The basis of all storytelling is good vs. evil. Without conflict, you don't have stories--and without stories, you don't have movies. The villain of a story drives the narrative, giving the hero something to fight against and giving the audience a character to hate.
Well, most of the time. What happens when the villain of a movie, like the Despicable Me franchise's Gru, is actually more watchable than the hero he's up against? Well, for one thing, you get some of the most fascinating good bad guys in movie history.
As much as their actions tell us to hate them, here are movie villains we can't help but love.
The Villain: Hannibal Lecter
Why He's Evil: Dr. Hannibal Lecter isn't just a sociopathic serial killer; he's a vicious cannibal whose pulse remains perfectly steady when he rips someone's throat out with his teeth. Even though he spends the bulk of The Silence of the Lambs behind bars, he plays mind games with everyone around him, reducing people to quivering messes through the sheer power of psychology.
Why We Love Him Anyway: But he's just so charming! Played with charismatic menace by Anthony Hopkins, Hannibal is a man of fine tastes, an educated and articulate scholar who would make one heck of a dinner guest (as long as you didn't let him in the kitchen). He may murder people and carve them up to serve with a side of fava beans, but his penchant for targeting the rude and the uncivilized occasionally feels like a brutal public service. Not to mention, he does help FBI agent Clarice Starling track down a more coarse serial killer, which gives him a tiny streak of something that kind of resembles heroism. It's not surprising that he got to take on more of an antihero role in his second film, Hannibal.
The Villain: Tyler Durden
Why He's Evil: Tyler Durden is the violent, black heart at the center of David Fincher's Fight Club. A figment of Edward Norton's unnamed protagonist's imagination, he's a completely uninhibited anarchist who uses his considerable charisma to coax other men into joining underground fight clubs… which eventually transform into a powerful cult with plans to radically change the world. Durden may not actually exist outside of the hero's mind, but he represents a very dark corner of the male psyche that always exists, bubbling right under the surface of what's acceptable.
Why We Love Him Anyway: But we love Tyler because he makes the whole "destitute terrorist without a care in the world except for sticking it to the system" look like so much fun. Fight Club is ultimately critical of Durden and his personal philosophies, but it doesn't shy away from why so many people would be attracted to a man like this. Brad Pitt uses every ounce of his movie-star magnetism to create something primal and powerful -- his answers may be troublesome and unsettling, but man, he really is asking some great questions.
The Villain: The Joker
Why He's Evil: A hideously scarred mystery terrorist with a thing for purple suits and sloppy clown makeup, Heath Ledger's take on the Joker has already entered the canon of iconic movie villains and for good reason. He's absolutely terrifying, a chaos-driven force of nature whose complex plans exist for reasons known only to him. Everyone in The Dark Knight spends the entire film wondering what this madman is going to do next and for good reason: he's completely unpredictable, shows no remorse and refuses to be profiled or understood.
Why We Love Him Anyway: Although a certain segment of fanboy culture has gone a little over the top in its Ledger love, think back to the first time you watched The Dark Knight. Sure, you cheered whenever Batman did something cool, but you also cheered whenever the Joker shoved a thug's head into a pencil or revealed another part of his increasingly audacious master plan. He's so dramatic, so flamboyant and so excited to be doing what he's doing that you can't help but get caught up in his sadistic enthusiasm. You'll feel bad later about enjoying his horrible antics as much as you do, but it's worth it.
The Villain: Satan
Why He's Evil: Uh, because he's Satan. Lucifer. The ruler of Hell. The tormenter of evil souls. If you don't know that the Devil is generally depicted as a pretty evil dude, you're probably new to planet Earth.
Why We Love Him Anyway: A job is a job, guys. He may be the Lord of Darkness, but that doesn't necessarily make him a bad guy, you know? There has never been a more charming, funny and bizarrely warm villain than Satan in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, a film that gives the devil a "heroine's lament"-style Broadway-musical number. In addition to preparing an imminent apocalypse, Satan struggles to fix his broken romantic relationship with Saddam Hussein and dreams about a world that isn't entirely about fire, torture and pain. Through the bizarre lens of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the most evil figure in all of popular culture becomes just a guy. You want to give him a hug and offer a few words of encouragement.
The Villain: Gordon Gekko
Why He's Evil: Gordon Gekko works on Wall Street. In the '80s. 'Nuff said! A rich, powerful stockbroker with friends in high places and a finger in every pie, he's the kind of black-hearted SOB who spends his days illegally filling his many bank accounts and encouraging his countless admirers to put greed before basic humanity. He's a bad guy on his own, but he's a truly great villain because of how many people he drags down into the muck with him.
Why We Love Him Anyway: When Wall Street was released, director Oliver Stone and actor Michael Douglas certainly didn't intend for Gordon Gekko to become a beloved cinematic icon that many people misinterpreted as a figure to admire. But it happened… and it's easy to see why. Although Gekko is undeniably a bad guy, he's a bad guy who refuses to wear his villainy on his sleeve. He quietly games the system, fills his pockets and lives in luxury. No one really gets hurt, right? Right?! Douglas makes Gekko's lifestyle look so appealing, fun and easy that you can't help but feel seduced.
The Villain: Jason Voorhees
Why He's Evil: As a child, the mentally challenged, hideously deformed Jason Voorhees supposedly drowned at Camp Crystal Lake while the counselors were preoccupied with sex and drugs. But he didn't die. Oh, no. He lived, grew into a hulking hillbilly monster and began a career of slicing and dicing his way through any people who came near his turf. And then he was killed. Lucky for him, he came back to life as an undead hulking hillbilly monster and continued to quest to imaginatively murder everything with a heartbeat. Eventually, he ran out of people to kill on the planet and continued his machete-to-the-head spree in space.
Why We Love Him Anyway: The Friday the 13th series doesn't have a recurring heroic protagonist. The only thing connecting all 11 films in the series is the mute monster wearing the hockey mask. With no heroes to root for, our interest in the series lies solely in Jason. As far as horror fans are concerned, Jason is just your deformed, undead buddy who knows what you want and does it capably. If he starts killing characters worth caring about, this may change, but let's face it: it wouldn't be a Friday the 13th movie if we weren't just looking forward to Jason taking out those annoying teens.
The Villain: Gollum
Why He's Evil: Formerly a peaceful creature called Smeagol, Gollum turned evil thanks to Sauron's One Ring of Power, which transformed him into a hideous creature who will murder, cheat and steal to stay alive and protect his "precious" ring. There are bigger and more deadly villains throughout Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies, but there are none as effective as Gollum, who serves as a constant reminder of the seductive, corrupting power of the dark side.
Why We Love Him Anyway: Sure, he's a thorn in the side of Sam and Frodo from the moment they meet and sure, he's fully prepared to murder any of our heroes in order to get what he wants, but Gollum is just so much fun to be around! Beneath that grotesque exterior lies a pitiful, broken and somehow adorable little creature that has spent so much time alone and angry that he's forgotten how to actually live. As Gandalf himself says, Gollum is a creature that should be pitied above all else. You just want to hug him and say that everything is going to be okay.
The Villain: Alex DeLarge
Why He's Evil: Where to start? As the leader of a vicious street gang in a dystopic future London, Alex DeLarge is a monster in every way. He beats homeless men to death for fun. He viciously needs his boys in skirmishes against other gangs. He breaks into homes and sexually assaults the people inside. In fact, if the first 45 minutes or so of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange don't make you completely sick to your stomach, there's something wrong with you.
Why We Love Him Anyway: The film's most devilish trick comes in its second half. After undergoing experimental rehab and released from prison, Alex finds himself unable to defend himself when attacked or stand up for himself when cornered. The once brutal young man has become pitiful and meek, unable to live in the world that created him. It's a testament to Malcolm McDowell's performance that we feel his loss and sympathize with him.
The Villain: Hans Landa
Why He's Evil: An elite member of Hitler's SS in Nazi-occupied France, Hans Landa has one of the most deplorable jobs imaginable. Known as "the Jew Hunter," he's assigned to track down any Jewish people still in hiding and capture or execute them… and he's very, very good at his job.
Why We Love Him Anyway: One of the best things about Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is that it constantly shakes up your expectation and perception, forcing you to reevaluate everything on the screen without even a moment's notice. The darkest, craziest joke of the movie is that Hans Landa is the most likable guy in the entire movie, a brainy, witty and polite conversationalist with borderline supernatural detective skills. Christoph Waltz crafted a character whose self-confidence and charm make you wish that you could have met him in another time and another place. You will never find yourself trying to justify liking a character like you do with Hans Landa.
The Villain: Roy Batty
Why He's Evil: In the world of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, robotic "Replicants" are artificial human-looking beings built to serve man but occasionally get other ideas. Roy Batty is the leader of a small group of renegade Replicants that hijack a spaceship, escape to Earth and begin racking up a body count in their quest to literally meet their maker. With Harrison Ford's titular assassin/detective on his tail, Roy becomes increasingly desperate, resulting in all kinds of violence and an epic final showdown.
Why We Love Him Anyway: Roy Batty is one of the greatest villains in cinematic history because he's barely a villain. We initially accept that he's a bad guy because we're told he's a bad guy, but take a moment and see things from his perspective. He's a sentient being, albeit an artificial one, sentenced to a short lifetime of labor without a choice in the matter. It's no accident that Roy is so much more human than Harrison Ford. He is the heart and soul of Blade Runner. Not bad for a machine.
Want more villains? Check out our list of the most despicable animated baddies ever!