Trends in Pop Culture are always interesting to see, when movies, TV, comics and video games come to feature the same anxieties and obsessions at the same time.
This month saw the peak of the Superhacker Villain in the two biggest releases in the world: SKYFALL and CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS 2. Both Silva and Menendez are hacker-whistleblower villains elevated to the status of Bond villains on an epic scale, right-wing paranoid fantasies now shaping the public perception of hackers and whistleblowers as insane, psychopathic harbingers of Chaos. Mainstream pop fiction, with its reactionary political metaphors and huge marketing budgets and outlets, tends to become the dominant portrait of various figures and alternate readings are marginalised. Just like James Bond has become the public’s idea of the spy for the last fifty years when the reality has very different.
In SKYFALL, Raoul Silva is a former MI6 spy gone rogue and out for revenge against M, who let him get taken prisoner and tortured by the Chinese. Silva is a very, very silly villain whose motivations are banal (mommy issues) and grand plan makes no sense whatsoever. And in order for his plan to work, MI6 here needs to be made up of complete and utter idiots and for him to be virtually ominiscient. The new Q seems to know a lot less about computer security than the lowliest IT guy at your local Kinko’s or Carphone Warehouse as he does the one thing no computer expert would ever do, which is to hook Silva’s infected computer not into an isolated computer for forensic analysis, but straight into MI6’s network which results in their headquarters getting hacked. Then he can escape captivity as planned and launch his campaign against M in a path full of convenient coincidences. As a writer friend of mine ranted at length, he didn’t need to contrive a way to get captured and taken back to London when he could have just snuck into the UK and broke into her flat much sooner (hell, James Bond has managed to do that in two movies without any fuss) to get his revenge in a far less convoluted way.
Plotholes aside, it’s interesting to dissect the semiotics of Silva: with his blond hair and dangerous hacking skills, he’s a conflation of both Julian Assange and Anonymous as the Right have imagined them, crazed, vengeful, vicious and insane. He’s even been imbued with sexual kink and deviance as expressed in the scene when he tries to seduce James Bond in an obvious screenwriting trick of inducing homophobic panic among the more insecure members of the audience in order to make them really hate him.
Silva is the paranoid right-wing fantasy of the superhacker villain as written by people who don’t seem to understand how computers, the internet, online security – well, Technology in general – work.
The villain of CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS 2 is also inspired by Assange and Anonymous but draws on another set of signs and symbols. Raul Menendez is a victim of US foreign policy in Nicaragua who became a drug kingpin, political activist, arms dealer turned anarchist cultist hacker who has conned millions into worshipping him. Cloaking himself in the guise of a whistleblower in the public interest against the rich and the imperialist powers of the West, his real plan is to start the next world war between the US and China not for politics or ideology but plain personal revenge.
Where Silva was somewhat campy, Menendez is constructed with all the solemnity of a PhD thesis in History, moving him from the Cold War to the year 2025 and hobnobing with every major historical bad guy from the Russians to Manuel Noriega on his road to power, politicising his personal villainy into the epically political. In many ways he’s a grander and more coherent Bond villain than Silva, only without the poetic madness or campiness of a good Bond villain. He is here depicted as a victim of America’s foreign policy back to bite everyone in the arse. He’s all two-dimensional hate as macho pulp fantasies usually call for. You’re invited to hate him and then asked to decide whether or not to kill him when you finally get your hands on him.
Menendez is every bit a paranoid right-wing fantasy as Silva is. He is described as “the hero of the 99%”, having duped millions of worldwide followers into believing they’re supporting a revolution when he just wants to see the world burn. And the latter phrase is apt because the plot is by David Goyer, the co-writer of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy. In fact, Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES follows the same vein as Menendez in the way he uses the discontent of the majority of people yearning for change to con them into following his scheme to destroy the world. What’s particularly reactionary in the fantasy of the villain who pretends to be a people’s hero is its assumption that the masses are so easily duped into supporting left-wing causes and leaders, which is itself a paranoid belief by the Right. Hollywood seems to have a hysterical fear of collective action by ordinary people, the 99% as it were, even as it happily courts their money for the box office.
(A side note: an Italian artist friend pointed out to me that Bane’s body language in DARK KNIGHT RISES, especially his gesture of standing and walking with his hands on the lapels of his jacket, was lifted right from Mussolini, a brilliantly subtle semiotic touch that only an Italian would pick up on.)
All of this is a far cry from the earnest and goofy good intentions of 90s movies like HACKERS, which portrayed its teen hackers as glam young pop rebels years before Grant Morrison’s THE INVISIBLES claimed that mantle, and Robert Redford’s liberal-leaning SNEAKERS, where hackers were portrayed as civilians who become the last bastion of accountability against corrupt government and businesses. By the post-911 Bush era, Hackers were no longer rebel heroes but malicious anarchists out to cause trouble, even more unpredictable and uncontrollable than Communists. This fear is probably comes partly from the fact that many people don’t truly understand how computers or the internet work despite taking it for granted, and with the rise of whistleblowers like Julian Assange and pranksters like Anonymous, the general hysteria and paranoia were whipped up to a fever pitch by the mainstream media. Where whistleblowing had previously been considered an act in the name of the public interest often at great cost to the whistleblower, as in Michael Mann’s THE INSIDER, the Right has since shifted the narrative to paint them as traitors deserving of death. There are malicious hackers out there: those sponsored by foreign governments and teenage sociopaths, but they’re not the ones being portrayed in movies now, it’s the politicised figures like Assange and Anonymous that the media are more obsessed with.
Yes, you can just say it’s all just silly make-believe and fun and games, but the question here is why Hollywood insists on portraying hackers and protesters as the scariest bad guys in the most hysterical way imaginable rather than as legitimate expressions of resistance in a healthy democracy. And why we as the audience are so willing to swallow it.
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