A Decade Of Villains: The 1980s

May 31, 2019
From the instability of the 1970s came the new conservatism of the 1980s, as villainy and fear engulfed the culture of the time…and its movies too.

1980: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – DARTH VADER A long time ago, before any sequel or prequel trilogy, Star Wars had a villain untainted by unnecessary backstory or failed copycats. Often remembered as one of the greatest movie villains, Darth Vader (David Prowse as the body, and James Earl Jones as the voice) represented everything considered evil. A faceless portent of doom, an unstoppable demon, badass intro music. The character had it all. For all six of you who haven’t seen The Empire Strikes Back yet, three years after the Rebels destroyed the first Death Star, Darth Vader, as the head of an Imperial Fleet, tracks the rebels onto the ice planet Hoth. There, they have an epic battle which no other film in the series has yet been able to better. From there, Darth Vader encounters the fleeing main characters on Cloud City, where he and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) have a duel that ends in Luke losing an arm and we find out that Darth Vader is actually Papa. Looking at Vader beyond just the brilliantly terrifying visuals of the character, the true evil comes into view. A faceless man, leading a near faceless army, that moves like an unstoppable wave towards their enemies. Utilised to similar effect by the Nazi’s Gestapo, the name of Vader alone would spread fear and despair at the thought he might be near, allowing the Empire to bring anyone in line. A fitting metaphor for a time of political extremes and a fear of war on an unprecedented level.

1981: ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK – THE DUKE AND THE GOVERNMENT A John Carpenter masterpiece, Escape From New York is an amazingly simple and beautifully brutal tale of survival against the enemies both in front and behind you. In the wake of the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, the US Government quickly became an easy source of villainous inspiration, an entity separate from society willing and able to do anything they want to reach their goals. They could even plant a bomb underneath the skin of an ex-special forces anti-hero, dump him into a prison made from the remnants of New York, and expect him to find a nuclear football attached to the President (Donald Pleasence). Or at least that’s what the film likes to suggest. The wonderfully masculine, one-eyed, Cobra tattooed, WW3 veteran, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), has to battle through gangs of insane criminals, gladiator fights in a wrestling ring, and race around New York in a half-destroyed taxi, all in an attempt to defeat the prison’s leader, The Duke (Isaac Hayes), find The Nuclear Football, and overcome the double-crossing government. This three-fold approach to villainy creates a wild ride for Snake, showing an oddly believable dystopian future. Ridiculous? Yes. Unnecessarily over the top? Of course. Wildly entertaining? Hell, yeah.

1982: FIRST BLOOD – THE POLICE With the film that started a legend, Sylvester Stallone staked his claim as a new action hero for the time, in this story of a returning Green Beret’s battle with a small town police force, that gets out of hand quickly. John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is a returning Vietnam vet with severe PTSD. Tagged as a drifter and trouble maker, the local Sheriff, Teasle (Brian Dennehy), picks him up and brings him to the station. Tormented and mocked by the other officers, Rambo fights through the men to escape into the forest. From there, things escalate when an officer dies and the blame is passed onto Rambo. The National Guard, State Police, and the media get involved, eventually resulting in a shootout on a roof where Rambo has gotten his hands on an M60 machine gun. It might be seen as a cop out (pardon the pun) to say that the Police are the villains here, but it’s also a reference to the wider mentality of society. Police act as a defender of society, keeping it safe from threats, and to them, a person like Rambo was a threat. It was common for returning Vietnam vets to be looked down on, with names like “Baby Killer” hurled around. So, for Rambo to be exposed to a world that didn’t want him and in fact mocked what he had done, it isn’t hard to see why he snapped. Although the film is packed full of action and violence, at its core, it preaches against war and the rejection of veterans, criticising domestic attitudes rather than the soldiers themselves.

1983: SCARFACE – TONY MONTANA Tony Montana (Al Pacino), the protagonist of Scarface, is the real villain of the film, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. The Cuban political refugee, with a history of violence and hints that he was an assassin, moves into Miami and quickly works on creating his own empire. Following his own plan of attack – “In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women” – he builds a drug empire, with himself at the centre. However, this involves backstabbing and double-crossing, eventually climaxing in him crossing the wrong person and an epic shootout in his mansion. The cunning, ruthless and often charismatic Tony is a true villain of the time: an immigrant coming to America and twisting the American dream to his own perverted vision. Instead of hard work and equal opportunity, Tony bases his empire on drugs, violence, fear, and intimidation. As part of the 125,000 Cubans seeking refuge in the States during The Mariel Boatlift, Americans feared what their integration would do to society, a concept still as prevalent today as it was back then.

1984: THE TERMINATOR – T-800 In a time when people feared that the person next to them could be a Russian spy infiltrating society, comes a film where the person next to you is a robotic killing machine with a European accent infiltrating society. Before being reborn in Terminator 2: Judgment Day as the legendary hero, The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) was an infamous villain. Fearless, immune to pain, and willing to kill anyone in his way, The Terminator efficiently hunted and almost killed Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) before she gives birth to her soon-to-be war-hero son, John Connor. But the all-American love interest Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) was there to stop him. Designed to be the perfect infiltration unit, the T-800 looks human, acts human and sounds human. It could effortlessly move through society, with the only giveaway of its true self, recurring clanging reminiscent of industry, reminding audiences that it is the result of technological advancement rather than birth. Once you can look past the unfortunately dated CG of the Terminator, or his Monty Python’s Black Knight-style death of progressively losing limbs, the character holds up as a truly terrifying entity showing parallels to the fears of the time, where the all-American hero has to save the victimised woman and defeat the Eastern European threat.

1985: ROCKY 4 – IVAN DRAGO Perhaps one of the least subtle metaphors for The Cold War, Rocky 4 literally pits the Russian super soldier against the American underdog after the death of an All-American hero. The Russian juggernaut, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), is the result of relentless training and body science, treated more as a test subject than a human – bigger, stronger and more ruthless than any fighter before him. We are introduced to Drago in military uniform, guided by military scientists into becoming an almost silent perfect fighter. In his debut bout in America, he utters his first words when he and Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) touch gloves, saying simply, “You will lose”, the fight ending in Creed’s death. The film continues with an odd situation where Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) is the World Heavyweight champion and is still the underdog to Drago. Rocky against Drago takes place in Russia, where the filmmakers create the most stereotypical USSR setting possible, showing a backwards country of ice and wilderness, where foreigners are treated poorly, and the military is intertwined with all aspects of life. Despite being a cliché, and with the depiction of Drago as close to propaganda as you can get, it’s still one of the most watchable of the Rocky films, and arguably the most entertaining of the lot, no doubt aided by the sinister way that Drago says “I must break you.”

1986: ALIENS – XENOMORPHS Set over fifty years after the first film, Aliens revisits the classic Xenomorph story, aiming for a more action-based approach over the sinister horror produced previously. Accompanied by a team of initially arrogant marines, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) returns as an advisor forced into the heroine role again trying to escape the ever-growing brood of Xenomorphs, the parasitic Facehuggers laying eggs in their victims’ chests, and the big mamma Alien Queen that they seriously pissed off. Here the villain isn’t a human. It’s purely foreign, or alien, to the characters. They can’t be reasoned with, there are no laws that govern them, they just hunt for their queen who is at the centre of the hive mind. Potentially, these characteristics make them the scariest villain of them all. How do you beat them beyond escaping and nuking them from space? How could you survive? They’re bigger than you, stronger than you, hunt in packs, have acid blood, quickly reproduce, have a mouth inside their mouth that can crush a skull, and a tail capable of shish kebabbing anyone. That’s game over, man, game over.

1987: ROBOCOP – DICK JONES No matter what generation or time period you look at, there will always be cases of police corruption and excessive criminal action, and the 1980s were no different. Crime had been rising since the ’60s and traditional methods were no longer effective. Enter Robocop: a super soldier with the mentality of a by-the-book cop. But superheroes also breed super villains and that’s where Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), Senior Vice President of Omni Consumer Products (OCP), and his criminal lackey, Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), come in. After Clarence tried to kill Police Officer Murphy (Peter Weller), who turns into Robocop, Dick Jones wants to have his robotic killing machine, called ED-209, used in place of police, effectively giving him control of law and order. However, the one thing in his way is Robocop, a competing design to his ED-209 that he must remove in order to win. Jones then hires Clarence to try, again, to kill Murphy turned Robocop. Industry, robotics, corruption, monopolisation and big business…all prominent themes of the film and all characteristics often associated with villainy. Robocop is a film for the masses. Full of action, a hero they can trust, and a villain they can easily understand.

1988: DIE HARD – HANS GRUBER Another year, another film about the All-American hero defeating the European threat. But this time with Christmas. Die Hard is as iconic as it is pure Hollywood entertainment; John McClane (Bruce Willis) has to stop the German terrorist, Hans Gruber (the late Alan Rickman), who has taken McClane’s wife (Bonnie Bedelia) and several others hostage during a Christmas party at the Nakatomi Plaza in LA. In channeling Scooby Doo, Hans would’ve gotten away with his plan too, if it wasn’t for that meddling McClane and his acquisition of a machine gun (Ho Ho Ho). What makes this film so great isn’t Bruce Willis at all. Yes, John McClane is a good character, but he is nothing we haven’t seen before. What makes the film great is Hans. Literally the opposite of John McClane, Hans is classy, sophisticated, highly educated, cunning, always calm and much smarter than John. A villain always a step ahead, relying on the predictability of the LAPD to complete half his plan for him. Most incredible of all is that it was Alan Rickman’s first feature film, and he plays it to perfection. A mix of an intellectual, charming, violent and near Shakespearean performance brought the character to life, and by association, brought the film to life too.

1989: BATMAN – THE JOKER The decade ended how it started, with a Jack Nicholson film. Seemingly channeling that earlier performance of his from The Shining (1980), Nicholson brings his own take to one of the most iconic villains around, The Joker. Long before Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning version of the villain, and whatever Jared Leto was trying to do, Nicholson depicted The Joker as a lunatic crime boss hellbent on revenge on Batman, who dropped him into a vat of unknown chemicals, effectively creating the madman. In a cruel twist of fate, this version’s backstory shows that it was The Joker’s earlier self that killed Bruce Wayne’s (Michael Keaton) parents, essentially showing how Batman and The Joker created each other.

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