Movie Villains Aren’t Evil, Just Misunderstood


Every action has its equal and opposite reaction, and all things in life, good or bad, are relative to cause and effect. The same is the case with movie villains, whose stories are often artful distortions of the truth when seen in the protagonists' conjectural light. Suppose almost everything is subject to perspective, especially in the fictional world. In that case, there can be no true conclusive statement of reality.

To brand them “evil” is to cross all other items off the canon of probable reasons behind their persona. It is to call a hare a rabbit because they both have long ears. These characters' twisted versions of revenge often warped their broken psyches in retaliating for a wrong by society. For so long, they have had a bad rap. Still, by conscientiously dissecting their backstories, we can attest that they are not monsters.

The word “villain” has been synonymous and liberally construed to mean horror, with comic book superhero movies crowding the big screen. So naturally, it infers the nature of the opposing character even before any vicious play of grisliness. In reality, the term was used, at least through Shakespeare's time, to define as a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts. In other words, a simple, country-born person.

However, laying the groundwork for a proper conception of the term is pivotal to affirming whether or not movie villains are evil. While some quickly label them beastly vile, Wikipedia takes a different approach. It describes such a character as one whose structural purpose opposes the hero and whose motive or evil action drives a plot along.

Note how, instead of arrantly calling the characters themselves evil, the word is better prefixed to their motives and actions.

In Beauty and the Beast, the beast may have an honorable mention and a reserved seat on every list of baddies. Still, his true intent was to rid himself of a terrible curse.

That curse transformed him from being the most handsome prince to medieval period Kong in every maiden's nightmare. And because having a motive has no interest in justifying the character's deeds, the aim of delineating it from the subject is to reflect truth and unyoke the sin from the sinner.

Anyone can argue that the reason the witch cursed him for being evil—but was he? Sure, he gets the crown for ill-manners and barbarity, but that's as far as his royalty extends. So, although his actions toward Belle were savage, all he wanted was to break the witch's curse. If only he knew all he needed (then) to woo a girl was a sweet bouquet and a lovely sonnet.

There are plenty of cases of villains who weren't pure fiendishness but regarded that way—the MCU is teeming with them. So yeah, it can be pretty hard to decide the nazis from the good guys whom life punched so hard in the face that they are still butt-flat on the ground, eyes swirling in starry darkness. It brings us to ponder on what exactly is evil.

Is there a determining scale or metrics for judging one's character? How bad can bad get to be considered innately evil, or is it some congenital governing quality?

Take away all factors. We have Hannibal Lecter and The Joker, who act horrendously just for fun. And antagonists like Ghost in Ant-Man and The Wasp do not deserve the same stratum of villainy as them. Perhaps, they do not deserve to be on any stratum at all.

The Greater Evil

In The Witcher‘s pilot episode, when the sorcerer asks Geralt of Rivia to kill Renfri, he outright declines. He adds that in a case where they ask him to choose between the greater and lesser evil, he prefers not to choose. But we can't all have the same ideals as the White Wolf. So, it's essential to do justice to systematically libeled oars of the plot arc, perps, who may not deserve their audience of hate.

Establishing that the word villain is not directly proportionate to evil does not mean that there are no evil villains, of course. Take the Affably Evil sub-trope, for instance. A character is actively wicked, and every act of kindness is a slice of cunning or a part of their grand scheme of actions geared towards an ending catastrophe.

Onslaught (whose name already gives away ninety percent of his personality) is a psionic anomaly that came to being as a synthesis of Professor Xavier's and Magneto's consciousness. It is bent on the utter destruction of the mutant nation, Krakoa, and ultimately, the world. No logic claims hold of its violent rampage, except a vision from the mind of the Dark Beast, which sets it on the megalomaniac-driven path to world domination. Coupled with the fact that they bore it out of the two most brilliant minds, Magneto's dark subconscious being dominant, Onslaught might not have a sense of its own. It may not be capable of good rationale.

Here's the difference between being bad and having bad motives: Wanda Maximoff in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness needed the Darkhold to get to an alternate universe, one where she could be with her sons. She might have jumped on the offer if there was any other way to get there, maybe an intergalactic Uber, and maintained a perfect, chaos-ridden world.

Onslaught, on the other hand, just wants—you guessed it—onslaught. To take over the world. Onslaught made its debut in the X-Men comics and hasn't been on the big screen. But the first time he struck, it took the combined efforts of the X-Men, the Avengers, and the Fantastic Four to defeat him.

While Wanda did what any mother would and tore through every universe to be with her boys, Onslaught wants what he wants, no purpose, just a need for control.

There's The Lion King‘s Scar, one of the most popular Disney villains, another egocentric paradigm of “the greater evil.” Scar, responsible for the death of his brother and King, had no image justification and so earned his rung on the ladder. Not that every bad guy deserves some defense for their character drive (as many scriptwriters have aimed to achieve in remakes of old tales).

And not that their virtue—or lack of it—depends on how thoroughly they have explored their past.

It's fun to think that those on the end of the miscreant scale make the fictional world perfectly balanced, as all things should be. These antagonists are the ones who set the story in motion, plunging the hero into superheroism. For without conflict, there would be no resolution. Imagine The Hunchback of Notre Dame without the fanatical religious hypocrite Claude Frollo.

If Raymond Reddington hadn't surrendered himself to the FBI in The Blacklist and introduced Elizabeth to his blacklist, she would have been just a small-time profiler.

The Lesser Evil

We've been through the greater evil; now, let's go through the lesser. Trust me, it exists.

For years, since the invention of the cinematic universe, Hollywood has done its absolute best to convince us that their antagonists are not as sinister as they seem. Or at least have good reason to be bad.

They are right, or led by the rationale that evil must have a cause, an underlying notion. And in a case where none exists, the scriptwriters seek to create a scenario or an alternate dimension where the bad guys were once good people. Before the live-action remake of Maleficent, where they explained her menace, we regarded her as the Mistress of All Evil.

Whatever the case, it makes sense to show that no one was born the way they are twenty years later. Even the world-famous Captain America was once a skinny teenager with a groundbreaking record for the number of times he got beat up.

A significant reason behind this new-age exposition of villains may be to reach the spectators' sentimentality to feel the tiniest fraction of compassion even while hating the villain. To accomplish thought transference that places the audience in a what-would-you-have-done scenario.

Although the fandom may frown on the sob stories, another notion they (scriptwriters) intend to advocate is the belief that monsters are created instead of being born that way. This rules out the chance of evil being an inborn quality, which is why you seldom see a baby villain (except when the entire cast comprises babies).

Or why recently, movies always explain or hint at their antagonist's past pre-mayhem. In Stranger Things, the first few episodes of season four are a medley of the events leading to Vecna‘s horrific persona.

Trauma, grief, and heartbreak possess more skillful, nimble hands than any potter and can mold anyone into anything. Since we curb the best tales from real-life events involving non-fictional players, it is easy to surmise that villains are not necessarily evil. They are just fallibly human.

Freddy Krueger of Nightmare on Elm Street is guilty of many crimes, including sexually and physically abusing minors. These A1 atrocities would set any jury on instantly ruling him out as the monster he is. But he wasn't born killing teenagers. Instead, he was an ordinary boy.

He grew up with his stepfather, who abused him till he was finally old enough to fight back—and begin his killing spree. At least in one of the many films' flashback scenes.

Anyone can suffer abuse and end up differently—perhaps even make it their life's ambition to ensure no one else goes through the same torment. Unfortunately, there is no clear path on the road from trauma. No blueprint for healing every victimized person should live by.

Good vs. Evil

Good and evil are very contrasting concepts yet wholly dependent on each other for coexistence—for without good, how would we know what evil is? Again, society conceives anything beneficial to it as good, while evil causes exponential harm. But as one man's meat is another man's poison, these matters are subject to perspective and perception, which is subject to change depending on whoever is involved.

What exactly makes up a hero? The belief that they are doing the right thing or that their actions benefit the vast majority?

Everyone knows the story of Robin Hood. He steals from the rich and gives to the poor, standing up for the minority in a system of autocracy, a deed that automatically makes him a hero, as most of the people are poor. However, in the original versions of the tale, Robin Hood is not as virtuous as in the recent fables; after all, he is a petty thief.

Most of the earnings from his stealing rounds went into his pockets! He was a selfish racketeer, and he and his men also murdered people while roving through the forest. Robin Hood recklessly endangered villagers while at it, too, and propagated the idea that stealing was okay—maybe just as long as it was yours in the first place.

Still, he's a hero—a role model to some, because he appeals to the larger masses. But if the majority were wealthy folks, the narrative might have been different.

Many people know, fiction or not, that the easiest way to become a hero is by appealing to the largest audience, taking the savior approach. So, while Robin Hood isn't truly a saint, that he isn't a villain either, only proves that true good hardly exists, as true evil hardly does.

In The Jungle Book, they depict Shere Khan as the fearsome grisly tiger. He despises humans and vows to taste the flesh of the man-cub they find in the jungle, his territory. There are always two sides to a story, they say.

Humans have hunted down the tigers to the very last of the specie, Shere Khan. So when he finds them on his territory, he only knows one thing: devour. It does not matter if it is a couple on honeymoon (assuming a great storm wrecked every resort and their last resort was the jungle) or if it is a baby. An eye for an eye.

In the story, humans who have hunted him for years, eventually scarring him, are the only ones he hunts, yet he's the meanie. Considering Mowgli's kind took—and continued to take—everything from him and their beloved jungle, why was he supposed to welcome him with open arms?

From another point of view, the other members of the jungle council were disrespectful to Shere Khan. They were even plain stupid for letting the spawn of their greatest adversary live amongst them.

Trauma on The Brain

Back to trauma, because in our lives, we've all been through it. Anything can cause it; losing a loved one, a job, a home (as Superman lost his). Heartbreak, too, as seen with the Scarlet Witch and, again, Superman.

Some may get over it in a short period. To others, it may become the crux of their entire personality and even their motivation. Take DC's broody Batman, for example.

There are no limits to the effect of trauma, the lead cause of dissociative identity disorder, also called split personalities, witnessed in many antagonists. According to research in neuroscience, trauma can reshape the brain into taking on a different structure.

Everyone may have different ways of dealing with it: alcohol, drugs, and such. However, its effect is still severe, even on the mightiest men, such as Thanos, whose resolve was to balance the population and resources. No judgments.

Often, the aftermath of trauma concerning the victim's interaction with society can be even more traumatic. For example, in The Amazing Spiderman 2, Electro falls into a tank filled with genetically engineered electric eels. But that his hero (Spider-Man) doesn't even know him, let alone be there for him, drives him to enormity.

Most times, bad people are just broken people seeking redemption in the bane of others they feel have wronged them and commanding empathy through pain-infliction. Like, in I Know What You Did Last Summer, the killer wanted them to feel what he felt.

Here are key examples of misunderstood villains.

Gorr, Thor: Love & Thunder 

(The movie version of Gorr has significant differences, although adapted from the comic book version.)

Gorr is the antagonist in Thor: Love and Thunder, but just like the rest, he had good reason to become the God Butcher. Men have done far more for far less.

Gorr was a regular man, a good man. One who devoted himself to the gods and prayed to them, as his parents brought him only to have faith in them. You'd think they would be kind enough to return the favor, but they neglected him and his family. And just like that, he finds himself in a desert with only his daughter (son, in the comics) dying.

He prays to the gods to save her, but his prayers are nothing more than paper planes in a rainstorm, and his daughter dies a tragic death.

He, however, survives because it is not enough that he experiences loss because of his god's negligence. He must survive long enough to be crippled under the cruel weight of it.

But he finds an oasis in the desert on the precipice of misery.

Despite everything that happened, including losing his daughter, Gorr remains the faithful, persevering servant. The turning point for him is when he meets his God, Rapu. How much a hypocrite Rapu is, and his indifference dismays Gorr. Rapu even laughs in the face of the people's suffering. Finally, Gorr fills with rage and meets his breaking point.

Then, he kills the gods, earning him the name Gorr the God Butcher.

Draco Malfoy, Harry Potter

Draco Malfoy's significant lesson is that no one is born evil, but that evil lies in our choices.

Draco is an only child of his parents and the son of a Death Eater, a group of pure-blood supremacists who follow Lord Voldemort and practice the dark arts. Asides from being born “special,” Draco's parents spoilt him.

When Draco attends the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he makes a few friends and an enemy, the famous protagonist, Harry Potter. The primary cause of this hostility stemmed from his envying Harry Potter. Although jealousy needed no reason to manifest, there was the rumor that Harry was a great Dark Wizard.

When Harry outrightly denies his genuine friendly gestures, Draco finds an arch-nemesis in him, especially when Harry becomes the hottest kid on the block. Harry and Draco go toe to toe. Draco seeks to strip Harry of his power and humiliate him, and Harry retaliates.

Following an unfortunate event, his father, Lucius, ends up in prison in Azkaban. As a result, Draco Malfoy becomes highly untethered. In Lucius' place, Lord Voldemort holds Draco accountable for the family's failures. He forces him to take up his father's position as the Death Eater. Draco was young and had no real-life issues before his father's disgrace; now, he had all his responsibilities.

Lucius' failure still angered Lord Voldemort. For Draco's first mission, he sends him on an impossible quest to murder Albus Dumbledore, knowing it's a death sentence for the young Malfoy. The task tests his mental and all-around capabilities as he feels himself further disintegrating.

Draco Malfoy was a bully, and throughout the story, we see him as one villain, but the affairs of his teenage age are what truly change him. He sees his parents suffer and his father, whom he idolizes, disgraced by the same order worshipped. Even when Lucius is out of prison, Lucius' failures upend their lives as they move to the lowest rank of Death Eaters, endlessly scorned by Lord Voldemort.

Draco might not be the harbinger of the apocalypse and, again, was a bully. Still, trauma is accountable for his transition from a young kid to a lesser evil.

Flip the coin on any original tale. We can see even the most gruesome villains in a fairer judgment and prove they are not inherently evil, even though their actions may be. In the famous words of Lex Luthor, “If God is all-powerful, he cannot be all good. And if he's all good, then he cannot be all-powerful. And neither can you be.”

This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.