Wednesday, January 08, 2014

What's the Matter with Hollywood in 2013, Part 4: Villains are Dehumanized and Lionized at the Same Time

Update: Upon re-reading, rewrote it a bit.
Yesterday, we were talking about modern heroes’ love of killing. I should note that Star Trek Into Darkness, unlike the first movie in that series, does pay some lip service to the idea of avoiding vengeance, but it does so in a ridiculous way: they solemnly conclude that it would be wrong to kill the villain, so instead they re-freeze him and use him as a paperweight.

Even when the heroes don’t explicitly kill the villains, there’s never any sense that society deserves to see a trial for these atrocities. After all, wouldn’t these criminal masterminds feel shame and humiliation if arrested and imprisoned? And wouldn’t justice be served by convicting them? Wouldn’t that trial tell the world what happened, and bring closure to their victims? Actually, according to these movies, the answer is just the opposite...
After the success of Dark Knight, we’ve had not one, not two, but three more movies that have slavishly copied its then-unique structure, in which the villain is imprisoned for the middle of the movie: Skyfall, The Avengers, and Star Trek Into Darkness. In each of the four, the villain strutted around the prison with a smug smirk, making it clear that this is exactly where he wanted to be, injecting his evil directly into the heart of civilization. The jailers who attempted to get them to cooperate were shown to be naïve fools.

(One thing I liked about Thor 2, by contrast, is that it dared to imply that its villain, even though he was the same one from The Avengers, might actually dislike prison the second time around.)

Of course, I realize that the idea of killing villains isn’t new –James Bond has never once brought a bad guy in for trial, and that’s fine– but what makes modern movies so unpalatable is their hypocrisy. In all four of those movies the villain was more appealing than the hero, and that that is new. These villains dominate every scene, even in prison, because the screenwriters are pretty much on their side. In fact, in each of the three copycats, the villain tipped the heroes off to the fact that their bosses were up to no good. 

In each of these movies, our side is human but naïve, and their side is inhuman but lionized. That’s a very bleak dichotomy.

Of course, this isn’t just Hollywood’s problem. Why was Seal Team Six ordered to assassinate bin Laden? Why didn’t they arrest him? Why not put him on trial, like Eichmann, and humiliate him in front of the world? Why not contrast his lawlessness with our law?

Perhaps it’s because we convinced ourselves he was a monster, not a human, and you can’t humiliate a monster. The way we conceive of our modern villains, both onscreen and off, they’re as incapable of shame as an AK-47 would be. You can’t humiliate an AK-47, you can only smash it ...Or perhaps the real answer is indicated by these movies: we were afraid that, if we got him in our docket, we would prefer his nihilistic vision to ours.  Neither possibility is very pretty.

What is the way out of this? Can we rediscover our humanity? If that’s possible, will Hollywood show us the way or come trailing behind?  Intentionally or not, they’ve done a pretty good job of showing us the problem, but can they now start to explore any solutions? Can they finally create new compelling heroes, now that the old franchises have soured so badly? I can only hope so.

Next time, we’ll bring a lot of these trends together for a more in depth analysis of one of the worst movies of 2013: The Hobbit 2...


j.s. said...

Um, because Bin Laden was in a house full of an unknown number of armed military aged males? Because he got the same consideration as any other dangerous terrorist leader in his hideout would? I highly doubt that the SEALs were "ordered" to execute him. Much more likely is that they weren't explicitly admonished to bring him back alive at all costs. The first few guys through the door felt he was a threat and, according to their rules of engagement, reacted in seconds, just like they would have in a raid on the other side of the Af/Pak border. In that respect, it was a fairly standard kill/capture mission.

Unlike Eichman, Bin Laden had no state or popular political constituency to whom he was responsible. There's no exposing his lies and hypocritical use of political power because he never really lied about what he was doing and had no viable political power. There's really no analogy between WWII war crimes trials and a hypothetical Bin Laden trial, which would have been a media circus of the sort that the man himself always courted. The Nazis did their worst in the shadows and shunned any publicity that wasn't their own carefully produced propaganda. Al Qaeda terrorists thrive on media attention and would love nothing greater than an on-going platform to speechify their hate to the world.

But this post, with respect to both fictional and actual villains, doesn't strike me as a product of kneejerk liberalism as much as it feels like the denial of the very real existence and extreme storytelling demands of wrestling with actual dyed-in-the-wool empathy absent psychopaths.

Anonymous said...

But the main point is that these villains are tedious, no? Their evil smirking ambivalence in all situations really limits dramatic potential. I too would like to see more villains who are heroes with the wrong goal, as opposed to devils personified.

Anonymous said...

It's a pity you felt you had to remove a portion of the original post, especially because it was so right.

tanita✿davis said...

WOW, Mr. Bird.
This is a lot to think on. Thank you.

j.s. said...

For me, there's a lot of facile conflating going on that's obscuring some of the more interesting issues here.

First of all, there's the idea that neo Khan = Loki = TDK's Joker. Then there's the notion that all three sets of screenwriters are deliberately "dehumanizing" and simulataneously "lionizing" all of these baddies in similar ways. And finally that they all somehow reflect our society's relationship with the baddie of the age, Bin Laden.

I'm not sure I agree with any of those assertions by themselves, let alone the assumption that all of them are true that sort of has to be made to accept the conclusions of this post.

Finally, there's the unspoken implication that we've heard versions of in the past from Matt that to admit the existence of villains who aspire to nothing but chaos, who are motivated by nothing but their base desires and who have zero fellow feeling for any other human is to somehow lie dramatically about the nature of humanity.

I say that's not true. Psychopathic villains (those who know unequivocally they are bad but can't care) might be less dramatically interesting then bad guys who both believe themselves to be in the right and are capable of feeling some of the pain they've inflicted on others. But to pretend such forces don't exist or to blame them all on bad writing seems equally wrong headed to me.

It's true that one can't ask the same dramatic questions about an accurately portrayed psychopathic villain as you could one who's more neurotypical, but maybe part of the problem is that some of these writers and audiences are doing just that. Trying to have their psychopath and their conventional psychological drama too.

I still have yet to see a more interesting, accurate or compelling portrait of a psychopath on screen than the anti-hero protagonist of Markus Schleinzer's MICHAEL. He's neither dehumanized nor lionized, but simply offered up for study almost zoologically, in all of his amoral wretchedness. You can't really understand or sympathize with him. You want nothing better than for him to be caught. But there's a hell of a lot more suspense in this little art horror film than in almost all of the blockbusters Matt's been deriding.

Matt Bird said...

Wow, guys, sorry, I posted a long response to everybody but it got lost apparently (I have a horrible stomach flu today. Don't get too near to these posts.) In short I said:

j.s.: We disagree on a lot of stuff, such as how far apart Eichmann and bin Laden are, but that's okay. These are honest disagreements and I don't think either one is going to convince the other.

Anon 2: Glad you liked it (the first version had a longer foreign policy digression), but as soon as I posted it, I re-read it and felt , I thought "Ugh, I stand by all of this, but it sounds too angry and goes too far off-topic." When I cut it out and re-arranged, it seemed to make the original point better, which is, as Anon 1 said, that such villains are much less interesting than self-interested villains.

simonwou said...

Yeah! But it is just a trend because if any concept for movie villains is being pleased by the audience one time then it is not wrong to use the same while making another movie. I do not think that something is wrong within it. Even it is also done by Boll wood film makers.