Menace and Threat

My movie viewing definitely skews to the pulp side of the spectrum, generally settling on sci-fi, fantasy and action that is often quite formulaic. One of the most important things I look for is that the villain is a menacing, threatening character, one whose defeat you can cheer. Otherwise I end up protesting the over-predictable shape of the storyline, cheering for his victory instead.

I’ll look through a few recent movies for this facet, so major spoilers abound.

The Dark Knight is the strongest example to come to mind – Ledger’s disturbing performance as the unpredictable and nihilistic Joker makes him a villain you want locked up. His abrupt violence and fondness for surprise reversals kept you on the edge of your seat each time he was on screen.

By contrast, the not-so-recent Avengers movie had Loki posturing and whining throughout, and then get Hulk-smashed for a cheap joke. His alien army was fodder that didn’t even rate exposition, and he got himself captured for little reason. Against Marvel’s stable of superheros, this effete villain didn’t have a chance.

In the same universe, Iron Man 2 and 3 fall to this issue. Tony Stark sans suit, hiding in a diner and using makeshift weapons against a regenerating villain had tension; Tony Stark sending in a hundred flying drone suits with all sorts of weapons against the no-longer-threatening Extremis soldiers was just dull. Whiplash attacking an unprepared Tony Stark on the racetrack was riveting, Iron Man and Warmachine wiping out dozens of drone suits at the end was not.

The Wolverine followed a similar pattern: the vulnerable Logan (shot) in an unfamiliar city, trying to recover and protect Mariko was gripping; the immortal Logan shrugging off Shingen’s superior kendou skills or beating up an old man in a CGI suit (while his granddaughter turned against him) was disappointing.

Fast and the Furious 6 didn’t spend a lot of time with its cast of villains, but they were visually distinct and held their ground against the good guys, getting the better of them a few times earlier in the movie (one beats up two of the heroes plus some cops at the same time).

Star Trek: Into Darkness was slightly lacking – Cumberbatch is a great actor, and Khan apparently one of sci-fi’s great villains, but he didn’t have enough time in evil-mode to become a truly malevolent presence. The Enterprise crew are already trying to stop him before he lands a few nasty kicks, and he’s immediately tricked with the torpedoes into losing his ship. With the business about saving his people, I suppose Cumberbatch’s character isn’t intended to be a completely evil character, but the action-movie-villain treatment he receives undermines the ambivalence.

The smugness of Tom Cruise and his character in Jack Reacher overpowers the villains (whose evil bona fides are established with the gratuitous torture scene trope). The tactics and deductions employed are clever, but there’s never a sense that Cruise is under threat – I found that I was watching to see how he’d get out of the latest scrape, rather than cheering him on.

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