Whether they're on the screen, the stage, the page, or the panel, the world certainly has no shortage of heroes and villains. The heroes are normally the colorful and lighthearted protagonists we all enjoy, and we're sure more than a few wayward souls out there love their villains for that splendid sinister side. Sometimes it seems the villains are the more interesting party; they're more chaotic, more complex, and sometimes more understanding than the heroes they fight. As strange as it might sound, the world of fiction has actually seen an increase in villains and antiheroes that don't garner as much disdain as one would expect.
The character in question might not be the most amiable in the moral sense, but their position, motives, or reasoning could be considerably relatable and sympathetic. Whether they are driven by loss, love, or vengeance, these are elements of the human condition that make them more relatable. We're not saying that the actions committed by the characters in question are justifiable, but they do make for more interesting stories, don't they? Not everyone chooses to be a villain, sometimes it's out of necessity, other times it's to right a wrong done to them, and then sometimes it's a general grey area. Whatever the reason, there are some villains that really do break our hearts, and we can't help but notice that. It's these kinds of villains that remind the viewers/readers of the human condition, and that's what makes them so memorable as well as sympathetic. Have some tissues ready, things are going to get emotional as we discuss 20 tragic villains' backstories.
Though he's not the most diabolical on our list, Scar certainly didn't have it easy living in Mufasa's shadow. This Loki of The Lion King is the dark and brooding antithesis to Mufasa's regal and royal persona. Everyone remembers Scar for his deadly deeds, but few realize that this predator has a past.
In a series of children's books, Disney actually gave Scar a backstory. Originally, he was named Taka and very jealous of his brother. In an attempt to harm and embarrass his brother, Taka is injured by a buffalo and marked with a scar on his eye. He assumes the name Scar, as a reminder of his arrogance. He grew to be fueled by envy and pride, and the rest is history.
19 FRANKENSTEIN'S MONSTER
Intelligence is knowing Frankenstein is not the monster, but knowledge is knowing he is. The iconic creature from Mary Shelley's novel is one of the most studied characters in fiction. Brought to life by his creator's dark sciences, the creature is born and abandoned by the world. He is not a monster because of what he does, but by how he is brought into existence.
Abandoned by his creator and socially shunned for his ugliness, the creature has little love for humanity because he has been left entirely alone. He is denied basic companionship and sympathies from the people he encounters but gains sympathy from us. It's through his complex character that we ask who really is the villain, Frankenstein's monster or Frankenstein himself?
18 THE VULTURE (SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING)
Homecoming not only saw a return of our Friendly-Neighborhood-Spider-Man but a return for one of his classic adversaries. Adrian Toomes/The Vulture is reimagined as a more sympathetic and somewhat more realistic foe for the wall-crawler to face. Instead of being a vengeful scientist, he is a blue-collar salvage worker laid off thanks to Stark's damage control crew.
Through Toomes, we see the repercussions of the damage the Avengers do in their battles. Stark's cleanup crew might help the city, but we forget what it does to the 99% of the MCU. Toomes' anger is more towards the upper class than anything, a common enemy in today's culture. The flight-suit is cool, but there are easier ways to protest. Still, it sends a message.
17 THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
A disfigured musician locked away in the cellars of the Paris Opera House longing for the love of a gifted ingenue; sounds like an award-winning musical to us. Joking aside, we can't deny a spot for one of the most tragic characters in horror. He's a tortured artist longing for love from the outside world, but he's not exactly the purest of souls.
In the original Leroux novel, The Phantom tortures the audience and drops a giant chandelier on them. He does this because while he is still a genius, he's a psychopath who suffers from abandonment issues and more. He's mentally unbalanced, but still, we can't help but feel bad for this lovesick musical maniac.
16 DOCTOR DOOFENSHMIRTZ
Doctor Heinz Doofenshmirtz is one of the most comedic villains in recent years, but he's also one of the most tragic figures Disney has ever created. Doofenshmirtz has been abandoned, neglected, raised by wild ocelots, and nearly slapsticked to a fatal end on a regular basis by Perry the Platypus. That's pretty rotten luck even for a Disney villain.
There are times when we laugh at Doofenshmirtz, but then there are times we feel awful for laughing. Compared to some other evil scientists in his field, he's only asking for respect and control of the Tri-State area. As much as life has just kneed him in the solar plexus, we can't help but want to throw him a bone every once in a while.
15 ICE KING
For yet another comedic villain with a dark and tragic backstory, we need look no further than the land of Oo. The weird and wacky Ice King from Cartoon Network's Adventure Time was once the goofiest villain to wear a crown. But as the show progressed and matured, we learned the real reason behind the monarch's madness.
In a backstory that sounds like an unused Lovecraft novel, it is revealed that the Ice King was once a historian who meddled with a cursed crown. When Simon Petrikov donned the crown, he received the powers over ice, but at the cost of his own sanity. Chilling in more ways than one, Ice King's tragedy remains one of the most adult narratives ever seen in a cartoon.
We take a brief detour back into Frankenstein territory with our next contender. Gargoyles was one of the jewels of Disney animation, essentially the studio's answer to Batman: The Animated Series. The show was no stranger to dark content, but the introduction of Coldstone and his internal pain is really quite intense.
Coldstone is a fusion of the gargoyles Othello, his beloved Coldfire, and the evil Iago, mixed in with Xanatos's cybernetic technology. Essentially, the souls of all three gargoyles reside in the cyborg body of Othello, making Coldstone constantly fighting an internal battle of control. Eventually, Othello regained control, but the Coldstone arc is definitely one of the most complex and serious ones of the series.
Disney's mistress of all evil certainly lost some of her edge in her live-action adaptation, but her backstory is still one of their darker materials. Once a free spirit of the forest, Maleficent was the benevolent winged protector of the fae and fairy folk. But like some others on our list, she falls in love with the wrong sort and ends up getting hurt.
Hurt would be putting it quite lightly. In the film, Maleficent has her beautiful wings cut off as she sleeps in a stupor. As if betrayal wasn't enough, her lover slices her wings and takes them back as a prize, leaving her wounded and with a contempt for the mortal race. Fantasy or not, it's still a hard scene to watch.
12 DRACULA (CASTLEVANIA)
Netflix's Castlevania is a rather impressive adaptation of the video games, and its main antagonist is as equally impressive as its art design, monsters, presentation. Count Dracula is not only a grand depiction of the Bram Stoker character and the final boss of the games but easily one of the more sympathetic incarnations of the character. Way to go, Netflix
In the show, Dracula's wife is burned as a witch while he is away from the castle. Heartbroken and enraged, he unleashes every monster in the bestiary to destroy the lands of Walachia. Here we see a more vulnerable Dracula. He mourns, he sheds tears for her, and it's possibly the most human version of the character we've ever seen.
11 AGGIE PENDERGAST
Paranorman is a great little animated flick, perfect for Halloween or anyone wanting some goofy zombie fun. A stop-motion film about a kid who can talk to ghosts, what's not to love? The film gets most of its horror elements not from the zombies, but from the vengeful spirit of the town's witch, Aggie Pendergast.
Possessing the same supernatural powers as Norman, Aggie is tried and prosecuted as a witch for speaking to her mother's ghost. The idea that a village would go to such extremes for a young girl is flat-out bone-chilling. There's some serious nightmare fuel in this film, but we can't help but sympathize with her. We're always happy to see that her soul soon finds peace before the credits roll.
10 CARRIE WHITE
Whether you see Carrie as horror, sci-fi, or just a typical Stephen King creep show, there's no denying that its teenage protagonist tugs on the heartstrings. Sometimes she's sympathetic, sometimes she's downright pitiful, but either way, she can still make mayhem with her mind. Whether on the page, stage, or screen, Carrie is always swell for a scream.
Some see Carrie as a supernatural thriller, others see it as a tragic horror story, but we think of it as a tale of sweet revenge. We see Carrie get absolutely abused by her fellow students, neighbors, and even her own mother. We never get tired of seeing her wreak her vengeance. If someone poured pig blood on our prom dress, we'd be mighty P.O.'d too.
9 HARLEY QUINN
Once the famous Dr. Harleen Quinzel, Harley Quin became a member of Gotham's Rogues Gallery when she was introduced in Batman: The Animated Series. Sidekick and off-and-on lover of the Joker, Harley Quinn has been brutally broken and bruised, and not at the hands of the Caped Crusader. Her relationship with the joker is notoriously violent, and we ache every time she's left crumpled on the ground.
Harley Quinn has been thrown out of a two-story window by her "Puddin,'" among many other unforgivable actions, and yet, she always comes back. In recent incarnations, she's grown a bit more backbone and even turned away from her violent partner, but she's a character we can't leave off our list. Our hearts go out to Harley.
8 JASON VOORHEES
Ah, where would the slasher genre be without the hockey-masked hackmaster, Jason Voorhees? The Crystal Lake creep has been freaking out campers since the '80s and he's filled a graveyard or two in his day. We know what you're thinking, what makes him so tragic?
Jason is a vengeful spirit driven by the cruelty of camp counselors. When a young Jason was bullied by his peers and drowned in the lake, his mother had her revenge, but after witnessing her demise, it was his turn to pick up the blade. Jason earns the spot because he serves as a reminder of how cruel kids can be, and that moms will always love you even if you're a masked, machete-toting psychopath.
7 ERIK KILLMONGER
A former black-ops soldier turned deadly assassin, Erik Stevens turned several heads when he premiered in 2018's Black Panther. Known as Killmonger for his notorious savagery, he sought to seize the throne from T'Challa to gain control of Wakanda's advanced weapon technology. He was a radical and dangerous foe for the titular Black Panther, but he's one Marvel villain that's heavily grounded outside the movie screen.
Killmonger wanted Wakanda's weapons to end the injustices done to people of African descent. Having grown up knowing the hardships and animosity towards the African-American people, he seeks to right the wrongs done by non-black oppressors. Kilmonger is a reflection of radical racial attitudes in today's cultural climate. We don't approve his methods, but we understand the reason why.
6 DARTH VADER
A spectacular space-opera like Star Wars needs a tragic villain like Vader. He is a man who has essentially sold his soul for the power of the Dark Side. He's lost so much on his rise to power, that he essentially seals his fraction of humanity away behind a cybernetic shell.
We've seen Anakin Skywalker grow and develop through six films and two Clone Wars series, and he's not had the easiest ride. He's been a slave, lost his mother and his wife, lost limbs, been burned alive, and all while being brainwashed and manipulated by Palpatine. But it makes it all the more worth it to see him redeemed in the end.
So many characters on this list have an outright hatred for humanity, but Demona's is pretty understandable. Once the lover of the gargoyle leader, Goliath, she joins forces with the evil Xanatos to seek revenge on the humans for destroyed her clan. She is vicious and resourceful and will stop at nothing to have her revenge.
There are some villains where all you see is the anger and evil they give off, but with Demona, you see pain and fury. She's lost nearly everyone she cared about because of the humans she was charged to protect. Her world has been ripped from her and she wants to bite back. She's one of the Gargoyle's most dangerous foes, but she probably hurts the most too.
The Master of Magnetism, Magneto is the X-Men's most notorious adversary. With his Brotherhood of Mutants, he seeks to enslave the human race and rule the world with an iron fist. Magneto's contempt for non-mutants spurns from seeing the darkest regions of human hatred during WWII. Instead of using his experiences to learn what not to do, he uses the Nazi structure to build his own mutant regime.
Born Max Eisenhardt, Magneto suffered at the hands of Nazi oppressors as a young man and even survived imprisonment in the Treblinka experimentation camp. His hatred for those who persecute the differently gifted is justifiable, but his methods of conquest are unashamedly evil. He's sympathetic, but that doesn't make him right.
3 SWEENEY TODD
The demon barber of Fleet Street graces our list with scarlet fury as he makes a real mark in the revenge business. On stage and screen, Sweeney Todd has made mincemeat of his victims for the crimes committed by an evil judge. But his life wasn't always freakish, in fact, it was perfectly pristine.
There was a barber and his wife and it was beautiful for a young Benjamin Barker. That is until judge Turpin used his position and power to have Barker imprisoned on a false charge. With his wife poisoned and daughter under the judge's thumb, he becomes Sweeney Todd and seeks violent vengeance on those who wronged him. Throw in some sinister Sondheim songs and you've got a Broadway hit.
2 THE MAD HATTER (DC)
A lonely wretch named Jervis Tetch was a scientist for Wayne industries who was fascinated with unlocking the brain's full potential. In his quest to explore the wonders of the mind, he invented an eerie hypnotic device. It wasn't until he was jilted by his beautiful blonde secretary named Alice that he took a turn towards supervillain.
As dark as the Hatter's backstory is, it's still one of the sadder Batman stories the animated series gave us. Tetch is the typical geeky and awkward scientist that can't get the girl, so when he finds a way he can achieve his goal, he takes advantage of it. He's a lonely soul who couldn't cope with rejection, so he became the wicked man from Wonderland.
1 MR. FREEZE
Once the comedic Mr. Zero, he was reintroduced as the chilling Mr. Freeze in Batman: The Animated Series. After his wife was stricken with a fatal disease, he devoted his life to finding a cure. After his funding was cut, he suffered a lab accident that turned him into the menace in the metal suit.
Driven by love and fueled by icy scorn, Mr. Freeze is nearly a villain of Shakespearian scale. Mr. Freeze gets our top spot because he didn't choose to be a villain, it was out of a need to save another. He even shows remorse for the crimes he commits. He's doing it all for Nora, not for personal gain. His heart of ice never fails to make ours break.