Ricky Church on the villains who achieved victory over the hero…
Most stories follow the same typical pattern: the hero is on a life or death journey against a powerful villain and after a long, arduous battle and some sacrifice, they win against the villain. We’ve seen the story play out in superhero adventures, detective mysteries and epic fantasies. But every now and then, a story comes along that plays out the opposite way. Instead of the hero winning the day, the villain asserts their power over them and achieves their ultimate victory, often with tragic results for the hero.
The following 10 villains are ones whose victories have been discussed and analyzed time and again over the years. Not only did they achieve victory against the hero, but they left an indelible mark on cinema for the way they won with their intelligence, cruelty and ruthlessness. Check out these 10 villains below…
Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs)
Fewer villains send chills down the spine than Hannibal Lecter. While he may not be openly hostile, Hannibal has an uncanny perceptiveness that allows him to read and understand people far better than most. Though he’s not the main villain of Silence of the Lambs, he still wins as he successfully escapes police custody and becomes a free man once again.
From the very first moment Hannibal appears onscreen (for which he has the best character introduction in any film), he exudes a cold confidence and control over himself and sometimes the people he works with. His ability to get inside the head of Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling – as well as the audience with the amount of extreme close-ups on his face – makes him a very formidable foe. His escape from police custody in Silence is one of the most pulse-pounding, tension-riding and gruesome escapes ever as he disemboweled one of his guards and peeled the face off the other, using it as a means to disguise himself as the guard and leave with the unwitting help of the police. The fact he even tracks down Dr. Chilton, his self-styled nemesis, to wherever it is in the world Chilton fled further shows how resourceful he can be. His victorious streak even extends into the sequel Hannibal as he once again evaded capture after killing the enemies out for him, though at the small cost of a hand.
Keyser Soze (The Usual Suspects)
The Usual Suspects is an interesting film because the main story isn’t what is being told to us via the flashbacks, but the cop and conman’s interrogation. Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint is a smalltime conman who got caught up in much bigger schemes after getting blackmailed by the infamous and mythical criminal Keyser Soze. He recounts the film’s events to FBI agent Dave Kujan and is ultimately let go due to an immunity deal Kujan has no control over, but it’s not until those final minutes where Kujan, in one of the biggest twists in modern film, realizes Verbal was Keyser Soze all along and literally walked out of their grasp.
Up until that ending, there was no inkling Verbal was anything other than what he claimed to be. It’s only upon repeat viewings it fully comes into scope just how intelligent and savvy he is from the way he cherry picks innocuous names or objects around the room into his story. To that end he is one of the defining unreliable narrators as nearly everything in his story could just be made up to string Kujan along. The only parts of The Usual Suspects we know to be true are the beginning where we see Keyser execute Dean Keaton and the moments where the team are picked up for their line-up. At least some of the story seems to be true given Keaton’s look of surprise when he sees Keyser as he must have realized how duped he was, but the rest like Redfoot and Kobayashi were made up. There is no way to tell as Keyser effortlessly slipped out of his Verbal persona into his true self and escaped just as Kujan figured it all out, retaining his mythical and Devil-like status.
The Joker (The Dark Knight)
Throughout Batman’s on film history, including the feature film of the 1966 TV series, audiences have seen Batman triumph against his foes and save Gotham City. All except for one film which captured audiences attention and altered the modern comic book film: The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s second outing of his Batman trilogy. While Batman saves many lives, The Joker ultimately wins his battle against the Dark Knight in a way that is deeply consequential to Batman, his allies and the future of Gotham City.
The Joker is without a doubt one of the greatest villains ever created. One reason why Joker is so popular among Batman’s enemies is because of how he challenges Batman, almost being a mirror version of the Dark Knight as someone who is incredibly intelligent and committed, but highly unpredictable, deadly and believes in the worst of people. From the very beginning of The Dark Knight, Joker’s goal is to corrupt Gotham’s hero and ‘white knight’ Harvey Dent, dealing him a blow so hurtful it couldn’t do anything but push Harvey over the edge. As much as Joker says he doesn’t have a plan and is simply acting as chaos’ agent, the steps he takes to achieve his goal are very methodical even if he improvises every now and then. While Joker may not have been able to definitively prove people will choose their own self-interest and survival over anyone else, he does convince Harvey to commit several murders as revenge for Rachel Dawes’ death, effectively crippling Gotham’s hope for a brighter future.
The fact Batman decided to take the blame for Harvey’s murders may have thrown Joker’s plan off, but in all likelihood Joker would probably have found it even more hilarious Batman would taint his own image than reveal the truth of what Harvey had become. Joker’s plan even had far-reaching consequences for Gotham as it forced Batman into a self-imposed retirement/exile, riddled Gordon with guilt that broke apart his marriage and family, made Alfred rethink on the role he played in Bruce’s crusade, and unnecessarily and harshly locked up hundreds of Gotham’s criminals, one of whom was responsible for saving hundreds of civilians on the other boat, who would become angry foot soldiers in Bane’s army. Joker’s plan didn’t just harm the legacy of Harvey Dent and Batman, but Gotham City’s future.
Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men)
When it comes to nigh-unstoppable hitmen with a penchant for philosophy, few come to mind more than No Country for Old Men‘s Anton Chigurh. Throughout the film, Chigurh is relentless in his mission to kill Llewelyn Moss, a man who by chance came in possession of a lot of money meant for a drug cartel. The two play a cat and mouse game throughout the film as Chigurh tracks Moss and takes out any competition looking for him and the money.
Chigurh has been such a memorable villain because of his coldness, ruthlessness and unique way of killing people with a bolt pistol. What also separates Chigurh from other hitmen is his penchant for discussing the chances of life and its randomness. He views himself less as a killer and more a tool of fate punching out people’s clocks. This is particularly evident with his coin toss to people, demanding they call it and leaving the decision whether or not to kill them up to chance. Though Chigurh may not have killed Moss himself, he succeeded in regaining the money and escaped close calls with the law, but still kept his word to come for Carla Jean, Moss’ wife. However, she doesn’t play his coin toss game and says the truth: it is entirely up to him, not fate, if he kills her. It’s the only moment where he actually seems rattled and while we don’t see the outcome of their conversation, he does check his boots upon leaving the house as he did in a previous scene for any signs of blood. He seemingly escapes scot-free were it not for a random car accident which breaks his arm and leaves him thoroughly disheartened. Though he may have emerged victorious, the car accident happening right after Carla Jean’s visit is a strong implication fate may not be happy with whatever choice he made.
Michael Corleone (The Godfather)
At the start of The Godfather, Michael Corleone is an ‘outsider’ of his family, officially having nothing to do with the Corleones criminal activities and actively pushes himself away from any association with the business, as he tells his girlfriend Kay after relating an infamous story about his father and the offers he makes. By the end of the film, this WWII veteran and war hero becomes the new don in charge in an act that ruthlessly assassinates all of his enemies and gains revenge for his family.
What makes Michael’s journey so interesting is how the act that made him a part of the family business was one borne out of love. After his father, Don Vito Corleone aka The Godfather, survived an assassination attempt from rival mobsters, Michael killed the men responsible in order to protect Vito else they try again. After coming home from exile when a truce is finally struck between the Five Families, Michael, whose morals have already begun slipping, is slowly groomed for the position of don and planning revenge against those who killed his older brother Sonny. After Vito’s death Michael immediately takes action against their enemies, keeping father’s specific wording that “I will not be the one to break the peace” intact. In several murders committed at the same time, Michael has the other heads of the Five Families killed – while taking his oath as godfather at his nephew’s christening no less. Soon after he orders his brother-in-law murdered for the role he played in Sonny’s death after seemingly giving him a reprieve.
What makes Michael’s journey even more interesting is how audiences romanticized Michael and the mobster lifestyle. Feeling they took the wrong lessons from the movie, Godfather creator Mario Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola were spurred to make The Godfather Part II. Where The Godfather might be considered an intriguing story for a villain-protagonist, Part II raises the tragic elements as Michael once again wins against the enemies who tried to kill him and even the US Congress who were investigating him, but at the cost of many of his family relationships. His marriage to Kay breaks down, it’s implied he becomes estranged from his adoptive brother Tom Hagen and, most important of all, he has his own brother Fredo executed for the unwitting role he played in the assassination attempt against Michael. The fact his further descent into villainy and ruthlessness is paralleled with the flashbacks of a young Vito gaining power while keeping his family and friends safe and together only compounds how starkly different Michael ended up from Vito.
Noah Cross (Chinatown)
In many film noirs the culprit at the heart of the mystery is usually a piece of work, but Chinatown‘s Noah Cross is in another element altogether. A wealthy industrial tycoon, Cross seems on the surface a charismatic but greedy man involved in shady land dealings, but the truth is much deeper and darker as private investigator Jake Gittes discovers.
What begins as a routine investigation of infidelity quickly grows into something more as the supposed cheater dies under mysterious circumstances. The case eventually leads to Noah Cross, the man’s father-in-law and former business partner, who offers Jake double what his daughter Evelyn is paying him to drop the case and instead find the missing young mistress. Gittes’ further investigation leads him not only to discover Cross was diverting and poisoning water in order to buy up lots of land on a cheap dollar, but the ‘mistress’ is in fact Evelyn’s daughter and sister after Cross raped her at a young age. When confronted by Gittes, Cross reveals his plan to buy up the land and annex it into Los Angeles to pave the way for a future and legacy as well as the money he’ll collect on top of an already mass fortune. Even more disturbing though, he is completely unrepentant to raping his own daughter, justifying it by casually telling Gittes “most people never have to face the fact at the right time and the right place they’re capable of anything.”
Chinatown turns many of the tropes of film noir on its head, not least of which is its ending. Rather than seeing Gittes expose the scheme and lock up Cross, run away with Evelyn and protect both her and her daughter/sister Katherine, Evelyn is shot to death trying to escape and the last we see of Noah Cross is him clutching Katherine, feigning shock and concern as he covers her eyes and leads her away from Evelyn’s corpse with the heavy possibility he’ll do to her what he did to Evelyn. Despite knowing the full truth of Cross’ evil, Gittes is so low on the city’s totem pole and Cross so powerful, there is literally nothing Gittes can do to get justice to the point Cross is unconcerned if he lives. It is one of the bleakest endings in any movie due to Cross’ casual villainy and John Huston’s masterful performance.
John Doe (Se7en)
In most movies featuring a diabolical serial killer, they usually end up caught and/or killed. David Fincher’s Se7en pulls a bit of a different tack after its killer, the mysterious man known only as John Doe, turns himself in after committing a string of grisly murders in what becomes the devastating culmination of his plan.
John was a disturbed and religious man who grew cynical of the world and how much society let itself go. Believing himself to be chosen, Doe decided to kill those guilty of the seven deadly sins: gluttony, greed, sloth, lust, pride, envy and wrath. In a series of well-planned out and brutal murders (sloth and especially lust are particularly horrendous), Doe killed people in ironic ways, such as the gluttony man eating himself to death or the prideful model choosing to commit suicide rather than live with a disfigured face. When he suddenly shows up at the police station to turn himself in and baits Detectives Mills and Somerset with the location of his next victim, they drive out and discuss Doe’s philosophy and worldview. It’s not until they reach their location and a mysterious box is delivered Doe reveals he is the victim for envy after killing and decapitating Mills’ wife, despite her pleading for her unborn child which Mills didn’t know about, so Mills could then personify wrath. Even though Doe died at Mills’ hand, he succeeded in his plan for Mills to kill him and prove his point to the detectives and the world in a very dark ending.
Emperor Palpatine (Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith)
The original Star Wars trilogy made a pretty broad backstory for how the Empire rose and Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. George Lucas’ Prequel Trilogy filled in those blanks and showed even more reason why Emperor Palpatine was a figure to be feared by both the Rebel Alliance and Imperial officers.
Rather than being a simple battle between good and evil with Palpatine emerging victorious and overthrowing the government, his victory was much more complex. Palpatine spent his days as Supreme Chancellor while in secret he was the Sith Lord Darth Sidious. Using the position as the highest voice of authority in the Republic, Sidious manipulated events to create a war between the Republic and a faction that wanted to separate with the Jedi leading Republic forces into battle. Only when the time was right, particularly when Anakin’s trust in the Jedi Council was low and he was suitably worried about the life of his wife, did Palpatine enact his revenge against the Jedi by framing them for an assassination attempt against his life and a rebellion to take power. Through this, Palpatine didn’t overthrow the Republic, but was seen by the masses as the legitimate leader of government who wanted to reform the Republic into something much stronger after surviving a long, brutal war and Jedi rebellion.
His coup was flawless, but one aspect of his victory that oft gets overlooked is how he corrupted the Jedi from within. As Mace Windu said, they were “keepers of the peace”, but suddenly turned generals leading troops into battle and more often than naught winning battles through violence than diplomacy. Palpatine corrupted the very ideals of the Jedi Order, making his victory over the Jedi physical and symbolic as they betrayed everything they ever stood for, a fact Star Wars: The Clone Wars went into greater detail about through its run.
Thanos (Avengers: Infinity War)
Most supervillains usually fail in their plans and face their comeuppance, but Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War is an intriguing outlier because not only does this not happen, the film’s villain Thanos is basically the main character as he’s the villain-protagonist with the story largely following his every move. He gets the most screentime out of this hugely stacked cast of characters and it ends on him literally basking in the dawn of a new day with his life’s mission complete.
Thanos was first seen in the mid-credits scene for Avengers as the figure behind Loki’s invasion of Earth. Mentioned and seen sporadically in the following films, Thanos didn’t become the central focus of the MCU until Infinity War when he finally discovered the locations for all six Infinity Stones, powerful objects that would grant him the ability to reshape the universe any way he saw fit. While his comic book counterpart wanted galactic conquest, the MCU Thanos was a survivor of his homeworld that depleted its natural resources and suffered from overpopulation and wanted to ensure life’s chaos would not harm another planet again. Though his reasons were noble, Thanos believed the best way to maintain stability was to kill half a planet’s population so it could thrive once more, justifying it in the long run. Thanos didn’t see himself as a villain or even really seem to enjoy slaughtering planets, but he believed it necessary and wanted the Stones to kill half the universe all at once. Not only did he kill several characters before getting the Stones, including his own adoptive daughter, but he actually succeeded in killing half the universe as audiences were shocked to see various Avengers simply fade away into dust.
It doesn’t matter Thanos’ victory was ultimate undone in Avengers: Endgame when everyone who died was brought back. Thanos still won. Furthermore, his victory has long-lasting consequences as the returned heroes and regular people missed 5 years of their lives as families were broken, homes destroyed and governments changed. The consequences of Thanos’ victory are still being felt through Marvel’s shows on Disney+ and its upcoming slate of films, showing Thanos is one of the most victorious villains to emerge on film.
This is actually one for both comics and film. Comic books usually depict the hero rising above a villain and saving the day, especially after the villain gives a lengthy monologue explaining their plan in detail. Watchmen flipped that trope on its head as Ozymandias, a former superhero and ally to Nite Owl, Rorschach, Silk Spectre and Dr. Manhattan, is revealed to be behind a series of deaths and plot that will result in millions of deaths. While the heroes fight Ozymandias and still think they have a chance, that’s when he drops the bomb on them: “Do you seriously think I’d explain my master stroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome? I did it 35 minutes ago.”
Ozymandias attacked New York City, killing millions of people, in an effort to unite the world against a common threat at a time when U.S. and Russia seemed poised to destroy the world in nuclear war. In the graphic novel, Ozymandias fakes an alien invasion while the film adaptation has him frame Dr. Manhattan and arguably does greater devastation as he not only attacks New York, but Moscow, London, Paris and other locations around the world, killing even more millions of people. It’s one of the biggest twists where a former superhero is the cause of untold death in the name of the greater good, but the fact he specifically calls out the trope many supervillains and James Bond villains fall into is darkly hilarious. Ozymandias’ victory is even more stark because he’s not doing it for malicious reasons, but because he genuinely believes this is the only way to achieve peace and has a moment of doubt once its accomplished.
Do you have any other villains you like who have won their battles against the heroes? Let us know on our social channels at @flickeringmyth….
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk.