Radio vs. the Mailbag: Rooting for the Bad Guys


Let’s face it. Sometimes the good guys just suck.

More than once in fiction, we’ve been asked by a novel, television show, comic book or movie to get behind a hero who is insufferable, obnoxious, morally repugnant or just plain awful.

And sometimes, we’re given a villain who isn’t. Sometimes we get antagonists who are more interesting, nuanced,  or….actually morally justifed in their actions. Bad guys that we want to see win in the end.

This month, listeners, we have a doozy of a question for you:

“Have you ever found yourself cheering for villain to win (and the hero to lose) in a work of fiction?”

This is a question comes with an important qualifier.

We are not asking for you to name your favorite villain. Fiction has plenty of excellent, compelling, or hilarious villains who outshine their respective heroes. And we’re not talking about stories like Breaking Bad or the Sopranos where the main character is a “bad guy.”

We’re specifically asking about villains who you wanted to see defeat the main characters  and win at the end of the story.

Our hosts had this to say:

Casey says:

I thought long and hard about this particular Mailbag question, and after mulling over the options, I reached far back into my childhood. Who is the “bad” guy who never got enough recognition for his ambition? Whose struggle was far more compelling than that of the heroes? Who, unquestioningly, comes away as more memorable than the protagonists? Cobra Commander.

It’s only in hindsight that we get the opportunity to reflect on the glorious nonsense of our childhood. G.I. Joe were the Village People on steroids (and methamphetamine). They were self-righteous, do-gooders who never had the balls for finish the job. Of course, they wouldn’t ever catch Cobra Commander and put a bullet through his face-shield (for obvious reasons), but like Batman, this aspect of their moral reasoning is simply baffling. If you don’t stop Cobra once and for all (and use lethal force), then more shit is gonna get blown up, and more civvies are going to die. For all of their even-handed, White Hat nonsense, G.I. Joe was a bunch of pussies.

Cobra on the other hand is the literal rogues gallery. Their costumes more badass, their special weapons more insidious and their fucking theme song (“COBRAAAAaaaa!”). For the sake of this piece, I’ll assume that the whole organization is the manifestation of the ambition of Cobra Commander, who sees the world as mutable. And this is the truly admirable quality of Cobra. Sure, most of their plots involve building or capturing doomsday weapons, but at least they are using imagination. They are harnessing mankind’s creative potential to remake the brutish and mundane world. I mean, at one point Cobra captures Sgt. Slaughter and wants to merge his DNA with that of the legendary Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu! Holy shit, that’s amazing!

Plus, Cobra Commander looks like a bad motherfucker. Just look at him! Would you rather be rooting for this guy, or some honky Boy Scout with a buzz cut named “Duke”? 

Given this, I find it so sad that Cobra Commander is foiled every time… and almost exclusively on the brazen incompetence of his foot soldiers and lieutenants. They fuck it up. EVERY. GODDAMN. TIME. And sure, C.C. could be faulted for his poor hiring decisions, but he gets so close to doing something the world has never seen… remaking the two-dimensional, static, bland world into a chaotic, brutal monument to one psychopath’s totalitarian vision.

And certainly that would have made for better Saturday morning television.

Mike says:

The best example of me rooting for the bad guy comes from the afore-mentioned “Breaking Bad,” though not what you’d expect.

There is a lot of debate about the point at which Bryan Cranston’s science teacher-turned-drug lord, Walter White, became a lead character you could no longer root for. I tend to think that Walt crossed the moral event horizon in the middle of Season 3.

I tend to have a pretty high tolerance for lead characters who do nasty things to even nastier people. But there’s a point at which a character starts to become unlikeable. In Walter’s case, he was becoming more transparently ego-driven and paranoid. And he was starting to hurt good people to hide his own illegal activities.

And while he was often very protective of his young partner, Jesse Pinkman, he was just as often coldly manipulative and hurtful to him. Again, Walt’s sun rises and sets on his own ego.

But I was a bit surprised when I found myself expecting – no, hoping – to see Walt lose outright over the course of the series.

And a big part of that was the character of Gustavo Fring.

Gus Fring was an antagonist introduced around the end of the second season, played by the always-awesome Giancarlo Esposito.

Gus was a crime boss who, like Walt, profited from the drug trade. He moved methamphetamine and killed people, and had them killed. He was not a good person.

But he was also mature, even-tempered, loyal to people who were loyal to him, and he had a tragic back story. Gus was a guy who had very good reason to hate Don Eladio, the leader of a Mexican cartel. Eladio was those “even nastier guys” I mentioned before.

He had Gus’ closest friend and business partner murdered for no reason except to show Gus that he could.

And for the last twelve or so years, he had kept Gus under his thumb. In the course of the series, we get to see Gus not only get some really emotionally satisfying revenge against Don Eladio, but we also see Gus become a far kinder and encouraging mentor (along with his subordinate Mike) to Jesse than Walt ever was.

Gus and Walt form a working relationship, and almost immediately, Walt’s anger, paranoia and insecurity kicks in and ruins what could have been a smooth, respectful and mutually beneficial partnership.

When Gus finally has enough of Walt’s plotting and his bullshit, and decides that he needed to die, I found myself agreeing with him.

Walter White had become a volatile, megalomaniacal, cruel, and utterly self-destructive person. He became someone I could no longer cheer for, and I wanted to see him lose in the worst way.

And I wanted to see Giancarlo Esposito put a bullet in him.

What do you think? Have you ever rooted for the bad guy? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

10 thoughts on “Radio vs. the Mailbag: Rooting for the Bad Guys

  1. There are very few things that irk me more in narrative than a hero who wins because he’s the narrative equivalent of ‘the chosen one’, which is to say that he wins for no other reason than “Of course he wins, because he’s the protagonist, and the protagonist wins.”
    This is basically the opposite of the film ‘Die Hard’ where, despite John McClane totally deserves to win because, by god, he’s WORKED for it.

    The first place I saw this was in ‘Battle of the Planets’ a (pretty savagely) edited version of the anime series ‘Science Ninja Team Gatchaman’. I watched the show a lot because the character designs were super cool and the set-up was awesome, but, even as a kid, I started getting really discontent because pretty much every episode would feature the villain coming up with an elaborate scheme only to fail because the heroes would “just win”.
    They weren’t especially clever, skillful, determined… ANYTHING. They’d just… win.
    The bad guys would get the drop on them and you’d think, “Wow, how are they going to get out of this? And then… all the bad guys’ guns would just miss, or the bad guys’ death trap would just fall apart.”
    They just straight up won by narrative caveat.
    Of course, later, I realized that this was largely because of the massive amounts of editing that had to be done to appease Western censors, but it was pretty much one of the first shows where I consistently wanted the villain to win because the heroes just straight-up didn’t deserve to.

    The second example was the comic series ‘Preacher’. The first half of the series was great, as the unlikely trio of protagonists really had their work cut out for them with things going from bad to worse, and a blistering array of near-overwhelming enemies being arrayed against them. This culminated in a storyline called ‘Masada’ where pretty much everyone in the series was put into a near impossible situation, from which they extricated themselves with unbelievable effort.
    At this point, the series makes a sudden change, and a new villain is introduced in the form of Herr Starr. From then on, the rest of the series, with very few exceptions doesn’t really put the main character into any great threat and it seems pretty obvious that the author had decided that he’s ‘blessed’.
    Admittedly, he loses an eye, but that’s from A NUCLEAR EXPLOSION, from which he emerges otherwise unscathed.
    Meanwhile, the villain stumbles along in his wake like Wile E. Coyote, continually tripping over every landmine that the hero just blithely skips past. After twenty or so issues of this, I wanted the hero dead, and while he was still morally repellent, I wanted Starr to do it, because by fuck, after all he’d gone through, he deserved it.

    The third and final example is, ironically enough after what I said above, ‘Die Hard III’. In this film, John McClane spends most of his time stumbling around like a jackass while the film’s villain, Simon, thinks and plans rings around him. Unlike the John McClane of the first film, though, we don’t get the impression that our hero is really suffering or working, just that he’s just bumbling along like a jackass.
    Meanwhile Simon’s plan is magnificent. It’s intelligent, thoughtful, and he’s really worked his arse off putting it together. He DESERVES to win.
    In the end, when he’s stopped, it’s not by hard work, dedication or self-sacrifice, but by dumb luck and a deeply unsatisfying plot device. Dude may have been evil, but after all he went through, he deserved to win out.

  2. Superman In Man of steel is Such an AWFULL character that I find Myself Rooting for Zod in this movie. Everything Zod does is a Heck of a lot more justified in his job.

  3. I can think of two right off the top of my head; the first is famous, the other ridiculously obscure.

    The famous one is Dracula. In Stoker’s original novel, none of the heroes are memorable at all except Van Helsing, and when you read the book Van Helsing comes off as really kind of an asshole. He risks everyone’s lives without telling them why, he refuses to explain what’s wrong with Lucy Westenra even when taking his friends into his confidence might actually have saved her life, and then when it’s time to stake her they all go to the crypt AT NIGHT, which is spectacularly bad planning. It wasn’t until the era of Hammer Films and their Dracula series that we got a Van Helsing that wasn’t a moron and actually worth rooting for. But that didn’t last and we were soon back to the Van Helsings being egomaniacs and dumbasses for the most part. The only one besides Peter Cushing that’s even worth the powder to blow him up is Frank Finley in the Masterpiece Theater adaptation and he’s hampered by having to be in a faithful adaptation of Stoker’s novel, which, as explained above, presents a Van Helsing who’s largely a narcissist dick that likes to risk other people’s lives without telling them why. (“You would not have believed me” is a ridiculous argument considering all these people– doctors and lawyers for the most part– are WITHOUT EXCEPTION obedient, credulous imbeciles who do all the insane things Van Helsing asks them after being brushed off with “You must trust me” or “all in good time.”) Kim Newman’s series of ANNO DRACULA novels, set in an alternate universe where Dracula did actually win and conquer England, are vastly more satisfying. And I’m very partial to Fred Saberhagen’s New Dracula books as well– the first, THE DRACULA TAPE, tells the story of Stoker’s novel from Dracula’s point of view, and though he’s still, you know, Dracula (at one point he reminisces fondly about how, during his ‘breathing years’ as Prince, he used to impale thieves in the public square until there was virtually no theft in Wallachia) nevertheless you are still rooting for him all the way through, especially when he points out that Lucy Westenra was actually dying from Van Helsing’s complete incompetence as a physician; he was giving her daily blood transfusions without any awareness of blood type, and turning her was the only way Dracula could save her life.

    And in comics, of course, there was the long-running Marvel Comics title TOMB OF DRACULA, where the vampire hunters aren’t quite as dumb as Stoker’s, but nevertheless they’re pretty damaged individuals, particularly Frank Drake and Rachel Van Helsing. The beauty of the Marvel series is that pretty much right up to the end, Dracula gets to win. Or at least not LOSE.

    The obscure one is the 1970s TV pilot for DR. STRANGE with Peter Hooten, where his adversary, Morgan Le Fay, is cooler than Strange, smarter than him, and in no way deserved to lose– it was largely only on a technicality as far as I can tell, and her dark demonic master must have agreed because she even got a do-over. This is all largely because Hooten was a complete stiff, he was surrounded on almost all sides with people who could act rings around him and did: Sir John Mills, Clyde Kusatsu, even Philip Sterling as Strange’s supervisor at the hospital, and voice work from Michael Ansara and Ted Cassidy as a couple of demons. Hooten never had a chance. But it’s Jessica Walter as Morgan that is awesome. She toys with Strange the way a cat plays with a ball of yarn, keeping him around only because she’s horny and thinks he’s cute. But there’s never any doubt she’s in charge. “Don’t defy me, Stephen, or I’ll take my pleasure from you another way!” Here’s a clip. Tell me she doesn’t totally deserve to win.

  4. As I said on Facebook, in Starship Troopers I rooted for the Bugs. 1) They never did anything to be attacked like they were, other than not be human. 2) All the human characters were reprehensible, and the human society in general (as portrayed in the movie) was way too totalitarian for my tastes.

  5. Yeah, I remember kind of rooting for Morgan Le Fay the last time I watched that Dr. Strange movie, but I don’t recall putting that much thought into it. I just found Jessica Walter more, er, compelling than any of the other actors.
    The first one that came to mind for me – and I’m not entirely sure if it fits this discussion – is King Kong vs. Godzilla. I know Godzilla is basically supposed to be this destructive force of nature, while Kong is more of a misunderstood, well-meaning giant, but man, as a kid I was totally rooting for Godzilla (which put me at odds with most of the kids at school).

  6. Oh, by the way, since Pol mentioned Wile E. Coyote, I have to say that – to the extent he’s considered the “bad guy” in those cartoons – I’ve always rooted for him…

  7. Oh, absolutely Wile E. Coyote. Emphatically co-signed.

    Also, I think you have to give it up for Captain Nemo. Verne’s actual Nemo, that is, not all the romanticized movie versions that make him a hero. He’s not. He is a ruthless pirate slaughtering innocent civilians because of a grudge that Verne never even describes in detail… but he’s so COOL, and the Nautilus is so awesome, that you sort of forget that part.

  8. Some additional choices from me:

    I really wanted Ed Harris’ character to win in “the Rock,” which is Michael Bay’s best movie, by the way. His evil plan actually has an altruistic motive — blackmailing the U.S. Government to acknowledge and reimburse the families of soldiers who were killed in black ops missions and disavowed.

    And even better, it’s all a bluff. He threatens to unleash chemical weapons on San Fransisco but never has any intention of doing it, and even abandons the plan when it’s clear that the government isn’t going to budge.

    I wanted him to win.

    Also, the Larry Niven book “Lucifer’s Hammer” had some of the smuggest, and most unlikable characters I’ve ever encountered in a book. When I’m on page 300 and the comet that the back of the book promised was going to give me a cool post-apocalyptic story STILL hasn’t struck Earth, I get more and more critical of my lead characters.

    When it finally does hit, I found myself rooting for the comet. I was legitimately hoping that it would kill all of the leads and give me a new slate of characters. It didn’t and I found myself putting down a book at its most exciting point, because I just didn’t care anymore.

  9. Pingback: Radio vs. the Mailbag: Tapping Out! | Radio vs. the Martians!

  10. A bit late to this discussion, but found this rather a compelling question.

    The one that springs to mind for me is The Matrix. The plot of the series is seriously flawed, but that is not the reason I stand with the machines in this one.

    The main characters are psychopathic serial killers. If you assume that dying in the Matrix kills you in real life (which is far more proven in the film than Morpheus’s multimedia demonstration of human bodies as some form of zero point energy), then anytime the fine folks of the Nostradamus come out guns-a-blazing they are killing actual people who are living out the lives of actual SWAT team members/police officers/old ladies and the like. And THEY KNOW THIS! It’s not news to them. They bring it up, and it occurs during the course of the film. Yet they blithely kill their way through this virtual world with no more care for the real bodies they are leaving in their wake than they have for littering the virtual ground with shell casings.

    Particularly egregious: at the end of the second film, you have Neo flying at some multiple of the speed of sound, literally demolishing an entire city to save his ladyfriend from impacting on the pavement, at which point he still has to magic-hack her heart back to life (seriously, it could have waited). He appears to cause the sort of damage one expects from a nuclear attack with, one expects, corresponding loss of life.

    Then there’s the antagonist: the machines. They are the dominant life (or force? they seem capable of multiplying and are certainly intelligent) on the planet, having won in a war against humanity instigated by the then human population. The machines really have no need for humanity (again, if humans ran as perpetual motion machines, we wouldn’t need to eat). And yet they keep billions of people alive in a world that is so fucked (by the humans, mind) that people cannot actually survive on the surface anymore. They use vast resources of time, materials, and energy to store and feed all of these bodies, and huge amounts of computational power and networking acumen to run a realistic simulation of life on Earth occurring before humans became so afraid of their manufactured doppelgangers that they would rather make the entire planet hostile to life rather than live peacefully with them.

    Even if we do assume that somehow, some way, a human body is more valuable as an energy storage device than a corresponding pool of lipids and water, humans would be a helluva lot easier to store warm with a full lobotomy than requiring constant mental input and a sense of agency.

    The real monster in the Matrix, aside from the cascading virus of a specific model of Agent Smith (thanks again, Neo), is humanity. The machines have nothing on the inhumanity of man.

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