character study

Toxic Nice Guys Are Hollywood’s New Favorite Villains

Jason Sudeikis in Colossal. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo by Voltage Pictures, Brightlight Pictures

(This post contains spoilers for Colossal.)

Nacho Vigalondo’s new movie Colossal is not quite conventional. It’s a creature-feature comedy starring Anne Hathaway as a failed adult who realizes she is psychically linked to a kaiju wreaking havoc on Seoul that shifts suddenly into a nerve-racking drama about what happens when women become the emotional and physical hostages of insecure men. The trailers sell you the comedy because that’s an easier pill to get down, but it’s the examination of male entitlement that will keep the movie noodling around in your head long after it ends. It also provides us with the most acutely frightening example of Hollywood’s new favorite villain — the toxic nice guy. Vigalondo’s greatest sleight of hand isn’t smuggling a dark character drama inside what’s ostensibly a monster movie. It’s how he packages the movie’s surprise villain inside the amiable Jason Sudeikis.

Sudeikis’s Oscar at first seems to be a supporting character in a quirky adult coming-of-age story. Like Allison Williams in Get Out, the first image of the comedian in Colossal is entirely in sync with his star image. He’s wryly funny but supportive, sensitive but still protective, attractive but still approachable. He puts you at ease, but he’s also an utterly believable cad. There’s a palpable undercurrent of darkness that runs through all Sudeikis’s roles, a way he fixes his gaze that suggests if something goes wrong, a switch will flip and his ingratiating exterior will crumble to reveal something cruel and threatening. It’s the same quality possessed by Jason Bateman, who played the crowning example of the evil nice guy in 2015’s The Gift, and Justin Theroux, who pulled off a similar trick in last year’s Girl on the Train.

Both The Gift and Colossal have Trojan-horse villains in the form of monsters — a literal one in the former and a human one, Joel Edgerton’s maladjusted Gordo, in the latter. Both Gordo and the kaiju are outsiders, destructors; compared to them, Bateman and Sudeikis’s characters are steady, good men seeking to protect their homes and the women in their lives. Except, at their cores, they’re also both deeply damaged.

What makes both actors so effective at selling the nice guy is that they both present a post-masculine image that seems on-trend in 2017. As America shifts to an economy defined by white-collar and service jobs, the beta male has become one of our most identifiable onscreen archetypes. Alongside actors like Zach Woods, Thomas Middleditch, and Adam Scott, Sudeikis and Bateman play men who are physically nonthreatening, diffuse tension with humor, and prefer weaponized wit over pure brawn. But even the most snarkily detached guys are beholden to internalized gender mores, and in both films Bateman and Sudeikis’s smug mockery can turn into vicious barbs with just the slightest shift.

The author Margaret Atwood had an oft-quoted exchange with a male friend once in which she asked him why men feel threatened by women. He told her, “They are afraid women will laugh at them, undercut their world view.” When Atwood asked a group of female students why women feel threatened by men, they responded, “They are afraid of being killed.”

This is exactly the dichotomy we see in Colossal. When Oscar meets Anne Hathaway’s Gloria, he quickly becomes her provider and protector, bringing furniture to her empty home and giving her a job, a purpose, and companionship. After many nights of carousing over beers, Gloria finally decides she’s going to dry out: She’s tired of blacking out, waking up after noon, and realizing she’s destroyed portions of Seoul with her monster alter ego. But the idea of Gloria choosing to take control of her life and make steps toward self-improvement infuriates Oscar, who has also realized at this point she’s attracted to his sweet, sex-idiot friend. He drunkenly taunts her, insisting that she drop the self-righteous act and get blitzed with him like they always do. He says and does a lot of terrible things, prompting Gloria to go to his house the next morning, after he’s sobered up, so he can apologize.

Even more jarring than Oscar’s sudden dark turn, though, is the image of his home. It’s filled with the belongings of a dead relative and looks like something from Hoarders. As Oscar stands in his dirty kitchen and apologizes to Gloria, his shame is laid bare; the moral high ground he had previously enjoyed disappears. It’s not something Oscar can let go, which leads to a violent confrontation in which Gloria must channel her monster counterpart to vanquish this toxic man once and for all. It’s a heightened version of an everyday dynamic: A woman flying herself all the way to Seoul so she can mind-control a gigantic alien is far-fetched; a woman forced to go to extreme lengths to protect herself from a domestic abuser is, sadly, not.

In perhaps the purest sign the toxic nice guy is a trope to watch out for, creators are already starting to play with it. Without getting into spoilers, Big Little Lies viewers knew Alexander Skarsård’s Perry was a manipulative abuser from the very beginning, but there were just enough hints that something was off with Adam Scott’s frustrated Ed — remember that confrontation with Nathan? — that it seemed possible he would turn out to have a secret dark side as well.

Though these characters often turn out to be villains, it’s easy to sympathize with them. In a sense, they’re caught in a trap: They live in a social system that insists men adapt to modern conventions of vulnerability and sensitivity, but doesn’t help them unpack the dangerous definitions of masculinity that they’ve picked up along the way. But of course, that sympathy doesn’t make them any less terrifying. What makes these guys so threatening isn’t that they’d break down your door. It’s that by the time you’ve realized you’re in peril, they’ve already been invited into your home.

Toxic Nice Guys Are Hollywood’s New Favorite Villain