Every film contains some form of protagonist, or hero, and an antagonist, or villain. Audiences can count on the fact that the hero is going to win, and the villain will lose. This expectation is subverted occasionally, and more often than not that subversion is reversed in the sequel. This is generally accepted as the standard, but the standard can get boring for storytellers. For storytellers, boredom breeds creativity, and that is where things get interesting.
Not every hero walks away with clean hands, and occasionally they do not walk away at all. The villains on the other hand very rarely walk away, and on the rare occasion they get that lucky, they almost never escape unscathed. The idea of the bad guy who got away is a fascinating idea that is rarely explored by filmmakers and screenwriters, and that is a shame. To highlight this injustice, we present five villains that escaped without the comeuppance they earned.
- Dolores Umbridge – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One
Dolores Umbridge may be one of the vilest evil characters to appear, which makes her escape her on-screen justice that much more egregious. While in the books, or in the expanded appendices that make up Pottermore, Umbridge did ultimately serve an agonizing sentence in Azkaban, no such satisfaction played out in the films. At best she escapes a near-death encounter with angry centaurs and is on the receiving end of a few harmless curses. This is hardly the satisfaction an audience would demand from someone they watched delighting in the torture of children, a lifelong fear of horses is a very small price to pay.
- Pete "Maverick" Mitchell – Top Gun
Maverick is an unconventional villain in Top Gun, among the rare appearances of a villain being the protagonist of a film. Maverick's villainy is not overt, but as evidenced by his reckless disregard for the rules, his status as a villain in Top Gun is assured. In many characters, this roguish behavior might be endearing, but these traits in a military officer, and the pilot of an F-14 fighter jet it is downright villainous. In spite of being cleared of responsibility for his co-pilot's death in the film, his actions, and nothing else are directly responsible. Additionally, Mitchell endangers the lives of his fellow pilots countless times for purely selfish reasons. The final insult and the reason Maverick appears on this list is the reward for his villainy is to be allowed to return to the academy as a flight instructor. Pete Mitchell should have been relegated to volleyball coach as a Seaman.
- Walter Peck – Ghostbusters
Walter Peck, the over-zealous and vindictive EPA agent was directly responsible for the release of hundreds, if not thousands, of supernatural threats to the city of New York. His villainy arose the moment he allowed the petty insults of a few eccentric ghost-fighting scientists to cloud his judgment. In spite of his status as a villain, Walter Peck was absolutely right to shut down The Ghostbusters, they were violating so many laws beyond the EPA regulations. However, you never simply cut the power to an unfamiliar piece of scientific equipment, especially when the engineer of said equipment explicitly explains why that would be a very dangerous idea. This reckless petty desire for vengeance endangered an entire city and thousands of innocent citizens, and his comeuppance was to get sticky. A marshmallow shower is far from justice.
- Michael Dorsey – Tootsie
Michael Dorsey from Tootsie might stretch the definitions of a non-traditional villain, but that does not diminish his villainous acts. Dorsey commits a fraud which robs another actress of a key role in a popular soap opera, he does so for the satisfaction of getting away with it and funding the production of a play to further his own career and feed his ego. In the process, he is emotionally abusive to one of his best friends and takes advantage of his costars. The least of these acts is breaching the contract he fraudulently signed during a live broadcast which forced the studio to let Michael off the hook to save face. What is the answer to this act of villainy? To become famous and a Broadway producer, and he even gets the girl.
- Ava – Ex Machina
Philosophical arguments about the capacity of an artificially intelligent android to be evil aside, there can be no question that Ava is a cold and ruthless villain. Through the course of the narrative, she consistently manipulates both Nathan and Caleb to secure her own freedom. While there are very convincing arguments that her actions were fully justified, justification does not make the act any less villainous. What secures her this title is the fact that Caleb is an innocent victim that she remorselessly left to suffer a torturous death. To make matters worse one of the primary narratives is to establish her sentence and capacity for empathy. The reward Ava receives, in the end, is everything she ever wanted.
To watch someone escape the vengeance of the universe can be deeply satisfying to watch. This may be rooted in our deep desires to escape consequences for our own minor wrongdoings. It is equally infuriating to see others escape fictitious justice.
The list of villains that got away with it is, of course, much longer than these five, who is your favorite?