Film is an art from like no other, a medium that allows for the combination of sound and image in arrangements of infinite complexity, and for the creation of masterpieces as striking in beauty as they are elusive in meaning. That said, a lot of films boil down to a pretty simple formula: the good guys versus the bad guys. And, almost without exception, movies ask us to root for the former and against the latter. But sometimes that choice isn’t so simple: Whether by accident or design, some movies allow our sympathies to slip from the ostensible heroes to the ostensible villains.
The deft ones toy with moral ambiguity. Over 20-plus films, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has produced only one villain of any real complexity: Black Panther’s Erik Stevens, a.k.a. Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). While his methods might be suspect, his aim of empowering oppressed populations around the globe is pretty admirable, and the questions he raises about the complicit roles both Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the kingdom of Wakanda play in that oppression casts both in a different light. Whether or not Killmonger and his more radical methods carried the day remains an open question at the movie’s end.
That’s more than you can say of Thanos’ finger snap, unless you’re an unrepentant misanthrope — not that unrepentant misanthropes are hard to find. Nor are bad faith arguments, and sometimes it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Seek out pieces taking the side of the Empire in the Star Wars films, for instance, and you’ll find a collection of sophists and would-be fascists. It’s best to avoid both, but doesn’t mean sometimes the bad guys shouldn’t have won, or at least feel like they have as much a right to win as the good guys, for a variety of reasons.
Here’s a few where the baddies had the right idea (including a handful where they got away with it, too)…
Magneto (Various X-Men films, 2000 to 2019)
As with the comics that inspired them, the X-Men films have an ethical debate hardwired into them. On one side, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart and/or James McAvoy, depending on the movie), a man of peace working toward a future when humans and mutants can live side-by-side, despite their differences and the fear mutants’ powers can inspire. On the other, Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Magneto (Ian McKellen / Michael Fassbender), who comes to see this path as foolish and opts to take more drastic measures to ensure mutants’ survival. Magneto’s clearly a bad guy, in the traditional sense, but he’s also a bad guy with a point and a history as a Holocaust survivor that goes a long way toward suggesting he might have the right idea after all. Sometimes the best impulses of humanity don’t prevail. Magneto also increasingly seemed like he was on the right side of history the longer the (now apparently defunct) film series went on. How many times can Professor X and his X-Men be disappointed by their attempts to bridge the gap with humanity before they just give up?
Dean Wormer (Animal House, 1978)
Look, Dean Wormer (John Vernon) isn’t a nice guy. There’s no getting around it. From his name to his attitude to the glee he takes in administering punishment to the ostensibly heroic members of Delta House, he’s relentlessly unpleasant. But is he wrong? The Deltas aren’t just academic burnouts, they’re unrepentant pigs — peeping toms with no respect for women, or much else for that matter. Do they deserve to be shipped off to Vietnam? Probably not. But can anyone make a case for them being allowed to stay on campus and wreak havoc for another semester? (See also, Buford T. Justice in Smokey and the Bandit, an unpleasant man, but also a man determined to do his job.)
“Little” Bill Daggett (Unforgiven, 1992)
Undoubtedly, Little Bill (Gene Hackman) has his flaws. As the sheriff of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, he refuses to administer proper punishment when a pair of cowboys disfigure a prostitute, setting off a chain reaction when the victim’s co-workers put out a bounty in the interest of justice. Bad judgment, all around, Little Bill. But does Big Whiskey deserve the bloodbath unleashed within its city limits once Little Bill takes action against those who show up to collect the reward? Well, probably, to be honest. But in the words of the film’s protagonist William Munny (Clint Eastwood), “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”
Part of the genius of the Eastwood-directed, David Webb Peoples-scripted film comes from the balance it strikes. Little Bill’s sense of order is both unfair and capricious, but it’s some sort of order. Munny might feel he has no choice but to exact bloody vengeance on Bill and everyone else responsible for killing his friend Ned (Morgan Freeman), but he also recognizes he’s surrendering to his old, wicked ways and that nothing good — for Will, for Big Whiskey, for the victim, or anyone else — will come of it.
Khan Noonien Singh (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan)
Once again, it has to be said up top: Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) will never be mistaken for a good guy. He didn’t seem like one in the original series Star Trek episode “Space Seed,” when he and his genetically engineered followers — survivors of the Eugenics Wars that tore Earth apart in the 1990s; you remember those, right? — tried to take over the Enterprise. And he really doesn’t seem like a good guy when he returned in the 1982 film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, intent on revenge after a disaster wracked the colony Captain Kirk allowed him to set up at the end of their first encounter.
Still, maybe the good captain could have checked in once in a while? It’s not hard to see why Khan’s so peeved when he meets Kirk again, having lost his wife and most of his friends. What’s more, the Khan disaster calls the whole mission of the United Federation of Planets into question. Sure, Khan was a strongman dictator with a flair for murderous proclamations, but to just leave him out there on his own with no off-world resources and no way to call for help? That’s cold. It’s tough to argue whether Khan should have won, as in defeating Kirk and the Enterprise — that’s a bit much. But if justice is measured by the punishment fitting the crime, his remains a case of justice left unserved.
Roy Batty (Blade Runner, 1982)
Who’s the real hero of Blade Runner? Is it Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a police officer charged with “retiring” the indistinguishable-from-humans Replicants? Or Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the leader of a band of Replicants trying to escape servitude and maybe extend their soon-to-expire lives? By the time the film arrives at Roy’s “tears in the rain” monologue, Batty’s mission has started to look like nothing less than a search for meaning itself, making it not even much of a question anymore. (That Rick might himself by a Replicant selling out his own kind, however unwittingly, adds an extra layer of irony to his pursuit.)
Jabba the Hutt (Return of the Jedi, 1983)
True, you have to be a closet fascist to see the Empire’s point-of-view, but what about Jabba the Hutt’s? He hired Han Solo (Harrison Ford) to do a job he didn’t complete and wants nothing more than to collect on the debt he’s owed. Yes, he’s a ruthless gangster with a habit of feeding those who displease him to the Rancor but, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is that relevant to this case? Freezing Han and using him as a well fixture might seem like cruel and unusual punishment, but there’s no disputing Jabba’s owed something.
Pinhead/Various Cenobites (the Hellraiser film series) and Gozer the Gozerian (Ghostbusters, 1984)
Here’s the thing about sadomasochistic extra-dimensional sex demons and obscure Mesopotamian spirits who return to Earth after millennia of slumber: If you summon them, you should be prepared to deal with the consequences. True, both have a habit of taking out innocent victims or, in the case of Gozer, attempting to destroy whole bustling metropolises. But they’re just doing what they do and to expect anything else is kind of foolish.
Asami Yamazaki (Audition, 1999)
There’s really no way to talk about why Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina) ends up feeling more sympathetic than Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), the lonely widower who woos her in Takashi Miike’s shocker. Suffice it to say that, yes, Shigeharu uncovers evidence that Asami trails destruction in her wake. But his own behavior, starting with the phony film audition he uses to interview prospective brides, suggests that destruction might not be entirely misplaced. (See also Gone Girl, for reasons also best left unspoiled.)
Godzilla (Various Godzilla movies, 1954 to present)
You mess around with the building blocks of creation, you risk being wiped out by forces beyond your control. That’s the metaphor at the heart of the original Godzilla film, made in Japan less than a decade after the country saw the worst the atomic age had to offer via the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We’re lucky the big guy changed his mind and decided to stick up for humanity in (most of) the subsequent movies. Whether we really deserve it remains unclear.