Hollywood Needs a New Villain
By alex wilgus
June 13, 2012
This Friday will see the release of Rock of Ages, a screen adaptation of the popular Broadway musical about ‘80s metal bands, bars and broken dreams. The villain, a fundamentalist Christian played by Catherine Zeta Jones, is out to close down the Bourbon Room, the club where all the town's devil music comes from. She's hoping to rid Los Angeles of sex, drugs and rock ‘n' roll—and she isn’t alone. The Christian villain has become an ingrained Hollywood staple character across a diverse range of films, from indie fare to summer blockbusters.
Contrary to what you may think, there are precious few villains in films today. One type of character commonly mistaken for a villain is the monster. Aliens, Hannibal Lecter and the Joker aren’t villains; they’re more like forces of nature who really can’t be blamed for their actions. Hostility is in their nature, and they tend to be treated with a sort of reverence. They're fun to watch on screen.
“I’m just a dog chasing cars.” —Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight (2008)
“I admire its purity. A survivor unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality.” —Ian Holm’s Ash on the film’s titular Alien (1979)
Other characters who are commonly mistaken as villains are, in fact, tragic antagonists. Their difficult life circumstances are to blame for their faulty development. Loki, the evil god in this summer’s biggest hit, The Avengers, is little more than a spurned child whose vengeful nature might have been avoided by a little more attention from daddy-god.
Villains are different. They are mean on purpose. Even though they have the option to be nice, they choose to do exactly the opposite because in some twisted way, they like it.
I contend that only two villain archetypes have survived into our decade: the unscrupulous CEO and the fundamentalist Christian.
The evil CEO is, with few exceptions, completely non-scary. He or she (generally a "he" in Hollywood) is more pathetic than malicious, willing to harm others for personal gain, then crumpling into a whimpering heap when he gets in over his head.
The Christian’s the slimier of the two. He (ditto on the gender, with Rock of Ages being an exception) is either a cold-hearted authoritarian agent for divine order who squelches diversity wherever he goes, a faith-addled psycho who is convinced his nefarious actions are divinely appointed, or a good old-fashioned hypocrite.
It wouldn’t be too remarkable if these "evilgelicals" tended to show up in the same sort of B-movies as the evil CEOs, but the surprising fact is these villains are often found in more intellectual fare. In 2011, the Sundance Film Festival featured such an extreme concentration of films featuring faithful villainy that it raised eyebrows over at the AV Club. No less than five major releases featured Christian antagonists that year (Red State, Salvation Boulevard, Higher Ground, Tyrannosaur and The Ledge) to varying degrees of critical praise. Allison Willmore’s AV Club editorial asked the obvious question: Are these villains unfair to Christianity?
The short answer is yes. But movies are never really fair with character types. Let's be honest. Even we Christians are pretty comfortable with evil Russians, so we shouldn’t be too quick to snap back at Sundance. Instead, it may be better to take the recent wave of Christian villains as an opportunity to better analyze how our society perceives faith, God, Jesus Christ and all the things we Christian minions take for granted. Just what do people think is so scary about Christianity?
One assumption often made by films with Christian villains is that their decision-making is screwy. They often take the idea of faith to mean Christians don’t listen to their brains and instead make decisions based on delusions of direct communion with God. It’s a dramatic form of a snarky response many atheists have with prayer and speaking to God: “If God told you to go kill someone, would you do it?” As it turns out, the Bible has a more discerning rubric for receiving instructions from God: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). What commonly goes unnoticed is that Christians are actually praying to Someone with a consistent nature.
This sort of fear is typically leveled more at Catholics than evangelicals and entails a Christian conspiracy or cabal whose goal is to subjugate the world to its rule. 2007’s The Golden Compass featured the not-so-subtly titled “Magisterium” as its villainous organization. In The Da Vinci Code, the villains are a shadow cult within the Vatican itself. It is forgotten that the Church has historically held a tenuous relationship to political power, and while these fears might have been merited in the late Middle Ages, the truth is the Church has wielded no real political power since the sixteenth century. By this figuring, an evil ecclesiastical hegemony is approximately 10 times more outdated than Nazi villains who were deemed officially cliche last year by America’s most reliable cliche-deemer.
Moralizing Christians are often portrayed as going against the very things they teach in order to be villainous. Abin Cooper in Red State makes mention of the "Thou shalt not kill" commandment just before executing a homosexual. He reasons that God wasn’t talking about evil people when He said that. The list of Scriptures controverting this interpretation is extensive. The groups that would sanction such an action are nowhere to be found, not even among the members of Westboro Baptist Church (after whom director Kevin Smith was intentionally modeling his villains), who for all their hateful speech have yet to put anyone to death.
Each of these character types represents a perversion of Christian virtue but offer very little commentary on the nature of Christianity itself. While they may not be more unfair or inaccurate to Christian villains than any other type of villain, that’s not to say they’re innocent.
The real problem is they are simply not scary.
The prevailing sensation I got while watching these villains on screen was not that they are offensive but that they are just not very good villains. All of them tend to resort to cartoonish shock tactics that end up producing more revulsion than menace, and none of them proved very memorable. This is because they are not attached to any sort of pervasive cultural force that threatens the fabric of our society, even when they are based on real people or situations. The Westboro Baptists have gotten plenty of media attention, but all of it has been overwhelmingly negative, making Michael Parks’ snarling Abin Cooper feel more like kicking a dead horse than a brave cultural statement. The video of the North Carolina pastor railing against the gay community did not go viral because of national support but because of shock and outrage. What makes the Christian villain so unconvincing is that he has, in a sense, already been defeated in real life.
Media outlets produce polls that show overwhelming percentages of Americans who “say they believe in God” or “consider themselves religious.” Christianity’s most outspoken critics use them to fan a weakening fear of conservative Christianity. But secular America has carved out many comfortable galleries in society from which it is acceptable to reject, refute or criticize whatever Christian behavior they like. Christian villains are lame—not because they are inaccurate but because they no longer really threaten. A villain is no longer scary after he has been thoroughly tarred and feathered. All we have left is Catherine Zeta-Jones vs. Hair Metal, and barring a hostile takeover of wrongheaded, power-hungry Christian fundamentalism, Christian villains will remain cliche.
Alex Wilgus is a lay catechist at Logan Square Anglican Church in Chicago, Ill.