In Appreciation, Post 'Shazam!': Mark Strong Is the Best Damn Bad Guy We've Got
Have you seen Shazam! yet? (Or read TK’s review?) I saw it in a packed theater Saturday afternoon instead of seeing The Best of Enemies, because I’m working my way up to seeing that movie and reviewing it for Pajiba, and I’ll honestly tell you my heart didn’t feel ready for it this past weekend. I just couldn’t deal!
So instead I saw Shazam!, and as soon as Mark Strong appeared onscreen as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, the movie’s unhinged villain desperate to absorb the magic of the Seven Sins, I sighed — a deep exhale of relief! Because if there is anything we can rely on in this cruel world, it is that Mark Strong will be the bad guy in the movie you’re watching, and he’s going to be goddamn great at it.
There are certainly some actors who have made a career playing the bad guy: I love The Place Beyond the Pines, but I rolled my eyes when Ray Liotta played, gasp, ANOTHER corrupt cop. Christopher Lee, before his passing in 2015, occupied space in two major franchises by playing Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and Count Dooku in Star Wars. Hugo Weaving was Mr. Smith in The Matrix and Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger. Colin Farrell spent some of his prime hot years (JK, they are all hot years) being Bullseye in Ben Affleck’s Daredevil and the vampire Jerry in the Anton Yelchin (RIP)-starring remake ofFright Night, and he was certainly very duplicitous in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled.
And they’re all good! I like all those actors! But oh, the special spot in my heart for Mark Strong. I don’t know what it is — those extremely angular cheekbones? Is it that he’s 6’2”? Am I into the height? I mean, the accent is also very appealing. All of those things are assets! Fundamentally, though, I think the appeal is that Strong never seems to consider himself fully above anything — I mean, the man was in The Brothers Grimsby alongside Sacha Baron Cohen, that’s about as ridiculous as it gets — but he simultaneously brings a slight aristocratic edge to his performances, as if, “I’m better than this, and I’m better than you, and that’s why I’ve gone evil.”
That slight elitism always works well for Strong when he goes bad, and I think some of his best turns are when he does. His stand-out scene in Shazam! is also the film’s scariest — when he oversees the slaughter, by the Sins, of a corporate board, set off when he throws his older brother out of a window more than 40 stories up — and I think it’s important that we list some of Strong’s most memorable roles. Let us appreciate what the man has given us over nearly two decades in film!
2005’s SYRIANA, as Mussawi
We don’t seem to talk about Syriana much anymore, although I still think it is one of the most insightful mainstream American films in capturing our fraught relationships in the Middle East, and the pretty damn awful nature of American interventionism and imperialism. The villains in the film are numerous — again, the U.S. being one of them — but in terms of individuals on the ground, Strong’s Mussawi makes an immediate impression. As the mercenary who tortures George Clooney’s veteran CIA agent Bob Barnes, Mussawi’s actions set up the CIA’s eventual abandonment of Barnes, so not only does he physically ruin the man, he takes his career and his reputation from him, too. Strong brings just enough glee to Mussawi’s torture of Barnes to make the scene appropriately, lingeringly fucked up.
2007’s SUNSHINE, as Pinbacker
I consider Sunshine Danny Boyle’s best movie, full stop. Written by Alex Garland (who would later be responsible for what I consider 2018’s best film, Annihilation), and with a ridiculously stacked cast — Chris Evans, Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis Hiroyuki Sanada, Rose Byrne, Benedict Wong!! — the film trails an eight-person crew trying to deliver a nuclear bomb to invigorate the dying sun. If they succeed, they’ll save life on earth; if they don’t, they’ll die, and so will everyone they love. And an already-fraught mission turns worse than expected when the crew discovers that the leader of a previous mission, Pinbacker, has basically gone insane, exposed his body to the sun’s rays, and turned into a monster who believes that God intends them all to die.
The introduction of Pinbacker is grotesque, and yet as always, Strong sells the man’s zealousness and violence. Sure, he’s crazy, but also, his dialogue is often beautiful: “At the end of time, a moment will come when just one man remains. Then the moment will pass. Man will be gone. There will be nothing to show that we were ever here… but stardust.” (Fun fact: Also in 2007, Strong appeared in the big-screen adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust!)
2008’s BODY OF LIES, as Hani Salaam
Ridley Scott is mostly awful these days, but I cannot deny that his Body of Lies, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe as American operatives doing shady shit in the Middle East, is pretty solid. But it’s amazing that in a film with Leo and Crowe — both Academy Award Best Actor winners — Strong steals every damn scene he’s in as Hani Salaam, head of the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate. Salaam knows everything happening inside his country, the bad shit and the really bad shit, and the authority he exudes and loyalty he commands are breathtaking. I won’t spoil it, but during the film’s climax, Salaam plays a major role, and his actions demand an authoritative, menacing actor, and Strong absolutely nails it.
Plus, Hani Salaam is his hottest look, hello salt and pepper, hello. (This lovely gif is courtesy of enjoythevillain.tumblr.com.)
2009’s SHERLOCK HOLMES, as Lord Henry Blackwood
Once Mark Strong got into the Warner Brothers family, his career path as a go-to villain for any WB/DC property was basically set, and that all started with Sherlock Holmes. I think some people were salty that the films didn’t start out with Professor Moriarty being Sherlock’s primary nemesis, but I like the spooky occult bent of this first film, and if you need someone to be a snooty landowner with an interest in the supernatural, then you can’t get more fitting than this guy. Look at how right he looks in this ominous widow’s peak hairstyle and high-necked leather jacket! It’s just fate!
2010’s KICK-ASS, as Frank D’Amico
The cinematic universes of Marvel and DC have been very different for a long time — and that’s changing, with DC comics moving away from the Zack Snyder formula with Aquaman and Shazam! — but because the two camps are so distinct, any comic book movie that doesn’t align with either stands out. And so we have Kick-Ass, the hyperviolent, consistently vulgar film from Matthew Vaughn that cemented the careers of Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloë Grace Moretz, gave us Nicolas Cage doing his best Batman impression, and started transitioning Strong into the “evil mob boss” archetype he would employ for quite a while moving forward. Who is Dr. Thaddeus if not just a variation of the Frank D’Amico type?
2011’s GREEN LANTERN, as Sinestro
OK, YA GOT ME, I have nothing good to say about Green Lantern. Literally nothing! I just wanted an excuse to talk about how ridiculous Strong, and EVERYONE, looked in this movie. LOL LOOK AT THIS WHY DID ANYONE THINK THIS WAS OK.
I know we’re ending on a bit of a bummer note, but my love for Mark Strong remains! And how good he often looks in a leather duster!
Do you have any favorite performances? What did you think about his role as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana? Did you also think the Sins boardroom slaughter scene was surprisingly violent for Shazam!? Meet me in the comments!
Image sources (in order of posting): Warner Bros., YouTube, enjoythevillain.tumblr.com, IMDb.com, IMDB.com