Hollywood often resorts to national stereotypes when portraying movie villains - but why would they want to alienate part of their audience? Tom Brook investigates.

From a sadistic former KGB operative in The Avengers to the Russian evildoers in A Good Day to Die Hard, there’s certainly been no shortage of Russian villains on screen recently. Russian politicians and filmmakers have now made clear their displeasure with the US movie industry’s ongoing depictions of Russian characters as villains. There has even been the threat of a Russian boycott of Hollywood movies, highlighting the risk studios take when they demonise a nationality.

The Russian news agency Interfax reported in August that Batu Khasikov, a member of the culture committee at the upper chamber of the nation’s federal assembly, had stated that “movies where everything related to Russia is overtly demonized or shown in a primitive and silly way should be banned from theatrical distribution.”

Depicting the Russians as villains has a long history. “Even before the Cold War, Russia was represented often as a geopolitical threat to the West,” says James Chapman, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester. “But [that stereotyping] takes on a particular ideological inflection during the Cold War when you get the association [with] not just Russia but also Soviet communism.”

Surprisingly the fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t bring an end to Russian villains onscreen. Perhaps for a while their presence eased off but Russians remain the studios’ favoured villains.

“You can’t even turn the TV on and go to the movies without reference to Russians as horrible,” says US-based Russian-American professor Nina Khrushcheva, the great-granddaughter of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

Kenneth Branagh played a sinister Russian billionaire in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Paramount Pictures)

Kenneth Branagh played a sinister Russian billionaire in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Paramount Pictures)

Khrushcheva, who teaches at New York’s New School, follows how Russians are portrayed in American entertainment and in her estimation the prevalence of Russians as villains hasn’t really abated since the days of the Cold War. “It never really eased up enough for Russia to feel that it is not a constant enemy,” she says.

Scholars see Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tough stance as the reason for the increased presence of Russian villains now. “I think particularly since the reemergence of Putin and a much more hardline regime, [especially] with the problems now in the Ukraine, there’s been this sense that Russia remains a geopolitical threat and a hostile power – even if it’s post-communist – and I think that’s really the reason you see this type of villainy,” says Chapman.

What’s old is new

The Russians might be the villain of choice right now but over the decades many different races and nationalities have had their moment in the evildoer spotlight.  Around the time of World War II, for obvious reasons, Germans appeared as villains in US films – as did the Japanese.

One group that’s been demonised for decades with varying degrees of intensity is Arabs – and Muslims. Even before the days of Rudolph Valentino’s roles in silent films like The Sheik in 1921 the cast was set for depicting Arabs as questionable characters who stole and murdered. In the Arab-American community Hollywood’s depictions over the decades have been seen as suffering from the ‘3B Syndrome’, in which Arabs were shown to be either belly dancers, billionaires or bombers. 

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks there was growing concern among Arab-Americans that they were being typecast as terrorists.  Although some films did appear with more rounded portrayals of ordinary Arabs, Dr Jack G Shaheen, author of Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, maintains there hasn’t been enough change. “Unfortunately, Arab and Muslim villains still appear regularly in film and TV shows,” he states.

China has contributed its share of movie villains going back to the time when Fu Manchu appeared as a distrustful Chinese character in the early days of talking cinema. When MGM released The Mask of Fu Manchu 1932 the Chinese embassy in the US delivered a formal complaint because the title character was depicted with such hostility. But nowadays there’s hardly a trace of a Chinese character with evil intent in any Hollywood film because China has become a vitally important market for the studios.

This became clear with the remake of the 2012 US war film Red Dawn. It was filmed with Chinese villains, but because of concerns that might jeopardise its entry to the Chinese movie market the villains were transformed into North Koreans in post-production – at considerable expense. Given that there’s no distribution of Hollywood movies in North Korea the producers knew there could be no loss of box office revenue by alienating that country.

The 2012 remake of Red Dawn turned its Chinese villains into North Koreans during post-production (FilmDistrict)

The 2012 remake of Red Dawn turned its Chinese villains into North Koreans during post-production (FilmDistrict)

Hollywood’s depictions of villains can have very concrete and tangible consequences.  As is the case with Russia they may make politicians angry – they may also possibly provide them with role models. In her blog, Nina Khrushcheva, who is clearly no admirer, makes the grand claim that Vladimir Putin has been significantly influenced by Hollywood’s parade of evil Russians.  “He moved into that villainous image that was presented by Hollywood of Russia or Russian leaders. He watched all those movies. He was like, ‘Well you’re going to portray me as a villain anyway, so I might as well go and start biting off other parts from other countries.’”

Whether or not Putin has been inspired by Hollywood bad guys the reality is that there’s serious talk of limiting the presence of Hollywood movies on Russian screens. Khrushcheva thinks the US film industry could indeed find penalties are imposed. “It is entirely possible that the Russian market would be somewhat closed to Hollywood,” she says.

Given that Russia represents the seventh biggest movie market in the world why would the studios risk antagonising one of its more significant customers? One possibility is that Russia’s complaints over Hollywood movies may have a public relations impact that plays positively in the studios’ favour. “They’ll be glad for the interest and the attention,” says James Chapman. Also, Klaus Dodds, Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London, says, “I think Hollywood is far more concerned about the Chinese market.”  Indeed there’s almost an obsession over China in Hollywood – but now that Russian displeasure could depress box office revenues there may be some reassessment.

Hunting new villains

With so few nationalities left that Hollywood can safely demonise it clearly needs to find fresh evildoers.

The Islamic State could be a source of villainous characters, but it’s fraught with difficulty because it’s made up of so many different nationalities drawn from the Middle East, North America, Britain and beyond. Dodds says, “I think with ISIS you’ve actually got what you might call a representational challenge. What kind of person or persons would stand in for ISIS given that it’s such a multinational affair in terms of those who [count] among its membership?”

Given the complexities of today’s geopolitics it’s conceivable that villains will cease to be defined primarily by their nationality. Upton says, “One of the trends you’re going to see probably in the near run is bad guys will be polluters or climate deniers.” In fact, enemies of the environment have already been the villains in the highest grossing film of all time, 2009’s Avatar.

The problem is that none of the villains in today’s films have the heft of those from yesteryear. During the Cold War, especially during dramatic times like the Cuban Missile Crisis, a Russian villain on screen was far more menacing because moviegoers knew that US and Soviet nuclear missile launch control centres were poised to go to war. Thankfully, that kind of immediate nuclear threat has lessened but as a result it’s defanged our villains. We’ll just have to make do with environmental enemies and the general threat of terror until Hollywood in a flash of inspiration reinvents the movie supervillain. Or heaven forbid, real-world geopolitics gives us an enemy of sufficient imminent obliterating power that a character representing that country suddenly gains an ominous topical resonance.

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