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Why Irina Spalko is Actually the Best Villain You Can Ask For
Colonel-Doctor Irina Spalko. The one action movie antagonist you’re pretty much guaranteed not to see on any Top 10 villains list anywhere in the great empty vastness that is the internet. Now, I’ve seen a lot of reasons for this: she’s not in the story as much as people would like, she’s not interesting, she’s not the crazy maniacal supervillain that the first three Indiana Jones movies can boast, she’s not a he… and the list goes on.
To address the criticisms-- I get that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull got a lot of bad press. The generation that grew up on Indiana Jones experienced what most of them probably considered to be a huge release of George Lucas’s media flatulence when the movie was released. While I wouldn’t consider it to be an awful film by any means, I can agree that it is… well… underwhelming. But bad writing, unrealistic CGI, and all, this movie can boast what I consider to be among the best antagonists in action movie history.
I hear a lot from people- women in particular- that Spalko is not a strong female character when she’s standing next to Marion Ravenwood. I’ll give you this: Marion is a strong female character in her own way. But so is Spalko. Often people get upset that directors write female characters who, in order to be defined as strong, come out as emotionless robots, and I hear that criticism of Spalko a lot.
When she monologues, I listen, because I can tell she’s describing a goal that is seriously important to her. She goes mad at the end of the movie, from her obsession with the crystal skull. She goes mad. Just because she she is not involved romantically with a male character does not mean she is an emotionless robot. Her emotion is simply driven toward her work, rather than toward another person.
People have also said that as a female antagonist, that she doesn’t stand out in the likes of catwoman and Harley Quinn. She doesn’t get a defining moment, or a flashy costume, or a token line. I think what you mean to say is that she isn't sexualized. She is quite possibly the only female antagonist I have ever come across in a male-dominated action movie, who isn’t portrayed as a wild, erotic warrior woman, like the female villains of Batman. Her clothing is nondescript, and her weapon of choice is a rapier. Nothing special, but Cate Blanchett went out of her way to give her a unique appearance to this character without turning her into the sexualized female villains of most action movies. And that is something I have the utmost respect for, in both actor and character.
And, of course, the foremost criticism I hear of this character is that she is boring. This sentiment I consider to be the result of the crazy super villains that came out of the first three Indiana Jones movies. The original trilogy was renowned for its wild antagonists; hell-bent on destroying humanity, decked out in color or quietly murderous (but still very murderous), they were forces to be reckoned with. Spalko, on the other hand, is somewhat subdued. She doesn’t seem to have the energy of her predecessors.
Spalko is not boring; she’s simply relatable in her flaws. Unlike most antagonists in action movies, she’s not evil. She doesn’t radiate death and destruction. She doesn’t go from mild-mannered to crazed revenge-seeker all at once, nor is she simply evil from the start. She has the steady character arc of a tragic hero, and not of a villain, identifying more with Gollum or Snape than with Mola Ram. First we see a cold political figure motivated by patriotism; as the story goes on, she slowly descends into a personal obsession with the crystal skull, and we see her desperation for answers to all the unanswerable question of the world.
In the end of the movie, Spalko doesn’t ask for power. She asks for knowledge: the cardinal difference between this character and the wacked-out bad guys we’re used to. We can empathize with her. Instead of cheering as she’s destroyed, we feel pity and pain. We all want to know why we exist, and whether there’s other life in the universe, and what happens after we die. We understand and empathize with the desire she felt to understand the world, because her motivations are the same things that drive us to act in everyday life, to further technology and science, and influence our governments. And it pains us to know that those motivations drove her to insanity.
We stop seeing her as a villain, but because the story portrays her as the antagonist, we find her underwhelming, because she draws, in my opinion, nearly as much sympathy as the hero. We have no idea what to do with her, because media has developed such clearly defined niches of good and evil that we ultimately come to dislike her as a character because we can’t fit her into the villain niche.
Seeing the look in her eyes as she came to be driven less and less by political forces and more by her own obsession, I came to love this character.
And yes. It hurt when she died, because I understood her motivations and looked beyond the costume, and beyond the fact that she was, in fact female, and an antagonist. It hurt me to see Spalko die, despite the fact that she was the villain, and the movie was underwhelming. That, my friends, is the mark of a truly exceptional character.