I can’t be the only Marvel movie fan who thought the wrong king might have won at the end of Black Panther, right? No disrespect to Chadwick Boseman or King T’Challa, but Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger—a.k.a. Erik Stevens, a.k.a. N’Jadaka—was the clear star of 2018’s most visually exciting superhero throw-down, and it’s hard not to want to see him ultimately win the day. Part of it is Jordan’s pure, retainer-cracking charisma. But there’s also the legitimacy of the anger at Killmonger’s core: Denied his birthright in an African utopia, and forced to grow up at the bottom rung of a country that’s never afraid to kick down (especially if you’re Black), Killmonger wants to upend an unquestionably shitty social order in the most immediate way possible. And sure, there might be better solutions than planet-wide mass murder, but it’s hard not to be carried away by his idealistic anger when that fury starts to flow.
Agatha Trunchbull terrorizes children and teachers, kicks cats, and almost certainly murdered her brother-in-law. But I still can’t help root for her in the 1996 film Matilda. There’s a tragic pathos under the surface of all that abuse: She went from successful Olympic athlete to embittered elementary school principal, and that fall from grace is never explored. What happened to her? Why did an Olympian who hates children become a principal? Much of my love for Trunchbull comes from Pam Ferris’ gleeful, over-the-top portrayal, too. She steals every scene she’s in, to the point where the movie feels downright dull when she’s not in it, chewing scenery, insulting children, and throwing girls by their pigtails.
I’ll always take the Autobots over the Decepticons and the Rebels over the Empire, but even I have to give it up for Mr. Freeze. Sure, he kills people and he occasionally tries to destroy Gotham City with a big ice beam of some kind, but he’s really just a variation on the tragic criminal who has to steal bread to feed his family. He’s trying to get money to continue his medical experiments instead of stealing bread, and he’s trying to keep his frozen wife alive until he can cure her terminal illness instead of feeding his family, so the justification for his crimes seems similarly understandable. That’s mostly the Batman: The Animated Series version of the character, but even the one from Batman And Robin was just a man who loved his wife (and he also thought puns were pretty… cool). Really, if not for the fact that Mr. Freeze sometimes kills police officers and bank security guards, he’d be a pretty… ice guy.
Almost every character on Game Of Thrones has lied, stolen, maimed, and/or murdered to preserve themselves or exact revenge for their loved ones, but few of them seem to do it as cruelly, and savor it as wholly, as Cersei Lannister. The lengths to which she has gone to make someone pay for crossing her or her family—making Ellaria Sand watch her own daughter slowly succumb to poison, loosing The Mountain on Septa Unella—are absolutely terrifying. On the other hand, it’s easy to recognize it all—as many published defenses of her character have done—as a response to a lifetime of trauma and lack of agency. She almost met her match in the Faith Militant, and like most people, I relished seeing her taste her own medicine, even while feeling the deep humiliation and rage of her Walk Of Atonement. But we all knew her revenge would be more devastating than ever, and to watch her spend the entire sixth season patiently plotting it was so goddamn satisfying. I haven’t read the books and don’t know George R.R. Martin’s original characterization of Cersei, but the image of Lena Headey silently watching from afar as the Sept Of Baelor is consumed by wildfire, wine glass in hand and subtle smirk across her face, is one of my favorites in TV history.
I’ve probably rooted for a lot of bad guys in my time—I always choose evil when video games give me a choice—but my favorite bad guy to root for is unquestionably Al Swearengen, from Deadwood. It’s easy to forget that he is the ostensible bad guy when the show begins, positioned opposite the hyper-moral Sheriff Bullock, especially as more homicidal antagonists take over the plot in later episodes. But Swearengen’s still a murderer, a crook, a pimp, and worse, a clear-cut foil to the forces of civilization and good threatening to spoil his tidy little operation. Still, he steals the show, in part thanks to David Milch’s wonderfully profane language and in part because of how Ian McShane tears into those beefy, Shakespearean monologues. Thank god they’ve finally green-lit that damn movie, so I’ll know if all my rooting paid off.
If I’m riding on Sam’s coattails with my answer, it’s only because Batman is unique for having a rogues’ gallery that’s far more interesting than our chiropterology-obsessed hero. And Ra’s Al Ghul is just one of the coolest comic book villains, period. He’s the head of the sufficiently evil League Of Assassins, but his overarching supervillainy is the kind of extreme environmentalism that’s come into vogue as a motivator for egomaniacal mass murderers everywhere. Earth is teetering on destruction, and what better way to facilitate a cure than by eradicating humanity? In my darker moments, it’s a belief my hippie-tinged misanthropy is certainly sympathetic to, but Ra’s really sells it by being thoughtful, intense, clever, and always coordinating spectacular capes with his suits. He’s also nearly immortal due to periodic baths taken in the righteous-sounding Lazarus pits, and his quasi-sideburns/beard tufts are the template on which all villainous facial hair should be based on. He has a deep respect for Batman and has worked alongside him for shared purposes on multiple occasions, while also attempting to bring him into his family and make him heir to the League. It’s the kind of measured and ambiguous tension that makes Al Ghul so fascinating.
Put me in the “Ursula was right” camp. I was too young and dumb to recognize her greatness when I first saw The Little Mermaid: her Divine-inspired design, strapless dress, and killer lipstick were all elements I’d have to wait a few years to appreciate. While I can’t endorse her entering into a contract with a 15-year-old—mermaids live to be about 300 years old, per the Hans Christian Andersen story, which just makes it worse—Ursula makes a great point (in verse, no less) about steering clear of the kind of guy who doesn’t care if you ever speak so long as you’re beautiful.