Stories with strong anti-capitalist messages are often ground into the very capitalist sausage they once attacked.
Would Star Wars have become the biggest movie ever back in 1977 if George Lucas had described it as an allegory to the Vietnam War, with the United States as the evil Empire?
It’s doubtful that it would have succeeded on those terms. But that’s exactly how it was intended, as Lucas revealed much later in a 2018 interview.
Such a revelation could only have come from an author free from the constraints of the studio system, and at a time when his body of work already occupied legendary status. Still, we’d be hard-pressed to see it as just a late attempt to stir controversy, as the similarities are now just too many to ignore.
George Lucas has gone so far as to use his own money to build housing for the poor in spite of his wealthy neighbors who wanted the less privileged to live no nearer than a galaxy far, far away from their luxury houses. When Lucas made Star Wars, he wasn’t going for a formula he knew would appeal to billions—he was telling and living a risky tale of good vs. evil, even if he didn’t originally communicate his intent in a straightforward way.
Lucas had successfully used movies, one of the greatest propaganda tools ever conceived, to deride the clear evils of American imperialism—and Americans loved it, more than they loved any pro-American propaganda before or since.
Sadly, history doesn’t see many of these tales.
The fault in our Star Wars
Lucas went on to sell Lucasfilm and all Star Wars properties to Disney in 2014, a deal that resulted in Disney mass-producing as many new Star Wars projects as they could. The new films have made a lot of money—but can anyone say which war is being fought in the new Star Wars? Is Disney still intentionally repeating the Vietnam War allegory, or is the megacorp accidentally establishing an even more direct parallel to Vietnam by making these new movies explicitly pointless? They have nothing to say, nothing to show but the exciting spectacle of the very same battles we all have seen so many times before.
Is the never-ending repetition of everything that was once fresh as bad as it will ever get…or are corporations paving the way for something worse?
An attack on one is an attack on all intellectual properties
DC Comics and Marvel have been doing the same thing for ages: reuse the characters created by now long-dead artists until the end of profitability, or the end of time itself, whatever comes first. Unlike Star Wars, most of these characters never held any secret message that could help society, and most of the current Marvel movies can be seen as simple insubstantial fun.
But a significant voice disagrees.
Comic books have always occupied a dubious role as the fast food of literature. The original comic book writers would probably have felt highly validated as artists if readers didn’t turn their works into paper planes as soon as they were done reading them. Yes, comic books existed to provide quick and disposable fun. But Alan Moore, the writer of the comic book/anti-comic book magnum opus Watchmen, believes things have taken a turn for the worse. Moore warns that the continued infatuation of adults with superheroes could lead to fascism. It’s a warning he shouldn’t have had to issue, considering that’s already the message Watchmen tried to get across in 1986.
Many learned from Watchmen that unlimited power bound to zero accountability leads not to heroism but catastrophic hedonism. But Moore notes that many others still express to him their admiration for Rorschach, a character who is the 80s version of a QAnon Capitol rioter.
Moore recently told The Guardian that he’s done with making comics:
I thought that it had serious and worrying implications for the future if millions of adults were queueing up to see Batman movies,” he said. “Because that kind of infantilization—that urge towards simpler times, simpler realities—that can very often be a precursor to fascism.” He points out that when Trump was elected in 2016, and “when we ourselves took a bit of a strange detour in our politics”, many of the biggest films were superhero movies.
Did the perceived inconsequential nature of comics mute the deeper messages for a disappointingly high number of readers? Comics fans want heroes to do whatever they want, unrestrained by the laws of men or even those of physics. Having their goofy superhero name on the cover of their own comic earns the titular hero a blank check to pay the price for all the atrocities they might commit because everything and everyone around them was only created as set dressing for the hero’s story anyway. Watchmen tells a tale that gradually reveals heroes as actual monsters, but they still look just like your average superheroes, and they are sold in a regular superhero comic package, so they can’t be that bad, right?
And the heroes of Watchmen have since grown into something even worse
Watchmen proved an immense hit from day one. But unlike Star Wars, which stayed in the hands of Lucas for over 40 years, it was quickly taken off the hands of Moore.
DC’s contract with Moore allowed the company to take over the property, kick Moore out, and spawn various meaningless series of comics, a movie, and a tv series that merely cannibalizes the aesthetics of the original world without understanding the author’s original intent.
Can anyone imagine a worse fate for an intended one-off cautionary tale? We can indeed. Some more recent comic book movies try to spread a message just like George Lucas and Moore did, albeit a poisonous and dangerous one this time around.
Some comic book movies feature grey characters with noble goals, but then have them committing senseless and unspeakable atrocities that necessarily cement them as villains. Why does Eric Killmonger from Black Panther, a man who wants to liberate Black people by pushing back against the remaining tyrannic systems left by colonialist rulers, murder his loving girlfriend in cold blood? Why does The Riddler from The Batman spend the entire movie correctly criticizing the corruption that took over Gotham city—only for his endgame to revolve around murdering hundreds of innocents in a mass shooting?
Could it be that big corporations want to secretly taint the image of any character who attempts to move against the status quo?
Capitalism’s neat trick is hurting video games
Gone are the times when corporations had to hire hitmen. A corporation can just take over the intellectual property of its opposers and keep on echoing their left-leaning values while also gradually making them look terrible. Hijacking is more legal than murder and certainly less expensive – because it’s actually very profitable most of the time.
William Gibson, one of the big names of the Cyberpunk genre, accused Cyberpunk 2077, 2020’s big video game event, of doing away with actual Cyberpunk themes and replacing them with neat aesthetics and cool cyber implants. Because cyberpunk is a subgenre of punk, an author cannot bring it to life while ignoring its serious anti-corporate roots. Rather ironic for a game that features “Corpo”, or “corporate employee”, as one of its playable character types. Cyberpunk 2077 seems devoid of meaning. Sometimes, these new grand pieces of art have absolutely nothing inside or behind them. But sometimes, they hide something genuinely awful.
2019 saw the release of Disco Elysium, a game from newcomer studio ZA/UM that helped make the global pandemic much more bearable and ended up racking in a bunch of high-profile awards. In 2022, Amazon announced that they’d be producing a Disco Elysium tv series, and that made many fans of this still somewhat contained phenomenon throw their hands up in the air in disgust because this is the worst thing that could’ve happened.
Unlike Star Wars, which had a secret message, and Watchmen, whose message might have ended up subdued by its chosen media format, Disco Elysium managed to openly pass along an undiluted and uncorrupted anti-capitalist message. But that message was quickly co-opted by capitalism as well.
What made Disco Elysium special wasn’t a mere brush with left-leaning ideas in its text for flavor, but the need for political reflection and engagement throughout the entire game. Disco Elysium has players dealing with labor unions, and one of the most important events players encounter is a strike. The strike is being protested by a group of scabs, workers who claim to lack the conditions to negotiate better terms because they require payment right away and want other workers to follow suit.
Spoiler alert: We later learn that these were workers, yes, but workers of a shady megacorp sent to try and crush the union. What interest would union-hating megacorp Amazon have in Disco Elysium, a game whose creators couldn’t make their anti-Amazon stance any clearer?
The ZA/UM Amazon collaboration isn’t even just a tone-deaf venture, but rather part of a bigger picture. In September 2022, an unofficial statement revealed that Robert Kurvitz, the designer and creator of the entire Disco Elysium setting, Helen Hindpere, the main writer, and main artist Alexsander Rostov had “involuntarily” left the company, while another ex-employee claims management had them fired under false pretenses.
What to expect from “Disco Elysium 2”?
The author’s original intent is important. To have that, we need an author, not a shady committee occupying their place as they wear their face. While attributing the success of a piece of art resulting from teamwork solely to the project lead would be a gross and definitely un-leftist mistake, this isn’t that. Is the Disco Elysium sequel being made by loyal pupils of the key personnel who got kicked out, or by people who will just follow orders because the entire operation has been hijacked by the economic interests of the studio’s business execs?
Once we see the pattern, we’ll begin to notice it grows far past the reach of pop culture. Though millennia apart, the tale of Disco Elysium seems to mirror that of a very popular religious institution that has very happily been using the face of Christ even though it espouses none of the man’s famous drive toward eradicating socioeconomic inequality.
How many people are aware that a lot of what we are being fed has been hijacked and now serves a completely different purpose than originally intended?
This spells danger because we live in the age of brand names. As soon as a company owns a popular intellectual property, it can use it for great success, even if it has nothing in common with what made it popular in the first place – including the people who created it—and few will care.
Are we doomed to witness the ever-swifter hijacking of the rare few intellectual properties that have anything meaningful to say as we march toward the endgame of capitalism? It’s important that we ignore all of the seductive noise and stay vigilant.
Anyway, has anyone seen that new Lord Of The Rings series by Amazon? It looks great!