Why Business Is Hollywood's Go-To Villain, Especially Now

Last Updated Jan 3, 2011 7:50 PM EST

Corporations and their leaders are seldom cast as movie heroes.

But in the movies of 2010, whether you were at the multiplex or the art house, the go-to bad guy was the American corporation.

Even the adorable Despicable Me has super villains who need to finance their nefarious schemes and pay a visit to the Bank of Evil, or, as the posted sign indicates, the former Lehman Brothers. From Tron: Legacy to Inception, the choice of evildoer was so consistent it was a relief to find that Colin Firth's stutter in The King's Speech was not caused by bad guys in expensive suits.

Business is a logical target when so many Americans are frustrated with the economy and with income disparity. But it's also a convenient alternative when so many other options are worn out, obsolete, or a political minefield. When it comes to unalloyed menace, the number one choice is still Nazis. They're like dinosaurs -- scarily dangerous but safely in the past. And no one is going to object that even the most exaggerated portrayal of Nazis is insensitive or culturally offensive. The Soviet Union, South American drug lords, and terrorists have also been regular targets in recent years, defeated by a series of square-jawed movie heroes (and a few women). And a megalomaniac seeking that old reliable "total world domination" (TWD) is always a good foil for a James Bond. Superheroes generally come with equally vivid super-villains.

But if you want to set a movie in real life and the present day, it is hard to find maleficent ones who are uncomplicated enough to make a popcorn-eating audience settle back and root for the good guy. Movies do not have time to waste with subtle details; the problem facing the protagonist has to be quickly sketched and instantly recognizable. And the theme of most movies is the 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.

And so the companies (and their leaders) showed up this year as the inescapable villains in a comprehensive array of films: dramas, comedies, fact-based, fantasy, documentary, family-friendly to R-rated, awards-bait or box-office fodder. Here, my nominees for some of 2010's most vivid corporate bad guys.

Something for everyone

The fourth Resident Evil movie, like the game that inspired it, has as its all-purpose bad guy the Umbrella Corporation, a trifecta of corporate evil: powerful contacts and international reach in a range of goods and services, bio-experiments that went horribly wrong, and work as a government contractor with para-military expertise for fighting our heroine.

A Sarbanes-Oxley romance
When James L. Brooks wanted to create a sympathetic romantic lead in a crisis, he cast the ultra-likeable Paul Rudd as a guy being investigated for reporting inflated earnings in How Do You Know? Jack Nicholson is Rudd's father, who asks his son to go to jail for him. Brooks gets the details wrong, but even if he confuses Sarbanes-Oxley and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, it is clear that Rudd is the fall guy for some sneaky corporate malfeasance.

Based on actual events . . .
Real-life stories inspired two excellent feature films this year.

Norma Rae 2.0

Made in Dagenham is the true story of the fight for equal pay for women in 1960's England. Sally Hawkins plays a Ford employee who is like a combination of Sally Field's Norma Rae and the union organizer played by Ron Liebman. Miranda Richardson plays the cabinet officer who stands up for the women, even after an American representative from the company comes to London to threaten to take all manufacturing facilities out of England if they are forced to pay women equal pay for equal work. (A brief notice at the end of the film explains that Ford's policies are now exemplary.)

From Ivy League to TWD
And we get a more contemporary story, with a skeptical glimpse of the venture capital industry, in the other fact-based film, the award-winning The Social Network, in which Harvard-students-turned-entrepreneurs take Facebook from dorm room to, well, close to TWD.

Up in the air with corporate jets
The Company Men is like a sequel to last year's Up in the Air, a sober portrayal of three top-level executives at a huge conglomerate who get downsized. No more room for heavy manufacturing, the CEO says, just "health care, infrastructure, and power generation." And a lot of financial engineering -- this is one movie that gets the business details right, down to the fancy headquarters building and the fancier corporate jet.
Spies like them
The trippy Inception, like last year's "Duplicity," is about corporate espionage and counter-espionage. We never know if what we are watching is real or dreams, except for the corporate client who wants to spy on the competition.

Greed is . . . funny
The delightfully silly comedy The Other Guys with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg features an evil Wall Street billionaire -- and a surprisingly serious (and entertaining) closing credit sequence that is essentially a power point presentation on the financial crisis.
The fraud next door
The underrated The Joneses is a sharply observed satire that carries current marketing practices just one step further, with Demi Moore and David Duchovny as stealth marketers whose faked glamorous lifestyle inspires their neighbors to buy the products they are promoting.
True Crime
But no feature film could be as terrifying or as damning as two of this year's documentaries, particularly the superb Inside Job, with Charles Ferguson's relentless dissection of the financial crisis.

American Casino examined the impact of the sub-prime meltdown on the middle class.
Sci-fi sins
And in one of the biggest releases of the year, it is not enough that Tron's hero has to fight off a cyber bad guy who is trying to control a virtual world. He has to get rid of the people controlling his father's corporation, who have committed the sin of selling software to make money instead of giving it away for free. But the villains are not really vanquished until the hero explains that as the largest shareholder in the company his father founded, he intends to replace the CEO and the board of directors.

Want to nominate another film, name a winner or lament this Hollywood casting habit? Please weigh in!
Nell Minow, dubbed "the queen of good corporate governance" by BusinessWeek, is a board member of GovernanceMetrics International (formerly The Corporate Library, which she co-founded). She also blogs as MovieMom at beliefnet.com.
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  • Nell Minow

    Nell Minow, a member of the board of GovernanceMetrics International and founder of The Corporate Library, writes about corporate governance issues, focusing especially on CEO pay, executive compensation, shareholder rights and best business practices.You can follow her on Twitter at @nminow.

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