There’s nothing quite like the genuine domination of a villain to shock an audience. While everyone loves a good "happily ever after" story — whether it comes in the form of a fantasy like The Return of the King, a rom-com like Sweet Home Alabama, or a superhero romp like Avengers — once in a while, we all need to be confronted with the triumph of evil to help us remember that life isn’t all sunshine and roses.
We’re not just talking about cliche horror flicks with vapid would-be victims willfully entering a scenario where they’re mercilessly picked off one by one. We’re talking about genuine dramas that depict antiheroes striving to vanquish their foes… and then succeeding. These are films that leave you pondering over the meaning of life and, frankly, how much it can really suck sometimes. Here are our candidates for some of the greatest movies ever made where the villain actually wins.
The Empire Strikes Back
The Star Wars universe is no stranger to the bad guys being on top, with warring space factions trading blows back and forth across various conflicts. Rogue One and Revenge of the Sith certainly end on some down notes, but the series’ most iconic Dark Side victory came in the middle chapter of the original trilogy. Following the first film, which left off on a Death Star-destroying high, The Empire Strikes Back came crashing back down to reality when it opened with the crushing defeat of the Rebel base on Hoth. While the movie splinters at that point, following Luke’s training with Yoda on Dagobah and Han and Leia’s narrow evasion of Imperial pursuers, the paths of the protagonists ultimately lead back to Lando Calrissian’s floating haven, Cloud City.
Unfortunately, when Darth Vader and his minions show up in Calrissian’s realm, things quickly go south for everyone. Han Solo is tortured and used as a test subject for carbon freezing, leaving him in suspended animation. Calrissian loses his city. Luke is lured into a trap where he is devastated to find out that his most hated enemy (who has just cut off his hand) is actually his father. Needless to say, there’s no doubt that it was a home run for Vader and company from start to finish.
Not only does this one end on a grim note, it’s actually based on a true story. The 2008 film Valkyrie is inspired by the harrowing assassination attempt made against Adolf Hitler in the summer of 1944 by a cabal of German officers aiming to overthrow the Nazi regime. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) joins Major-General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) and other conspirators, who lay careful plans to kill the dictator and use the Reserve Army to maintain order and establish themselves as the new government. From there, they plan to use their power to negotiate favorable peace terms with the Allies, who are clearly marching towards an eventual victory at that point.
The film follows the story as it unfolds, with everything seeming to move towards a satisfying conclusion, almost making you forget that history tells us the crusade will fail. But alas, unlike Inglourious Basterds, Valkyrie is ruthlessly tethered to reality. Initially, the assassination comes tantalizingly close to success, with the planted explosives going off and Operation Valkyrie being initiated. But before long, reports surface that the Fuhrer has survived the explosion, and from there the plot collapses. The movie ends with Hitler still breathing and the would-be heroes dead, things having gone pretty well for the villains.
Life is Beautiful
Life is Beautiful is another story that ends with Nazis coming out on top. The Italian film was directed and co-written by the incredibly talented Roberto Benigni, who also played the lead role alongside Nicoletta Braschi, his wife of nearly thirty years. The film has won numerous accolades, including three Academy Awards. The first half of the film is light and comedic as it follows Guido Orefice, a Jewish bookshop owner in Italy who shamelessly pursues the love of his life with some slapstick bits of acting guaranteed to keep audiences rolling out of their seats.
But things take a drastic turn when the narrative jumps forward several years to a Nazi-occupied Italy, where Guido, his wife, and their son are sent to a concentration camp. Once in the camp, the bookshop owner uses his incredibly resilient imagination to tirelessly shield his son from the horrors around them, sheltering him from the knowledge that they’re on anything but a holiday. Despite the subject matter, the movie builds toward a happy ending… until, in a gut-wrenching turn at the last moment, Guido is suddenly gunned down by Nazis just as the camp is liberated. An emotional roller coaster, this one may have a deeper subtext of victory in the preservation of a child’s innocence, but the loss of the protagonist certainly gives evil the edge as the credits roll.
Another story with roots in history (why do the villains always win in real life?), The Crucible takes place way back at the end of the 17th century in colonial America in the sleepy town of Salem, Massachusetts. Yep, that Salem. Inspired by the Salem Witch Trials of historic legend, the film follows a group of young women, including Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder), who has had an affair with John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) and literally wants to put a curse on his wife in order to kill her off and have Proctor all to herself.
Already messed up right from the get-go — and in the special kind of way that only real-life scenarios can provide — the situation begins to spin out of control when Abigail and the group of girls are nearly caught practicing witchcraft and ultimately begin to accuse others to save their own skin. Of course, taking place in Puritan New England, these kinds of things were not taken lightly, and anyone who is accused by the supposedly innocent posse of girls has to either confess or be executed. The film ends with several characters, including John Proctor himself, refusing to confess and ultimately being killed. Talk about a depressing win for the forces of evil.
Avengers: Infinity War
Marvel has had plenty of tragic endings over their decades of comic book stories, but the MCU usually sees the good guys come out on top in one way or another. It’s a trend that has only recently been changing, kicking off in earnest when Captain America: Civil War began to pit Avengers against one another, leaving a host of angry, PTSD-ridden superheroes behind in the process. The slide downhill only picked up speed with Thor: Ragnarok, an otherwise fun movie that ended with Asgard destroyed and a handful of survivors setting out in search of refuge.
But it was in the opening minutes of Avengers: Infinity War, when we witnessed more of Thor’s people being mercilessly destroyed, that Marvel finally took the plunge into a universe where villains truly can win (at least for a spell). This colossal crossover event finds the heroes struggling to rise up and defend the universe, only for Thanos to finally pull off his cataclysmic finger snap that literally wipes out half of the universe. Has there ever been a higher cost to a bad guy coming out the victor? While much of Thanos’ mad destruction was "rewound" in Avengers: Endgame, it doesn’t change the fact that the Russo brothers purposefully made Infinity War a Thanos-centric story that was so focused on the Mad Titan, his victory upon the movie’s end is total.
Se7en follows detectives William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and David Mills (Brad Pitt) as they investigate a series of murders by a mysterious criminal who uses the seven deadly sins as his calling card. The movie gains speed as the duo uncover the first five sins (gluttony, greed, sloth, lust, and pride), but before the last two take place, the murderer, known as John Doe (Kevin Spacey), turns himself in to the authorities while covered in the blood of an unknown victim.
As the movie wraps up, the sense of impending doom is palpable. Doe directs Mills and Somerset to the desert, where he informs them that the last two victims will be found. Of course, they’re already present, as Doe confesses to being envious of Mills’ idyllic life with his pregnant wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) before a box arrives on the scene with Tracey’s head. Mills kills Doe, becoming the final victim of wrath. Messed up in so many ways, the storyline never leaves the control of the antagonist, with Doe in the driver’s seat all the way to the final minutes.
The Dark Knight
Another film which keeps the villain in total in control throughout, director Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight delivered more than just an incredible performance from a greatly-missed actor. Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker also marked one of the most iconic superhero films in which the villain clearly has his way with the hero from beginning to end. From the moment he enters the dramatic opening heist sequence, the infamous DC villain steals the show.
Much like the Thanos-centered focus of Infinity War, The Dark Knight revolves squarely around the machinations of the Joker. It follows his rise as he distressingly yet playfully antagonizes Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) while they progress through a series of showdowns throughout Gotham. This second film in Nolan’s epic Dark Knight trilogy leaves Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) dead, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) getting warped into Two-Face before falling to his own death, Batman taking responsibility for Dent’s crimes to preserve his reputation, and Commissioner Gordon destroying the Bat-signal (a symbol for lost hope if there ever was one). Sure, the Joker was technically apprehended, but, truth be told, he had everything his way from start to finish. No doubt about it.
Based on the classic 1949 novel by George Orwell, 1984 was adapted (appropriately enough) in 1984, and it’s a film that’s just about as depressing as it gets. From the infamous "Thought Police" to torture, brainwashing, and "doublethink," this one’s got all of the famous stamps of futuristic, dystopian terror. The film is set in a world where the single, united super-state of "Oceania" is run like a well-oiled autocratic machine, a machine in which every move and thought of its inhabitants is scrutinized for any deviation from government-approved behavior.
The story follows Winston Smith (John Hurt), a supposedly loyal worker in the Ministry of Truth. Smith "deviates" from the rules when he meets Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) and begins to secretly pursue an affair with the daring fellow thought-criminal. Of course, government forces prove much more powerful than two humans, and the end of the movie shows the couple as they’re caught and put through a system of "rehabilitation," in which they are tortured and forced to face their greatest fears in order to break their rebellion and ensure their cooperation with the regime in the future. From caged rats to that depressing ending in the cafe, there’s no doubt that Big Brother wins this one, hands down.
Unlike a lot of horror flicks, the triumph of Saw‘s villain comes as a clever surprise. Whether you’re a fan of the franchise or not, it’s hard not to be impressed by the twist ending that the first film in the series delivered, with Jigsaw rising up from the center of the room, bringing everyone’s jaws crashing to the ground. While director James Wan’s debut film was a horrifying success, that doesn’t change the fact that the villain yet again wins without question.
One of the first revelations of the film is that the saws so helpfully provided to the captive protagonists are meant for cutting not metal, but flesh. The climax becomes increasingly tense as Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) slowly loses his mental stability. But even before the saws come into play, the string of events orchestrated by the mysterious murderer are more than enough to showcase that this is a villain who knows how to win. From bear traps to barbed wire and more, Jigsaw is one of the most successful villains to ever lay in a pool of fake blood on a bathroom floor.
Christopher Nolan has a gift… for letting villains win, at least. In this case, we have a movie that is as convoluted as they come. The narrative follows Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), who suffers from memory loss every five minutes. This is a recent condition, occurring ever since two men assaulted and murdered his wife. After Shelby killed one of them, the other knocked him on the head and escaped, leaving him with his new mental handicap.
Shelby is dead-set on hunting down the other man responsible for his wife’s death, but plagued with short-term memory loss, he is forced to use tattoos and Polaroid cameras in an elaborate system to remind himself of what he discovers. The movie is filmed in both color and black-and-white sequences, showing different angles of perception and giving a sense of bizarre confusion that helps the audience relate to the protagonist… except Shelby isn’t the protagonist. As the movie concludes, we find that he has been cyclically hunting down and taking "vengeance" on innocent people for a year. Repressing this information, Shelby tampers with his own photographic evidence, allowing his condition to wash all guilt away within the next few minutes and permitting him to continue his villainous behavior.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
While Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s awe-inspiring Lord of the Rings trilogy has many happy moments, the ending of the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, is hardly one of them. As the film reaches its crescendo, the Fellowship has already gone through the devastating loss of Gandalf (Ian McKellen), but things go from bad to worse as the forces of Mordor close in on them.
Boromir (Sean Bean) kicks things off by falling to the lure of the ring and attempting to take it from Frodo (Elijah Wood). Unsuccessful and repentant, Boromir and the rest of the heroes turn their attention to a sudden attack of Uruk-Hai soldiers sent by Saruman (Christopher Lee). The attack splits up the group, with the villains killing Boromir and successfully carrying off the hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). Frodo, in desperation, flees with Sam (Sean Astin) across the river, and the two begin to work their way towards Mordor alone. All in all, this ending is about as chaotic as it gets and doesn’t lead to any one of the protagonists getting their way. Though triumph lies ahead, the ending of Fellowship is about as bleak as it gets.
X-Men: First Class
Though it’s outside the canon of the MCU and isn’t as catastrophic as Infinity War, X-Men: First Class is another Marvel movie that doesn’t offer a shiny, happy ending. In this prequel/soft-reboot of the original X-Men movies, the storyline jumps back in time to the 1960s to explore the origin stories of its heroes and villains. Particularly, the film focuses on the development of the relationship between Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender). It’s the story of a profound and meaningful friendship… until it isn’t.
While the movie itself brought a fresh spin to a flagging franchise, its story ended on a dark note, with the rise of an iconic Marvel villain: Magneto. As the film goes through its final climactic sequences, the differences between Xavier and Lehnsherr’s views regarding mutant activism come to a head, with Lehnsherr officially parting ways with the professor. This begins his journey as the chief antagonist to Xavier’s team, a rivalry fated to go down in history.