Movie villains are a powerful - if lagging - indicator of what scares us. Screenwriters do not have a lot of time to explain a bad guy's motives and modus operandi, and some shorthand designation for evil that everyone understands is necessary. So, they often look to the headlines, understanding that the film will not be on screens for as long as two to three years after it is written.
Sometimes the lag in production can require some last minute changes as where North Korea was digitally substituted for China as the aggressor in the most recent version of "Red Dawn." And it can be tricky to avoid offending ticket-buyers. Ethnic and professional groups and mental health activists all have advocacy groups to complain about stereotypes and demonization. Therefore, we continue to fall back on the ever-unpopular Nazis, who, like the ever-unpopular dinosaurs (yes, there is another "Jurassic Park" movie in the works), are safe choices because they are both inherently destructive and long gone. Corporations always make very handy villains. Heroes are almost always an individual against some large, powerful, bureaucratic organization, because that is a story everyone in the audience can identify with easily. Corporations are conveniently big, powerful, and faceless. We have all had bosses who made us feel oppressed or powerless.
A Spidey Sense, Against Dollars and Cents?
Even in the new "Amazing Spider-Man 2," Electro (Jamie Foxx) may have the sizzle and Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan) may have the cool flying suit but the most odious of the villains is Harry's father, Norman (Chris Cooper), the CEO of evil corporation Oscorp. In "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," the military-industrial complex is behind the plot to do away with individual freedom. The adorable "LEGO movie" was criticized on FOX News for being anti-business propaganda designed to inculcate children about the evils of capitalism, primarily because its villain was named Lord Business. The film's conclusion, however, made it clear that the message was in no way anti-capitalism. As did the film's many "partnerships" and tie-ins with McDonald's, Barnes & Noble, Delta, Microsoft, and Stride-Rite.
Below: The Lego Movie's "President Business" in all his square villainy.
In a more realistic setting, the go-to movie bad guy is often corporate as well, and movie portrayals of business and executives tend to be caricatures. In last year's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" a soulless buyout of LIFE Magazine is represented by Adam Scott's condescending corporate drone. In "Her," the main character's alienation is evident in his employment at a firm that creates phony correspondence for customers who want the look and feeling of handwritten letters but are unable to create them.
This is even true in movies that are based on true events. Corporate crooks from the financial sector were portrayed in two of 2013's most prestigious films, the real-life "Wolf of Wall Street," based on the $200 million-swindler Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and "Blue Jasmine," with Alec Baldwin as a Bernie Madoff-style money manager. Wall Street financial types hid their losses and defrauded their customers in recent films "Arbitrage" and "Margin Call" and polluted the environment in "Promised Land" and "Erin Brockovich."
A Tale as Old as...Well, You Know
The corporate bad guy in stories has been around as long as the corporation. One of the best-known characters in literature is Charles Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge, a stingy moneylender without any vestige of kindness or compassion. Like Dickens' even more loveable businessmen, Nicholas Nickleby's Cheeryble brothers, Scrooge's warm-hearted former boss Fezziwig is not as vividly remembered as the corporate villains Scrooge and Ralph Nickleby.
It is equally difficult to find benevolent CEOs in movies, at least in the past 60 years. One of my favorites is Humphrey Bogart in "Sabrina" (1954), who explains better than a year's worth of Harvard Business Reviews what corporations give to employees, customers, and communities. And William Holden makes a stirring speech about his vision for the company as more than a balance sheet in the same year's "Executive Suite" to win the support of his company's largest shareholder.
Movies are expensive and that means filmmakers must rely on large corporations to finance and distribute the films they make. Those corporations can only be persuaded to risk as much as $200 million on a film if they are certain the story will appeal to the people who buy the tickets. While corporate executives greenlighting movies for production might prefer a pro-business storyline, as long as their own paychecks depend on box office receipts they will keep releasing movies that reinforce the audience's concept of the CEO as the bad guy.