All Your Heroes Are Also Villains, Too

By  · Published on August 24th, 2015

Columbia Pictures

There is certain evil in the real world. The Holocaust and the many subsequent genocides around the globe are evidence of this. And likewise, there is certain evil in the movies. The destruction of Alderaan in the first Star Wars, for instance, makes Grand Moff Tarkin (and by his complicity, Darth Vader) perhaps the greatest mass murderer in cinema. There’s not really any case to be made for a movie in which Hitler is the hero, nor one where Tarkin is the protagonist, just trying to defend the Empire against the Rebels. Once you’ve wiped out an entire planet filled with innocent women and children, you’re a villain through and through (never mind Vader getting off with a humanizing prequel and last-minute absolution). Telling your side of the story isn’t going to change that.

A lot of other movies with outlined “good guys” and “bad guys” aren’t so simple. They villainize characters who are merely the antagonists in one particular version of a story. In another version, one of those antagonists could actually be the protagonist. Yet, as it goes with wars, the winner usually gets to be the hero in the history books and the Hollywood narratives. It’s good to see things from all sides, though, as we do with Clint Eastwood’s pair of films involving the Battle of Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Or as we can by watching any Japanese film dealing with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki against any American movie celebrating World War II victory. Or as we can by just watching that American movie and considering the enemy soldier’s point of view.

That isn’t a novel thing to do, of course. Humanizing and/or considering the other side’s perspective is probably as old as storytelling. Writers such as Milton, Voltaire, Borges and C.S. Lewis had fun reworking characters from ancient mythology and the Bible, while the idea of retelling famous tales so that their villains are now the protagonists hasn’t really been any fresher today than when John Gardner’s “Grendel” came out almost a half-century ago. They’ve tended to be focused on heroifying or at least antiheroifying bad guys, though, not villainizing the good, even if the latter is an effect of the former.

For focus solely on the good guys actually being the villains, we have to turn mainly to fan theories and video essays. And the latest worth checking out is J. Matthew Turner’s take on The Karate Kid and how Daniel (Ralph Macchio) is the real bully. Watch it here, via

That video is not about Johnny (William Zabka) being “Grendel”-fied. It’s just about Daniel being the bad guy. Johnny merely becomes the protagonist as a result in this version of the story. Similarly, to reconsider Ferris as the real villain of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off isn’t to heroify Principal Rooney, although the retelling from his point of view would resonate more with plenty of adults, especially those in authoritarian positions, the way the original resonates with young audiences.

Meanwhile, making the case that Doc Brown is the actual villain of Back to the Future is definitely not to make Biff the hero, because Doc was never the hero anyway. And Tony Stark being labeled the true villain of Avengers: Age of Ultron just takes him off the good guy team, without adding Ultron to it. Same goes for Gandalf, who in the following video, mostly played for comedy, is argued for being the real villain of The Hobbit and I guess therefore also the rest of The Lord of the Rings series yet doesn’t excuse Sauron’s villainy:

We could do these reinventions all day with all our favorite movies. To the aliens in the Alien franchise, the colonizing humans are a threat and therefore the villains. To the Friday the 13th series’ Jason and Pamela Voorhees (and really to many horror fans), the naughty teens who’d rather have sex than (they presume, based on experience) pay mind to a drowning camper are evildoers. To the Nazis, Indiana Jones is the bad guy. To HAL 9000, of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dave is the bad guy. Rocky Balboa is the bad guy. Dorothy Gale is the bad guy. Gandhi is the bad guy. Michael Douglas’s character in Fatal Attraction is definitely the bad guy.

Considering so many realistic bad guys don’t think they’re bad guys, then anyone who thinks they’re a good guy might in fact be a bad guy. Unlike with villains, who we’ve seen can be definitively evil without possibility for a rewrite, there isn’t really a certain goodness. Not even in a Frank Capra movie or a Disney animated fairy tale or simple white hat/black hate Western. There’s no equivalent for automatic virtue or heroism the way genocide or any other cold-blooded murder means automatic villainy. (And as we’ve seen with Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman,” the greatest hero of all time, as To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch has been ranked, can change into a bad guy.)

Is this just about good character writing, part of the rule that all heroes should be flawed in some way? Does the new take on The Karate Kid simply address how well-developed the protagonist of the movie is? I think there’s more to it than that. Humans in general have flaws, but that doesn’t make them someone’s enemy, let alone a villain. The point is that you can make anyone look bad. The news media and documentaries can turn a regular person (or an animal in the case of nature films) into a villain by way of perspective and narrative. So a writer can easily accentuate the good or the bad in a made up character. And I invite anyone to name me a character, in fiction or nonfiction, who couldn’t be turned into a bad guy with a retelling of their story.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.