In recent years, Russian politicians and filmmakers have often expressed their displeasure at Hollywood’s regular portrayal of Russian characters as villains, and have even threatened to boycott Russian films in the US, pointing out the risks studios take when they demonise a nationality. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this stereotype will likely not disappear, but will grow. And instead of a Russian embargo, there has been a boycott of Hollywood film studios, with Disney and WarnerMedia leading the way.
The portrayal of Russians as villains has a long history. “Even before the Cold War, Russia was often portrayed as a geopolitical threat to the West”, said James Chapman, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester. “This stereotyping took on a particular ideological colour during the Cold War, when it became associated not only with Russia but also with Soviet communism”. However, it is not really possible to say that this trend has disappeared since the end of the Cold War, or even that it has abated to the point where Russia feels that it is no longer the permanent and certain enemy of the world.
Throughout the history of cinema, many other nationalities have come to the fore when the villain in charge has had to be put in the spotlight. During the Second World War, for understandable reasons, the Germans and the Japanese were the villains most often depicted in American films. The other groups that have been demonised with varying degrees of intensity for decades are Arabs and Muslims. In the Arab-American community, Hollywood’s portrayals over the decades have been called the “3B syndrome”, in which Arabs are portrayed as either belly dancers, billionaires, or bombers. The 9/11 attacks gave a new impetus to this trend, and let’s not forget China! They also “did their bit” when Hollywood created their movie villain characters. Let’s add that nowadays, however, there is hardly any trace of a Chinese character with evil intent in any Hollywood film, as the country has become one of the biggest markets for studios.
But perhaps the most memorable bad guys are the Russians. Think of the second James Bond film, the classic spy movie From Russia with Love, where Agent 007 had to fight Colonel Rosa Klebb. Or we had John Rambo’s captor and torturer, Lieutenant Colonel Sergei Podovsky. And surely everyone remembers Soviet boxer Ivan Drago, who had a run-in with another American national hero, Rocky.
And what might the future bring? Given the complexity of contemporary geopolitics, it is conceivable that villains will increasingly cease to be defined primarily by their nationality. One possible trend – which we are likely to see in the near future – is that the bad guys will become polluters or climate deniers, as we saw as a precursor in 2009’s Avatar, where the villains were enemies of the environment.