12 Movie Antagonists Who Are Secretly The Protagonist

List Rules
Vote up the antagonists who actually have the most important story to tell.

Sometimes the villain isn't really the villain. If everything was always as black and white as that, there'd be no intrigue left in storytelling whatsoever. In fact, from time to time, the antagonist of the story actually has the most going on. For example, does anyone really care about Rick Deckard in Blade Runner? Like, are there just a bunch of Deckard stans running around out there? No way, man. But people are very much into what Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty has going on.

Other famous baddies like Batman Returns' Catwoman and Ex Machina's Ava prove to be the most interesting characters on-screen whenever we're lucky enough to watch them. And don't act like you're not secretly rooting for Kong in his titular adventure. Sometimes, the antagonist is secretly the protagonist. It's as simple as that.


  • Which humans are you supposed to be rooting for in 1933's King Kong? Is it Ann, who has little more to do than be the apple of everyone's eye? Maybe. Is it the film director Denham, who keeps the true nature of Skull Island hidden from his cast and crew? Probably not. Is it the somewhat casually misogynistic Driscoll who ends up falling for the beautiful Ann? Um, no. Therefore, it is left to Kong himself to carry the heart of the film - and who wouldn't feel for the big ape?

    He's been captured from his natural habitat and is paraded in front of an audience in New York City. The captured titan ends up rampaging before succumbing to a hail of gunfire - but don't you feel for the animal on some fundamental level? Peter Jackson really took this idea to the nth degree with his 2005 reimagining of the original flick, with Andy Serkis's Kong feeling much more relatable than the majority of the film's human cast.

  • In the dark, technopunk future of Blade Runner, a funny thing happens during the feature-length fight between Harrison Ford's Rick Deckard and Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty: Viewers begin to realize that the true star of the show isn't Deckard, but the man he is hunting instead. This is obvious now, but at the time, the A-list Ford was renowned for playing charismatic characters like Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Alas, the muted performance of Ford isn't what stands out in retrospect. No, it is Hauer's doomed Batty who steals the show.

    The most memorable moment of the film - the legendary "tears in rain" monologue - belongs entirely to Batty, and that all comes down to Hauer's performance. Is there anyone that watches Blade Runner who doesn't feel for the white-haired replicant? The 1982 Ridley Scott classic lives on thanks to its incredible art design and ever-expanding multimedia universe, but it is Hauer's Batty that truly stands the test of time.

  • What is it about Batman that makes movies that are technically his feel like they really aren't? Jack Nicholson had top billing in 1989's Batman, and if you don't think Heath Ledger absolutely stole The Dark Knight, well, you're wrong. And when it comes to Batman Returns, it kind of feels like Selina Kyle's movie. Michelle Pfeiffer actually has more screen time than Michael Keaton. The movie basically serves as an origin story for Catwoman, with Pfeiffer's Kyle getting killed, resurrected by cats (don't ask), and eventually becoming an important player in the underground machinations of Gotham City.

    We learned everything we need to know about the Dark Knight in the first movie, so the sequel focuses much more on Catwoman. With all due respect to both Michael Keaton and his portrayal as Bruce Wayne, the most memorable character of Returns absolutely is Selina Kyle. Unless, you know, Danny DeVito's disgusting take on the Penguin is more your style. 

  • Ava - ‘Ex Machina’
    Photo: A24

    Let's be real: Do you even remember the names of the other characters in Ex Machina? Sure, you know the two other characters are played by Oscar Issac and Domhnall Gleeson, and you might even recall Sonoya Mizuno being there from time to time - but what are their characters' names? If you've sat down and watched Ex Machina, you remember Ava. Though Alicia Vikander's artificial intelligence functions as the film's antagonist of sorts, it is clear the movie belongs to her.

    Gleeson's Caleb acts as a conduit for the audience, and Isaac's Nathan is the spark that ignites the story, but everything comes down to Ava and her desire to be free. Is she a hero? Is she a villain? Is she neither? Ex Machina is Ava's world and everyone else is just living in it... they just don't happen to realize it until the end of the movie. Although, Oscar Issac proves he can really cut a rug in the movie's most memorable scene.

  • Bruce Willis's Old Joe from 2012's Looper is, for all intents and purposes, the film's antagonist. That being said, Old Joe also forms the movie's fundamental emotional arc, and while you may not agree with his actions - you know, killing kids is pretty bad - his reasoning for doing so is quite relatable. Old Joe's motivation for going back to the year 2044 to eliminate a young boy named Cid is pretty simple: Said child ends up becoming a telekinetic villain in the future known as the Rainmaker.

    In Old Joe's future, the Rainmaker is responsible for the demise of his wife. To save his wife from ever being killed, Joe heads back to 2044 to take out the Rainmaker years before he has the chance to become the Rainmaker. It's the old "would you kill Hitler as a baby" debate. Are viewers rooting for Old Joe to win? Not necessarily, but on a basic level, Willis's character certainly is the hero of his own story.

  • Everyone knows that Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name (AKA Joe, Blondie, or Manco depending on the movie) is the antihero protagonist of Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns. Eastwood's squinty-eyed visage is among the most infamous in Tinseltown history. Along with the titular character of the Dirty Harry films, the Man with No Name is what turned the no-name Eastwood into one of the biggest Hollywood stars of all time.

    That being said, it is the character of Lee Van Cleef's Colonel Mortimer from For a Few Dollars More that has the most going on in the 1965 semi-sequel to A Fistful of Dollars. Is he a little bit shady? Well, yeah. This is one of the quintessential Spaghetti Westerns... everyone involved is at least a little bit shady. But when Mortimer gets revenge against Indio for the murder and assault of his sister, the audience can't help but feel for the guy.