New Russian movie villains won’t look like the old ones

In the 1950s, Russian villains were seen as alien invaders with superior weapons and mind control in science fiction films. The possibility of a Russian invasion of North America and nuclear annihilation generated a lot of anxiety, and those fears were expressed as alien invasions.

In the 1953 movie War of the Worlds, based on a H. G. Wells novel, a spaceship that looks like a meteor falls near a small California community and a famous nuclear physicist guesses that it is a Martian spaceship. Actually, the ship is part of a mass invasion. Meteors fall all over the world, opening up to release flying machines with attached death rays.

image: ArtStation

From a sadistic former KGB operative in The Avengers to the Russian evildoers in A Good Day to Die Hard, there was no shortage of Russian villains on the screen.

The fictional boxer Ivan Drago from Rocky IV (1985) is typical of the old-style Russian villain: huge and seemingly unstoppable. Played by the Swedish actor and real-life martial artist Dolph Lundgren, Drago is an Olympic gold medalist and an amateur boxing champion from the Soviet Union. He is billed at 6 ft 6 in and 261 pounds. In a fight with former champion Apollo Creed, Drago lands a savage punch that kills him.

Drago is remorseless. He coldly states “if he dies, he dies”, claiming he will soon “defeat a real champion”.

Even the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 didn’t bring an end to Russian villains onscreen -Russians remained the studios’ favoured villains.

There’s the evil Yuri Komarov from the totally forgettable A Good Day To Die Hard (2013); and Grigori Rasputin as the fictional supervillain in the comic book series Hellboy (2004).

Lately, I’ve been watching the Netflix series Stranger Things about how small town kids save the world from Russian bad guys. The Russians are so evil that they beat up and drug children on a regular basis and kick women in the stomach. The characters are almost comical: two-dimensional and flat. There’s even an Arnold Schwarzenegger-type whose only job is to look menacing and choke people mid-air.

The new Russian villains have yet to be portrayed in movies but Vladimir Putin is a good start on the stereotype.

Many credit Putin’s persona to an early career as a KGB officer. That’s true to an certain extent says author Douglas Century but he is also a gangster and thug. Putin and Russian organized crime have been inextricably linked almost from his emergence as a public figure in the early 1990s.

“Not very tall,” says Century “Putin developed a technique in street fights: He’d jump on the backs of taller khuligans (hooligans) and start punching them in the face from behind. In other words, he learned the principles of asymmetrical warfare at a very young age (Globe and Mail July 23, 2022).”

The portrayal of Russians as villains as a “safe” enemy is probably because they look so European, yet beneath the blond exterior conceals a sinister side. The use of visible minorities would be disastrous. The association of COVID with China, for example, has led to an increase in violence against Asians.

Russian villains will probably remain a durable stereotype. What the new Russian villain looks like in fiction remains to be seen.

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