It was 1989 and I was bringing a date to see Batman. It was opening night and the buzz about the movie, as you may recall, was incredible. As we went into the movie theater, I joked to my date that when leaving it, we should say “Wow, I can’t believe Batman killed the Joker like that” in front of the lines of people waiting to get in. I didn’t think for a moment that it would actually happen because I was thinking in terms of the comic books: Joker and Batman were always enemies and would always fight. Joker does something crazy, Batman beats up his goons and sends the clown back to Arkham Asylum. I was thinking comics, but I wasn’t thinking movies.
It seems that in the movies, the bad guys always get it in the end. Somehow, someway, the hero triumphs over every obstacle in his path and the villain gets his comeuppance. Emperor Palpatine gets thrown down the bottomless shaft of the Death Star, Auric Goldfinger gets sucked out of the window of his plane, and Jaws (the shark, not the assassin) gets blown up after he bites off a little more than he can chew.
OK, maybe Jaws isn’t the best example, but have you wondered if the villains really have to die? I guess that I can understand it in a thematic sense, the villain did something evil, really evil, and so the hero has to stop him. If the villain dies, then you don’t have to see some sort of anticlimactic jail sentencing. Nobody wants to see a summer blockbuster full of action and explosions end with the antagonist being thrown in prison (Except Superman the Movie, I guess).
It’s a little easier to see the villains die in science fiction and fantasy stories because they usually have big, grandiose schemes for conquering the land/planet/galaxy. They’re larger than life and typically kill whoever is in their way and so it becomes a little easier to justify their deaths.
There are some where it doesn’t always makes sense though, I think, and you’ll have to bear with me as I step outside the genre a little bit for these.
Breakdown was a pretty taut thriller featuring Kurt Russell chasing JT Walsh across the interstate trying to find his kidnapped wife. I thought that for the most part, Breakdown was a pretty good film and the filmmakers even made the effort to make JT Walsh’s character Red Barr a little more fleshed out. They gave him a wife and a kid and even though, to my recollection, they never adequately explained why he kidnapped the wife he still made a good villain. In the end though, he falls off a cliff and his semi truck crashes on top of him. He died and his death was all the more goofy because of the way it happened. Kurt Russell didn’t kill him as much as he just kind of let the guy fall. We didn’t get to see a scene where he goes and breaks the bad news to Red’s wife either. “Sorry ma’am, your husband kidnapped my wife so I let a truck fall on top of him.”
Ransom was also a decent thriller, I thought. But again, at the end the main bad guy has to die. Gary Sinise plays a crooked cop who engineered the kidnapping of millionaire Mel Gibson’s son. Up until that last scene the movie works, you feel for Gibson and Rene Russo’s characters as they try to get their kid back. Sinise is a good actor with good intensity to even if you don’t necessarily want to see his character as the bad guy, you can buy that he is. At the end, he and Gibson duke it out, Gibson gets the upper hand on Sinise, the police come in and start to haul him away, and he has to make a grab for one of their holstered pistols. No way was he going to walk out of that scenario and it totally felt tacked on to an otherwise decent movie.
Air Force One. Die Hard on a plane with the president? Another movie that was pretty good with Harrison Ford’s President Marshall fighting back against terrorists who’ve taken control of Air Force One. There’s a dramatic rescue scene that the end where everyone left on the jet use a slide for life across open sky to a C-130 flying next to it. Of course, that’s right when that one last secret service agent decides to reveal that he’s the one who sold out to the terrorists. It seemed like the only reason that happened was so they could have the shot of a guy screaming out the open door of a plane as it crashed and burned. I think a better scene may have been to get everyone on the ground and then have the president turn to the agent and say “You’ve sold me out, you’ve sold you’re country out.” Something dramatic that you know Ford has the acting chops to pull of something like that.
Yeah, I know these aren’t science fiction or fantasy movies, but these three in particular bugged me with the deaths of their antagonists. There has to be another way to beat a bad guy, right? What do you think?