Possible SPOILERS Follow for any movie mentioned.
Previously, I wrote about cinema villains of decades past, so now it’s time to move onto the modern film baddie; more eccentric, devious, and brilliant than ever.
Each blockbuster villain these days appears to be trying to erase audiences’ memories of the last great antagonist, by going even more eccentric, unique, and disturbing than the previously established norm. I’ll examine the evolution from simple yet scary baddies like Owen Davian (Philip Seymor Hoffman, M:I:III) to the game-changer that was Heath Ledger’s Joker, as well as all the great villains he inspired including what’s to come in 2013.
Villains today out-banter the hero, are streets ahead with a master plan anticipating the protagonist’s every move, like to be captured (“it’s all according to plan“), live by their own, disturbing yet clear moral code, speak in weird voices, and nearly always enjoy their “work.”
I will not only take us through the most recent gem to grace the screen, SKYFALL’s Silvia (Javier Bardem), but beyond as well, looking ahead to what next summer’s blockbusters IRON MAN 3 and STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS have to offer.
First off, one nostalgic “childhood” favorite I nearly missed in Part 1:
Okay, so he’s technically a computer program, which more-or-less makes him a machine, which eliminates him from this category (see Part 1 rules).
But the acting is so memorable…
So, I’m shoehorning the good Agent in.
Smith has a moment that is now the cornerstone of the modern villain; the intriguing yet twisted speech that delivers the character’s “philosophy” in a chilling manner. (Nearly all the villains we are looking at today have a great/creepy speech or monologue.)
It’s all about that virus talk he gives Morpheous:
“I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.”
Expert writing like this combined with memorable acting are key ingredients for any worthy villain. Smith has similar exchanges with Neo and Cypher, all oozing a certain amount of evil that is hard to fake (don’t know what that says about Red Skull… I mean Hugo Weaving).
Top Villains of the Slightly-Less-Early 21st Century (Modern Era)
I honestly didn’t know PSH had it in him, but goddamn is the man terrifying. Not so eccentric as much as the classic, cold, ruthless boss-type who has his help killed at the drop of a hat (or the stain of a shirt…).
Just. Plain. Scary.
“Who are you? What’s you’re name? Do you have a wife? A girlfriend? Because if you do, I’m gonna find her. I’m gonna hurt her. I’m gonna make her bleed, and cry, and call out your name. And then I’m gonna find you,and kill you right in front of her.”
The above dialogue is so good it’s almost like a reversal of the great TAKEN speech!
Between this threat and the intense interrogation scene of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), Owen Davian is by far the strongest Mission: Impossible baddie. He is perhaps also the best example of classic “just-plain-scary” villainy in the past decade.
2007 – Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Almost no one in the US knew Javier Bardem before this role, but after seeing the Coen Bros. darkest yet greatest masterpiece (a Best Picture Oscar winner, none-the-less), it is undeniable that Bardem is one of the world’s greatest acting talents.
He made a bowl cut scary. Nuff’ said.
Though I am going to continue saying (writing) things, anyway.
Terrifying like Davian, Anton is not short his share of eccentricities. From the cattle gun, to his coin toss (“friend-o”), to his very precise yet skewed moral code, Bardem really set the mold for the great antagonists of late. His taking the time to drink a glass of milk in the precisely paced movie is just one example of the extra details that make villains like this fun and memorable.
(Anton is not the only villain on this list who enjoys milk…)
Likewise, characters like Chigurh and The Joker are effective because they have a very strict set of rules or a precise yet skewed “moral code.” They stand by it, all their moves are dictated by it, it makes perfect sense to them, but is just off enough to scare the shit out of us.
It’s not about the money for Chigurh, it’s about honor, keeping your word, and getting the job you were paid to do done.
“This is what I’ll offer – you bring me the money and I’ll let her go. Otherwise she’s accountable, same as you. That’s the best deal you’re gonna get. I won’t tell you you can save yourself, because you can’t.”
Always calm, cool, collected, and with a solution for everything, you do not want Chigurh on your tail.
Did I mention he’s incredibly violent?
Cause he is….
2008 – The Joker (Heath Ledger), THE DARK KNIGHT
With a lot to live up to, due to the already classic Jack Nicholson portrayal of the joker (included on my “Top Classic Bad Guys” list from the previous blog), fan-boys were certain pretty-boy Ledger could not pull off the “crown prince of crime.”
Instead, Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger chose the “grim jester” take on Batman’s arch-nemesis, making the Joker darker than ever before. The killer clown still had plenty of eccentricities, though his enjoyment in his work is curbed in comparison to Joker as seen in 1989’s BATMAN, THE ANIMATED SERIES, or the comics.
Ledger’s Joker builds on the aforementioned evolution of villains in the 21st century, basically defining many of the strongest that follow.
Everything about Joker was unique, from the way he talked to the way he walked. To the way he licked and smacked his lips. Even non-Batman fans were quoting the trailer months prior to release; “And here… we… go!”
“You’re just a freak in a mask… like me!”
Joker is a “better class of criminal” because his plans are always two to three steps ahead; something now common in today’s action films. His plans were so diabolical that they were never what they seemed, usually accounting for how Batman would respond to each play.
This included allowing himself to be captured, a “plan” used by many of the following villains on this list.
(Davian was even captured, and though it did not appear to be part of his plan, he escaped without much difficulty, giving him access to Ethan’s identity and wife. Anton is also in custody at the beginning of NO COUNTRY, though I can’t remember if there is any indication as to whether this was intentional or not.)
Despite my earlier criticism about his enjoyment with inducing mayhem, Ledger’s Joker does manage to have a fairly decent time: “I like this job! I like it!” The scenes were the Joker lightens up a bit (Why So Serious, Heath?) are the best, setting the standard for memorable villains to follow.
Now, I was going to finish this blog here and now, but it has grown far too long as I write it. So, like Peter Jackson and his HOBBIT, I have decided to make the “Better Class Of Criminal” series into 3 parts.
The 3rd post should be out later today or tomorrow, covering all the great villains that follow 2008’s Joker, many sharing quite a lot in common with the grim jester and each-other. I’ll continue onward to three upcoming villains whose trailers suggest they follow this modern design of the antagonist (Mandarin from IRON MAN 3, anyone?).