We all misunderstand elements in film. Often, the better a movie is the more complex it is, and the more complex it is the more room there is for interpretive error. Following along? Let’s look at characters in film in particular. It’s not your fault you’ve misunderstood some characters in films. We all do it constantly. We’ve been programmed to allow filmmakers complete control over the way we interpret things. From the actions we see, the thoughts and motivations we’re given, hell, even the music that is played for a character, all of these things influence the way we interpret characters. If you’re struggling with this, just think about all the “good guys” you’ve watched who were bank robbers, outlaws or prison inmates. What separates them from the bank robbers, outlaws and prison inmates who were “bad guys”? Not a whole lot usually. Only the lens you’re using to look at them.
So we can reason that some of the best characters in film are also some of the most complex. That’s a concept that we all can probably get behind. Complex characters are very rarely black and white. They are difficult to understand, and, because of that, people misunderstand them by placing them in one box or another. So let’s try to mix it up. Let’s change the lens or adjust the focus or whatever other clichéd term you want to use. Here are 15 movie characters that everyone misunderstands and why.
15. Sid – Toy Story
Perspective is the mother of interpretation (or the child or maybe they’re a distant cousin), but they’re definitely related. How we read into a character depends so much on the perspective we’re provided, so whatever lens we’re given to see a film through will ultimately influence the conclusions we draw. Take Sid from Toy Story, for example. In a world where toys are alive, Sid, the destructive little jerk, is a villain. He’s killing living things. But Sid doesn’t know that these toys are alive. Plus, he’s an outcast. He’s obviously got a fairly unstable home life. His living conditions are subpar, and he has no friends. He plays and experiments and breaks toys because he’s a young boy. What young boy doesn’t break things? He’s got a vivid imagination and is quite handy for a kid; these are qualities that should be praised, not condemned. Let’s give him a chance on the next viewing.
14. Loki – Thor
A lot has been said about Loki in the Thor films and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it deserves to be repeated here, if only for posterity. Loki is often described as misunderstood, which is true. Yet, if everyone says it, doesn’t that mean that he’s actually understood? We’re getting close to that point, but there are still large factions of people who see him as a psychopathic villain and nothing more. Sure, trying to kill your family countless times is a little weird, but he only wants to be accepted. He was cast out from his birth home by the Frost Giants and adopted by the Asgardians. Then, after being told that he had been living a lie and had a promising future ripped from his hands, he throws a hissy fit and goes a little bonkers. Who wouldn’t? Restarting an age-old war was stupid, but it was done with good intentions. Plus, never do the Asgardian warriors ever truly fear Loki. He can’t be all that bad, can he?
13. Khan – Star Trek Into Darkness
Khan kills humans when he is confronted by them, but he’s not as bad as he’s cracked up to be. In Star Trek Into Darkness, Khan’s mission is to save his crew from the “good guys.” Since Khan is a superhuman, humans have hunted him since his beginning, so naturally he’s built up some animosity toward them. That being said, Khan still risks everything to save his crew, the exact opposite of what Kirk does at the beginning of Star Trek Into Darkness, where he risks the lives of his crew to save that planet Nibiru and Spock, so who’s the villain here? This shows two sides of the same coin. It also shows that Khan is not nearly as one-sided as some people like to imagine.
12. V – V for Vendetta
Either a heroic bada*s looking guy to bring down all forms of government to allow for freedom or a crazed madman who insists that chaos is superior to government regulation, these are the two extremes of interpreting V from V for Vendetta. Yet, neither of them are correct. So who is V? Well, he’s probably someone who’s somewhere in the middle. First of all, anarchy should not be mistaken for chaos. Anarchy, in V’s eyes, would give the people freedom from oppression—but there would need to be work put in afterward to make everything work swimmingly. Then there are the methods needed to be taken to achieve this goal. A major theme in V for Vendetta is that in order to topple extremism, extreme measures are needed. This is why V is so drastic in what he does. The character is neither black nor white. You take the good with the bad and vice versa. This misunderstanding is ironic because the person symbolized in the mask he wears, Guy Fawkes, is also misunderstood. Fawkes’ terrorist actions are not celebrated on the 5th of November as many people believe. In fact, it’s the failure of the gunpowder plot that is celebrated, and the burning of a Guy Fawkes effigy symbolizes this.
11. Frankenstein and his Monster – Frankenstein Films
Throughout the years, there have been some honest attempts to reinstate Frankenstein’s monster’s name into the good books, but for every film that shows him as a complex character, there are countless others that have shown him as a mindless villain. This misunderstood “monster” has received a lot of play, so we won’t delve much deeper than that, but what about the creator, Victor Frankenstein? Today, we usually see him as villainous character who abandoned his creation. But what if we look at him as a mother? After all, Mary Shelley, the author, had just become a mother prior to writing the novel. We know that Frankenstein is connected to the Promethean myth, the Titan who created mankind, gave them fire and was then punished for eternity from Zeus for doing so. So who is Victor connected to in this myth? Prometheus, the creator and the punished, or Zeus the punisher? Well, what if he’s both? What if, like a mother suffering from postpartum depression, Victor was the creator, the punisher and the punished all in one? It might be a stretch, but it would put Victor in a much more sympathetic light.
10. Erik – Phantom of the Opera
We’ve been known to take in several monsters throughout the years and see them as misunderstood sweethearts, but there are times when this is taken overboard, simply because of how a film wishes to portray them. Erik, the phantom from Phantom of the Opera, is one of these. We tend to view him as this scared little boy, who was abused and mistreated, leading him to lash out and harm people who get the way of him and his love. But wait a minute. This is the same guy who murdered people, stalks and kidnaps a woman that he hasn’t even met and is clinically insane. Let’s take a second before we let him into our hearts and really look at his motivations.
9. General Zod – Superman/Man of Steel
Mindless killing machine or a dutiful Kryptonian with a purpose? Well, that depends on your perspective. If you’re a human, you’d probably see Zod as the former. If you’re a Kryptonian, you would see him as the latter. Zod was created for one purpose, to defend the Kryptonian people. When his planet is gone and his people with it, the only way to defend his people is to restore them. The only way to restore them is to find Superman, the one with the genetic codes that would enable their regrowth. It also doesn’t hurt that Kal-El’s father, Jor-El, is largely responsible for the cessation of all Kryptonian life. Revenge and retribution seems kind of warranted doesn’t it?
8. Leonard – Memento
For 95% of Memento, Leonard is the good guy. There’s no question about it. Yet, when we realize that he is on a never-ending quest to track down his wife’s killer, it gets a little messier. Here’s what we know. Leonard is Sammy Jankins, the guy whose memory disability led him to inadvertently kill his wife by giving her medication shots repeatedly. That’s not his fault, so we will forgive him. However, because he’s “forgotten” this information, or neglected to record it, he continuously follows clues to find a mysterious killer, a killer that doesn’t exist. When he finds this “killer,” he eliminates him along with the evidence that he’s been following in order to start the cycle anew. Yeah, it gives his life some purpose, but that’s a pretty sad excuse for being a murderer.
7. Elijah Price – Unbreakable
Many narratives play with the concept of committing some form of evil for the greater good. The best films have done this very well. Take the argument for Khan and Kirk up above as an example of this. There’s also Unbreakable, a film that expands this out even further to observe the cause of basic good and evil. In Unbreakable, the villain, so to speak, is Elijah Price or Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson). He knows that if he exists as the extremely fragile human, the anti-superhero, then someone at the opposite end of the spectrum must exist as well. Enter David Dunn (Bruce Willis). In order to find and then train Dunn, Mr. Glass must go about creating disasters, disasters that might reveal an anomaly of a human, such as Dunn. Glass’ argument is that for ultimate good to showcase itself, the world needs evil. While Mr. Glass doesn’t want to be evil, he feels that he must be so in order to save the world in the future. It’s an interesting dilemma and M. Night Shyamalan deals with it beautifully.
6. Guy Montag/The Captain – Fahrenheit 451
Really this applies to all characters in both the novel and the film, but specifically Guy Montag, and the Captain of the Firemen. Ray Bradbury‘s story, Fahrenheit 451, is commonly misinterpreted as one about censorship and fighting against it. On the one hand, Guy Montag is seen as someone who is complicit in the censorship until he realizes that there are great lessons to be learned from books and so he stops burning them. His captain, on the other hand, is seen as the big bad who leads the charge and support for censorship, but all of this is wrong. Fahrenheit 451 is a story about the numbing of society by way of television. It’s about the oncoming death of the book. Montag rallied against the firemen because he fell in love with books. The captain used to be like Montag, but his love of the books has been ripped from him. Now he only destroys them to further numb the person that he hates most, himself.
5. Xenomorph Queen – Aliens
The Xenomorphs are just chilling one day, when suddenly a group of men come down and start terraforming their planet. They fight back and try to take back their home. When Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and crew come down to see what all the commotion is, they kill a bunch of aliens and the eggs. This makes mama angry. The Queen Xenomorph is incredibly protective of her hive and she fights back unrelentingly. So the question pops up. Exactly who are the threatening aliens in this story? We learn that the Weyland-Yutani Corporation is pretty much the definition of evil and they’ve simply pitted humans against Xenomorph for their own personal gain. So don’t be so quick to judge this protective mother next time you turn on Aliens.
4. Tom and Summer – 500 Days of Summer
Both Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) and the entire movie, 500 Days of Summer, is misinterpreted by a slew of people. For whatever reason, perhaps because we’ve been programmed to believe in fairytale love stories, people hate on Summer for not wanting to be with Tom in the way that Tom wants to be with Summer. All of the fantasies that we see play out in the film are just that, fantasies, but we see them as necessity because it’s a prettier picture of life. Unfortunately, that’s not the way life is and 500 Days of Summer wants to pop that bubble. We would all like 500 days of summer, but, like the seasons, things and people change. Here’s what JGL had to say about the film and his character: “I would encourage anyone who has a crush on my character to watch it again and examine how selfish he is. He develops a mildly delusional obsession over a girl onto whom he projects all these fantasies. He thinks she’ll give his life meaning because he doesn’t care about much else going on in his life. A lot of boys and girls think their lives will have meaning if they find a partner who wants nothing else in life but them. That’s not healthy. That’s falling in love with the idea of a person, not the actual person.”
3. Jenny – Forest Gump
Jenny and Forrest’s relationship is a long a tumultuous one in Forrest Gump, everyone knows, that but do they know why? Jenny is often seen as this confused and destructive woman that takes advantage of Forrest when she needs him. Which is wrong. Yet, that’s exactly how Jenny feels about herself. When Jenny was a child, her father molested her. As she grew up, it became obvious that Forrest loved her but she could never be with him because he was too simple and could never fully understand either her or love. Jenny would constantly find herself repeating a self-destructive cycle and, no matter what and no matter where, Forrest would come save her. Then we see Jenny physically taking advantage of Forrest. A life spent running away from her father has caused Jenny to find partners that act like him and now she’s almost become him herself. By the end, Jenny realizes that for all the things Forrest can’t understand, love is not one of them. A simple and unconditional love is the easiest thing in the world to understand and is also the only thing that Jenny ever wanted. It wasn’t that Jenny was taking advantage of Forrest. It was that Jenny was trying to run from taking advantage of Forrest. Once she realized that love doesn’t need complexities, that it can be kind and pure like Forrest, she was able to accept it and him.
2. The Driver – Drive
We’ve written at length about Drive and how often it’s misread and misinterpreted, but here we go again. The main character, the Driver (Ryan Gosling) might be one of the most misunderstood characters there is, a claim that might shock people who see him as two-dimensional, shy or however you feel about him, but there is so much more about the character. To show this, we will simply use three moments in the film and the music accompaniment to show who he is. This is an overly simplistic view, but it might be just what’s needed. We start off seeing the Driver as a man on a mission. He’s programmed, timing everything on his watch, executing everything perfectly. He’s a Driver and nothing more, you might even see him as an extension of the car, mechanical and robotic, but the synth music tells us that there may be more there: “there’s something inside [him]. It’s hard to explain.” Later, once he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan), he starts to become something more. When asked what he does, he answers, “I drive,” but after that moment, he starts recognizing a change. Driving is no longer his only task; Irene is in now in his life. Here, he’s still mechanical as the music tells us, but there’s an addition: “I don’t eat. I don’t sleep. I do nothing but think of you.” In the end, we see and hear that he has completely moved from mechanical to a “real human being and a real hero” as the music states. He no longer just drives, but he has drive; he’s driven by his love for Irene and the job of being their hero and protector.
1. Samwise Gamgee – The Lord of the Rings
You’d be forgiven for assuming Frodo is the main character of The Lord of the Rings and that Sam is his lap dog, but that just isn’t the case. While every character is relatable in their own way, it’s Samwise who is our eyes and ears, the everyman. Bilbo was legendary in Hobbiton, whether he was liked or not, he was famous. Frodo, as his nephew, is as well. When Frodo gets sent on his journey, he’s a fish out of water, but he’s not the character who truly represents us; that’s Sam. The average Hobbit with a normal job, a gardener. It’s interesting to note that Frodo had the fate of the world driving him forward as he went straight into Mordor, the epicenter of Evil, while Samwise had only the fate of his friend. While you can’t fault Frodo for giving in to the power of the ring in the end, it still is incredible that Sam walked beside the ring for much longer than anyone else, save Frodo. He even wore the ring, killed Shelob with a wrath that had never been seen, saved Frodo from the Tower of Cirith Ungol, then freely and easily gave the ring back to Frodo. He benefitted from the power of the ring, saw his own potential with it and still withstood its magnetic pull. Then, after the story had finished, who do end with? Good ol’ Sam, returning home from his journey like the rest of us.