Movie buffs know that, sometimes, the best protagonists are the ones who are rotten to the core – or at least somewhere close to it. The Suicide Squad, in cinemas on Friday (July 30), unites a squad of very twisted convicted supervillains, including Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, Idris Elba’s Bloodsport, John Cena’s Peacemaker and Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flag, on a mission to destroy a dangerous Nazi-era prison and laboratory.
To whet your appetite for the new film, here’s a guide to some of the most memorable villain-protagonists from film history.
Brian De Palma’s riveting crime drama is referenced endlessly in hip-hop and pop culture. When Bruno Mars sings “Michelle Pfeiffer, that white gold” on ‘Uptown Funk’, he’s paying tribute to her cocaine-addicted trophy wife Elvira Hancock. Even more iconic is Al Pacino’s ruthless protagonist Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant who arrives penniless in 1980s Miami and grafts tirelessly (and illegally) to become a powerful drug lord. Montana is a great movie baddie because he knows exactly who he is and makes no apologies for it. “You need people like me,” he says in a famous scene, “so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.'” Too right.
Gone Girl (2014)
Rosamund Pike reinvents the Hitchcock blonde for a new generation in David Fincher’s scintillating psychological thriller. She plays Amy Elliott Dunne, a smart and charming Manhattanite who seems like the ideal wife, but is actually trying to frame her cheating husband (Ben Affleck) for murder. Along the way, she delivers a crisp evisceration of the deeply sexist “cool girl” myth that men like her husband believe in. “Men actually think this girl exists,” she says with weary exasperation. “Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl.” She’s right – and it’s Amy’s ability to pretend convincingly that makes her such a compelling villain.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Directed by Martin Scorsese, Taxi Driver is a mesmerising and deeply unsettling character study. Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle is a Vietnam War veteran who suffers from extreme PTSD, paranoid psychosis and violent fantasies while driving his cab through a murky vision of New York City. Though the press hails him as a heroic vigilante when he kills a group of creeps who prey on Jodie Foster’s child prostitute, Bickle gets no redemption. We’re left wondering whether he’ll kill again, and to what end – an ambiguity that makes him a truly enduring movie villain.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian crime film caused such a media storm that it was withdrawn from British cinemas in 1974 at the director’s behest – it wouldn’t be screened legally in the UK for another 26 years. Based on a novel by Anthony Burgess, it follows the ultraviolent exploits of Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell), a teenage sociopath who commits rape, theft and murder while waxing lyrical on classical music. DeLarge has undeniable charisma and a clear awareness that his actions are morally wrong, which makes him – and Kubrick’s film – all the more chilling.
Training Day (2001)
Denzel Washington deservedly won an Oscar for his menacing performance in Antoine Fuqua’s gritty crime thriller. He plays Alonzo Harris, an LAPD narcotics officer who’s so bent he behaves more like one of gangsters he’s supposed to apprehend. Harris is utterly ruthless in trying to corrupt Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), a junior officer he’s meant to be evaluating, even tricking him into smoking angel dust while on duty. Though he boasts that “King Kong ain’t got shit on me,” his comeuppance comes, rather ironically, on a rare occasion when he follows the law. It’s a perfectly poetic downfall.
Basic Instinct (1992)
Erotic thrillers may have fallen out of fashion, but Paul Verhoeven’s kitschy classic remains fascinating. Sharon Stone eats up the screen as Catherine Tramell, a successful crime novelist whose latest book mirrors the real-life murder of an ageing rock star. Did she kill him, or is someone trying to frame her? Whip-smart, unflappable and deliberately provocative, she’s a classic villain-protagonist who runs rings around her male adversary, Michael Douglas’s smitten homicide detective Nick Curran. Just make sure you skip the ropey 2006 sequel.
Todd Phillips’ psychological thriller gives an iconic DC villain a horribly believable origin story. Captivatingly played by Joaquin Phoenix, Arthur Fleck is a failed stand-up comedian who curdles into a sadistic serial killer as he’s pushed further and further towards society’s fringes. It’s a wildly unsettling ride that makes the Joker scarier than ever before: because he’s a toxic by-product of the cruel society he lives in, we can’t write off his abhorrent behaviour as a tragic anomaly. In a way, all of Gotham City has to shoulder the blame for his dark deeds.
The Suicide Squad is in cinemas on Friday, July 30.