If you really think about it, the categories of villains and heroes are matters of perspective. Since we’re all about the protagonists, we’re more likely to believe what they’re doing is right and what the antagonists are doing is wrong. Does our perspective change over time? Of course, but usually not so dramatically that a hero all of sudden becomes a villain. But if we slightly alter our perspective, if we put the shoe on the other foot, we can catch a glimpse of what it looks like from the other side. What do our lovable heroes look like if we eliminate some of their character’s motivations? If we, rather than knowing everything about the protagonist—as movie audiences often do—place ourselves in a neutral position in the story, how would our heroes look then?
There are certain characters, certain heroes that were questionable in their actions from go. The most common of these are antiheroes. Antiheroes, since their moral fiber is more debatable, are much more likely to appear a little more villainous over time, or, at least, their quality becomes more and more debatable. But only a few of the characters on this list are antiheroes. Most of them have all the makings of a hero; well, that’s what the film wants us to believe. But it’s high time we challenge them.
One of the most influential elements to interpreting a story, a film or a character is the genre. Genre exists outside of the movie; it happens before the movie, an element of a text that might be called paratext. When we interpret a film, we take into consideration its genre, we see things differently whether we want to or not. One of the things that is affected by genre is how we read a character’s actions. So let’s try and take genre out of the equation. There are so many factors that go into a character’s fabric that it’s probably best to treat each one individually from here on out. Here are 15 movie heroes who were actually villains.
15. Tyler Durden – Fight Club
I don’t think Tyler Durden really fooled many people, but just in case, I’ll include him on the list. There’s no doubt that Durden is a homegrown terrorist. In the name of freedom and anti-consumerism, Durden sets up bombs throughout the city, leveling whole city blocks (and certainly killing many in the process). In fact, Fight Club is what you call your ideal pre-9/11 story. This type of character can’t exist in today’s world. Audiences would never accept him as a hero of any sort these days. He’s a psychopath that started an underground, barbaric, bare-knuckle boxing ring. But, I’ll be damned if he didn’t look cool doing it.
14. Daniel – The Karate Kid
J Matthew Turner’s reading on Daniel LaRusso in The Karate Kid has got a lot of playtime for good reason. He is able to see Daniel for who he really is: a bully. Everything was going well in Reseda, Los Angeles, before Daniel showed up. Two nights into his new location Daniel falls in love with Ali (Elizabeth Shue—I don’t blame him) and picks a fight with her ex-boyfriend Johnny. It took Daniel exactly two nights to screw up everyone’s week. In almost every altercation in the film, it is Daniel who is the instigator or the one who can’t walk away. Some may call this spirit, while others may call it villainy. Daniel seeks revenge by enlisting the help of Mr. Miyagi, who assaults Johnny and his friends. Miyagi also infuses Daniel with magical powers so that he can defeat Johnny and steal his girlfriend, rubbing salt in the poor kid’s wounds.
13. V – V for Vendetta
V, from V for Vendetta, is your classic vigilante antihero. The model is simple. Design a government system that appears abusive, confining and tyrannical. Showcase all of the signs of evil-like surveillance, brutality from authorities, even poverty, and then insert a hero that will bring this all down. This is V, the man with a plan to knock down the evil government. V is an anarchist and anarchy is good… right? Well, I guess that depends on you. For many people, our governments look awful. Would we openly back someone trying to dismantle them? No, I wouldn’t. These heroes fighting to bring down the powers-that-be are awesome in film because we trust that they’ll know what to do afterward. A new, better government will rise from the ashes of the former like a phoenix. Is that too much to ask for in reality? Yes, yes it is. V would be considered a madman in real life. We might even start calling him the “T” word.
12. Travis Bickle – Taxi Driver
Travis Bickle fully commits to being a murderer in Taxi Driver. He first kills a robber, getting his first taste of blood and enjoying it. Then sets out to assassinate Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris), but he is chased away by the secret service bodyguards. Angry that he wasn’t able to wet his lips with more murder and innocent blood, he goes to visit his favorite prostitute and kills all of her friends and her boss, really for no reason. Iris (the prostitute) never told Travis she wanted out of the game, but he imagined that she did, so he gave her what he thought she wanted. In the end, Travis imagines quite a few things, picturing himself as the hero. But he isn’t and he never was. An amazing character? Absolutely, one of the best. But a villain nevertheless.
11. Douglas Quaid/Carl Hauser – Total Recall
Douglas Quaid in Total Recall has got it all. A nice job, a nice place, a stunning wife, huge pecs, he’s a man’s man and we love him. As things start spiraling out of control, however, we realize nothing is really as it seems. Quaid finds himself on the run from the baddies and he is the only one that can stop their plan. But there’s a catch. The Quaid we’re seeing is only an alter-ego—a manufactured person who doesn’t exist. So who’s the real Quaid? It turns out that Quaid is actually Carl Hauser, the right-hand man to the baddest of bads, Vilos Cohaagen. So Quaid has really only been good for a short period of time. How much time does it take of Quaid being good to erase a lifetime of Hauser being bad? Well that’s a good question. For now, we’ll put him on this list until someone shows me reason to take him off.
10. Leonard – Memento
Leonard is a murdering psychopath who willingly avoids learning the real facts about his wife’s death in order to give his murderous life some purpose. The events of Memento are potentially going to continue on unending because whenever Leonard learns parts of the truth, he immediately erases it, going back to the happiness he felt of getting closer to avenging his wife’s unfortunate death. He is a chronic avenger. It is the thing that keeps him going, and, since it’s only about him, Leonard will seemingly continue to slaughter innocent people to appease his insatiable hunger for revenge.
9. Beast – Beauty and the Beast
After the aptly named Beast in Beauty and the Beast kidnaps and imprisons a poor old man, the man’s young daughter, Belle, goes to Beast’s evil palace to see if she could take her father’s place. With bad intentions, the Beast grants this request, locking Belle up in his dungeon. After starving her and then chasing her around his castle and into the woods, the Beast realizes he might lose his prisoner to hungry wolves. In order to keep his new property, Beast fights the wolves off, an act which Belle—clearly suffering from Stockholm Syndrome—misinterprets as kindness. The Beast then uses his magical powers to show Belle her father, “allowing” her to leave his palace after holding her prisoner for a long period of time. When Belle comes back to the Beast, controlled by the illusion of love created by captivity, all is well. But we know better.
8. Ferris Bueller – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Ferris Bueller benefits from being in a teen comedy more than almost any character ever. Bueller is a truant, a horrible son, just about the worst friend you could ask for and a sociopath. People throughout his school love him; they worship him, but does he ever do anything to show he likes anyone other than himself? No! He uses his friend for his car, then destroys it, one of the most expensive cars in the world. He pays almost no attention to his beautiful girlfriend, even ignoring the signs that his friend and her appear to have more in common with each other than with Bueller. This kid just thinks he’s better than everyone else, and as long as he’s having a good time, he doesn’t care who gets hurt.
7. Michael Corleone – The Godfather Trilogy
A criminal mastermind in charge of one of the largest mafia families in the world. Yeah, Michael Corleone is a villain. No doubt about it. But let’s look at the facts. In The Godfather, Michael kills two men in cold blood while they eat dinner. Later, because of his ties to the mob, his innocent young bride, Apollonia, is blown up. Hungry for power, Michael then orders the massacre of the five heads of the competing families, plus two others. In The Godfather 2, Michael orders three other men killed, including his own flesh and blood brother, Fredo. When Michael’s antics finally result in his daughter dying in the end, it’s quite clear that Michael Corleone is a (very) bad guy, whether we want to believe it or not.
6. Obi Wan Kenobi – Star Wars
This is a guy who took Luke from his family, dumped him on another family and then abandoned him. Finally, when Luke’s life is then threatened, Obi Wan Kenobi lies to him about his past. Instead of telling Luke flat out that he may be responsible for his father turning evil and trying to take over the galaxy, Obi Wan avoids it all, thinking it best if Luke stumbles across this information on his own, no matter how dangerous that might actually be. Not only that, but Obi Wan doesn’t tell Luke that the girl he’s clearly got the hots for is his sister. Like c’mon bro, help a brother out if he’s heading down a dark and treacherous love path.
5. Peter Pan – Peter Pan
Peter Pan is interesting because there’s some ambiguity in what’s really going on. This is a kid, but mentally he’s closer to an adult, that kidnaps children from around the world. Yeah, he might bring them back, if you’re on of the lucky parents, but I doubt that thought comforts the parents who are left devastated at home. Neverland is beautiful and all, but there’s a risk to it. Peter has stolen kids to fight in his army, and there’s a good chance your kid is going to die. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the downtime, but make no mistake, these kids are there to bring down Captain Hook. If your kid gets tired of being a kid and starts to grow up, “Peter thins them out,” whatever that means. To me, it sounds an awful lot like Peter kills them. Our friendly Peter Pan is closer to a dictator than we might have thought as children. But it’s a cartoon, so who cares. Right?
4. Mrs. Doubtfire – Mrs. Doubtfire
Conniving, creepy, possessive, stalker, these are all words that perfectly describe the villainous Mrs. Doubtfire. In a desperate attempt to break the law and visit his children against the wishes of his ex-wife and the kids’ mother, Robin Williams dresses up in a woman costume and enters the home of his family. While sneaking around, lying and digging for information, Mrs. Doubtfire sabotages his ex-wife’s beautiful relationship, thinking, “if I can’t have her, no one can.” It’s scary to think that once a mentally-unstable individual has access to top notch voice coaching and movie-quality makeup and prosthetics, they can sneak into your home as a nanny and get access to your children.
3. Indiana Jones – Indian Jones Franchise
Maybe the greatest thief of all time, Indiana Jones steals priceless treasures from around the world all in the name of archeology. But don’t worry Indigenous peoples of Peru, your religious idol will be safe on American soil in an American museum. Oh, and sorry about destroying your temple that was thousands of years old, Indy really needed that treasure. This is a guy who is so consumed with his perception that only American museums can protect age-old relics properly that he will kill people to get them. He might as well tell these people that he’s protecting them from themselves. I’m waiting for Indiana Jones 6: Righting Wrongs, which has Indiana Jones going around and returning all of the relics that he unlawfully stole.
2. Dorothy – The Wizard of Oz
Unprovoked, Dorothy flies in on her magical house and crushes an unsuspecting old woman. Before fleeing the scene of the crime, Dorothy steals this poor woman’s beautiful shoes, putting them on her own feet and dancing around like she just won the damn lottery. Once the, cruelly named, Wicked Witch of the West learns of her sister’s murder, she demands to know who did it, a right of any family member under most justice systems. Consumed by grief, the Wicked Witch of the West attempts to stop Dorothy’s invasion on the Emerald City, but Dorothy slaughters her as well. Before leaving the land for good, Dorothy ridicules the Wizard of Oz, dismantling the happy illusion that he had set up in order to keep peace throughout the land. Dorothy is treacherous.
1. Grandpa Joe – Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
This guy, I tell you, a mastermind hiding under the skin of a frail old man. Grandpa Joe has got everyone convinced that he’s just a bag of bones awaiting death. While his daughter slaves away and everyone eats cabbage soup everyday, there’s Grandpa Joe hiding money so he can smoke a cigarette all to himself. Buddy lays in bed all day for 20 years, incapable of doing any housework until Charlie, who Joe has got wrapped around his finger, wins a Golden Ticket. As soon as Joe hears that Charlie would take him if he could walk, he gets up and dances a jig. I bet Charlie didn’t even want Joe to join him, offering him a half-hearted invite expecting Joe to turn it down. Not only does he con Charlie into taking him, he steals from Willy Wonka, almost getting them killed and then threatening espionage. He’s a rotten scoundrel.