President Business is a bad guy. We know that because he is the chief executive of the Octan Corporation. He also has bad hair, control issues, and transforms into the evil tyrant Lord Business who – together with his robot army – plans world domination. Sound familiar? That’s because the idea of a corporate boss being an evil genius is a staple of popular culture, so no surprise to see it in The Lego Movie too.
The evil CEO is a standard piece of character furniture in film, comics and cartoons. This is now a genre-crossing cliché, whether Henry J Waternoose III in Monsters Inc; Norman Osborne, the CEO of Oscorp who becomes the Green Goblin in Spiderman; or Mr Potter the banker from It’s a Wonderful Life. Indeed, it’s rare to find fictional bosses who have any redeeming characteristics, most being selfish, lying, power crazed, and determined to smash all opposition to their evil plans. If a scriptwriter wants to establish that someone is a bad guy, put him in a suit and behind a desk. Then add a sneer. That usually does it.
The paradox is that The Lego Movie is funded by people in suits who sit behind desks. It’s made by Warner Brothers and The Lego Group, both big companies that sell their wares into global marketplaces. In order to make the movie, they spent about US$60m, much of that with a host of other smaller companies.
And that’s just the film, which is basically an extended advert that people will pay to go and watch. If you add to that the global merchandising of products such as “Lord Business’ Evil Lair” (£59.99) or the THE LEGO®MOVIE™ Stationery Set (£10.99) then it is difficult not to see this as big business lampooning big business in order to make big money.
So what is going on here? Why do the culture industries so often produce work which appears to be critical of capitalism? What’s more, why are so many of our heroes characters who oppose big business, such as Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, who ends up taking on the bewigged evil of the East India Company? Or Kermit the frog fighting the greedy oil baron Tex Richman in The Muppets film? In The Lego Movie, protagonist Emmet Brickowski’s struggle against Lord Business is just another example of the little people fighting power, even if power in this case is made from plastic bricks.
If we discount the “left-wing bias” theories beloved of the Fox News Channel, there’s only one convincing explanation. Big business tries to sell things that people will buy, and that includes ideas about character and plot. If Lego had tried to sell the idea that big business cares about the common people, or that managers are heroic, the audience would have not believed them.
Most people, most of the time, believe that corporations routinely lie, cheat, steal and bend whatever laws they can. Most people also believe that managers are two-faced and that business is populated by sociopaths with MBAs. Only in the pages of business school textbooks and Management Today do we see anything different.
In fact, the marketed animation of The Lego Movie is a rare example of corporations telling a sort of truth. It’s one of the few times that we might believe what business says about itself and about the Gordon Gekkos and Scrooges that run them. Our cynicism is understandable, with companies routinely telling us that they care as they squirt their marketing campaigns and social responsibility statements into our eyes. Hoping, perhaps, that we won’t notice how much they are paid, or how much tax they evade. So when we see an evil boss, we see an echo of truth, and that’s a rare commodity in the plastic world of President Business.