Lex Luthor, Jesse Eisenberg
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Credit: Warner Bros.

The tech bro billionaires of genre fiction

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Jun 25, 2019

When it came time for Zack Snyder and Warner Bros. to cast the latest iteration of Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, fans and critics had already placed their bets on the likely candidates. Bryan Cranston emerged as a front-runner, easily imaginable in Heisenberg mode taking on the mantle of comic book lore's most sinister billionaire. Instead, they cast Jesse Eisenberg.

Gone was the foreboding form of the Luthor of old, in his place a lanky, obnoxious creep in T-shirts whose modus operandi mostly seems to be that of annoying people to death. It shocked nobody that this new take on Lex was courtesy of the guy most famous for playing Mark Zuckerberg. Indeed, with this evolution, Lex Luthor had gone full tech bro.

The figure of the tech bro billionaire is a relatively recent addition to our cultural vocabulary, but it’s one we’re already all too familiar with. You know a tech bro when you see one: the casual attitude toward dress codes, the hyper-intelligence, super focused on career and technology, often to the detriment of human interactions. The old geek stereotype is one mostly directed at white men, wherein they are gawky and socially inept and doomed to have only the most excruciating conversations with women. However, the tech bro image evokes more of an air of arrogance. Sure, the discomfort is still there, but now there’s a level of societal encouragement. The geeks inherited the earth, and they now run it from Silicon Valley, so of course they get to brag about it.

In David Fincher’s startling and brutal biopic of the origins of Facebook, The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg is never the geek cliché who stumbles around his words or spends hours pushing his glasses up his nose. He’s confident in his intellect and isn’t afraid to railroad others with it, be they ex-girlfriends, former best friends, or business rivals. Zuckerberg is the smartest person in the room at any given time, a fact he is painfully proud of, and he’ll belittle anyone who doubts that. The real Zuckerberg refuted this depiction of himself, but while the film does get some noted facts wrong, it’s hard to feel all that sorry for one of the world’s richest men when the thing he invented has irrevocably changed the planet in so many bad ways.

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Credit: Warner Bros.

It is said that the pop culture villains of any given time are strong reflections of our current societal fears. Post-World War II American cinema is polluted with Nazis. The Cold War saw the sinister Soviet warlord become the blockbuster baddie of choice. After 9/11, the ill-defined “Arab villain” was the stock choice, and it doesn’t take a genius to see all the Donald Trump stand-ins in pop culture right now. Then there’s the billionaire businessman, forever a figure of suspicion and seemingly indomitable might who the beleaguered underdog must undermine and throw off a skyscraper. In an era where we’re all online and the promised freedom of the internet is at risk from media monopolies and government meddling, it’s no wonder our new villains are hoodie-wearing coders.

It didn’t take long for this to spill over into genre fiction. With our new Lex Luthor, he does not need to dominate the boardroom in an expensive suit or prove himself a mighty physical presence. It’s unclear exactly what Luthor’s business interests are — he seems to have a lot of fingers in a lot of very different pies — but the suggestion of him as an immovable force of business might is tough to overlook. He’s richer than you, more influential than you, and boy is he ever going to rub that in your face. In the world of Snyder’s DCEU, where Crossfit masculinity reigns supreme and emotions are kept between angry and solemn, the maniacal irritation of tech bro Lex shows the other end of the spectrum of toxic masculinity. After decades of the Revenge of the Nerds-style narrative wherein dweebish misogyny is played off as adorable, for all of the faults of Batman v Superman, it was refreshing to see the reality of that trope play out on a grand scale.

The Dave Eggers novel The Circle images tech bro domination as an inevitable descent into dystopia. The Circle of the title has a Google-style campus of earthly delights, and new worker Mae soon goes from skeptic to evangelist for the cause, becoming the public face of the company's charge for "worldwide transparency" through decreasing public privacy. Mae is barely a character in this novel that seeks to be little else than a series of pro/con tech talking points, but it's the benevolent old tech bro at the top of the ladder who proves most intriguing. One of the three "Wise Men" who created The Circle, Eamon Bailey (played in the film adaptation by America's dad, Tom Hanks) is immediately appealing in an old-timey way that seems at odds with the revolutionary technology he’s created. How could such an obscene level of corporate overreach be bad when it’s being sold to us by someone so cuddly? Bailey is the matured tech bro, more Jobs than Zuckerberg, and representative of all the cultish devotion that inspires.

The main reason the tech bro billionaire has become so terrifying in genre fiction is that they are merely the stand-in for a more mundane force of evil in real life. Lex Luthor is toe-tappingly evil, even when his motivations make no sense, but then there are those whose ambitions are more ambiguous, driven seemingly by nothing other than the knowledge that they can. In The Circle, the Google/Apple stand-in wants total domination of every aspect of people's live for no real reason other than that they've got the ability to do so. It may seem inexplicable to some, and when we read it in a fictional context, our minds still crave a narrative neatness, but it’s more accurate to our lives than we may care to admit. We want speed and convenience and all our lives on one device (or all our viewing options on one streaming service), and the tech bros are there to take over.

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