David Johnson explores a creeping relabelling of the mob in some of Holywood’s latest offerings.
One, Two, Many, Mob. Everything you need to know about the Hollywood blockbuster can be summed up in these four simple words. One is the hero, a lone rebel fighting against an unjust system. Two are the buddies, a mismatched but balanced yin and yang. The Many is the team, able to overcome all odds but only when united behind their charismatic leader. Mobs are the bad guys, the endless waves of nameless thugs, cannon fodder for the One, the Two and the Many.
The robes the Mob is draped in says much about contemporary US fears, from brownshirted fascists and white-armoured Stormtroopers to the mix-and-match thawbs and kufiyas of the cookie-cutter terrorist. But look closely and you will notice that the uniformed foot soldiers and ragged Jihadists are giving way to something more insidious, something far more terrifying to the Californian moguls and their plutocrat friends.
Gone are the Technicolor days when “our” glorious square-jawed boys stood toe-to-toe with the forces of “their” decadent and oppressive regime, these ideological clashes now replaced by carnage-filled 3D scenes of billionaire playboys facing down endless hordes of wretched refuse. These shadowy miscreants of the 21st Century are no enemy from a distant teeming shore, they are in every city in your country, watching with envious eyes and waiting for a chance to strike out and tear down everything that you have worked for. They are Emma Lazarus’ tired poor and huddled masses yearning to be free. They are Jack London’s ‘People of the Abyss’. They are Occupy’s 99% and Romney’s 47%. They are the faceless and nameless rabble, they are the mob and the city is their home.
Ignore, for a moment, the techno-fetish porn of military recruitment Trojan horses like Transformers or Battleship, and shine a light on this summer’s greatest hits. In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman is the One, the lone voice in the wilderness vilified by the ungrateful city for whom he is the sole protector. With Catwoman they are the Two, his noblesse oblige spurring him on to reform her light-fingered Eliza Doolittle. With his butler Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, Morgan Freeman and the kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun they are The Many, the team of would-be heroes ineffectual without their mighty cowled leader to drive them on. While the masked Bane might serve as the film’s poster-boy villain, the true protagonist is Gotham itself and the faceless filthy Mob who call it home. Gotham’s degenerate denizens are the reason Bane plots the city’s destruction, to cleanse it of their corruption and vice and when given the chance they rise up not against Bane and his criminal cohorts, but in tacit service to him, storming the institutions of the elite and dispensing summary justice through warped and perverted People’s Courts. It is only when the forces of the State (the police) and the Church (the priest who ushers a busload of orphans to safety) unite behind the One and his Many is the Mob vanquished, put back in its place under the thumb of the civil hierarchy that Batman simultaneously leads and yet manages to remain outside of.
The Avengers indulges us with three Ones, a living flag, a billionaire playboy and a leather-clad human Patriot Act in an eye-patch, a Holy Trinity of US Republicanism, three perfect neo-liberal beings in one divine military-industrial complex. The film’s central conflict is as much their internal struggle to unite their deeply dysfunctional Many behind a single One as it is with the faceless CGI horde they take time out at the end to overcome. Here the Mob is less the internal Other, but the external, an invasion of unwanted immigrants coming from an unknown elsewhere for reasons never made entirely clear, but most likely because they hate Freedom. Perhaps Captain America should simply have built a giant wall.
In a way it is this ubiquitous CGI that has enabled the demonisation of the horde. In the days before digital trickery when the bad guys had to be played by real live people, mobs were expensive, so mano-a-mano fisticuffs and low-level gunfights were the order of the day. But with The Matrix trilogy battling the infinite agents of insidious government bureaucracy and George Lucas’ tireless three-film struggle against the animated enemies of the free market in the Star Wars prequels, the pixelated gloves were off and Hollywood was free to let the Mobs run riot. The Lord of the Rings came to our screens with the warning, “Contains scenes of epic battle”, and we cheered as a small band of heroes held fast against the unrelenting Orc armies at Helm’s Deep. From the Matrix to Middle-Earth the theme was the same, the bigger the numbers, the more evil the crowd.
Even before CGI we were still trained to fear the mob. The drooling glistening teeth and eyeless onyx dome of Ridley Scott’s titular Alien was made all the more horrifying in James Cameron’s sequel by simple multiplication. While one Alien was bad, a nest of Aliens was more than the stuff of nightmare. Scott learned from this, transporting Cameron’s vision to the slums of Mogadishu in Black Hawk Down, where the poor and wretched of this war-torn city exist for Scott only to swarm insect-like in their multitudes. They race through the streets and over the rooftops to devour the brave but doomed heroes of the military Many. Poor or Alien, they all look the same when viewed from above like moving dots on a Google Earth map, sanitised and objectified as they are mown down in their scores.
In the Global South extras are cheap, as cheap as the lives they represent on screen. Filmed in Cape Town, the third of this summer’s peans to paternalism, Dredd, filled that screen with another teeming lawless underclass, abandoning their own cowled saviour to the criminals he tries to protect them from. Once again The City is the enemy, both creation and creator of the degenerate Mob who call it home. Once again the champion of law and order exists both as paragon of the ruling hierarchy and as the lone outsider, once again the massed poor serve both as his ward and as his nemesis.
The message here is clear, that there is no such thing as society, only individuals. Groups must only exist as rigid hierarchies, never as self-organised collectives. The rich are here to protect us from ourselves, and the poor are a mindless hydra whose grasping tentacles of decadence and corruption contaminate and pollute all that they come in contact with.
This is what the blockbuster does. It leaves behind doubt. It leaves behind fear. It leaves behind a sense of estrangement from our fellow citizens who have been transformed into The Other, the alien, the stranger, the enemy. Community and our global commonality become the dark things hiding in the shadows, seeking to swallow us whole, gorging themselves upon our individuality, our liberty, our soul. Survival means isolation or embracing the hierarchy. “Know your place,” it whispers, “and we will keep you safe”.
This summer The Avengers made over $1.5bn in ticket sales worldwide, The Dark Knight Rises made over $1bn. Twenty-five years ago when Thatcher proclaimed the death of society, she was roundly castigated for doing so. Today when Hollywood repeats this message, we give them $2.5bn as a thank-you.
Perhaps Thatcher should have sold us all 3D glasses first.