January 24, 2022

Excellent Pix

Unlimited Technology

Every Movie Villain Is a Tech Bro

The long-gestating archetype gets at a dull, persistent itch in our psyches that we can’t scratch away.
Photo: Warner Bros.

In retrospect, it should not have come as any kind of surprise that The Matrix Resurrections replaced Hugo Weaving’s stone-faced, black-suited Agent Smith with a sleek, sociable, no-socks corporate douchebag played by Jonathan Groff. Regardless of what one thinks about the actual recasting — I did miss Weaving’s eternal glower, myself — a new Smith makes sense not just for the new film’s world but also for our current reality. In the neo-noir-inflected first Matrix, Weaving delivered a compelling, kung-fu-powered pastiche of the emotionless, low-voiced G-man archetype, a familiar figure from the iconography of classic Hollywood. But the fourth film notably does away with the original trilogy’s brooding aesthetic. During the colorful, brightly lit early scenes in the dreamworld of this new picture — set, of course, in a revamped Matrix — Agent Smith (or just “Smith” in this case) is the obsequious business partner of Keanu Reeves’s Thomas Anderson and the head of their gaming company.

This new Smith certainly plugs the film into a more contemporary template. The tech bro has been our go-to movie villain for some time now, but the past several years have really seen a profusion of such characters. Think of Riz Ahmed as bioengineering honcho Carlton Drake in the first Venom in 2018 — or for that matter Riz Ahmed as social-media honcho Aaron Kalloor in that same year’s Jason Bourne. Or Harrison Gilbertson’s pallid, shy cybernetics visionary Eron Keen in Upgrade, also from that year. There’s Harry Melling as the ruthless, hoodied-up pharma bro Steven Merrick in 2020’s The Old Guard and Taika Waititi as preening game developer Antwan Hovachelik in last year’s Free Guy. These tech-bro villains have joined a 21st-century pantheon that already included the likes of Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor in Batman v. Superman, Samuel L. Jackson’s cell-phone mogul and ecoterrorist Richmond Valentine in Kingsman: The Secret Service, Oscar Isaac’s charismatic CEO Nathan Bateman in Ex Machina, and B.D. Wong’s bioengineer Dr. Henry Wu in Jurassic World. (To say nothing of all the tech bros on television, from Silicon Valley to Succession.)

Even when they’re not tech bros, they’re tech bros: Andrew Scott’s C in the James Bond movie Spectre, while technically a high-level government functionary (and secretly a Spectre agent), evangelizes a consolidation of all British intelligence under a high-tech surveillance program; he is clearly no ordinary bureaucrat. And then of course there’s Mark Rylance’s Steve Jobs–ian billionaire Peter Isherwell in the recent deadly comet satire Don’t Look Up. Isherwell is not exactly young, and his odd, Rylance-ian squeak of a voice maybe doesn’t quite match the typically blustery techno-prophet of our imaginations. But over the course of the film, it becomes abundantly clear that he’s just another patronizing visionary who knows what’s best for you and the world and whose short-sighted self-regard winds up dooming all of humanity. (Meanwhile, it perhaps shouldn’t surprise us that there really haven’t been many female tech-bro villains on film. Women in movies are rarely allowed to have the slack-casual grandiosity of the tech bro. We’ll see if that changes after the Theranos pictures come out. ) “In a world where technology and power is concentrated in a handful of tech corporations, where private companies are racing to fire rockets into space, self-driving cars kill people, and many believe Mark Zuckerberg wants to run for President, it seems right to mythologise this moment,” Angus Harrison wrote in The Guardian way back in 2018, when tech-bro baddies were already becoming something of a cliché. “After all, what’s scarier? The rise of the machines, or the rise of the morally ambiguous men who pioneer them.”

Movies about the perils of technology are certainly nothing new. Cinema was making those even before Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927. But over the years, as tech companies became increasingly identified with the people who led them, our imaginations were captured in ways both good and bad by these celebrity robber barons of the 21st century. The tech bro on film is an extension and consolidation of older cliches. He has elements of both the ruthless dictator and the mad scientist (and occasionally, as in Venom, the crazy monster from outer space). Often, he’s a deluded utopian convinced the science he’s commandeered will save humanity from itself — again, not a new notion for a movie villain. (Several Bond films had someone like this.) But unlike the dumpy, middle-aged baddies of yore, our modern-day villain is (usually) younger, slimmer, better-looking, and sometimes even downright pleasant. Often he wants to be your friend. His imperiousness hides behind his modest demeanor as expressed through his phony affability or his casual clothing.

So why do movies and shows keep going back to this well? The tech bro is safer, certainly, for a Hollywood understandably wary of offending international audiences (or even worse, domestic audiences) or unintentionally wading into hot-button political debates. The tech bro is fair game because everybody despises him. The right hates him because he’s a cosmopolitan know-it-all, the left hates him because he’s a rich businessman know-it-all. The olds hate him. The youngs hate him. I assume even tech bros hate him because he reminds them of all the other assholes with whom they’re competing. He’s not othered in any way. If anything, he’s uncomfortably familiar. You probably know at least five people in your life who act like the archetypal tech bro even if they don’t necessarily possess his money, intelligence, or oily charm. By contrast, how many people do you know in your life who look and act like Auric Goldfinger? Or Darth Vader? Or Thanos?

Remember, not too long ago, when our culture was valorizing the young, bright-eyed visionaries of the start-up world as the people who were going to make our lives better (while also making lots of money — a win-win for neo-capitalist self-aggrandizement). Once upon a time, people cried — cried — when Steve Jobs introduced computers in different colors. In some ways, the tech-bro baddies of the past few years have been built on the ambivalent cinematic portrayals of real-life figures in The Social Network (2010) and Steve Jobs (2015), movies that captured a moment when our admiration for these individuals began to curdle into a fear that, while they perhaps knew a lot of things about computers, they didn’t really know (or care) all that much about people.

So maybe the reason we can’t quite quit the tech-bro villain is because he reminds us of one of the great betrayals of our time: how the great, supposedly democratizing force of technology recreated the world in its own image, upending society and turning us all into shrieking, resentful, paranoid, extremely online jackasses. The tech-bro villain gets at a dull, persistent itch in our psyches that we can’t scratch away. Maybe because in so many ways, he is us. Or, rather, a side of us. Because however much we may disregard the so-called tech visionaries in the news, we’re currently stuck in the world they created whether we’re posting on social media or ordering rideshare services or just reading anything on the internet. (And if you’ve somehow avoided all that, then congratulations — you never read this article.) “You know what the difference is between you and me?” asks the new Agent Smith in The Matrix Resurrections. “Anyone could have been you, but I’ve always been anyone.”

Yes, the characters from these movies often meet nasty ends: Venom’s Drake bonds with the alien symbiote Riot and explodes. Don’t Look Up’s Isherwell will presumably get consumed by a bronteroc 22,000 years in the future. The Old Guard’s Merrick is launched from a great height. Agent Smith, however, doesn’t. He actually gets to live on in the Matrix, seemingly more powerful than before. There’s probably a whole lot of Matrix lore bound up in his fate, but there’s a simplicity and resonance to it too. Because when we step out into the light of day, we’re still living in a world designed and ruled by these people. Our movie victories are illusory. The bad guys won a long time ago.

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