The best movie villains aren’t the ones who embody pure evil and kill without mercy and wipe out entire civilizations for the heck of it. They’re the ones who actually have some humanity about them. Maybe they’re conflicted about their evil plans or they’re in love with somebody or they’re only doing bad things to give their family a better life. Not an awful lot of screenwriters have the talent or the foresight to give their villains some emotional dimension. Thanos is a perfect example of this. Here he is with the other 9 most sympathetic and human villains in movie history. Read it quick, before he snaps his fingers.
10. Annie Wilkes
Okay, Annie Wilkes is unhinged and totally nuts. But she’s also kind of lovable, in a weird way. Like, she’s a psychopath, but she’s also adorably childlike. She’ll “hobble” you by breaking your legs with a sledgehammer, but she’ll also use the term “cockadoodie” and get excited about the latest installment of her favorite literary franchise. On the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 most iconic heroes and villains from movies, Annie was ranked the 17th greatest villain in film history. Kathy Bates’ portrayal of Annie was so chilling and haunting and captivating that she ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance. Forensic psychologist Reid Meloy has analyzed Annie’s personality and found that she suffers from a boatload of mental illnesses: bipolar disorder, a severe borderline personality disorder with schizoid, schizotypal, and obsessive compulsive features and sadomasochism. Stephen King, the author who created Annie on the page before Bates brought her to the big screen, empathizes with her humanity. He said that she “may seem psychopathic to us, but it’s important to remember that she seems perfectly sane and reasonable to herself. Heroic, in fact. A beleaguered woman trying to survive in a hostile world filled with cockadoodie brats.”
9. Erik Killmonger
Was Killmonger really that bad of a guy? You can view the events of Black Panther from both T’Challa’s perspective, which is the one the movie takes, or you could view it from Killmonger’s perspective. And if you look at it that way, it is still the story of a man who sees some wrong in the world and heroically swoops in to make it right. Killmonger is a guy whose father was killed, so he had to grow up as an orphan. Then he toughened himself up and took on an African king who was harboring a mountain of the most powerful substance known to mankind. And he didn’t want it all to himself like some wacko megalaniac. He was going to use it to free the black people of America from oppression and take on white colonizers. Those are some good intentions! So, what Ryan Coogler has done, instead of making a movie about a clear cut good guy triumphing over a clear cut bad guy, is make a movie about two guys who exist in a moral grey area and disagree on something and fight each other over it. It’s a brilliantly complex movie in that way, and we got one of the finest cinematic supervillains of all time from it.
8. Daniel Plainview
The interesting thing about Daniel Plainview as a villain is that the movie is about him. Paul Thomas Anderson didn’t write There Will Be Blood about a good guy who the audience roots for who Daniel Plainview creates trouble for along the way. He wrote a movie about Daniel Plainview. He’s the antagonist, but he’s framed in the movie as the lead character, a position that is usually reserved for the protagonist. This gave Anderson the room to dive into Daniel’s psyche and his motivations and where his head is at, which is where all the interesting stuff comes from. Daniel is an oil tycoon who becomes corrupted by all of his success and wealth. It’s a very powerful and cautionary tale. And it’s not just in the writing. Daniel Day Lewis gives a typically fantastic performance in the role. If anything, it’s Day Lewis who brings the humanity to Daniel Plainview. His performance is what brings the bacon home at the end of the day, because without Day Lewis’ charm and depth, the character was just be an abhorrent human being, plain and simple. But with the right actor in the role, he becomes a devilishly complex and real villain.
7. Alex DeLarge
Alex DeLarge is a terrible guy. He’s not just a delinquent youth. He spends his days preying on women and doing depraved things with them and then he spends his nights running cars off the side of the road, breaking into people’s houses to terrorize and torture them, and endlessly raping people. If he was allowed to just continue doing this, then we wouldn’t have a character with any humanity. But the story develops and Stanley Kubrick puts Alex DeLarge through Hell. The movie is set in a dystopian future society that is governed by strict bureaucracy, and if anyone steps out of line, they break them down. In prison, Alex is forced to watch the violent imagery of Nazis committing atrocities set to the sounds of Beethoven with his eyes pried open. Eventually, they break him down to the point where, if he even sees a pair of breasts, he starts shivering and cowers on the floor. You actually end up feeling sorry for the guy who started the movie as a sociopathic rapist. Empire magazine named Alex the 42nd greatest movie character of all time and Wizard magazine ranked him as the 36th greatest villain of all time. Malcolm McDowell’s performance in the role was also named by Premiere magazine as one of the 100 Greatest Performances of All Time.
6. Hannibal Lecter
“A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” Al Pacino and Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman were all considered for the role of Hannibal Lecter, but now that we’ve been blessed with the iconic performance given by Anthony Hopkins in the role, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing it. Hopkins’ portrayal of Lecter was so haunting and brilliant that with just twelve minutes of screen time, he took home the Academy Award for Best Actor. There are some actors who get into the head of their character and try for months to nail the role and bring the character to life on the screen. If it’s a leading role, they can do this for over two and a half hours of screen time and still not create a character that is as rounded and as complex and as interesting as what Anthony Hopkins did when he had twelve minutes of material to work with. Unfortunately, none of the movies after The Silence of the Lambs managed to live up to it, and Hopkins regrets doing them: “I made the mistake of doing two more [Hannibal Lecter movies] and I should have only done one.”
5. Bill (Kill Bill)
“Do you find me sadistic?” What Bill did to the Bride is really messed up. He got his crew to beat her half to death, kill everybody she cares about, and then put a bullet in her brain. But he’s also not as bad as he seems. He’s clearly very conflicted about how he feels about the Bride. He loves her, and he didn’t want her to marry another man. If Bill really was a truly evil guy, then he wouldn’t have raised Beatrix Kiddo’s daughter (who also happens to be his daughter) while she was in a coma. The role was originally meant for Warren Beatty, but he was eventually rewritten for David Carradine. Quentin Tarantino explained, “I’ve always wanted to work with Warren. So, before I got to know Bill a hundred percent, I said: ‘Hey, Warren, you could be really great…’ Then I started writing it, discovering Bill, and I thought David Carradine could really play this guy. He’d know where he was coming from. So, I started molding Bill towards David.” Beatty didn’t want to commit to all the martial arts training, so Carradine took over and gave us a modern screen legend in his charming portrayal of Bill.
4. Professor Snape
The beauty of Severus Snape as a villainous character who is sympathetic and human is that it doesn’t get revealed that he’s actually a good guy until the very end. Throughout the whole series, you think he’s just one of those jerk teachers that bully their students, and then in the final book (and movie), you find out why he’s been such a jerk to Harry the whole time and yet also protected him from danger: he was in love with Harry’s mother. She chose Harry’s father instead and Snape was always bitter about that, but Harry was her son and Snape was dedicated to keeping him (relatively) safe. J.K. Rowling planned this twist all along. She said that the whole series is “built around” not Harry’s story, but Dumbledore’s story and – you guessed it – Snape’s story. He was always one of her favorite characters to write for and she was always dropping hints about the twist. “I had to drop clues all the way through because as you know in the seventh book when you have the revelation scene where everything shifts and you realise…what Snape’s motivation was. I had to plot that through the books because at the point where you see what was really going on, it would have been an absolute cheat on the reader at that point just to show a bunch of stuff you’ve never seen before.”
Tom Hardy was left with some pretty big boots to fill in the wake of Heath Ledger’s chilling portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight, the performance of a lifetime that won him a posthumous Academy Award. Ledger’s version of the Joker became not only an icon of superhero cinema, but an icon of cinema in general. So, Hardy’s job was basically to try and top that. And Christopher Nolan’s job in writing The Dark Knight Rises was to create a new villain who would be just as terrifying and just as unique and just as iconic as the Joker that was also completely different from him. Nolan’s solution was essentially to bring some humanity to Bane. The Joker was just an all out psychopath who wanted to “watch the world burn.” But there is method to Bane’s madness. He is a political terrorist with very clear goals about what he wants to do with Gotham. His diabolical plots are meticulously planned and almost go perfectly until they’re foiled by the return of the Caped Crusader. Bane succeeds as a villain, because he understand his motivations and we know all about his tragic backstory. He’s more than just a megalomaniac, although he is that.
2. Darth Vader
Redemption is a common theme in fiction, but few tales of redemption are quite as powerful or as emotionally charged as that of Darth Vader. In the first movie, he’s just a faceless villain who wants to be able to destroy planets at will. In the second movie, we find out he is actually Luke’s father, so the plot thickens. And then in the third movie, Vader finally gets his redemption. Vader is a complex villain, because he was once a noble and heroic Jedi Knight with the best intentions, and then he was led down the wrong path by the sinister Emperor Palpatine. He hurt a lot of people. But then, as he watches his master shoot Force lightning out of his fingers at his son, he returns to the Light Side of the Force. It’s a beautiful moment, because his primal instincts as a father kick in and he jumps into action to save Luke, but it also mirrors the scene in Revenge of the Sith in which Palpaine is using his Force lightning on Mace Windu and Anakin has to choose which one to save – and he chooses to save Palpatine. That was the moment that Anakin lost his humanity, so it was only fitting that the moment he got it back was more or less the same scenario, except this time, he chose to kill Palpatine and save Luke.
Thanos is so close to pure evil. He’s so close to being one of those villains who is simply bent on world destruction and doesn’t have any discernible personality or emotional spectrum. But that’s the beauty of how he’s written. His humanity is so far gone that it’s only hinted at, but those hints are where the true depth of this character lies. Thanos is a guy who has set out to collect all the Infinity Stones and fill the Infinity Gauntlet and then snap his fingers to wipe out half of all the life in the universe. He has spent so long trying to achieve this goal that he’s been blinded by it. Even he isn’t sure that it’s the right thing to do anymore, but he’s come this far, so he might as well finish. We see the only moment where he considers just giving up when he is told by Red Skull that he must give up what he loves the most if he wants to get his hands on the Soul Stone. Gamora scoffs that he doesn’t love anything, but he tells her that’s not true. Then he has to make a tough decision. He can either give up and let Gamora live, or sacrifice her for the Soul Stone. And okay, he chooses option B and kills the only person in the universe he loves, but he’s clearly very shook up about it.