Letter From The Editor - Issue 55 - February 2017

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At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
    by Chris Bellamy

On the state of the villain

Dwayne Johnson has passed on an iconic superhero in favor of his nemesis; could this revitalize the declining art of the villain?

In hindsight, it's no wonder crimefighters and action figures and superheroes have had it so easy at the box office lately. Within their own cinematic universe, they've had no one to contend with. No one to pose a genuine threat. No one who could undercut their power.

For all the ways franchises and blockbusters have come out ahead in recent years, they've fallen behind in one essential area. While the standard modern tentpole template has doubled down on the simple, time-tested good-vs.-evil paradigm, somewhere along the line the latter part of that equation got tossed to the bottom of the priority list, rendered an afterthought rather than an indispensable (and often more entertaining) ingredient. I mean, sure, there are still bad guys trying to take over the world in every comic-book movie, and there are still insidious traitors in every action thriller, and there are still evil overlords in every violent fantasy. But how many of them, over these last few years, do we vividly remember? And how many of those were actually threatening?

As far as I can tell, not many. Cinema's dominant genres and franchises have poured a lot of energy into building and reinforcing the greatness of their heroes, but without giving them a whole lot of legitimate opposition. Where have all the great villains gone? It's become a strange blind spot for a lot of films, and a particularly damning one because the hero/villain relationship is, at its best, a reciprocal one. As Heath Ledger's Joker (one of the last iconic big-screen villains, and that was six years ago) sardonically confessed to his nemesis, "You complete me." It's true, and it's always been true - movie heroes are (rightly) measured against the quality of their adversaries.

"It all makes sense. In a comic, you know how you can tell who the arch-villain's going to be? He's the exact opposite of the hero. And most times they're friends, like you and me."

- Elijah Price, Unbreakable

Granted, a great antagonist or conflict doesn't always come in the form of a singular villain. An alien race, a global conspiracy, a pending apocalypse - movies that fall under that umbrella are exempted from this criticism. The problem is, so many major movies do rely on a singular villain, and simply fail to capitalize on the opportunity. The biggest name in both cinematic heroes and action franchises is, of course, Marvel - but while the studio has made some good movies and done an admirable job of world-building, it's been a pretty consistent and conspicuous failure on the villain front. There have been three standalone Iron Man films, and not one worthy opponent among them - not even with the likes of Jeff Bridges, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Ben Kingsley and Guy Pearce in those roles. In fact, the third film seemed to actively mock the idea of an arch-villain, with Kingsley's Mandarin proving to be little more than a manufactured persona, portrayed by an effete, previously out-of-work actor.

In terms of true villainy, the only remotely memorable baddie in the Marvel stable thus far has been Tom Hiddleston's Loki - and that comes with a couple of caveats. For one, he was an altogether forgettable villain in his first appearance, the altogether forgettable Thor. And secondly, even during his popular appearance in The Avengers, he was a charmingly evil but ultimately ineffectual antagonist. A good performance, and a pretty good villain, but - for my money, anyway - hardly the kind of adversary that ultimately defines any of the superheroes fighting against him.

That said, I realize there will be some disagreement on that point, both because of the adoration for the movie as a whole, and Hiddleston's enduring popularity. So for the sake of argument, we'll go ahead and say Loki is a worthy bad guy and leave it at that. The larger point is, he's the only one Marvel has given us. At best, he is the exception that proves the rule.

Elsewhere in the MCU? Captain America: The First Avenger's biggest weakness was the way it wasted a potentially great villain (Hugo Weaving's Red Skull), particularly during its problematic second half. And I have virtually no recollection of the villain(s) in last year's Thor sequel. Most recently, this summer's Guardians of the Galaxy - while mostly terrific - offered only a shoddily written antagonist in Ronan (Lee Pace), who's little more than a petulant blowhard who can't stop talking about his own sinister agenda. There's nothing to him. Again and again, Marvel has failed to come up with any kind of memorable presence to oppose its heroes.

Take the story out of the equation for a second. From a purely cinematic perspective, there's a palpable void in a film like that when its central foe is so bland. The mere presence of a charismatic malevolent figure can do wonders - even if he doesn't have any of the grand, evil plans of Ronan or Iron Man 3's Aldrich Killian. It seems many movies worry too much about the finer details of the insidious plot (which, for the movie, is rarely anything more than a means to an end) and not nearly enough about the emotional, physical or political dynamic a villain might represent - not to mention the charisma and presence required to translate that into something truly formidable.

As far as charisma and screen presence go, it doesn't get much more formidable than Dwayne Johnson, which is why the recent announcement of his casting as Black Adam in an upcoming Shazam movie (rather than the titular superhero) was so exciting. For months he'd been teasing his participation in the burgeoning DC Cinematic Universe, and it had long become clear that he'd be appearing in Shazam (nee Captain Marvel) in one way or another. But his decision to spurn the title role and go instead for the villain was the best news possible - speaking even as someone who currently has no investment in that particular franchise. It tells me that Johnson gets the fundamental importance of the villain that so many movies and franchises apparently don't. He wouldn't lend his considerable abilities if he didn't.

Of course, it makes sense for him - he's had plenty of experience on the dark side, dating back to his professional wrestling days. Johnson made his initial mark in the WWE as a heel, which is largely what established him as a star. (I'm no pro wrestling expert, nor a fan, but this is my understanding from those with much more expertise than myself.) As a movie star, more often than not he's been the hero. But the mere fact that he's embracing the other side again means we just might get our very first memorable, post-Nolan DC villain. After Man of Steel's disappointing Zod (a complete waste of the great Michael Shannon), Superman Returns' already-forgotten Lex Luthor and Green Lantern's half-baked Hector Hammond, they need it.

Gravitas goes a long way. Look, it's not like there's any doubt that, say, Lex Luthor is ultimately going to get the better of Superman - but when it's someone like Gene Hackman keeping up that pretense, and when the movie itself is doing all it can to make us love or hate or fear or otherwise just enjoy them in all their depravity and evil, it makes all the difference in the world. The least a film can do is make it seem like a fair fight. Imagine Die Hard without Alan Rickman's brilliant Hans Gruber. Imagine, instead of an arrogant thief oozing with ice-cold charisma, you had a faceless crook who facilitated the plot but did little else. You've basically imagined the vast majority of crime movies from the last half-decade. (Consider last year's dueling White House-set Die Hard updates, Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. Do you even remember the villain in either film?)

Black Adam's casting is not only good for the movie - it could be exactly the right thing for Johnson's career at this point. His most recent lead role was this summer's Hercules, a prototypically heroic role that wound up a colossal dud both as a character and as a movie.

But as countless actors have discovered, villains are often much more compelling on screen than their heroic counterparts. Consider all the actors who have done some of their best work playing against type as a villain - or, in some cases, have redefined themselves as a villain type - Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, Tom Cruise in Collateral, Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained, to name a few. If nothing else, there's little doubt Johnson will be able to go toe-to-toe with whomever is cast as Shazam himself. And I'd bank on Black Adam being the most compelling character in the movie. (At the very least, he's virtually assured of being the most charismatic.) The hope - or at least my hope - is that he can be such a memorable foe that studios realize what their movies have been missing.

What's funny is that, as recently as the late 2000s, there was a boon of unforgettable bad guys. In a succession of three years, we got probably three of the best movie villains ever in No Country for Old Men's Anton Chigurh, The Dark Knight's Joker and Inglourious Basterds' Hans Landa.

In fact, let's stick with that last one for a second, because Quentin Tarantino is exactly the kind of filmmaker that appreciates the importance of a great villain. His movies are full of them. Think of David Carradine as Bill, Samuel L. Jackson as Ordell Robbie, Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike, DiCaprio as Calvin Candie or Jackson as his loyal Stephen. He earned his reputation as a master of genre because he understands those genres inside and out, and indulges everything that makes them tick. No way he was going to give us revenge tales set during the Holocaust and the Antebellum South without providing towering figures of evil to represent them. No way he was going to make a slasher movie without making the slasher the most hypnotic character on screen. No way he was going to call a movie Kill Bill without making Bill a brutal, sinister and seductive target for our revenge-seeking heroine.

For that matter, even QT's buddy Kevin Smith - hardly the same caliber of filmmaker, or even much of a filmmaker at all - appreciates the need for a good villain. He's been responsible for two of the better examples of the last few years - both played by Michael Parks, first in Red State and this year in Tusk, a pair of movies that otherwise aren't very good. But at least he got that part right.

As I looked back over the last few years, I was struck by how many of the most noteworthy villains were in comedies and/or animated movies - Lord Business in The Lego Movie, Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear in Toy Story 3, the Mayor in Rango, Danny McBride in This is the End, Gideon Graves and Todd the Vegan from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Charles Muntz from Up. But by and large, those antagonists either serve a different purpose or project an entirely different aesthetic attitude than the kind of villain I'm talking about here - the kind of force with the power to bring the hero to his or her feet. Looking at 2014's live-action offerings, the only one that sticks out in that regard - with a pre-emptive CGI asterisk - is Koba from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. But he is, increasingly, a rarity. In many cases, the villain doesn't even seem to be a high priority. Even in a generally fantastic movie like Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, the adversary is a pretty generic Diabolical Foreign Terrorist. He provides no dramatic threat to Superhero Tom Cruise.

Incidentally, this de-emphasis is not the case with television. Throughout the last decade and a half, dramatic TV has consistently given us extraordinary villains, and continues to do so. How many movie characters in recent years can measure up to Breaking Bad's Gus Fring, LOST's Ben Linus, Hannibal's titular cannibal, Fargo's Lorne Malvo, or Game of Thrones' exquisitely monstrous King Joffrey? All the talk over the year about television surpassing movies may be a bit overstated, but in this area at least, it's certainly got the upper hand.

The end of next year is expected to bring the next chapter of Star Wars (a series that gave us arguably the iconic pop-culture villain), and the follow-up to Skyfall, which gave us one of the few great villains of the last five years. Whether either film can match the legacies they've set remains to be seen; all I know is that Hollywood needs that kind of bad guy now, more than ever.

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