Special Features – Are modern baddies running out of evil schemes?

Liam Trim ponders whether outdated villains at the cinema are more than a joke…

Marvel’s Avengers Assemble opens this week to unexpectedly unanimous rave reviews. According to Flickering Myth’s very own five star assessment, Avengers Assemble (or simply The Avengers for our American cousins) “has everything”. Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Cabin in the Woods) has managed to delight everyone from snobby critics to fearsomely devoted fan boys. Somehow he’s crammed several ego-heavy superheroes, presumably played by ego-heavy actors, into one movie and given them enough interesting things to do for 2 hours and 22 minutes. Which isn’t an easy feat in the modern cinematic universe.
However, critics being critics, the reviews have not been totally positive. The only negative that repeatedly crops up is a lack of threat. Henry Barnes of The Guardian describes Loki’s army, kept secret for so long, as a “horde of faceless, disposable allies” and concludes that “it’s hard to see how they put up much of a threat”. Now you can bet Whedon and his helpers at Marvel put plenty of time and effort into deciding upon a suitable nemesis for their team of superheroes. And crucially, the reviews are not critical of Loki or Tom Hiddleston’s (Midnight in Paris, War Horse) portrayal of the bitter god. Yes he appears to be a caricature and a bit camp and over the top like a pantomime villain, but he’s a delightfully menacing, old fashioned baddie. The problem is with his evil plan.
Avengers Assemble is a perfect example of a growing dilemma for modern movies, which is that the bad guys are running out of evil schemes. It’s just all been done before. Robbie Collin argues in The Telegraph that Avengers Assemble gets away with treading the same old ground because it does it so well, with flair and wit. But he still writes his whole review around the fact that Avengers Assemble says or does nothing new. In fact, the films it copies are relatively recent. Its set pieces, according to Collin, improve upon action we’ve already seen at the cinema in Battleship and Transformers.
The worrying thing is that The Avengers has a lot to work with compared to many movies, but has still failed to deliver anything resembling great originality in the department of villainy. Whedon had reams of source material to draw upon in the form of Marvel’s comics. The writer/director was under pressure to come up with something impressive, to warrant the launch of The Avengers initiative in the story, but had considerable flexibility to do so. With superhero films, the sky is literally the limit. The suspension of disbelief is already sufficient to allow for a farfetched plan to conquer the world.
More realistic stories are more limited. They might still depend on a believable adversary having a horrible plan. The evil scheme in Avengers Assemble is disappointing at worst and covered up by special effects, along with the film’s other attributes. Much of the interest lies with how the heroes compete with each other and overcome their differences. In films with one hero, the challenge presented by the villain can make or break the story. In films without super strength, practically invincible iron suits or The Incredible Hulk, the bad guy’s plan typically needs to be more complex, nuanced and mysterious to draw the audience in.
I first noticed this phenomenon back in December, when I saw Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol in quick succession at my local multiplex. Both films fall back on a classic evil scheme, which has become harder and harder to pull off in recent years: world war. Nowadays a global conflict or a nuclear apocalypse seems like an alien possibility. We’re no longer defined by the Cold War going on around us and even the threat of terrorism has cooled in the last couple of years, especially since the death of Osama Bin Laden. A Game of Shadows was obviously set in the past, making the prospect of a European war spiralling out of control a little more realistic. But it had virtually no impact on me, probably because I’d seen the same thing countless times before. Also, the film was set prior to the First World War and seemed to think of itself as poignant for foreshadowing it. However, to me the inevitability of conflict merely rendered the entire plot pointless.
The saving grace for A Game of Shadows was that Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man, Due Date) and Jared Harris (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Lincoln) shared a delicious onscreen chemistry (albeit not as fun as Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott’s in the BBC’s Sherlock). Any story involving Holmes and Moriarty is really about the battle of their intellects. Thankfully for the film, the actors gave ordinary lines of dialogue hidden depths and piled on the tension, as well as the wit, whenever the enemies shared the screen. Unfortunately for Ghost Protocol, it had neither a compelling scheme nor a charismatic villain. The bad guys are largely unseen. Initially, this adds to the drama. I was blown away to a land of excellent escapist entertainment by the action sequences in the Russian prison, the Kremlin and Dubai. Sadly the climax of the third act was a major disappointment. Not primarily because of the action, even if the car park showdown was less impressive than what had come before. But because Michael Nyqvist’s (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire) villain was an uninteresting enigma and his plan to spark nuclear war was just that: same old, same old.
Ghost Protocol remains a much better film than A Game of Shadows on the strength of its set pieces alone. Brad Bird’s (The Incredibles) vision, born in the limitless environment of animation, gave the Mission: Impossible franchise a much needed dose of creativity and imagination. However, if Bird’s film had an inventive evil scheme and villain to match its bold stunts, it would have been extraordinary, rather than just great entertainment. This is something that James Bond fans will be bearing in mind in the ongoing build up to the 23rd film in the franchise, Skyfall. Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) has a background in theatre and the plot details we know about, involving Bond’s family ancestry, seem to be there to give our suave hero some heart. Javier Bardem (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Biutiful) is a worthy opponent, capable of bringing to life truly menacing baddies, as he did in No Country for Old Men. But what’s the story? What’s the evil plan?
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first official Bond film, Dr. No. From the very beginning, the threats in the films have moved with the times. In 1962, Dr. No was disrupting American rocket launches, stirring up the Cold War. In 2002 the villain was a bitter North Korean soldier in the ridiculous Die Another Day. In 2006, for Daniel Craig’s (Layer Cake, Cowboys and Aliens) reboot, the writers reinvented Ian Fleming’s first Bond book, Casino Royale, to make the banker, Le Chiffre, someone who financed terrorists. In 2008’s Quantum of Solace, effectively a sequel to Casino Royale, the writers attempted to tap into unease about global resources, by having an evil organisation pretend to be after oil, but actually snapping up reserves of drinking water in barren countries. The story was a disappointment, again largely because the filmmakers failed to nail either the villain or the evil plot.
So whatever the evil scheme is in Skyfall, it will probably reflect the times that we live in. You could argue that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to think of evil schemes because the world is a better place today than it used to be. You could equally argue that the immorality in the modern world is simply harder to see and pushed behind closed doors. You could also say that there is something hilarious about the idea of bad guys running out of ideas. This is undoubtedly true, it is funny. Imagine Blofeld sitting around with nothing to do but feed his cat and watch The Voice on Saturday nights.
But it is also worrying. The lack of creativity when writing for villains may hint at deeper issues. There are always people with villains in their lives. Do we need to empathise more with these people, and make our stories more personal? Are we simply being complacent or deliberately ignorant about the problems in the world? We all need a little drama in our lives to drive us forward and as societies we need challenges to overcome, goals to aim for. Perhaps more than anything else, for us film fans anyway, we need good movies to fuel our imaginations. It’s about time filmmakers and studios got their act together to give us some 21st century villains, with 21st century ideas.