Greed Is Good: The Villainy of the On-Screen Capitalist

ferengi-whip Star Trek's "capitalist" Ferengi, how Hollywood views business.

Having written for some weeks now on the villainous archetypes found in our entertainment culture and how they both express and influence our philosophy, I now come to a personal favorite: the cliché of the corporate villain. The greedy, unscrupulous capitalist stands so well established that the introduction of a successful businessperson in our stories elicits animus just short of audible hissing. As with the black-hatted, silent film villain twirling his mustache, or the masked burglar wearing white and black stripes while holding a bag bearing a dollar sign, we know immediately upon beholding a well-dressed corporate executive that he is not to be trusted.

Much as The Princess Bride’s Vizzini abused the word “inconceivable,” far too many of our storytellers wield “capitalism” haphazardly. It does not mean what they think it means.

To explore this point further, let us first consider a few of the myriad examples of how capitalists in general and corporations in particular are portrayed on screen. No such listing would be complete or even adequate without mention of Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, orator of the infamous “greed is good” speech. Gekko flaunted his villainy as a badge of honor. His sole and unapologetic purpose was to make money, with the secondary but no less coveted objective of making more than anyone else. He didn’t care how he did it either. If blowing out a company and laying off hundreds or thousands of workers would turn a more certain profit than keeping its doors open, he pulled the trigger without a second thought.

Lex Luthor, arch-nemesis of Superman, evolved into a corporate villain over the franchise’s many years and several iterations. Luthor began life in fiction as a mad scientist, an embodiment of fears surrounding the nuclear age and discovery run rampant. In Richard Donner’s 1978 film, Gene Hackman portrayed Luthor as a scientific genius who proudly applied his talent to crime. The decade of Ronald Reagan saw Luthor reimagined as the chief executive officer of LexCorp. He was provided with more realistic motivations, coveting the Man of Steel’s power while fostering a xenophobic fervor to protect humanity from an alien. Luthor was even elected to become president of the United States in the comics, expanding his villainy to include the corporatism later reviled by both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.

Then came Star Trek’s Ferengi, a troll-like species of “Yankee traders” introduced in The Next Generation and more fully explored in Deep Space Nine. There may be no more egregious example of a “capitalist” strawman in all of entertainment history. The Ferengi were obnoxiously unreputable, cheating in their dealings with such regularity that their political leader saw the discovery of a wormhole leading to the another part of the galaxy as an incomparable opportunity to get one over on new life and new civilizations. Quark, a Ferengi bartender and regular on Deep Space Nine, proselytized exploitation and demeaned those around him who fairly traded value for value – or worse, expressed generosity.