Sharks: Why We're Obsessed with This Perfect Movie Villain, and Why That's Bad

Sharks are usually portrayed as evil, which hurts their image.

ByABC News
August 6, 2013, 5:09 PM

Aug. 6, 2013— -- Sharks are Hollywood's most perfect villain. Sleek and silent and fascinating, they fan our deepest fears.

No question, watching some poor surfer get devoured in a single chomp is guaranteed to sell tickets. But what makes it so mesmerizing?

"They're almost a perfect storytelling engine," said Adam Vary, a senior film reporter for BuzzFeed. "They just want to eat you, and you have to get away from them and that's terrifying."

Think back to when they were making the granddaddy of all shark movies -- "Jaws," 1975 -- and think of its star. The giant, blood-thirsty great white didn't need makeup. He worked for free. And he always knew his lines: "Chomp, chomp."

When you think about it, the shark in "Jaws" was, really, the perfect performer, except for the occasional mechanical problem in the water.

But in the story, he was the perfect movie villain.

"Just the sheer fact that they're so relentless, and just the way they look with those giant rows of teeth, it's also kind of ridiculous," Vary said. "It makes you laugh, it makes you smile a little bit, so the combination is really perfect for a very specific kind of genre movie."

You want a bad guy? Here's a bad guy. After "Jaws," there was "Jaws 2" in 1978 and "Jaws 3" in 1983, all starring the same villain.

You want character development? Well, maybe sharks aren't quite right for that. That's why in the 1977 movie "The Deep" you basically feel you already know the shark.

"There's no real motivation to a shark in the movies other than 'I want your leg in my mouth right now,'" Vary said.

Rather, all that changes in the typical shark movie is the meal: nubile teens in "Spring Break Shark Attack," reality show lookalikes in "Jersey Shore Shark Attack," the entire city of Los Angeles in "Sharknado," where sharks fly.

We've also had sharks in weird, unnatural configurations, such as SyFy's "Megashark Versus Giant Octopus." Wonder what that's story's about. Oh, a big shark against a big octopus. Got it.

"Because the shark is so kind of almost like a blank slate of eating teeth, you can kind of do anything you want with it," Vavy said. "You can carry serious and scary like 'Jaws,' or you can have a sort of borderline camp movie like 'Deep Blue Sea.'"

"Deep Blue Sea," that's the one where the sharks become intelligent. So let's take back "no character development."

Without trying to be too exact about it, we counted up more than 50 shark movies in the spirit of "Jaws" since 1975, meaning movies in which the shark represents evil.

How many movies were made with the shark as good guy? Again, not an exact accounting, but it looks like almost none.

Even in "Finding Nemo," made by our parent company the Walt Disney Co., the sharks are mean dudes, although they're eventually redeemed in a group therapy session where they chant, "I am a nice shark. Not a mindless eating machine."

But that's the exception. The overall evil image of sharks in movies is not doing any good for the image of the real sharks in the wild.

"These films depict them as ferocious, mutilating thuggish monsters. That is bad for sharks," said Chris Palmer, a professor of film and media at American University and the author of "Shooting in the Wild." "We have to be far more scared for sharks, not of sharks."

People kill roughly 100 million sharks a year for shark fin soup. Once thought to be a rare delicacy in Asian cultures, shark fin soup is rapidly becoming more available.

On the flip side, what is the chance you will become a shark's meal? About one in 264.1 million.

"The downside of these depictions of sharks in popular films where sharks are being shown as being monsters," Palmer said, "The public then believes they are not worth saving."

As far as filmmaking goes, what is much closer to reality are documentaries, such as "Shark Mountain," in which sharks are depicted as graceful creatures. Sharks are one of the most documented of documentary-featured animals, and many films like "Shark Mountain" show real respect.

Ah, respect, but does that sell tickets?