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Image: "Hancock"
Columbia Pictures
Will Smith's latest role as the reluctant superhero Hancock, may provide us with yet another unlikeable character that we can't help but love.
By Film critic
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/30/2008 2:38:33 PM ET 2008-06-30T18:38:33
COMMENTARY

About the best thing that “Hancock” has going for it is the idea of a superhero who’s not a good guy; Will Smith’s titular titan is petulant, rude, alcoholic, destructive and generally peevish. And he’s the hero.

Hollywood has a history of giving us characters who manage to simultaneously drive us crazy and win us over. (If you’ve ever been a teenage girl or a parent to one, you know the powerful irresistibility of the ne’er-do-well.) Talented screenwriters have often created winning villains so charming or charismatic that moviegoers have to resist the urge to cheer on their evil schemes or general wrongdoing.

Everyone has a favorite, of course, but these 10 examples are all wonderfully warped:

The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939): Her sister is killed by an out-of-towner who steals her fiercest pair of shoes, and she gets most of the best lines in the movie. How could we help falling for the Wicked Witch? When she turns up in the crystal ball, mocking heroine Dorothy with a sarcastic “Auntie Em, Auntie Em!” the witch speaks for all of us in the audience who wish that the leading lady would stop being such a whining little goody-two-shoes. The continuing success of the novel and Broadway musical “Wicked” seems to indicate that we’ve all decided to forgive her for the childhood nightmares those flying monkeys gave us.

Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) in “All About Eve” (1950): Stalking and back-stabbing have gotten a lot more sophisticated over the last half-century, but no one ever mastered the technique like Eve. As much as we hiss at her for all the terrible tricks she plays on her trusting mentor, Broadway legend Margo Channing (Bette Davis), it’s all but impossible not to feel a little sorry for Eve; the naked need on her face whenever she talks about fame and glory makes her ultimately pathetic, no matter how impressive her temporary triumphs might be. “All About Eve” gives us a second glorious rotter, acidic theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), but audiences don’t adore him as much as they hang on his every brilliant bon mot. If words were karate chops, Addison would be Bruce Lee.

Darth Vader (David Prowse and the voice of James Earl Jones) in “Star Wars” (1977) and its sequels and prequels: Sure, he destroys an entire planet and can strangle people just by looking at them, but Darth Vader is one cool customer. That slick black outfit, the deep voice, the ambitious ruthlessness — you just know Dick Cheney covets Vader’s approval ratings. As we get more backstory on the character in subsequent films, Vader becomes even more of a sympathetic character, so much so that we still dig him even after having to endure Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen’s irritating portrayals of young Anakin Skywalker.

Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) and its sequels: OK, yes, Krueger committed horrific crimes against children before turning into an afterlife boogeyman who eviscerated sleeping teens. But somehow, the producers transformed Kruger from hideous villain to quip-spouting, devil-may-care dispatcher of irritating adolescents. Most of the victims in the “Nightmare” movies were utterly forgettable, but Freddy became a pop culture icon, spawning countless Halloween costumes (even for kids!) and a TV show. Jason Voorhees had a similar career path from “Friday the 13th Part 2” onward — without dialogue, of course — making the duo’s eventual clash in 2003’s “Freddy vs. Jason” one of the screen’s greatest team-ups since Godzilla battled the Smog Monster.

Steff (James Spader) in “Pretty in Pink” (1986) — for that matter, almost every character played by James Spader in the 1980s: Spader’s bread and butter during the Reagan years was a role he perfected over and over again, the snotty guy who you wanted to slap, and then have crazy sex with in the back of his car, and then hold him in the hopes of finding the vulnerable spot in his personality, and then slap again. Whose heart didn’t break a little for Steff at the end of “Pretty in Pink” when bland Blane (Andrew McCarthy) figured out the chink in his Aryan friend’s armor?

Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) in “Die Hard” (1988): Granted, he’s a diabolical super-criminal who’s willing to blow up an entire skyscraper to cover his tracks, but Rickman makes this Eurotrash villain such a smoothie that it’s hard to resist his purred evil. Rickman brings some of the same qualities to Professor Snape in the “Harry Potter” movies, but die-hard Hogwarts fans know that Snape is ultimately noble and lovelorn, albeit something of a cold fish. And while Jeremy Irons is one of this generation’s greatest actors, his turn as Gruber’s brother Simon in “Die Hard: With a Vengeance” didn’t make anyone forget about how much they missed Hans.

The Heathers (Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk, Shannen Doherty) in “Heathers” (1989): Sorry, “Mean Girls,” but your high-school cruelty is barely a patch on this troika of teen terrorizers. The bitchy queen bees of Westerberg High rule with an iron fist and color-coordinated outfits, but their reign of snobbery is so over-the-top and features such colorful dialogue (almost none of which can be repeated on a family Web site) that you’ll have a blast watching them make their peers’ lives into a living hell. “Heathers” also provides a tantalizing peek into the no-nonsense pecking order of high school, and the emotional toll it takes on the queens of the mountain, so don’t be surprised to find yourself the tiniest bit sympathetic toward these harpies.

Catherine Trammell (Sharon Stone) in “Basic Instinct” (1991): While Michael Douglas’ coked-up cop is ostensibly the hero of this wildly overwrought cat-and-mouse mystery, it’s Stone’s cool customer of a serial killer who handily steals the movie out from under him. Whether she’s leading him on a high-speed chase through seaside cliffs or uncrossing her legs in a scene that Hitchcock wishes he could have gotten away with, Catherine weaves a wondrous web around all the mouth-breathing dolts in her vicinity, stuffing them and the audience into her designer purse. A few years later, director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas created another sympathetic psychopath in Nomi Malone, the hard-charging, ladder-climbing dancer in “Showgirls” (1995).

Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) in “Goodfellas” (1990): “I’m funny how? I mean, funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you?” Coming out of Tommy, these lines chill the blood, what with him being a hot-headed gangster who resolves most disputes by pulling out a gun and then later digging a shallow grave. At the same time, though, Tommy’s a trusted friend, and he’s good to his mother, so it’s no wonder that he keeps his best friend Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) — to say nothing of the audience — nervously on his toes, wondering which side of his divided personality will emerge next.

Kelly (Denise Richards) and Suzie (Neve Campbell) in “Wild Things” (1998): Sometimes a movie can come up with a plot so complex and convoluted that you find yourself rooting for the bad guys even when their plans are utterly diabolical. That’s certainly the case in John McNaughton’s “Wild Things,” a movie that’s a lot smarter and more wickedly funny than its reputation. Yes, Richards and Campbell have a steamy, soaking-wet makeout scene in a pool, and Kevin Bacon emerges from a shower with no degrees between him and the camera, but this isn’t just a soft-core romp. And the conspiracy that Richards and Campbell and one or two other cast members devise will have you cheering on their chicanery.

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