Not too long back movie villains are easily recognizable by facial scars, evil laughter and oddly high collars— but the shorthand has changed a lot in recent years. Turtlenecks and sweatshirts are hallmarks of today’s sinister supervillains as the tech billionaire increasingly becomes the antagonist of choice.
Take Rian Johnson’s Oscar nomination, for example. Glass Bow: Mystery of Knivesthat centers around the murderous gray t-shirt CEO Miles Bron (Edward Norton). Bron is about to launch an alternative (and dangerous) hydrogen-based fuel before he turns out to be not-so-gradually an idiot. Viewers compared him to billionaire boy Elon Musk.
But it’s obvious. The most nefarious of these supervillains hide in plain sight. Take Santasserialized continuation Santa Claus The series debuted in 1994. It premiered on Disney+ last November. The series begins with Santa (Tim Allen) retiring and looking for a replacement. He chooses tech developer and Jeff Bezos wannabe Simon Choksi (Kal Penn). Surprise, surprise, drone delivery is ultimately not the point of Christmas, and the hooded Simon turns out to be a bad bomber before his daughter corrects him.
A decade after Facebook’s origin story Social network Debuting in 2010, CEOs of wealthy tech companies are increasingly portrayed as bad guys, or at least antiheroes. In 2018 Update introduced the inventor of AI chips, Eron Keene (yes, really). In 2021 Don’t look up were turtleneck phone developer Peter Isherwell and free guy was selfish gaming CEO Antoine Hovachelik. The trend has even seeped into children’s entertainment: before Santasanimated movie 2021 Ron was wrong featured CTO Andrew Morris, a villain intent on “gathering data” (he actually says those words on screen).
The mad scientist has turned into a mad destroyer, but why is this happening and why now? To some extent, movie villains have always reflected societal anxieties – the image of the mad scientist first appeared, according to University of Warwick researcher James Taylor, because of fears around the atomic bomb. But Taylor also notes that villains don’t just reflect our fears, “they also feed those anxieties by helping to shape and spread them.”
Superman antagonist Lex Luthor is a perfect example of this evolving villainy. “The character was originally a mad scientist, then became a CEO in the 1980s, and in a recent on-screen incarnation, Jesse Eisenberg brought in the qualities of a techie,” says Taylor. “We can easily relate this to changing cultural interests.” After all, we no longer associate scientists with “new technologies for the destruction of mankind.” Instead, “in the current climate crisis, scientists are often portrayed as nobles fighting in vain to get callous leaders and politicians to acknowledge and reverse the harm being done to the planet.”
Meanwhile, you only have to open the newspaper to see how the tech bosses have gone bust. Elon Musk’s cars crash, former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes faces 11 years in prison for defrauding investors, and WeWork founder Adam Neumann accused discrimination against pregnant women. Not surprisingly, these realities are increasingly presented in fiction.