At the beginning of the new Mission Impossible movie, a team of well-dressed intelligence agents meet to address a serious danger to the country’s safety. Their foe is described as a “godless, stateless enemy” that is both “ubiquitous and elusive”, a “conscious, adaptable, and deceitful digital intruder.” You can’t help but feel disappointed when you realize that Tom Cruise’s newest opponent is actually an advanced computer program. How can there be an action movie without a physical antagonist? Hans Gruber would be outraged.
Experienced Cruise enthusiasts, however, will understand not to worry. In the previous summer, Top Gun: Maverick successfully executed a similar tactic, encompassing all the elements of a thrilling action film except for one: there was no clear antagonist. Similar to the original film, “the enemy” remained an ambiguous nation state, with only a small group of anonymous fighter pilots appearing as targets for our protagonists towards the climax.
More is yet to come. The upcoming dystopian drama, The Creator, starring John David Washington, follows the mission to save humanity from a dangerous AI. Additionally, Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is set to be a thrilling epic that delves into the warlord’s explosive love affair with Empress Josephine, played by Vanessa Kirby, rather than his enemies.
The film industry in Hollywood is currently showing a decrease in its tendency to portray aggression. Both Barbie and Oppenheimer, despite being vastly different characters, share the common trait of not having a strong antagonist. In the case of Oppenheimer, there is a slight attempt at introducing Robert Downey Jr as a villain towards the end, but his character falls short. Similarly, Ryan Gosling’s Ken lacks any real villainous qualities and is more of a comical character than a true antagonist.
Maybe these movies are too intellectual to create a completely flat antagonist. However, the Fast and the Furious series – the current leader in mindless entertainment – is equally at fault here. It has a tendency to introduce each new villain already primed to join our beloved group of misfits, with all conflicts resolved over a cold beer in the end.
A comparable tactic of portraying good as bad was utilized in last year’s hit film, Everything Everywhere All at Once. This kung-fu adventure follows a heroine who must confront an otherworldly thief that happens to be her own rebellious daughter. Spoiler alert: the conflict is resolved with a heartfelt embrace.
Are audiences no longer interested in over-the-top supervillains? Luckily, that is not the case. The Marvel and DC films continue to feature a generic, evil adversary in each installment. This trend also applies to big-budget fantasy movies like Avatar, Dune, and Dungeons & Dragons. And it seems that Bond villains are here to stay.
In general, it appears that blockbuster movies set in reality are now more thoughtful about choosing their heroes’ adversaries, if there are any. In the past, films like Rocky had their protagonist fight against a clear symbol of Soviet strength, Ivan Drago, but now in Creed, Rocky’s student Adonis must face his former friend and both must confront their suppressed feelings. While this showcases maturity, it raises the question of what happened to the one-dimensional villains of the past.
It is possible that a contributing factor to this change is a decrease in interest for blatantly racist portrayals that were prevalent in the works of Stallone, Seagal, and their colleagues for a significant period of time. Additionally, the decline can also be attributed to basic economic factors. As mid-budget films have virtually vanished and the benchmark for success at the box office has become unreasonably high, the worldwide earnings of a movie have become crucial in determining its fate. In essence, Hollywood is no longer solely focused on catering to American audiences.
Reworded: The phrase “yippee ki-yay” is not only associated with Gruber, a sophisticated European mastermind, but also with characters such as Arab terrorists in “True Lies” and “London Has Fallen,” Russian psychopaths in “Air Force One” and “GoldenEye,” and Latino gang members in “Falling Down” and “End of Watch.” This trend also explains why the only nationalized villains in recent media have been the Nazis in Indiana Jones, as they are the only group that is still widely accepted to discriminate against.
However, while the desire to please everyone has revealed and eliminated xenophobic stereotypes, it has also taken away a crucial weapon from screen villains: the ability to use brutal violence. In the past, it was common for the antagonist to showcase their villainy by theatrically killing an innocent person, before delving into more sadistic acts later on. For example, Heath Ledger’s Joker infamously impaled a henchman with a pencil, while the villain in Die Hard 2 chose to crash a passenger-filled jumbo jet.
However, this type of conduct typically eliminates the possibility of receiving a family-friendly rating – and what is the purpose of a villain who cannot inflict harm on an innocent victim? “There’s nothing wrong with shooting, as long as it’s the right people who are being shot,” stated Harry Callaghan in 1973. But fifty years later, Hollywood is less certain. Modern blockbusters tend to depict violence in a similar manner to sex: sanitized, clean, and carefully concealed.
In recent years, the classic portrayal of a crazed villain with mindless followers has become rare in Hollywood movies. The only exception being the John Wick films, which are unique in their unapologetic use of exaggerated and graphic violence.
The remaining antagonists in today’s society are primarily confined to the imaginary worlds of superheroes and fantasy, where their behavior is toned down and more acceptable. Meanwhile, movies set in the real world are left with villains who are hardly deserving of the label – or, in some cases, no villain at all. This is not beneficial to anyone.