As Hollywood responds to the crisis of global capitalism, it has become clear that we ourselves are the ultimate threat to the prevalent social order.
This article was published earlier in abridged from on openDemocracy
For the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, hegemony was not something that was necessarily attained through force or economic power. Gramsci instead wrote about a form of power that was more subtle and covert in nature: he emphasized the large role of cultural institutions which through ideologically impregnated imagery unconsciously shape our value systems. We not only give our consent to this process, but most of the time actually enjoy such experiences and are even willing to invest our time and a lot of money into it.
For a long time already, the cultural format that we seem to enjoy the most is the movie. The greatest promoter and financially most successful exporter of visual and symbolic imagery is, of course, Hollywood. The political success of Hollywood can be measured by its ability to universalize its principles onto the world at large. The military setbacks of American forces in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have not only proved that Hollywood is a cheaper means for obtaining global hegemony, but also makes us aware that culture is a much more effective and longer lasting instrument than any military complex could ever wish to be.
There has historically been little ambiguity in Hollywood movies as to who are the good guys and who are the ‘baddies’. Those with good intentions normally embody the universal principles of a right to life, liberty, and property. Those who are licensed to be killed are basically all those who for some reason or another disagree. The position of protagonists and antagonists are similarly often clearly located. The thin fictional layer of their identity can easily be exposed by their physical location or environment. Moscow was for a long time the seat of the Soviets. The Alps is the best place to find Nazis. The caves of Afghanistan are the hothouses for terrorists. All terrorists are, in case you wondered, indeed Islamic.
These fixed territorialized positions and identities have, however, gradually started to change in Hollywood movies. There seems to be an increasingly powerful idea that the real enemy lures within our midst, and that he (yes, the enemy is most of the time a male) once used to be ‘one of us’.
Old baddies die young
Successful movies (for Hollywood success is measured in dollars) have historically featured a ‘good guy/bad guy’ dichotomy. The other 50 per cent of the gender population is, as you know, often ignored or finds itself in dire need to be rescued. The message contained within these movies is watched by a historically unprecedented number of people scattered around the globe. Politics is, therefore, not only made by explicitly political movies such as, well say, The Battle of Algiers, Dr. Strangelove or Apocalypse Now. Batman and 007 instead reach out to billions of people who normally would not consider themselves as being political.
Much has been said about the fact that the 1990s and early 2000s were a difficult time for Hollywood. Studios had run out of ideas after the big bully in the East had been ‘defeated’. Russians were welcomed in a US-led world order (think for example about Armageddon and Independence Day, among others). The market for Nazi stereotypes had 60 years after WWII increasingly become saturated. Germans were shown to possess human traits (think Oskar Schindler) and could even be made fun of (Inglorious Bastards).
Arabs have since the onset of Hollywood already been vilified and are rarely (if ever at all) portrayed as the heroes in the way white guys are. The 9/11 events did not seem to have worsened the already existing institutionalized racism. The hijackings of planes had already been shown dozens of times before 9/11, and some of the hijackers are even claimed to have watched some of these very same movies for their preparations. If the good white guys (and the few good ‘gals’) of Hollywood wanted to make new blockbusters, new baddies were desperately needed.
The late 2000s seemed to have marked a turning point for the fortunes of Hollywood. The Avengers (2012) grossed over $1.5 billion USD, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010 and 2011) and the latest Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) follow suit. All three movies now rank very high in the list of the 10 best grossing films of all time. The latest Batman production, The Dark Knight Rises, and the return of James Bond in Skyfall complete the list that is headed by Avatar.
All of these movies (with the exception of Avatar) were part of a successful, existing franchise and thus enjoyed what marketing people like to call ‘synergy opportunities’. This explains, however, only partially their ‘marketable’ attraction and subsequent great financial success. The key here seems rather to lie in the evolution of the identity of the bad guys. Let’s have a closer look at the ways in which politics has infiltrated and shaped these movies. My theory is that the crisis of global capitalism has fundamentally changed Hollywood’s classification of judging who is good and who is evil.
The content of the movies filmed before 2008 seemed to have remained largely unaffected by contemporary politics. They instead follow neatly in the footsteps of their respective franchise traditions and were based on the struggle between the all too familiar heroes and their adversaries. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is based on Alan Dean Foster’s Transformers: Ghosts of Yesterday (2007) and is largely based in a Cold War setting. It brings back the well-known American themes of the right to property (think pretty cars and a lot of guns), the conservative pride that comes with patriotism (flags) and is filled with a good amount of Christian dogmas.
Talks about The Avengers (2012) movie adaptation started already in 2005, but the Avengers comic series made its debut already in 1963. The movie inevitably contains many elements (such as the S.H.I.E.L.D. law enforcement agency) that similarly are reminiscent of the Cold War period. The last Harry Potter, which is among the most expensive multi-film projects in history, is based on the book (written in 2007) with the same title. The themes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows have a lot less to do with American geopolitics but do contain many elements that remind one of the infamous Nazi eugenics programs.
The identity and character development of the bad and the good guys was largely identical to movies we had come to expect from Hollywood. The viewers were constantly made aware of the fact that the movies were detached from a political reality by locating the movie outside contemporary political debates. The political themes in the movies, of which there are certainly plenty, are as a result rather predictable (and therefore easily) consumable. Viewers had for long been trained to distinguish the good guys from bad ones.
Jaime Bond and the Badman
The latest Batman and James Bond production were instead made after (or during if you like) the financial meltdown, and seem to a much greater extent have been the brainchild of their directors, who were closely involved in the realization of the scripts. The temporal divide also carries a distinguishable political dimension. It is difficult not to recognize the strongly embedded moral sentiments in the restyled Batman.
A lot has already been already said about the politics of Batman. The Dark Knight fights a heroic battle against the erratic masses who have taken hold of the streets of Gotham city. A revolution has brought Gotham to its knees. French Revolutionary-styled executions take place and the financial markets get robbed (but by the wrong kind of people). Fortunately the Batman is there to restore the natural human order of things in Gotham; something which proved to be impossible in Paris roughly 200 year ago. The aristocrat (not bourgeois capitalist!), played by Batman consequentially reintroduces the kind of peace and justice that wild neoliberalism had disrupted. The city is once again in control of Batman (or is it secretly Benjamin Disraeli?), and everything soon enough returns to its quotidian routine.
Nolan’s own political and literary influences are widely known – but what is perhaps more interesting is the real identity of his villains. The bad guys are no longer geo-politically from somewhere else (e.g. Russia, Germany etc), but are among our own. They are moreover not led by a Che Guevara-like figure (Bane), as suggested by some critics, but are rather portrayed as the victims of the hegemonic struggle between Batman and Bane. I cannot remember a single scene in the entire movie — forgive me if I am wrong — in which Bane is accepted as the legitimate revolutionary vanguard. Under Bane and his vicious mercenaries, life in Gotham is in fact worse than it was previously under the Batman. The masses are presented as the mere background (noise) to the real show-off between Batman and Bane.
The brutal violence and oppressive nature of Bane’s rule almost compels us, however, to forget that he is a mere pawn used by the real villain of the story: Roland Daggett. It is Dagget who represents the antagonistic vanguard, but not of the progressive kind. He is rather the exponent of an extreme form of libertarian capitalism. Batman and Daggett symbolize two alternative models for society. One is deeply aristocratic, moral, Christian and conservative.
The other is secular, (right-wing) libertarian, amoral and populist. This was a showdown between two rivaling fractions within the conservative political spectrum: the first is libertarian and sides with Nozick (Daggett), while the second is neo-Victorian and defends moral virtue, God and the nation (the Batman). In contrast to what happened during the French Revolution, the masses side not with the bourgeoisie but with the aristocracy.
In Skyfall we are witness to a different scenario — but the message is very similar. James Bond is not simply the sexist, racist and imperialist vanguard of the British secret services that we have come to be familiar with. The stylish protector of Victorian conservatism now finally admits to his Oedipus complex. His only long-term relationship with a woman is that which he shares with M (this time played by Judi Dench). This form of mother love goes perhaps a long way explaining Bond’s trademark misogynistic tendencies.
The only woman Bond loves is his mother. His relationship with M, head of MI6, has always been one of controversies — but never has it taken such explicit heights as in Skyfall. Bond faces stiff competition from the former secret agent and arch-anarchist Julian Assange (or Raoul Silva as he is called in the movie), played by the politically engaged actor Javier Bardem. Indeed, it looks like a very unhappy family (without an immediate father-like figure).
In Skyfall, Raoul Silva is, to cut a long story very short, the victim of M, whose ruthlessness is characteristic of a sovereign defending the interests of the British nation state (played by a porcelain Bulldog). Silva is out for the humiliation of M and perhaps a bit of plain revenge. He succeeds however in both.
In the role of Raoul Silva, Bardem not merely embodies Bond’s deviant brother, but in many ways represents a better and more progressive Bond. He clearly was and is the more advanced agent: confident, liberated from self-loathing, sexually more potent and in the end more effective than 007. The fundamental difference between the twins is their relationship with M. Silva knows that M is responsible for his suffering but Bond is naively driven by his sense of loyalty to (M)other.
This tension is resolved by Silva’s killing of M. Silva knows, better than Bond, who has caused his (and Bond’s) suffering. After Silva has settled his score with M, we are led to the final scene in which a visually released Bond is introduced to a male M (Ralph Fiennes) and reconnects with Eve Moneypenny (no longer an agent, but a secretary). Bond is now again under a male-led hierarchy. The paternalistic and conservative order of society is restored and Bond is now able to resume control of his life.
In both The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall, the enemy is thus increasingly portrayed to be among us. It is no longer a clear-cut ‘them’ versus ‘us’. ‘They’ are rather believed to live among us. This is also the theme of Avatar (2009), which remains until today the highest grossing movie of all time. Too much perhaps has already has been said about the elements of imperialism and anti-Americanism in the movie. What perhaps has been less cogently argued is that we, the humans, are portrayed as the superior species and masters of our and others’ destinies.
The Na’vi people, meanwhile, are displayed as a kind, but ultimately helpless and disempowered humanoid species that ultimately depend on us for their survival. In other words, we are the bad guys, but that does not make the Na’vi necessarily the good guys. The Na’vi are incapable of overpowering and changing us (either by coercion or consent). The latter ultimately only happens because of human mediation. The conservative undertones are not visibly prevalent in the left-liberal Avatar, but it similarly clear that society is under attack by a force that resides within rather than outside of us.
The idea of an ‘evil within’ is the characteristic feature of the increasingly popular Zombie movies. Zombies display all the physical characteristics of human beings. Anybody could turn into a zombie. The genre has recently started to portray family members as dangerous zombies. A famous scene of the Walking Dead TV series shows, for example, how one of the main characters (Andrea) is confronted by her ‘turned’ sister.
There exists genuine confusion as to whether the antagonist is actually really antagonistic. Andrea looks down and tries hard to discover a sign of her sister in the reborn undead. A couple of moments later she puts a bullet through her head. The emotional distance that we felt towards Giorgio Romero’s zombies seems to have become significantly smaller in recent Zombie movies and series. There is fact an increasing sense of emotional association with zombies.
The apocalyptic showdown with our antagonistic Other is anticipated to materialize in the aptly titled blockbuster World War Z (released later this year), which is based on the Max Brooks’ bestseller World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006). Zombies are in the trailer of the movie no longer the sluggish characters we know from the 1970s and 1980s, but are portrayed as possessing such a superhuman speed that they pose a credible threat to the existing world order.
The notion of speed has been argued to be important in the movie because it enhances and underlines the nature of epidemics. Other than their speed, the masses are leaderless and that is according to the author exactly what “makes them so dangerous”. The baddies are leaderless, fast and furious. These characteristics set them apart from the one-dimensional and slavish rioters in the Dark Knight Rises. It is easy to identify the zombie hordes with the global spreading of the protest movements around the world.
Brookes elsewhere argues that masses without leaders are “like a disease; no rationality, no middle ground, no negotiation, just sheer instinct to consume and multiply”. The conservative fear over the fate of the existing, rational and natural order of things has been the hallmark of successful Hollywood movies. The antagonists who destabilize the order are, however, no longer envisaged to be outside of the ruling system but are increasingly shown to be among us.
Facing the mirror
Hollywood movies show an increasing fear over a loss of order. Protagonists fight heroic battles, sometimes with themselves, to uphold values that no longer are self-evidently good. The identity of the antagonists has according to this shift (which I believe to have been caused by the on-going global crisis of global capitalism) evolved since the 2000s. The antagonist is, in contrast, no longer portrayed as being somewhere outside of the system but is increasingly imagined to be among us.
Hollywood is the product of the same universal values which it uses to distinguish right from wrong and good from evil. It is these values which seem to be under attack, not from outside, but from within. The challenge to the order is no longer fought abroad but is with accelerating pace epidemically infiltrating the fabric of ‘our own’ society. The virus spreads and infects standing citizens and even those we love most are not spared.
For Hollywood, it is not only that our families are under attack, but it has increasingly become clear that we, ourselves, are the ultimate threat to the prevalent social order.
Marijn Nieuwenhuis is a PhD candidate at the Politics Department of the University of Warwick.