The Return of the Russian Villain
‘Cold War 2: Cold Harder’
Lately, it seems every news cycle includes at least one story that points out the growing divide between Russia and the West. The news media made much of photos of world leaders commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day on June 6.
The Guardian pointed out the three-person distance between Pres. Barack Obama and Pres. Vladamir Putin. CNN acted as if the pair were ex-lovers, cattily ignoring each other during an event they were both obligated to attend.
Various news outlets trumpet round two of the Cold War. Moscow imprisons dissident pop stars, controls vast oil reserves and invades its neighbors. It’s as if the 1980s never ended and the Evil Empire never crumbled.
There is one good thing about the mounting tension. Hollywood filmmakers can now access Cold War tropes and stereotypes not seen in over a decade. Russian baddies are back—and this time it’s personal.
Remember the ’80s?
The movie villains were so pure then. So simple. So evil. Many were Russian. Ivan Drago beat Apollo Creed to death in Rocky IV. Charlie Sheen and Patrick Swayze defended their town from communist hordes in Red Dawn. Chuck Norris stopped the Russian military in Invasion USA.
Now the ’80s are back. On screen, at least.
I first noticed this trend in 2008 while watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Everyone knows Indiana Jones movies are about two things—putting stuff in museums and beating up Nazis. Crystal Skull replaced the Nazis with commie Russians.
Now the Russkies are everywhere. Kenneth Branagh plays a Russian oligarch villain in the new Tom Clancy movie Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Bruce Willis fights the Russians in the latest Die Hard film. Paul Giamatti plays a ridiculous Russian thug in the new Spider-Man movie.
The newest Mission Impossible? Russian villain. Tina Fey dressed up like a Cold War stereotype for Muppets Most Wanted, complete with a gulag and Soviet uniforms.
One of FX’s most popular shows—The Americans—is a spy thriller about a Russian sleeper cell operating in the suburbs of Washington D.C. Malcolm Gladwell and Mark Wahlberg recently shot a pilot about Russian spies in communist East Berlin for HBO.
Russian baddies are everywhere. Audiences love them. But why? And what’s behind their resurgence?
Part of it is nostalgia. Anyone who grew up during the first round of the Cold War remembers living with the fear of nuclear Armageddon. Every American lived under a cloud. Russia might invade at any moment. The just might use their nukes.
Hollywood exploited that fear and for decades Russians were the bad guys in entertainment. Every antagonist with a Muscovite accent now invokes that old fear. It’s a comfort. Audiences like knowing who the enemies are.
But communism collapsed and the Iron Curtain fell. The news reported on the unpleasant living conditions of the Russian people. Kremlin villains faded from pop culture.
Terrorists—both foreign and domestic—and evil businessmen replaced the Russians. But they were unsatisfying. Audiences missed having a powerful foreign power to rail against, to cast as its villains. The British became a safe stand-in.
After 9/11 Hollywood cast Islamists as the villains in multiple movies and TV shows. It didn’t work. They’re too complicated. The labyrinth of political and religious motivations behind them make Hollywood uncomfortable.
Audiences want simple stories. A nation full of godless communists representing darkness in the ancient fight between good and evil is an easy sell. Violence rooted in religious extremism is not.
Hollywood made passing efforts to cast China in the role. But not all communist countries are created equal. China is a major market for Western entertainment—movie ticket sales are over $36 billion—and no one wants their product to fail in that market.
Red Dawn is a great ’80s action movie about Russia invading America. The 2009 reboot replaced Russia with China. That movie never made it to theaters. The Chinese press criticized the film during production, worrying that it would demonize the Chinese people. Studio execs at MGM feared the film would tank in China and they’d lose money.
So they pulled the film and changed the invading force into North Koreans in post production. The film finally released in 2012, three years after the end of principal filming.
Russia is also a major market for Western entertainment, but it doesn’t wring its hands and ask for re-shoots. And so Hollywood—lacking a decent replacement—brought back the Russian villain.
Moscow spent the past decade expanding its sphere of influence. It has attempted to reclaim territory lost during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Moscow went into Chechnya in 1994 and 1999. It took a chunk of Georgia in 2008. Now it’s annexed Crimea.
The Kremlin also uses its vast oil reserves as a weapon. It often cuts off the gas to neighboring countries considering pro-European policies. Behavior like that makes the West uncomfortable. Russian villainy in pop culture stems not just from the familiar fear of the Soviets, but also the West’s growing perception that Moscow is an agitator on the world stage.
During a recent lecture during National Security Seminar week at the Army War College, Dr. Craig Nation—the director of Russian and Eurasian studies at the War College—lectured on the West’s perception of Russia.
Nation argued that Russia wants to be a superpower again. He said Moscow will continue to exert control over the Eurasian zone and fight against what it views as the west attempting to squeeze Russia out by surrounding them with NATO backed countries. The ousting of the Kremlin’s man in Ukraine and the election of a moderate, NATO friendly leader just serves to enforce this narrative.
Nation is optimistic. He does not believe that America and Russia will come to blows. But that didn’t stop him from resurrecting an old threat. “[Russia] has a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons,” he said. “It’s a country that could attack and destroy the United States in a matter of minutes.”
That old Cold War itch persists. The thought that there’s another massive world power out there with values and interests at odds with America. A clash between the two feels inevitable. The creeping dread and fear of geopolitics is easy fodder for Hollywood.
There’s one more reason for the return of Russkie antagonists—the President of the Russian federation.
Russian president Vladimir Putin goes horseback riding shirtless, hunts tigers, writes books about Judo and explores the ocean in a submarine. His cult of personality is impressive. His approval rating is an incredible 80 percent. He’s so popular in his country that pop stars write songs about him.
There’s a lot of great Putin jokes out there. It’s easy to mock Russia’s leader and play along with the cult of personality. People love to mock what they fear. Pop culture villains that stick around too long often find themselves sliding into parody and comedy. It’s why Abbot and Costello met Frankenstein. It’s why a Google image search of Putin returns page after page of Photoshopped pictures of the prez riding bears and hugging puppies.
“Maybe it’s not so funny,” Nation pointed out during his lecture. “He’s a leader to be reckoned with.”
Which is true. Behind the cleverly-crafted public persona is a hardened politician and former spy who fought his way into power. This is a man who imprisons or disappears people that don’t agree with him, whether their musicians or oligarchs. Anna Politkovskaya—a journalists critical of Putin—was murdered on his birthday.
Oh, and he’s conquering the Arctic. Putin is basically Doctor Doom—the Marvel Universe’s power-mad dictator bent on world domination.
If Hollywood put a baddie like Putin in a movie, audiences would reject the film for being unrealistic. With Putin in charge of Russia, it’s no wonder pop culture has returned to the old well of Russian villainy. He’s an archetype for the kind brash yet sophisticated Russian supervillain Hollywood loves using these days.
The West’s fear of Russia and tendency to use them as villains is deeply ingrained in the culture. Their return to the forefront isn’t surprising. It’s more shocking that they went away at all. Maybe Western audiences needed a break after the long decades of the Cold War.
But now the Cold War is back and so are its villains. Russia seeks to expand its influence, Putin eyes a fourth term as president and the West frets. So long as the tension between Russia and the West grows, Hollywood will continue to portray Russians as bad guys.