by Adam Clement
Being the good guy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
For every heroic act, there’s a foiled scheme — meticulously plotted until someone with an inconvenient sense of justice had to come along and spoil the fun. For every angel on our shoulder there sits a devil on the other. Sometimes, being bad is just more fun.
Such is the case with the following lot of so-bad-they’re-good guys who do the things we only wish we could, oozing charisma, and being cool to the point where we may actually prefer them to the hero. And that’s OK, because being bad means never having to say you’re sorry.
LEX LUTHOR, ‘SUPERMAN’
In the classic sports matchup, it’s more fun to root for the home team or the underdog. In the case of Superman’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthor, we have both. Consider that Luthor, unlike Kal-El, was not born into power with a laundry list of indomitable superpowers, but is instead a self-made man. According to modern canon, Luthor worked his way up from the slums to become the magnate of his own (exceedingly sinister) company.
And in spite of Superman’s more powerful adversaries, it should come as no surprise then that Luthor’s egomaniacal lust for power has often served as the ultimate foil against the Boy Scout hero. A human who can stand toe-to-toe with a demigod? That’s got to count for something — bald or not.
FRANK UNDERWOOD, ‘HOUSE OF CARDS’
The cold, calculating, hyper-articulate mastermind of Netflix’s House of Cards. You’re either immediately hooked by the guy or you’re not, and if Netflix’s numbers are any indication, a lot of us are. As a scorned House Majority Whip determined to dominate the political pecking order, Kevin Spacey’s masterfully manipulative Frank Underwood often breaks the fourth wall to let the audience in on his ulterior motives, much to our warped sense of entertainment. If only Washington were this interesting. Or honest.
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TONY SOPRANO, ‘THE SOPRANOS’
Crooked, unfaithful, deceptively intelligent and one of TV’s most complex antiheroes, the late James Gandolfini’s groundbreaking performance in HBO’s “family” drama throws out the mobster-as-a-monster cliché and injects a raw, human element into a character we could never fully bring ourselves to hate. More than anything, Soprano possesses an uncanny ability to charm everyone around him, including us.
Maybe we should be the ones in therapy.
Loki’s character is effortlessly charismatic, darkly mischievous, and a genius of manipulation and trickery. Add to that his ability to stand toe-to-toe with Thor, and you’ve got the far more interesting part of this half-bromance, half-sibling rivalry. Not to mention that ultra-stylish helmet.
Born Erik Lehnsherr, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who approaches mutant civil rights a bit more aggressively than his pacifist peers, Magneto is more than a hokey costumed villain — he’s a mutant with a cause.
And while he may be on the wrong side of history fighting against the X-Men, Magneto’s cold and calculated misdeeds can be overlooked when you consider he’s only trying to make a life for his fellow mutants in this world. (Even if it’s at the expense of everyone else.)
DANIEL PLAINVIEW, ‘THERE WILL BE BLOOD’
He’s a complete misanthrope driven only by the desire to be better than everyone else. He’ll call his own son a “bastard in a basket” before disowning him. Plainview, armed with a snake oil-salesman charm and iconic, gravely voice, comes off as early capitalism’s most entrancing antihero.
We don’t find ourselves rooting for the oil tycoon more than when he’s slapping around religious zealot Eli Sunday, trolling him into admitting he’s a false prophet, and drinking up his proverbial milkshake.
WALTER WHITE, ‘BREAKING BAD’
You’ve discovered you have terminal cancer and want to ensure security for your family once you’re gone. On a high school chemistry teacher’s salary? Get real.
What roundup of this ilk would be complete without Walter White’s Mr. Chips transformation into a frighteningly efficient meth kingpin? With his trademark pork pie hat and “Heisenberg” alter ego bordering on super-villain status, White’s fall from grace may make him less sympathetic as the series goes on, but for every awkward morning at breakfast with wife and son, there is a triumphant moment of a man taking control of his life, and winning.
COUNT DRACULA, ‘DRACULA’
While much abused in cinema for the last few years, few vamps sunk their fangs into popular culture greater than the original Count of Universal’s 1931 classic. Defining Bram Stoker’s immortal vampire with an icy glare that both seduces and repels, Dracula’s mesmerizing, subdued allure only adds to his magnetism onscreen.
And if the Hungarian cadence doesn’t do it for you, recall that the count — like proper vampires not named Edward Cullen — can transform into a bat (which, by the way is clearly the most superior ‘Animorphs’ ability).
TONY MONTANA, ‘SCARFACE’
-TONY MONTANA, ‘SCARFACE’
“You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be. You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your f****** fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’”
If ‘Scarface’ taught us anything, it’s that “the world is yours” until you mess with the wrong Bolivian drug lord. Don’t do drugs, kids.
ALEX DELARGE, ‘A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’
A nasty little droogy to be sure, but at what cost are we willing to forfeit our free will for the betterment of society? That’s the morality play posed using 15-year-old Alex DeLarge, the rapist, murdering delinquent we come to sympathize with once he’s stripped of his “ultraviolent” tendencies. But hey, it’s not our fault everything feels better set to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
DEXTER MORGAN, ‘DEXTER’
There’s a certain satisfaction watching karma catch up to those who don’t always get theirs, and then there’s bloody satisfaction you get when using your skills as a forensic analyst to moonlight as a vigilante serial killer to dispose of those who’ve evaded the justice system. If you’re Dexter Morgan, you can justify your bloodlust on a shaky code of ethics and some latent “dark passenger” within, but at the end of the day, two wrongs don’t make a right. (They do make a gory good show, though.)
THE JOKER, ‘THE DARK KNIGHT’
He’s the Clown Prince of Crime and the “why” antithesis to the Caped Crusader’s “so serious” sense of justice. You simply can’t have one without the other in what has become comics’ most strangely symbiotic love affair. Brought to life by a lip-smacking brilliant performance by the late Heath Ledger, the Joker’s mystique and anarchic sense of mayhem make him one of the screen’s most hypnotizing villains of all time.
After all, it’s simply not everyday a guy can dress up as a clown, blow up a hospital, and win an Oscar for it.
AURIC GOLDFINGER, ‘GOLDFINGER’
With over 50 years of James Bond baddies to pick from, it had to be the man with the Midas touch.
From his guns to his girls, everything he owns is gold. Boosting Goldfinger’s rank above the rest in Bond’s countless rogues gallery is his knack for henchmen (Oddjob) AND henchwomen (Pussy Galore), not to mention the fact that when he’s not proving he’s got the balls to rob the world’s largest gold supply, he’s threatening to laser them off our “shaken, not stirred” hero.
Like Batman, Ozymandias (real name Adrian Veidt) is the best at everything, having trained himself to the apex of his physical and mental capacities to the point where he can stop a bullet with his hand(!). Unlike Batman, however, he’s willing to cross “that” line to do what is necessary for “justice” in the fictional 1980s world run (still) by Richard Nixon and occupied by very human heroes.
By orchestrating the deaths of thousands, this calculating good guy-gone-bad does so to save billions on the brink of nuclear war — an advocate for “the ends justify the means” if there ever was one. Thus, the “villain” of ‘Watchmen,’ not unlike the graphic novel and film, is far more complicated than mere capes and criminals.
AGENT SMITH, ‘THE MATRIX’
When you’re playing a villain opposite Keanu Reeves, you already have an edge thanks to the power of acting, but for Hugo Weaving’s sinister and stoic Agent Smith, it also helps being able to defy the laws of physics when going mano-a-mano with “the One.”
As the renegade program in a slick suit and pair of shades, Smith is a computer virus you actually don’t want to go away. Which says a lot, considering he’s as much a droning Greek chorus as he is wall-punching madman.
Nevertheless, it is thanks to his tendency to wax philosophical that he provides more than just a commanding showmanship to the hero’s lack thereof: a much-needed explanation for just what the hell is going on.
ROY BATTY, ‘BLADE RUNNER’
At first a menacing replicant only to become the very human soft spot of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi noir, Roy Batty — a villain in the most traditional sense — stands out as the film’s most developed and provocative character in the Harrison Ford-starring ‘Blade Runner.’
And while fans can bicker over whether Deckard was a human or replicant, what is certain is that, when Batty gains the empathy lacked by his kind and saves his adversary from certain death, his “tears in the rain” soliloquy will most certainly confirm that even the most intimidating villains are human after all.