Thursday, April 18, 2013

On heroes, villains, and demographics.

It recently occurred to me that in addition to more structured writing such as film reviews or stories, I also gave the impression that I would be offering random snippets of my thoughts on this blog, and that I have not really been doing so. In that vein, some thoughts on casting in the highly anticipated but awkwardly titled "Star Trek Into Darkness."

Now before I go any further, I should clarify my position on the film in general, as much as that is possible having not seen it yet. I am very much looking forward to this movie. J.J. Abrams' franchise reboot with the 2009 "Star Trek" was solid, likeable, and completely entertaining. With pitch-perfect recasting of iconic roles, it reinvigorated a series bogged down by its own storied history and high-handed humanist pretensions. Still, I'd go short of calling it the brilliant, unqualified success that some heralded it as. There was, for me at least, the air of something lacking. There was a certain weightlessness to the events, even when planets were being destroyed, that made it feel like an unmistakably minor work. And "Into Darkness" looks to correct all that with a more frankly emotional, dangerous, and, for lack of a better word, dark storyline. Plus, it has Benedict Cumberbatch, who is fantastic in BBC's "Sherlock," and who I fully expect will give a terrific performance here as the powerful and villainous, if blandly named (if that is indeed his real name), John Harrison.

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That brings me, belatedly, to the point of this rather rambling train of thought. An interesting note about this movie is that the primary villain will be a young white sane male human. Something felt unusual about the concept of "Into Darkness" in my mind, and I kept coming back to this point until I realized why it stuck out: A young white sane male human as the main villain is rather rare in action/sci-fi movies. Think about it for a moment. In fact, I want to suggest that its rareness is directly related to the commonness of a young white sane male human as the main hero of such movies. Usually the villain in such movies is different from the hero in at least one of these five ways:

(1) The villain is significantly older than the hero, in order to give him more gravitas in comparison with the young, brash protagonist. A prime example is Bond movies, where the classic villain is an old man in a chair with a cat and a diabolical scheme for world domination. Having your villain be, if not quite senior citizen material, at least in the middle-aged department, also has the advantage of allowing the casting of a veteran actor with proven experience and an air of authority. To see evidence of why this works so well, think of the primary villains, and their respective actors, from "Batman Begins," "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl," "Spider-Man"s 1, 2, and Amazing, all the Damon "Bourne" movies (Cooper, Strathairn, Cox, Finney, what a round-up!), "Mission Impossible"s 1 and 4, "Star Wars" episodes 2-6, "Superman," and countless more. This can, of course, be flipped on its head, such as in various movies where the hero is played by a now older actor like Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, and faces off against a younger villain. Expect a lot of jokes about how freakishly old the protagonist is. "Red" is a prominent recent example of this inversion. The point is, there's a substantial age difference between the hero and the villain.

(2) The villain is a minority, or close minority stand-in (read very humanoid alien) to give a dangerous sense of "other"-ness. Hollywood has perhaps been trying to move away from this of late, sheepishly aware of its own rather racist past, but it is definitely still a factor. It seems to me that the most common new way to go about this often involves making the villain an aggrieved and thus somewhat sympathetic figure, one who has legitimate grievances, which has the advantage of raising moral dilemmas, calling the hero's ideology into question, and creating a more complicated and compelling antagonist figure. This trope sometimes pops up in cop shows, but it also still occurs form time to time in movies. Think Denzel Washington in "Training Day," who was street-smart and charismatic; Javier Bardem in "Skyfall," who was betrayed by his boss/mother figure; the Klingons, who had their own fully developed culture and were pretty much the coolest people in the galaxy; Khan in "Wrath of Khan," who had been stranded by Star Fleet (if memory serves); and Nero in the latest "Star Trek," who had his own planet destroyed before he decided he needed to do the same thing to Spock. (Notice that Star Trek movies seems to do this a lot.) Loki from "Thor" is another example; although he looks a lot like Thor, he is really the child of a frost giant, and he has a massive chip on his shoulder about it, but somehow remains a somewhat sympathetic villain. This minority villain/majority hero tendency can also be turned on its head. A notable example of such an inversion is Michael Mann's "Collateral," in which down-on-his-luck African American cabbie Max, played by Jaimie Foxx, is terrorized, but also oddly championed and taught confidence by, merciless white successful-businessman-like assassin Vincent, played by Tom Cruise. Again, the point is that the hero and villain are often on the opposite side of a race/ethnicity line.

(3) Similarly, but less commonly, the hero and villain can be on opposite sides of a gender divide, which usually plays on sexual tension of some sort, with either an evil seductress tempting the hero to abandon virtue or faithfulness, or a heroine facing off against a physically stronger male villain with the threat of rape present or lurking in the background. See Grendel's mother in "Beowulf" and (SPOILERS) Miranda Tate/Talia al'Ghul in "Dark Knight Rises," a stealth example, since for most of the movie she does not appear to be the main villain (END SPOILERS) for examples of the former, and pretty much every slasher/home invasion movie ever made for examples of the latter.

(4) Taking the minority angle further, and in a less potentially confusable-for-racism direction, the villain is of an entirely different species than the hero. This one's pretty simple. It stems from classic monster stories, and draws on our very basic human fear of things out there in the woods that want to eat us, rip us apart, and kill us, preferably not in that order. Think any sort of vicious animal or alien that is not very humanoid. Classic examples include: the alien from "Alien," Godzilla from "Godzilla," the jaws from "Jaws," the Terminator from "Terminator," the creature from the black lagoon from "The Creature from the Black Lagoon," etc. etc. As you might suspect, this too can occasionally be inverted, in which case you usually end up with a movie that features a cute little monster/alien/robot running from evil human authority figures with the one little human who understands him/her/it. For a prime example, I'll give you a hint: it begins with the letter E and ends with the letter T.

(5) The villain is crazy. Especially in this age of widely-publicized senseless violence against children and other civilians, this is one is very scary and effective, because we see evil that is hard to explain rationally in the real world too. There is no war or profit motive, or even any particularly relevant backstory that would adequately explain this type of villain. The villain is just nuts, no other explanation offered or needed. Jack Nicholson's Joker from "Batman" is mentally unbalanced. Heath Ledger's Joker from "The Dark Knight" is mentally unbalanced, to say the least. (Though he does seem to have something of an ideology he's trying to prove.) In contrast, and for fairly obvious reasons, the hero is usually not crazy. (Or IS he? Dun dun dun!) Any which way, the hero and the villain are separated (at least apparently) by the sanity/insanity line, which makes for a stark contrast.

Circling around back to Star Trek, I'd like to point out (though you've probably already noticed where I'm going with this) that Cumberbatch's John Harrison has NONE of these major distinguishing differences from Chris Pine's Captain Kirk. Demographically, they are interchangeable. If they were filling out demographic stats on themselves for a poll or a census, they would be practically identical. Additionally, Cumberbatch usually plays heroes (voice acting in The Hobbit adaptations aside). I guess what I'm saying is, it is highly unusual to have the main villain be so similar, demographically-speaking, to the main hero. Most villains could claim at least one of the points listed above that would distinguish them from the hero. This John Harrison fellow is thus a remarkable irregularity from most cinematic villains, at least in large-scale action movies.

 Of course, the Star Trek franchise has played with similarities between its heroes and villains before, most notably with Tom Hardy as the villain of "Star Trek: Nemesis," who, while admittedly much younger than Picard, was in fact his clone. The choices of each reflected directly on the other. I wonder if there will be a similarly strong parallel made in "Into Darkness" between John Harrison and Kirk? Will they be revealed to be two sides of the same Federation-trained coin? I'm interested in finding out, whenever I see "Into Darkness," which is coming out in May. Let me know what you think!

1 comment:

  1. I have not seen it yet, but I am interested in how your hypothesis worked out. Did the villain end up being crazy?