I have an intense passion for movies, and I believe that film critics help people think better about the media they consume.
I love villains. A good story has to have a good villain, because a villain creates the conflict, and the challenges that the heroes have to overcome. Villains are often the most memorable part of a show or movie. They can be interesting foils for the heroes. For example, Scar is the opposite of Mufasa in The Lion King. Contrast highlights the differences between two characters to show their important qualities.
Villains exist to pose a challenge or test to the main character, and it's good if the questions they pose are compelling. For example, Ariel in The Little Mermaid is challenged by the villain Ursula, who points out that Ariel expects magic and miracles to happen without having to give up anything in return. Didn't you watch Fullmetal Alchemist, Ariel? Stories are good when the main characters are challenged and really tested to overcome obstacles put in their way by the villain. Even if the villain is morally bad, it's better if you can get in the villain's head and understand their motivation.
That's why I like sympathetic villains, so this is my top ten list of villains I felt sympathy for. Of course, all of them take morally reprehensible actions. To call them a sympathetic character is not to condone these actions.
But many of them are victims themselves, or dealing with interesting psychological conflicts that explain their actions. Sometimes, circumstances beyond their control explain how they ended up. I like to think that no one is a complete monster, and that everyone has some good in them. It's another reason why I like redemption arcs and reformed villains who become allies, if it's written well.
Note: Unmarked spoilers below. Content warning: The first example in the list, Medusa, includes mention of rape. Skip that one if you want to.
Probably the most sympathetic on this list. Medusa was originally a human woman. As a priestess devoted to Athena, she was supposed to be chaste, but she was pursued for her beauty and raped in Athena's temple by the sea god Poseidon. For giving up her chastity, and defiling the temple of Athena, Medusa was transformed into a monster with snakes for hair. Athena also ensured that no one would be able to find her beautiful ever again, for her gaze turned people to stone.
It may have been justified at the time for Medusa to have been so gravely punished. But we now see her as a victim, not as someone guilty of the sin of defiling a temple or forsaking religious vows. We do not believe she could have been to blame for something she didn't make a conscious choice to do.
They thought the act of having sex made her guilty, whether or not she consented. Tales of goddess' jealousy, both of other goddesses and of certain mortal women, were common in Greek mythology. So this story is also a warning about igniting the jealous passions of a goddess.
Morality can change a lot over time. Medusa's story was probably also a cautionary tale for young, attractive priestesses of Athena. A warning to never do anything to attract male attention, or they may have to face the wrath of their chaste goddess.
Medusa was a terrifying monster, but also a tragic victim of circumstance.
In The Last Unicorn, King Haggard is a sad character. Even though he was a king, nothing made him happy, not court, balls, feasts, jesters, or entertainment of any kind. One day, however, he found the one thing that did make him happy, a unicorn. Captivated by the animal's grace, he decided he gotta catch 'em all, and he drove all the unicorns into the sea. There, they remained his captives, frightened by a fearsome beast he controlled called the Red Bull, until rescued by the titular last unicorn, the only one who remained uncaught in the world.
While he is very creepy, it's easy to feel sorry for King Haggard. He knows, from the moment she walks up to his castle, that "Lady Amalthea" is a unicorn in human form, come to try to steal the others from him. He knows this, but does nothing about it. Deep down, he seems to have no hope that he can retain that which makes him happy. Or perhaps, the good side of him knows that unicorns were really never his to own. But, rather than having a good side, he just seems so depressed and apathetic that, while he doesn't necessarily want her to succeed, he's too caught up in his own despair to care about anything. No one knows why he's so unhappy, but it's easy to feel more pity for Haggard than hate.
Younger Toguro is, besides Sensui, the most heartbreaking villain in YuYu Hakusho. Team Toguro is pretty evil. But it seemed that Younger Toguro was not as evil as his manipulative brother. He wanted an honest and honorable fight from Yusuke, one in which he could use his full power. He had sportsmanlike honor. Fighting with all of one's strength is a sign of a noble spirit, and it is respected even in an enemy, as a traditional Japanese ideal.
Younger Toguro once loved Yusuke's master Genkai. But he chose to become a demon, and she did not. When he died, he hated himself, out of regret for the things he'd done. He demanded time in hell as a punishment, even when spirit world told him he didn't deserve it. He's also a sad figure because he was a victim of manipulation by his more purely evil and insane brother, and Sakyo, the chessmaster behind the Dark Tournament. Plus, it's hard to see him as a true villain because it turns out, all he was really seeking was an honorable death, on his terms. It was Sakyo who was seeking power by manipulating others.
Back in the Days of Olde in the Sailor Moon universe, Beryl was a rival for Prince Endymion's affections against Princess Serenity of the Moon Kingdom. Snubbed by Endymion, she was driven by jealousy and manipulated by Queen Metalia, who wanted to take control of Earth and destroy the Moon Kingdom. Beryl got the people of Earth to rebel against Endymion's rule, and she killed him. Beryl was was killed by Sailor Venus' sword, but not before Princess Serenity had killed herself upon hearing of the death of Endymion.
In the present, everyone is reborn in new bodies. The Sailor Scouts develop their power and find each other (conveniently all going to the same high school and/or living close to each other), while Beryl, reborn alone somewhere, figures out how to revive her own power and that of Queen Metalia.
If she were the protagonist, Beryl has a lot of admirable qualities. She is intelligent, cunning, brave, and a firm leader. She's tougher than the Sailor Scouts, because she had to do much more on her own, while they work together as friends. She's also a tragic figure, blinded by jealousy, a "woman scorned". Furthermore, you could argue that she never would have become evil without the corrupting influence of Queen Metalia. She got involved in Metalia's plots, but never wanted power for its own sake.
One of the most complex and human-like villains in the Disney animated canon, Frollo is largely a victim of his own strict religious beliefs. He thinks society needs to be purified — by any means necessary.
As the introductory song says, "Frollo longed to purge the world of vice and sin, but he saw corruption everywhere, except within."
Hunchback does not have an anti-Christian message, but it's saying don't be a hypocrite.
I don't think Frollo ever intended to become a hypocrite. It's just hard for him to live up to the responsibility he thinks he is burdened with. He thinks it is his God-given mission to uphold the moral purity of all of Paris. To this end, he conflicts with the Gypsies, because they "live outside the normal order", and he's afraid that they will corrupt the peasants. It's easy to understand, if not agree with, this point of view. They do live a radically different way of life, a way of life that could be seen as sinful, at least from a medieval Catholic perspective. Frollo proves that the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions, as, over time, he becomes more torn apart by internal moral conflicts. Namely, he does bad things in the name of the "greater good" but then is left to wonder, privately, if these things really do serve good.
He is also driven mad by the chastity demanded by and venerated in his religion, vs the lust he feels for Esmeralda. The lust part is very understandable, but his story shows how religious sexual repression is bad. It can drive people do do bad things, and it also messes with Frollo's pride in himself as above the sinful rabble. It causes him to become obsessed with and possessive of Esmeralda, thinking of her as a trophy he must hunt after.
It's interesting because it's not the kind of thing you might expect to see in a children's movie. And indeed, maybe it was rather bonkers to begin with to try to make a child-friendly adaptation of the gruesome medieval horror that is The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Charming's problem is that he is Wrong Genre Savvy, thinking that he is literally the "prince charming" hero in a story, destined to marry a beautiful princess, become a king, and live Happily Ever After. His mother, the Fairy Godmother, encourages this way of thinking.
They just have life expectations based on the fairy tales whose characters they resemble. It may not be easy being green, but it's also not easy being the handsome prince in a subversive genre parody where the monster is the one who gets the girl.
Shishio deals with the changing role of samurai in the Meiji era, and he was burned alive by his political enemies. If that doesn't make someone a little bitter, I don't know what does.
Shishio cares for misfits who have fallen out of favor with the new order of society. Many of his followers have tragic back stories, making Shishio seem like a saint for taking them in when no one else would. The Meiji era was a time of great upheaval, a sudden break from Japanese tradition. A lot of people struggled to adapt.
It's interesting that he pairs with Yumi, a former oiran, or courtesan. In the process of transition from ancient to modern Japan, Yumi was one such person who had difficulty adapting. Yumi clings to Shishio as the hope that she can still have a good life. Both of them are bitter about the political changes taking place, and they have some reason to be. Creepy and evil yes, but still interestingly complex and sympathetic.
I never liked him as a kid, when I first watched Beauty and the Beast. But now, when I gave it another watch, I thought, Gaston's problem is very similar to that of Prince Charming from the Shrek sequels. He sees himself as a heroic figure, but ends up in the wrong story, a story designed to subvert the usual tropes. He has reasons to think he deserves Belle: everyone in town sucks up to him. He thinks being bold and forward is the right approach, because many women do respond positively to that. Other than Belle, no one in town challenges him, and I think that's part of why he's attracted to her.
He thinks if he slays the 'evil' beast and rescues the girl, he will win her. He has reasons to expect this. In most stories where a woman is taken captive by a monster, it's a hero's job to kill the monster, and then his reward is to marry the girl he rescued. Like Charming, he was just in the wrong story.
A lot of people feel sympathy for Scar, but the lioness who becomes the villain of Lion King 2 is even more tragic. Zira was the leader of the lionesses loyal to Scar. Her son Kovu, while not being Scar's son, was hand-chosen by Scar to succeed him one day. It's not easy being on the losing side of lion history though, as she gets exiled from the pride lands, along with the other lionesses who supported Scar.
She's a mother of three forced to live in a barren desert, where there is very little food and water. Simba, as king, doesn't even seem to care about their plight. Even though Zira is crazy, and filled with hate, in many ways, she's right. The exile of "outsiders" to that desert is beyond unfair, and arguably justifies her anger. Simba realizes, at the end of the movie, that those lionesses are lion-beings too, but it takes Kiara standing up to him to get him to realize that.
He's not exactly a cuddly guy. But, I felt more pity for him than anything else. First, Nicholas comes across as arrogant, and the flashback Alexandra gives in the beginning of the story really doesn't have enough detail to show that Rasputin is necessarily 100% wrong.
Second, there's a big problem with the way the movie avoids mentioning the c-word: communism. Alexandra says "the spark of unhappiness in this country was fanned into a flame that would soon destroy our lives forever" when she mentions the (unnamed) Bolshevik revolution. I find it hard to sympathize with a royal woman who seems so clearly out of touch with the plight of the workers who rebelled against the czar. I half expected her to say "let them eat cake". She seemed to have no idea why the rebels attacked them. If that's a realistic portrayal of the Russian royal family, they deserved what they got.
I don't have much sympathy for people who live in luxury while the majority of the people in their country are starving. You and your family lit the "spark of unhappiness", lady. You made your bed, you lie in it. The "Romanov curse" stuff seems like bullshit made up by a silly aristocrat so she won't have to understand or feel guilty for the idiocy of the state supporting extravagances for the few. Princess movies are popular, but I personally hate the concept of hereditary monarchy. And the movie makes some rather strange excuses and justifications for it, acting as if the royal family were all perfectly innocent.
As for Rasputin himself, he suffers inside from being a walking corpse, unable to die even though he's in a lot of pain. Just because you do a Disney-esque bouncy tune to explain it, doesn't make the idea less tragic or haunting. He is compelled to act by supernatural forces beyond his control, because he made a deal with the devil to get his revenge on Nicholas and his family. It's bad to make a deal with the devil (don't try this at home, kids), but I also have a feeling that the reason for his vendetta was a resentment that built up over many years of conflict, which is left out of grandma's little story.
There are many villains in stories that you feel sorry for in addition to being afraid of or simply hating. I prefer stories with these kinds of villains because it makes the character seem more real and human than like a totally inhuman monster. To me, the best villains are scary, but also enough like us that we could see becoming them if we let anger and resentment make us bitter and filled with hate. Many villains do this, but the above 10 are my personal favorites.
Thanks for reading!
© 2016 Rachael Lefler
Dean on October 14, 2019:
I don't agree with shishio, I'd remove him and add Obito.
Rachael Lefler (author) from Illinois on June 01, 2016:
Yeah a lot of monsters in Greek myth seem like innocent victims, who are just kind of minding their own business and not really a threat, who are killed because killing them poses a challenge to the hero, not because of anything they necessarily did.
Scribbling Geek from Singapore on May 31, 2016:
Ooh I absolutely agree about Medusa. It's a complete case of, what did she do wrong?! She was minding her own business. She wasn't invading anybody's island. And some macho hunk out to prove nothing eventually went ahead and lopped off her head.
On top of which, it wasn't even her fault she became a snake hair thing. She was just caught in between feuding Greek Gods.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on May 31, 2016:
We learn about life, if we are wise to see things and contemplate. Good job.