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When was the first time you found yourself nodding in agreement with the alleged villain of a film? Bad guys who actually make some good points aren’t anything new; it’s an easy way to add some moral shading to an action movie’s mostly black-and-white conflict. The current emphasis on verisimilitude in big-budget filmmaking means that creators seek a real-world grounding not just for character development and interaction but also for conflicts.
As a result, we get characters like Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming speaking out about class inequality, Black Panther’s Killmonger decrying the worldwide oppression of black people, or Infinity War’s Thanos being driven by fears of universal overpopulation. These villains pose a threat to the status quo, and their motivations for doing so are understandable or even inarguable. But superheroes traditionally exist to protect the status quo. And when such fictional battles drag in real-world problems where the status quo absolutely needs upending, it makes for an odd dissonance.
This trend hit a new critical mass among superhero movies in 2018. The first (Infinity War), second (Black Panther), and fifth (Aquaman) highest-grossing films worldwide all featured villains who viewers sided with over the heroes. #TeamKillmonger became a popular Twitter hashtag. Thanos got a huge subreddit literally called “/r/thanosdidnothingwrong.” Even Patrick Wilson, who played Aquaman antagonist Ocean Master, acknowledged that “His fight is perfectly understandable.”
These stories — and audience reactions to them — aren’t happening in a vacuum. Information about the existential threat posed by climate change grows more dire every day, and news about governments either not doing enough or going backward on the subject inundates us as well. The same goes for class and racial inequality. In this light, radical action becomes an increasingly valid-looking prospect. But Hollywood productions can’t actually endorse radicalism. So anxieties around racism and global warming are ultimately marginalized, or even dismissed.
Thanos is the easiest supervillain to counter, since he is (appropriately) only half-correct in his worldview. He’s right to worry about the exhaustion of resources, but wrong to blame overpopulation, rather than overconsumption, as the culprit. Yet no one within the film argues against him on these grounds. When he claims that his genocidal treatment of Gamora’s home planet turned it into a paradise, she doesn’t dispute this, but merely scolds him for his methods. The only rebuttal the movie gives to Thanos’s assertion that overpopulation will kill the Universe is Gamora screaming, “You don’t know that!” Hardly a considered argument. Examining overconsumption implicates citizens of the first world in the issue, and doing that would make far too many audience members uncomfortable. And without that framework — if the only premise available is the one Thanos presents — then his position is indeed rational, even necessary, despite being brutal and tied to real-world eugenics.
When movies can’t contradict their bad guys, they resort to dirtier play to ensure viewers root for who they’re supposed to. Black Panther undermines Killmonger’s anger at Wakanda for electing isolationism instead of helping black people around the world by having him frequently murder women. The movie also eventually reveals that Killmonger just wants to form his own empire, seeking black supremacy instead of equality — disturbingly becoming an avatar of what many racists claim civil rights activists really want. Killmonger’s political resentments are also sublimated into his jealousy of his cousin, T’Challa. Ultimately, we see that he doesn’t really care about saving the world’s black people. This happens even as the film halfway accepts his arguments, as T’Challa is moved to open up Wakanda by the end. But instead of taking any strong stance against structural inequality in other nations, he … builds some outreach centers.
Aquaman, which matches a lot of Black Panther’s narrative beats, replaces racial concerns for environmental ones. Ocean Master wants to declare war on the surface world to save the undersea kingdoms from destruction at the hands of the surface dwellers’ unceasing pollution. Considering that saltwater fish currently face extinction by as soon as 2048, a hypothetical ocean-based nation would be fully in the right to take up arms to defend itself from us. But like in Black Panther, Ocean Master is eventually shown to care about this less than he is about proving himself the true king instead of his half-brother, his motivation reduced to sibling jealousy. And unlike Black Panther, it doesn’t even offer a half-measure alternative to its villain’s methods. None of the characters pose a nonviolent way to solve the brewing crisis. When Aquaman triumphs at the end and averts the war, the question of just what he will do to save his subjects is not just unanswered but unasked.
The trend of blockbusters with villains who make a little too much sense will likely only intensify along with various global crises in coming years. What will we see next? A “villain” fighting on behalf of refugees? One who advocates for the redistribution of wealth? One who targets police who kill innocent people? Movies will continue to incorporate real-world fears into their plots, but purposefully conflate any strong ideology of change with petty personal motivations, all to avoid appearing to advocate the kind of radical action we sorely need in real life. But that won’t stop audiences from seeing the truth in their words anyway. No matter what, eventually, affects some major paradigm shift, it may one day be odd for people to look back on these huge pieces of pop culture and see the ways they fought against necessary social upheavals.
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