There’s nothing quite like a good movie villain. If we’re talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, maybe you read this statement another way: there’s nothing quite like a good movie villain, anywhere. With the exception of Loki and a few other superbaddies, the MCU’s well-documented track record for weak villains has been the franchise’s persistent shortcoming. In much the same way as the villains of the Bond franchise became less and less interesting with each progressive installment, by this point you basically know what you’re getting in the Antagonist Department. At worst, the MCU gives us a paper-thin doppelgänger for the hero, a bland apocalypse-seeker with vague motivation, or whatever the heck Christopher Eccleston was supposed to be in Thor: The Dark World. At best, the MCU just gives us Loki for like the fifth time.
This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a special screening of Free Fire. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.
Prolific director Ben Wheatley followed up 2015’s High-Rise with Free Fire, another film about the disintegration of a boxed-in mini-society. Both efforts are similar in this sense, observing a group of strangers forced into close quarters, casting us as the voyeuristic witnesses on a direct descent away from normalcy. Both films begin methodically, High-Rise introducing a futuristic all-inclusive living complex and Free Fire peeping in on an arms deal in an abandoned warehouse. And both can only ever end one way: in chaos, loud and bloody.
But it’s still remarkable how different these two films are, despite the apparent similarities and the fact that both were crafted by Wheatley (with co-writer Amy Jump) in the span of a single year. Free Fire justifies itself in the approach, heavily drawing on Reservoir Dogs-era Tarantino to convey vital information through seemingly innocuous dialogue as much as visual staging. Words do all the work here, with snippets of conversation managing to develop characters and propel the narrative at the same time. The arms deal brings buyers, sellers, intermediaries, muscle-for-hire and assassins-for-hire into a confined space, but before the guns come out it’s dialogue that each party attempts to weaponize.
Having just finished and thoroughly enjoyed The Night Manager, I thought I’d know more or less what to expect from High-Rise. This is due largely in part to the sexy sexualization of Tom “Sexy” Hiddleston, who stars in both and is also sexy. I assumed his character in High-Rise to be the sterling yuppie with the isn’t-it-perfect life structured in service of the concealment of darker, truer impulses. In Night Manager Hiddleston’s attractiveness is essentially made into a plot point; so too, probably, would High-Rise note the perfection of the specimen before delving into a personality far less desirable. A six-pack and a violent extreme, per American Psycho, per marketing stills like this:
But High-Rise isn’t sexy for very long. The prologue is a glimpse of the messy future, wherein Hiddleston’s Doctor Laing seemingly resorts to making food out of the dog, making paper airplanes out of the electricity bill, and making a ramshackle life in the husklike ruins of the tower block. It is suspiciously unsexy. Then again, though, resorts isn’t the right word: Laing has very definitely chosen this. He’s in a sort of hell and is more or less enjoying it.
I have a kind of casual self-imposed policy of watching movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe only once. Sometimes this works out beautifully, as in the case of, say, Thor: The Dark World, which I’m not sure I could sit through again without fast-forwarding to the parts with Tom Hiddleston. Other times I have a temptation to go back and watch a previous entry, usually on the eve of a new entry like Avengers: Age of Ultron. This policy is in effect partly because a good chunk of the MCU films are like The Dark World — sloppy, boring, noncommittal — and a second viewing only highlights these qualities. What do I do, then, if I need me my Thor fix now? I go read a Thor comic.
The real experiment afoot here is one that will fail, but one I hope for anyway: if the longevity of the MCU is the thing the MCU-makers are actually striving for, rather than that rusty and outdated model of making one good movie after another, then can I find a way to emphasize that? Can I enjoy the good and forget the bad and then return to the whole thing as one whole thing, years later, and really feel that longevity in the good and the bad?