When James Cameron decided to swerve Arnold Schwarzenegger’s inhuman killing machine into a father figure in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, he had a hard time pitching the actor on it. In a recently published oral history of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the director recounts Schwarzenegger’s hesitancy: “‘Jim, I have a big problem with the script.’ I said, ‘Well, what is it?’ And he said, ‘I don’t kill anybody.’ I said, ‘They’ll never see that coming. Nobody will guess it.'” Schwarzenegger eventually agreed and a classic was born. The T-800 that made Sarah Connor’s life a living hell, reprogrammed by the resistance in the future, now protects her only child, John. The switch worked spectacularly, and T2 became a smash-hit, grossing $520.9 million worldwide.
None of this is new, of course. The concept of a villain suddenly turning into a more relatable hero is so popularized in WWE that there is a phrase for it: turning face. T2 is the best example of successfully turning a villain into a face, though recent films have tried with less panache. Sicario: Day of the Soldado hit theatres in 2018 with the express intention of making the titular hitman of the previous film into a crusader tasked with protecting the child of a drug lord. The problem with that is Sicario [spoilers ahead] pretty memorably features Benicio Del Toro killing the entire family of the cartel leader who murdered his family. Sure, young Isabel (Isabela Merced) might remind Alejandro of his dead daughter, but he set a fiery precedent. The jury on him saving a cartel king’s daughter is out.
Soldado finished with 63% on Rotten Tomatoes, so it was still a victory, but that also represents a 30 percent drop from the original. Part of that drop is likely influenced by viewers feeling betrayed by the sequel sacrificing moral complexity and resembling something closer to X-Men, specifically, Logan. A film that came out a year earlier and centered on a weary man of violence protecting a young girl.
Taking premises better explored in original stories and absorbing them into existing I.P. is more common than ever. The pull of box-office dollars and executives’ dislike of risk results in retellings like Cruella. Nothing was stopping Disney from making a story about a young fashionista who upends the status quo, but by reinventing a character known only for her bloodlust and hatred of spotted dogs, Disney taps into an existing fanbase where the story can make way more money ($85.3 million domestic, as of writing). Is it lazy? Yes. But did it work? That’s all that matters for those who give the greenlight. Whether it works for fans is a different question entirely. Cruella did well among viewers who didn’t care about the change, but what about when a seedier character gets a face turn?
This brings us to this week’s release: Don’t Breathe 2.
Stephen Lang’s blind man Nordstrom starts Don’t Breathe as an innocent, the victim of down-on-their-luck teens breaking into homes looking for easy scores. But the script by Fede Álvarez and Rodo Sayagues slowly reveals that the old blind man was anything but innocent. Audiences will remember the first film’s reveal that deep in Nordstrom’s basement was a confined woman and a turkey baster. One used with the other to replace the child that Nordstrom lost in a drunk driving accident. While Nordstrom insists he wasn’t a rapist, forcibly impregnating a woman is one of multiple definitions of sexual assault. That’s not even mentioning the kidnapping and grooming. He’s not exactly the character you’d cast as an action hero.
Which is why when the trailer for Don’t Breathe 2 dropped, heads turned. The creative team behind the sequel upped the stakes and added more character to casts. Pretty typical for a sequel. But, then they made Nordstrom a protagonist with heroic intentions. Here, he hunts down three men who kidnapped the orphan girl he raises as his own. Anyone who remembers the turkey baster scene would find it difficult to root for this man. Backlash ensued quickly after the trailer’s launch, and producer Fede Alvarez responded with this tweet:
ANTIVILLAIN: it’s a screenwriting term to describe a Villain, that’s convinced he’s not one. But we agree, he definitely is!
— Fede Alvarez (@fedalvar) July 1, 2021
How much of this is trailer mismarketing or just a producer fending off bad press? Consider Alvarez and Sayagues’ input on Nordstrom in the first film’s director commentary. “A lot of the things he’s doing he [Nordstrom] has the right to do them, and it makes this so complicated, so complex.” Bear in mind this comment comes after the reveal of the raped, impregnated, and imprisoned woman in the basement. Alvarez goes further in suggesting that Nordstrom is right to say, “I’m not a rapist.” Shock value is inherent to the horror genre, but you have to acknowledge the audience’s willingness to see those things. Launching a pre-emptive immunity for a conversation that you don’t want to have is lazy. If you don’t want to defend redeeming Nordstrom, don’t recontextualize him as John Wick. Or, at the very least, have the difficult conversation to enable your decision.
T2, Soldado, and Cruella all rewrote characters to fit the roles their sequels/reimaginings needed, but Don’t Breathe 2 pushes that envelope just a little too far. Nordstrom could headline multiple sequels or maybe this flops and ends a mistake writ large on the bigscreen. Only box-office receipts will decide.