Thursday, May 08, 2008

Killin' the Villain

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?


Stewart Sternberg said...

I want the villains to die. Hell...if the film is really want the villain to die. You're cheering for it. It's cathartic. Of course, we're talking about films where the action and character development is broad and where the theme of good v. evil is front and center. Little morality plays, if you will.

In other films though, the bad guy doesn't necessary die and the catharsis takes on a different form. Look at the Oscar winner "No Country For Old Men".

Matt said...

I think you're on to something. No Country For Old Men might be an exception, but I think villain deaths are as much a product of the movie's genre as anything else.

Death is, usually, the most extreme form of punishment so when a movie is a drama or action film, extreme punishments are appropriate retribution. Think Die Hard and just about every film you mentioned on your list.

But comedies also feature villains and villains in those films rarely die. Ray Finkle was arrested, Biff gets dumped in manure, and so on. There are exceptions, but I'd even go so far as to say that a villain's fate can be used to determine a film's emphasis. If the villain dies, it's a drama, if the villain lives, it's probably a comedy.

SQT said...

It depends on the villain. I am so sad Heath Ledger died because it looks like he was a great Joker and I would have liked to see him in the role again. "No Country for Old Men" is a great example too. Bardem was the most menacing villain I have ever seen and seeing him walk away gave me the shivers. But it was well done.

furiousBall said...

i agree with what you said SQT, I wanted Bardem to live for some reason. he's the most evil i've seen, yet i wanted him to survive

Jean-Luc Picard said...

A ggood spectacular ending is what the villains usually get!

Thea said...

Hmmm, interesting. I really like the way Matt put it, with a villain's death being a product of genre. Interestingly enough, because the villain doesn't die in comedies, they are most likely to make reprisals in a sequel (i.e. Biff Tannen as mentioned by Matt, or the Home Alone guys, Dr. Evil, etc).

I think movies from comic books, however, can be an exception to the 'genre rule'. One of the things that irked me about the recent Iron Man movie was that Obadiah dies at the end of the film (akin to the Joker and Green Goblin deaths). When the archnemesis is killed, the convenient thing is that there is a whole bevy of new villains to pick from (thereby also keeping the franchise fresh and getting more pretty actors to sign on). However, a number of comic book movies do keep their villains alive, and ready to come back another day--the best example I can think of is X-Men with Magneto's constant presence in all 3 films (come to think of it, the entire core of Brotherhood characters manage to stay alive and appear in each film), or Lex Luthor, or Doctor Doom...heck even some of the Batman villains live to potentially fight another day (the recent Scarecrow comes to mind...).

Charles Gramlich said...

I tend to feel most of the time that it's better for the villains to die too. But it has to be done right and some of the movies you mentioned didn't do it right.

Jay Amabile said...

you know, I'm really glad you brought up Breakdown since that movie never gets any action. I enjoyed that movie!