Not Evil, Just Misunderstood

All I need is the chance to show you,
My heart unmasked and the face of my soul.
Or to slide on a beautiful rainbow, singing songs that we don't know.
We could sing the words with glee, if you would just play...
Just play with me, I am misunderstood.
Please don't judge a book by it's cover.
Take the time to get to know me and you'll see that I'm a friend.
I am misunderstood...
— "Misunderstood", Franklin and the Adventures of the Noble Knights

Villains are bad, right? They have evil plans that involve world domination, planet destruction, and kicked puppies.

Not necessarily.

Sometimes, what people call villains are just... misunderstood. They aren't necessarily evil or deliberately committing bad deeds, but rather, everybody around them assumes that they are the "bad guy" simply because their ideas and goals might not mesh or because they mistakenly believe them to be aiming for bad things. A villain might be misunderstood because of their appearance (for example, the Beast in "Beauty and the Beast"), as a result of family, by the nature of their powers, or due to circumstances outside of their control.

Can also refer to characters who aren't deliberately portrayed as antagonists, but are still misunderstood in a negative light.

Dark Is Not Evil is a close relative of this trope; a character who is dark but not evil is likely to be mistaken for a villain due to their scary exterior.

Obliviously Evil is a subtrope (despite the name), when a character doesn't have the malevolent intent to really be considered an evil person, but causes serious harm anyway because they don't understand that what they're doing is wrong.

See also Justified Criminal, Anti-Villain, Tragic Villain, Misunderstood Loner with a Heart of Gold, Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds, and, for nonsapient creatures, Non-Malicious Monster. Compare and contrast Hero with Bad Publicity. When a character decides to give in to the accusations, Then Let Me Be Evil results. When the fandom makes dubious or obviously wrong claims that a villain is this, it's Draco in Leather Pants.


    open/close all folders 

  • Tenshi of Angel Beats!, so legendarily bad at communication that it starts a miniature war.
  • Diva from Blood+. True, she's a Psychopathic Manchild who kills and eats people for fun, but she was basically raised as a research subject by the Big Bad; she simply doesn't know any better. Her twin sister Saya values human life because she had a normal childhood, and realizes that if their places were switched, she'd almost certainly be the monster instead.
  • Lucy from Elfen Lied only wanted love and acceptance. However, she only received bitter contempt, which culminated in some kids beating a stray puppy she took care of, the only creature in the world she cherished, to death in front of her while mocking her misery. This, plus the apparent betrayal of the boy she fell in love with, plus the murder of her best friend at the hand of the man who imprisoned her for years in a research facility that could be better described as a new Auschwitz, lead young Kaede to become Lucy, a full-blown Omnicidal Maniac bent on the extinction of Homo sapiens, so that nobody could hurt, betray, or abandon her again.
  • The "Demon Queen" in Maoyuu Maou Yuusha has all the visual characteristics of Obviously Evil and the Hero thought she was the Big Bad, but instead of fighting the Hero, she joins forces with him in an elaborate attempt to end the war between their races peacefully. If anything, she's the kindest and least evil character in the story. Most of the other "demons" seem to be victims of Fantastic Racism rather than actually being evil.
  • Poor Gaara of Naruto started as this. All he wanted was to have a friend, but the entire village was convinced that he was a dangerous monster (his seal was imperfect, so this attitude wasn't entirely unjustified), and this upset him, which caused the real monster sealed in him to act up more. Even after he finally lost all hope and gave in to Shukaku, deep down, he was just a lonely child who lashed out at the world to protect himself.
  • Poor, poor Gendou Ikari from Neon Genesis Evangelion. All he wants is to be reunited with his dead wife. It's just that the only way to accomplish this is to set off The End of the World as We Know It.
  • Pokémon loves this trope in regards to movie antagonists that are Pokémon themselves:
    • All Mewtwo from Pokémon: The First Movie wants is a purpose in life, but his means of obtaining it are quite questionable (though the dub makes him out to be less misunderstood).
    • Deoxys is a powerful alien virus that puts an entire city under captivity... but it was really looking for his friend.
    • Darkrai is a shadowy-looking creature who gives nightmares through its sheer presence... but it's really a softie, even after being hounded as a bad guy by Alamos Town, and its nightmares are revealed to be warnings of the larger threat of Dialga and Palkia.
    • Giratina is an Eldritch Abomination who seemingly wants to eat Shaymin... but really it just wanted to use its Seed Flare to leave the Reverse World at will and means no harm otherwise.
    • Kyurem is a Super-Persistent Predator who hunts Keldeo down to the ends of the region... but only because it wanted to finish a fight between the two of them, and it has no ill-will towards anything otherwise.
    • The Genesect Army are (mostly) violent cyborgs who forcibly evict several Pokémon out of their home so they can live in it instead... but ultimately, all they want is to go home, which seems to excuse all their actions beforehand.
  • Poor, Poor No Face in Spirited Away. He's lonely, shy, and so desperate to make Chihiro happy. Sure, some of the things he did were a bit too far, but he had good intentions deep down.
  • In Tantei Team KZ Jiken Note, Sunahara's reputation of being a Japanese Delinquent comes from being arrested twice on the suspicion of beating an adult and actual gang activity, despite cleared of any wrongdoing in either case. And after the second arrest, he already knew his reputation is so bad that he has to leave after confirming his feelings towards Aya. Strangely, on a meta sense, this trope helps to make up a "bad boy" for the All Girls Want Bad Boys trope, with enough street cred, while keeping him pure enough as Aya's Love Interest in this G-rated series.

    Comic Books 
  • Lex Luthor, Depending on the Writer, believes what he is doing is right and honorable. From his perspective, he is the hero and Superman is the villain. He views Superman and most of the other heroes of the DC universe as the greatest threat to mankind, and is determined to "save humanity" at any cost.
    • Honestly, Lex is his own worst enemy. It can be argued that Luthor does have righteous goals, but his lust for power is always his undoing. Not to mention being unbelievably petty.
  • Doctor Doom has only peace and prosperity in mind when he tries to take over the world; he believes that the world should be controlled by a capable man, and since he sees all others as below him, this means no one else but himself is fit to rule. In one storyline, he actually manages to take over the world, and crime, war and poverty are eliminated from unified humanity. A small team of superheroes manage to defeat him but are left pondering if it was the right decision, because all his achievements are lost as well.
    • Doctor Doom also rules the small country of Latveria with a strong but fair hand.
  • Magneto sees himself this way, and Depending on the Writer, he sometimes has a point.
    • Considering that most of his actions are against governments who have actively engaged in the attempted genocide of his sub-species. The American government in particular has unleashed genocidal kill-bots on the mutant population at least twice. He just wants the humans to stop attacking mutants, and is willing to use force to achieve this.
  • In Pocket God, Newbie says the trope name word-for-word when he smashes the girl tribe's Jewel of Life. He was a clone of Nooby who originally wanted to kill his predecessor, but a brush with death caused him to focus on finding immortality, regardless of what he must do to achieve it.
  • Loki:
    • In Young Avengers Loki tried to use this early on, comparing himself to Tyrion Lannister at one point. Of the three people he was saying this to, Hulkling and Wiccan were Genre Savvy and didn't buy it, and Miss American didn't know what he was talking about (and was Genre Savvy enough not to trust him). Justified since it's Loki, even if he was in cute little kid form.
    • Even before that in a 2004 team-up with Spider-Man Loki already claimed that "I'm not evil. ... I'm complicated.", so the jerk has been trying to sell this for a long time.
    • How evil he/they actually are depends heavily on the incarnation, story and writer, but even at the most benevolent Loki is dangerous (for example he can and will just turn people into magical jewellery for their own good).

    Films — Animated 
  • Mega Mind. The titular character started out trying to fit in, but since he was always cast as the villain and punished/ridiculed for his inventions, he decided to live up to everyone's opinion of him by actually becoming a villain.
  • Hoodwinked provides an example: Red thinks the Wolf is trying to kill her, when he turns out to just be an Intrepid Reporter who was trying to get information from her.
  • Elsa from Frozen fits this trope perfectly. It's clear she's pretty distant from everyone, even her own sister Anna, all out of fear that her abilities to conjure up ice and snow might hurt or kill someone.
  • The sequels to Disney's Cinderella paint Anastasia, the red-headed stepsister, this way; unlike her mother and sister, she's mostly a kind person who wants to love and be loved in turn. She's largely acting under her family's influence, and with Cinderella's help, she's able to shake that and earn a happily ever after of her own.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Death to Smoochy:
    [sings] "My stepdad's not mean, he's just adjusting!"
    "But if he's ever abusive to you or your mother, then the magic number is 911!"
  • While she isn't exactly a villain, Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada certainly isn't portrayed as a good or nice person. But considering her career, can you blame her?
  • The original 1954 Godzilla film shows that he's as much a victim of the atomic bomb as everyone else.
  • Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
    I'm not bad... I'm just drawn that way.
  • Tim Treadwell of the documentary Grizzly Man firmly believed this about the subject of his passion, North American grizzlies. Sadly for Treadwell, he turned out to be only half right.
  • In the film version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Cindy Lou truly believes that this is the case with the Grinch, and remains his only holdout, even though he doesn't believe it. (The film gives the Grinch a backstory that isn't in previous version that makes him a sympathetic character, while making the Whoos sadly materialistic. Long story short, Cindy Lou is right.)
  • King Kong (1933). The big ape was kidnapped and then put on display and gawked at. Seriously, who was the real monster here?
  • Bedazzled (1967) - in the 1967 original, George Spiggot claims this of himself - but of course he's the Devil and freely admits being a compulsive liar.
  • In Big Fish, Edward is "attacked" by the circus ringleader, who has just been revealed to be a werewolf, but manages to make friends with the beast through a game of fetch. His narration posits that some things seen as evil may simply be "lonely and lacking in social niceties."

  • Harry Potter:
    • It's very easy to paint Snape as a 'bad guy' due to his personality and the ambiguity of what side he's on, but once you realize what he's been through in life, it's apparent that he isn't an evil character at all.
    • In addition, Sirius Black was initially believed to be an unrepentant traitor to the titular character's parents. Sirius states that he is, in fact, not evil, and proves it as well, by revealing the real killer of Harry's parents.
    • Slytherin House could be considered this as well. Slytherin values ambition, and cunning, and is often considered the house that produces only dark wizards. However, it is not evil itself, and according to JKR, most Slytherins are not evil and there are examples of Slytherins who are good, such as Snape, Slughorn, who is shown to be a good teacher and a nice man, and who fought in the final battle and brought reinforcements, and Andromeda Tonks, who went against her family's racism and helped the Order of the Phoenix in the last book. Probably the biggest reason Slytherin gets a bad rap, quite simply, is because Voldemort was a Slytherin student.
    • In fact, in the first book, the Sorting Hat actually thought Slytherin might have been the best House for Harry, thinking that the focus on ambition fit him well (which few would deny) and in a later book, still stood by that opinion. It didn't because Harry asked it not to. Dumbledore thought differently, however, saying in Chamber of Secrets that only a student who had been favored by Godric Gryffindor himself could have pulled his Sword out of the Hat, as he did in the fight with the basilisk.(Well, the qualities aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. By all accounts the founders of the school were friends and allies and shared a mutual respect, given that Griffindor would have gladly lent his blade to his buddy Salazar. Embodying the core ideals of Slytherin would in no way prevent his blue Jedi ghost from approving you.)
  • In For Love Of Evil, we see an interesting side of how Satan is this. Although his job is to promote evil (and, according to Archangel Gabriel, he is one of the best at it), he himself is a good man. In essence, he is not his job.
  • Frankenstein's Monster started this way. He was rejected by his "father" and forced to run through the wilderness; his only friend was taken from him by relatives, and he couldn't even face himself in the mirror. He just wanted a friend. However, he crossed the line into darkness upon murdering Frankenstein's younger brother, and it all went downhill from there.
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire, Jaime Lannister is introduced as an incestuous jerk who killed the king he swore to protect. Later we learn that the real villain was actually the king, and in killing him, Jaime saved countless lives. In the middle of the battle there was no time, and by the time things had calmed down his reputation as The Oathbreaker was well and truly set.
  • Arthur "Boo" Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. A mysterious recluse, the townsfolk believe he's a lunatic due to the rumors spread about him and a trial he underwent as a teenager. During the course of the story, however, it is implied that he is actually a lonely man, and tries to reach out to Jem and Scout by leaving them gifts in the hollow tree in front of his house. At the climax of the story he rescues them from Bob Ewell, who tries to kill them in an attempt at revenge against their father for humiliating him.
  • The entire Hades clan in Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and its sequel series The Heroes of Olympus. They all tend to suffer from the perception that Dark Is Evil, when Hades himself is actually one of the nicer Olympians, and all his children are firmly on the side of good. And, of course, they're all profound woobies.
  • The Relativity character "Cricket" is a classic example. He's an ordinary guy who can talk to insects and wants nothing more than to study insects. However, no one will give him a job as a researcher and he's constantly mocked for "believing" he can talk to them. He turns to villainy first out of anger, and later out of a need to survive.

    Live Action TV 
  • LazyTown's Robbie Rotten:
    "They want me to be nice, they want me to be good
    But I'm a simple rotten guy, who's just misunderstood"
    • Or so he claims, though he does tend to revel a bit too much in things like scaring children.
  • In Supernatural, when the fallen archangel Lucifer (better known as Satan to most humans) escapes to Earth, his first order of business is to locate and possess a human vessel. Since he is an angel rather than a demon, he must acquire the willing consent of the human who will be his vessel. He claims himself as the ultimate example of this trope as part of his argument to persuade his chosen human to agree to become his vessel. Subverted as he is really evil all along.
  • Scandal: Amanda Tanner. Olivia's third client (not counting the little girl herself and her earlier clients, which includes the president) when accused of murder.
  • Wizards of Waverly Place: Superintendent Clanton was played as a bad guy (and was a little stern), but was probably better for the students than Mr. Laritate. He didn't fear Alex, didn't let Justin brown nose him, and even convinced Max to go to college.

  • P!nk's song "M!ssundaztood":
    "I was taken for granted, but it's all good
    'Cause I'll do it again, I'm just missundaztood"'
  • Mocked in the Warren Zevon song "Excitable Boy," in which the 'excitable boy' starts off being just quirky, and then goes on to do some quite horrible things, with each act followed by the line "excitable boy, they said."

  • The Franklin stage show Franklin and the Adventures of the Noble Knights has song that is actually titled "Misunderstood," about the Wily Winged Beast, who is actually a mother bird who was mistaken for evil because of her fierceness in protecting her eggs.
  • Inspector Javert from Les Misérables is not evil—he's more misguided than anything else. This is evidenced near the end of the show in his soliloquy.
  • If anyone knows anything about the musical Wicked, you know that the Wicked Witch of the West was pretty misunderstood.

    Video Games 
  • The Charr of Guild Wars have been revealed to be this in Guild Wars 2, now that their side of the story has been presented. Yes, they are ruthless and militaristic, but their war against humans in the first game was a struggle to reclaim their occupied homeland, and the human propaganda painting them as loving to enslave and eat humans was precisely that - propaganda.
  • Star Fox Adventures has General Scales, when meeting Krystal, claiming that he's not evil.
  • The geth of Mass Effect. Most just want to be left alone, and the ones you fight in Mass Effect 1 are actually a splinter group that worship the Reapers. This is especially true in Mass Effect 3, when geth memories of the Morning War depict them in an extremely sympathetic light, depicting the quarians as Neglectful Precursors or even Abusive Precursors. They spared the fleeing quarian survivors and want peace with them. Unfortunately, the splinter group running around wreaking havoc, and their Blue and Orange Morality, mean they are all painted as monsters.
    • Cerberus try to sell themselves as this to Shepard in 2. In 1 they were shown to be in possession of a number of Morally Ambiguous Doctorates, performing experiments on humans and rachni, for example, as part of their super-soldier research. Admittedly, they do accomplish some good deeds in the sequel — their leader, the Illusive Man, has Shepard brought Back from the Dead and replaces the old Normandy with a bigger, better version, as well as showing the pragmatism to reach out to qualified specialists who happen to be aliens for help. And considering the Council brush off Shepard's warnings about the Reapers and dismiss the secrets you uncovered about them during the first game as an idiotic Snipe Hunt fuelled by Saren's delusional ramblings, it's refreshing that Cerberus believe you and provide you with the means to fight them. Still, "try" is the key-word — the experiments from the first game get mentioned sometimes and all your old buddies are skeptical of them, ranging from "I don't trust them but I do trust you" to "I won't work with you as long as you're working with them". Furthermore, it's revealed in 3 that the crew you were working with in 2 was hand-picked to seem decent and non-evil — TIM up there deliberately kept the less pleasant elements of his organisation away from Shepard to ensure their cooperation.
  • Steambot Chronicles: The Killer Elephants is a gang of bandits whose leader just wants to go to the moon. Unfortunately, the only way to fund this massive undertaking is banditry. Those Humongous Mecha you wrecked? They were meant to be used as mobile launch platforms.
    • Also, zig-zagged between the main villains: Savory wants to make things right after the death of their Boss' brother. The others claim to have this motivation but Bergamot is plain corrupt and Dandelion lost it a long time ago. Yet by the end, a new unrelenting, self-devouring empire is rising and the villains could have stopped it.
  • Tales of the Abyss has an Anti Villainous example in Arietta. Despite being part of his Five-Bad Band, she isn't involved in the Big Bad's Evil Plan at all and is actually a pretty sweet kid at heart who just wants to protect the boy she loves. Unfortunately, said boy passed away long ago and has been replaced by a clone without her knowledge. In a Pet the Dog moment Big Bad took her into his service because he knew that, were she to find out, she'd be Driven to Suicide.
  • Subverted in Final Fantasy VII. When Sephiroth kills President Shinra, Barrett's immediate response is to wonder if he's really such a bad guy after all. However, Cloud puts a stopper in that by cementing that Sephiroth is the most evil sonuvabitch one's likely to find in the VIIverse. The next dungeon is a flashback arc explaining why.
  • The titular antagonist in The Sandman. When you find his diary you get to see that the reason for stopping time was his work had kept him from awake for centuries and he just wanted some sleep.
  • The massive skeletal pirate ghost Cortez from Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door might be a greedy undead pirate obsessed with defending his hoard of treasure, but he's not an unreasonable guy in the least. After your fight with him fails because, as an undead, he can't be killed, he raves that you'll never get his treasure and Mario points out all he wants is the Crystal Star. Cortez lets him keep it and leave in peace without much thought.
    Cortez: You're not even interested in my treasure? Just this little rock over here? Are you serious? Well that's no big deal. Here, take it. What do I need one or two extra gems for? I didn't really like that one anyway.
  • This was the reason for the persecution and near extinction of the Umbran Witches from the Bayonetta series. Due to the fact they gain their powers from darkness and make contracts with demons, it was pretty easy for the angels to trick humankind into hunting them down and slaughtering their clan. In reality, the angels are actually the evil ones, their scheme was to take the witches out of the picture so they could claim the Left Eye of Darkness from the Umbra, resurrect Jubileus (Mundus' "Holy" counterpart), who would then destroy everything and start over.
  • The whole point of Undertale is this. Every enemy encounter has a non-violent solution (if you can figure it out) and you're allowed to be-friend every monster you encounter in the game. No character in the game can truly be called evil and even if some characters are shown to be doing something wrong, usually you're shown to understand why.

    Web Comics 

    Web Original 
  • Most of Worm's extensive cast of villains would claim this to some degree. However several among the protagonist and her friends are straight examples, Taylor herself isn't even originally trying to be a villain. Unfortunately circumstances make it unlikely that many will ever realise how heroic Taylor is, despite her repeatedly saving innocents no matter the risk.
  • This is an unpopular, but established theory concerning Slenderman. Very unpopular.

    Western Animation 
  • In American Dragon: Jake Long, when Spud first saw a holographic image of a krylock, he thought this was the case. It wasn't.
  • Beastly in at least one instance on the CGI Care Bears: Welcome to Care-a-Lot series, though it's still early days.
  • Elmyra from Tiny Toon Adventures is usually seen as Death incarnate to all known animals. The problem is, Elmyra genuinely doesn't mean any harm but is too stupid to understand her means of showing affection are often deathly hazardous to her pets.
  • The episode of The Simpsons "Bart After Dark" there was Belle, someone who the children all thought was some mean old witch. As it turned out, she was a lot nicer than they thought.
    Bart: Lady, I've apparently been severely misinformed about witches.
  • An episode of Polish animated Show Hip-Hip and Hurra deals with the subject that the actions of some animals can't be consider evil. In the story, a Magpie commits a series of robberies, but when she gets captured by the main detective protagonists, she claims to be innocent. The animals put her on a trial, with Coco bird as the main witness. In the end of the trial two birds appear as suprise witnesses, thinking it's a trial for the Coco and hoping she finally faces the justice. In the end, Hip-Hip (who plays the role of the judge) says both Magpie and Coco are innocent, since they can't control their actions which are a result of their natural instincts, so they can't be consider evil since there is no malice in their actions.
  • Eddy from Ed Eddn Eddy is shown to be a selfish Jerkass who would do anything for money, revenge, or popularity. It turns out that, in the movie, he only committed these deeds to gain recognition, after years of abuse from his brother.
  • Pretty much said word for word in the Christmas Episode of Darkwing Duck, "It's a Wonderful Leaf". Darkwing saids out loud some sinister force is at work when Brushroot chimes in casually saying he's not really sinister, just misunderstood. Being one of the more sympathetic villains on the show, he might have a point.
  • Dark Magical Girl Charmcaster is summed up as "not a bad person, just damaged" by Gwen Tennyson in Ben 10: Omniverse.
  • In the Challenge Of The Superfriends episode "Monolith of Evil", the Legion of Doom manages to trick the heroes into uncovering a super-weapon called, uh, the Monolith of Evil (at least that's what they call it). At first it seems to be an Artifact of Doom with near limitless powers of darkness, and the heroes are outmatched by the villains... Until they manage to shanghai control of it and use it against the villains themselves. How could the heroes possibly harness such dark power, after Sinestro muses after they beat the crud out of them? They figured out that the thing wasn't evil at all. It was True Neutral, and like any such weapon, it can only be used for evil "in the wrong hands", so to speak. (Of course, it's still dangerous and the episode ends with the heroes still in possession of it; much like any loose end in that series, we can only guess what they did with the thing.)
  • One episode of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983) dealt with a village of very superstitious folk who believed the mountains were the home of a Bigfoot-like creature called the Tingler. Although many had seen him and were sure he was a malignant predator, none of them could agree on any details. (In truth, all they had ever seen were his eyes.) The Tingler was actually just a hermit who lived in the mountains, and while he was a big, muscular guy, he would never hurt a fly; when trouble did threaten the town, he actually saved the day.
  • The Real Ghostbusters once encountered a ghost like this; it could not tolerate noise, and after a movie studio woke it up, it was going crazy trying to find quiet so it could go to sleep again. The heroes realized they could help it by putting it in their containment unit-it was pretty quiet in there-but the problem they had was, how do you tell an angry and powerful ghost you're trying to help it when even the sound of talking makes it mad? Egon found the solution: he communicated with it using sign language.
  • The dog catcher in the Hallmark special Jingle All the Way. In the climax, he's revealed to be truly just wanting to help give Jingle shelter and find him a good home. This after a Pet the Dog moment.
  • In the show Steven Universe, the seemingly evil monsters that the Crystal Gems fight are later revealed to be fallen (corrupted) former gems like themselves. Also the character Peridot seemed evil at first but in recent episodes we learn that she was just following orders.
  • On The Octonauts, Kwazii likes to speculate about a lot of the stuff the Octonauts encounter being caused by strange and scary monsters. Instead, when the Octonauts encounter strange phenomena or troublesome behavior, it's just sea creatures doing what they do normally, often as a natural defense mechanism. Examples include a snapping shrimp that knocks them all out with his loud sound he makes by snapping his claw, and slime eels protecting their territory by sliming.

Alternative Title(s): Misunderstood Villain