Say what you will about 2016, but undeniably, it is a season of villains and heroes. The national landscape is already populated with unprecedented violence: innocents killed en masse or in singularly catastrophic fashion. Independent of these unsparingly awful events, politicians now conjure evils so pervasive (in government, on borders, overseas) they verge on the unspeakable; candidates boast of bravery (usually their own) so daring it knows no measure. Depending on whether it’s the left or right side of the aisle, the hero may have a blonde, cotton candy-like halo, or a crown of snow white—but either way, he is singular and unlikely, striking out on his own against the menacing dark of Wall Street or Muslim America. For both grassroots conservatives and activist progressives, the institutional failure is profound and the insiders are hacks, losers, criminals, or all of the above.
These epic battles have been unfolding on the small screen (the TV) or the even smaller screen (the Twitter) for the better part of the last few years. If we were not already at #PeakApocalypse, this summer, as Democrats convene in Philadelphia and Republicans converge on Cleveland, you can find similarly Manichean endtimes on a third screen, the silver one: the movie theater.
Much of the analysis of 2016—how the hell we got here—has looked to economic and social factors to explain the rise of the insurgent candidates: the decline of blue-collar industries, the disappearing moderate- and middle-classes, mushrooming partisan echo chambers, historically extreme gerrymandering and rapid social progress. Increasing polarization as a result of all these changes has surely led to extremism in the American political system. But rarely (if ever) do these analyses consider the role of soft culture—in this case, entertainment—in shaping the narrative, as well as the proposed solution, in American politics.
This spring’s Batman vs Superman featured alien threats, congressional hearings about civilian deaths, and widespread institutional failure, which could only be tackled by one, singular man living on the outskirts of polite society. Last month’s Captain America: Civil War, meanwhile, offered viewers biological warfare, suicide bombers, and dangerous government interference, with only a band of renegades to save society. This summer’s X-Men: Apocalypse, presents (surprise!) nuclear apocalypse and the outcasts attempting to prevent it, while Independence Day: Resurgence sees an international defense system foiled by a powerful alien threat, which (of course) can only be combatted by a handful of brave men and women. The summer blockbuster has gone from something to be enjoyed with popcorn and a Coke to something that may possibly shatter your existential reality.
Needless to say, all these blockbusters made for consumption here and abroad have a common theme: the world is ending and (almost) no one can save us, except for an unlikely anti-hero.
Hollywood put these apocalypse-spectaculars in the pipeline back when Donald Trump was still a reality-TV star driven by a preternatural obsession with birth certificates, and Bernie Sanders was an irascible two-term socialist from Vermont with barely a long-shot chance of becoming a household name. There was no way the Tinseltown execs could have known that each man would reach superstardom on the crest of a populo-pocalypse narrative that wouldn’t have been out of place on the Warner Brothers lot.
So this isn’t to suggest that Sanders and Trump are by-products of Hollywood (Harvey Weinstein could only wish). But American cinema, one of the most valuable American exports, continues to shape the way Americans think about themselves and the world, and extreme apocalypse mass culture may very well have whetted an appetite for extreme apocalypse politics.
There’s little doubt that Hollywood reflects the times: In the wake of JFK’s assassination and Watergate, came the gritty, realist films of the 1970s, like Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico. The go-go materialism of the Reagan ‘80s brought Working Girl and Back to the Future.
But to some degree, the inverse may also be true: Hollywood can reflect the times, but it can also help shape the times—especially these days, when one of the last bastions of non-partisanship is the darkened movie theater. Here, nestled among the Twizzlers, audiences, both suburban and urban, Democrats and Republicans, wealthy and working class, may be particularly vulnerable to a penetrating message.
Jeremy Castle, co-author of a recent study from the Notre Dame Department of Political Science, found that “movies with a strong, explicit political message—or even a subtle political storyline—had the ability to influence viewers’ political opinions on [specific] issues.”
Mostly, Castle explained, “the potential for popular films to affect political attitudes is strongest when there’s that very clear connection between the theme of a movie and a certain policy perspective”—like, for example, shining a positive light on abortion access, as in the Cider House Rules.
“When you get more distant,” Castle said, “it’s less likely that the average viewer is going to make the connection.”
In other words, it’s not Hollywood that has directed anyone towards broad distrust of Muslims or general antipathy to Wall Street. But it may have helped normalize the model of the contemporary vigilante, a man (or woman) operating outside of the system.
Castle believes that movies can sanction certain political rhetoric, citing Sanders as an example. “If a politician had said, ‘We want a revolution!’ in the last great liberal era of the 1960s?” says Castle. “It is appalling that Sanders can openly can call for revolution [today]. And to say the Hunger Games hasn’t had any effect on that?”
The NPR and New York film critic David Edelstein says that ever since the Nixon era, Hollywood has traded in vigilantism, what he characterizes as “generally a white man, who is rendered impotent. And either the government is corrupt or incapable of helping him, so he has to take law into his own hands. And what that [signals] is lack of faith in justice or in the system.”
But Hollywood’s post-millennial obsession with big-budget films has raised the stakes. Nowadays, according to Edelstein, “the audience’s bloodlust has been raised to the point where you can’t let a killer go unpunished, or audiences would tar and feather the projectionist—if there are even any projectionists left.”
He adds, “You don’t just want the bad guy to get it, you want the bad guy to get it so he hurts. And all this stuff is perpetually mouthed by Donald Trump. He’s not really so outlandish, if you look at pop culture.”
Simon Kinberg, the writer and producer of several massive Hollywood blockbusters, including the X-Men franchise, Deadpool, and The Martian, zeroed in on the example of Deadpool—the most successful R-rated movie in history —about a non-conformist who initially resists his calling, and later becomes a superhero, but only in what Kinberg describes as “the most radical outsider version” of the role.
“In addition to being so far outside the system and spectrum in way that Sanders and Trump are—they feel so different from Clinton or Bush, who are more like Superman and Batman characters—Deadpool said the stuff that no one else in this genre was saying before,” says Kinberg.
He posits that the modern antihero is “different, but not wildly unfamiliar, much like Trump and Sanders—who are still standing on stage in suits, but what they’re saying is different enough to feel outside the mainstream.”
Both Trump and Sanders, in their way, are countercultural icons who—like America’s new superheroes—happen to be taking on the most powerful wings of their party, whether the RNC and the Bush family, or the DNC and the Clintons.
If viewers are reluctant to see Katniss Everdeen in Bernie Sanders or Deadpool in Trump, there are other, perhaps more pernicious, ways in which Hollywood has influenced these times—and campaigns—in particular.
As the hero template becomes at once more radical and less mainstream, Americans face a reality that is more desperate and dangerous than ever before. Hollywood has made commonplace the notion of vicious institutional failure. Pre-millennial big-budget films revealed plots in which there was one dirty cop in the precinct; today’s blockbusters paint a world in which Congress, the CIA, or the United Nations are rife with corrupted evildoers intent on global destruction.
Even in movies where the hero is himself a government agent, institutional perversion is the norm.
“Something happened just after 9/11 when the Bourne Identity movie emerged, and it was a very cynical portrayal of the CIA and the government,” says Kinberg.
“I think that informed the James Bond movies, which were always the most timeless and disconnected, in a way,” Kinberg explains. “And [the Bond movies] became more cynical and paranoid. Particularly in the last few films, Bond has had to go against his organization. Whether that’s conscious or not, that’s a reflection of something happening in our culture. And that’s perhaps the thing that got Obama elected and got Trump and Sanders to where they are now.”
It’s perhaps one reason why Hillary Clinton has had such a hard time “connecting” this year: she’s a hero built for (and from) the ‘90s—or maybe even the ‘80s. With her wonky and controlled speechifying, her predilection for reason over emotion, and a history of triangulation over battle, Clinton doesn’t offer American viewers and voters the dynamism and extremism that today’s narrative-crafting demands.
Conversely, candidate Obama was held aloft as much on soaring promise and raw, intangible emotion than he was for anything specific. (The power of those twin feelings made things difficult once he was actually elected.) Clinton, meanwhile, is not someone you’d necessarily like to hear in Dolby Digital Surround Sound.
Culture’s role in normalizing rhetoric and attitudes is clear in recent history—Ellen DeGeneres and Will & Grace are frequently cited for their role in helping gay marriage gaining widespread national acceptance. This isn’t to say entertainment is causal (no one is suggesting that Will & Grace actually gave rise to gay marriage, as Tipper Gore might have it), but that its power to normalize, to convince, to sanction is fairly unique. Hollywood didn’t make these times, but its characters and plot lines reflect them as much as they conjure the hope and despair, excitement and longing, necessary to navigate them.
The big question for party elders and government servants is whether it’s even possible to temper the hysteria and relax the vigilante heroes and return to, well, a time when institutions worked, and when the narrative was less sensational—both in politics and entertainment.
“Under J. Edgar Hoover, Hollywood perpetuated this myth of institutional competence, with the square-jawed FBI guys: this myth of the organization being stronger than the individual,” says Edelstein. “I don’t know if that was ever real. It’s always been one form of propaganda: Evil must be punished and there has to be faith in the social order. That was mandated. Was that even ever right to begin with? I don’t know whether we’re closer to the truth now.”