I noticed it first in one of the worst movies I've ever seen: G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra. I'm actually ashamed to admit that I watched it, a little more ashamed to say that I actually took guilty pleasure in it, and I should probably be punished for actually using it as the basis of film critique, but here we are!
Let me see if I can sum up the relationships in this movie correctly:
The protagonist (Duke) is the ex-fiance of one of the primary antagonists (the Baroness). She works for an organization who is run by the main antagonist (Cobra Commander). The reason that the Baroness (who wasn't, at that point, the Baroness) called off the wedding with Duke is because years earlier when he was on a mission in a Dusty Place with The Military, she tasked him to Keep My Brother Alive, who just so happened to be a medic on the same team Duke was on. As you would expect, he failed at said task. Truthfully, it was unavoidable and he did everything he could to try to save said brother because he is, after all, the protagonist. However, rather than understanding that the death of your future brother-in-law is probably an amazingly guilt-ridden experience for anybody, chickie decided to call off the wedding. Thank god, or where would we be for this plot? Wait! There's more. Not only did she somehow end up in the high ranks of some evil organization, she is doing so because she was brainwashed by nano-mites (don't ask) by Cobra Commander who is .. in fact .. her horribly disfigured brother! Dum dum DUMMMM.
(Oh, spoiler, by the way. If I just ruined G.I. Joe for you, then.. sucker!)
In the cartoon, Cobra was just a bunch of bad guys bent on taking over the world, and I couldn't help but notice that enormous difference. Not to say they didn't want to take over the world in this one (though I couldn't tell you at all what their motives were), it just wasn't the source of tension in the movie - the relationship was.
What's more, it occurred to me that it's happening in the plots of all of the comic book movies that I so love.
Just off the top of my head, let's look at the three big superhero franchises from the past decade:
X-Men: A war between two old friends with slightly differing ideals takes over the entire damn world. Almost every conflict in the movies has to do with some sort of dysfunctional parent/child, teen/teen, nerd/nerd or unrequited love/lust/heavy-petting relationship.
Spiderman: Peter's mentor turns out to be the Green Goblin, Peter's best friend loses his shit over Spiderman and becomes whatever the hell else, it just so happens that the glob of evil that creates Venom lands on the only other photographer that works for the Daily Bugle, and somehow M.J. needs to be rescued from every megalomaniac with a proclivity for spandex and hydraulic shoe lifts.
Iron Man: Stark is betrayed by his own business partner and life mentor, and then his dead father's ex-inventor-pal's son (who can't afford to buy his own dying father anything more than pureed BEETS) builds a set of nuclear-power whips out of old Soviet cereal packets and need for revenge. That's to say nothing of the personal competitor (please Hammer, don't hurt 'em) who can't seem to get past his role in Charlie's Angels.
Remember when all a villain needed to do was to sit in some volcanic bunker with a pool full of hungry sharks? What happened to that? Why can't a bad guy just want to take over the world anymore? Why does the antagonist have to have some sort of personal relationship with the hero?
I'll tell you why: lazy writing.
You heard me, Hollywood: LAZY.
You don't need to come up with plot-based dramatic tension and motives if you've got a relationship to exploit. Hell, you don't even need to come up with a snappy montage set to a popular rock song to explain how the hero finds out some sort of key piece of evidence about the villain because, for the love of pete, they're ex-roommates and - gasp - I still have his house key from when I watched his dog while he was on vacation in the Caribbean last August!
Well, I'm tired of it. I'm sick of the mindless drive for revenge against the imagined wrongs of the protagonist.
Hollywood, it's bad enough that you can't come up with an original plot, anymore. Every big movie out is based on a pre-existing idea, and that's pretty lazy all by itself. Don't cheapen it even further by not even having the decency to write a halfway reasonable motive into your villain.
I want to root against the bad guy because they're bad, dammit. I want evil that I can indulge in hating just because they've got a sick and twisted plan to take over the world and whose sole motive is "I win at any cost." There's a freedom in that kind of villainy that I, as a movie patron, am missing lately.
Villains define the hero. A hero is only as awesome as his or her adversary. By devolving every piece of plot tension into a cheap romance novel plot (note: not a GOOD romance novel plot), you undermine the integrity of your hero. They're not dealing with good vs. evil they're dealing with exaggerated office politics, stakes be damned.
Please, let's move back to a place where our movie villains are true anti-heroes, a place where heroism is more than vanquishing your personal demons. In today's world of catastrophic oil spills, international dictators with nuclear weapons, financial meltdowns, and global warming, I think we deserve a little black-and-white evil vanquishing. Don't you?
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
5.31.10 @ 12:50p
My sister and I always discuss the bad guy in whatever movie we watch or book we read. My sister is all about black and white, and I'm all about grey.
My argument is always: "People aren't just evil for no reason, there's always a reason, which makes the bad guy a lot more interesting to me than the good guy, because a normal person would just let things happen to them and move on and suffer internally, whereas an abnormal or even extraordinary person can take the anger and hurt, and turn it into some kind of driving force to reach their goal, which is really just revenge against those who wronged him, but sets him apart from other people in real life, as well as in a movie."
Of course, I'm not a comic book reader, so I could be talking nonsense, but to me it seems like it's actually a good thing to personalize the driving force behind the evil being done in a story. Without personalizing that driving force, I think every story would be sort of like the show "Inspector Gadget," where there's a bad guy (or a bad arm in IG's case) who just sits back and throws obstacles in the good guy's way just because. I loved IG as a kid, but as an adult, I can't help but wonder "Why do you have to be like that, MAD?"
You could argue that Hollywood is just being lazy, and it more than likely is these days, but I think when one side is lazy the other is challenged and called on to work, which can be bad with storytelling, but can also be really good. When there's a personal reason for someone to be bad, you sorta' get torn, wanting the good guy to win, but still, there's a guilty part of you that doesn't want anything bad to happen to the bad guy either, because he's suffered enough already.
I see what you're saying, and I do miss just knowing who to stick with, but much as life isn't so black and white in my vision, I feel that literature and film should reflect the grey that I see... even if it's a story about people who wear iron suits and travel the globe in one night.
5.31.10 @ 2:01p
Agreed. People aren't just evil for no reason. THEY don't think they're evil. They think they're wronged, or whatever. I guess I'm just really tired of the motivation for the bad guy being the good guy. Screw that. Why doesn't the bad guy want money, or fame? Or whatever? All the cocaine he can eat?
I think the old James Bond films carry my favorite villain archetypes. They KNOW James Bond, and they consider him a thorn in their sides, and a potential nemesis, even, but their overarching motives are never based around him.
5.31.10 @ 8:01p
One word: Hans.
6.2.10 @ 10:49a
I like the personal conflicts you find in X-Men, because none of the story would make a lick of sense without them. Without knowing why a bunch of mutants fight each other all the time, you end up with Pokemon, and who wants to watch that?
But yeah, whatever happened to cardboard cutout bad guys who want to take over the world? Maybe we will get to see some in the new A-Team movie I just saw a trailer for the other day, and we won't find out the bad guy is B.A.'s ex-childhood friend who dropped him from a tree and caused him to be afraid of flying.