Art mirrors life, for artists can only express what they know, and all they can ever know is life. You’ll be hard pressed to find a finer example of this than the medium of film, which is perhaps the art form most evocative of the ethos of our time. It’s easily marketable, often doesn’t require a heavy investment of intellectual analysis, and can be filled with enough “feels” and political memes to reinforce whatever ideas and principles you see fit.
As such, the villains you see in popular movies are facsimiles of those we consider enemies on the world stage. Take a look at the popularity of Soviet villains during the Cold War era. When James Bond was portrayed by Sean Connery, a remarkable bevy of his villains hailed from Russia. Red Dawn, of course, dealt with the idea of a Soviet invasion, and even Rocky got political, taking the time to fly out to Soviet Russia and punch out Ivan Drago.
More recently, of course, as The Soviet Union broke up and Cold War thawed out, Hollywood has had to find new villains. In recent years (especially in the post 9/11 era), Middle Eastern terrorists have been popular villains, showing up in comic-book films like Iron Man despite having no place in the original canon. James Bond no longer fights Russians, but shadowy terrorist organizations. In the most recent Batman trilogy, The League of Shadows is portrayed as essentially a terrorist organization filled with ninjas, and who can forget Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker not as a criminal mastermind, but a psychotic terrorist?
Yet an interesting trend has sprung up in recent years. We’re starting to see an increase the number of Russian villains in Hollywood films again. The bad guy in the next Captain America movie is going to be allied with the Russians. The crazy scientist in Iron Man 2 was Russian. The most recent Die Hard film took place in Moscow. Apparently that new Jack Ryan movie that nobody actually saw covered all its bases and had Russian terrorists as the bad guys. A cultural analyst might be forgiven for drawing the conclusion from our movies that we’re in the midst of another Cold War.
(Since I’m sticking with film here, I won’t even go into discussing the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series, which envisioned World War 3 between the Russians and the Americans)
Russian accents can be made to sound exceptionally sinister, but that alone is not sufficient to explain this resurgence of Russian bad guys. What other factors might be behind this trend? One might be nostalgia for a (perceived) simpler time. Having Russian bad guys reminds people of their childhoods, when Russians were the bad guys, and makes them feel nostalgic and protected, the way they were when they were young.
Having Middle Eastern terrorists as villains might also remind people of ongoing US presence in the Middle East, and conjure up thoughts about what exactly we’re doing over there. There’s a significant chunk of the population who want our soldiers home and who don’t want the government to keep engaging in drone strikes on such dangerous threats to the US as weddings and young children. There’s a lot of people don’t want to see terrorists as villains because it makes things too realistic and thus prevents film from being the whimsical escape from reality many people want it to be.
There’s probably some truth to these hypotheses, but fuzzy sentiments and superficial emotions almost never fully explain the nature of reality. We must also consider the observation I pointed out at the beginning of this post, that movie villains mirror those we think of as bad guys in real life. We can’t rule out the possibility that the people writing screenplays consider (to some degree) the idea that Russians might be bad guys.
Let’s connect some dots and see if we can figure out why this might be. First off, it’s common knowledge that most people in Hollywood skew liberal. Liberals are especially upset with Russia at the moment, given how the media has been portraying as Russia as the great scourge of gays (never mind that Russia’s policies must seem like heaven to homosexuals in countries like Uganda or Saudi Arabia). They’re getting pretty dramatic about it, and Godwin’s Law is in (almost) full effect.
Despite the personal sentiments of certain Russian celebrities (which I suspect are not all that unusual among certain portions of the Russian populace), I highly doubt Russia is planning to burn gay people in ovens. This might be lost on the most ardent gay rights activists, but even those that get it still aren’t huge fans of Russia at the moment. Is it nay surprise we see this filtering over into our movies?
What progressives want, progressives inevitably get. The nature of The Cathedral makes this an inevitability. If mainstream progressives want to demonize and oppose Russia, the US is eventually going to do just that. Over the next ten years, it’s highly likely we will see further breakdown in US-Russian relationship, and the fault for that is going to lie squarely on American shoulders.
Spiting Russia is going to be added to our list of foreign policy priorities. We’re seeing early signs of this now. Take a good look at the US delegation to the Olympics. Think this kind of blatantly antagonistic gesture was left behind in middle school? Think again. Welcome to the world of modern American foreign policy, where the passive-aggressive is the first resort.
Because of this kind of behavior, there’s a very real possibility of furthering tension between East and West in the future. The navigation of the US-China relationship was already going to be tricky enough, as the former loses power and influence and the latter gains, but additional pressure with Russia is going to make the resurgence of the East an even more unpleasant process for the West.
Maybe this is a good thing. I don’t doubt there’s a lot I’m missing here, and US policymakers have access to a vast wealth of information that I don’t. Still, I can’t help shake the intuition that this is a bit of a misstep, a tactical error that is going to, in some way or another, come back to bite the US in the long run.
Only time will tell.