The Evolution of The Hollywood Baddie

From Cold War super-villains to The Interview almost bringing about the apocalypse, Emirates Man studies how global politics shapes movie bad guys

The Oxford Dictionary defines the word ‘baddie’ as: “A villain or criminal in a book, film etc.”

It’s a fascinating definition, not merely because whoever pens Oxford’s word meanings was clearly a tad bored on this one, thinking it OK to write “etc” over adding detail, but also, as you’ll notice, there is no mention of these despicable characters outside the works of fiction. But then, baddies don’t actually exist in real life, do they?

Indeed, millions around the world fiercely condemned the masked gunmen who stormed the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris on January 7 and massacred 12 of the satirical magazines staff. Yet for a small minority, the perpetrators of these killings were not savages, villains or baddies, rather freedom fighters, martyrs, heroes.

“With his cat, scarred bald head and questionable tailoring, Blofeld was the epitome of evil”

In the warped old world of Hollywood, however, this question of context matters little, especially in decades past, with good and evil an issue of black and white. Quite literally, on some occasions – the good guy portrayed as light and pure in terms of attitude, costume, even music; his nemesis sporting a darkened soul, brooding melodies and quite possibly some sort of disfigurement, just to top it all off. But where Hollywood did dare itself to get political was where these iconic baddies came from. Shaped by a nation’s collective fears, politics and world events – the movie biz has a tendency to hold a mirror to society, making no illusions over who is (or at least they believe to be) good and evil.

Amidst the ashes of the Second World War, the 1950s ushered in an era of global paranoia. This was the decade of the Korean War, nuclear weapon testing and the rise of the Soviet Union. As a result, out were the comic stylings of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton on cinema screens – famed for pepping up a miserable, war-torn 1940s – in their place anti-communist films and tales of Cold War espionage.

Even before the fifties dawned, Red Scare suspicions ran so deep that a US House Of Representatives committee investigated the film industry in 1947 to determine whether communist propaganda was being hidden in films, with some writers sent to prison for refusing to testify. Granted, some were secret members of the Communist Party. However, this led to the infamous Hollywood Blacklist – work being denied to anyone with even a whiff of communist sympathies about them. This nefarious witch hunt saw the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles fleeing Tinseltown to ply their trade elsewhere, and adding a fresh layer of fear amongst the global paranoia.

Luckily, the booming sci-fi industry largely escaped such scrutiny, with the growing Cold War concerns in the West subtly explored, albeit through the medium of atomic bombs (War Of The Worlds, 1953), evil plant pods (Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, 1956), giant ants (Them, 1954) or a jelly-like blob (The Blob, 1958). Although the other-worldly antagonists in these films may not have sported Eastern European accents nor hailed from Russia, yet the ‘us and them’ undertones are plain to see, with ample nods and winks over just who the baddie is – that’d be the plants, ants and jelly (otherwise known as communists).

Then came the swinging sixties, and there’s no finer execution of the filmic bad guy portraying a worldview than James Bond. As Her Majesty’s foremost secret agent swung into view in Dr No (1962), the be-suited lothario faced off against the eponymous Dr Julius No – a half-Chinese, half-German scientist who specialised in atomic energy and tried to crash US test missiles after the West spurned his services. He also had bionic hands.

An evolution from the 1950s sub-villains (in that there’s not a scrap of subtlety to be found), the dastardly doctor was virtually a lens to the Western psyche, ticking the box of communist fear against China, a weariness towards Germany left over from WW2 and the fear of nuclear weapons. Doc No formed the archetype for which many baddies (Bond and otherwise) would follow, and probably deserved more respect than he received – being boiled to death in his own nuclear reactor by the all-action spy.

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Following Dr No – and hot off the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis – came Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the most iconic of all Bond baddies, who survived seven films and six actors (if you include 1983 Thunderball remake, Never Say Never Again) and parodied everywhere from Monty Python to Austin Powers. With his Turkish Angora cat, scarred bald head and questionable tailoring, Blofeld was the epitome of evil and the Cold War alike, further reinforced by his strong Russian accent and lust for space crafts (against the back drop of the Space Race).

If the sixties were a time to fear the ‘other’ abroad, the 1970s were the decade where paranoia ate itself. As the Watergate scandal sent shockwaves around the world – with Richard Nixon becoming the first and only president to resign as president of the United States in 1974 – baddies were no longer foreigners with exotic accents, they were suddenly all around, not even those in positions of powers could be trusted. This was also evident on the big screen, as the seventies saw birth to the crooked cop, and rise of the anti-hero.

Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan (Dirty Harry, 1971) presented a paradigm shift in cinema. Here was a protagonist who wasn’t strictly a villain, but by no means a conventional hero, either. While moviegoers were previously accustomed to having their narrative spoon-fed to them, their good and their evil, Dirty Harry was a rogue cop unafraid to cross both legal and ethical boundaries in order to get the job done.

Harry Callahan wasn’t the first maverick cop, with The French Connection (also 1971) and Steve McQueen classic Bullitt (1968) coming before it, yet it redrew the hero/villain template to have a spikier, more realistic, edge. Taxi Driver (1976) and The Godfather (1972) also blurred the lines of what audience’s should expect from their leads, yet De Niro’s Travis Bickle and Brando’s Vito Corleone were played with such finesse that you couldn’t help but root for them, irrespective of the law-breaking and bloodshed.

Such a sea change was the 1970s that even Bond villains received a temporary rework. African American drug baron Dr Kananga (Live And Let Die, 1973) and Brit assassin Francisco Scaramanga (The Man With The Golden Gun, 1974) were a notable change of pace from the Iron Curtained monopoly of the sixties – even if the latter did have a KGB past and a third nipple. But then that’s Bond for you.

Into the eighties, and the 007 franchise saw the return of the Russians, in particular his old nemesis Blofeld in For Your Eyes Only (1981) – while also sprinkling Greek, Afghan, German and South American foes in between the inevitable Soviets. Although it was Licence To Kill (1989) that best summed up the world’s cultural mood during the eighties, as Timothy Dalton’s Bond squared off against Franz Sanchez – a South American drug lord who sought wads of cash, not global domination – in the shadow of President Reagan’s war on drugs.

Among the myriad productions to echo the threat of narcotics were Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Lethal Weapon (1987), Tango & Cash (1989), To Live And Die In L.A. (1985), Red Heat (1988) – all featured cops taking on (often Russian) drug lords, whereas Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980) offered insight into the effects of hallucinogens, and 1983’s Scarface saw light to Tony Montana – another irresistible anti-hero who, despite a murderous disposition and drug habit, established himself as one of cinema’s best-loved characters.

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While the fall of Communism meant scriptwriters could no longer rely exclusively on Russian-toned megalomaniacs for their jeopardy, the nineties saw a return of home-grown baddies. The Rock (1996), Face/Off (1997) and Speed (1994) are just three that nodded to domestic incidents, including the Oklahoma City bombing and the campaign of Ted Kaczynski (known as the Unabomber).

Terrorism established itself as a pivotal theme in Hollywood, with Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy True Lies (1994) and 1998 thriller The Siege installing Middle Eastern terrorists as villains. Though these films pre-date the 9/11 terror attacks, they were also not the first to promote a stereotype of Arabs as evil and barbaric. Perhaps the most ludicrous example of this comes in the very first minute of Disney’s Aladdin (1992), as the theme song describes its Middle Eastern setting as “a faraway place, where the caravan camels roam, where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” And this is from a children’s film.

After September 11, 2001, redrew the face of global politics, organised terror and the New York skyline forever, the movie industry predictably followed suit. But unlike before, Hollywood’s reaction did not have art imitating life; instead it took a dramatic change of direction.

Sure, there have been a raft of movies off the back of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – including Green Zone (2010), The Messenger (2009) and Stop-Loss (2008), not to mention films depicting the events of 9/11 itself (such as United 93 and World Trade Center – both 2006), but whether it’s due to lack of public support for the wars or simply the need for escapism, these films were rarely box office successes. Even The Hurt Locker, which beat Avatar to Best Picture at the 2010 Academy Awards, represented the weakest financial returns for a winner in that category to date.

Instead, the vogue films since the turn of the millennium have been about one thing alone: superheroes, with each summer’s blockbuster releases largely draped in spandex, capes and super powers.

As per the comic books, the resulting villains less represented Western fear (with exception to Batman Begins’ Arabic villain Ra’s Al Ghul, though he was created in 1971), acting more as healthy distraction from the persistent terrorism, national disasters and financial crises that have unfolded in this century.

Heath Ledger

Of course, not all the superhero fare has been camp and fanciful, as for every Doctor Octopus (Spider-Man 2, 2004) there’s a Joker (The Dark Knight, 2008) – the latter himself a chaos-causing terrorist. Thanks in no small part to Christopher Nolan’s perverse mind, new breed superhero films have taken on a darker edge, with protagonists conflicted and complex characters, not whiter than white do-gooders. And next year DC Comics will go one further with Suicide Squad, a motion picture devoted entirely to supervillains.

It seems that some bad guys have never had it so good.

As for what the future holds for movie villains overall, it’s all a little bit murky. With the global financial downturn making studios ever-more tight-fisted and China establishing itself as the biggest box office market outside of America, Hollywood is loathe to miss out on a single penny. And though ten cinema screens open a day in China, the nation’s censors remain notoriously picky about what gets shown to their public. Given that Men In Black 3 (2012) had 13 minutes cut – including a scene where Chinese bystanders had their memories erased (through fears it was an anti-Chinese statement regarding web censorship), don’t be surprised if there’s a distinct lack of Chinese super-villains in years to come.

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One tactic to quell this problem of late was to swap China out for nearby North Korea and hope no one would notice, like the 2012 remake of Red Dawn. The switch of Chinese communist for North Korean soldiers made little sense to the plot (or title, for that matter), and the film failed to break even at the box office – which sort of serves them right.

But it’s unlikely there’ll be many more North Korean baddies coming to screens near you, either, and you have Seth Rogen and James Franco to thank for that, as The Interview genuinely brought the world close to World War Three last year. Branded a “wanton act of terror” by Kim Jong-un’s government and triggering a leak of confidential Sony Pictures emails (allegedly by North Korean hackers), The Interview was very nearly not released at all, due to terrorist threats against cinemas screening the film.

But brighter news for fans of evil, cinema’s favourite super-villain Ernst Blofeld might just making a grand return to Hollywood this year. After the estate of 007 co-creator Kevin McClory finally relinquished the rights to Blofeld and his evil enterprise Spectre in 2013, Bond fans the world over have predicted that newest Bond villain Christoph Waltz (recently confirmed for upcoming Bond outing called – wait for it – Spectre), might just be Blofeld in waiting.

For his part, Waltz has repeatedly denied the rumours, telling fans he’s instead playing a character called Franz Oberhauser. Not that anyone believes him, after all – Benedict Cumberbatch’s ‘John Harrison’ in Star Trek Into Darkness turned out to be legendary baddie, Khan, despite the actor’s public denials.

But with Russia following North Korea in becoming a 21st century foe of the West and distinctly lacking in a sense of humour, not to mention the sizeable Russian cinema market for prospective films, you never know – Blofeld might even return after all. Just with an ever-so-slightly different accent.

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