Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Hollywood Screams: The Bad Guys are Us

In case you haven’t noticed, Hollywood’s’ latest villain behind the crime of the century is not some mustache-twirling rascal, not a bald megalomaniac living in a volcano or a sophisticated thief out to rob Fort Knox.

Instead, the antagonists in today’s blockbusters masquerade as exemplary and distinguished role models.  While our hero has been pursuing suspect after suspect, the real engineer behind the inciting incident turns out to be a person considered beyond reproach - their best friend, superior officer, trusted confidant or respected colleague.

Leo G. Carroll and Ingrid Bergman in
the final shots of Hitch's 1945 "Spellbound"
It’s not a new idea at all. For example, Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” entertained moviegoers with the case of an amnesiac doctor (Gregory Peck) suspected of murder.  In the last sequence the esteemed hospital director (Leo G. Carroll) is exposed as the real murderer. In “Touch of Evil,” director Orson Wells plays an untarnished detective caught falsifying criminal evidence.  When another officer investigates him, Wells conspires with a gangster to destroy him. Even Dirty Harry in “Magnum Force” finds incriminating proof that his Lieutenant is head of a murderous gang of police vigilantes.

Why has this once unorthodox twist become a common fallback solution for today’s hero/villain dynamic? The answer is obvious - the film industry is afraid to offend anyone, isolate audience demographics or exclude world markets that will diminish box office returns.

In the wake of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, Edward Snowden’s defection, and Nixon’s’ Watergate - Hollywood is showing us that we habitually miscalculate the ones in whom we place our trust. Since we’ve all been chumped into voting for them, we readily join in their public vilification.

Would Bond films with a Chinese Communist villain make money overseas, never mind even be released in China? If Bruce Willis stops a Muslim terrorist organization then surely the “Die Hard” filmmakers are anti-Muslim.

This year's "Captain America: Civil War." It's the Shield vs. the Shell-Head.
Marvel Studios aren’t taking any chances. “Captain America: The First Avenger” didn’t so much battle Nazi Germany in WW2 as he did their fictional cousins of HYDRA.  In the sequel “Captain America: Winter Soldier”, the descendants of Hydra have infiltrated government and intelligence organizations at every level to threaten the free world. Finally, this year’s “Captain America: Civil War” pits Avenger vs. Avenger in a war of principles.  We sense their rivalry will be short-lived, but better to distract us with colorful hero against hero than by battling real-world threats like Boko Haram or Al Shabaab.

"Batman vs. Superman: Death of the Giant Clam"
Similarly framed is Warner Brothers “Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice.”  Our iconic heroes square off with unbridled fury until they realize the bigger problem is Lex Luthor.

Is a giant clam swallowing Robin too much to ask for in today’s market?  Adam West would race to the bat-poles - if he only knew who the bad guy was supposed to be!

The busiest offender of this “good-bad guy” gimmick is the Bond Franchise, starting with 1995’s “Goldeneye.” Bond’s fights a former agent, now a mastermind intent on controlling a powerful military satellite. It’s blue-collar government agent vs. blue-collar evil genius.  

Javier Bardem threatens Bond as ex-agent Silva in "Skyfall"
About as shapeless as the moon.
“Skyfall” trudges further, with bitter ex-agent Silva seeking revenge on M for disavowing his existence amidst enemy torture.  To justify his motivation, Silva pulls out his dentures, revealing the Quasimodo-like disfiguration caused by Mi6’s dental plan.

Donald Pleasance looms as Blofeld in "You Only Live Twice"
while Christoph Waltz as Blofeld is lost in "Spectre"
Not so fast, Mr. Bond. In last year’s “Spectre,” Bond learns the culprit responsible for incidents spanning the last four movies is actually his foster brother!?!?  Worse, he’s changed his name to “Blofeld” (really?)! But that’s not as scary as his master plan to install and oversee customized surveillance systems for an unprincipled shadow cell of the British government.  It would have been simpler to make him head of the IRS.

Gert Frobe as Goldfinger (1965).
Nothing like a mint julep after a hard days' laser surgery.
Goldfinger, do you expect me to watch? No Mr. Bond, I expect you to buy a ticket and die!

“Mission Impossible” drinks the same screenwriting kool-aide, as Tom Cruise outraces more than one government official complicit in heinous activities. But it’s “Star Trek: Into Darkness” which retreads sacred ground when the Federation’s Admiral is exposed trying to start an intergalactic war.  It wouldn’t be the first time a Federation official turned bad in Star Trek canon, but when a movie franchise releases a mega-picture every four years, can we get more face-value villains like the original Khan?

Empathetic villains are great, although not always necessary. Replace the “twisted secret service agent” out to avenge his enlisted son’s death by destroying the Presidential Palace in “White House Down” with a plain, old, rotten Wicked Witch now and then.

The Frightful Four: Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber ("Die Hard");
Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance);
Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West ("The Wizard of Oz");
Jack Palance as Jack Wilson ("Shane")
Baddies played by Lee Marvin, Jack Palance and James Cagney all brought extra dimension to their ruthlessness. One of the richest villains of the action genre was Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) in “Die Hard.” We loathe Hans instantly because of his unabashed cruelty and greed. In fact, the setup is so basic that the script spells it out for us. “I’m the good guy, you’re the bad guy, Hans!”

Unfortunately for the near future of cinema, real-life terrorists, rogue nations, dictators, religious extremists, and other vile scourges will be ignored.
If we must consider the looming threats to peace and harmony, Hollywood asks that we point to ourselves, gaze into the mirror of the movie screen and see that our worst threats are not Hitler, Kim Jong Il or ISIS, but the individuals and groups we trust our welfare to.  The baddies have become us.

No comments: