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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Big Hero 6: The Myth of the Corporate Supervillain

Warning: Minor spoilers for Big Hero 6 lay ahead.

I was pretty excited when Big Hero 6 won this year's Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Not only did it totally deserve it, but it did it while marking a significant milestone in comic book movie history: It is the first adapted superhero property to win an Oscar, the second, after Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight in 2008, to win any Oscar for anything superhero-related. And it really did deserve it. It has a compelling story, a world which was interesting to watch and beautiful to look at, a charming cast of characters to relate to, and some great emotion and deep themes. It even managed to deliver a pretty unique take on several common superhero tropes. It's the last of these that I want to talk about today, specifically concerning the character of Alistair Krei, voiced by Alan Tudyk of Firefly and Serenity fame.

In Big Hero 6, Krei is a businessman who runs the technology company Krei Tech. Krei first appears as an interested party who wants to buy the new robotics technology invented by Hiro Hamada, the film's protagonist. Hiro declines the offer on the advice of his brother Tadashi's mentor, Professor Callaghan, the scene setting up Krei as the film's obvious bad guy. But surprisingly, it turns out to be a red hearing which the  characters as well as the audience buy into. It's also a neat subversion of a trope which has been played out many times before: the Corrupt Corporate Executive.

The Corrupt Corporate Executive is often used in works of fiction as a stock character who is typically bald, fat, smoking a big cigar, or some combination thereof. Quite plainly enough, this character is a corporate executive who engages in villainous activities, which may or may not be related to their profession. Examples readily abound all across fiction, including Lex Luthor of DC Comics, Hiroshi Saito and Varrick from The Legend of Korra, Norman Osborn, Justin Hammer, Bolivar Trask, and whoever is running Roxxon at any given time over at Marvel, and even Jon Spiro from Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl.

Typically, corrupt corporate executives in fiction are greedy, obnoxious, dishonest, and evil. They will go to any lengths to make an extra buck, up to an including everything from cooking the books to mass murder. Some even commit the unpardonable sin of *gasp* making and selling weapons. Obviously, they are usually motivated by monetary gain, and they are typically psychopaths who routinely abuse their employees and customers, and use their vast financial resources to cover up their dirty deeds.

But I have a news flash for writers who like to write corporate bad guys this way: This is not what real corrupt corporate executives, I believe, are even remotely like.

My first objection is a matter of logic: How on earth would someone who does half the things that, say, Lex Luthor does have any hope of succeeding in business? Business is a very teamwork driven industry, and being greedy, obnoxious, dishonest, and evil is not a good way to get people to want to work for you, or for that matter, buy stuff from you. I mean, would you honestly want to do business with Justin Hammer or Jon Spiro, the latter of whom has blatant mob connections and the FBI and CIA breathing down his neck, but still somehow remains a successful businessman? I certainly wouldn't. The notion that people like them stay in business by spreading a bunch of money around is plainly laughable, as it could obviously cost more to bribe their way out of trouble than it would by simply playing by the rules. The International Chamber of Commerce, in a plain statement of the obvious, has said of corruption as related to public relations, "Enterprises seen to be doing business with integrity are more likely to attract and retain highly-principled and motivated employees as well as ethically-oriented investors. In contrast, companies confronted with corruption cases have faced reputational damage."

Secondly, even the corporate executives who are corrupt in the real world aren't out poisoning the reservoir, or knowingly selling dangerous products to the unwitting public, or hiring spandex-clad thugs to intimate business rivals, all of which are crappy business models. The ones that do do things like that get shut down fast or are fined into oblivion, and often for even smaller slights than that. Oddly enough, I can't remember the last time Pfizer poured cyanide into the reservoir for some reason. No, corporations that engage in illegal activity are a bit more mundane in their lawbreaking. The International Chamber of Commerce defines corruption as "the abuse of entrusted power for private financial or non-financial gain. It diverts resources from their proper use, distorts competition and creates gross inefficiencies in both the public and private sectors." It is furthered categorized as bribery, solicitation of bribery, or extortion.

What does this mean? It means that a real life corrupt CEO isn't plunking down bags of cash to hire supervillains to scare his business rival into a buy out, or being overtly hostile during a hostile takeover, or stealing an inventor's property for sinister purposes, as the heroes in Big Hero 6 suspect Krei of doing. At least, not in America. Don't ask me what it's like in China or Venezuela or Brazil, because that's a whole different pie. No, your average corrupt corporate executive is engaging in a little "creative accounting," moving the numbers around to disguise the company's profits. Maybe he's helping the mob launder money if he's a bit more adventurous. If she's a little lower in the hierarchy, it could be embezzling. Bribing a government inspector? It happens. It all boils down to the simple fact that if you're an exec, and you do something illegal, it's not probably not going to made into an movie, and you're going to be unceremoniously carted off to a minimum security prison really, really fast. Which brings us to the next hurdle of being a corrupt corporate executive: anti-corruption programs. 

Most major, profitable companies have some kind of anti-corruption program. Whether these programs are effective or not is debated, but it's a good sign that they exist at all. Even if they aren't particularly good at detecting corruption, when the company begins to go down the tubes thanks to corrupt executives, these guys are usually there to blow the whistle. In short, if anti-corruption programs don't take down a bad exec, the company will implode on its own, kind of like what happened with Enron. The point is, bad behavior among corporate big wigs usually comes back to bite the perpetrators in the end, and as a result is plainly more trouble than it's worth. 

Which brings us back to Krei.

Krei isn't given a whole lot of analysis in the film, largely existing as the aforementioned red hearing. He's affable, ambitious, mildly smug, a little feckless and implicitly intelligent. I mean, he built up his own tech company and was involved in a teleportation project with the military, so he has to be a clever guy. But he's not the film's villain. He doesn't actually do anything illegal, or even wrong. We only know what his "bad" qualities are based on what the film's real villain says about him, and this villain isn't exactly an impartial judge of character. The closest he gets to being bad is a tragic accident in which he was only vestigially responsible for, if only because the film's real villain blames him for it. The point is that he's not a corrupt corporate executive. He's not even such a bad guy! In fact, the only reason that Hiro and his friends think Krei's a bad guy at all is because Fred, their resident comic book geek, points out the villains of a lot of comic books are actually corrupt industrialists. It's a clever and funny way of subverting a by now very tired superhero cliche.

In the end, Big Hero 6 is a fine entry into the Disney animated cannon, being a fun, rollicking, emotionally deep film that sucks you in and keeps you glued to the screen the whole way through. It's beautiful to look at, engaging to watch, and provides fun for the whole family. I wholly recommend it as entertaining, innovative, and uplifting. I'd love to see where they go with a sequel.

Fun fact: This isn't the only animated Disney flick that Alan Tudyk has lent his voice to. He also voiced the slightly more villainous Duke of Weselton in Frozen. Oddly enough, he also voiced Superman in Justice League: War.

Follow Levi on Twitter at @levi_sweeney, and submit questions and post ideas with the hashtag #QLevi

Image 1 courtesy of blogs.disney.com. Image 2 courtesy of disney.co.uk.