In movies, nothing is as black and white as it seems. Even the most kind-hearted good guy can shock audiences in the final act by suddenly turning into a dirty rotten scoundrel. Filmmakers seem to love pulling the rug out from under their viewers, which is why some of cinema’s most prominent villains started out as unrecognizably nice.
One of the most famous good guys who took a turn for the dark side is none other than Darth Vader. In “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” (1977), the masked villain seems as if he does not have a shred of goodness or light left in him. With his ominous mechanical breathing and his penchant for crunching his lackeys’ necks using only his mind, Darth Vader is about as evil as they come. By the time “Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi” (1983) rolled around, audiences finally learned that Darth Vader was not always such a bad guy.
In “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” (1999), the villain’s true past becomes clearer. He was once an innocent and precocious child, with a mysterious origin story and the potential to do great things. In “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” (2005), viewers watch the young man transform into someone twisted and corrupted by the dark side of the force.
Gotham City has a way of turning the good-hearted and innocent into super villains. It might be something in the water, but it seems to happen frequently. For instance, in Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns” (1972), Michelle Pfeiffer plays Selina Kyle, a sweet and unassuming secretary. When Selina accidently stumbles across some compromising information, her unscrupulous boss shoves her out a window and leaves her for dead.
Behind the murderer’s back, however, Selina survives the attempt on her life. Not only does she survive, but her pleasantly meek personality transforms into something ruthless and powerful. Now on her way to becoming Catwoman, Selina violently trashes her apartment. As she goes on her rampage, the text of the perky light display on her wall changes from HELLO THERE to HELL HERE. This is one of cinema’s best symbols for the transformation from the meek underdog to the relentless villain.
In “The Dark Knight” (2008), Catwoman loses her role as Gotham City’s top good-guy-gone-bad. Harvey Dent is an all-American hero, as wholesome as apple pie and baseball. With his blonde hair and strong jaw line, Dent seems like more of a good guy than Batman himself. The idealistic and hardworking district attorney is ready to clear the city of the corrupt mob bosses who reign over Gotham. Batman even recognizes Dent’s similarities to himself, and Dent’s nickname is the White Knight.
Dent undergoes an even more jarring transformation than Selina Kyle before him. After his girlfriend dies in a tragic explosion, Dent swears to wreak revenge those responsible for her death. In addition, the same tragedy that takes his girlfriend’s life also leaves Dent horribly disfigured. While one side of his face is still traditionally handsome, the other half is now monstrously scarred. With his entire life turned violently upside down, Dent becomes Two-Face, a villain hell-bent on punishing those who wronged him. His ruthlessness is a stark contrast to his altruism and heroic qualities. Along with Catwoman, Two-Face stalks the streets of Gotham City, his good guy past nearly forgotten.
Movies based on comic books seem especially likely to feature heroes that turn into villains. In “X-Men: First Class” (2011), Raven Darkholme starts out as a good friend and confidante of Charles Xavier. She is as close to him as a sister, and the two are inseparable. Xavier tries to help Raven feel better about her mutation, and Raven supports Xavier’s grand ambitions. By the end of the movie, though, there is a lasting rift between the two. Raven has decided that she agrees more with Magneto’s approach towards non-mutants. Now a member of the Brotherhood of Mutants, Mystique will be a villain for most of the X-Men franchise. Xavier’s knowledge of Mystique’s past only makes their rivalry more potent.
Even children’s movies sometimes feature villains who started out as nice guys. In “The Incredibles” (2008), Syndrome has a sympathetic back story. Before he set out to get the Incredible family in trouble, Syndrome was actually an aspiring hero. Likewise, in “Wreck-It Ralph” (2012), King Candy was not always such a bad egg. His origin story reveals a much different character, one who is surprisingly sympathetic.
In some cases, these good guys became more intriguing after giving in to their villainous impulses. In other cases, the back stories add an important second layer to the bad guys’ motivations. Whatever the case, good guys turning back make cinema much more interesting.