A movie’s protagonist is often an inherently heroic person. They do the right thing, save the day, and focus on making things better for others. Even anti-heroes are still heroic in their own ways, even if their methods or personalities are not. However, in some films, the main character is unquestionably the villain.
Villainous main characters may have redeeming features, and they may even win the audience’s sympathy, but these villains are not good people. They work toward evil ends, torment others, and commit all manner of terrible deeds. Such a protagonist can be hard to write without losing the audience, but some villainous protagonists have gone down in cinematic history.
Updated on May 9, 2023 by Angelo Delos Trinos: Villainous protagonists are one of (if not) the most polarizing archetypes in movies. Despite the controversies they inspire, these characters are still popular and flocked to for a reason. This list was updated to include more protagonists of dubious morality who are still undeniably compelling in their own twisted ways.
20 American Psycho
Patrick Bateman is one of the most famous villainous protagonists of all time. As American Psycho’s title suggests, Patrick is a dangerous man who cares nothing for others. The most significant scenes in the movie are his grotesque and graphic murders of his friends, colleagues, and random bystanders.
American Psycho doesn’t try to make Patrick sympathetic. Much of its tension comes from Patrick’s erratic behavior and clear misery in his pointless lifestyle. However, American Psycho’s ending puts a twist on it. With all evidence of his crimes gone and one of his victims alive, it’s questionable whether or not any of Patrick’s atrocities even happened.
19 Avengers: Infinity War
After his mid-credits cameo in The Avengers, it took Thanos another six years to step up to the plate as the main villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nonetheless, when he finally does things himself in Avengers: Infinity War, the film very quickly becomes about the Mad Titan and his actions.
Infinity War‘s story is split between characters. Gamora, Iron Man, and Vision all get significant plotlines. However, the indispensable Thanos drove the story and got the most screen time of the cast. Despite being the MCU’s most dangerous villain yet, the genocidal Thanos is undeniably Infinity War‘s protagonist.
18 Psycho Goreman
At first glance, the titular Psycho Goreman seems to be the villain of Psycho Goreman. After all, he is a monstrous alien who was imprisoned within the Earth for wiping out countless planets. However, the Archduke of Nightmares is just the lackey of the bratty girl Mimi, who is arguably the movie’s worst and most evil villain.
Mimi was a spoiled bully who relished in the cruelty she could inflict on others (especially her brother, Luke) when she got control of Psycho Goreman. Since Psycho Goreman parodied saccharine kids’ movies from the ’80s, Mimi and Psycho Goreman becoming best friends and destroying the earth was depicted as heartwarming.
17 Tragedy Girls
Tragedy Girls offered a different and contemporary take on the slasher movie by having a pair of teenage girls be the killers, not the victims. The inseparable duo of Sadie and McKayla want to be famous online and in real life. Their solution is to kill their schoolmates and “mourn” them on their true crime blog, “Tragedy Girls.”
Sadie and McKayla’s body count starts with individual murders, but it culminates in a fiery massacre at the school prom. After burning their schoolmates alive, Sadie and McKayla get the fame they wanted and moved out of town to begin their college lives. It could be assumed that they started a new massacre on campus.
16 The Shining
All three members of the Torrance family are major characters in The Shining. Jack, Wendy, and Danny all take center stage at different points in the film. However, the bulk of the film’s plot follows Jack as the Overlook Hotel takes an increasingly sinister toll on his psyche.
Jack slips closer to villainy the longer he stays in the Overlook. By the third act, Jack is unquestionably the villain, despite driving the action for much of the film. The hero’s role shifts more to Wendy when he embraces his dark side. But for the first two acts, Jack is the closest thing the film has to a sympathetic protagonist.
15 The Usual Suspects
The Usual Suspects’ ending is widely considered to be one of the best plot twists in history. The film is largely told from the perspective of the petty criminal Verbal Kint. He tells detectives about how he and his fellow hapless criminals got caught up in the infamous crime lord Keyser Soze’s schemes.
After Kint posts bail and is released, things fall into place. The detective who interrogated him realizes that the events of the story were fabricated. A police sketch of Soze, the movie’s supposed villain, arrives and is a perfect match for Kint. Ultimately, the villain of the story spins a tale about himself so he can escape arrest.
Downfall is a biopic about the genocidal fascist dictator, Adolf Hitler. The film is a fictionalized version of the real events in the final days of Hitler’s government in Nazi Germany. It takes place in and around the bunker where Hitler eventually ends his life as the Russian army close in.
The film follows Hitler’s last attempts to make something of the war he instigated, rather than painting him as a cackling villain. He gets several scenes of genuine humanity and poignancy, but is never made sympathetic. Ultimately, Downfall depicts Hitler as an evil yet pathetic human who deserves the hatred he gets.
Psycho‘s Norman Bates doesn’t become the main character until a third of the way through the film. The first act follows Marion Crane as she steals money from her workplace. The Bates Motel is just somewhere she happens to stop as she grapples with the morality of her actions. Then, Norman kills Marion in the shower in one of the most iconic movie scenes of all time.
After that point, Psycho shifts its focus to Norman. Although other characters also guide the action, the plot becomes about Norman’s attempts to cover up his crime and his battle for freedom from “Mother.” Norman went on to become the Psycho series’ main character, and was even redeemed at the end.
12 Pain & Gain
Like in many crime dramas made before it, Pain and Gain stars reprehensible criminals who were convinced that they were the heroes of the story. What set the ruthless and greedy Daniel, Adrian, and Paul apart from their genre contemporaries was how they were vicious but incredibly dumb villains.
Pain and Gain mocked the three airheaded bodybuilders, but it never sugarcoated their cruelty. Daniel and his team stole a client’s life and wealth, and things got worse from there. Daniel justifying his crime spree with vapid self-help quotes and a terrible take on the American Dream made his acts more detestable and selfish.
11 The Wolf Of Wall Street
Jordan Belfort is the wisecracking, hedonistic playboy protagonist of The Wolf of Wall Street. The film follows his journey from an entry-level stockbroker to becoming one of the most notorious fraudsters of the ’90s. Belfort’s life drove the film, which focuses on the failure of his two marriages and the FBI’s investigation into his crimes.
Belfort is a real-life criminal and the darkly humorous The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the book he wrote after his release from prison. The audience saw his human side and were invited to laugh with him. However, what he did was undeniably criminal and wrong, and it’s hard to find any redeeming factors in him.
10 Lord Of War
Lord of War approached the war movie formula differently by focusing on arms dealers instead of generals or soldiers. This, in turn, made the focal arms dealer Yuri Orlov one of the most amoral and inhuman villains in the genre. Not only did he profit from war, but Yuri actively enabled death and worse around the world.
Yuri had a knack for business, but he used his skills to get close to dictators and warlords. Yuri also threw away his morals and any chance of normalcy to stay in business and enjoy the rush of selling guns in active warzones. Yuri never killed anyone personally, but he was worse than the murderers he partnered with.
9 A Clockwork Orange
A Clockwork Orange‘s Alex DeLarge is one of the most repugnant protagonists in film history. He spent the first act doing nothing but enjoying a vicious crime spree. His sins include fighting, murder, and sexual assault. Alex is a clear villain who the film never redeems. Instead, it puts him up against worse forms of evil.
The controversial A Clockwork Orange followed the government’s attempt to rewrite Alex’s morality to “rehabilitate” him, and its horrific implications. Alex never redeems himself, because a crucial point of the film is that he can’t if he doesn’t have free will. Alex ends the film in exactly the same villainous place as he begins it.
8 Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge Of The Sith
In many ways, Anakin Skywalker is the main character of the Star Wars franchise, especially the prequels. The first six films follow his defection to the Dark Side, his rebirth as the evil Darth Vader, and his redemption through his son, Luke. He was also Star Wars’ most well-known villain and one of the most popular in all fiction.
This was best displayed in Revenge of the Sith. Here, Anakin finally gave in to the Dark Side and helped usher in the Galactic Empire. Even as he fell into villainy at the halfway point, Anakin’s actions drove the plot. He and Obi-Wan Kenobi shared the title of “main character,” but their destinies clashed violently in the third act.
7 Reservoir Dogs
Reservoir Dogs is rare in that it doesn’t just have one villain protagonist. Instead, it has eight of them in the form of a group of armed robbers and violent criminals. There is no single main character in the film. Some get more focus than others, but the group as a whole and their dynamics drive the plot.
None of the group are good people. The worst is undoubtedly Mr. Blonde (portrayed amazingly by Michael Madsen), who revels in cruelty. However, no one in the film can be described as genuinely heroic. Even moral characters like Mr. White only try to avoid making things worse instead of stopping the other monsters.
6 Fight Club
Fight Club has two protagonists; the nameless narrator and the charismatic Tyler Durden. The two create the titular fight clubs together, only for Tyler to attempt to turn them into a nationwide terrorist organization. This leads to many deaths and one of the most famous twists in movie history.
The third act involves the narrator trying to stop his former friend, Tyler. However, the two are eventually revealed to be the same person. Tyler was simply the narrator’s power fantasy and evil impulses come to life. Both the protagonist and the antagonist were the same person, driving every event between them.
5 Natural Born Killers
Natural Born Killers follows Mickey and Mallory Knox, a married couple who travel across America to kill whoever they come across and to commit countless other crimes. While Mickey and Mallory kill some really bad people, they are the furthest thing from heroes. Unsurprisingly, most of their victims are innocents.
Natural Born Killers doesn’t attempt to make the couple sympathetic. Instead, it explores the nature of real-life violence and the media storms that surround it. The emotional stakes don’t come from the audiences wanting the Knoxes to succeed. Instead, they come from the exploration of very sensitive subject-matter.
Nightcrawler’s title refers to the real shady job of “nightcrawlers,” camera operators who record gratuitous footage, then sell to tabloids or news stations. When Lou Bloom discovers this profession, he decides to become the best nightcrawler around by doing literally anything to get ahead of the competition.
Lou tampers with evidence, commits blackmail, sets up people to die, and much worse, all to be paid well and for the thrill of recording the most graphic and sensational footage Los Angeles’ nightlife has to offer. Worst of all, Nightcrawler ends with Lou winning and leading a new generation of nightcrawlers.
3 The Godfather
The Godfather‘s Michael Corleone started his story as the most sympathetic member of the Corleone crime family. He’s a former marine who has little to do with the Corleones’ criminal enterprise. Unfortunately, he gets drawn into the criminal underworld when his father Vito is hospitalized during a brewing gang war.
Michael spends much of The Godfather doing only what was necessary to end the war and let his family live in peace. By the end, however, he succeeds his father as Don Corleone, the unquestioned criminal power in New York. Michael doesn’t start the perfect Godfather trilogy as a villain, but he ends it as one.
Joker follows an alternate take on DC Comics’ most infamous villain. The polarizing Arthur Fleck is a downtrodden man in desperate economic circumstances, affected by a neurological condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably. This makes him a pariah who’s pushed to the breaking point by his terrible life.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance made Fleck a fundamentally sympathetic character. Joker is both an indictment of society and its villainous protagonist. Joker doesn’t try to pretend that Arthur is a hero. He isn’t a complete monster and speaks to genuine real-world issues, but he still goes about everything the wrong way.
Scarface follows Tony Montana as he arrives in America with almost nothing and rises to the top by becoming a notorious drug lord. Throughout Scarface, Montana commits countless terrible deeds. He dies in the film’s climactic gunfight as his actions finally come back to haunt him.
Tony is one of the most iconic film protagonists ever despite his villainy. Scarface deconstructed the American Dream by following a typical underdog story that then takes a very dark turn. Tony is a dark reflection of many other similar but more heroic underdogs. In real life, he’d be loathed. In film, he’s absolutely adored.
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