Warning: The following contains spoilers for the movie Riddick.
It says something that one of Hollywood.com’s top viewed articles, to this day, is a 2006 post titled “Vin Diesel Slams Gay Rumors.” Seven years and an ostensible leap forward in our nation’s attitude toward sexual identity and there remain those who are bewildered, outraged, and mortified over the idea of Diesel, the poster boy for all things manly, being gay. We can’t blame the actor for this flowing river of backwards thinking, but we can take issue with some of his creative endeavors. Made famous by action-heavy, brutally macho movies like xXx and the Fast and Furious franchise, Diesel seems to have made a habit of aligning himself with the sort of project that glorifies the heteronormative idea of man: someone who fights, frowns, and beds as many nameless women as he can. And although there is nothing impressively progressive about the actor’s past choices, their offense might pale in comparison to his latest gig: the new installment of the Richard Riddick trilogy, Riddick. A movie that is so frought with gender-political issues that we’re beginning to wonder if the people populating the “Vin Diesel Slams Gay Rumors” comment section actually had a hand in writing the script.
What’s curious about Riddick is that it actually approaches the ideas of gender roles and sexual orientation head on. With a lot of time to chat during their motionless stakeout of a wasteland planet in hopes of apprehending the titular criminal, a pair of bounty hunter teams gets into some heated trifles. The head of Team A, Jordi Mollà’s Santana, is a sociopathic bandit defined by his plaguing pride issues and a sexual predatory streak, the target of his assaults being the film’s sole female character, a strong-willed agent played by Katee Sackhoff (who also, it must be noted, denounces any sexual interest in men at the start of the movie). Santana is obsessed with seizing control from Team B captain Boss Johns (Matt Nable), an intellectual stoic who matches every one of Santana’s threats with a passive-aggressive alternative, opting for patience and collection over his opponent’s venemous bravado. Fairly quickly, the dynamic between the two men becomes little more than a pissing contest between the contrasting alpha males, each losing battles along the way as the other’s methods prove conditionally more effective in the maintenance of his camp.
Early on in the movie, you’re inclined to sympathize with Boss Johns, championing his intelligence over the all brawn and balls approach of the deplorable Santana character (who, it’s made clear from the start, you’re supposed to hate). But while Nable’s temperate captain is presented initially as the Spock to Mollà’s Kirk, he descends pretty quickly into his own corrupt drive to capture Riddick, the man he believes to be responsible for his son’s death. But this particular conflict of allegiance is resolved when another one spawns: by this point in the movie, you’re meant to have allied your sympathies with Riddick himself, who might be the closest thing this film has to a Bones, were not for his own predatory inclinations. And that’s where the real issues with Riddick‘s attitudes on gender come in: when the hero becomes just as big a sexual criminal as the villain, but is applauded for it.
We do not struggle with our affection for Riddick in the early chapters of the movie. We catch up with him surviving alone, abandoned on a near-apocalyptic planet. He gets by on his stealth and agility. He longs humbly for his distant homeland of Furya. He befriends a wild dog. The film might as well open on him carrying a baby out of a burning building, draped in a Beatles t-shirt and a red, white, and blue cape. And not only is he heroic, but exacted as a character symbolizing an array of liberal values: He rejects another character’s compulsion to pray to God in a time of duress, favoring tactile logic over faith. He swipes spaceship batteries from the bounty hunter crew, leaving his mark with the none-too-subtle graffiti tag “FAIR TRADE.” Hell, he conducts an ad-hoc abortion on a pregnant alien reptile. By displaying both these values and those way across the spectrum, brazen machismo, the movie is really setting us up with an all-purpose good guy.
But what’s troubling is that this established affection is meant to carry over during Riddick’s less favorable antics. Once captured by the troops, Riddick engages in provocative dialogue with Sackhoff’s character — who is so unfortunately named Dahl (pronounced “doll”) — that is no less repugnant than the sort of vile lines tossed her way via the Santana we are all understood to be the film’s biggest douchebag. But when Riddick does it — objectifying her, prompting her for sex, remarking quite shamelessly on her breasts — the audience is asked to cheer. (And actually mine did.) But that’s not even the worst part: the impassioned viewer isn’t the only one who gets on board with Riddick’s behavior. Dahl does too.
By the end of the film, Sackhoff’s heroine — the intelligent, dutiful, strong, and proud woman who identifies her sexual orientation fairly bluntly early in the film (“I don’t f**k guys” isn’t too ambiguous) not only stands alone in sympathizing with the criminal Riddick, but risks her life to save him in the final moments of the planet’s decay, succumbing to his previous advances by professing her desire to sleep with him as the two retreat to the safety of the ascending spaceship. And thus, her story is resolved. Boss Johns comes to terms with Riddick’s innocence in regard to his son’s death (coming to accept that Johns Jr. was a junkie and a criminal). Riddick finally flees the impending Armageddon that has proven his feature-long mortal enemy. And Dahl shirks her avowed disinterest in the male form, submitting to the calls of heteronormativity, and closing her story on a request to sleep with the guy whose only other converastion with her had been comprised of lewd, perverse come-ons.
So how can a movie villify a character like Santana and champion one like Riddick? The difference between the two men is microscopic, but Santana is reviled in-universe as feeble and depraved, whereas Riddick is adored (or at least admired) for his gallant displays of masculinity. Santana comes up short in challenging Johns for top banana status, but Riddick earns celebratory laughs over his casual insistence that Nable’s increasingly agitated character “ride b***h” on their shared hover-bike during a quest to retrieve a spaceship battery buried in the wilderness. The only thing that keeps us from feeling about Riddick the way we do about Santana, in fact, is the fact that we’re not obligated to. As this film is a Vin Diesel vehicle, and as Diesel is a moreover charismatic actor, we know that we can “get away” with laughing off his oh-so-charming aggressions, his that’s-just-Riddick-bein’-Riddick come-ons. We feel as though we’re allowed to like him and all his bravado, despite the fact that we know better. Riddick is the “Blurred Lines” of movie characters.
And therein is our problem: Characters and ideas we root for, our value system notwithstanding, just because we don’t feel the threat of scorn and judgment present. When we feel safe and comfortable among things we know we should detest it should not be an invitation to get behind them. It should be all the more reason to challenge our own attitudes. Yes, we can clap for Riddick, derive satisfaction in his snappy “flirtations” and hoot and holler when he finally gets (in the most material sense of the word) the girl. It’d be fun, it’d be easy. And there’d be nobody there to wag a finger. But that’s the same kind of attitude that allows some folks to rest comfortably among the masses who are disgusted by the idea of an action movie star being gay. If you do see Riddick, don’t let it convince you to excuse the criminal behaviors imparted by its title character or the “victorious transformation” of an established lesbian into the hero’s heterosexual bounty. Feel what you know you should, take as much issue as your gut tells you to, and embrace that… no matter how many other people are cheering beside you.