Top 6: Sympathetic Villains

Posted in Top 6 at 5:00 am by Sam

In Episode 2, our top 6 list is about villains who are sympathetic in some way and not just purely evil. What great movie villains can you muster up some sympathy for?

As always, we recommend you listen to the show first, before spoiling our Top 6 lists for yourself, which follow.

  1. Norma Desmond, from Sunset Boulevard (1950)
  2. HAL 9000, from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
  3. Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, from the Star Wars saga (I, II, III, IV, V, VI)
  4. Roy Batty, from Blade Runner (1982)
  5. Top Ripley, from Purple Noon (1960), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), and Ripley’s Game (2002)
  6. The Strangers, from Dark City (1998)
  1. Fagin, from Oliver Twist (1948) and Oliver! (1968)
  2. The Frankenstein Monster, from Frankenstein (1931); and King Kong, from King Kong (1933) and King Kong (2005) but not King Kong (1976)
  3. Michael Corleone, from The Godfather saga (I, II, III)
  4. HAL 9000, from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
  5. Frank Chambers, from The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
  6. Karl Childers, from Sling Blade (1996)


  1. ThePhan (128) said,

    October 10, 2006 at 1:01 pm

    Looking at the list insetad of hearing it, I realize how many series and remade movies are in it. I suppose a villain might be more sympathetic over a series, as you can see the character arc, so that makes sense… as well as an interesting villain making for an interesting movie, which makes people want to remake it later. Hmm. Shall have to think about that.

    Also, pssst. Ripley’s Game apparently doesn’t exist, since listed here, it has no year, and the link goes to The Talented Mr. Ripley.

  2. Sam (405) said,

    October 10, 2006 at 1:09 pm

    Fixed the Ripley’s Game link. Thanks!

  3. Grishny (156) said,

    October 10, 2006 at 3:13 pm

    The first villain that came to mind when I saw the title of this week’s list was King Kong. Another that I’m kind of surprised didn’t make either of your lists is Smeagol/Gollum from Lord of the Rings. There is a villain who you really can despise, yet the more you learn about his back story, the more you pity him, just as Frodo did.

  4. Sam (405) said,

    October 10, 2006 at 3:27 pm

    Great pick, Grishny. Lord of the Rings did cross my mind when I thought about my choices, but I quickly dismissed Sauron and Saruman and moved on. Missed Smeagol entirely.

  5. Ticia (6) said,

    October 10, 2006 at 5:12 pm

    One of my favorite movie bad guys was played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the movie Serenity. He believes so much in what he’s doing that I couldn’t help but feel for him in the end, when his purpose is pretty much destroyed.

  6. Gahalyn (22) said,

    October 10, 2006 at 5:30 pm

    Ticia: Yes!! I liked him a lot. (I also loved how he was so… poised-assassinly. (If there’s not a word I need I will make it up! LOL) ) In the way you wrote about, he reminded me of the guy from The Island (who was hired to get the runaways back).

  7. Eric (44) said,

    October 10, 2006 at 6:43 pm

    The most glaring omission in my mind is Norman Bates from Psycho. He’s so sad and pathetic, you can’t help but feel so sorry for him. He breaks my heart every time I watch that movie. I don’t know who else would be on my list, but Norman would be at the top.

  8. Stephen (221) said,

    October 10, 2006 at 9:02 pm

    I don’t really feel any sympathy for the Operative from Serenity. He believes in what he’s doing, but he knows he’s immoral scum.

    Nor do I feel any sympathy for Bates. I’m not sure being pathetic is the same as being sympathetic.

  9. grimblegromble (5) said,

    October 10, 2006 at 9:44 pm

    I definitely agree with these lists. Both of them are really varied and interesting. A few of my pics would be;
    6. Dr Octopus (Spider-Man 2)
    You know he’s evil, but there’s a human side to him as well, and I liked the redemption moment at the end.
    5. (double) Freddy and Larry (Reservoir Dogs)
    I know Sam isn’t that fond of this one, but I have an appreciation for it. With Freddy, you know he’s pretty much the lone “good guy” in the group, and you do feel pity for him when he finds himself in over his head. Still, he’s living a lie, and he’s also partially responsible for the deaths of innocent bystanders, (directly so with his murder of the women in the car). With Larry, he acts as a wise, considerate father-figure towards Freddy, and he stands up for him although it’s almost certain he did betray the group. At the same time, though, we know he is a thief and a ruthless murderer.
    4.Lady Eboshi (Princess Mononoke)
    One thing that’s interesting about Miyazaki is that none of his films have a straight villain. There are protagonists and antagonists, yes, but no one you want to root against. You see this vividly with Eboshi. Here is a powerful, apparently selfish woman who battles against nature (here are two more of Miyazaki’s trademarks; a focus on nature and strong female characters) to get what she wants. At the same time, she has a real heart. She employs former prostitutes, lepers, pickpockets and the like in order to give them a second chance. At the end, as well, she has a change of heart.

    3.Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Ragtime)
    I got this movie from the library this summer, hearing that James Cagney was in it. At first, I was a bit dissapointed that he didn’t have a real role until the final half-hour of the film. At the same time, though, I was delighted; his domineering persona stayed in the background, allowing the fantastic cast of unknowns (at the time, at least.) to shine, especially the character of Coalhouse Walker. He is, in a way, the Black Everyman, a nice kid who just wants a break. He gets it at first, but then, the plot thickens: he is harrassed by several Irish firemen, who block his way in the street and then dirty his car with a horse turd. You know, and he knows, he could just swallow his pride and clean it off, but he, because of his race, has to put up with this kind of crap (pardon the pun) a lot, and it pushes him over the edge. He refuses. The mother of his child and fiancee attempts to help by calling out to the president at a public event, only to be fatally beaten back by the police. This is what cements the villany in Walker’s heart; he sets off on a rampage, killing firemen and bombing firehouses until he gets “justice”. This creates a dilemma. Coalhouse, as I said, is a nice kid, but we know he’s doing an evil thing, and refuses to turn the other cheek (as pointed out to him by Booker T. Washington, powerfully played by Moses Gunn).

    2.Cody Jerret (White Heat)
    Yes, you could say he is a bit of a psychopath, but when you have someone who just OOZES with pure talent, conviction and emotion like James Cagney (even in roles he didn’t put his heart into, like this which he passed off as another cheap Gangster flick. By this point he had gotten sick of his being typcasted as a “tough”; he always preferred musical and comedy roles, Like Yankee Doodle Dandy or Footlight Parade) Here he plays a demented killer who, in a Hitchcockian fashion, is obsessed with his mother. He looks to her for guidance, going into psychotic fits only she can get him out of. When she dies (as learned in one of the most powerful scenes in cinema,IMHO), you can tell that whatever was sane inside of him dies with her. His final line, one of the most famous in all of movie-dom, addresses her: “MADE IT, MA! TOP OF THE WORLD!!!”

    1. Rocky Sullivan (Angel’s With Dirty Faces)
    Yes, Cagney is one of my favorite actors of all time. This is yet another of his best gangster performances. The final scene, in particular, shows us the emotional side of Cagney.

    There’s my two cents.

  10. Stephen (221) said,

    October 10, 2006 at 9:53 pm

    Lady Eboshi from Mononoke is a great, great pick. Wish I would have thought of it.

    As for Reservoir Dogs, are any of the characters really villains except for Mr. Blonde? Criminals and fairly amoral, but not really villains to my mind.

  11. Sam (405) said,

    October 10, 2006 at 10:21 pm

    Great list, GG. “White Heat” is one of my favorite gangster flicks. I hadn’t thought of picking Jarrett for this list, but it’s a good one. I like how you say Cagney’s talent has a lot to do with it. A different actor in the same role just wouldn’t have elicited our sympathy the way Cagney does here, in one of his very best performances.

  12. mindless_drivel (29) said,

    October 11, 2006 at 1:46 pm

    Hmm… all of my sympathetic villains are from books that inspired movies. I don’t know if my knowledge of the character’s psychology from the book affected my decision or not.

    Like Grishny, the first villain that leaped to my mind was Gollum. While not inherently evil in himself, his deceitful ways were only intensified by the ring. I can’t help but feel a twinge of pity whenever I see him interact with anybody else.

    Inspector Javert, from any incarnation of Les Miserables, is also another character that I find sympathetic. While not a “villain” per se, his obssessive search for Valjean eventually destroyed both of their lives.

    I also agree with the pick of HAL. Although I thought the book was better than the movie (because it didn’t take 10 minutes to see the outside of a space ship and the ending was actually semi-comprehensible), I’ve always found it intriging how an emotionless computer can affect the emotions of the viewer.

  13. Nyperold (116) said,

    January 3, 2007 at 1:00 am

    Blade Runner is (apparently) mistakenly listed as being from 1968; the page linked to says it’s 1982.

  14. Sam (405) said,

    January 3, 2007 at 10:25 am

    Fixed, thanks.

    I suppose a version of Blade Runner from 1968 would have a colossally different feel to it. Imagine a future…of pure saturated colors….

  15. Eman Resu (5) said,

    February 11, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    How the hell do you feel sympathy for the Strangers from Dark City?

    And why Kong from 1933 and 2005 but not 1976?

    “I suppose a version of Blade Runner from 1968 would have a colossally different feel to it.”

    Well, the book it’s based on (Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) was published in 1968. And despite the fact that some people insist that it’s nothing like the movie, the setting really isn’t all that different. The only real exception being that the city in the book is underpopulated and it’s overpopulated in the movie. Dick himself said that they captured it perfectly.

  16. Sam (405) said,

    February 11, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    Eman: Stephen explains why he’s sympathetic to the Strangers in this episode. These lists, for the very reason that they lack the analysis behind our choices, aren’t really intended to stand apart from the podcast episode. They’re just references.

    I don’t think I explained why I excluded the 1976 version of King Kong, though. In a nutshell, because the story is handled so ineptly that it fails to evoke any feeling for any of the characters whatsoever. I was pretty keen for Kong to get shot down just so the movie would end.

    Regarding Blade Runner, just because the story was written in 1968 doesn’t mean there could have been a faithful movie of it made. Prose, being the inexpensive output of a single person, can take risks. Movies, being expensive collaborations, don’t tend to. I highly doubt a 1968 adaptation would have been as dark or edgy. Even in 1982, it was pretty revolutionary.

  17. Stephen (221) said,

    February 15, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    With regard to the Strangers, I can make my case here: they’re dying and are doing what they can to save their species. They don’t seem cruel about it, really, just indifferent to the fate of a species that seems beneath them. Humans destroy quite a few animals in an effort to cure diseases. From their perspective, the Strangers are doing the same thing — medical research. It’s not their fault they don’t have emotions or souls or whatnot.

    As for Blade Runner vs. Do Androids Dream, you can count me among the “Movie is significantly different from the novel” crowd. I love both of them, and Androids may be my favorite PKD work, but I really think they have different vibes. (It’s actually kind of weird how inconsistent Blade Runner is about its overpopulation, though, as whole areas seem devoid of life, like Sebastian’s apartment building.)

    But I’m with Sam — it’s really, really hard to imagine a futuristic movie looking or feeling like BR in the late ’60s (imagine the movie without its synth-heavy score!).

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