They say a good story is only as compelling as its villain — and a villain you can sympathize with, one you can relate to, hell, one you can even root for, might be the most fascinating thing about a genre film.
There are baddies who simply wish to see the world burn, an endgame that cashes in on the siren call of chaos. There are bitter criminals seeking revenge, tycoons plotting global takeovers, Kree warriors carrying out intergalactic ethnic cleansings. These guys are all uniquely terrible, but it's fairly easy to root against them, as long as you're not a complete psychopath. But the villains fighting for a worthy cause, the ones drawing attention to global crises happening in real time – those are the ne'er-do-wells who make us squirm in our theater seats, who cause us to confront an uncomfortable sum of culpability. And lately, sci-fi has been exploiting that inconvenient truth to deliver rogues and ruffians that hold up a mirror to our own complicity in planetary destruction.
They're radical conservationists fighting for the kind of balance and eco-conscious ideals we all love to retweet on Twitter and then ignore in our daily life. They point to humanity as the problem, and while they offer some twisted ways of solving it … they're not completely wrong.
From underwater princes to billionaire CEOs, here are the sci-fi eco-terrorists who definitely aren't heroes, but they're not strictly villains either.
Thanos – Avengers: Infinity War / Endgame
Thanos may have an oversized ego and a chin that resembles both a giant nut sack and a molded Pringle, but he's also fully indoctrinated himself in the cult of population control believers. The Kool-Aid comes with some morally-questionable side effects — there's wiping the slate clean and then there's snapping your Infinity Stone-powered glove to eliminate half of the universe – but over-population is a concern plenty of reputable scientists have been worried about for quite some time. The world's current population is estimated to be around 7.7 billion people and we're consuming more resources and energy than ever before. That means we're running out of places to live, we're putting more animals on the endangered list, we're contributing to massive deforestation … basically, we're burning the Earth's candle dangerously low. Obviously, no one at SYFY FANGRRLS condones mass genocide – and even more of us question the logic of a being who possessed enough power to end worlds and yet didn't snap his Shar-Pei chin smooth first — but his original gripe has some merit.
Orm Marius – Aquaman
We feel for Patrick Wilson, we really do. Not only is his character in Aquaman named Orm (Ocean Master if you piss him off) but he's also pitted against the unfairly likable Jason Momoa, who plays a renegade heir to an underwater throne. Orm doesn't have the tattoos, the tan, or his mother's love but he does have his convictions and spends most of the film fighting to make humans pay for treating his backyard like their own personal garbage dump. And because we're all acutely aware of how humanity is failing our oceans — just take a look at the bleached Great Barrier Reef or the sea animals caught in the tons of plastic we toss overboard every day — we can't view his crusade as anything but fair and just. Luckily, Orm starts to pivot away from conservationism and call for the subservience of other underwater kingdoms. He also tries to kill Jason Momoa, which, you know, we're not down for. But cleaning up the oceans by chucking back the world's military submarines and mountains of pollution? That's a baller move.
Ra's al Ghul – Batman Begins
Ra's al Ghul, first introduced in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy as Henri Ducard, was an unlikely villain for Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins. Played by Liam Neeson, he first appeared as a mentor, teaching Bruce various forms of martial arts and helping set the foundation for the billionaire's vigilante alter-ego, Batman. He worked for the League of Shadows, a mysterious organization dedicated to keeping balance and ridding the world of decadent empires that abuse its resources — which sounds reasonable until Ducard reveals his true identity as the League's master and his plan to destroy Gotham. Turns out that even the best of intentions — like keeping rich societies in check — can quickly turn evil when your organization employs the use of plague rats and psychoactive drugs.
Poison Ivy – Batman & Robin
Batman & Robin may be full-on '90s camp but one of its main villains feels oddly reflective of our current #MeToo reckoning. We're talking, of course, about Uma Thurman's wicked botanist-turned-mutant-mastermind Dr. Pamela Isley, or Poison Ivy if you're feeling naughty. Dr. Isley worked for Wayne Enterprises, doing eco-conservation research in South America when her male colleague stole her work to create super soldiers and killed her when she refused to hook up with him. Luckily, the plants Dr. Isley loved so much brought her back to life with a few improvements — aloe for blood, chlorophyll for skin, venom-filled lips — and she used her newfound powers to fight for the planet. Poison Ivy's methods may have been suspect — unplugging Mr. Freeze's wife and blaming Batman was so not chill — but her mission to let mother nature take over the Earth after hundreds of years of enduring man's bulls*** feels pretty right on.
Carlton Drake – Venom
Sure, Tom Hardy played a man infected with an alien parasite that viewed the human body as some kind of all-you-can-eat snack bar, but he wasn't the only "villain" in Venom. In fact, it's Riz Ahmed's Carlton Drake, the rich CEO of the Life Foundation, that should be called that. Drake brings back a handful of symbiotes from space and begins trying to bond them with humans — experiments that usually lead to the gruesome deaths of the city's most vulnerable citizens — but the questionable morality of these science experiments comes from a belief that's a bit more rational. As Drake tells Hardy's Eddie Brock near the end of the film, it's the way humanity feeds off the Earth that's the real crime. "I'm not insane," Drake says. "What's insane is the way humans choose to live today. Think about it. All we do is take, take, take. It can't go on. We've brought the planet to the brink of extinction. We're parasites." Drake wants to create a human-symbiote hybrid able to survive on other planets and in harsh conditions so the strongest of our species can have a chance to do better. Would we? Probably not, and also, who wants to crave tater tots and pancreases all the time?
Richmond Valentine – Kingsman: The Secret Service
Richmond Valentine nearly kills Colin Firth in the first Kingsman film so of course he's the worst, but homicidal tendencies aside, this villain played by a lisping Samuel L. Jackson feels like one that could actually exist in the real world. An eccentric tech billionaire with an abhorrence for blood and a driving concern about climate change, Valentine plans to heal what he believes is an increasingly sick planet by forcing most of humanity to turn on each other. "Global warming is the fever, mankind is the virus. We're making our planet sick. A cull is our only hope," he explains and honestly, he's not wrong. Using SIM cards to spark a mass-murderous rampage probably isn't the right way to do it, but you can come at Valentine when you have a better solution.