Seven Movie Oligarchs We Love to Hate

With summer finally here and some great blockbusters gracing your local cinemas, it seemed like the perfect time to let our hair down and do a Closer Look on something fun.

While we typically focus on real-life billionaires and oligarchs, the Patriotic Millionaires team has a bone to pick with several fictional ones, too. There are a plethora of villains across film, TV, and literature wielding their fortune to influence politics, but we’d be here all day if we tried to explain our beef with all of them. So for this week’s Closer Look, we’re going to stick to the silver screen and highlight seven movie oligarchs we just love to hate.

A note on our method: While the list of real-life oligarchs portrayed in movies is long (think Christopher Plummer as John Paul Getty in All the Money in the World, and Orson Wells as a thinly veiled version of William Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane), we’ve kept with fictional examples, though it can occasionally be hard to tell where inspiration ends and the fictional character begins.

1. Tony Stark (Iron Man and the Marvel Cinematic Universe)

Oh boy… we know listing Ironman as a villain might not be popular, but hear us out.

While we can’t deny that he’s had a heroic moment or two (yes, that includes saving the planet on multiple occasions), Tony Stark’s wealth is built on multi-generational arms trading that has led to innumerable civilian deaths. Now, look: are arms dealers inherently oligarchs? No, but even when Tony Stark supposedly sees the error of his ways and quits the war criminal biz, he continues to use his ill-gotten gains and outsized influence erratically, shunning oversight and operating on his own authority while still working inside the ostensible jurisdiction of government entities. To put it more bluntly, Stark is making decisions that affect millions of people without any consultation with the governing authorities or their democratically elected representatives.

If Tony Stark reminds you of a certain South African billionaire with an ego to match the size of his bank account and a penchant for electric cars, you’re not alone.

2. Immortan Joe (Mad Max: Fury Road and Furiosa)

Controlling the entire water supply and limiting access to it as a way to control a populace is about as clear an example of oligarchy as we can find.

The disgustingly-caparisoned warlord Immortan Joe is a great villain and consummate robber baron, governing the post-atomic wasteland from his (literal) ivory tower while thousands die of thirst below. In a world without the Federal Trade Commission, Joe and two other oligarch buddies (the appropriately named People Eater and Bullet Farmer) have a complete monopoly on the three major wasteland commodities: water, bullets, and gasoline.

One of the most troubling aspects of Immortan Joe is that he seems to actually believe in what he’s doing, and has convinced himself that by adding order to a disordered world, he is providing some measure of collective good. The blending of paternalistic megalomania and a violent cult of personality is a trend we see in oligarchs both fictional and real.

3. Elliot Carver (Tomorrow Never Dies)

The Patriotic Millionaires argued over which Bond villain would make this list, and there’s about a dozen who fit the bill. While Goldfinger’s titular bad guy, and Moonraker’s Hugo Drax (what is it with billionaires going to space?) are all suitably nasty, Tomorrow Never Dies’ Elliot Carver is the staff favorite.

Modeled loosely on Fox News and Wall Street Journal owner Rupert Murdoch, Carver is a media mogul whose outsized ego and lust for the perfect headline leads him to try and engineer a nuclear war between China and the United Kingdom in exchange for exclusive media rights. Completely obsessed with cornering the market, Carver is a great reminder that money isn’t always the end goal for oligarchs; sometimes, the goal is power.

4. Wilford (Snowpiercer): 

The headlines have been filled lately with stories of the super-rich investing in luxury fallout shelters. It only takes a little imagination to see how such a fallout shelter could take the form of a speeding bullet train in Snowpiercer’s terrifying post-apocalyptic and radically unequal society.

In the near future, when global temperatures fall catastrophically and the world freezes over, the only people left alive are the inhabitants of the Snowpiercer, a single train endlessly traversing the Earth’s frozen landscape.

The train is stratified among economic classes, with the front of the train featuring a luxurious life of fine dining and entertainment, while the impoverished lower classes are forced into suffocatingly small quarters and left to subsist on jellied insect bars. At the helm of the locomotive is the mysterious Wilford, who represents the wealthiest elite in our own society: unfathomably rich, personally consuming enough resources to feed the starving masses, and relying on economic exploitation to maintain his lifestyle and power.

We don’t want to spoil the end for you, but let’s just say that Snowpiercer shows the instability and violence that inevitably emerge when a society grows radically unequal.

5. The Residents of Elysium (Elysium)

The year is 2154, and the ultra-rich have come up with the ultimate tax dodge: build an orbiting tax haven, called Elysium, as the world collapses beneath them.

On Elysium, the ultra-rich enjoy their perfectly manicured lawns and extraordinarily opulent homes, each with a private Med-Bay providing instant free healthcare. Down on Earth, everyone else must contend with overcrowding, hazardous working conditions, and crushing poverty. The only interactions between the two groups take place when upper management jets down to Earth on inspection tours of their factories.

Like the ultra-rich in real life, the citizens of Elysium are cognizant that their opulent lifestyle is dependent on it being exclusive to themselves. When desperate immigrants try to flee to Elysium in search of a better life, they quickly discover they’re not welcome. The station is protected by a particularly evil Jodie Foster who – surprise, surprise – uses violence to restore order, maintain the status quo, and put down threats to the reigning oligarchy.

6. Mr. Potter (It’s a Wonderful Life)

We’re not the first, nor will be the last, to name Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life as the quintessential movie villain. With his iron grip on the fictional town of Bedford Falls, Potter embodies the dangerous results of allowing monied interests to control an economy and a community.

At the helm of the largest real estate empire in Bedford Falls, Mr. Potter wields his wealth as a tool for domination. Through strategic acquisitions and manipulative business tactics, he consolidates his control over the town’s housing market, exploiting the vulnerable and enriching himself at the expense of the town’s residents.

But Potter’s influence extends beyond the realm of real estate. As the owner of the local bank, he controls the flow of capital in the town. With loans and mortgages as his weapons, he exerts his authority over the community, dictating their economic fates with ruthless precision. Eventually, Potter goes as far as changing the very name of Bedford Falls to Pottersville.

Ultimately, Mr. Potter and Pottersville stand as a cautionary tale: a chilling reminder of the dangers posed by placing profit above all else.

7. Max Shreck (Batman Returns)

Max Shreck, the enigmatic and ruthless industrialist portrayed by Christopher Walken in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, wields power and influence in a cartoonish manner not so dissimilar from the oligarchs you’ll read about in today’s paper.

At the helm of Shreck Industries, Max Shreck commands Gotham City’s industrial landscape with an iron fist. He controls a sprawling business empire spanning everything from energy to technology, and therefore holds immense sway over the city’s economy.

Behind his façade of respectability lies a master manipulator, pulling the strings of Gotham’s political elite to serve his own nefarious ends. Through backroom deals and Machiavellian machinations, Shreck exerts his influence over the corridors of power, ensuring that his interests are always protected.

Whether it’s striking deals with the city’s criminal underworld or engineering elaborate schemes to eliminate his rivals, Shreck stops at nothing to further his own agenda.

Wait a Minute…

If you’re reading this and think we’ve lost the plot (pun intended), it’s worth taking a minute to consider this: sometimes real-life oligarchs behave with the cartoonish villainy we see from literal cartoons. If we can all identify the bad guy on the screen, why is it so hard to do so in real life?

If we had to guess, it comes down to the ways both political parties weaponize partisan wedge issues to distract Americans from the ways the economy is rigged against them – and in favor of the oligarchs. When Elon Musk is accused of mismanagement, he’ll respond by citing “cancel culture” or distract from stories about his questionable financial choices with renewed attacks on “wokeism” rather than addressing the underlying charge.

Most of the villains we’ve listed here were undone by a brave hero or their own hubris. That makes sense; it would not be as fun to watch oligarchs be taken down by legislation that rewrites the tax code. But hey, if you ask Patriotic Millionaires, that would still be pretty exciting. If anyone has a line to Steven Spielberg, let us know.

In the meantime, write in to tell us what movie oligarchs we missed!

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