All too often in film, Hitler's minions make for lackluster villains
Nazis make terrible movie villains. After yawning my way through Captain America: The First Avenger, I realized that it wasn’t the tired action sequences or the utterly forgettable story that were putting me to sleep, but the lack of a compelling bad guy.
Making good villains is an art form. They represent not only a physical challenge, but a mental one. They draw sympathy from the audience, and perhaps even the hero, turning a black-and-white conflict into a puddle of gray-green bloody mush. True to the morally ambiguous world in which we live, the best villains of late have been threatening for reasons beyond their brute power. They should do something, anything, to bring into question how the hero will end up meeting his threat beyond a gloved fist in the face.
In Captain America, the villains are less characters than they are dummies in an obstacle course
Christopher Nolan’s Joker, played by Heath Ledger in 2008's The Dark Knight, was great for this very reason. A vortex of chaos, he forced a reevaluation of Batman’s values in addition to being a wisecracking punching bag for the caped crusader. He was a smart reinvention of the character that had many of us (even loyal comic readers) wondering if Batman was going to have to break his most sacred rule—he doesn't murder—and kill the Joker.
Captain America has no such nuance. Nazis* want to blow up the world, Captain America is going to stop them, and never are we given cause to doubt this for a moment. To that end, the villains are less characters than they are dummies in an obstacle course. Chris Evans pounds faceless Nazi after faceless Nazi, shooting them, stabbing them, burning them, throwing them (and quite a disturbing number of them, actually) screaming out of an airship, all without stopping to question the rightness or purity of his mission.
But of course Evans is doing the right thing. They’re Nazis, after all, burlap sacks of pure evil, barred by the public from having emotional depth or interesting ulterior motives. We’re not supposed to feel anything for them, which is exactly what makes the movie so darn boring. If not for the flashy explosions, we might as well watch Captain America pull weeds in his garden.
One of my favorite villains was Hellboy 2’s Prince Nuada. Sure, the insane prince of the elves was going to use his magic powers and super-slick hand-to-hand combat skills to wipe out humanity, but he had a compelling reason to do it. He was the last champion of the Elven Kingdom, a beautiful, utopian, nature-worshiping society of magical beings dying under the strain of human industry. Hellboy, with his red skin, horns, tail and hooves, is a supernatural being living in the human world, and for him, the choice fight Nuada isn’t so clear (never mind that his life force is tied to his sister, who happens to be the lover of Hellboy’s best friend, Abe Sapien). Which world does he belong to, the mundane or the magical? How can he fight for people who fear the very sight of him? When Nuada begs Hellboy to join his cause, the hero is visibly tempted.
I realize that Marvel had to do an origin story, which unavoidably places the Captain in World War II. But such a black-and-white hero tale is a step back from the more complex narratives that comic books have achieved in recent decades. Captain America is the embodiment of a nation with a dark and often morally ambiguous past. How would he have handled Vietnam or Kosovo? Hopefully, Marvel will grant the character such depth when he wakes up in the future in next year’s Avengers film. There he’ll find that the bad guys don’t always have a bull’s-eye painted on their uniform.
*Yes, I know that technically it's a plot by Hydra, but they're a division of the Nazi forces and are run by a charismatic figure head that believes he is a superior being whose duty it is to wipe out the weak.
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