hunt worthy adversaries and collect trophies. It’s an honorable character that kills and attacks those who are deserving of his attention, sparing innocents unless they attack him. The Predator seems to have a code; Dutch’s team isn’t exactly made up of altruistic soldiers. While the audience doesn’t get a lot of backstory, killing is something that comes easy to Dutch’s team. Movie watchers don’t shed a tear when one of them loses a limb from a laser gun. It’s hard to fight a smirk when the tables are turned and the Predator doesn’t give Dutch the satisfaction of killing him and instead chooses to go out on his own terms.
We can’t wait to see what Shane Black does with the creature in his upcoming “event film.”
8. Smokey and the Bandit
In 1977, Burt Reynolds wowed the world as outlaw trucker Bo “Bandit” Darville in Smokey and the Bandit. Two rich Texas businessmen hire Bandit to transport 400 cases of Coors beer from Texas to Atlanta in 28 hours. Coors could only be legally sold east of the Mississippi River, you see. Bandit drives the blocker car, a Trans Am, to take the heat and keep the way clear for his friend, Cledus “Snowman” Snow, to drive the semi of brew. Everything is going well until Bandit picks up Carrie, a runaway bride whose intended is the son of Sheriff Buford T. Justice. The Sheriff disregards his jurisdictional restrictions and chases Bandit the entire way. This draws the attention of more police presence as they get closer to their destination.
Ultimately, Bandit outwits the police and delivers the payload. He’s a suave and charming individual that the audience loves. Viewers can get behind him, because the transportation of beer is a victimless crime (though still a crime, which technically makes him a villain of sorts). The action and antics of Justice are comedic, so cheering on Bandit seems natural.
7. King Kong
King Kong is a tragedy, and the audience feels sorry for the titular ape, who is ripped from his home and eventually gunned down protecting the woman he loves. The original 1933 movie begins with a group of filmmakers venturing to Skull Island to find a mysterious beast known as Kong. When they arrive, the native inhabitants want to give actress Ann Darrow — played by Fay Wray in the original and Naomi Watts in the 2005 remake; Jessica Lange’s similarly functioning character in the 1976 film was named Dwan for whatever reason — to Kong, but the crew refuses. The inhabitants kidnap and tie her to an altar to be the beast’s bride. The giant ape takes Darrow and fights other massive creatures (including dinosaurs and a giant snake) to keep her safe. When the group rescues her, Kong follows and goes on a rampage in the village until knocked out by a gas bomb, and he’s restrained and taken to New York City, where he is billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
The beast inevitably escapes (seriously, did they really hope to contain him forever?) to find Darrow. He climbs the Empire State Building where he is shot by planes, falls and dies. Kong is an animal who is treated horribly. When he takes Darrow in the jungle, he protects her from the beasts. All he cares about is his lady, and that feeling drives his actions through the entire film. The audience roots for him because he’s an innocent creature put into these positions, and viewers wind up hating the film crew for what they did to the mighty beast.
When Barbara and Adam Maitland die and have to haunt their own home, they never expected the Deetz family to completely transform it. The ghosts try their best to scare them away, but nothing works. In a last ditch effort to clear their house of its new residents, they meet with “bio-exorcist” Betelgeuse, but find him too rude and crude. The Maitlands develop a friendship with the Deetz’s daughter, Lydia, and she asks for Betelgeuse’s help when Barbara and Adam are exorcised. He agrees, but only if she promises to marry him. The Maitlands work together to defeat Betelgeuse before Lydia can be married and come to an agreement with the Deetz family.
Audiences loved Michael Keaton’s portrayal of the “ghostest with the mostest”, and since none of his actions were meant to hurt anyone, they cheered him on through the haunting rendition of Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O.” He’s really not a bad guy and continually upbeat, even as his head gets shrunk. Much like Tony Montana, audiences hoped he’d see the error in his ways, but to him there is no error.
5. Ocean’s 11
In Ocean’s 11, a group of slick thieves led by Danny Ocean (George Clooney, at the head of one of the best film casts you could ever hope to see) plan to rob a casino of $150 million dollars using an incredibly complex plan. The goal is to humiliate the owner of the casino, current beau of Ocean’s ex, and make off with the cash.
Ocean’s 11 is representative of many heist movies where the criminals are seen as the heroes, while the casino owner is treated as the villain. Because he’s a less than stellar person, people don’t feel bad when he gets robbed. The heist group is made up of friends and filled with comic relief (and again, how could you not root for a team headlined by Clooney, Matt Damon and Brad Pitt?). The end of the movie had a big reveal about how the plan worked and Ocean gets the girl. You can find the same dynamic in The Italian Job, The Art of the Steal and countless others. Each one features a ragtag crew of misfits taking on the big guys, and audiences love it.
4. The Fast & the Furious
When a group of hot rod thieves begin hijacking trucks and taking their cargo, the FBI brings in agent Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) to infiltrate the gang and take them down. He infiltrates the street racing scene and becomes friends with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and ends up dating his sister. O’Connor doesn’t want to admit that Toretto and his group are the thieves, and feels vindicated when he finds electronics in the hands of a rival gang. It turns out the electronics were bought legally and once again, he’s forced to confront the fact that his new pal Toretto is behind the thefts.
When Toretto and his crew try to steal another shipment, the heist goes bad and people are shot. O’Connor blows his cover to order a medical evacuation and visits Toretto at his house to arrest him. When he arrives, a rival gang does a drive-by shooting that leads to the death of one of the crew. Toretto and O’Connor go after the gunmen and defeat them. Instead of arresting him, O’Connor gives Toretto the keys to his car and he drives off.
The writers humanize the group so the audience doesn’t see them as bad people, despite their crazy-illegal actions. By giving the audience another villain to hate (the rival gang, and, at times, the police) they root for Toretto and crew to overcome the bad guys and save the day. By letting Toretto go, O’Connor absolves him of his crimes, as does the audience.
3. Pitch Black
Before Riddick was taking on the Necromongers, he was marooned on a planet with a ship full of civilians after crash landing. He is a dangerous criminal and murderer, but also has a moralistic code — even if it skews a little to the nefarious side.
The planet they’re stranded on seemingly never has a night because of the planet’s three suns. Due to a rare planetary alignment, the group discovers that darkness is approaching, wherein nightmarish creatures roam the planet, devouring everything in their path. Riddick survives the crash and escapes into the desert. When night falls, he helps the survivors battle the creatures, but acts selfishly, willing to leave without them.
Ultimately, he decides to help the remaining survivors off the planet. Riddick’s a hard villain to like at first. It isn’t until he shows his battle prowess that the audience really connects with him. While a villain, the creatures are ultimately the supreme evil of the film, and audiences cheer him on as he tries to keep everyone safe. Yes, he’s a killer, but he’s also a survivor who risks his own life to help others.
There have been many iterations of Godzilla through the years, and several of the movies see the monster as both a villain and a hero. He’s an ancient sea monster that is attracted to and thrives on nuclear radiation, though, so what’s not to love?
In the initial 1954 film, he is disturbed from his underwater dwelling by hydrogen bomb tests in the ocean. He destroys and kills a ton of people during his walkabout through Tokyo, and it isn’t until they use a weapon called an Oxygen Destroyer that he is finally defeated. The creature is clearly a villain in the first movie, but as other monsters attack Tokyo in later films, his status changes to that of a hero — or at least the lesser of two evils. Whenever Godzilla appears, destruction follows, but he also attacks other beasts threatening Tokyo. It’s here that the audience, and even the characters in the film, cheer him on. He’s considered the King of the Monsters and always returns to the sea until needed again.
In 2014, Godzilla once again returned to the silver screen and is seen as both a villain and a hero. He destroys and kills people as he attacks, but he also combats two other even more sinister monsters. Godzilla is the embodiment of Mother Nature who comes to the surface to restore order, and he’ll continue to do so in the upcoming sequel. The real question is, who will audiences root for when Godzilla squares off with fellow fan-favorite King Kong in 2020?
1. Despicable Me
Gru (Steve Carell) is a super villain. He’s stolen many things through the years, but he’s humiliated when a new supervillain, Vector, enters the game and steals the Pyramids of Giza. He goes to the Bank of Evil to get a loan for his next great plan — stealing the moon — but is denied a loan unless he can get a shrink ray. While attempting to get the gun, it’s stolen from him by Vector. He tries to break into the villain’s compound, but is rebuked each time. The only people able to get in are three young girls selling cookies. Gru decides to adopt the girls and use them to breach Vector’s compound. He becomes a true father to the girls and tries to be both a supervillain and dad, but to no avail.
Ultimately, Gru decides the girls are the most important part of his life. He may be a supervillain, but he has a good heart. He knows all his minions by name, treats them with respect and loves his adopted daughters. In the end, the movie isn’t about theft or crime. It’s about how family and Gru’s transformation into a caring father makes the audience want him to come out on top.
Which of your favorite cinematic villains were you secretly rooting for? Let us know in the comments section.