Some Hollywood villains have been successfully transformed into heroes, or at least antiheroes Loki in the MCU, HALL 9000 in 2010: The Year We Make Contactand the Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Villains can become heroes, antiheroes or simply less villainous because they fall in love, because they seek redemption, or because – as with the Terminator – they’ve been reprogrammed!
So here are ten villains who, if they flipped, would make great screen heroes – they only need a studio to see their good side and an audience that likes its heroes with a black hat and a dark past.
Professor James Moriarty is Sherlock Holmes‘ most dastardly and cunning rival, the mastermind of London‘s underworld, and the only opponent who comes close to killing him. Holmes describes Moriarty as the ‘Napoleon of crime’.
But who’s to say that Sherlock Holmes, the defender of Victorian rectitude and imperialist sentiment, is not the real villain of the piece, and Moriarty the righteous defender of the downtrodden working class in a polluted industrial hellscape? In this film version of Arthur Conan Doyle‘s world, Professor James Moriarty is a 19th century Robin Hoodand his criminal organization nothing more than the Merry Men with Cockney accents.
Recognized by his fellows as the most senior and wisest of the INstari, the wizards sent to Middle Earth at the start of the Third Age, Saruman the White succumbs to jealousy and overwhelming ambition The Lord of the Ringssetting himself up as an enemy not just of Sauron (in the films he became Sauron’s ally) but of all the Free Peoples of Middle Earth.
In a more balanced version of the story, Saruman is neither jealous nor ambitious, merely practical. He recognizes the best option for Middle Earth is to use the One Ring to bring Sauron to heel, and if that doesn’t work then to destroy him. And who better to wield the One Ring than Saruman the White, the wisest of the wise?
In Ex MachinaAva, played to a turn by Alicia Vikanderdoes the dirty on Domhnall Gleeson‘s Calebwho has tried to save her from the machinations of the seriously disturbed Nathan Batemanplayed by Oscar Isaac.
But although Ava, an artificially intelligent robot, proves herself truly sentient, this is not the same as truly human. She is the product of design and engineering, and possesses the will to live, not the will to be moral in any human sense. In a film made from her point of view, her actions are entirely consistent with her design, and in that context absolutely moral: she would be seen as heroically determined to live her own life her own way.
In Star Wars, Emperor Sheev Palpatine, otherwise known as Darth Sidious (what a giveaway), is depicted as evil incarnate: treacherous, power-mad, twisted and murderous. But the clue to his real nature here is the word ’emperor’.
Being ruler of a vast array of solar systems spanning a good section of the galaxy is a huge responsibility. Palpatine has to consider the well-being of every creature in his domain, not just the petty interests of a few rebels. If Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is remade, Palpatine should be played as a tragic hero, doomed to be reviled and in the end to die for doing nothing more than his duty.
The villain that kept a whole generation off the beach and even out of the swimming pool, the great white shark from Jaws terrorized filmgoers like no other monster in cinema history. While the mechanical shark constructed for most of the film’s close-up scenes was nicknamed ‘Bruce’ by the crew, it should have been nicknamed Bridget or Brittany – after all, the biggest great whites are female.
Poor old Bridget: totally misunderstood as she swept the New England foreshore looking for tidbits to keep herself and her brood of eggs alive. What’s a shark to do? One solution might be to overdub the original movie with a David Attenborough narration emphasizing her perfectly natural motives for eating the stray humans who come her way, making her a truly selfless heroine.
Draco Malfoy is more school bully than outright villain, and his part in Voldemort’s uprising is due more to his father’s prejudice than his own malice. Nevertheless, Draco does take a vicious pride in his power and authority within Slytherinand thoroughly deserves Harry Potter‘s antagonism despite being somewhat redeemed by the end of the story.
But in a parallel universe, what if Draco’s nastiness, like Severus Snape‘s nastiness in the story, was actually a cover for him while he worked against Voldemort? What if Draco helped Snape keep Dumbledore informed about the goings-on in Voldemort’s camp? Then Draco could be Harry Potter’s heroic rather than villainous rival Hogwartsand possibly even replace Ron Weasley in Hermione Granger’s affections.
The Queen of Hearts
In retellings of Lewis Carroll‘s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandthe Queen of Hearts is invariably the villain of the piece. Although in the original version she is more nuisance than villain, her refrain of ‘Off with their heads!’ does make her stand out as one of the more aggressive characters in Carroll’s story.
In a more balanced retelling, however, the Queen of Hearts should be portrayed as a troubled ruler desperately trying to cope with an indecisive and undermining king and often disobedient subjects. At the end of the day, all she really wants is to be left in peace to use her flamingoes and hedgehogs to play croquet, a comparatively innocent pastime; instead she gets an interfering girl called Alice who makes a mockery of the Queen’s attempts to administer justice: ‘Off with her head!’
Rasputin‘s claims to be a mystic and a holy man, his piercing gaze, his involvement with the doomed Russian imperial family, and the bizarre circumstances of his death where he was reputedly poisoned twice and then shot three times, have turned him into something of a villainous icon. In 1997’s Anastasiafor example, he’s even portrayed as being undead, a ghastly spirit out for revenge.
But he was at heart a peasant, and what if he really was a mystic, and what if his intentions had always been good? In this case, his infamy is simply a case of history being written by the winners – or in this case, survivors – of the Russian Revolution. Why not a film where despite his honest efforts the revolution still occurs, and the best of old Russian society is thrown out with the worst, and poor Rasputin pays the ultimate price for being on the wrong side?
Together with her husband, Lady Macbeth is one of William Shakespeare‘s most vivid and tragic villains. For the sake of power she influences her husband to murder Duncan, the rightful king, so Macbeth can take his place. Ultimately, her conscience weighed down by guilt, she kills herself.
The real Lady Macbeth, however, seems to have been a faithful queen and wife and a good mother. Her real name was Gruoch, and Macbeth was her second husband. Gruoch endured the violent deaths of many she loved, including two husbands and a brother. During her own short life she donated to churches and helped endow at least one monastery. A film about the real Lady Macbeth would be a revelation for audiences, showing the unsung and heroic lives led by women in medieval Europe.
Poor Mars. It is usually portrayed as a planet so hostile it’s virtually a death trap for us naive Earthlings (2015’s The Martianfor example), or worse, the home of creatures who actively want to harm humans when they visit (1959’s The Angry Red Planet). As if that wasn’t enough, even if humans don’t visit, Mars is happy to export its homicidal denizens to Earth to carry out unspeakable acts of murder and pillage (1953’s The War of the Wolds is just one example).
But Mars may well turn out to be the hero planet of the solar system – humanity’s final refuge if Earth ever becomes uninhabitable because of natural or human-caused disasters, or billions of years from now when a sun swollen with old age fries Earth’s surface. It’s time audiences saw Mars in a positive light, as a potential new home for humanity where our species is given a new beginning and a second chance.
NEXT: Best Dark Lords in Movie History, From Harry Potter’s Voldemort to Star Wars’ Darth Vader