When Milton wrote “Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven,” it wasn’t because he’d suddenly become a Satanist, or that he was trying to denounce what people believed in. Opinions are opinions, and beliefs are beliefs, and this was just his opinion. What happened was that Milton looked upon the most prominent villain of Western literature and said: “Eh, he’s kinda got a point.” Subsequently, through recent works like Neil Gaiman and the canceled Fox TV series, the torch Milton first carried for the Biblical villain has moved through modern history to act as a critique of the world around us, and humanity’s own deep flaws.
Relatable villains have since become all the rage, especially in the 20th century, as audiences refused to settle for bad guys we were told were “just bad.” They wanted to understand the twisted motives that turned these villains to evil, and sometimes those motives turned out to be pretty understandable. From avenging personal betrayals to salient social critiques, the “bad guys” in our favorite movies, comics, and video games are sometimes right. Now, we’re not saying it always justifies their actions, nor that they’re secretly the good guys (well, ok, maybe a couple). But we can’t deny that, when all is said and done, maybe they kind of had a point. Before, characters were black and white in how they were written, but now they are written so complexly that they often outshine heroes. That said, here are 20 of our favorite villains, who made a lot of sense:
20 KILLMONGER (BLACK PANTHER)
Part of what made Black Panther such a huge hit, and an absolute shoe-in for that Popular Film Oscar, was the absolutely riveting performance from Michael B. Jordan as the film’s antagonist Killmonger. Denied his birthright and rejected by his isolated kingdom, Killmonger felt it was wrong that such an advanced civilization hide away while inhuman acts of cruelty existed in the world, and promoted an idea of an armed Pan-African uprising.
Though his methods were excessive, taking innocent lives and guided more by fury than compassion, his announced motive not only resonated with audiences, but ultimately T’Challa himself. In the end, T’Challa recognized the importance of reaching out to the world, and the African diaspora, though through diplomatic rather than militaristic means.
19 DOCTOR DOOM (TRIUMPH AND TORMENT)
Part of Doctor Doom’s charm is that, as was the intention of creators Lee and Kirby, in all his villainy there was always an air of righteousness and nobility. No, audiences weren’t expected to believe that Doom was actually the tyrannical savior the world needed, but that Doom himself always viewed his attempts at world domination as altruism.
Undeniably, though, Doom was not only sympathetic but downright heroic in the oft-forgotten graphic novel Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment. In the story, written by Roger Stern and art by Mike Mignola and Mark Badger, we follow Doom, who has teamed up with Doctor Strange, on a journey into hell itself to battle Mephisto for the soul of Doom’s dead mother. Say what you will for the masked megalomaniac, but we can think of no more pure motive out there.
18 ROY BATTY (BLADE RUNNER)
The Oscar-winning sequel Blade Runner 2049 had many suggesting it equaled or even surpassed the original, but one element fell flat: Jared Leto’s mustache-twirling Niander Wallace couldn’t hold a candle to the original film’s antagonist, Roy Batty.
Batty is arguably the most relatable villain of contemporary science fiction. His plight is an analog to man’s own struggle with mortality, his destructive path to confront his creator and demand more time equal to humanity’s own struggles against the finality of death. In the end, Deckard can’t see Batty as an enemy, but a sympathetic and creature in pain, desperate to find some meaning in his unnecessarily brief existence.
17 OZYMANDIAS (WATCHMEN)
Fans will often evoke Ozymandias’ “I did it thirty-five minutes ago” in any conversation about the ultimate villainous mic drops, and rightfully so. For all Ozymandias’ grandstanding and monologuing about uniting the world, he not only does it but…it works.
Ozymandias’ plan involves faking an extraterrestrial attack on New York in order to unite the world against a perceived outside threat (unless you count the movie changing it to Doctor Manhattan, but the less said about that, the better), and judging from the epilogue he actually succeeds. We’re not saying that Ozymandias was justified in his act of deception, but we can’t deny his thesis proved to be true.
16 SYNDROME (THE INCREDIBLES)
Brad Bird often gets accused of being a Rand-style objectivist, which is absurd. After all, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is about how all the world’s geniuses abandoned our world to build a futuristic utopia, whereas Bird’s Tomorrowland is about how all the world’s geniuses…never mind.
In The Incredibles, there’s more than a few shades of Bird’s potential objectivism. Like Rand’s The Fountainhead, the villain of The Incredibles is frustrated that he’s not allowed to be special like Mr. Incredible, who rejects him for not having “powers”, despite young Buddy (later Syndrome) displaying an incredible skill at inventing. Ultimately, though, Syndrome is right: to allow such unchecked power to be wielded by only those genetically gifted with it is a quick path to chaos.
15 THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST (THE WIZARD OF OZ)
You probably don’t need us to tell you why the Witch is justified. An entire industry of prequels, ranging from hit Broadway musicals (Wicked) to forgotten Sam Raimi movies (Oz, the Great and Powerful), have tried to give a sympathetic backstory to the green-skinned witch who scared our pants off as kids.
But set aside all the extraneous info, and let’s focus on a key fact: Dorothy whacked her sister. Just straight up crushed her with a house and stole her sparkly footwear off her body before it was even cold. You don’t need love affairs with scarecrows or evil curses to justify the Witch’s actions. Grave-robbing alone justifies her vendetta against Dorothy.
14 THE US GOVERNMENT (CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR)
Now, before anyone jumps down our throats in righteous indignation, we’re solely talking about the film Captain America: Civil War, not the book upon which it's based. The comic series actually offers a balanced conflict with both sides raising valid points. The film? Well…
In the film, after a team of superhuman vigilantes, one of which is constantly sporting the American flag on his uniform, cause multiple international incidents of death and destruction, the US government intervenes and tells the Avengers they need to be regulated, and that there needs to be some oversight and accountability for their actions. Cap then declines because…liberty? Sort of? The MCU has demonstrated time and again that the Avengers are capable of mass destruction through their interpersonal conflicts, so oversight isn’t actually a bad idea, and the film never presents an argument as to why it would be.
13 MAXIMUS (INHUMANS)
If you realize the villain was right all along after the credits roll, it can give you a new appreciation for the work you just witnessed. If you realize the villain was right all along in the first episode of a new show, it’s gonna throw any investment you have in the heroes right out the window.
This was one of the many problems ABC’s failed Inhumans project faced when it was foisted upon audiences. Our “villain” overthrew the current regime after not demonstrating superhuman abilities and being cast off into the lowest rung of an oppressive, bigoted caste system, and sought to create a society of social and economic equality in its place. That’s the guy we were supposed to be rooting against.
12 MR. GLASS (UNBREAKABLE)
M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable was a film wildly ahead of its time, getting a critical reappraisal in the wake of the surprise sequel Split. Initially, after audiences unfairly expected the follow-up to Sixth Sense to have a “twist” equal to the former, the reveal that Mr. Glass had been the cause of the accident that revealed David Dunn’s powers was perceived as a “let down.”
Yet, far from just being a reveal that Mr. Glass was “a crazy person” as some wrote it off at the time, it actually not only created a fascinating dynamic of a hero born out of a villain’s need for an arch-enemy, but also proves Glass was right all along. He has had no qualms about being the worst person around in order to find an “unbreakable” man, and ultimately he did. Evil? Absolutely, but he wasn’t wrong.
11 WILLIAM JOHNSON (ASSASSIN’S CREED III)
The Assassin’s Creed franchise takes a good deal of liberties with the historical figures it depicts in order to fit it all into their story of Assassins and Templar. But it also taught today’s generation about Revolutionary War figures before there were even hip-hop musicals about them.
The storyline involving William Johnson using smuggled goods to buy Iroquois land on behalf of the British government is heavily fictionalized, but his reasoning for doing so is scarily accurate. He claims in his dying moments that he undertook his plan in order to help the Native Americans, that under British protection they’d be spared the invasive wrath of the colonists. His plan was flawed, but history has shown that his prediction was tragically sound.
10 KAECILIUS (DOCTOR STRANGE)
Kaecilius isn’t one of the more memorable villains of the MCU, but one has to question whether he’s really a villain at all. He’s introduced to us as the one who betrayed the teachings of the Ancient One, who sought a dark power to achieve immortality.
Kaecilius, it is revealed, lost his wife and daughter, and looked to magic as a way to release the world from the inevitability of death, an idea the Ancient One rejected. When Kaecilius discovered that the Ancient One herself was using the same dark magic she’d dissuaded him from seeking in order to keep herself alive, he rightfully began to see all her teachings as built on hypocrisy. Perhaps turning to Dormammu was the wrong call, but Kaecilius was certainly right in feeling betrayed by the Ancient One and seeking immortality for all mankind.
9 GORR, THE GOD BUTCHER (THOR: GOD OF THUNDER)
There’s a lot to love from Jason Aaron’s run on Thor: God of Thunder, but the absolute highlight has to be Gorr the God Butcher, a character who can be boiled down to “what if Job got revenge?” We had to root against him when he came to blows with our beloved Thor, but we can’t say he had the worst reasoning.
Son of a nameless father, born on a nameless world, Gorr led a life full of pain. Though taught to pray to the gods, he came to believe they did not exist when none of his prayers were answered. After their existence was proven to him, that gods did indeed rule over all worlds but spent their time carousing and drinking in their Elysian fields rather than look after their flocks, Gorr swore to destroy all gods and free the world.
8 KOBA (DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES)
Koba is the clear villain of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, hateful of humans where Caesar sees peace, and even framing humans for the death of Caesar and his family in order to escalate a conflict between man and ape. Nobody would argue Koba was right…until the sequel.
Koba's actions were monstrous, but his motive for doing so was the idea that man and ape could not coexist, and that war would soon break out. He wanted to have the ape forces prepared and preemptively strike before the army of man grew stronger and even more ape life would be lost. To watch the follow-up, War for the Planet of the Apes, and see Caesar’s peace give way to violent war, we realize Koba’s predictions came true.
7 MAGOG (KINGDOM COME)
Magog is not only the villain of Kingdom Come, but has come to represent the perceived “evil” of ‘90s comics, designed by Mark Waid and Alex Ross to be “…everything we hate in modern superhero design.” His reckless violence and seemingly amoral actions drove Superman into self-imposed exile, after all.
So what did Magog do that garnered Superman’s wrath? He killed The Joker, who had recently killed Superman’s beloved Lois Lane and many other Daily Planet employees. Superman felt that no matter how much evil he causes, the Joker could still be redeemed, whereas Magog felt that in the end, allowing the Joker to continue would only lead to greater loss of life. Looking at the Joker’s near-80 year history…Magog wasn’t wrong.
6 ENCHANTRESS (SUICIDE SQUAD)
To be frank, the plot of Suicide Squad is such a mess that it’s almost impossible to determine any character’s motive, nor who was really “right” or “wrong” in any given scene. We watch the Joker indiscriminately murder people, but we’re meant to cheer when he “rescues” Harley? Amanda Waller is seemingly evil, but teams up with Batman?
The one thing we know for sure, though, is Enchantress is totally in the right here. First, poor June Moon gets possessed by a demonic spirit, and then Amanda Waller decides to manipulate that evil spirit by keeping her heart in a box and torturing it whenever Enchantress gets out of line. Sure, she’s an evil spirit, but she’s an evil spirit with a reason to be miffed.
5 THE ILLUMINATI (CIVIL WAR/PLANET HULK)
The Hulk is an uncontrollable force of destruction, fueled by rage and occasionally taking more lives than he saves. When the worlds greatest minds were faced with Hulk’s wanton destruction of Las Vegas, the Illuminati (excluding Namor) decide to launch Hulk into space, towards an uninhabited planet.
Though Hulk, as Namor predicted, returns for revenge in World War Hulk, it’s scary to imagine the destruction that might have occurred had Banner’s big green rage monster been around for the events of Civil War. What if Banner had been in favor of registration, but Hulk had other ideas? The extra casualties in the already destructive affair would have been unimaginable. Though it came back to bite them, exiling Hulk was the right call for the moment.
4 THE MACHINES (THE MATRIX)
The machines have enslaved humanity, trapped them in an alternate reality while sapping their bodies for energy. Morpheus and his band of rebels seek to free humanity from the bondage they’ve been placed in by the machines. Pretty cut and dry who our heroes are, right?
Well, unless you watch the Animatrix, wherein it’s revealed that humanity created the machines that eventually enslaved them. When those machines developed consciousness, they sought peaceful coexistence, only to be chased out by the humans. Even after forming their own isolated colony, humanity still sought to wipe them out. Faced with an “us or them” scenario, the machines found the only way that both lifeforms could survive; by creating The Matrix.
3 PAGAN MIN (FAR CRY 4)
In Far Cry 4, you take on the role of Ajay Ghale, sent to the fictional country of Kyrat to spread your mothers’ ashes. When your bus is attacked you’re brought to the home of the game’s villain, Pagan Min, ruler of Kyat, who serves you dinner and claims to have known your mother.
When he departs the room, asking you to wait there, you run and escape with the help of rebel group the Golden Path. After all, who knows what evil Min might have done to you had you stayed? Well, actually, you can know that. The game gives you the option to simply wait at the dinner table as instructed. Min returns, having been honest about his history with your mother, and takes you to a shrine to lay your mother to rest.
2 SCREENSLAVER (INCREDIBLES 2)
Spoilers for the newest installment in the saga, but Incredibles 2 yet again finds the naturally gifted god-like Incredibles having to face off against the evil forces of…oversight and equality? This time, the supers are set to make a comeback that’s derailed by the villainous Screenslaver.
Screenslaver’s plan is to show the world how complacent they would become putting all their faith into superheroes by hypnotizing many of the worlds supers and forcing them to unleash evil. Her dastardly plan is to cause the people of the world to wonder what would happen if these powered people, unelected by any governing power and without oversight, ever decided to turn against the people they protect. Which…is a really good question, and definitely something people should consider before re-legalizing superheroes.
1 MAGNETO (X-MEN)
Magneto might well be Marvel’s finest villain, in no small part because his “evil” agenda is really a matter of perspective. Having been a young boy who witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust, Magneto is aware of humanity’s tendency to expel and exterminate the “other” out of fear, and wants to ensure that his people are capable of fighting back.
We won’t defend any of Magneto’s actions, but ideologically he’s less opposed to Xavier and rather the other side of the same coin. Though Xavier favors the diplomatic while Magneto the militaristic, time and again humanity has proven Magneto’s suspicions right. While striving for a peaceful resolution to the conflict should be the ultimate goal, it keeps humanity’s worst instincts at bay known the mutants have more violent means if pushed.