Christopher Nolan’s new movie, Oppenheimer, will dramatize the events of the Manhattan Project. The main antagonist of the film will be the monolithic war machine that necessitated the construction of such a deadly weapon. But the villains of Nolan’s movies aren’t always so abstract. Some of Nolan’s villains are truly despicable, like abusive megalomaniac Andrei Sator in Tenet and the unscrupulous Axis powers driving the Allies off the beach in Dunkirk, but some of them are strangely lovable.
From The Dark Knight’s Joker to Inception’s Mal Cobb to The Prestige’s Robert Angier, there are many Nolan movie villains that viewers can empathize with.
10/10 Bane (The Dark Knight Rises)
Tom Hardy took on the daunting task of following up Heath Ledger’s Academy Award-winning Joker in the role of the next villain to terrorize Nolan’s Gotham. Hardy headlined The Dark Knight Rises with a surprisingly sympathetic take on Bane.
Bane might be a megalomaniac who destroys every bridge out of Gotham and traps the city’s entire police force underground to keep the citizens living in fear, but his tragic backstory at least gives him an understandable motivation.
9/10 Walter Finch (Insomnia)
Nolan’s most straightforward crime thriller, Insomnia – a Hollywood remake of the Norwegian film of the same name – stars Robin Williams as a socially awkward murderer and Al Pacino as the detective on his tail.
As disturbing as Walter Finch is, both in his actions and in his personality, his likability is helped by the fact he’s played by Robin Williams, who’s impossible to dislike. Even when Robin Williams is playing a reprehensible murderer (with startling commitment), he’s still Robin Williams.
8/10 Dr. Mann (Interstellar)
The primary antagonistic force in Nolan’s spacefaring sci-fi epic Interstellar is humanity being its own worst enemy. Cooper and his crew are sent into the cosmos to find the human race a new home after it depletes all its natural resources.
But there is also a specific villain, the cleverly named Hugh Mann. Thanks to a combination of Matt Damon’s stunt casting and the character’s relatable survival instincts, Dr. Mann is sympathetic in spite of his malicious intentions.
7/10 Two-Face (The Dark Knight)
At the beginning of The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent is more of a beacon of hope for Gotham City than Batman himself. But the Joker sets out to corrupt Gotham’s “white knight” just to prove that anybody can be corrupted.
After Dent loses half of his face and the love of his life in a nefarious plot to mess with Batman, his dark transformation into the supervillain Two-Face is understandable.
6/10 Cobb (Following)
Nolan’s low-budget directorial debut Following revolves around a writer who starts following strangers around town. Before too long, he finds himself embroiled in a complicated criminal conspiracy.
The most compelling and charismatic person whose life is invaded by this curious writer is Cobb, a petty crook who commits crimes more for the thrill than the material gain.
5/10 Leonard Shelby (Memento)
The protagonist and antagonist of Nolan’s acclaimed psychological thriller Memento are one and the same. Leonard Shelby has amnesia that prevents him from remembering anything before the night of his wife’s death, which presents an obstacle in his attempts to figure out how she died.
While Leonard didn’t murder his wife, he did cause her death. After an attack that left both Leonard and his wife traumatized, Leonard gave her an insulin overdose and was so riddled with guilt that he concocted a story.
4/10 Catwoman (The Dark Knight Rises)
Nolan went back to basics with his depiction of Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises. Anne Hathaway plays Selina Kyle as a relatable 99-percenter who burgles rich people like Bruce Wayne to scrape by in an unfair economy.
This version of Catwoman isn’t even really a villain; she’s more of an antihero, and in the final battle, she becomes a valuable ally of Batman as opposed to another obstacle standing in his way.
3/10 Robert Angier (The Prestige)
Robert Angier lives long enough to see himself become the villain in Nolan’s sci-fi thriller The Prestige. He spends the movie locked in an intense rivalry with fellow magician Alfred Borden, desperate to figure out the secrets of the “Transported Man” trick.
Whereas Borden uses the ethical method of sharing his identity with a twin brother, Angier uses the amoral method of killing countless clones of himself.
2/10 Mal Cobb (Inception)
Nolan subverted the “femme fatale” archetype in his mind-bending sci-fi epic Inception. Mal Cobb is the late wife of Dom Cobb, who took her own life when she thought she was in the safety of the dreamscape. Following her death, Dom was haunted by a projection of Mal in the dream world.
The villainous Mal seen in Inception isn’t really an accurate representation of Cobb’s wife; she’s a manifestation of the guilt that her husband feels over her untimely passing.
1/10 The Joker (The Dark Knight)
Heath Ledger is a mesmerizing on-screen presence with his Oscar-winning portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight. The movie nails Batman’s co-dependent relationship with the Clown Prince of Crime. Like all great villains, this Joker makes a good point.
The murderous methods he uses to prove that point are questionable, but he’s right that civilization is just a facade that would drop to reveal people’s true nature the second something comes along to disrupt the order.
NEXT: Every Christopher Nolan Movie Ending, Ranked Worst-Best