Villains of the Peace:
Who are the new Baddies to our Hollywood Heroes?
By James Murphy
James Bond. Batman and Superman. Captain America. Indiana Jones. All have films coming out soon or in stages of pre-production. Each hero requires worthy adversaries. Ideally, a team of villains: a network of opposition. But does Hollywood face a deficit in villainy for its franchise heroes to tackle today?
In the Cold War, movies could rely upon pervasive threats of nuclear war and core deficit in East /West relations. There was then a brief spell using Russian Mafia /dissident fanatics as disposable bad guys. But our real world evils have been rather disorganized lately. We seem to lack a universal figurehead for our enemies and the clarity of a ‘good vs evil’ motif.
There are multiple threats to our liberty, life and livelihood. ISIS is on the rise. Putin’s political pugilism. And there are determined, deadly individuals that can wreak havoc with one mouse click. Why do favored fictional franchises fail to slay those specific dragons? There are a number of possibilities.
We remain at war ‘on terror’ each day, but that’s not an easy thing to dramatize in an adventure story without doing disservice to the brave souls losing their lives for our freedom. It’s easier to use the fear and the uncertainty that characterized the post 9/11 world.
You send your hero to battle those who trade in fear generically. Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 used that trick. You’ll notice a similar ploy in SPECTRE and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.
Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt takes on ‘The Syndicate’. Daniel Craig’s 007 finally faces the titular SPECTRE (headed, presumably by old nemesis Blofeld, played perhaps by Christoph Waltz: inspired casting!). These villains are faceless Kingmakers; branches of influence spreading worldwide to control a conglomeration of threats. That enables the script to touch on individual worldwide conflicts, whilst retaining escapist gloss. It gives one the childlike security of order, behind otherwise disparate and divisive evils that are by their very nature chaotic and unpredictable.
But what if Hollywood is itself ‘running scared’? That might have some impact on the shape of our screen villainy. Film-makers might be naturally slow to perhaps rattle sabers against any particular political creed. A liberal ethos pervades the creative communities, strongly connected to campaigns for peaceful resolution of any global conflict. I understand that caution. But it’s a virtue our enemies do not share.
A third and final possibility in shaping villainy onscreen is story-telling practicality, expediency and verisimilitude. A super-powered hero (Captain America, Superman, Hulk) must face a matching threat. It’s simple economics, justifying increased investment in special effects, via guaranteed box office returns.
2013’s Man of Steel had Superman confront aliens of equal power. It was a respectable hit. No more Superman v Nuclear Arms Race (1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was a flop) or Superman vs self (2006’s Superman Returns moped its introspective way to middling box office).
But it is possible to have a hero confront ‘real-world’ menaces, before graduating within the story to levels of old fashioned escapism. The Dark Knight trilogy pulled that off: mobsters, terrorists, corporate suits and even the super villain were thrown in for Batman to confront in sequence. I suspect the new iteration (Ben Affleck in the upcoming Batman v Superman) will try a similar approach, albeit with added sci-fi/ mysticism dimensions.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier successfully harnessed a similar formula. Secret Nazis and the supernatural combined to create the ultimate villain: based in a grim and recognizable reality, whilst injecting mystery, menace and magic. That’s also the formula Indiana Jones should return to; whoever plays him in the mooted ‘reboot’ (surely Harrison Ford gets first refusal after his real life action man heroics?).
You need a chemistry of hatred between hero and villain to fuel rather than detract from the fun. That’s why Indiana Jones works well against Nazis and Gods but less so against bland aliens and Leninists. And since it’s a period piece, you can’t actually offend, upset or alienate anyone, can you? ‘Nazis are the get out of jail free bad guys: you can do anything to them!’ (Steven Spielberg).
In short, our Hollywood franchise heroes ARE confronting villainy; but in a somewhat timid and implicit roundabout manner, with some more effective than others. It’s a question of balance: caution without cowardice; escapism with conviction and a fusion of old and new, fact and fiction. It’s called movie magic: an invaluable weapon in the war against evil in all guises as we all scramble for our own ‘happily ever after’ in the real world.
James Murphy will Return.