The Guardians of the Galaxy are criminals [*manages to resist joke opportunity about the movie being criminally good]. Peter Quill is a thief and a self-confessed outlaw; Gamora is an assassin; Drax is on a campaign of continual violence and murder; Rocket Raccoon is a mercenary and an arsonist; even Groot has three counts of grievous bodily harm (although I think we all know whose fault that probably was). Whoever and whatever the Guardians become in the end – and however much their situations are not their own faults – there is no getting away from the fact that they come from pretty dubious backgrounds, and in a couple of the cases seem to have quite frankly enjoyed a lot of it. But really, do we actually want to imagine them being any other way?
Rocket was always predicted by James Gunn to be the runaway favourite of the group and now that we’ve met him it’s easy to see why: It is all to do with the enormously clever way in which Gunn has presented him. Rocket fights, he destroys stuff, he drinks and swears, he has a big attitude problem and an even bigger mouth – Rocket is, in truth, a bit of a dick.
But. If you need proof that Rocket has a good soul, look at his ears. He may snarl, scowl, yell and spit, his face and voice moving through a thousand anthropomorphic expressions a minute, but his little ears – the tiniest part of an already tiny animal – are all raccoon. And the result of all these things combined is something close to magical.
What it gives us is the continual heartbreaking reminder that he is just a creature, with not a lot to his name, who has had to fight for every last shred of his existence. This is why it is so poignant when Drax strokes his head as he cries over Groot – and the only reason that that moment is believable when it comes to Rocket. I defy anyone not to want to pick Rocket up and cuddle him – but you’d have approximately 0.2 seconds in which to do so before he shot you. In short (quite literally), what Rocket represents is a perfect embodiment of the infinitely charming line between the bad and the good.
The world needs its standard heroes as well, of course. But give us a character whose integrity runs neatly alongside the sort of track record that would have the authorities holding a coin toss over prison or psyche unit, and we’re theirs. From The A-Team to the determinedly reformed sharks inFinding Nemo, there is something about a certain combination of decent and devious that we just find irresistible.
Here’s a line-up then of a variety of criminals who can also, in some way or another, count themselves as heroes. Some are likeable, some are not. Some intend their actions, some don’t. What is most important though is that their being a hero does not in any way require that they change completely. Some of them do – but most of them don’t, probably because ultimately they don’t really want to. And thank God that they don’t. After all, when the Guardians were deciding whether to next do something good or something bad, there was only one real choice: It was clearly going to be “a bit of both.”
Léon – Léon: The Professional
Luc Besson’s 1994 French thriller Léon; The Professional became an instant classic for many reasons – the stylish directing, the intensity of the storyline, the flawless acting from all involved (Jean Reno in the titular role, Natalie Portman in her startling debut, Gary Oldman as the murderously deranged cop, houseplant as Houseplant), all served to make this one of those rare films that becomes more experience than movie.
But the central reason for Léon’s impact was the feature that was the most unusual: The relationship between a reclusive assassin and an orphaned 12 year old girl.
On paper, the characters of Léon and Mathilda are worlds apart. Abused and neglected but disarmingly spirited, Natalie Portman’s Mathilda is difficult to look away from and impossible not to love. Léon is dour, grim and distant – a man whose idea of a close relationship with a human being is stabbing someone rather than shooting them. His reluctance to open the door to Mathilda after the massacre of her family, knowing full well that she will die if he leaves her in the corridor, shows the audience exactly what Léon’s attitude is: He ends lives, he does not share them.
But open the door he does, and suddenly the audience are shown everything else (at least, everything that his houseplant has not already told us. Seriously – Oscars have been won for less significant roles). Léon may try his hardest to regret taking Mathilda in, but it is too late – his ability to love will from now on never be in question.
As their relationship develops, so too does Léon’s humanity. When Mathilda tries to convince him to train her in his line of work he resists. Whenever their relationship borders on the inappropriate – something that is masterfully handled both by Besson and Portman – he resists (panics, actually). And by the time he does tell her he loves her, whatever that love might be simply doesn’t matter; heard between these two lost and broken souls amidst the shocking violence of the finalé, it is possibly one of the most heartfelt and believable declarations of love ever seen in the genre. As he eventually comes to make the ultimate sacrifice to rescue Mathilda from this corrupt and dangerous world, it is clear that all he has ever known has paled into insignificance compared to the place that Mathilda has in his life – and he in hers.
Léon never surrenders his occupation, but it is his devotion to keeping things alive that finally comes to define his character; from the moment he opens that door, he is Mathilda’s knight in shining armour – who just happens to prefer Roope sunglasses and a trench coat.
Han Solo – Star Wars
While trying to describe Han Solo must be one of the last remaining times at which it is still acceptable to use the word cool. As unoriginal and hackneyed as it may be, it applies to Han because he has essentially defined it from the moment he first he appeared. Handsome, laid-back, quick-witted, nonchalant and a bit of a loner, everyone from school yard children to the astronauts in Armageddon have fought over who gets to be Han Solo.
With the world having known and loved Han for so long, it’s difficult to imagine how he could improve his cred any further. Until we remember that Luke and Obi Wan found him in a place that Obi Wan describes as a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.” After that, he may as well be a god.
Before being picked up by the Rebel Alliance in the Mos Eisley Cantina on Tatooine, Han Solo was leading a less than savoury life. A drug smuggler and a mercenary, he worked for Jabba the Hut but clearly with some of his own terms in operation. There was also a theory that he was a human trafficker, which many fans decried. Although, another fan-theory was that E.T was actually recognizing Yoda when he saw the Halloween costume version in E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial– something that was also widely disputed until E.T. and two of his mates popped up in Star Wars Episode I:The Phantom Menace, and everyone’s minds were blown forever (well played Lucas and Spielberg). So who knows.
But most importantly of all, of course, is the fact that Han Shot First. Or, for those who aren’t familiar with such phrases that sum up entire decades worth of fandom debate (and congratulations to you, by the way, for spending your life wisely), this means that Han Solo was originally a murderer. In the 1977 version of Star Wars, Han shoots bounty hunter Greedo during a meeting, and kills him. George Lucas wasn’t happy with this, however, believing the scene to make Han out to be more cold-blooded than Lucas had intended. Apparently 20 years of no-one else caring hadn’t been enough to convince Lucas that this wasn’t actually a problem and for the anniversary re-release in 1997 he included an edit that clearly showed Greedo shooting at Han first, causing Han simply to shoot in self-defence.
Fans were horrified at the change (again – 20 years Lucas had to work out that was going to happen). Han Solo may have taken some convincing to fight for the Rebels, but he redeemed himself the moment he appeared to help Luke destroy the Death Star, and eventually went on to become a Captain and finally a General of the Rebel Alliance (at which point his worst move was deciding not to come between Luke and Leia – concrete proof that being an entirely good guy doesn’t always lead to the best results). Han Solo didn’t become a hero because he had always been a particular type of person – he became a hero despite the fact that he hadn’t.
Let’s end with a couple of words from the man himself. In response to being asked during an interview in 2014 ‘who shot first?’ Harrison Ford simply replied “I don’t know, and I don’t care.” And neither, it is safe to say, did anyone else.
Travis Bickle – Taxi Driver
Robert De Niro’s “you talkin’ to me?” speech from Taxi Driver has been parodied in everything fromThe X Files to WWE commercials. I actually tried to count the exact number of times it’s been referenced, but stopped when the number reached 103. Didn’t want to seem lame or anything. Anyway, the point is that more people know this speech than know the date of the first moon landing. Yet surprisingly few people know the name of its orator – Travis Bickle.
Travis is a young veteran of the Vietnam War, who is home on honourable discharge and – to put it nicely – is having a little bit of trouble readjusting to civilian life. In order to cope with his chronic insomnia, he takes a job driving a NYC taxi to while away the hours but becomes increasingly disgusted by his experiences with the people of the city. He falls for Betsy, but then commits probably the worst second-date-venue-misjudgement in all of human history by taking her to a porn cinema (if he didn’t get a medal for bravery in the war, he deserves one for that). Increasingly paranoid and devastated by the loss of Betsy, Travis channels his depressed yet destructive impulses into becoming a latent vigilante, complete with an impressive arsenal of weaponry. Then he meets Iris – a child prostitute who he has seen occasionally while driving – and his ultimate mission is triggered, his campaign to rescue her swiftly becoming a murderous rampage that leaves three men dead and himself seriously wounded.
It is difficult to say whether or not Travis Bickle is really likeable. His reaction to the world around him is at least partially due to a mental illness, the effect of which is palpable throughout – yet the shoot-out we can only really summarize by saying that never before has anyone had more fun in a brothel. But however misguided Travis’ actions may be, there is no doubt that he is weirdly noble. His attack is on the right sort of people, his attempts to apologize to Betsy are touching, and when it comes to Iris his intentions could not have been more genuinely honourable.
Overall, Travis is someone with values so strong that he is prepared (well – pretty keen, actually, if we’re honest) to kill people to defend them – but he is also a lonely man with few social skills and little hope in the world. He is not just a criminal and a hero – he is also an underdog. And that, in the movie world of shady heroes, I’m pretty sure is a hat-trick.
Gru – Despicable Me
Of all the criminals on this list, Felonius Gru is possibly the most ambitious. Not aiming for money or a body count, not wanting to take over a city or even the world, Gru has his sights set on something much higher: Gru is planning to steal the moon. He also randomly freezes people in the coffee shop for no reason (freezing the people in the queue is perfectly acceptable), threatens to kill the neighbour’s dog, and makes a balloon animal for a boy who’s dropped his ice-cream, which Gru himself then pops.
Gru’s most nefarious moment, however, is his decision to kidnap three girls. Whereas Léon tried to keep Mathilda out of his criminal activities, Gru actively sought out some children because they’re essential to his plan. He then proceeds to fail spectacularly at looking after them and once their job is done, attempts to abandon them at a theme park. He truly is – as he so proudly claims himself – a supervillain. And this is exactly his charm. Voiced superbly by Steve Carell, Gru’s belligerent attitude is the reason we get such brilliant lines as (in response to his neighbour telling him that dogs go wherever they like) “Unless they’re dead,” and (when asked by the girls if their beds are made of bombs) “Yes– but they are very old and highly unlikely to blow up….try not to toss and turn.”
Gru does, of course, become super-dad in the end, his eventual affection for Margo, Edith and Agnes leading him to willingly hand the hard-won moon over to his arch-nemesis in return for their safety. Gru is also the only one of our collection of characters here who actually reforms entirely; he goes to work for the Anti-Villain League, which is where we meet him again in Despicable Me 2 – and which actually provides a very neat little piece of evidence that characters in their semi-criminal form are often the most likeable. It was a brave move of Illumination Entertainment to make an animation as its first film, especially when there are the likes of DreamWorks and Disney Pixar prowling around (and they do not – share – power) – but it was a very smart one to make Gru the sort of character that he was. The film was an instant hit, and carried on well into its sequel, aided of course by the excellent supporting cast of the three girls and the batshit insane genius that is the minions. But the studio’s cleverest move so far has been their passing on of the franchise baton to the minions themselves. We will always love Gru as an accidental super-dad – but there’s only so much nice we can take.
Dr. Octopus – Spider-Man 2
“Doc Ock” is at a distinct disadvantage on this list, in that he genuinely can’t put much of a claim to the whole ‘loveable rogue’ vibe that most of the others have. As a man, Otto Octavius was as gentle and as genuine as they come, but his conversion to villain-hood is absolute – and alarmingly quick. During a post transformation soliloquy, in which he helpfully recaps to the audience that he has lost his wife and dream, he does try to declare that he is “not a criminal”; not only is it actually too late for that however (unless he’s not counting his little rampage in the “Villains While U’ Wait” operating theatre), but Don Juan would have considered celibacy for longer than Otto resists turning to the dark side. To quote Chandler Bing, bullets have left guns slower.
Having fully embraced his new part (sorry), Doc Ock’s time as Spider-Man’s arch nemesis includes breaking into a bank, causing all manner of destruction to buildings, streets and vehicles, kidnapping Aunt May, attempting to murder Aunt May, attempting to murder Aunt May again, kidnapping Mary Jane, throwing random people to their deaths, and strangling Spider-Man. For someone who isn’t a criminal, he is doing a pretty good impression.
Dr. Octavius is rescued by two crucial things, however. The first is Sam Raimi’s delightful approach to comic-book film directing, in which we quite often get a sense of the frame-by-frame format of the original material which preserves the fun and the artistic license to ignore certain levels of character depth. The second is, of course, the role that Octavius himself plays in the end. Despite being the one responsible for the creation of the fusion reactor that will destroy the city if fully restored, after some convincing by Spider-man and a lot of mental and physical effort of his own, Doc Ock throws it into the river – knowingly drowning himself in the process.
One small spanner in the Doc’s criminal-to-hero mechanics is that he is due to return to the screen in 2016 in Drew Goddard’s The Sinister Six, as the super-villain who gathers together all of Spider-Man’s previously defeated enemies. But for now we’ll just pretend that isn’t happening, and give him the hero’s send-off he deserves.
The Soggy Bottom Boys – O Brother Where Art Thou
The 10th film from the Coen brothers hall of fame may not be quite as sharp or as sleek as many of their other productions, but it is arguably their most charming. All sepia tones and flowery language, and almost single-handedly causing a bluegrass folk music revival with its eye-wateringly gorgeous soundtrack, O Brother Where Art Thou skips along with a tone that doesn’t take anything too seriously. Which is exactly what can be said for the three main protagonists, Ulysses Everett McGill, Pete Hogwallop and Delmar O’Donnell, who we meet just as they are escaping a chain gang in 1930s rural Mississippi, still in their uniforms – and still chained together.
Despite McGill’s efforts at self-assurance and leadership, the boys stumble haplessly from wild situation to wild situation in their constant bid to avoid the authorities, all the while exuding a gentle sense of the slightly dim and the extremely unlucky. They cause a fire in the first barn they hide out in, but manage to rescue the pig; they meet George ‘Baby-face’ Nelson, and inadvertently join a bank robbery; Pete and Delmar get baptized and then fall for a group of sirens. Oh, and they get banned from Woolworths.
Their becoming heroes is also a complete accident. While singing on stage at a town campaign dinner, the crowd recognizes them as The Soggy Bottom Boys – the mystery singers of the record I am a Man of Constant Sorrow, which they recorded at a radio station sometime back on their journey and which unbeknown to them has since taken the country by storm. The governor candidate – Stokes – furious with the boys for causing him some disruption earlier on, tries to publicly expose and denounce them, but the crowd are having none of it. The sitting Governor sees his chance to win the crowd’s favour, grants the boys a full pardon, and voila – they go from zero to hero by essentially doing nothing but singing along to a guitar (which incidentally also accounts for about every second male solo act in The X Factor).
Except for actually, this isn’t how they become heroes – at least not for the movie’s audience. Let’s go back for a moment to Stokes’ little tirade against the boys for the ‘disturbance’ they caused him. He starts off by informing the crowd that the boys interrupted “a lynch mob, in the performance of its duties.” No reaction. He continues, tittering into the silence, “You see, I’m a member of a littlesecret society, I don’t believe I gotta mention its name…” and is greeted by more silence. Awkward. Eventually he plays his trump card – “they desecrated a fiery cross!” And finally the crowd react, not to this news, but to the fact that Stokes wants to arrest The Soggy Bottom Boys, and to the reason that he gives for doing it. Because that “little secret society” is of course the Ku Klux Klan, from which Everett, Delmar and Pete rescued Tommy a few hours earlier, having happened across one of their vile (and oh God so chilling) rallies and broken in.
Really, the crowd are more interested in keeping their new musical heroes out of prison than they are in supporting the fact that they interrupted a KKK rally (although I doubt even this would work for Justin Bieber), but it doesn’t really matter. The Soggy Bottom Boys are heroes twice over here, whether it is for their singing or for their saving of a fellow human being from a terrible death. What is particularly lovely is that to the boys themselves both times were accidental – because both were equally simple.
Snape – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2
Rarely has there been a better villain in a children’s series than Severus Snape. He is malicious, cold, unpleasant and sarcastic. He loathes Harry from the start, tormenting and thwarting him at any opportunity. He is relentlessly unkind and contemptuous to all students except a very select few. He forces Lupin out of work and goads Sirius into the battle that kills him. He is openly passionate about the Dark Arts and finally confirms all suspicions that he is in fact one of Voldemort’s most trusted Death Eaters. It was Snape who was responsible for telling Voldemort of the prophecy that led to the death of Harry’s parents – and finally, it was Snape who killed Dumbledore. Short of turning out to be the hunter that shot Bambi’s mother, he could not be guilty of a worse crime.
Along with Alan Rickman’s wonderfully lugubrious and incredibly sinister incarnation, Snape is probably the most convincingly corrupt character of all our entries. But if Rickman is an excellent actor, he is nothing compared to Snape himself. Quite literally at the eleventh hour, we find out along with Harry that absolutely nothing but nothing could have been possible without him; every last step of the journey, from Harry’s survival of Voldemort’s original attack to the final Battle for Hogwarts, has rested almost wholly on Snape’s extraordinary skill, commitment and courage. The double (and re-double) agent to end all double-agents, he could not have been any more immersed in the criminal world – yet this very fact was a direct result of his unfaltering loyalty. He may have exuded hatred from the moment that we met him – it is possibly the only genuine characteristic of Snape that we ever see – but his one and only motivation for doing everything that he did was steadfast, enduring love.
It is difficult to describe the depth of this revelation about who Snape really was. Once we’ve discovered it, reading/watching the series becomes a whole new experience as we appreciate for the first time the magnitude of what he had to do, and the strength that it required. In the end, no one can possibly express it any better than Harry himself, when he quietly and simply declares Severus Snape to have been ‘the bravest man’ he ever knew.
Maleficent – Maleficent
Despite the 55 years’ worth of being one of Disney’s most iconic villains, the studio decided to inform us this year that actually, Maleficent was not originally a criminal. Beginning life as a gentle and kind faerie of The Moors, she only became the bitter, vindictive woman that we all knew and loved once she had been horribly betrayed by her childhood friend.
….There was always a bit of clue in the name though wasn’t there, really. ‘Maleficent’ doesn’t exactly scream ‘beneficent.’ In fact, it sort of screams ‘maleficent.’ But Disney didn’t have a choice in the matter, so despite the tremendous effort to convince us that she did not start life as a villain, they just had to cross their fingers that everyone would look past the inconvenient fact that her parents at least must have suspected something from the start.
What Disney could do however is give Maleficent a completely different future – which they effectively did by making everyone else in Princess Aurora’s life outstandingly useless. The three pixies assigned to bring Aurora up are so inept that had the story taken place in the real world the police would likely have been more interested in them than in Maleficent. The spinning wheel room would have been a safer place for Aurora to grow up. While it was on fire. And whereas Stefan originally begged Maleficent to spare Aurora from the curse, and then wilfully underwent sixteen years of separation from his daughter to ensure her safety, he is apparently entirely comfortable with the possibility of killing Aurora as he destroys the castle in his bid to kill Maleficent. In fact, it’s almost difficult to call Maleficent a hero when all the other candidates for the role had the collective IQ of a brain damaged gnat.
But of course, the story is a bit deeper than this. In a classic tale of the bad becoming the good (while the good go crazy and fight to the death), the real focus is the bond between Maleficent and the growing Aurora, that develops despite all of Maleficent’s efforts to resist the little beastie. The connection between them is convincingly charming enough that when the twist on true love’s kiss is delivered it is genuinely the one we had been hoping for.
As for whether or not she can lay claim to the tiny remaining piece of wickedness that truly makes all good ‘criminal heroes,’ Maleficent has one clear advantage. She will still always be called Maleficent.
Jack Sparrow – Pirates of the Caribbean
Of all of Jack Sparrow’s (sorry, Captain – Captain Jack Sparrow) achievements, the most impressive is probably that he has managed to become as famous, if not more so, than Johnny Depp himself. (Jim Carrey was among the names originally considered for the role. Just take a moment to imagine that. Then perhaps have a stiff drink). He is also probably the most convincing argument that we like our heroes ambiguous. Jack Sparrow is one of the most beloved ‘good guys’ to have ever come out of Hollywood, yes? Now name three things Jack has done that are really, genuinely, one hundred percent good.
How’s it going?
There isn’t room here to list all of Jack’s crimes. This is partly because the franchise has now run on so long that the only explanation can be that someone at the studios keeps drinking themselves to that point at which anything – usually the same things – seems like a good idea (this, incidentally, might also explain why the rum is gone). But the main reason is that we just don’t have room.
Self-interested and self-promoting, Jack lies, cheats, steals and manipulates; he is disloyal and untrustworthy, and quite frequently uses his friends for his own purposes – or just abandons them entirely. Even when Jack does seem to be on someone’s side, he usually has his own agenda. He desperately tries to avoid shooting Will, but only because he needs his single shot; he promises Elizabeth that he will help her, but only because Elizabeth can lead him to something he needs.
But as difficult as it is to avoid how questionable Jack’s character really is, it is just as difficult to avoid liking him. For one thing, he is impressively clever. Somehow, despite the perpetual inability to stand up straight, Jack is almost always three steps ahead of any plan. He even manages to work in the odd rescue of his mates here and there along the way. (Not that he can be trusted to do that of course. King Stefan would win father of the year before Jack Sparrow could be called a reliable ally).
But really we love Jack Sparrow because – whether he likes it or not – there is a very high chance that he might just be a good man. As Barbossa says, Jack only lost The Black Pearl in the first place because of his constant attempts at non-violent solutions. And ultimately, when Will lay dying from Davy Jones’ stab wound, Jack surrendered his own immortality in order to give Will his. It was a moment we’d all been waiting for – and it was worth every second.
Jack rapidly recovered from his little foray into decency, however, and has since gone on being as cheerily treacherous and self-serving as ever (to be honest, he’s going to have to – he’s lost his other chance at immortality and by the looks of it there is a distinct danger that the Disney studios are literally never going to stop making these films. The apocalypse will come and there will be two things that survive – cockroaches, and the continual stream of new PoTC movies). But we will no doubt go on forever giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Is Jack Sparrow a hero? No. He’s a pirate.
Randall Patrick McMurphy – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
Compared to other sorts of heroes, R. P.‘Mac’ McMurphy is in many ways very different. No city-saving, child-defending, or years of unfailing valour for him, McMurphy has very little to work with other than the four blank walls of an asylum, and seven men in various states of mental stability. Yet from here he manages to become one of the most beloved champions in cinematic history – and one of the most tragic.
We meet McMurphy in the office of a mental hospital, having recently been transferred from a prison farm where he was serving a sentence for statutory rape. Immediately seeing the opportunity to avoid any more hard labour, McMurphy agrees to cooperate with a period of evaluation and finds himself on a ward in the company of some fairly alarming patients – and the distinctly terrifying Nurse Ratched. A diabolically manipulative woman, so hard and impenetrable that Thor could use her as his hammer, Ratched makes Snape look like Santa Claus. McMurphy may not be classed among the conventional types of hero, but his enemy is most definitely among the most notorious of movie villains.
McMurphy has little understanding of the men, and even less patience with them. But this is exactly where his revolution of their world begins; McMurphy’s disruption of the ward and of Nurse Ratched’s despotic regime is partly his attempt to relieve his own boredom and frustration, but it is also a direct result of his wonderfully flagrant disregard for any kind of authority or rules. And gradually, this concept reaches the minds of the wretched men around him. Whether he is teaching them to gamble, assembling a basketball team, breaking them out for a day at sea, making it possible for Billy to spend one night with a girl or just handing round Juicy Fruit gum, McMurphy’s very presence brings one simple message to their narrow existence: This is life – for God’s sake live it.
Unlike many movie heroes, McMurphy was defeated by his nemesis, and in one of the most grotesque and demeaning ways imaginable. The famously vacant face and motionless body of the lobotomized McMurphy are so heart-breaking because of the contrast of that sight with the person he had been before – with his spirit and his relentless enthusiasm for being alive. But as the Chief finally takes hold of the water fountain – and his own life – in order to escape the place for good, there is no doubt that McMurphy saved lives, even if he had to lose his own in the process.
It doesn’t get much more heroic than that.