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Ghostbusters
Photograph: Columbia Pictures

Movie heroes who are actually full-blown villains

From high-school sociopaths to suspicious nannies: the ‘heroes’ we should be hissing

Phil de Semlyen
Edited by
Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Andy Kryza
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What do Ferris Bueller, the Ghostbusters and Mrs Doubtfire all have in common – aside from the makings of a deranged dinner party? They're all billed as the heroes of their movies. But are they really?

As any actor will tell you, there are no out-and-out villains, just complex figures with nuanced back stories who, sure, occasionally do really terrible things. But it cuts both ways: The putative heroes of a few classic movies are often not as golden as they appear – or that the movie in question sets them up to be. So if you’re one of those people who, like us, feels like the weaselly Dean Rooney might have been onto something with his pathological distrust of Ferris Bueller, you might find a few other surprising anti-Maleficents on this list.

Ferris Bueller
  • Film
  • Comedy

Movie: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

Played by: Matthew Broderick

Ferris Bueller is one of the most charismatic characters of ‘80s comedy, but they also say Mussolini was rather charming. So sure, he has a certain joie de vivre about him, but Ferris is also a calculating sociopath who leaves ruined lives in his wake, from his meek best friend staring down the wrath of a neglectful father to a concerned principal who rightfully pursued him after seeing through a web of lies, computer hacking and fraudulent death notices. Even the snooty concierge who called bullshit on this twit’s claim to be the Sausage King of Chicago is likely to be reprimanded due to Ferris’s selfish behavior. And what will become of the funds raised through the various ‘Save Ferris’ campaigns? We’re guessing they’re not getting donated to cancer research.

Popeye Doyle
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Movie: The French Connection (1971)

Played by: Gene Hackman

You can argue that hard-nosed gumshoe Popeye Doyle’s brutish ways are a response to a brutal world. And yes, that’s kind of the point in William Friedkin’s gritty cop drama. Still, between the man’s racism, his willingness to throttle a handcuffed suspect, his reckless disregard for civilian wellbeing in that iconic street-level car chase and his decision to straight-up shoot a fleeing suspect in the back, it’s a wonder this ‘based on real life’ cop didn’t become the impetus for multiple social-justice movements in the fictionalised Chicago. He comes off more like Alonzo Harris than Dirty Harry. 

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  • Film
  • Family and kids

Movie: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Played by: Gene Wilder

Let’s pretend that the kids touring Willy Wonka’s magical factory/Jigsaw fanfiction emporium survived their ordeals, being saved at the last minute from atomisation and incineration. And let’s pretend that the Oompa Loompas really were saved by Wonka and whisked off for union jobs at his factory and not, you know, enslaved. Those Oompa Loompas absolutely did not sign on to dislodge a chunky German kid from a chocolate pipe, or to dig a braying British trustafarian from the Bad Egg furnace. Wonka may talk about dreams, but in reality he’s a nightmare boss at best and slave laborer at worst, one who traffics in PTSD and horrifyingly bleak working conditions.

  • Film
  • Family and kids

Movie: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Played by: Billie Burke

When Dorothy lands in Oz, she immediately discovers she’s not only killed an unsuspecting bystander, but that she’s magically robbed her corpse of a family heirloom… at which point the dead witch’s sister rightfully demands her ruby slippers back. All along, it’s Glinda pulling the strings, sending the unknowing rube and her little dog on a quest to rid the land of Oz of her biggest rival. Dorothy is just a pawn in Glinda’s Machiavellian quest to rid the world of witches more powerful than she is, then claim the bounty for herself as she smiles sinisterly from the sidelines of the Yellow Brick Road. 

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  • Film
  • Comedy

MovieGhostbusters (1984)

Played by: Dan Akyroyd, Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson and Harold Ramis

‘Are you a god?’ Gozer the Gozerian asks Dan Akyroyd’s twitchy science nerd atop a New York skyscraper mid-marshmallow apocalypse. He responds in the negative, but the Ghostbusters certainly seem to be playing God, preventing hordes of New York ghouls from leaving this earthly realm and trapping them for a perceived eternity in a basement containment unit. The Ghostbusters basically operate a for-profit Purgatory, forcing souls to live out the afterlife in a Manhattan basement without judgement… a fate probably much worse than hell, given New York’s state in the ‘80s. No wonder the EPA (rightfully) got suspicious. 

Tim Lake
  • Film
  • Comedy

MovieAbout Time (2013)

Played by: Domnhall Gleeson

Where does courting end and grooming begin? Probably in the cupboard Tim uses to reverse time and re-do his hapless early efforts to score his dream girl in Richard Curtis’s rom-com. Sure, it’s a family tradition to manipulate space and time but just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Hey, at least Groundhog Day’s Phil Connors is: a) a prisoner in his own reality, and b) not supposed to be a big old charmer from the get-go. And he helps Michael Shannon score tickets to Wrestlemania for his honeymoon. You’re only supposed to get one meet-cute; any more than that is not cute, it’s creepy.

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Robert Neville
  • Film
  • Fantasy

Movie: I Am Legend (2007)

Played by: Will Smith

It’s sort of the point of Richard Matheson’s source material that Dr. Robert Neville – presumed last man on Earth – is the monster that the vampiric humanoids whisper about as they try to rebuild society, post-apocalypse. Of course, in the Will Smith-starring reimagining, that nuance is lost, leading audiences to root for his murder sprees while the new world order cowers in fear. In reality, Neville isn’t humanity’s last hope. He’s humanity’s jealous horrible vengeance.

  • Film
  • Science fiction

Movie: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

Played by: Liam Neeson

It’s bad enough that Qui Gon – powerful Jedi that he is – whisks slave-child Anakin Skywalker away from the world he knows and leaves his impoverished mother to die alone. It’s later revealed that Anakin is essentially being trained to be a child soldier, indoctrinated in an ancient religion alongside an army of adolescent zealots ready to die for the Force. We get the impression that Qui-Gon has done this before: It’s almost karmic retribution for generations of shattered lives when it’s revealed that the little moppet is the chosen one of the Dark Side.

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  • Film
  • Comedy

Movie: Love Actually (2003)

Played by: Hugh Grant

Love Actually is rife with characters who think they’re being charming but are actually disgusting (see also: Colin Firth’s borderline creepy obsession with his maid). But it’s Hugh Grant’s Prime Minister who takes things to deplorable heights: Essentially Tony Blair with a Bill Clinton libido, he spends his days actively pursuing an aide and abusing the power of his office in order to bed her, even going as far as taking a security detail along with him to crash her family Christmas. This man doesn’t deserve our adoration. He demands a parliamentary investigation. 

Seth
  • Film
  • Comedy

Movie: Superbad (2007)

Played by: Jonah Hill

Jonah Hill’s awkward protagonist from Superbad isn’t exactly a good guy, but we sympathise with him in his sadness over the impending separation from his best friend as the two approach college. But Seth isn’t just a confused kid: He’s a calculating skeezeball with a master plan. The entire movie revolves around him scoring alcohol so he can get Emma Stone’s character inebriated enough to sleep with him. And when his planned date rape fails when he discovers she doesn’t actually drink, he doubles down by whining, getting grabby and eventually vomiting on her. What’s worse, it seems like Seth is practicing for a collegiate career of similar assaults. Maybe McLovin really is the better roommate after all. 

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  • Film

Movie: Mrs Doubtfire (1993)

Played by: Robin Williams

Mrs Doubtfire takes great pains to paint Daniel Hillard as a sympathetic dad desperate to spend time with his kids, but the fact remains that he probably wouldn’t have gotten such a harsh custody settlement if he, you know, was a great dad to begin with. That his newfound fatherly commitment involves dressing up as an elderly Scottish lady should scar his kids for life, leading them to believe that their dad could be lurking anywhere, like some sort of hyperactive cartoon version of The Thing. That his tactics also involved trespassing, interfering with his ex-wife’s love life, assault on Pierce Brosnan, payroll fraud and various other crimes means this guy’s child custody should probably be limited to supervised visits in prison. 

Wilee
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Movie: Premium Rush (2012)

Played by: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Wilee (there’s a clue in the name) is a man who peddles in middle-class problems: He’s a trainee lawyer who finds the whole law thing a bit dull, so swaps it for a bike and the adrenaline rush that comes from swathing through crowds of pedestrians in order to shave seconds off a cross-Manhattan dossier dump. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s goofy charms sneak the guy a certain distance into the audience’s sympathies when the bad guys come calling, but there will never not be a meaty part of your mind that will be wilee-ing him to disappear down a manhole. Besides, no true hero wears this much Lycra. 

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  • Film

MovieYou’ve Got Mail (1998)

Played by: Tom Hanks

The sheer Tom Hanks-ness of the thing does a lot of heavy lifting in Nora Ephron’s good-hearted but fundamentally flawed Web 1.0 gentrification horror. Hanks strains hard to make Joe Fox, MD of a Barnes & Noble-like discount book superstore, likeable, but it’s beyond even his and his adorable Golden Retriever’s powers. The surname is a clue: Fox’s predatory attitude to Meg Ryan’s charming neighbourhood children’s bookshop, disdainful attitude towards his own customers and unscrupulous business practises make him a villain in our book. Also, what kind of a monster dislikes Pride and Prejudice

  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Movie: The Karate Kid (1984)

Played by: Ralph Macchio

Whiny Daniel LaRusso should have, first and foremost, been immediately disqualified from The Karate Kid’s climactic tournament for cheating, given he deployed the crane kick in a contest where face-kicking is expressly forbidden. Daniel is just kind of a prick who gets his own feelgood underdog movie, but revisionism hasn’t been kind to the little weasel who managed to ruin a Halloween party with his clunky costume: He’s straight-up the villain of Cobra Kai. Sometimes, hindsight gets it right. 

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Jake Ryan
Photograph: Universal Pictures

Jake Ryan

Movie: Sixteen Candles (1984)

Played by: Michael Schoeffling

A dreamboat teen who looks like he could be pushing 40, Jake Ryan is painted as the perfect high-school good guy largely because he has a crush on a nerdy girl he seems to be outright stalking. Whatever, kids are weird. But Jake crosses to villainy when he grows frustrated with his drunk girlfriend, hands her over to Anthony Michael Hall’s Farmer Ted – himself a known pervert – and tells him: ‘Do whatever you want’, before giving him the keys to his parents’ car and sending him careening into the night.  

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