Not too long ago, movie villains were easily identified by their facial scarring, malevolent laughs, and weirdly high collars—but in recent years, the shorthand has shifted significantly. Turtlenecks and hoodies are the hallmarks of today’s sinister supervillains, as the billionaire tech bro has increasingly become the antagonist of choice.
Take Rian Johnson’s Oscar-nominated Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, which centers around the murderous gray T-shirted CEO, Miles Bron (Edward Norton). Bron is set to launch an alternative (and dangerous) hydrogen-based fuel before he is not-so-gradually revealed to be an idiot. Audiences have compared him to billionaire boy of the moment, Elon Musk.
But that’s the obvious one. The more nefarious of these supervillains hide in plain sight. Take The Santa Clauses, the serialized sequel to The Santa Clause film series that debuted in 1994. Premiering on Disney+ last November, the show starts 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-based deliveries are ultimately not the meaning of Christmas, and the be-hoodied Simon turns out to be the bad kind of disruptive before his daughter puts him right.
A decade after Facebook origin story The Social Network debuted in 2010, rich tech CEOs have increasingly recurred as bad guys—or at least antiheroes. In 2018, Upgrade featured AI-chip inventor Eron Keen (yes, really). In 2021, Don’t Look Up had the turtlenecked phone developer Peter Isherwell and Free Guy had egotistical gaming CEO Antwan Hovachelik. The trend has even trickled down into children’s entertainment: Before The Santa Clauses, 2021 animated film Ron’s Gone Wrong featured tech executive Andrew Morris, a villain intent on “data-harvesting” (he actually says those words on screen).
The mad scientist has evolved into the mad disruptor, but why is this happening, and why now? To some degree, movie villains have always reflected societal anxieties—the mad scientist trope first emerged, says University of Warwick film fellow James Taylor, because of fears around the atomic bomb. But Taylor also notes that villains don’t just reflect our fears, “they also feed into these anxieties, helping to shape and spread them.”
Superman antagonist Lex Luthor is the perfect example of this evolving villainy. “The character was initially a mad scientist, then in the 1980s became a CEO, and in the recent screen incarnation Jesse Eisenberg brought in qualities of the tech bro,” Taylor says. “We can easily relate this to changing cultural concerns.” After all, we no longer associate scientists with “new technologies for annihilating humanity.” Instead, “in the current climate crisis, scientists are frequently presented as noble figures struggling in vain to make callous CEOs and politicians recognize and reverse harm being done to the planet.”
Meanwhile, you only have to open a newspaper to see tech honchos gone bad. Elon Musk’s cars are crashing, former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes faces 11 years in prison for defrauding investors, while WeWork founder Adam Neumann stands accused of pregnancy discrimination. No wonder these realities are increasingly represented in fiction.