Elon Musk is more unpopular than ever. The divisive billionaire is in the midst of his Twitter takeover, making many controversial changes — including firing the company’s board, charging accounts for verification, and laying off a considerable portion of the staff — that have turned him into persona non grata in some corners of the internet. Musk has always been a polarizing figure, mainly because he comes across as a resentful jerk who wants to get revenge on everyone who has ever been mean to him.
In many ways, Musk’s motives appear to be as selfish and petty as those of countless movie villains who have an ax to grind with the world. Indeed, Musk is already wealthier than God, has an ego the size of his vast fortune, and a severe case of Napoleon complex; in short, he is one lab experiment away from becoming a supervillain. And while Musk might lack some of the panache that makes movie villains so iconic, his many similarities with these bad guys prove how uncomfortably close he is to becoming the antagonist of this film we call life.
Peter Isherwell — Don’t Look Up (2021)
Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up was one of the most divisive films of 2021. The plot concerns two scientists’ efforts to raise awareness in the population as a massive comet with destructive capabilities approaches Earth. Like McKay’s previous efforts, Don’t Look Up is entertaining, albeit blunt, unsubtle, and less clever than it thinks. The film features a massive ensemble cast of esteemed actors playing mostly loathsome roles, including Oscar winner Mark Rylance as Peter Isherwell, the story’s de facto villain.
The soft-spoken and sinister Isherwell is a thinly-veiled take on real-life billionaires like Musk. He is obsessed with mining the comet, claiming doing so will destroy it and leave Earth richer in rare-earth elements while planning an escape route via a sleeper spaceship. Isherwell represents the worst aspects of the elite; he’s selfish, vain, incapable of seeing flaws in himself, and surprisingly stupid. Like most real-life billionaires, Isherwell uses his vast wealth to manipulate and handle others, using every tool at his disposal to craft the narrative and letting the unsuspecting masses do the rest.
You can stream Don’t Look Up on Netflix.
Lord Farquaad — Shrek (2001)
The 2001 animated classic Shrek is as fresh and original today as it was 21 years ago. A charming and subversive take on the fairy tale genre, Shrek flips the script and delivers a story full of humor and compassion at the expense of the traditional wholesomeness that first made those stories famous. Above all, Shrek overflows with heart and meaning, proving that happily-ever-afters are not only for flawless princesses and handsome princes.
Like any story, Shrek needs a villain, and it finds it in the ridiculous yet cruel Lord Farquaad. The small and bitter Farquaad is insecurity brought to life, the textbook definition of a Napoleon complex. Nonetheless, Farquaad is cruel, pressing others with his power to make himself look taller. Like a certain billionaire who loves to “troll” others, Farquaad thinks he is in on the joke without realizing he is the joke. And while everyone laughs when his guards hold the “laugh” card, no one intervenes when Farquaad finds himself in trouble; indeed, no one misses him once he’s gone.
You can stream Shrek on Peacock.
Eddie Brock/Venom — Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Spider-Man has had some great villains in live action; Topher Grace isn’t one of them. True, Spider-Man 3 is a flawed and ultimately unsuccessful film, but it could be much better if it had more focus. The plot follows Peter Parker as he becomes corrupted by the Venom symbiote, bringing out his worst instincts and damaging every relationship in his life. The film introduces Eddie Brock, an insecure and pretentious photographer and rival to Peter at the Daily Bugle.
After getting humiliated by the symbiote-corrupted Peter, Brock goes to a church and prays to god to kill Peter; he then catches the symbiote and becomes Venom. Proving his self-loathing and meaninglessness, Brock’s first action as Venom is to pursue revenge against Peter. He is a bitter and petty little man who uses his power to make himself bigger — literally — and wreak havoc just because he can. The similarities to many real-life billionaires, who live large at the expense of millions working at their companies and factories, firing them at will via e-mail, are there for everyone to see.
You can stream Spider-Man 3 on Netflix.
Syndrome — The Incredibles (2004)
Pixar films are among the best in the animated genre, and 2004’s The Incredibles ranks as one of the studio’s finest. It follows a superpowered family living in a world where the government condemns their abilities, forcing them to hide them from the world. When the father gets caught up in the plot of an old ally-turned-foe, the family must step up and become the “supers” they were always meant to be.
The ally-turned-foe in question is Syndrome, a disgruntled former obsessive fan of Mr. Incredible who uses his intelligence to give himself abilities. Syndrome allowed one single event to mark his entire life, blaming the world for how he felt and wanting to inflict that same pain on others. Although incredibly gifted, Syndrome is sad and pathetic, the embodiment of a power fantasy where the “oppressed” becomes the oppressor, except he is not a victim and never will be. Syndrome’s plan to overthrow the “lords and peasants” system by giving everyone enhanced abilities, thus making the term “super” irrelevant, is peak loser energy.
You can stream The Incredibles on Disney+.
Commodus — Gladiator (2000)
Ridley Scott’s Gladiator plays fast and loose with historical facts, using real-life people and turning them into one-dimensional tropes. However, it is so entertaining, with luscious production values and inspired performances, that we can’t help but ignore those inconsistencies. The plot concerns Maximus Decimus Meridius, a former general sold into slavery who becomes a gladiator to avenge the deaths of his family and former emperor.
Joaquin Phoenix earned his first Oscar nomination thanks to his performance as Commodus, the film’s antagonist. Desperate for validation and hoping his new position as emperor will grant it to him, Commodus is quite pathetic. He longs to be accepted and celebrated and can’t understand why he can’t receive the same admiration and respect others easily get. Now, if that doesn’t remind you of most billionaires and their desperate efforts to seem “cool” and “relevant,” then I don’t know what will.
You can stream Gladiator on Netflix.