Have you noticed a trend in your favorite blockbusters of late (well… “of late” meaning “the past 5 years or so…”)?
Are your villains more interesting? Do the actors portraying them have past Oscar nominations and/or can they overcome the action-movie stigma to achieve at least pipe-dreams of one? Are these bad guys crazier than normal? You know, more unique with a funny voice or passion for mayhem?
If you answered yes to any of those absurd questions, perhaps you, like me, feel that the past decade has produced some of the most memorable and unique villains in the history of cinema. (No, not just memorable because they’re recent, memorable because they’re so good it feels like they have some real staying power.)
2012 alone has been particularly giving, including last weekend’s SKYFALL, anchored by villain Javier Bardem. I’d like to take this time in “movie villain history” to recall past favorite villains of mine and compare them to the current crop that catch audience’s eyes for their originality (like Bane… that is some really bizarre shit).
Patterns will quickly emerge, suggesting that these modern villains we love to love for their originality, actually share quite a bit in common with one another. It’s less that each breaks the mold, more that each fits the current mold; a mold that itself has evolved from what came before. Even the mold is not original, it has simply built on our past, perfecting the traits of a great villains past rather than inventing them.
My personal favorite antagonists from decades past range from those widely-considered classics to a few lesser appreciated gems (especially recently)*:
*I am a lover of film, but I am also only 24 years old, so I apologize if my naturally limited knowledge of films before the 70s cause me to leave out an obvious villain for this list. Likewise, I am writing this all in one night (instead of sleeping); I’m confident that later today I will be like “oh fuck, I can’t believe I forgot ___________!”
*Also, to set up some sort of limits as to what qualifies as a villain/antagonist/bad guy, I’ve decided to draw the line at live-action man. No sharks a la JAWS, dinosaurs a la JURASSIC PARK, no machines a la 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and no animated baddies like Gollum. After all, though many (including myself) would argue three of the four preceding examples are incredibly emotive/iconic in their execution, are they really the same as an actor doin’ their thang’?
*Finally, to simplify shit even further, I eliminated any characters who may be imaginary, a la FIGHT CLUB.
TOP CLASSIC BADDIES
1964 – Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) – Really set the mold for the classic Bond villain better than DR. NO and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE had established before. Besides keeping a light and witty rapport with the hero, Goldfinger seems to take great pleasure in his own eccentricities, something we will see time and time again in the Bond universe and elsewhere.
It is this pleasure in action I am trying to drive home today, this aspect that is essential for an interesting antagonist today.
1977, 1980, 1983 – Darth Vader, uhhhh I’m not even gonna say what movie he’s from cause I’m insulted – Obvious choice. No one is more ruthless than him. None more iconic. He’ll death grip the shit out of his own men. And look great doing it. The guy to imitate when it comes to getting results from your henchmen.
And even back in his day we were using tricks like interesting voices and masks (again, see Bane) to give villains identity in a world full of ’em.1981 – Dr. Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman), RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK – Rene Belloq is my favorite type of villain, the doppelganger; that is, a baddie who is very similar to our hero/nearly the mirror opposite. Belloq and Indiana Jones are both archaeologists, peers in their field, but they differ in methods. As Belloq tells Jones, “I am but a shadowy reflection of you, it would take only a nudge to make you like me.”
1982 – Khan (Ricardo Montalban), STAR TREK II: WRATH OF KHAN – It never hurts to make it personal, not for the audience at least.
Not JAWS 3 or TAKEN-I-want-my-daughter personal. More like the villain feels as though the protagonist has personally wronged them, personal. So, rather than the good guy going on a rampage limited by what makes him a good guy, you have a sadistic madman who don’t give a shit ’bout no’body out to settle a score, and no one will stand in his way. When this happens, there are no Innocent and the world (and/or the universe) burns.
So is the case with Kahn who seeks revenge on Kirk for marooning him on a baron planet, and so will be the case with one of the top villains of 2012.
1987 – Joshua (Gary Busey) with an assist by Endo, LETHAL WEAPON – Joshua is perfect parts crazy and loyal as proved by the classic flame-to-arm scene. Besides, it’s hard to forget that crazy cop on crazy mercenary beat-down with Riggs (Mel Gibson). Joshua would also be considered a doppelganger for Riggs (noticing some patterns here?).
And as far as Endo goes, one need only quote Mr. Joshua, “Endo here has forgotten more about dispensing pain than you and I will ever know.”
Live or die by that reputation, Endo.
Live or die.
1988 – Hans Gruber, DIE HARD – Fine, I admit that so far, very few of my choice are controversial or unknown. Don’t worry, that comes later, like in the 90s where nostalgia clouds my judgement.
Characters popular in the 80s are in-proportionality represented on this list because it’s a personal favorite time period in cinema. Like today, villains were quirky and took great joy in their “work.” Gruber didn’t just have a killer, well thought-out master-plan; he also had fun! (Sound familiar?)
1989 – The Joker (Jack Nicholson), BATMAN – Really, who has more fun killing people than the Joker? The Joker is supposed to be having the time of his life, even when things don’t go according to plan. Jack doesn’t disappoint, though his version still pales in comparison to that of Mark Hamill. Goddamn it though if the man doesn’t commit.
1989 – The South African Consulate’s Minister of Affairs and his Henchmen, LETHAL WEAPON 2 – “Diplomatic Immunity,” really says it all, don’t it?
(Answer: “Yes, it don’t. It really don’t.”)
A little advice, don’t kill the hot South African chick Riggs is fucking AND THEN tell him you murdered his wife. That is, unless you want your house pulled down a mountain.
That shit’s just super personal, and Riggs goes the appropriate amount of ape shit, like 007 post-Vesper.
NOSTALGIA SETS IN: VILLAINS FROM MY FORMATIVE YEARS
1995 – Alec Trevelyan aka 006 aka Janus (Sean Bean), GOLDENEYE – There’s a reason 006 was/possibly is still my favorite Bond villain. Again, everything’s super-personal (he’s Bond’s old friend, plus Bond scarred him by “setting the timers for 3 instead of 6.” He knows MI6 and is another perfect example of a doppelganger (perhaps the most perfect as Bean was nearly hired as Bond). All the correct chips are in play, driven home by all the witty banter between “006” and 007, up until the end.
millennium006 shares quite a few similarities with the still to be discussed Silva from SKYFALL, and is certainty a precursor for the new villain. His past drives him a different direction than “For Queen and Country” Bond, feeling a similar need for revenge to that of Javier Bardem’s character.
1995 – John Doe (don’t wanna spoil the surprise), SEVEN – He’s certainly one of the most quirky/sadistic killers on film. And he knows how to deliver an unbelievable third act, important for any villain worth his salt (if that is even a saying).
Returning our attention to 006, while he’s always great, but it’s the combo of an incredibly strong introduction action scene and the finale showdown that cement his role in 007 history. Likewise, with an ending like that of SEVEN, I doubt we’ll forget this serial killer soon.
1997 – Edgar (Vincent D’Onofrio), MEN IN BLACK – Really, unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, D’Onofrio’s performance of a space roach in an “Edgar” suit still astounds. Certainly one of the most “out there” threats. Again, fun work with the acting and voice make for fun times at cinemas.
1998 – Don Rafeal Montero (Stuart Wilson) & Captain Love (Matt Letscher), THE MASK OF ZORRO – Double the doppelgangers, double the fun!
With old Zorro facing his old arch-nemesis (who just happened to accidentally murder his wife then intentionally -d’uh – steal his daughter) and new Zorro facing his brother’s killer, after years of training and dreams of revenge. Really, Nick Doll’s wet-dream.
From the director of the aforementioned GOLDENEYE and CASINO ROYALE, Martin Campbell, I like to think of MASK OF ZORRO as the movie Campbell made simple because he couldn’t, at that juncture, make a 007 movie. ZORRO follows all the rules of 007 from the detective work, to the “Bond” girl, to a madman with a country changing plot, Don Rafeal Montero, his lead henchman, Captain Love, and an epic, explosive finale.
2002 – Norman Osbourne (Willem Dafoe) aka The Green Goblin, SPIDER-MAN – “Work was murder”
Now, there’s an actor who chewed the scenery in the best way possible. Whether realistic or not, Dafoe’s approach to the over-the-top Green Goblin set the standard for modern comic book movie villains like those of the AVENGERS and DARK KNIGHT.
Limited by an expressionless mask, Dafoe does a lot with a little. His conversation with “the Goblin” is thing of super hero movie legend, making it ok for mechanical arms, black goo, sand, and lizards to talk to mad scientists in SPIDER-MAN sequels for years to come.
Talking to yourself is a unique place to go with your villain, and comics like Spider-Man nearly demand it. What is most important and fun about the character though is, again, the extreme joy felt by “Gobby” whilst terrorizing Spider-Man and New York. This really laid the groundwork for silver screen villains like Loki.
If they were to cast Norman Osbourne in the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 tomorrow, I’d insist it remain Willem Dafoe. He embodied a comic character perfectly even before RDJ ever became Tony Stark.
We’ll continue this analysis of the modern blockbuster villain as derived from his aforementioned history next time on BREAKING GEEK in “A Better Class Of Criminal: Part II” including the final era of movie villains, “Adult” Life: Nearly Modern To Today… And Beyond!
Find out what Bane, Joker, and Silva all have in common!
Find out which villainous strategy is hot, hot hot! (clue: Joker, Bane, Loki, and Silva all recommend it!)
All this and more! On BREAKING GEEK!