We can probably all agree that real life terrorists aren’t movie villains, but how about the other way around? Hollywood has always done an excellent job when it comes to making money from the things that we love, but what about capitalising on the genuine fears of Western Society? We all love a good hero, but has our society come to love a good villain more? Many of my greatest memories of film growing up all involve those with the best villains. The purpose of a villain is to pose the most fearsome challenge towards our beloved protagonist. A challenge the hero must accept and answer in order to dramatically defeat the villain and ultimately win our hearts; but why is it that the villains that personify our cultures greatest fears have become just as important, and perhaps even more entertaining, than the hero?
Much like our hero’s, our villains have had to adapt. Their methods, their nationalities and species have all been subject to change; they’ve slowly become even more menacing than ever before. However what we have seen throughout Hollywood’s history is their decision to make this villain reflect what the public are seemingly most fearful of during the films period of conception. It is a useful tool as it can keep even the most imaginative and fantastical stories grounded to a contextualised level of reality.
When George Lucas conceived what is likely the most expansive and iconic film universe he used the threats of the Empire, Stormtroopers, Darth Vader (whose helmet was based on a German military helmet) and an Evil xenophobic Emperor. This all mirrored the threats created through Nazism, which were still fresh and the threat of Communism, which was still very real. The purge of his enemies by the Emperor and the destruction reflected the real world fears of what could happen if Hitler or Stalin’s ideas had come to fruition. It gave Lucas’ weird, wondrous and wild Star Wars universe a sense of realism by grounding it with what had been threats in our world.
You can see the change in terms of the identities of cinema’s villain’s through the decades as The West’s enemies have changed. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s we see hero’s fighting the Nazi’s, Communists or villains inspired by these groups. By the end of the 80’s and 90’s saw the threats begin to amalgamate, with German terrorists getting shot at by John McClane and Soviet terrorists being kicked off planes by Harrison Ford as POTUS (American’s love a British bad guy, it could be the accent making us seem intelligent or that whole thing back in 1776).
Moviemaker’s are now using villains who operate in methods that we can relate to in this new modern era of blockbuster films. Magneto, played by Sir Ian McKellen (another British bad guy!), in the X-Men film’s is portrayed as a mutant terrorist whom the man hunt for can be compared to that of the man hunt for Osama bin Laden, with the use of sending recorded threats to the media. This technique is used by a multitude of other villain’s including the Joker in The Dark Knight and Voldemort in the Harry Potter films, albeit with more magical methods. We’re even seeing alien’s using methods we associate with terrorism, when General Zod takes over the media devices of the people of Earth to issue his terrifying threat in Man of Steel.
In particular Voldemort shows a truly unreal world being kept grounded by the methods he uses and by the way the film portrays him. He is shown to be a single man, but is the embodiment and worshipped by his ‘Death Eater’ terrorist group; they operate in secret initially and have a distinct ideological difference to the majority of wizards. The fact they are a minority is also reflective of real life terrorist groups who are generally a minority who represent a radical view.
We have also seen other villains using similar techniques including Moriarty in the most recent Sherlock movie, Ra’s Al Ghul who’s Middle-Eastern name and League of Shadows are similar to today’s perceived threats, and The Mandarin in Iron Man 3. The Mandarin being an interesting example where Director Shane Black used these real life fears to create a facade while the real enemy was the American Industrialist behind it as Black explained: “I think there’s a lot of fear that is generated toward very available and obvious targets, which could perhaps be directed more intelligently at what’s behind them.”
I also really like Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan (where’s he from again?) who uses terrorist methods like causing panic by attacking an important location, being under the radar and using his enemies own infrastructure against them. He is also a former ally of Starfleet much like how today’s Taliban were formally affiliated with the US in the Cold War.
We also have to look at the imagery used in these films, in terms of the level of destruction that audiences seem to crave. You would have thought that after all the real world destruction from events such as 9/11, London’s 7/7 and the Boston Marathon bombings people’s tolerance level with violence would be exceeded and films would have to tone down. Instead we have seen more and more destruction. In last year’s Avengers Assemble, New York City was subject to scenes of ultra violence, a city that has seen enough real life destruction for a lifetime, not to mention the more symbolic destruction of fake cities such as Metropolis and Gotham.
It does seem like audiences are immune to these issues, or is it simply that we do not see them as issues at all? Is this because we routinely see destruction within our real world that we no longer find these images so startling? Is the destruction on our screens something that we are used to seeing whether we are watching fiction or fact? I’d like to think that maybe it’s because we are smarter than we give ourselves credit for, that we understand what is real and what is a spectacle. I just hope that is the case, as the alternative is a true damnation of human nature and our lust for violence.