What Eco-Villains Say About Our Fears

It’s the end of the world as we know it, but we don’t feel so fine. 
By  · Published on October 12th, 2018

Bad guys, as the name suggests, do bad stuff. But in order for them to do that bad stuff and serve their narrative function of forcing the hero(es) into action, they have to to have reasons.

That’s right, I’m talking about villain motives. Again. 

Because, you see, since the last time I wrote about the topic a new trend has started to emerge. From Thanos to Carlton Drake to, according to interviews, upcoming Aquaman antagonist King Orm, eco-villains are the new black. “The planet is overcrowded and dying” appears to be taking over from “I want to rule the world” as the go-to incentive for evil.

So what does this new trend mean? Does it even mean anything besides being yet another example of Hollywood’s bad habit of repeating itself ad nauseam? For simplicity’s sake, let’s start at the beginning and address why so many villains are starting to sound like Greenpeace activists who lost the plot.

Generally speaking, villains are supposed to be at least a little scary. An easy way to help reach this goal is to connect villains to things that people are already afraid of: clowns (IT, the Joker), racism (Get Out), marriage (Gone Girl). Sometimes these connections can be slightly more subtle. For example, a strong case can be made that the divergence between Frankenstein’s stiff and inarticulate monster as made famous by James Whale’s Frankenstein and the eloquent and agile creature described in Mary Shelley’s original novel can be connected to fears related to polio, which only started to terrorize the United States at epidemic levels in the early 20th century.

Climate change is scary on a lot of levels. First of all, the very specific and delicately balanced qualities of Earth’s climate are what enabled our fragile human constitutions to evolve and thrive on this giant spinning rock hurtling through the inhospitable void of space, and we’re throwing that balance out of whack. Secondly, as it affects the entire planet, there’s no escape, even though Elon Musk is trying. Thirdly, as the rather terrifying climate change report recently released by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced, not only do we have just 12 years or so to turn the situation around before entering into irreversible worst-case scenario territory, but also a small club of billionaires are really the only ones with the power to make these changes. It’s kind of like that standard action movie scene where the hero has to disarm a time bomb as the clock ticks down, only you’re not Ethan Hunt, you’re a random pleb who has neither the knowledge nor the tools required to save the day. Long story short, when you look at it, the recent rise of eco-villains makes a whole lot of sense.

But there’s a somewhat bizarre caveat: even when the eco-villain belongs to the billionaire class primarily responsible for killing the world IRL, their evildoing tends to be depicted as their response to catastrophic climate change—either efforts to save humanity (and the planet) from itself, such as Thanos’s randomized genocide, or actions taken towards the end goal of escaping a doomed Earth for greener pastures, such as Carlton Drake’s theory that human-Symbiote coexistence will be key to humanity’s post-Earth existence. And really, this is the component of this eco-villain trend that can be most genuinely be described as new. Climate-centric narratives have had spikes of popularity in the past, such as in the ’90s with films like The Saint and Chain Reaction, but these films revolve around heroic scientists finding the “solution” to global warming through discovering near-miraculous clean energy sources, whose altruistic plans are then complicated by evildoers.

In recent eco-villain narratives, the heroes don’t have solutions to the problems presented by climate change and overpopulation to counter those endorsed by their corresponding villains, leaving two possible implications: either that climate change isn’t actually a problem and these bad guys are raving about nothing, or there’s nothing actually feasible to be done about the situation. As the former option is not actually an option—and no, we’re not going to do the “is climate change real” debate because it’s not actually a debate at this point, it’s just a fact; if you really want to argue about the nature of truth go bother an epistemologist—it leaves only the later implication: that the only actions that could truly address climate change would be ethically and/or morally reprehensible, and therefore should not be done. It’s an eerily defeatist message, and perhaps the thing about this whole eco-villain trend that’s actually scariest.

Maybe we’re supposed to bank on Anne Hathaway finding a Planet B while Matthew McConaughey sends grown daughter Jessica Chastain the data needed to complete her humanity-saving equation via intergalactic bookshelf Morse code, brought to you by the power of Love™. Or perhaps since Mad Max: Fury Road is so cool we kind of want to experience it first-hand.

Because while the IPCC gave us 12 years to avoid utter catastrophe, today’s biggest movies are suggesting it’s already a done deal.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.