Hollywood’s New Villain: The Tech Bro

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By Jake Coyle | Associated Press

NEW YORK — “Cheers to disruptors,” says Edward Norton’s tech billionaire in Rian Johnson’s Oscar-nominated “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.”

And why not a toast? Sunday’s Oscars won’t award best villain, but if they did, Miles Bron would win it in a walk. (Apologies to the “No” cloud.) He’s an instantly recognizable type we’ve become familiar with: a visionary (or so everyone says), a social media narcissist, a self-styled disruptor who talks a lot about “breaking things” .

Miles Bron is just the latest in a long line of Hollywood’s favorite villain: the tech brother. Looking north to Silicon Valley, the film industry found perhaps its richest source of big-screen antagonists since Soviet-era Russia.

Great movie villains don’t come along very often. Best Picture nominee “Top Gun: Maverick”, like its predecessor, was content to fight a faceless foe of unspecified nationality. Why antagonize international ticket buyers when Tom Cruise Vs. Who wants to work really well?

But in recent years, technology’s brother has proliferated on movie screens as Hollywood’s villain. It’s a rise that reflected growing fears about the expanding reach of technology in our lives and growing skepticism about the not always altruistic motives of the men – and they are mostly men – who control today’s digital empires.

We had the devious CEO of Biosyn Genetics (Campbell Scott) in “Jurassic World: Dominion, a franchise dedicated to the danger of overcoming technology; Chris Hemsworth’s biotech lord in “Spiderhead”; and Mark Rylance’s perhaps Earth-shattering tech guru in 2021’s “Don’t Look Up.” We had Eisenberg, again, as a tech brother named Lex Luthor in “Batman v. Superman” from 2016; Harry Melling’s pharmaceutical entrepreneur in 2020’s “The Old Guard”; Taika Waititi’s rule-breaking video game mogul in 2021’s “Free Guy”; Oscar Isaac’s search engine CEO in 2014’s “Ex Machina”; and the critical portrayal of the Apple co-founder in 2015’s “Steve Jobs”.

Children’s films also regularly channel parental anxieties about technology’s impact on children. In “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” from 2021, a newly released AI brings a robotic apocalypse. “Ron’s Gone Wrong” (2021) also used a robot metaphor for smartphone addiction. And TV series rushed aggressively to dramatize Big Tech’s mistakes. Recent entries include: Uber’s Travis Kalanick on Showtime’s “Super Pumped”; Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes on Hulu’s “The Dropout”; and WeWork’s Adam and Rebekah Neumann in Apple TV’s “We Crashed”.

Some of these portrayals can be attributed to Hollywood’s jealousy over the emergence of another innovation epicenter in California. But these worlds merged long ago. Many of the companies that released these movies are disruptive themselves — none more so than Netflix, distributor of “Glass Onion.” The streamer was persuaded to release Johnson’s sequel more widely in theaters than any previous Netflix release. Estimates suggest the film grossed around $15 million in its opening weekend, old-fashioned, but Netflix execs have said they don’t plan to make a habit of such theatrical releases.

And the distrust runs deeper than any rivalry between Hollywood and Silicon Valley. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 70% of Americans think social media companies do more harm than good. Tech leaders like Meta boss Mark Zuckerberg are sometimes viewed favorably by just 1 in 5 Americans.

As characters, the tech bros – descendants of the hooded mad scientist – formed an archetype: masters of the universe whose arrogance leads to catastrophe, social media savants who can’t manage their personal relationships. Whether their visions of the future come to fruition or not, we end up living in their world anyway. They are villains who see themselves as heroes.

“In my opinion, he really is the most dangerous human being there is,” says Rylance of his Peter Isherwell. “He believes that we can master our way out of whatever problem nature throws at us. I think this is the same kind of thinking that got us into the trouble we are in now, trying to dominate each other and dominate all of life that we are so intimately connected and dependent on.”

“Glass Onion,” nominated for best adapted screenplay, features a new escalation in the mockery of tech moguls. Norton’s eminently punchable CEO, with a name so close to “Bro,” is extremely wealthy, powerful, and, considering he’s working on a volatile new energy source, dangerous. But Bron is also, as Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc finally deduces, an idiot. “A vain buffoon,” says Blanc.

In Johnson’s film, the technical brother/emperor brother actually has no clothes. He’s just skating around with lies, deceit and a bunch of non-real words like “preset” and “inspired”.

Even though Johnson wrote “Glass Onion” well before Elon Musk’s chaotic Twitter takeover, the film’s release seemed almost preternaturally timed to coincide with it. The Tesla and SpaceX chief executive was just one of Johnson’s real-world inspirations, some considered Bron a direct parody of Musk. In a widely read thread on Twitter, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro said Johnson was dramatizing Musk as “an evil and stupid man”, which he called “an incredibly stupid theory, as Musk is one of the most successful businessmen of human history”. He added: “How many rockets has Johnson launched recently?”

Musk himself has not publicly commented on “Glass Onion”, but he has had numerous gripes with Hollywood, including its portrayals of guys like him. “Hollywood refuses to write even a story about an actual startup company where the CEO isn’t an idiot and/or evil,” Musk tweeted last year.

Musk will soon have his own movie. Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney on Monday announced his several months of work on “Musk,” which the producers promise to offer a “definitive, unvarnished examination” of the tech entrepreneur.

At the same time that the supervillain supremacy of the brother of technology emerged, some films tried not to satirize Big Tech, but to absorb a little of the infinite extension of the digital world. Phil Lord, who with Christopher Miller produced “The Mitchells vs the Machines” and the multiverse “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” says the internet has profoundly influenced his approach to filmmaking.

“We legacy media are responding in perhaps subconscious ways to new media,” says Lord. “We’re all just trying to figure out how to live in the new world. It’s about changing people’s behavior. It changes the way we find and experience love. It changes the way we live. Of course, the stories we tell and how we tell them will also change and reflect that. ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ certainly reflects having a lot of content from all eras in your brain at the same time.”

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