First of all, I’m flattered by the attention.
Yesterday, Erik Kain of Forbes.com published a rebuke of my article in The Atlantic on a recent trend in Hollywood blockbusters of depicting war profiteers as villains. He makes a couple good points but gets some crucial details wrong. Here is an excerpt:
Gittell argues that Iron Man 3 shows a new penchant among American audiences (and filmmakers) for wealthy villains. Good old-fashioned terrorists have been replaced. It’s the summer of evil corporate villains, according to Gittell. And somehow this is new.
A brief glance at the Forbes Fictional 15 list paints a different picture. C. Montgomery Burns, of Simpsons fame, makes a return to the list this year at #10. Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko, has been bumped but appeared in years past many times. That richest of villains, The Hobbit’s Smaug the Dragon, sits atop his mountain of gold at #2.
Okay, so Kain is tying my article to a Forbes list of the richest fictional characters of the year. If indeed my article was arguing that depicting the super-wealthy as villainous is a new trend in American cinema, he would be correct in calling me out. That’s not a new thing. Heck, Charlie Chaplin – the very first movie star – made his living mocking the wealthy as the Tramp.
But that’s not what my article says. To Kain’s credit, the title – The Lone Ranger Seals it: Hollywood’s New Favorite Villain is a Rich Guy – does imply it. However, as Kain should know, reporters rarely have input into their headlines, and my article was no exception. In fact, my argument was that the summer movies of 2013 specifically identify the military-industrial complex as the cause of war, not just rich guys as villainous. For example:
White House Down shows just how deeply this notion of villainy has taken root, particularly in contrast to past entries in its genre. The film initially offers a smorgasbord of motivations for its team of villains who hold the White House hostage–one is a white supremacist, and another is a disgruntled ex-soldier–but it ultimately shines a light on the collusion between corrupt government officials and defense contractors who are trying to launch a war in the Middle East to keep their coffers filled with money from government contracts. Again, the War on Terror is shown to be nothing more than a scheme by profiteers, not an ideological struggle and certainly not a necessary war. In explaining the issue to his buddy, President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) even calls those profiteers out by name. “You ever hear of the military-industrial complex?” We have now, Mr. President.
It’s clear to me that the villains of White House Down, along with Iron Man 3 and The Lone Ranger, belong in a different category than Gordon Gekko and Monty Burns. These new villains are intentionally leading their country into war to turn a profit for themselves. While the Forbes article attempts to rebuke my claim that this is a new phenomenon with a list of movies with rich guy villains, only one really seems an apt comparison: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In this classic Western starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, ranchers hire the title character – a cruel and sadistic outlaw – to terrorize a small town in order to muck up their efforts to organize a bid for statehood, which they fear would hurt their profits. As in the movies I cited, the wealthy ranchers behind Valance are the true villains, but there are two key differences. War plays no part in this story (a key tenet of my argument!), and the rich villains are never even seen onscreen. Even if he is a pawn, Valance is depicted as the clear-cut villain of the film, which speaks to a very different understanding of violence and terrorism than we have today.
Of all current publications, I guess I’m not surprised it was Forbes who jumped to conclusions about my piece based on the headline. In recent years, they have begun publishing more insightful thinkpieces on pop culture and the machinations of Hollywood (Kain himself is a fine writer, in my opinion), but I still think of them as the magazine for rich guys who want to get even richer.
Now, I’m not saying that all their readers are villains – only those who work for Haliburton or Northrup Grumman.