By: Daniel Reynolds
What we talk about when we talk about Die Hard is usually the iconic performance by Bruce Willis as supercop hero John McClane, and, really, that’s fair. Willis plays McClane with such beat up, sarcastic panache, bounding through the movie with such charisma, in both verbal and physical forms, that the film would probably have been a success based purely on the merits of his heroic performance alone (this peaked with Die Hard 3, by the way). However, that ‘probably’ qualifier I just used there is telling. The best thing about Die Hard, and the secret reason for its enduring success, is actually its villain: Hans Gruber, as brought to life by Alan Rickman, making his film debut.
In Chuck Klosterman’s recent book on villainy, the meandering I Wear the Black Hat, he writes about straight up villains (Hitler, Ted Bundy, OJ Simpson), oddball sketchy characters (D.B Cooper, Bernhard Goetz) and ugly bits of forgotten history (Muhammad Ali’s treatment of Joe Frazier) while investigating a clear thesis: A villain is someone who knows the most but cares the least. As a singular irreducible statement of villainy, this is simple, yet elegantly profound, stuff.
Klosterman does not talk about Hans Gruber in the book, but it is immediately easy to see why he is a great villain considering the “knows the most/cares the least” metric. With a fantastic calm, RIckman’s Gruber knows everything about the Nakatomi Plaza upon his seizing of it. He knows all about the company’s leadership. He knows where the company’s loot is and how to get it. He also knows how to take advantage of local law enforcement, the FBI and the news media so as to play them off one another. Gruber knows all of this and drolly delights in it. As he informs his hostages: he has left nothing to chance. He knows the most about the actions of everyone around him and his “terrorist” group’s true motivations, but cares the absolute least about how his actions will harm people (though, to be fair, some of the people that inevitably end up getting hurt/killed in the film, i.e. Agents Johnson and Johnson, probably had it coming). Sure, his henchmen also don’t care about hurting people – Gruber’s right-hand man Karl seems significantly less concerned with everyone’s well being. But, it is clear Karl and the rest of the goons only know what they need to know to assist Gruber in completing his master plan and grand escape. Gruber is definitely (defiantly?) the best worst guy.
Now be honest: Don’t you root for Gruber a little bit? Yes, yes, I know he is responsible for some innocent people dying – and McClane truly is a spectacular hero to root for – but a part of you must enjoy how Gruber is so totally callous while also being so charmingly cunning. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. Part of this feeling comes from performance, as Rickman is able to exude such credible menace while also acting as a perfectly reasonable gentleman (even while holding an automatic weapon). He is not a maniac, and because he is not unnecessarily vicious (eh, sorry Mr. Takagi), we are drawn to him. Anyway, despite this calculating control (and immense professional pride), Gruber ultimately loses because of the one thing he doesn’t know anything about: just who is this cowboy cop McClane, and why is he so damn good at taking out all of these Eurotrash lackeys? Poor Hans, how could he have known that his heroic opposite would also be so awesome?
I do legitimately rue the death of Hans Gruber even though it clearly had to happen (the film isn’t called Arrest Hard or Jail Hard for a reason). Nevertheless, the other part of Gruber’s effectiveness, besides what Rickman serves up, is found in the writing of his character. In general, Die Hard is great because the script imbues each of its characters (from dynamite hero on down) with a reason, a motivation, an emotional purpose throughout the film that feels like more than a contrivance. Everything (from Carl Otis Winslow‘s career struggles, to the Holly/John marriage tension, to even Argyle hanging out cluelessly in the parking garage) fits satisfyingly together. This seems like an obvious thing for a film (or any story, really) to strive for and yet it is rarely achieved completely. There are a lot of bad movies that come out every year, and a lot of them are trying very hard to be great in the same way that Die Hard is great. They are blockbuster movies and big budget action films, explosions usually play a part somehow. And, while films are now rife with smart aleck antiheroes in the John McClane mould, very few films (even the ones, as soon to be discussed, drawing from established franchises with recognizable characters) manage to create villains that are indelible, remarkable, or just straight up cool. This is an overlooked, yet serious problem; a problem that could be solved by looking to Hans Gruber.
It is early in August but we know that the typical summer movie season is winding down. We know this because after the release of Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium today, we are left with the movie with Jim Carrey, the movie with Oprah Winfrey, and the movie with all the British guys (I am looking forward to that one, to be fair). By now the super heroes have taken their capes and gone home, the money has mostly been counted, and, truthfully, I already feel like I’ve forgotten most of what I saw.
Four of the biggest movies of the summer (Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness and The Wolverine), all have established, familiar, heroic characters with corresponding rogue galleries. We enter these movies knowing full well what we should expect from the good guys and, naturally, the villains in these stories are also all familiar to us in some fashion (though Iron Man 3 plays with that expectation and The Wolverine only re-imagines some familiar iconography, i.e. the Silver Samurai). In each instance though, the villains of these movies fail. I don’t mean they fail in their mission (because of course they do; they’re bad guys); they fail to add anything significant to the films they are in, they fail at making us care about what they are doing, or they fail at staying true to their evil convictions. These are not the worst movies of the year (in fact, I was at the very least, moderately entertained by the least of them), but by the end of each film I was left scratching my head. We already know the most about these villains, but we care the least. In short, today’s movie villains could stand to learn from Hans Gruber: If you are going to stand up to a great heroic character, you can be confident, crazy or cunning, but just please make sure you’re at least memorable.
Let’s kick it off with Iron Man 3, easily the most successful film so far this year (over 400 million domestic dollars earned). After a disappointing second installment, Iron Man 3 promised the presence of Tony Stark’s greatest nemesis, the Mandarin. Well, OK, it turns out Shane Black was having a little fun with us. His Mandarin, as played by Ben Kingsley, was little more than a ruse. It was the last fresh moment of the blockbuster season, and its film didn’t quite know what to do with it.
In a simpler twist you can see coming from a mile away, Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian is revealed as the true villain (seriously, the second you see his character go from crippled, ugly nerd to suave dude that looks like Guy Pearce, it is clear that he is the bad guy, despite Ben Kingsley’s haircut). But think back on the plot machinations of Iron Man 3, try to look past the admittedly hard-to-ignore, impossibly fun performance of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. Just what exactly was the evil plan, man? The new Killian, all cool moves and hair gel, is making an army of exploding, flaming soldiers to… defeat Stark’s army of iron? To take over the world? For money? Defense contracts? Sure, using a drunk actor as an ersatz evil global terrorist is inspired, but we still end up with an ill-conceived brawl at the end. Where is the follow through? Clearly, Killian (who does eventually declare himself the Mandarin) needs a lesson from Hans. An evil doer is really only as good as his evil plan.
To that end, Star Trek Into Darkness tries to avoid this plot problem by leaning back on its stoutest maxim and one of its most famous lines: “Revenge is a dish best serve cold. And it is very cold in space.” Yes, our old friend Khan (in the pantheon of great villains) is back to destroy Star Fleet and free his people. Unlike the Mandarin, he’s got a sound plan that, in typical Orci/Kurtzman/Lindelof fashion, goes through a bunch of convoluted steps towards its conclusion. Now, Khan is definitely charming like Gruber (mostly thanks to Benedict Cumberpatch) but seems unable to navigate through his own evil plot; unlike Gruber he just can’t seem to think on his feet. By the end of Star Trek Into Darkness, when we’ve suddenly shifted into a foot race to victory, Khan feels like a footnote to his own story. The villain should never feel like a footnote. Though, on the other hand, the moment when Khan kills Captain Leatherface Robocop is pretty badass. You know what, let’s call this one a wash and move on.
Man of Steel, despite being the weakest of the movies mentioned so far (seriously Snyder, enough with the aimless action sequences), actually has the best villain by far. Unlike the insane purposeless moves of the Mandarin, and the sleepy sad logic of Khan, Michael Shannon’s Zod (yet another returning/reinvented foe) actually does the most to drive the narrative of his movie. He knows the most about Krypton and Kal-El’s mysterious origin. He is driven not by petty revenge against Superman but by a desire to rebuild his home planet doomed by forces beyond his control. Zod’s reasons for destroying Earth, unlike, say, Pacific Rim’s vaguely motivated kaiju, are clearly stated; his mission is his sole purpose for being. If rebuilding Krypton means wiping out Earth, well, Zod does not care. He definitely cares the least about that side effect of his quest.
As an outlier to this discussion, it should be noted that where Man of Steel ultimately fails is in its portrayal of its hero, turning Superman, only the purest, truest figure of the last 80 years, into something of an indecisive (and sheesh, violent) brooder. It has the best villain of all the blockbuster movies this year, but ends up wasting him (and poor Michael Shannon) in scene after scene of senseless violence with a hero we only sort of like. Instead of drawing Superman (and the film) up to his grandiose level, Zod succumbs. Hans Gruber would be shaking his head in disgust; he never did anything senselessly and was always compelling to watch.
With The Wolverine, the smallest (relatively speaking) of the four movies discussed, the hero is definitely not the problem. In fact, he is so overwhelming the whole movie, and Hugh Jackman is so clearly the best and only thing worth looking at, that the villains almost feel unnecessary. It’s telling that The Wolverine has approximately five evil-ish characters (one who is morally confused, one who is just a boor, one who goes crazy, one who already is crazy, plus a big metal suit of samurai armor) and none of them feel remotely threatening to Wolverine (even with a weakened healing factor!). We want Wolvie to win, he kicks ass, and we are totally fine with that. It ends up feeling very rote and inevitable. Unlike with our pal Hans, an evil-doer who stares the hero down in a moment of weakness and doesn’t flinch, I never felt like any of these evil losers had the remotest chance of being seriously threatening.
This brings us back to what is probably the last tent pole film of the summer, Elysium. What do we know? We’re getting the smart aleck anti-hero Matt Damon, a well-imagined and designed sci-fi universe courtesy of Blomkamp and a clear cut villain, credited above the title no less, in Jodie Foster. Oh yeah, and Wikas shows up, looking angry and bearded, as some sort of immediate physical nemesis to Damon’s exo-armoured hero. So far, the reviews have been muted and I’m willing to bet that we are already dealing with a villain that does not meet the Hans Gruber standard.
In any case, I repeat: I do not hate these movies. I am very much looking forward to seeing Elysium. If anything, I look back and wonder how, despite some immense good qualities (and production budgets), these films appear to have whiffed on that critical villainous component that really makes a movie soar. Film makers, script writers, and producers must know all of this. They have to, especially considering the unkillable nature of the Die Hard franchise these days (even as the franchise – and villain! – quality dips towards terrible). Knowing all this, they can ensure the success of their next big movie, maybe build a franchise, or simply create a memorable film experience by looking to Hans Gruber and making their villain special. They wouldn’t want to be accused of caring the least.
 It also allows Klosterman to discuss his own villainous tendencies as a know-er of a lot and carer of little. I guess this also means I’m decidedly not a villain: I don’t really know shit, hence my abject borrowing of Klosterman’s idea, and I probably care way too much.