A villain cannot fundamentally be too sympathetic. The audience has to root for the film’s hero, and thus they have to root against its villain. Despite this, the best villains are not one-dimensional caricatures worth only contempt. On the contrary, the best villains evoke some strong feelings in viewers.
This can often be fear, disgust, or sympathy. What makes for a particularly memorable villain, however, is if they make the audience genuinely respect them. This can be through impressive achievements, genuine virtue, or simply an impressive demeanor. Plenty of antagonists in film are respectable, but some really stand out in this regard.
10 Hans Gruber Is The Model Of A Modern Villain
Die Hard is a deliberate subversion of 80s action movie tropes. John McClane’s heroics differ from the invincible unstoppability of other action heroes. So too does Hans Gruber avoid being a helpless genius, or a muscle-bound brute, as were so many villains of the time. Instead, Gruber is clever, resourceful, and deeply slick.
Fans have many reasons to respect Gruber. His plan is genuinely intelligent, fooling law enforcement and John himself for a large part of the film. He keeps his cool almost entirely throughout, only snapping or dropping the veneer under extreme stress. First and foremost, however, he’s just cool. Countless villains are patterned on Gruber, drawing inspiration from his best qualities.
9 Harley Quinn Carries An Entire Franchise
The DCEU is known for its grey morality. No character exemplifies this better than Harley Quinn, the primary protagonist of three separate films. Harley can’t be called an alright villain, but she’s far from a hero. Instead, she occupies a zone between anti-heroism and villainy; in this space, she makes the audience respect her.
Harley is very good at what she does, being one of Gotham’s premiere criminals. She’s one of the DCEU’s most brutal fighters, standing up to enemies far beyond her through creativity and extreme violence. However, she also has genuine moral standards and redeeming qualities. The result is one of the most compelling characters in the DCEU, and a villain worthy of respect.
8 Lord Beckett Does Everything With Dignity
The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is one lacking in unambiguously heroic characters. However, Lord Cutler Beckett is one of the worst and most villainous, seeking to control the Caribbean by any means necessary. He manipulates the other characters against one another, hangs hundreds just so the pirates will respond, and bends the supernatural to his will to weaponize it.
Despite his lack of redeeming qualities, he manages to win the respect of fans. This is through sheer competence, and the total, unflappable dignity with which he does everything. Even as he faces death, Beckett just walks through his exploding ship. He doesn’t run and doesn’t flee; he meets his fate head-on.
7 The Predator Wants A Fair Fight
A sense of fairness is an easy way to make fans respect a villain. People are naturally more drawn to those who seek an even challenge than those who kill easily and gleefully. The titular villain of Predator is so popular for this very reason. It hails from a planet with a strong warrior culture that prioritizes hunting and defeating the strongest creatures possible.
As such, it seeks out an appropriate challenge regarding Earth. Although it uses advanced technology like cloaking and energy weapons, it still shows a sense of fair play. It avoids non-combatants, and disarms itself in the film’s signature scene to fight a bare-handed Dutch.
6 Otto Octavius‘ Good Side Powers Through
Not all villains have to be cackling and wicked. Some can fall into villainy by accident, obsession, or bad luck. In Spider-Man 2, Otto Octavius is a combination of all three. He’s obsessed with the idea of free unlimited power, only to be forced into evil by the corrupting influence of his cybernetic arms.
Throughout the film, Octavius does terrible things. However, fans remember him first and foremost for his sympathetic and admirable qualities. He acts as Peter Parker’s well-meaning mentor, prioritizes ethics, uses his intelligence morally, and sacrifices himself to save New York from his actions. Of all the villains in the Spider-Man films, Octavius is the most admirable.
5 O-Ren Ishii Proves Respectable When She Shows Respect
Most Kill Bill villains are underhand, pragmatic people who more than fit the film’s gritty, grindhouse tone. O-Ren Ishii, the most significant villain of Kill Bill Volume One, is far from a saint. She’s a ruthless Yakuza leader with no qualms about killing, but she morally elevates herself above the film’s other villains.
For one, Ishii has a far more sympathetic backstory centering around prejudice and revenge. For another, she gives the Bride a genuine apology before their final battle, not for trying to kill her, but for mocking her earlier in the fight. This strange mixture of brutality and honor makes her the film’s most memorable villain.
4 Hannibal Lecter Is A Cannibal With Great Taste
Serial killers are rarely shown as respectable. Instead, they’re typically depicted as preying on the weak and acting incredibly oddly, things that alienate viewers. One serial killer, however, is a major exception. Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs is a murderer and cannibal known for being cultured and pleasant.
He speaks with exceptional politeness to almost everybody and makes understated but amusing comments. Among his stranger respectable behavior, he also prefers to eat his victims properly, with proper preparation and accompanying side dishes. Many viewers noted that Lecter is charming enough to eat dinner with, even knowing the danger he poses.
3 Thanos Is Noble And Impressive Even As He Purges The Universe
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has faced criticism for its villains. Fans and reviewers have described many of them as generic, underused, or wasted. However, none of these criticisms apply to Thanos, particularly the incarnation seen in Avengers: Infinity War. Even as he tries to wipe out half of all life, Thanos manages to make most fans respect him.
Part of it is due to his respectful nature. Thanos does terrible things, and enjoys them, but he has several conversations throughout the film where he expresses a high opinion of people. It’s also his competence, being undeniably the most successful MCU villain. The film gears itself to create this reaction, treating Thanos very much like a villainous protagonist.
2 Agent Smith Is So Gleefully Egotistical
It can be hard to strike the right balance with a villain who genuinely enjoys their villainy. It can come off as cartoonish, cliche, or simply unsympathetic, and cause the audience to dislike the villain. However, when played right, it can wrap right back around to respectable, creating a villain memorable for their confidence and wickedness.
This is the zone Agent Smith occupies inThe Matrix. He’s devoid of redeeming aspects, being first a totalitarian force for control and then a virus seeking to end everything. However, his confident, stoic assurance of his own superiority is impressive and enjoyable to watch – particularly when he backs it up with strength. As a result, fans find him impossible to disrespect.
1 Darth Vader Is The Most Impressive Villain Of All Time
In all of film, there isn’t a single villain as iconic or beloved as Star Wars‘ Darth Vader. Aside from the high-status Star Wars enjoys, this stems from just how many respectable qualities Vader has. Even with his villainous, cruel, and even petty actions, he manages to stick out in the mind of anyone who has seen the films.
He’s immensely intimidating and dangerous, being almost unstoppable throughout the franchise. He’s responsible for some of the franchise’s most iconic moments. However, he also has a dark and dry sense of humor, and undergoes one of the most famous redemptions in film history. Everything about Vader engenders respect, cementing him as a fan favorite.
NEXT: 10 Most Terrifying Movie Villains