6 Groups Who Don't Work as Movie Bad Guys Anymore
Romantic comedies can get away with the protagonists fighting their fear of commitment. Puzzle games can have you fighting against the lack of vowels in your Scrabble hand, but a good shoot-em-up in any medium needs some properly villainous bodies to be shot at.
One of which should always be played by Alan Rickman.
The problem is that current events and the audience's craving for novelty are drying up everyone's go-to staples for villainy. It all started with:
The fall of the Soviet Union caused a lot of problems -- such as political and economic disarray, missing nuclear weapons, runaway crime, that sort of thing -- but probably the worst thing about it was that moviegoers lost maybe the best bad guy country we'd ever had, aside from Nazi Germany. James Bond used to be a lone man taking on a massive evil empire with just his wits and lovemaking skills. Then one day in the 90s he finds himself fighting newspaper owners.
Oh no, he's going to write something mean about you!
In War Games, a young whippersnapper hacker found himself almost accidentally starting (and then stopping) a war between two superpowers that would have annihilated the earth. Now movie hackers just blow up people's computers and change traffic lights. Red Dawn was scary in addition to silly because, you know, maybe they weren't going to invade us exactly like that, but you still actually worried they might invade us.
By cloaking themselves behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy (almost like a veil, or curtain, made of some kind of metal) Russia freed America's imagination to fill in the many blanks with details that were 10 times worse than reality. According to the movies, Russia was ahead of us on everything -- space, missiles, sexy women spies, you name it -- and at any moment they were poised to burst out and destroy us.
Or break us, as the situation may require.
When they tore down that wall, as Reagan had asked them nicely to do, it was a huge letdown to find out our invincible adversaries had been basically eating their shoes to keep from starving. Shoes they had to wait in line to buy in the first place.
Let's see you love shoe shopping now, ladies.
Now, the good news is that Russians are just as nostalgic for the old days as action movie lovers (because at least then they had shoes to eat), and have been moving further and further toward old repressive Soviet policies. Not coincidentally, Russian bad guys have started to pop up again in movies like Iron Man 2 and games like Modern Warfare 2. The actual country still isn't back in top villain form though (where they'd have a massive army of soldiers wearing instead of eating their army boots), which means movie and game makers usually have to go with rogue Russians or Russian mobs.
Middle Eastern Terrorists
With fictional Russian villains bailing on us, fictional terrorists stepped up to fill the gap. It made sense. Terrorists were always bad. They blew up innocent people. You could easily shoot 50 of them in a movie without anyone having to feel guilty.
Or tie them to a missile or whatever.
The only problem is that you could only have about 50 of them. Terrorists were evil, but they were little roving gangs of evil dudes, sneaking around, using whatever weapons they could piece together. You couldn't have an epic war with them or anything. Bring a horde of missile-equipped helicopters to fight a bunch of guys with homemade explosives strapped to their riding lawn mowers and YOU start to look like the bad guy.
Oh yeah, giant missile birds. Those are fair.
When we went to war in Iraq, and then Afghanistan, and then Iraq again, movie producers wet their pants with excitement because they were no longer just stuck with small-time terror cells, but actually had real life bad guy armies they could use for big old movie battles. Sure, the factual ties between Iraq and terrorism were a little shaky, but the important thing was that audiences basically saw these enemy armies as the big military side of the characters that blow up planes.
And if you're watching something like Hot Shots!, you're not thinking too deeply about the moral ambiguity of the Gulf Wars.
But while it was a little easier to play the first Gulf War as bad vs. good, by the time we went back again, it was a lot more complicated. So at this point, you can't tell any kind of war story in the Middle East without accidentally making a political statement. Even the cartooniest action flick is going to be interpreted as "pro-war" if you set it in the Middle East without saying anything about the complexity of the situation.
Nobody ever brings up the legitimacy of Nazi zombie claims to land.
After all, as a wise cartoony action flick once said, "Shit just got real." It's hard to ignore how real and current the situation over there is, so almost all Middle East war movies nowadays are gritty and complex and try to make sense of war. It's not really any territory for people who just want to make your average bad-guys-good-guys action fest.
In the real world, China is the rising new star on the Western world's international threat matrix. They're poised to economically dominate the world, and their military is not too shabby either. All those World War III-genre screenwriters who went dormant after Russia collapsed are now being revived from their cryogenic chambers to start writing China-threat scripts.
The best example of China becoming the new Russia is Red Dawn, the iconic Cold War invasion movie, which was recently being remade with China literally replacing Russia.
Unfortunately they ran into a snag: While we had a "Cold War" with the Soviet Union, our differences with China are more like a "Passive-Aggressive Catfight." We're not actually physically fighting China anywhere in the world, and neither country seems to even be thinking about it. Instead, we're duking it out with snide comments and aggressive economic policies.
And a little bit of lead poisoning.
We're actually talking to and trading with China, and although we have a lot of arguments about that trade, nobody wants to see it stopped. So pretty much anyone that likes making big money in the global economy can feel the squeeze when they want to talk shit about China. Including movie studios.
That's why the new Red Dawn is being hurriedly edited in post-production to remove all references to China and change the bad guys to ... North Korea.
Whoever his agent is, he deserves a raise.
Considering that North Korea doesn't even have the boats to send an invading army over here (or the shoes to feed them), the movie's marketing is also being changed from action to comedy.
It's not just Hollywood that's scared. The new game Homefront also caved under pressure to switch its baddies from China to Korea, but at least they had the sense to have the two Koreas unite in the game's alternate reality, so only half of our invaders are starving to death and would defect the moment they saw a Dairy Queen.
If these were North Korean troops, they'd be inside already.
While much of Hollywood keeps trying to stay abreast of current events and put in the new anti-American hotness, a certain segment of it tries to play it safe by going back to the good old days, when an unquestionably evil empire was trying to exterminate an entire race of people and take over the world. From the perspective of filmmakers, the world was a refreshingly black and white place ...
Unlike the demographics of the Nazi party.
Everyone knows Nazis were evil, and Nazis were a huge military threat to the whole world. You don't even need any exposition -- you can jump right in to the hero running away from them or fighting them and get on with your story.
The downside is that so many people were jumping on the World War II bandwagon, both movie studios and game designers, that there's been a bit of a backlash of audiences complaining that they're sick of it.
Even the Indiana Jones series, which milked that Nazi cow expertly for so long, finally had to branch out and do Russians or something. Sure, it was partly because Harrison Ford clearly wasn't young enough to still be 1940s Indiana Jones, but also partly due to come on, enough Nazis already.
The other problem is that World War II was a real thing, and if you have to tell real stories, sooner or later you run out of story lines, unless you pretend something completely different happened, like Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.
Remember when Jewish-American assassins shot Hitler 337 times?
With all sorts of human races out of the picture, one of the biggest contenders this past decade have been zombies. Dawn of the Dead sequels (plus remakes and parodies), 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, the Resident Evil games and movies, Left4Dead. Zombies can be even more guilt-free than terrorists, since they're literally not people, or if you actually want some moral ambiguity, you can really push the "they were once your loved ones" angle.
There are no political minefields to tiptoe through, and you can make as many or as few zombies as your budget will let you.
You could film Night of the Living Dead today with a cell phone, $50 and a Facebook invite.
The only problem is that zombies are completely mindless, or at best, at a primitive level of civilization (I Am Legend). You can't have them found a monolithic military empire or create a global conspiracy that the hero has to outsmart. Outsmarting zombies is probably the least impressive achievement a movie hero can accomplish.
Outside of "winning" Matthew McConaughey.
Your hero is never going to be led into a zombie mastermind's high-tech control room where the zombie leader turns around in his chair, explains that he has been expecting him and then elaborates on his evil plan. It would look stupid, like Gremlins 2.
We're with the guy on the left.
Even if you're a die-hard zombie fan, you have to at least admit there are entire genres of games and movies where the level of difficulty an individual zombie presents just isn't going to cut it.
Which brings us to a perennial favorite: aliens. Aliens avoid all of the problems above, or so you'd think. Like with zombies, you can avoid political minefields. But unlike zombies, you can make them as smart and organized as you want. Even the best enemy Earth can offer is pretty much on an equal footing with America. Aliens can be advanced and powerful enough to kill us all 10 times over. Strangely enough, aliens are the only realistic option for modern day America to play David in a David-and-Goliath story.
No one is going to the theater to watch the big guy smash the kid's face in.
But you actually don't avoid political minefields. In order for the aliens to hit an emotional chord with the audience, there's got to be some frame of reference to something they know or feel already. Invasion of the Body Snatchers scared people because in 1956 they were already on edge about communists hiding among us, looking like ordinary people. District 9 did a great job tapping into people's experiences with apartheid -- or for non-South Africans: immigration or racism.
Either people are going to see some kind of parallel between the aliens and real-life situations, or people are going to feel too distant to really care what happens.
The other problem is that if aliens are able to come over here, they're going to massively overpower us, because they can get a whole invasion force over here while it's still kind of an achievement every time we get a space shuttle up and back in one piece. As we pointed out recently, we depend on the aliens making a series of laughable strategic errors just so the good guys can win.
Sorry, NASA, no alien race is going to be impressed by us rolling one of these around on their planet.
That means there are a pretty small number of possible endings. Either humans 1) win with a clever plan, 2) win because of something stupid like germs or 3) don't win. Clever plans always end up being filled with plot holes (see Independence Day) because it's just not realistic that we could outsmart aliens that have already been established as so overwhelmingly smart themselves. At a certain point, it's just a deal between the director and the audience where he basically pauses the movie and says, "Look, if you want to see some more cool action scenes, just initial here that it's OK that the alien computers run on MacOS for some reason." And you go, "OK," and he goes back to blowing things up for you.
As for the alternatives, if we win because of germs (War of the Worlds) or water (Signs) that's violating a pretty basic rule of good storytelling (having a random event save the good guys for absolutely no reason) mainly because in addition to being pretty lame, it doesn't give the protagonists a lot to do. As for just having the aliens win, that is not the kind of thing people go to blockbusters to see.
Still ... I don't think we should give up on aliens yet. We just can't. Who else is left if we can't use aliens? Are we going to keep going back to poor little North Korea every time? No.
It seems like there could be a better way to tell the story, one that could play off a more realistic extrapolation of human nature. What if we just played the role of the planetary Afghanistan, or Vietnam? You know, making the war too long and horrible for the invaders, until they finally decide the war is intolerable and just head back home. I think we need to think this through, in case some day aliens really invade. When they come, we'd need to do something so horrific the aliens can't even process it and consider the planet an untouchable hell pit they want nothing to do with. Something modern action audiences will enjoy watching on screen.
Obviously we can't get political and have the humans do a bunch of suicide bombings. That's not the statement we want to be making, and nobody wants to watch Will Smith suicide bomb himself. So what if the human resistance just kidnapped a nursery full of alien babies and just pooped on them, over and over? And we filmed it, and sent the aliens the video? "THIS IS THE PRICE OF WAR," we would say.
"They can't get in from the ass, right?"
Or what if we didn't even try to fight them off, but just rolled over and let them assimilate our culture until, over many generations, they became soft and complacent? The alien warriors' grandchildren are too fat to do anything except play video games, and the brawny human mine slaves rise up and take back the planet.
Oh, wait. That meshes perfectly with the infant-shitting scenario. Because with their terrible processed food diet, the aliens won't have the fiber to poop on our babies in retaliation. Boom, humanity wins. One hundred million dollar opening weekend.
You're welcome, Hollywood.
Check out Christina's look at 7 Things From America That Are Strangely Popular Overseas or our look at 9 Movie Villains Who Were Right All Along.