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Friday, October 30, 2015

October 30, 2015: 21st Century Villains: Scarlet Overkill

[For this year’s installment of my annual Halloween series, I’ll focus on 21st century pop culture villains. Share your favorite villains, new or classic, in comments!]
On the random but telling Anglophilia of the summer’s new supervillain.
After having created, in the despicable but gradually reformed supervillain Gru (Steve Carrell) at the heart of Despicable Me (2010) and Despicable Me 2 (2013), one of the more interesting and human film villains in recent years, the creative team behind those films struck out with their newest supervillain. Not much in this summer’s prequel Minions (2015) works well for anyone older than 10 (and this AmericanStudier knows whereof he speaks, having seen it with his 9 and 8 year old sons), but the film’s villain Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock) is particularly lifeless and uninteresting. The character’s personality and motivations are entirely forgettable, her flirtations with her mimbo husband (Jon Hamm) entirely irrelevant, and Bullock’s line readings seem as disinterested as will be the film’s adult audiences. I don’t believe the film was longer than 90 minutes, but I assure you it was the longest hour and a half of my summer.
There is one interesting thing about Scarlet’s perspective and personality, though, and while it’s as seemingly random as the rest of her character, it also opens up an analytical lens worth exploring. This decidedly American supervillain, introduced in her opening scene (that clip is in German, but you get the idea and are spared Bullock’s line readings) as a 1960s American feminist par excellence, is obsessed with England—she lives in a fortress in London, her husband (despite being voiced by American actor Hamm) is a collection of stereotypes from 1960s Beatles-era England pretending to be a character, and her sole villainous motivation is to steal Queen Elizabeth’s crown and (according to the film’s nonexistent logic) become the ruler of England as a result. This defining Anglophilia represents a very specific choice for the film, particularly since the three Minion protagonists meet Scarlet in the United States (which is the setting for both Despicable Me films) and thus the rest of the plot could easily have taken place there as well.
So what are we to make of this Anglophilia? In a movie as poorly planned and executed as Minions, it’s tempting to dismiss this choice as just another random and, well, crappy one. But I would argue that it’s more meaningful than that, although I can’t say for sure whether the filmmakers intended these meanings or simply stumbled into them (much like their bumbling yellow protagonists do). For one thing, the film is set during the 1960s heyday of the British invasion, when handsome British men invaded our shores and were celebrated by adoring American female fans; and it interestingly flips that cultural script, portraying a thoroughly American, very attractive woman who invades England and seeks to conquer it (with the help of an adoring English male fan who happens to be her husband as well). At the same time, Scarlet’s own obsession with all things England, and specifically with the English monarchy, echoes America’s longstanding cultural obsession with the royals, one that would explode in the post-60s decades thanks to another attractive, self-sufficient woman who (you could say) invaded the royal family and for a time seemed destined for a crown of her own. Whether Minions intends these meanings or not, its central villain certainly engages with these American and English connections in ways far more interesting than the rest of the film.
October Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other villains you’d highlight?

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