In the new Warner Bros. political thriller, Syriana, the villain is not al-Qaida, an enemy state, the Mafia, or even a psychotic serial killer. Rather, it's the big oil companies, which manipulate terrorism, wars, and social unrest to drive up oil prices (which have risen almost as much as movie ticket prices in the last 10 years). 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, for example, Paramount's 2004 remake of the 1962 classic The Manchurian Candidate. In the original, directed by John Frankenheimer, the villain-behind-the-villain is the Soviet Union, whose nefarious agents, with the help of the Chinese Communists, abduct a U.S. soldier in Korea and turn him into a sleeper assassin. In the new version, the military abduction 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 (whom the United States was battling in the time frame of the movie) 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 U.S. soldiers with false memories of al-Qaida-type jihadists so that they will lay the blame for their terrorist acts on an innocent Muslim jihadist.
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 the physically handicapped to Army and CIA veterans, now maintain liaisons in Hollywood to protect their images. The studios themselves often have "outreach programs" in which executives 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 Mafiosi. Still, in a pinch, these old enemies will serve. For example, the 2002 apocalyptic thriller Sum of All Fears, based on the Tom Clancy novel, originally had Muslim extremists exploding a nuclear bomb in Baltimore. Paramount decided, however, to change the villains to Nazis residing in South Africa to avoid offending Arab-American and Islamic groups. Yet, even if aging Nazis lack any credible "outreach program" in Hollywood, they can no longer be credibly fit into many contemporary movies. "The list [of non-offensive villains] narrows quickly once you get past the tired clichés of Nazis," a top talent agency executive pointed out in an e-mail. "You'd be surprised at how short the list is."
For sci-fi and horror movies, there are always invaders from alien universes and zombies from another dimension, but for 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 and production subsidies. The "Mission Impossible" franchise replaced the Russian and Chinese heavies that populated the TV series with, in Mission Impossible 2, a WASPish-looking financier who controlled a pharmaceutical company that unleashed a horrific virus on the world in the hopes of cashing in on 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 new version of the axis of evil.