Tragic heroes are easy to root for. Someone who is put through soul-shattering events in their life and can still see the goodness in the world, and the value in doing the right thing is something that’s easy to admire and respect. Tragedy is, more often than not, the spark that ignites a superhero career as it takes something pretty major to drive an ordinary person to take the law into their own hands, whether it’s for personal good or the greater good. We’re supposed to overlook the questionable methods or moral ambiguity of some superheroes because the ends will justify the means.
For most supervillains, however, the means absolutely do not justify the ends. Villains can generally be categorized as either those who do evil with bad intentions — like destroying worlds, enslaving races and other forms of your basic, box-ticking tyranny — and those who do evil with good intentions. Tragic villains start off in the same place as tragic heroes with their world-view dramatically shifted by a traumatic event, calling them to action. Their anger and motivation can be easy to identify with, like Anakin Skywalker giving himself over to the dark side out of a desire to protect those he loves from death. We can’t help but empathize with a guy who literally masks his vulnerability and loneliness, even while he’s ordering an entire planet to be blown up. Darth Vader is one of a long line of supervillains in pop culture who we have a secret soft spot for.
*Kylo Ren painting in feature image by DeviantArtist jodeee.
15. ERIK KILLMONGER
A superhero film’s success is usually measured on the strength of its villains, for which Marvel has had a persistent problem nailing across the board. Thankfully, this was not the case with Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger in Black Panther. Raised in America as the son of King T’Chaka’s brother, he was forever changed after witnessing T’Chaka slay his dad.
These scars were made real as he traveled the world racking up a terrifyingly high kill count. This eventually leads him back to his homeland, Wakanda, where, like his father before him, he made a compelling argument against the secretive African paradise’s policy of not sharing its wealth with their marginalized and long-suffering kin. Psychotic as he was, it’s very hard to not to understand his thirst for vengeance.
In Norse mythology, Loki is an amoral, trickster who gives birth to giant, god-slaying animals and cares only about saving his own skin. When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby transposed the Asgardian deities into comics in 1962, they re-purposed Loki as a straight-up villain who used his mastery of magic to grab power rather than pull pranks. In the first Thor film, Loki underwent another transformation.
He still craved power but his motivations were rooted in the emotive — neglect, jealousy and egomania. His arc through the MCU has taken him from villainy to something resembling anti-heroism, though we’re still never sure what the trickster god will do next. His silver tongue can really sting but with a mere flash of that wry smile, just like Thor, we’ll always forgive him.
Watchmen‘s Ozymandias achieved what few supervillains ever do: he beat the good guys. But, not only did he physically beat them, he believed he’d scored a pretty sizable philosophical victory over them, too. Adrian Veidt, the “smartest man on the planet,” once believed whole-heartedly that chipping away at the criminal underworld as a costumed hero would work.
That idealism was slowly eroded, helped by the cynicism of fellow crime fighter, the Comedian, until Ozymandias determined that a world ticking closer and closer to own destruction could only be saved by humanity rallying around a common enemy. In the end, nuclear annihilation is averted at the cost of three million lives. Ozymandias seeks solace that he did the “right thing” from Dr. Manhattan, making us believe that his road to hell really was paved with good intentions.
12. MISTER FREEZE
The majority of villains that make up Batman’s rogues gallery are marred by tragedy, like the Caped Crusader himself. Mister Freeze is one of the oldest and most tragic of the bunch, despite his goofy alias and love of diamonds. Though he’s had a name-change (formerly known as Mister Zero), gaining his cryo-powers through a lab accident consistently remains part of his origin.
The updated continuity from 1985 made Victor Fries a more sympathetic character: abandoned by his parents and desperate to cure his terminally-ill wife, Nora. His attempt to save her through cryo-stasis led to his body horror condition and his impetus for wrongdoing became tied to the salvation of Nora or his own unstable physiology. Post-New 52, his marriage to Nora is all his own, obsessive mind, making him even sadder.
11. EDDIE BROCK/VENOM
As a parasitic alien symbiote, Venom is an endlessly recyclable character, able to jump from villainy to heroism or just indiscriminate hunger depending on the mind of whomever it latches itself onto. Out of all of its many hosts in the Marvel universe, Eddie Brock is its most consistent — the one who just can’t get away. As backstories go, few are also more pitiful than Eddie’s.
After a loveless childhood, Eddie found his calling in journalism, until Spider-Man inadvertently destroyed his promising career, driving him to the brink of suicide before he tried to find God… but instead found the living alien costume. Eddie has had a love-hate relationship with both Spidey and Venom ever since, and his struggles with his monstrous urges make him far from black and white, despite what his color scheme may imply.
Dragon Ball’s Goku has a real knack for befriending his enemies, and Vegeta’s transformation from villain to hero is one of the saga’s best arcs. From the moment the Saiyan prince stepped foot on Earth, his unearned superiority, arrogance and quick temper clashed perfectly with Goku’s naivety and positivity (helped by the hammy talents of dub actor Christopher Sabat.)
It’s these qualities, along with the rare glimpses of affection he shows towards his long-suffering wife and children, that make him so endearing as a character. Even when he was at his most villainous in the Saiyan Saga, it was hard not to root for the short guy, and watching him morph into the friendly(ish) rival that keeps pushing Goku to new levels of power has been immensely satisfying.
You know how people’s password choices can reveal embarrassing secrets about themselves? Well, Gargoyles‘ main villain Demona uses “ALONE” as hers, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about her emotional state. It’s not exactly surprising after the love of her life became her greatest adversary. Despite being able to live as one during the day, Demona passionately hates humans.
This quite literally makes her a sadly self-hating figure; refusing to relinquish her anger because it will mean confronting the many, many skeletons in her hundreds of years old closet. Creator Greg Weisman actually revealed after the show ended that Demona would have some kind of “epiphany” eventually, veering towards redemption or insanity or “maybe a little of both.” Alas, we were never able to see that redemption.
Dracula isn’t just one of the most iconic characters of all time, he’s also one of the most tragic villains to ever exist. Once human, the original vampire is a powerful immortal who fears the sun, Christian symbols, stakes and loves sucking at the necks of human women who fall under his predatory spell. Though his myth is constantly changing with the times, Dracula has always been a tortured, lonely figure.
One of the most symbiotically evil and sympathetic iterations of him comes from the Castlevania Netflix series. Drawing inspiration from Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, the story sees Count Vlad Dracula fall for a beautiful and brilliant-minded woman who is then falsely accused of being a witch and burned alive at the stake. Dracula’s grief unleashes an army of demons to punish humanity for unjustly destroying the only thing he ever loved.
7. THE ICE KING
Adventure Time is a kids cartoon series known for its wackiness and bright, candy-themed characters. But, as fans will know, that sweetness is underlined by a thinly concealed darkness. Aside from the allusions to the kingdom of Ooo actually being a post-apocalyptic world, many of its inhabitants also have miserable origins, and none more tear-jerking than the show’s primary villain.
The Ice King is a mentally unstable wizard with an unhealthy Princess fixation but his obvious loneliness always makes him more pitiable than fearsome. After previous hints, the episode “I Remember You” revealed that the Ice King was once a human archaeologist called Simon Petrikov who was turned mad — and icy — by a magical crown. Even sadder is the revelation that he has no memory of caring for a young Marcelene, who deeply misses her old friend.
Few of the Dark Knight’s villains have had a rougher ride over to the dark side than Harvey Dent, (except possibly the Joker, depending on which of his many origin stories he’d prefer you to believe). The Jekyll and Hyde-esque super criminal was once Gotham’s tenacious District Attorney, or “white knight” as the Joker describes him in The Dark Knight. In a city like Gotham, though, ambition and incorruptible moral fiber make you a target for punishment.
In Nolan’s version, Joker is the one who causes Harvey’s disfigurement and mental collapse. In The Long Halloween, mobster Sal Maroni is the acid-splashing culprit, though the message of the story is that Harvey’s by-the-book heroism is chewed and spit out by Gotham itself. The strength of the grace that Two Face fell from forever tinges him with the glimmer of redemption.
Both Avatar: The Last Airbender and sequel series, The Legend of Korra, gave us some brilliantly complex villains with sympathetic stories. Prince Zuko’s development from arch-villain to selfless hero is still one of the best redemption arcs in recent TV history. Korra‘s first villain didn’t get such a happy ending but his anti-bending agenda wasn’t exactly an evil one.
At an Equalise rally named “The Revelation,” the masked leader demonstrated his shocking ability to remove people’s bending, telling his followers that “a new era of equality has begun!” Amon wanted to take away the natural-born power from the bending “elite,” scarred from a childhood with an abusive father and morally-twisted brother. Though Amon’s methods were extreme, his cause to empower the non-bending underclass was a noble one.
It’s hard to pinpoint just what it is about the giant, atomic energy-breathing, aquatic kaiju that we love so much. It doesn’t have the once-human, tragic origin story of a creature like Swamp-Thing. It can’t even make facial expressions. And yet, even while Godzilla is smashing through skyscrapers like they were toys, we never actually want the beast to be slain. What Godzilla lacks in personality, it makes up for in symbolism.
As the product of a country that was reeling from devastating nuclear attacks, Godzilla (or Gojira) embodies the real world threat of atomic annihilation — a warning to humanity. Over the years, Godzilla’s villainy has become even more ambiguous through various films, cartoon and comics. He is now often suggested to be Earth’s defender rather than its destroyer, slithering from the ocean’s depths periodically to put us puny humans in our place.
3. KYLO REN
Continuing where his grandfather left off, Kylo Ren provides the Star Wars sequel series with its brooding bad boy. Unlike Grandaddy Vader though, Kylo’s emotions threaten to spill over at any second, and when they do, Stormtroopers know to run for cover. The Last Jedi rooted Kylo’s angst in betrayal. While training with his uncle Luke to become a Jedi, his master’s fear at the darkness within his padawan grew into a murderous urge to stop the potential threat.
It’s also hinted in The Force Awakens that Ben felt let down by his “disappointing” father, and he suffered rejection from Rey, possibly his closest thing to a friend, after pleading with her to join him. Even his allies — Snoke and Hux — weren’t exactly his BFFs. That’s why, even after killing a fan favorite character, we still don’t hate Kylo Ren the way we probably should.
2. DOCTOR DOOM
Doctor Doom is one of the most beloved villains in the Marvel universe and there’s a good reason for that, besides his hilarious melodramatics. Obviously, with a name like Victor von Doom, destiny almost left him no other choice than a life of villainy. His hatred of Mister Fantastic stems from their shared college days, where a machine to free his dead mother’s soul blew up in Victor’s face, leaving him disfigured and embittered.
Much like Charles Xavier and Magneto, Doom has grown from “Destroyer of Worlds” into moral ambiguity over time, while his heroic enemy, Reed Richards, sometimes veers into extremism and ethical murkiness. His love for his Latverian subjects and his own longing to be loved always make us feel that, despite his destructive compulsions, Doom is just a misunderstood and unfortunate soul.
When it comes to tragic villains and extremists with good intentions, Magneto is the poster boy for both. Born as Max Eisenhardt to German-Jewish parents, the mutant teen spent his youth in Auschwitz after witnessing his father’s execution. After suffering both horrific persecution for his ethnicity and, later, his mutant status as “Erik Lensherr,” Max’s resentment of humanity sadly grew into a cause resembling the philosophy of his oppressors.
So fierce was his vengeance that the “Master of Magnetism” came at odds with his homosapien-sympathizing mutant friend, Charles Xavier, and his X-Men. Magneto’s trauma doesn’t validate his willingness to kill innocents but it does make it understandable. More recently, the “Magneto Was Right” slogan gives voice to the empathy fans have always felt for him, as well as the neglected questionable things staining Professor X’s reputation.
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