Day 15: Indiana Jones and the Botched Villain Introduction
A villain's introduction is incredibly important. By definition it's the first time the audience meets them, and the impression created will stay with the audience for the rest of the film, and, if it's good enough, far beyond. Who can forget the first time they saw Darth Vader? The clean white hallways suddenly poisoned by the addition of Vader, darkening the world around him as he strides through it.
By the way, and this is wholly unrelated, watch the first Star Wars movie again - Darth is clearly a name, not a title. No matter how hard he tries, George Lucas can't write his way around that one.
Raiders of the Lost Ark also has an all-time classic villain introduction, not because Rene Belloq is especially menacing, but because his entrance acts as the punchline to an incredible sequence. Indiana Jones has just risked life and limb, escaping death in a dozen different ways, but he made it out with his prize, which is then taken from him by Belloq, who strides in, looking absolutely comfortable in the sweltering jungle heat. Right away we know exactly where these characters stand in relation to one another, they want the same things, but where Indiana Jones uses his wits and physical abilities to achieve his goals, Belloq's main weapons are treachery and ruthlessness.
A few people point to Toht's introduction as being especially memorable as well, and while it's a good one, I tend to subtract points because the lion's share of his creep and menace come from his resemblance to Peter Lorre.
Even Temple of Doom had a pretty good villain introduction. We have to wait for half of the film before we set eyes on Mola Ram, but when we do, it's pretty compelling. He's worshiped by hundreds of followers, who watch, rapt, as he tears the heart of a man, then lowers him, still-living, into hell. If he's no Belloq, the image of Mola Ram holding up a flaming heart while cackling maniacally is still a damned captivating one.
Last Crusade has to be removed from consideration, sadly, since two of its three villains are introduced first as friends, only to later betray Indy and company. The third villain, Generic German General, makes no impression on the viewer at all, beyond a single wonderfully funny line.
So while the series has been hit-and-miss when it comes to villains, there were at least enough good ones that Crystal Skull had a track record they could have studied. They can't have done that, though, because if they had, they wouldn't have so thoroughly botched the introduction of the film's villain, KGB officer Irina Spelko (Maybe Spalko. I'm not going to IMDB to check this one).
So just how bad is this introduction? Here it is in a nutshell: Area 51 has been taken over, and Indiana Jones has been pulled out of the trunk of a car. He climbs to his feet, and finds himself surrounded by Commie troopers. The door of the staff car opens, and Cate Blanchett climbs out. She walks over to Indy, announce that she's in charge, and then attempts, and fails, to use psychic powers on him.
That's it. She shows up, announces that she has a special ability, and then utterly fails to use it. In screenwriting, there's an over-used rule called 'show, don't tell'. The basic idea is that rather than just having characters announce things, it's a good idea to have characters demonstrate those things through their actions. This is basically the exact opposite of that rule. Not only does Cate talk about an ability, she then pointedly does not show that ability.
When the absolute first thing your villain does is fail at the only thing that makes them special, the audience has no reason to be impressed with them, because the heroes have no reason to fear them.
This is the equivalent of Darth Vader threatening to lift the ship's captain with one hand, then, when he tries to go through with the threat, finding out that he's not strong enough.