Good versus evil, heroes and villains, protagonist and antagonist—the conflict between the team we want to win and the bad guy we want to see get theirs seems pretty straightforward. Some villains are so vile and dangerous, there’s nothing to redeem or excuse them (looking at you, Joker). But in some narratives, both on the printed page and on screen, we find ourselves wondering if the antagonist we’ve been told to fear or despise is really as bad as the white hats are making them out to be. Take a look at five monsters who may have been completely misunderstood and are more sympathetic than we might have originally thought.
Grendel’s Mother: Dust off your lit books and take a hard look at who the real issue in Beowulf is. Yes, Grendel is a monster who kinda snaps because it’s too noisy. Yes, he kills. But Grendel’s mom? Any mother can sympathize with her. Retribution for the death of her son (and a need to retrieve his missing arm that the humans are keeping as a morbid trophy) is not really an unheard-of part of many cultures back in the day. She only emerges from her kingdom (yes she’s a queen in her own world) to engage Beowulf in worthy combat, even though she could probably tear him to pieces with her bare hands. In many ways, Beowulf, the King, and his people are the real monsters, celebrating the death of a being that is clearly unstable, and although Grendel’s mom gets tagged as an antagonist in the story, she only does what she does to right the wrong and balance the scales.
Maleficent: The Disney vehicle starring Angelina Jolie takes the concept that Maleficent isn’t the villain to a new level, but even before the live-action film’s sympathetic retcon, the evil fairy was kind of right, at least historically speaking. In a medieval world, high ranking lords, ladies, and other aristocrats were always offered an invitation to a royal event, such as the birth of a princess. Not inviting the regal Maleficent, even if her magic was a little on the dark side, is a huge insult according to the standards of the time. Finding out she was slighted is a massive slap in the face, and one can argue those cute little fairies only fueled the fire that led to her cursing Aurora. I’d wager that an apology and maybe a toast in her honor might have been enough to stroke her ego and stop her from bestowing a death curse on a newborn.
The Vulture (Michael Keaton in Spider-Man: Homecoming): Tony Stark means well. He really does. But sometimes Stark and his tech are problems (Ahem, Ultron). In the case of Adrian Toomes, he was just a working man trying to support his family when Stark’s team essentially took a major job away from him, putting his livelihood at severe risk. When you are desperate and have mouths to feed, what do you do? Maybe he was a little unstable to start with, maybe he snapped. Either way, is Toomes really the villain in this piece? Let’s forget about the guy he vaporizes for a second and take a look at the fact that most of his antics are a big middle finger to Stark for essentially ruining his life. Can we really blame him?
Ben Linus (Michael Emerson on Lost): Ok, so he did totally kill the Dharma Initiative. And he was responsible for more bloodshed and drama later. Stay with me. When we see Ben’s start and especially teen Ben’s abusive relationship with his Dad, the leader of the Others becomes a bit more sympathetic. He is a product of the environment he is born into. One can also argue that when Sayid shoots him and forces Kate and Sawyer to bring him to the immortal Richard Alpert for saving, it’s actually Sayid that sets him up as the villain we see later. Ben is never really worthy of the island and the magical place kind of uses him, which when you are seeking validation from somewhere, really messes with your sense of self.
The Wicked Witch of the West: The real villain in The Wizard of Oz is Glinda. Let’s just be honest. Glinda manipulates Dorothy from the moment she sets foot in Munchkinland, forcing the girl to steal a dead woman’s shoes, which severely pisses off her mourning sister—The Wicked Witch of the West. But who gave her that title? Probably Glinda. With her pretty cascading curls and her sparkly dress, she can’t possibly be evil, right? It’s gotta be the green-skinned chick in black! Wrong! Don’t let her awesome bubble transportation service fool you. All Westie (Elphaba for you Wicked fans) wants is what’s left of her sister. Instead, she is forced to chase Dorothy and her ragtag team around Oz and deal with Glinda’s magical obstacles along the way. When she’s just about had enough, she has no choice but to get aggressive with her monkeys, only to be thwarted by a bucket of water.
Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther): It makes sense that Erik Killmonger became a maniac. His father is murdered (by his own brother) and little Erik finds the body. He comes to learn that he’s part of a royal family in a nation that is the most technologically advanced in the world, where people of color are not persecuted, enslaved, or worse as they are in the good ol’ US of A. Of course, he’s a little bitter. He was abandoned to live in a world that hated him and with no support system to get him through. Who can blame him for snapping and seeking revenge? Doesn’t excuse the mass murder, but he’s not a villain simply because he likes torturing people (Hi again, Joker).