It is hardly surprising that pop culture protesters in zombie makeup are now intent on Occupying Wall Street. For the past decade, Hollywood has been casting financiers as the demonic villains of society. They have even replaced terrorists as villains. In the Warner Bros. political thriller “Syriana,” for example, the villain is not al Qaeda, an enemy state, the mafia, or even a psychotic serial killer. Rather, it’s the big oil companies who manipulate terrorism, wars, and social unrest to drive up oil prices. One doesn’t need to look far to discover that the root-of-evil corporate villain is hardly atypical of post-Cold War Hollywood.
Consider Paramount’s 2004 remake of the 1962 classic, “The Manchurian Candidate.” In the original film, directed by John Frankenheimer, the villain-behind-the-villain is the Soviet Union, whose nefarious agents, with the help of the Chinese Communists, abduct an American soldier in Korea and turn him into a sleeper assassin.
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In the new version, the venue is transposed from Korea in 1950 to Kuwait in 1991, and the defunct Soviet Union is replaced as the resident evil. The new villain is–you guessed it–the Manchurian Global Corporation, an American company loosely modeled on the Halliburton Corporation.
As the director, Jonathan Demme, explains in his DVD commentary, he avoided making the Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein the replacement villain, because he did not want to “negatively stereotype” Muslims. Not only were neither Saddam Hussein nor Iraq mentioned in a film about the Iraq-Kuwait war, but the Manchurian corporation’s technicians rewire the brains of the abducted US soldiers with false memories of al-Qaeda-type jihadists so that they will lay the blame for terrorist acts committed by American businessmen on an innocent Muslim jihadist. Thus Hollywood depicts greedy corporations deluding the public about terrorism.
Why don’t the movies have plausible, real world villains anymore?
One reason is that a plethora of stereotype-sensitive advocacy groups, representing everyone from hyphenated ethnic minorities and physically handicapped people to Army and CIA veterans, now maintain a liaison in Hollywood to protect their image. The studios themselves often have an “outreach program” in which executives are assigned to review scripts and characters with representatives from these groups, evaluate their complaints, and attempt to avoid potential brouhahas.
Finding evil villains is not as easy as it was in the days when a director could choose among Nazis, Communists, KGB, and Mafiosos. Still, in a pinch, these old enemies will serve. For example, in the 2002 apocalyptic thriller “The Sum of All Fears,” based on the Tom Clancy novel in which Muslim extremists explode a nuclear bomb in Baltimore, Paramount decided to change the villains to Nazi businessmen residing in South Africa to avoid offending Arab-American and Islamic groups.
Yet, even if aging Nazis lack any credible “outreach program” in Hollywood, no longer can they be credibly fit into many contemporary movies since they would be in their nineties by now. “The list of non-offensive villains narrows quickly once you get past the tired clichés of Nazis,” a top talent agency executive pointed out to me in an e-mail. “You’d be surprised at how short the list is.”
Since international markets now provide Hollywood with 70 percent of its revenue for action movies, studios find it increasingly risky to employ villains from potentially valuable markets such as they once did with China. Consider, for example, the MGM remake of John Mileus 1984 classic “Red Dawn” in which Russians invade America. In the new version, which MGM plans to release in 2012, the movie initially had the Chinese invading America. That was before action films began scoring $100 million in the Chinese market. So MGM digitally altered and re-edited “Red Dawn” to make the primary villains North Koreans. Since North Korea is one of the few country in the world in which Hollywood does not distribute its movies, it remains on the short list of evil stereotypes.
For sci-fi and horror movies, there are always invaders from alien universes and zombies from another dimension, but even here it doesn’t hurt if they are in the greed business. In the 2009 movie “Avatar,” a greedy mining corporation is behind the use of avatars to destroy the environment, culture, and natives on the planet Pandora. This proved a lucrative decision, since the movie earned a large share of its revenue in foreign countries concerned about corporate exploitation of their resources and environment. But for reality-based politico-thrillers, the safest remaining characters are lily-white, impeccably dressed American corporate executives.
They are especially useful as evildoers in foreign-based thrillers since their demonization does not run the risk of gratuitously offending officials in countries either hosting the filming or supplying tax or production subsidies. “Mission: Impossible II” thus replaced the Russian and Chinese heavies that populated the TV series with a Wall Street-type financier who controlled a pharmaceutical company that aimed to make a fortune by unleashing a horrific virus on the world. How? It owned the antidote. Here, as in other movies in this genre, businessmen’s killings are not just figurative. Unlike other stereotype-challenged groups, CEOs and financiers, lacking a connection with the studios’ outreach programs, have become an essential part of Hollywood’s casting. They are the new all-purpose money demons.
This piece is adapted from my book, The Money Demons: True Fables of Wall Street.