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Silicon Valley CEOs are the default movie villains of our generation

Silicon Valley CEOs are the default movie villains of our generation

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Mark Zuckerberg is the model villain of our time. Where popcorn movies of previous eras installed Nazis, Soviets, space aliens, and zombies, we get a horde of tech CEOs.

Today a press image revealed the new look of Lex Luthor in the upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. In the still, one of comics' most iconic villains swaps his familiar bespoke suit for a sports jacket, T-shirt, and fitted jeans. Luthor is merely the latest troublemaker to wear the relaxed uniform and smarmy grin of startup founders. Kingsman: The Secret Service, a recent twist on the James Bond formula, featured Samuel L. Jackson as a Mark Zuckerberg-like megalomaniac with a strange lisp, an affinity for fresh baseball caps, and a plan to kill millions of people via free mobile internet service. In films like Ex Machina and video games like Grand Theft Auto V, antagonists were a smidgen subtler, given the boyish personalities, childish outfits, and futurist philosophies familiar to anyone who's waited in line for a San Francisco grilled cheese food truck.

Prepare for battle with an army of disruptors

DC Comics isn't even the first comic movie maker to capitalize on Silicon Valley angst. The nemeses of Marvel's Iron Man trilogy have skewed toward malicious technologists. And protagonist Tony Stark — ever his own worst enemy — is the quintessential example of Silicon Valley ambition snowballing into real-world problems. While he doesn't wear a business hoodie, he is a wealthy, famous tech industry CEO whose unflinching faith in technology ultimately leads to a sentient AI nearly destroying the world.

What's jarring about the reimagined Lex Luthor is the filmmakers' decision to be so on the nose. Luthor is played by Jesse Eisenberg, who established himself by playing, who else, Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Whatever remains of the thinly veiled comparison is shredded by the costume and set departments: the "I'm not The Man" tennis shoes, the fussy hair, the warmly lit signage that would fit in Pinterest's headquarters.

In terms of evildoers, we could do worse

Zuckerberg is a better model for villains than the purely evil Nazis, or the singularly focused zombies that populated genre films in the past. His quirky, wunderkind personality and determination to save the world with an undiluted blend of capitalism and libertarian views, allows characters modeled in his image to be well-intentioned people who do wrong in the Machiavellian pursuit of greatness.

Nor is it a surprise that tech leaders have taken the crown of default movie bad guy. Summer blockbusters, particularly grim superhero films, are determined to be more complex and realistic than action films of the past — but not so complex as to tackle the United States' enemies abroad, which aren't nearly as clear cut as they were in the 20th century. Plus, audiences can relate to the tech CEO: a young person with big ideas, who wants to change to the world, and who dresses like everybody else. And yet, the audience is giddy to turn on the tech CEO: impossibly wealthy, eager to shape the nation's politics, and maddeningly egotistical. They're built with the dramatic simplicity of Greek myths and the visual familiarity of a cartoon character.

Just look at that picture of Lex Luthor; we don't need text to tell us who this guy is.

When it comes to evildoers, we could do worse. Our villains could be xenophobic depictions of Middle Easterners from the early 1990s or the Native Americans of classic westerns. In fact, I'll go so far as to say we should be grateful for the villains of our time. Tech CEOs are less evil than Nazis, more human than zombies, more approachable than Soviet spies, and yet they very well could destroy this planet in the pursuit of a better IPO.