Opinion

Hollywood gets its favorite villain back

Russia's invasion of Ukraine means a Cold War redux in American entertainment

You know you're in trouble if even The New York Post is asking, "Too soon?"

But that's the magic of Hollywood, baby: Within hours of the Russian invasion upending the lives of 44 million Ukrainians late last month, Americans were already imagining who might play President Volodymyr Zelensky in a movie. Backlash was justifiably swift — it's like "people tweeting about which actor should play a 9/11 fireman ... while the towers are still burning," went one inspired comparison — though in a country that interprets so much of politics through the reductive lens of pop culture and superheroes, perhaps the fan casting was not entirely surprising.

Cynically, it might even be considered a bit of an American tradition. Hollywood, after all, has been fighting Washington's battles on screen for decades. And while studios detoured through fretting about an ascendant Japan in the late 1980s, Middle Eastern terrorists in the mid- to late-aughts, and China (very briefly, before its market was deemed too precious to threaten), we can now expect a rapid return of the Cold War's Big Bad: the scowling Russian. 

For decades, all it took was a Russian accent to signpost to an audience: This dude is gonna do some murdering. "Inscrutable, humorless, but just enough like Americans to feel like you're not punching down — an uncanny-valley Borg version of ourselves," the Los Angeles Times wrote recently of Hollywood's erstwhile go-to antagonist. If you "need to communicate evil in five seconds," observed Thrillist, all you've got to do is "have an intimidating guy with a cigarette step out of the shadows and say, 'Da.'" 

Red Scares faded somewhat after the fall of the Soviet Union, particularly while Hollywood flirted with Islamaphobic tropes instead. Not coincidentally, from 1999 until 2013, more Americans "considered Russia ... an ally or a friendly nation than an unfriendly nation or an enemy," Gallup reports. In a 2013 note quoted by the Times, one producer went so far as to predict we wouldn't see "many Russian or Chinese bad guys in the next decade, so viva la North Koreans and rogue terrorists."

But as tensions reignited between Washington and Moscow following the 2014 annexation of Crimea and election meddling in 2016, Slavic baddies started popping up again. They appear in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), John Wick (2014), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), Stranger Things (2016-present), Atomic Blonde (2017), Killing Eve (2018-present), and last year's Black Widow — to name only a very few. These Hollywood thugs are never nuanced — they're tropes precisely because they're shorthand for bad guys; no complicated backstory is required to justify a Russian being up to no good.

Does it matter off-screen? Maybe. Scholar Nina Khrushcheva (the great-granddaughter of that Khrushchev) has argued the villainization of Russians in American media is a contributing factor in Russian President Vladimir Putin's us against the world mentality. "He moved into that villainous image that was presented by Hollywood of Russia or Russian leaders," she wrote in 2014. "He watched all those movies. He was like, 'Well you're going to portray me as a villain anyway, so I might as well go and start biting off other parts from other countries.'"

It's of course a stretch to suggest Putin's invasion of Ukraine last month happened because he has a chip on his shoulder about Ivan Drago. But surely there are some real consequences of Hollywood's reactionary on-screen politics, which manifest in what Vanity Fair called "comfortably predictable" Russian villains who emerge "especially in an uncertain world where nothing is black and white." We're in that uncertain world now — and however much Hollywood screenwriters have looked for new national villains in recent years, Russia just cemented itself as the go-to Big Bad for decades to come.

And even if Putin is oblivious to our imaginings, there are dangers for us in this kind of simplistic nationalistic propaganda. It can encourage reckless policy choices, to say nothing of harm to individual Russians and Russian-Americans. While there are many Russians who support Putin's war, there are also many brave resisters risking their lives to protest it who are demoralized by the lack of international solidarity that comes from blanket Russophobia. And already, uninvolved (and even vehemently anti-war) Russian-Americans have found themselves the target of harassment and vandalism.

That outpouring of anti-Russian sentiment in America shouldn't be encouraged in our media. Beyond the ethics, moreover, it arguably plays into Kremlin strategy. In the years-long build-up to his invasion of Ukraine, Putin used his nation's massive internal propaganda operation to tell his people "Russia is fighting a vast global conspiracy," The Chicago Tribune explains. It only advantages Moscow to be able to point to American movies and say, "Look how much they hate us."

Not that that'll stop Hollywood. If Russian bad guys ever felt anachronistic, they certainly don't now. And, if we're even still here in a few years, you can bet Hollywood will do steady business off the emotions stirred in audiences by this war — which means villains named Sergey, Ivan, and Boris.

So maybe the error in fan-casting Zelensky wasn't just the reduction of real atrocities of war into cheap, consumable content. Maybe the fans also cast the wrong part first. Start with Vladimir, not Volodymyr, because Russian bad guys are forever.

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