Sympathy For The Villain

As I’ve discussed at length before, there are many different flavors of villain. Some are unrepentant awful bastards, not worth a moment of sympathy, and others… aren’t. It’s hard to describe but I think most people agree that there are baddies you can’t help but understanding and maybe even empathizing with. That’s not to say you’re cheering for them, but maybe you’re not exactly thrilled every time they get pummeled.

I was already thinking about this idea when I began reading the novel I’m a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President. The whole book is really about engendering a fondness for someone who probably doesn’t deserve it. In that instance you feel bad because as competent as the main character, Oliver, is he’s still a kid and wants some of the same things all kids want. I won’t go into greater detail as it’s a quick and pleasant read and I’d hate to be the one to bring the spoilers.

So sympathetic they elected him Governor of California!

Now I mentioned that sympathy doesn’t necessarily mean I want the bad guy to win, but I should probably clarify that a little bit. There are times where I think it would OK if the villain won, but it depends on the stakes and the context. First off, it has to be a villain that I already like, not just like as a concept, but actually like as a person… sort of. It’s hard to explain so I’m kind of hoping that people are nodding along and saying, “Yes, Ryan. I know what you mean as I too feel a similar compulsion and I totally don’t think you’re secretly evil and planning a takeover of iFanboy to impose your iron will upon the denizens of the Internet.” Ahem. But my point is if I like the villain and the stakes are right, I will in fact lend them my silent support.

What stakes might those be? Well I’ve noticed there are often times when the only conflict in a story exists between the hero and the villain. There are no lives of mere mortals on the line, no grand plan for conquest; just two people not getting along and yet the hero still always get to win. Does that seem fair? I’d say it does not. Granted, most of the time the conflict exists because the villain antagonized the hero, so as the aggressor it’s not so egregious that they get whooped, but sometimes I still wish they could get one in the win column. I guess it’s the optimist in me, always thinking maybe it’ll get better for the guy who always loses.

Then there’s Mark Waid’s book Empire, depicted a world where the villain has won, but he’s a dick so he doesn’t earn my favor. It’s still a good book though.

I’m reminded of issues where the hero and villain share a moment where they aren’t at each other’s throats. In the Samaritan Special issue of Astro City the Samaritan shares a meal with the Infidel in his prison dimension place. These guys are mortal enemies, but they can still sit there and have a conversation over some food. Then there’s one of the melancholic moments in comics. At the end of The Killing Joke, Batman finally reaches out to the Joker, pleading to let him help the maniac get better lest they eventually kill one another. The Joker (not one of the villains I ‘like’, BTW) can’t allow that, so instead he tells a joke. Batman, seeing there is no helping him, and that they are both resigned to their roles until they die just laughs alone with his greatest enemy. Gets me every time.

I think the reason those moments get to me more than the average battle sequence, while impressive and exciting, it’s unrealistic. And I don’t mean unrealistic because it’s two fiction superbeings duking it. I mean it’s unrealistic because few problems in my world are solved with battle. I’m much more likely to share a meal or laugh at the bad joke of someone I dislike than I am to punch them in the face, no matter how much they deserve it. It may be the circles I roll in, but violence rarely enters into problem solving. That’s part of the unbridled joy of comics and action movies, but it sometimes the change of pace seeing a conversation between two enemies has more emotional impact than a physical fight.

And with no segue whatsoever, I will assert that no conversation of sympathetic villains could be complete without mention of Magneto. You really need look no further than the differences between Greg Pak’s Magneto: Testament and Red Skull: Incarnate. Both books chart the early lives of two of Marvel’s most prominent bad guys, but the differences couldn’t be more stark. It’s easy to see how Magneto’s childhood could turn him into the villainous man he becomes, but how do you not feel bad for a holocaust survivor? If anyone deserves a less than glowing opinion of humanity, it’s him. I think I’m not alone in this opinion of Erik, which I suspect is why he often ends up on the side of Angel(s), but it’ll never last. He’s too opinionated, ambitious, and frankly powerful, to keep taking orders from Scott; it’s just a matter of time. Yet I can’t help but like him, maybe it says more about me than him.

What about you? Do you think I’m nuts for giving the baddies so much leeway? Do you have your own villains that you kind of root for even though you shouldn’t? Let us all know in the comments so we can report you to the proper authorities, you sicko.


 Ryan Haupt might actually be an evil genius. Try to decode his master plan by listening to the podcast Science… sort of.


  1. There’s a bit in The Flash: Ignition where an amnesiac Wally sits down with Captain Cold in a diner and they just chat. Eventually, they get to talking about good and evil, and there’s a contrast in opinions between the two men. It perfectly encapsulates the reason that they are arch-enemies without fisticuffs.

  2. I agree with everything you wrote. Sometimes the best stories are the ones that create conflict within the reader. There is a certain “tragic” quality to some villains. The most sympathetic villains often are victims of some sort of tragedy and or crime which shapes and distorts how they view the world. The best example of a villain winning would be the the BTAS movie SubZero where Batman is able to save Nora.

  3. I’d think we’d all be remiss not to mention that Kelly Spider-Man issue about the original Rhino and the Johns’ issue ofFlash with Captain Cold. Personally, I’d say the villain I am often most sympathetic to would be The Riddler, particularly the Year One issue about his origin.

  4. Ive always rooted for Magneto, because it does make sense on a science level about mutants being the next stage of evolution.

    • Magneto for me too, the evolution factor and the fact that humans hate and fear them and “you wanna protect them?” Magneto’s at the top of my anti-hero list. He’s not wrong but takes it too far, extremists tend to do that huh. Also, whats wrong with Thanos just wanting to please mistress death by killing everyone in existence? Thats love and dedication.

    • I always remember when they first introduced the Joseph character. He was presented as a young, amnesiac Magneto living with a nun and some orphans in South America. He was presented as an incredibly sympathetic character without losing the anger or the power. One of my favorite single issue stories.

  5. Sympathetic villains are the best kinds of villains.

    I personally feel Ed Brubaker’s Books of Doom is the finest character study ever done in the comics medium. You really don’t get much more complex and fully realized than old Victor Von.

    • I disagree. I love me a sympathetic villain, and Magneto is awesome and I love him to death, but I disagree that they make the best kinds of villains.
      Who’s the best villain The Joker or Magneto? I just don’t understand people who say Magneto, he is barely even a villain anymore, the sympathy factor makes him a worse villain and a better anti-hero. The BEST villains are ones like the Joker who reflect the hero, make the hero stronger, and are the most adaptable to different types of story.

    • @JokersNuts you have a valid opinion of course, but I personally think it makes for a more intriguing villain to have him/her truly believe that what they are doing isn’t villainous. I’ve never been fond of the term Anti-Hero because it seems silly. What is antithetical to a hero? A villain. And the more complex villains are the ones who aren’t simply evil for the sake of evil.

  6. Yeah, Doom….I find myself often rooting for him. He’s interesting, in that he has been allowed to win occasionally. I’m thinking of the Dr. Doom/Dr. Strange graphic novel, a few issues of FF, and his own Purple Man graphic novel, where he conquers the world, and immediately abolishes all war and hunger, making earth a bit of a utopia.

    Batroc should win some too…he’s awesome.

    Lex Luthor is an unmitigated jerk-face, but I secretly root for him, because he’s so much of an under-dog going up against Supes.

  7. I’m rather partial to Lucifer from Sandman and His own title. A villain who wants his own way because he’s tired of the old way.

  8. I must admit I want Luthor to rule the world. See Superman: Red Son for all the good he can do if that blasted Superman were just to die already! Same goes for Doom and that accursed RICHARRRDSSS of his.

  9. Like some people have said I have a bit of a soft spot for Luthor. Scratch that, I like the way he is written when a writer makes me have a soft spot for him. Often he is annoying and pretentious but when done just write, walking that subtle line, he can be amazing. Luthor: Man of Steel is what I’m talking about folks. Just his interactions with the janitor and his genuine belief that superman stops people from reaching their potential and that Superman’s very existence makes humans weaker is a pretty fair analysis. I mean yeah he does go a bit all out with the obsession but I like looking at a villain and not being sure where I stand. Ambiguity is always more fun cos that bit of thinking always makes the fisticuffs that little bit more bittersweet and tricky.

    As for villains like this who are great when done well Magneto and Riddler are up there. I think Doom is a good call some people have made. Aleksi Rhino, those issues where he has tried to turn a corner but ends up going back…that made me very nearly tear up. Just gutting. The Rogues always impress. Any one who has a strict moral code seems pretty reasonable. It just so happens theirs a little looser than the heroes.

  10. Jack Crawford: [about the Tooth Fairy] You feel sorry for him.
    Will Graham: This started from an abused kid, a battered infant… My heart bleeds for him, as a child. Someone took a kid and manufactured a monster. At the same time, as an adult, he’s irredeemable. He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies.
    – from the film “Manhunter” (1986)

    I think stories that study early life traumas and the resulting impact on the character as an adult are fascinating. Hannibal Lecter is another great example of this. Pak’s Magneto and Red Skull books are too. I find this all much more interesting than some previously good or normal person who has some freak accident and then goes on a crime spree because society considers him or her a “monster.”

    Nice article, Ryan. It’s important to think about things like this if you want a well developed villain character. It also reminds me of the lyrics to “No Equalizer” by Down by Law, but I won’t quote them here since I already quoted above.

    And of course, the tragic villain like Mr. Freeze, doing what he does to restore his wife. With him, the ends justify the means, but as he sees it, it’s justified.

  11. That one character from Ultimate Spiderman….Shocker or The Ringer…i forget which one, but he’s a complete idiot thats just trying so hard to be a bad guy. I know he’s written that way, but his appearances were always so awkward, you had to feel bad for him.

    • I’m thinking of the Shocker. Think the Ringer only appeared a couple times and I remember him being douchey. Shocker was a loser who couldn’t catch a break. Especially since he was so easy to beat up. I always felt bad for him because after his first appearance he always seemed so down-heartened when Spidey turned up. They then kinda took that away and tried to make him a serious bad ass. Which wasn’t a bad move I guess since he really would have motive but I liked when he was a comic relief guy. Bless him.

    • yeah i think it was…..he kept upping his gadgets and stuff. He was always fun to see….RIP i guess. hahaha

  12. Mickey Mickey (@GeeksOfChrist) says:

    Pleased to meet you, and I have guessed your name…

    I’m quite partial to Khan. There’s something about insane dictators that appeals to me. Like a last gasp of Bablyon or something.

    In comics, I’ll second my affinity for Luthor – particularly the Silver Age version. It’s hard for me to find anything sympathetic in the villainous capitalist of the Byrne era.

  13. I like Villians, the Joker probably ost of all. A problem is that generally when the Hero wins, the Villian is captured, goes to jail, is imprisoned, etc., to live/fight another day depending on the writer. And the book goes on from there. The few times a Villian wins, it often takes the life of the Hero, or cripples them, or at the least exposes them to the public. Which is when the direction of the book changes and somebody else takes on their mantle or whatever for a while. Seems a lot harder for the Hero to recover from their loss than the typical Villain.

    • Someone should make a story from that concept: the resilience of villains. Maybe, as Grant Morrison explains his Joker, they are better adapted to the world we live in than the rest of us.

  14. Victor Freis has always been my go-to example in this discussion, and I’ve found that most people tend to agree (even folks who’ve only seen TAS). How can you not feel sympathy for the guy when all he wants is to heal his wife?

  15. I do like a sympathetic villain. It could be for their cause, or the tragedy of the situation that caused them to be that way. Depending on his origin (The Killing Joke in this case), the Joker’s origin is tragic. A guy who just wants to help his poor wife with a baby on the way and is forced into a life of crime, even after losing his wife and trying to back out. From there, he is accidentally knocked into the vat and the Joker is born. Mr. Freeze’s origin from Heart of Ice is tragic. Heck, Mist II from Starman is tragic. A woman who doesn’t necessarily want the life that her father is pushing on her, but when he and her brother are taken away from her, something in her snaps. She goes from this innocent mumbling girl to this criminal who becomes the archnemeisis of Jack Knight. Where she ends up in the series is even more tragic, especially since she was doing nothing but trying to emulate her father and be the girl she thought he wanted her to be.

    I also like the villain that is doing what they do because, in their minds, it’s the only logical thing TO do. The Joker, again, comes up. He does what he does because he sees the greater joke in it all. He does what he does because it’s who he is and he never does something without a reason. Loki is also like this. There’s a great line from the Siege part of Thor where he tells the others that he causes mischief and the start of Siege because that is who he is. “Would you think Tyr would lie down and make chains of daisy-heads with the maids? Would Heimdall snooze the day away when danger lurked on the horizon? I am Loki, the fire that burns. AND WHY DOES THE FIRE BURN? I know not. I am he… I saw a chance to create a little entertainment. I did not think it would end like this.” Lex also falls into this category. He sincerely thinks he is saving the world from Superman. He doesn’t understand why everyone worships him like a God when they should fear him as a God. The man could destroy them if he chooses in less than a day and no one does anything. He stops their growth as a species by being there and protecting them, eliminating the whole “survival of the fittest” ideal. Of course, I see Lex as someone with an inferiority complex caused by his abusive father. He killed his father in Superman: Secret Origin, the only man who was keeping him from obtaining his “glory” and won the day. Now, Superman comes in and makes him as weak as he once again was when he was a child. That’s how I see him, but he truly does think of himself as doing humanity a justice. And then there’s Darkseid, who wants to rid the world of the burden of free will. Who believes that by being in full control he can finally achieve order throughout a universe ruled by chaos. He does so because that is who he is and what he must do.

    Those are my two favorite types of villains. The ones who are tragic and we root for and the ones who do so because it is who they are.

  16. Most of John Woo’s best movies have you routing for characters that are more of an anti-hero than a hero. When I say John Woo’s best movie I mean his foreign movies, not the crap he has made for American audiences.