That's a very good point, and well made. I thought about this, and my reasoning for this "stormtrooper helmet" trope was so that the protagonists don't look like murderous psychopaths while dispatching of rows and rows of henchmen, and there is no chance of emotional connection between the viewer and the henchmen. This is also why zombies; they allow the heroes to kill dozens, hunderds of people, and we still don't register them as people, just people-shaped objects.

On a sidenote, I really enjoyed your review of Lying for Money! Good work!

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I also enjoyed your review of Man's Search for Meaning!

To your point about removing the bad guys' "humanity," this this is definitely true: trying to "dehumanize" the bad guys definitely isn't new. That being said, the "bad guys in masks" thing in particular does seem to be growing more common, and I've been juggling around several thoughts as to why.

One possibility is escalating stakes: martial arts movies and cowboy movies are both classic genres of cinema, and they're fixtures of an era when a movie could be all about a duel or showdown between two individuals, often with some personal conflict or rivalry, so the fact that the antagonists were human was a huge part of the appeal.

Nowadays, people expect more than just a 1v1 confrontation. When moviegoing audiences expect the protagonist to fight dozens (or even hundreds) of opponents, you have two options: you can go for the bloodless approach (a la superhero movies), or you can unabashedly lean into the fact that you're depicting realistic violence done to actual humans and amp up the violence (which maybe serves to enhance the moral ambiguity of your protagonist's actions, which for that genre would be a pro rather than a con: what's the point of R-rated violence if you're not going to have a morally ambiguous protagonist?)

It does feel like, more and more, there's been a bifurcation, as most modern action movies seem to stand firmly on either the side of "our violence doesn't have any real consequences" or "our violence is bloody and intense, and that's a big part of the appeal." (Contrast this with, say, a lot of spaghetti westerns, many of which now meet the standards of what we call an R-rated movie: they're definitely not bloodless in the way that PG-13 movies are, but they're actually quite tame by standards of modern R-rated action films. Now, it feels like every R-rated movie has to be a "Hard R;" anything that was closer to being a PG-13 movie would have gotten the rough edges sanded off to qualify for the lower rating and get more ticket sales.)

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That's a nice observation. I think, only the biggest blockbusters (i.e. Marvel) try to have it both ways. In the last Guardians of the Galaxy you first have slightly comical Orgocorp minions, that are humanized, but dispatched relatively bloodlessly, and then you have abominable full-CGI Hellspawn which whom the protagonists go all in on the violence, and that looks justified and does not raise red flags. This is a clear "having a cake and eating it too", but James Gunn is a master of this specific balance.

On the other side, when I'm thinking of the same approach gone wrong, a Transformers movie (can't remember which one exactly, i gave up on them after the 3rd) comes to mind, where the huge robots fighting have machine-oil-looking blood and mechanical guts pulled out of their mangled corpses, and that just looks completely wrong, even thought there is almost nothing human about them.

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Good point about Marvel movies "having it both ways." (Infinity War is another notable example of this: the Battle of Wakanda is fought against the legion swarm of Outriders, who in addition to being inhuman aliens in appearance, are also written to be mindless puppets in Marvel canon, removing any guilt the heroes might feel about wiping out thousands upon thousands of them. However, in the final showdown, the Avengers take on Thanos -- without his usual helmet, of course, so that we can more clearly see Josh Brolin's acting.)

There are older big action blockbusters that try to do the same thing, notably Star Wars, where in the prequels you have Jedi cutting through fields full of battle droids like a hot knife through butter, but every movie has the obligatory "light saber duel" with a 1v1 (or 2v1) confrontation between Jedi and Sith.

However, the Star Wars comparison highlights something that I think MCU movies in particular are really bad at, which is presenting what is sometimes referred to as "The Heavy," which Darth Vader has long been the standard-bearer for. Darth Vader isn't "head bad guy" of the original Star Wars -- that title belongs to Grand Moff Tarkin, who has authority over the Death Star, orders the destruction of Alderaan, and bosses Darth Vader around. (Later in the series, Darth Vader continues to be the heavy, serving under The Emperor.) The latest Mission Impossible movie Dead Reckoning also does a great job of having memorable performance by Pom Klementieff, who serves as the "muscle" while Esai Morales is the main villain mastermind.

The MCU *tries* to do this: in Infinity War, Thanos has his lieutenants (collectively known as the "Children of Thanos"), consisting of Ebony Maw, Cull Obsidian, Proxima Midnight, and Corvus Glaive, and I don't think most moviegoers could name a single one of them.

I think the reason that MCU seems to be particularly bad about this is that the MCU has a very "top down" approach: most choices about which characters get introduced in each movie are made by the suits. For example, I doubt very much that James Gunn, left to his own devices, would have chosen to introduce Adam Warlock in Guardians 3: to me, it smacked of some higher-level decision-maker deciding, "Adam Warlock should be a part of this franchise. (This has been something that Marvel movies have had to deal with pre-MCU, see for example Spider-Man 3 where Sam Raimi did not want to include Venom in Spider-Man 3, preferring instead to focus on Sandman, but studio mandate forced Venom into the film.)

The problem with a "top-down approach" is that you can't really prescribe what is going to be "iconic." It often emerges organically. The original Star Wars probably wasn't written with the sequels in mind (which is why you have the kiss between Luke and Leia that is made very awkward in retrospect by the revelation that they are siblings), and the expanded role that Vader got in later movies is no doubt due to the audience reaction to the original Star Wars. Harley Quinn was originally intended to be a one-off character for a single episode of Batman: The Animated Series, but she became a recurring character and eventually made her way into the comicbook canon.

Creating an iconic movie villain isn't really something that you can just decide to do; it seems like the best approach is to present the audience with a variety of bad guys who you don't try to force into a major story role but who are distinctive nonetheless. Star Wars often succeeded in doing this just by having lots of variety in the costume design for the bad guys (see for example Boba Fett, who was a bit player in the original trilogy but became a fan favorite who went onto have his origin story told in the prequels), and sometimes it doesn't even need that: see, for example, the fan-favorite character "TR-8R", a "generic storm trooper" who was nonetheless beloved by many fans due to a single word of dialog and a cool weapon, culminating in an emotionally-charged 1-on-1 battle with Finn. For as much as Star Wars likes to put everyone in "uniforms," there's a lot of heterogeneity -- and if you throw enough to the wall, some of it will stick.

Marvel has gone through this organic process of having "try outs" where they a wide variety of idiosyncratic bad guys and then watch for audience reaction to see what sticks -- but that's happened in the comics, not in the movies.

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So this, like many things in life, is a result of a scaling problem - whereas in comics scaling is easy and cheap, and you can basically "throw away" an issue to introduce a baddie, observe them being universally despised and never return to them again, in movies such a "throwaway" costs two hundred milllion dollars and ends a director's career.

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