CEO Movie Villains


In the movies, capitalists are almost invariably cast as villains. … Is an environment being despoiled? Look no further than the CEO of some large corporation. … The most grotesque character in the “Star Wars” films represents commerce, Jabba the Hutt, a literal business worm. …

Hollywood’s anti-capitalism … stems from three sources: the rage of directors and screenwriters against their own capitalist backers, the difficulty of using a visual medium to depict the invisible hand, and an ethical framework which Hollywood shares with most of our culture that regards self-interest as inherently immoral or, at best, amoral. …

Directors and screenwriters see the [movie-investing] capitalist as a constraint, a force that prevents them from fulfilling their vision. … Hollywood … share[s] Marx’s … idea that under capitalism workers are separated from the product of their work and made to feel like cogs in a machine. …

A second … reason, … movies focus on individual character, choice and action because that’s where the drama lies. … To really understand capitalism we must transcend the level of character to see the hidden forces that coordinate the actions of millions of individuals across the world. …

[Third,] Hollywood wants its heroes to be virtuous, but it defines virtue in a way that excludes any action that is self-interested. If virtue means putting others ahead of self, then it’s clear that most people, let alone most capitalists, aren’t very virtuous. …

Like many works of literature, Hollywood chooses for its villains people who strive for social dominance through the pursuit of wealth, prestige, and power. But the ordinary business of capitalism is much more egalitarian: It’s about finding meaning and enjoyment in work and production.

Yes, all stories focus on visible direct effects, and neglect obscured indirect effects. And humans have long affirmed their anti-domination norms by sharing stories about selfish would-be-dominators who get their comeuppance. But our society contains many powerful folks who can visibly threaten via domination; why don’t more stories make them villians? For example, instead of a greedy CEO polluting the protagonist’s water, why not:

  • Power-mad police lies under oath to convict not-deferential-enough protagonist.
  • Celebrity musician seduces protagonist’s sister, dumps when bored, breaks her heart.
  • Clueless cover-his-butt bureaucrat denies reasonable home-extension building permit.
  • Brutal sergeant, seeking promotion, pushes his soldiers to needless deaths.
  • Professor fails protagonist student because of political disagreement.

One possible explanation is that most folk see selfishness as usual for CEOs, but unusual for police, musicians, bureaucrats, sergeants, and professors.  If so, this seems a sad and curious misunderstanding; the truth is, as Alex says, “most people … aren’t very virtuous.”

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  • Steve Z

    You probably love “Paths of Glory.”

  • david

    “CEOs, […], police, musicians, bureaucrats, sergeants, and professors”

    Exactly one category in this list is legally obliged to be ‘selfish’, so to speak; even if all of them are actually selfish, only one of them cannot publicly claim to be acting in the wider interest and against that which makes him/herself money.

    As for your suggestions, I believe I’ve seen #1, #2, #4, and #5 in media. #3 lacks dramatic value, though (oh no! my house is too small! whatever will I do! – there are clueless bureaucrats in fiction like HGTTG, and obstructive bureaucrats that get in the heroic protagonist’s way when the world/something else is at stake in many films and TV shows. But not over a house).

    • Jayson Virissimo

      Who has better incentive to provide the public with services it desires: engineers at Apple or law enforcement officers at ATF?

      Why are only the latter referred to as public servants?

    • Khoth

      It’s not about a building permit, but #3 sounds a lot like the cliche of the police chief pulling the protagonist detective off the case because he broke some bureaucratic rule.

  • I’m pretty sure some of those plots have been made. (A Few Good Men for the sergeant one.)

    Oh, and by the way: Batman.

  • lemmy caution

    Kurusowa has a business executive hero in high and low:

    High and Low is told in two acts. The first act is about a wealthy executive named Kingo Gondo (Toshirō Mifune) who mortgages all he has to stage a leveraged buyout and gain control of a company called National Shoes, with the intent of keeping the company out of the hands of its other executives. Gondo disagrees with the executives over the direction of the company. One faction wants to make the company a modern mass market low quality manufacturer while the founder of the company tries to keep it conservative with good quality. Gondo believes he can split the difference by making high quality modern shoes. Then he is told that his son has been kidnapped. Gondo is prepared to pay the ransom, until he learns that the kidnappers have mistakenly abducted the child of Gondo’s chauffeur, instead of his own son. The kidnapping …

    The part of the movie where he is getting the LBO together is surprisingly exciting so when he gives up the money to ransom his chauffeur’s kid, it is really is painful. The part where he gets the money back and is ruined financially anyway is a bitter irony.

    He also had a bureaucrat hero in Ikuru:

    Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is a middle-aged man who has worked in the same monotonous bureaucratic position for thirty years. His wife … [cut to fit to 500 word comment limit. RH]

    Note how the other bureaucrats are unable to do the right thing. They are not exactly bureaucrat villains, they are just people hemmed in by their situation as bureaucrats. It is as if Kurosowa was asking “How will this movie change the viewers life?” and then answering “It won’t.”

  • I think both you and Alex are strikingly wrong here on everything except that movie (pop entertainment generally) “stories focus on visible direct effects, and neglect obscured indirect effects”.

    Teachers, cops, celebrities, soldiers, and bureacrats are regular villians in pop entertainment, I’d guess in rogh proportion to the degree they hold power over movie audience members.

    It’s more striking to me Alex’s lack of transparent meta-awareness of why he’s casting himself heroically as a defender of capitalism (or of less biased thought about capitalism) in his post, at least as comes through in your quote of it.

    Here it looks to me like subpopulation team posturing is deforming social epistemological participation.

    • Very few people are every directly controlled by CEOs. Far more people encounter direct control by teachers, cops, and bureaucrats.

      • Firaga

        Which changes nothing as it concerns hollywood drama. TGGP below points out that everyday crime is boring. You need the radical, the feared, the limits of what the upstanding powerful could go wrong.

    • Prof. Hanson,
      Quant should enter here. How often does a protagonist experience negative control by a teacher, a cop, or a bureacrat as opposed to a CEO?

  • Rikk Hill

    I can’t be the only person who did a little dance when they heard the “I’ve successfully privatised world peace” soundbite from the Iron Man 2 trailer.

    • mjgeddes

      Now Stark’s my kind of guy, a man who knows how to make an entrance. Watch this short You Tube clip. Now, if Robin or other transhumanists were to open one of their lectures making an entrance like this, I would finally be impressed. Presenters at the next Singularity Summit had better open this well, or I’m not interested.

      Entrance to keynote lecture at Stark Expo

  • Doug S.

    Power-mad police lies under oath to convict not-deferential-enough protagonist.

    Hmmm… Changeling comes close.

  • Doug S.

    Celebrity musician seduces protagonist’s sister, dumps when bored, breaks her heart.

    Almost Famous, Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

  • I think it’s a fairly safe rule that putting human lives at stake in easy-to-understand ways is one of the easier ways to draw a crowd to a movie. Of your proposed movie plots, only #4 puts human lives at stake, and it does so in a subtler way than movies like Avatar do. Hence the lack of popularity of the sorts of villains described in your list.

    What’s really bizarre is something that Lester Hunt pointed out: when movies want to make corporations look really evil, they portray them acting like governments. Nevertheless, the idea of a corporation going into a new area and massacring the natives is more plausible than the idea of a movie star or college professor going into a new area and massacring the natives.

  • Not all CEO are evil (Tony Stark is one example). B And the professor example does occur on occasion (for example see what happens in Dead Poets’ Society). Corrupt cops are also not unheard of (Training Day and The Negotiator both come to mind) But I agree that the general patterns is clear.

    There’s another reason for this pattern: A CEO of a big company is a much larger-scale, overarching threat. Small threats are often thought of as less interesting. The CEO though is like Sauron, out in the distance, with myriad forces to serve him. The others don’t have that sort of threat level.

  • Here’s me thinking this website is called “overcoming bias” and here’s a prime example of bias being put to work in the most traditional way possible.

    Nowhere in the original Star Wars film trilogy is Jabba a business man (being?).

    Alex needs to watch Return of the Jedi with someone who has not seen it and then ask what Jabba the Hut is.

    Because in the film it’s never explained what Jabba does, how he amassed the wealth, nor anything else about his character.

    It is only in the expanded universe (the books and comics and videogames) where Jabba’s role is expanded so we get a full sense of what he’s supposed to represent, and even then he’s more of a ruthless mob boss, a Tony Montana type criminal (the Howard Hawks version of Scarface), and not some kind of “business worm”.

    Alex has just taken his/her perception of the way Jabba is portrayed in the expanded universe and applied it to the film, then claimed this is how Hollywood treats all it’s villains.

    Furthermore, Hollywood has a strong Judeo-Christian tradition, and if you look at the stories of this tradition you’ll see a strong thread of “anti-capitalist” (if your bias wishes to call them that) stories running right through it.

    This is not some orchestrated movement – although it is indeed true that some filmmakers do subscribe to marxist theory and similar rubbish – but more the fact that humans have been telling the same stories for millennia.

    When you start looking at other cultures, you will see other stories of the sort Robin is talking about. Lemmy brings up Kurusowa, and I’ve seen other Asian film, a culture which is structured quite differently from the one Hollywood is made of and tries to portray, which contains these kind of “selfish” (and non-capitalist) villains.

    And in Victoria, Australia, right now there are real life scandals involving Power-mad police lying under oath to convict not-deferential-enough protagonist, and Clueless cover-his-butt bureaucrat denies reasonable extension building permits, so I’m sure given the significant investment by the government of Australia to the film industry here, and success of locally produced TV dramas, these will be dramatised in the near future.

    • gwern

      Funky J: If you don’t like the Jabba example (and I’d point out that the movies do make pretty clear that Jabba’s criminal fortune is based on glitterstim spice/drug smuggling), then swap it out for an example from the prequels: the Trade Federation.

      You know, the guys who out of greed invaded defenseless Naboo, started the Clone Wars, and handed the galaxy over to an embodiment of evil.

  • Bureaucrat may fly under the radar but politicians get a pretty hard time in movies.

  • It is really interesting how much of our entertainment – a hugely influential driver of ideas – is produced by a single culturally isolated tribe. The prejudices, neuroses, and pecadillos of this tribe are being constantly broadcasted to anyone not living in a cave, and besides worries about media bias, I am astonished that people are not more concerned about the undue influence of that single unrepresentative cultural group.

    • Are that tribe’s ideas worse than the ones they are displacing?

      • Not necessarily, but they are certainly different than the mainstream culture on many counts – and this level of difference usually engenders a violent response rather than the passive acquiescence we see from most folks.

  • Just doing this based off my DVDs, probably more.

    First Blood (the first Rambo movie) has a power-mad cop who sets off Rambo because he wasn’t deferential enough. The second Rambo movie’s main villain is a cover-his-butt bureaucrat who sends Rambo to a likely death just to make it look like the government was sincerely trying to rescue POW/MIA’s from Vietnam.

    Magnum Force (second Dirty Harry movie) has as its villains a group of vigilante cops, including a higher-up who protects the younger ones. Lethal Weapon 3’s villain is a crooked cop who’s bitter about not making enough and uses his power to trade in illegal weapons (and maybe drugs).

    The bureaucrat who won’t allow a reasonable permit is a central plot point in Ghostbusters (he’s from the EPA). Most viewers despise him more than the Stay Puft Marshmellow Man.

    The army officer who sends men to almost certain death just to get a little data is the main plot point for the first part of Predator, although he’s redeemed throughout the rest of the movie as the villain becomes the predator itself.

    • One interesting thing about the original Rambo (“First Blood”) is that the true story which inspired it involved a bunch of hippies being mistreated by police. They are then transformed into a Vietnam veteran who is imagined being mistreated by a society that actually respects him far more than hippies. The interesting thing about the sequel (“Rambo”) is that the P.O.W angle of that movie, also associated with Ross Perot and some Chuck Norris flicks, may be more accurate than our government has let on.

  • Alas this whole topic remains limited by lack of clearer data on the distribution of movie villains. It is too easy to find many examples to confirm most any view about which kinds of villains are most common.

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    I think that the movies offer many more portrayals of virtuous police officers than virtuous CEOs.

    But then, there are many more police officers than CEOs to buy movie tickets.

    There are not that many giant bureaucratic companies to be a CEO of.

  • Buck Farmer

    “Brazil” is a beautiful, dark, and hilarious exposition of the evils that come from cover-your-ass clueless bureaucrats run amok.

    “Yes, Minister” similarly lambasts the self-serving lies and cover-ups of the British civil service at the expense of the public.

    “LA Confidential” follows the film noir tradition of the lone honest cop in a corrupt organization and a degenerate society.

    “Apocalypse Now!” and “Dr. Strangelove” both address the dangers of capricious or mad military commanders.

    I can’t think of any off the top of my head for celebrities or teachers.

    • James K

      One of the most notable things about Yes Minister is that it had a very institutional view of bad behaviour by government. No one on that show was particularly heroic (Sir Humphrey was a Magnificent Bastard, Hacker was a cowardly opportunist who would do or say anything to get favourable media coverage, pretty much everyone else has their own agenda) and one episode directly mocks the proposition that all you need are the right people in charge.

      In a sense the villain of Yes Minister is public choice theory (or the phenomena that theory describes).

  • Buck Farmer

    There’s a long tradition of portraying either priests or nobles as evil, corrupt, inappropriately lustful, or rapacious.

    The whole gothic genre comes to mind…

    “Castle of Otranto”

    “Mask of the Red Death”

    I think the common thread we’re seeing here is that the powerless are not portrayed as villains. Poor Nietzche can’t get a movie made about how the powerless are conspiring to constrain the will of the supermen…

    …’course “Atlas Shrugged” is supposed to start production next month.

  • J. Cross

    Brutal sergeant, seeking promotion, pushes his soldiers to needless deaths.

    Your favorite writer, David Simon, did make a show (Generation Kill) with this villain.

    I agree with the idea that we need solid data here and for lack of solid data we could try this:

    The 100 greatest heroes and villains of all time.

  • Jeffrey Soreff

    One simple explanation is just that psychopaths are known to be
    overrepresented in the executive suite:
    Business Psychopaths

    • Buck Farmer

      How much of this is an artifact of being CEO fitting our current definition of success?

      Would we still see this bias if we lived in an aristocratic feudal society? Or would Robin be writing about how the nobly-born seem particularly singled out as evil, when really we should be worrying about the nefarious midwife down the street.

  • Re: lack of data, a more objective way would be to go through the top 10 movies at the box office for each year (under the entries “YYYY in film,” where YYYY is the year). Code the main villain by type.

    You could also make a composite for each year and see if the most popular villain types have changed over time. For example, most of the ones I mentioned are from the ’70s and ’80s.

    The advantage of this method is that top 10 at the box office ensures that these types really appeal to the common person, else they wouldn’t have made megabucks.

  • That is, the entries at Wikipedia…

  • One odd thing is how often fictional stories feature businesses having inconvenient people assassinated. You never hear about that happening in the news. As Arthur Conan Doyle and Law & Order discovered, we find actual criminals (and most of their victims) too boring and depressing and prefer to hear about exciting scandals amid high society.

    David, CEOs are not legally obligated to be “self-interested”. They are obligated to serve the interests of SHAREHOLDERS. As Robin is fond of pointing out, there is a large agency problem there permitting CEOs to do things like stack the board with people who will grant them excessive compensation, and take large risks that destroy the company but still leave them fairly well off.

  • Proper Dave

    Jabba the Hut? The author seriously see him as a pure capitalist?

    An the ordered commerce of the Republic \ Empire, that is apparently not capitalist enough, is bad?

    This is is easily resolved by feet voting. Where would you like to live? Tattoine or Coruscant.??

    This tells me more of the critic than George Lucas ‘s marxian bona-fides.