In general, movies/films etc work a lot better (at least for me) when we’re allowed to sympathize with the antagonist. I think Lord of War is great because of that. The real enemy isn’t any particular agent of evil, but human nature itself.
A Few Good Men would’ve been better if we were able to sympathize more with Colonel Jessup, rather than have him be this unlikeable asshole. He did strongly believe that he was trying to protect his men, and he was following a code of honor that made sense to him. We should’ve been allowed to appreciate that. Same for, say, The Matrix, or V for Vendetta, or Star Wars… those films all feel good because we root for the underdog against this Big Bad.But that’s far too easy, and kinda disingenuous. (OK there’s probably some nuance in Star Wars about Darth Vader that I’m missing…)
IIRC, Ender’s Game does a pretty good job of this with Colonel Graff – he’s sending children to war, but rationalizes it saying (paraphrased) “I’ll commit war crimes if it means that’s an Earth left at the end to put me on trial.” (Also the whole Speaker For The Dead thing.) I think Ray Bradbury does a good job with this in The Martian Chronicles – there’s an officer who realizes that his enemy/counterpart shares more of his values than his own men.
I think part of what made The Dark Knight so good (need to rewatch this) is that they made The Joker and Harvey Dent relatable – they’re really just tired of bullshit and bureaucracy, and we can all relate to that. I remember lots of people dressing up as The Joker afterwards for Halloween and such – definitely more than the number of people who dress up as Batman – which I think is an interesting goal to strive for, as a storyteller.
I think we need more art and storytelling like that. In a way, the Big Bad films of our time do us a great disservice. When I get around to writing/publishing novels, I think one of my main goals is to write really relatable antagonists. What would Lord of the Rings be like if Sauron was the character we empathized with most? We wouldn’t necessarily need to SUPPORT him, but we should be made uncomfortable by seeing how he represents the sort of exploitative industrial-military complex that we’re all tacitly complicit in. Tolkien’s biggest innovation I think was the character of Gollum – everyone else pretty much plays the stock roles that’s expected of them, but Gollum is complex and conflicted, which is what’s interesting. JK Rowling did something similar with Snape, who is as a character more compelling and interesting than either Harry or Voldemort. He can “go either way” in a way that neither of them could. And I suppose Shakespeare did this with a lot of his characters, as did Tolstoy, and Balzac.
I wonder– using a “minimum viable” approach to writing – if the smart way to start writing these things is to start with the Smeagols and Snapes and Anakins – because starting with “Hero + Mentor Vs Villain” is too predictable.
This also applies well to Lindsay Lohan’s character in Mean Girls. Again and again I think that’s what makes for really compelling, engaging characters. As children we want picture-perfect heroes to look up to, but as we get older we want conflicted characters who embody our own conflicts and struggles.