By Dan Norman
One of the overlooked consequences of Hollywood’s addiction to making big-budget franchise films is that it seemed to have made villains compulsory. Even when the duelling behemoths of Marvel and DC made a big deal out of pitting their A-list superheroes against each other earlier this year, both films made sure to include an unambiguous villain behind the scenes, pulling the strings. Yet we’re starting to see films buck the trend. Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi Arrival and the Japanese animation Your Name have recently been released in British cinemas, and will soon be followed by Spike Lee’s Chi-raq. Each of these films have conflict which the characters need to work through, and there are moments of great tension in each, but it is all achieved without a traditional villain.
Generally, when a film is made without the hero-villain dynamic, it uses one of three approaches. It makes the protagonist the villain (as in The Godfather and Psycho), it has a flaw within their protagonist’s personality drive the conflict (as in Leaving Las Vegas, The Graduate or Inside Llewyn Davis), or it presents an environmental conflict, but uses a main villain to embody it in its most extreme form (as in On The Waterfront, To Kill A Mockingbird, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The City of God). Arrival, Your Name and Chi-Raq all take a more unusual fourth path, wherein the conflict emerges externally, from the world the protagonist lives in, but can’t be attributed to one root cause or to a single individual. It is the difference between fighting a dragon, and living on the sun.
In Arrival, the antagonism emerges from a race against time to understand the aliens that have just landed on earth. International tensions put pressure on our protagonist, Louise (played by Amy Adams), to figure out what the aliens are doing here, before a more trigger-happy nation decides to take matters into their own hands. Although China are specifically identified as the nation most likely to attack, for much of the film they operate as a faceless antagonist. Once they receive a face, the scales fall away, and any semblance of villainy is removed. In Your Name, the two leads Taki and Mitsuha face a similar struggle to understand. In their case, it is the universe itself which throws up all the obstacles in their way. Time and distance stand in their way along with that classic coming-of-age obstruction: adults.
Particularly interesting is the third film, Chi-Raq, which uses modern-day Chicago to retell the Greek play “Lysistrata”, in which the region’s women abstain from sex in order to persuade the city’s men to end the gang war consuming their city. The far-fetched premise (the characters in the film cite the real-world example of Leymah Gbowee, but Wikipedia tells me that Gbowee acknowledged the strike as having had “little or no practical effect”) lends itself to a more theatrical approach – a challenge Lee embraces whole-heartedly. At times it resembles a musical – all speech is in verse, there are musical interludes, the two gangs are colour co-ordinated and there are several heavily-choreographed moments. Samuel L. Jackson plays the part of Dolmedes, an on-screen narrator who interrupts the action to directly address the audience in front of very theatrical backdrops (the American flag, an army tank) while dressed in flashy suits, twirling a fancy cane. It’s an excitingly off-the-wall film – the Venn diagram of directors who would be allowed to make it, and those who would even consider making it probably leaves only Lee in the middle.
Given the myriad battles taking place in Chi-Raq– between the gangs, between the sexes, within the ranks – there are ample opportunities for a villain to emerge, but the film never settles on one. As the story opens up, and our viewpoint expands to see across the divides, each individual antagonist is either dismissed as ridiculous, not posing any true threat (the racist officer, the mayor) or recognised as members of the collective who haven’t yet been won over (Cyclops, Demetrius). This is the pattern that sounds through each of the three films. Rather than place the blame at the feet of any one person, the protagonists are trying to overcome a combination of environment and circumstance.
The real enemy in Chi-Raq is laid-out in a fire-and-brimstone monologue – a trademark of Spike Lee’s – by the preacher character, played by John Cusack (the casting for this film is also endearingly bizarre). Initially he identifies guns as the threat to the community. Then he spools it out further, turning his wrath upon corrupt politicians, the NRA, poverty caused by poor economic policy, underfunded education and the industrial prison complex before ending the speech with an attack on the local community for the conspiracy of silence surrounding the shootings. It’s an electric moment which acknowledges the mountain which this community of women, led by Lysistrata herself (Teyonah Parris – making the transition from the Lee-homaging Dear White People to the real thing), are trying to move. Whereas Arrival and Your Name use more timeless, universal concepts as the springboard for their conflict, Chi-Raq uses its theatricality to take on a hot-button issue – boiling away every element of reality that isn’t directly related to the end goal of rigorously examining a failing system. It is a very socially-conscious approach, which exemplifies what a villain-less film can do – asking what are the issues affecting the world right now, and then putting them underneath a microscope.
Decades before making Chi-Raq, Spike Lee used a more realistic backdrop to make one of the great films about life in a toxic environment – 1989’s Do The Right Thing. Lee is often, unfairly, labelled as a polemicist but Do The Right Thing is a thoughtful, compassionate film which saves its anger for the entrenched attitudes that restrict and kill its characters. It watches the residents of a street in Brooklyn as underlying racial tensions bubble to the surface over the space of a single day, escalating in violence and death. Lee still finds time for musical interludes, direct addresses to camera, Samuel L. Jackson narration and impassioned monologues in Do The Right Thing, but this time it is deeply rooted in real life, wedded to a sprawling, diverse cast of believably angry characters, caged together. The sheer amount of perspectives with which Lee presents us is incredible – we seem to get the point-of-view of everyone on the street. When Radio Raheem (the late Bill Nunn) is killed at the hands of the police, a great many people have contributed in some way to his death. Although ultimately responsible for Raheem’s death, the police don’t fit the criteria of villains – they aren’t given enough screen-time. Besides, they aren’t the ones responsible for the grievances we have already witnessed throughout the film. They just land the final blow, a faceless stand-in for the systematic racism which crushes these characters underfoot.
Unlike the 2016-releases mentioned earlier, Do The Right Thing ends as a tragedy, its characters unable to overcome their circumstances. But Do The Right Thing achieves an honesty which would be lost were Lee to condense the racial anger down into one villain, and have the protagonist defeat them by the end credits. We all understand that movies are not the same as reality, but they do help us to make sense of reality. If all we see on-screen are heroes and villains, then it is tempting to divide the world the same way. Although we may not consider ourselves heroic, we can only control our own actions and so become ‘the hero’ of our lives through default. Searching for a villain in real life leaves us in danger of forgetting that stories were designed to simplify conflict – and that these battles can distract from more damaging, underlying problems. Do The Right Thing is very aware of this danger – Pino’s racism and Buggin’ Out’s hunt for a crusade stem from the same mindset of needing an opponent as an outlet for their resentments. Do The Right Thing
calls for a more nuanced approach. Although there are of course other complexities to systematic racism which go unexplored over the course of a two-hour film, by showing us a closer approximation of reality than heroes fighting villains, Lee persuades us to look at our society with more honesty.
I don’t mean to criticise films which do make use of villains, or to suggest that they are less sophisticated in any sense. I wouldn’t want to lose Hans Gruber, Hal 9000, Gus Fring or any of several excellent on-screen villains. But I am glad that more films are seeing fit to explore a world without villains – one which doesn’t let us off the hook so easily. If the film’s problems emerge from one renegade with bad intentions, then all the hero has to do is defeat (and often kill) them and then the problem is solved for eternity. But a problem caused by a system is a much more complex, and more relevant matter which demands a more considered solution. It is good to see these new releases re-open the avenues for social commentary that comes with challenging characters in ways that go beyond a single villain.