This year gave us major departures in the traditional characterization of heroes and villains. We saw a new level of depth, subtly, and most importantly, gender balance. And not all of our heroes and villains came from blockbusters, or fiction-based films, as real life figures and establishments also made a impact on our definitions of these warring sides. Here are the best heroes and villains of 2015:
The Interviewer- The Look of Silence
The Act of Killing offered an unprecedented look at evil. Amidst all of his critical celebration, Documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer has faced his share of scrutiny for engaging so freely with the perpetrators of the Indonesian Communist purge of 1965, an event that resulted In the deaths of millions of innocent people. As intriguing as this first film was, it never assertively forced the former death squad members, many of whom still hold positions of power, to face their actions on any moral terms, and at times, the film permitted them another chance to celebrate their actions. But, with his follow-up film, Oppenheimer allowed the right person to ask the right questions. The interviewer in The Look of Silence is never named, as a measure of protecting his safety. We quickly learn that his brother was the victim of one of the most brutal murders of perhaps the most brutal massacre of the purge. The Look of Silence sits the interviewer down in front of a television, allows him to see his brother’s murderers gleefully recount the ordeal, and then follows him as he interviews those who were in power, face to face. The stoic, unblinking intensity of this man is the most concise illustration of real-life heroism that 2015 had to offer.
Imperator Furiosa- Mad Max: Fury Road
When Mad Max: Fury Road rolled into theaters this summer there were two things that no one could have guessed: 1.) That it would be in no small terms or exaggeration, one of the greatest films ever made and 2.) The titular Max would serve in a supporting role to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa. Backed by a quest for redemption and a warrior’s prowess, Furiosa doesn’t differ so much from many of the male heroes we’ve encountered over the years. This is a large reason of why she’s become so impacful and celebrated. She isn’t the typical “female hero” whose identity is only relevant when compared to male character. She’s simply a hero who is also a woman, and who defines her own identity and drives the story on her own volition. Her and Max succeed through partnership, and not the kind of petty game of one-up-manship that we so often see in male and female action hero relations. By serving as an inspiration to “the wives,” Furiosa becomes a feminist rallying figure who breaks the chains of male patriarchy and our ideas about the macho male archetype.
Sin-Dee Rella – Tangerine
Tangerine isn’t a film full to the brim with heroics. The driving force of the narrative is petty revenge, and Sin-Dee doesn’t play nice – she pulls hair, she insults people, and shows little respect to everyone she meets. But there are moments of empathy that break through amidst the chaos. Sin-Dee may drag her romantic rival through the streets, but she makes sure to see her friend perform all the same; she insults Dinah but delicately applies make-up to her face. And when all the drama has reached its conclusion, she turns a difficult situation into one of solidarity and forgiveness. Sin-Dee isn’t perfect, merely a person fighting back against a world that hasn’t done her any favours. Her heroism comes from surviving, and finding a way to turn desperate times into something beautiful.
The Characters of Magic Mike XXL- Magic Mike XXL
Sometimes you don’t need conflict to brew that triumphant feeling. All you need is a sincerity to entertain and the methodology to do so. Magic Mike XXL is that movie. It’s a movie based on expanding the horizons of understanding and bringing people together through sexy dance moves. The triumph isn’t overcoming some villainous caricature who wants to stop strippers from stripping, it’s about the desire to make people have fun through the power of sexy dance moves. None of that would be slightly possible without the ensemble of characters in Magic Mike XXL. They just want to bring happiness to people by any means necessary.
Immortan Joe- Mad Max: Fury Road
Immortan Joe is a tyrant. That’s it. In the living, breathing, pulsing goings-on of Mad Max: Fury Road, that’s all we know and all we need to know. He has structured a society that serves his power, rationing his desperate community’s water, keeping an army and servants and milkmaids to do his bidding, and reserving the most beautiful women of his colony for his own purpose. For a massively-imagined post-apocalyptic world, that’s not that bad in cinematic terms. Prior to the movie-long chase-scene battle sequence, Immortan Joe doesn’t kill anyone onscreen or confess a desire to commit genocide on his people. As far as we know, he’s a selfish leader he sort of hoards a rare resource and treats women like commodities. Sure, that’s evil in the real world, but in blockbuster movie terms we have seen much, much worse. So what makes him so despicable? Immortan’s Grade A villain status is informed by three things: his imposing and crude aesthetic (which we Miller even shows is is artifice), his grotesque henchman and cohorts, and our protagonist’s burning hatred for him. Like everything else in Fury Road, Immortan Joe is painted with the right brushes as to not disrupt the rest of a balanced film with his boldness.
Kylo Ren- The Force Awakens
SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In the finale of The Force Awakens – Again, SPOILERS – the confrontation on Starkiller Base leaves our new characters emotionally scattered but perhaps none more-so than Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren. SERIOUSLY, SPOILERS. LAST CHANCE. Kylo Ren has killed his father Han Solo in his final step to joining the dark side. The act solidifies him as a bastard who needs to die a slow painful death, but perhaps living is a fate worse for him. He’s clearly being torn apart from the inside by darkness. In the final confrontation with Finn and Rey, Kylo, in physical and emotional pain, shouts “Traitor!” shows he unbridled rage for the new Star Wars trilogy antagonist shows a conflict within the character. Perhaps more so than our new heroes. A whiny brat mixed with the worst elements of an infuriated Kylo Ren is Anakin Skywalker done proper.
Nathan Bateman- Ex Machina
Ex Machina‘s villain is a master of manipulation, whose only weakness is his ego. It sounds familiar, but Nathan Bateman is a specifically 21st Century interpretation of Dr. Frankenstein. He speaks to concerns of unregulated power and male privilege in the digital age – but is not without charm. While his insistence on not only creating life but possessing it makes him do heinous things, he has a confident charm and intellect that can win you over. In what is one of my favourite scenes of 2015 (and science-fiction in general), he drunkenly takes to the dance floor to perform a perfectly-choreographed routine with his servant Kyoko. At first it’s a fun, lively scene that brings much-needed release from the ramping tension. But gradually the mechanical, meticulously practised nature of the performance reminds us that this is a man who is joylessly seeking power at the expense of others.
Matt Graver and Alejandro Gillick- Sicario
In another genre, from another director, Matt Graver and Alejandro Gillick would be the protagonists, anti-heroes bringing justice to the world at any cost. But Sicario shows us the reality of those who would bend the laws of society, and humanity, in order to do what they believe to be the right thing. Denis Villeneuve takes the cool-ness often found in these cinematic archetypes and shows how ugly they really are. And as Britt Hayes pointed out in her excellent essay, these characters are used to explore sexual assault as a theme rather than an inciting incident. The way both characters deliberately keep Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer in the dark, violating her code of ethics and using her profession to their own ends. All of this would be interesting by itself, but the performances from both Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro get under your skin. Del Toro’s Alejandro is quiet, intimidating, and completely disconnected from the violence he commits. He feels almost soulless, like a dead man playing out the same wicked game that brought him suffering in the first place. Brolin, on the other hand, is flippant and gleefully nihilistic, the kind of man who wears flip-flops to discuss barely legal military operations and smiles into the abyss.
Boston Archdiocese- Spotlight
There’s no greater evil than the harm of a child, and while many members of the Boston Archdiocese and Catholic hierarchy did not directly rape children, they covered it up and created and system that could allow that evil to happen again and again. Stanley Tucci’s Mitchell Garabedian puts it best when he says “if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them. That’s the truth of it.” And the villainy of the Boston Archdiocese cannot escape the truth under Spotlight‘s steady gaze that refuses to downplay or create mixed messages on where the blame falls. This discomfort doesn’t just end with the last shot, but is continued by the film’s coda that shows just how far this cover-up spread. While a film’s villain(s) often exists for our entertainment, Spotlight uncovers the truth their existence for our collective education.
So tell us, who were the best heroes and villains of 2015?
List compiled by: Richard Newby, Diego Crespo, Jack Godwin
Featured Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures