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.