This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
The following contains spoilers for Batman V Superman, Captain America: Civil War, The Dark Knight Rises, Spectre, Iron Man 3, Zootropolis, Frozen and Watership Down. We may have made the last one up.
“I am the author of all your pain,” Christoph Waltz’s incarnation of Ernst Stavro Blofeld told Bond in last year’s Spectre. It was a moment designed to bring all of Daniel Craig’s previous Bond missions into one conspiracy: Casino Royale‘s Le Chiffre, Quantum Of Solace‘s Dominic Greene, and Skyfall‘s Raoul Silva were all secret agents for Blofeld’s global organisation.
The revelation placed Blofeld back at the top of the tree as the franchise’s uber-villain and Bond’s arch-nemesis. If the twist felt like a curious retro-fit at the time, then Spectre‘s writers were only following what has become a prevalent idea in the biggest films of the past few years: that of the unseen puppet master, controlling events and fomenting discontent while directing attention elsewhere.
It’s not a new idea in storytelling by any means, but it’s become an increasingly common one over the past decade or so. In Batman Begins, we’re initially led to believe that Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow is the story’s villain, but it later emerges that Ra’s al Ghul, leader of the League of Shadows, is a far greater threat. For centuries, the League has specialised in bringing down decadent and violent civilisations, and Ra’s al Ghul has set his sights on Gotham.
The story came full circle in The Dark Knight Rises, which again established one villain – Tom Hardy’s hulking, grandstanding Bane – before revealing that he’s merely a muzzled attack dog for Talia al Ghul (Marion Cotillard), daughter of Ra’s. Talia was the real orchestrator behind the collapse of Bruce Wayne’s financial empire and the anarchy gripping Gotham – all in revenge for the death of her father.
“Vengeance against the man who killed my father isn’t simply a reward for my patience,” Talia says. “You see, it’s the slow knife, the knife that takes its time […] that slips quietly between the bones – that’s the knife that cuts the deepest.”
Iron Man 3, released a year after The Dark Knight Rises, went for a not-dissimilar rug-pull moment: Ben Kingsley’s TV-hijacking terrorist Mandarin is introduced as the bad guy, before it’s revealed that he’s simply a jobbing actor in the employ of scientist and snappy dressing maniac Aldrich Killian (as we recently heard, Iron Man 3‘s villain was originally going to be Rebecca Hall’s geneticist Maya Hansen, but a memo handed down from Marvel’s bosses nipped that idea in the bud).
These scheming orchestrators have also been working overtime in 2016’s big superhero movies. In Batman V Superman Jesse Eisenberg’s manic Lex Luthor has a secret plan of his own. Lex has apparently spent years on working Bruce Wayne up into a ball of righteous fury by sending him hate mail, while at the same time discrediting Superman by setting up a string of public relations disasters – dead ‘terrorists’ in Africa, a bomb in Congress. His endgame? To have Batman and Superman fight to the death. And if that doesn’t work out, Lex has a giant, angry monster waiting in the wings as a backup plan.
Conflict among heroes was also a scheme in Captain America: Civil War, where Daniel Bruhl’s Helmut Zemo, a former Sokovian colonel, quietly sows the seeds of discord among the Avengers – leading to another show-stopping clash of heroes as the group is split into two bitterly opposed camps.
So what’s going on? Is it just a coincidence? A case of one idea inspiring others, whether consciously or not? Or are the writers of these movies tapping into a particularly 21st century air of uncertainty?
A sense of fear and distrust certainly hangs thickly over the films we’ve covered so far. Their plots either attempt to wrong-foot the audience by introducing one villain before replacing them with a far more dangerous one, or in the case of Civil War or Batman V Superman, tricking the heroes themselves into targeting each other as enemies.
Whether they’re Talia Al Ghul or Helmut Zemo, the villains’ aims are far more complex than simple world domination. This may be borne at least in part from their writers’ desire to show us something different; we’ve seen plenty of antagonists in Bond movies and superhero flicks who are simply crazed or power hungry. It’s important that stories come up with new ways of keeping us guessing, and new motivations for the darker characters’ villainy.
The global events of the past 15 years have certainly given screenwriters plenty to chew on. If heroes like Batman, James Bond, or Captain America provide at least a modicum of solidity in a world destabilised by the threat of terrorism or economic insecurity, then villains are a reflection of a wider sense of confusion and resentment simmering under the surface.
Iron Man 3‘s Mandarin reveal may not have gone down well with all Marvel fans, but it contains a streak of cynicism we haven’t seen quite so baldly in a mainstream film since the 1970s. You only have to strip the superhero elements out of the film to see how subversive it really is: imagine a conventional comedy thriller set in the mid-2000s where it emerges that Osama bin Laden was a stooge created by an American weapons manufacturer. Certain sections of the media would probably have been horrified.
Characters and stories like these make perfect sense in a global community where even the mainstream media can’t tell us who the villains are. The 2003 invasion of Iraq took place because we were told that its then-leader Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. Those claims were later debunked. In the UK, an inquiry was set up to work out exactly why the invasion took place. To date, the inquiry hasn’t decided whether or not the war was justified. Then there’s the 2007-08 financial crisis, which brought the world’s economy to its knees and had far-reaching effects on ordinary people that are still being felt nearly a decade later. Despite evidence that all kinds of dodgy practices had led to the crash, few members of the financial sector kept were held to account in its aftermath.
With stories like those swirling around in the real world – and there are many others – maybe its unsurprising that even the heroes in our biggest films sometimes struggle to work out who the real villain is. And where there’s uncertainty or confusion, there’s the greater likelihood of lashing out at the wrong target entirely. Captain America: Civil War also suggests that enemies can be created by our own actions – that film’s Helmut Zemo resolves to break up the Avengers because of the collateral damage caused during the climax of Joss Whedon’s Age Of Ultron. As Tony Stark said in Iron Man 3, “We create our own demons.”
The movies listed here offer something slightly more complex than a straightforward good-versus-evil narrative. The antics of Lex Luthor or Talia al-Ghul may seem bafflingly convoluted at times, but maybe they’re reflective of a global landscape that is impossible to process in simple, black-and-white terms. Who can we trust among the tech billionaires, political and religious leaders we see on television or read about on the web? Are we in control of our own destiny as ordinary, working, phone-prodding, movie-going citizens, or is our destiny in the hands of unseen puppet masters?
Maybe the best piece of advice comes from a couple of movies we haven’t looked at yet, and they’re both from Disney – Zootopia and Frozen. In the former, the heroes eventually discover that true criminal of the piece is an adorably fluffy member of the local government. In Frozen, the antagonist is revealed to be the rosy-cheeked, handsome Prince Hans. If there’s something to be gleaned from all these films, it’s that villainy can appear in many forms.