I’ve long had brewing a post about the best and worst dads of not just movies, but TV and comics as well. Today, thanks to the instructions I’ve received, we’re talking about just the bad ones, and of course only the ones from movies.
(Incidentally, this is #38 in a series of 47 posts about movies, with topics selected by my friend, each given to me after the previous one is written. For more information, check out #1 here.)
What’s a father supposed to be? A provider, a supporter, a protector, a servant, a source of wisdom, a guide, someone who will teach his children what is important about life. Someone who will help set the tone for his family and allow his children and his wife to flourish. Ultimately, a father is meant to be an example, someone who will help to show his daughters and sons what God is like, and thus what the world is like.
All fathers are imperfect, of course. All make mistakes. But I think we can agree that some are worse than others. And in the narrow view that we get of a character over a single or even multiple movies, it becomes easier to decide which ones are “good” and which ones are “bad”.
Here are seven bad fathers, in the general order of their introduction to the viewing public (some spoilers ahead).
Played by Harry Shannon
In: Citizen Kane (1941 – directed by Orson Welles)
Children: Charles Foster Kane
Sins: Abusive, probably an alcoholic
Jim Kane’s crimes are not nearly so severe as many of those who follow on this list, but he’s still a bad father. In Citizen Kane, Jim and his wife run a boarding house back in 1871, where they live with their (presumed only) son Charlie. Jim and his wife only appear in one scene, but there we learn that he is physically abusive, to the degree that his wife takes the opportunity presented by an unexpected financial windfall to send her son out of her husband’s reach. She turns over guardian-ship of Charlie to a bank, who give him a good home and a fine education, but also help to turn him into a narcissistic and needy man of means. Perhaps if Jim had been a better man, his son could have grown up in a more nurturing environment and turned out more whole, even with all his wealth. Harry Shannon plays the elder Mr. Kane and does an excellent job making him appear a beleaguered and even sympathetic fellow before the script spells out his issues more thoroughly.
Played primarily by Dave Prowse and James Earl Jones (voice)
In: The Empire Strikes Back (1980 – directed by Irvin Kershner) and Return of the Jedi (1983 – directed by Richard Marquand), as well as a bunch of other movies, of course.
Children: Luke Skywalker & Leia Organa
Sins: Chops off son’s hand, hands son over to abusive cult leader, tries to turn son evil, and threatens to do same to daughter
Darth Vader is of course revealed as a father in The Empire Strikes Back but it’s not confirmed until Return of the Jedi (and for those of us who were around back then, we spent three long years wondering about the truth!) Of course, the Star Wars prequels we learn all sorts of things about Darth Vader’s backstory, but what we see in those original films is enough to put him on the list. In addition to participating in unspeakable war crimes and genocide, he also does his darndest to convince his son into following him into his self-destructive path of evil and cruelty. Though he does redeem himself in the end, none of that would have been necessary if he’d just been a better father in the first place. But then, maybe he can’t be expected to know any better, his own father being nothing but a bunch of microscopic intelligent organisms….
Played primarily by William Hurt
In: The Village (2004 – directed by M. Night Shyamalan)
Children: Ivy Walker
Sins: Allows blind daughter to roam the woods and to walk into a world full of dragons and monsters she doesn’t understand rather than going himself because of some stupid vow that he made
My notes above pretty much covers it. Edward Walker is the lead elder in a town full of people who have decided to foresake modern society and live like they are back before the industrial revolution. When things go wrong and a friend of Walker’s daughter’s is badly injured, the period-specific medicine is no help. Walker then allows his daughter to go for help, even though she is blind and has never heard of cars or trucks or guns or anything like that. He himself doesn’t go, because he feels beholden to his vow to foresake modern society…but come on, he allows his blind daughter to go instead, without warning her, even though it’ll be a miracle if she’s not killed? That’s selfish, and just bad parenting.
Played by John Leguizamo
In: The Happening (2008 – directed by M. Night Shyamalan)
Sins: Foolishly and needlessly makes his daughter into an orphan
Go go M. Night Shyamalan and his bad father character. Julian isn’t evil or abusive like some of these fathers on this list, but he’s perhaps the most stupid. The Happening, which is by and large considered to be a terrible movie, is about a bizarre pandemic that is killing everyone it comes into contact with. I’ve only seen a third of it or so and that was bad enough, and that went up to Julian’s death, so I feel qualified to include him on the list. In the film, Julian is with his daughter Jess when he finds out about the plague. His wife is missing in the danger area, so instead of escaping with his daughter, Julian opts to hand her over to friends and go and try to rescue his wife. He gives his friends an overdramatic speech about how they have to take their job to look after his daughter seriously, and then he runs off nearly straight into his own demise. This of course now leaves Jess without either parent.
Now, I’m married and have children. I guarantee you if I was in the same situation, there’s no way my wife would want me to leave my children with people they don’t really know in order to head off into my near-certain death to try to rescue her from her near-certain death. And I wouldn’t want her to do that either. I’d want my children to have at least one of their parents, and I’m pretty sure most other couples would feel the same way.
Played by Josh Brolin, mostly
In: Various Marvel movies, especially Guardians of the Galaxy (2014 – directed by James Gunn)
Children: Gamora & Nebula (adopted)
Sins: Made his adopted daughters fight each other and tortured the loser by giving her unwanted cybernetic implants
Like Darth Vader, Thanos’ crimes against his children are dwarfed by what he has done to others, but they’re still pretty bad, and they earn him a spot on this list as an actual bad father, and not just a despotic supervillain. Thanos is probably the only character here whose cinematic story has not been fully told, so it may end up being worse than we think. Or who knows, maybe somehow it’ll end up being better (like how the film maker’s changed tones with Yondu in the recent sequel). But somehow, I doubt it.
Played by Kevin Costner
In: Man of Steel (2013 – directed by Zack Snyder)
Children: Clark Kent (adopted)
Sins: Instilled fear, doubt and confusion into his son, and needlessly made his wife into a widow
Most versions of Jonathan Kent would be on my list of “Best Fictional Fathers” ever, but not Kevin Costner’s iteration. His Jonathan Kent tries to encourage his good-natured, super-powered son to hide himself away at every opportunity, even if it means allowing people to die. He seems to do this because he’s scared about that bad things that could happen to Clark if he’s discovered. But even worse, he tells Clark not to rescue him from a tornado for fear that doing so could expose his son. Nevermind how little sense that makes when you actually look at it (who in the middle of a tornado threat is going to notice some stranger running fast?), the decision that leaves his wife bereft and his son fatherless and guilt-ridden. Clark later seems to imply that he learned something from his father that helps him to understand his role as Superman, but the truth is that he becomes Superman in spite of his father, not because of him. Indeed, in becoming Superman, he basically goes against his father’s wishes and “pays for it” by meeting the woman of his dreams and falling in love.
Played by Kurt Russell
In: Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (2017 – directed by James Gunn)
Children: A multitude, including Peter “Star-Lord” Quill
Sins: Murdered most of his many children in an attempt to get enough power to take over the universe. And also gave his favorite girlfriend (and mother to one son) cancer so he wouldn’t be tempted to give up on his dreams.
Probably the worst father ever, which is saying something since he’s introduced in the same movie that really gave us the information that put Thanos on the list as well. He’s possibly the stupidest as well, for telling Peter Quill that he killed his mother, just when he might have been on the verge of getting what he was after. Ego was relatively interesting for a Marvel villain but may be the one most responsible for his own defeat.
Bonus: Who are some of movie’s good fathers? Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Glenn Ford’s Jonathan Kent in Superman, the Movie, Mustafa in The Lion King, and I’d say maybe Tom Cruise’s Ray by the end of War of the Worlds.