Published: Nov. 4, 2021 By

It’s Time for Climate Heroes, Not Climate Villains

Pop Culture as a Reflection of Our Combined Psyche

Cultures have always passed down stories--some have turned into epics that are still studied by scholars and students in classrooms around the world. The amazing thing about fiction is that it is a reflection of the time period it was conceived, making it possible to find truths and clues into the past in media that seems to be, on the surface, no more than make-believe.

So what can this tell us about our current time period? We can examine the media of today to gain a better understanding of the state of our society.


Analyzing Environmentalism in Media

As environmentalism has become a more and more popular cause, especially with the increase in natural disasters and extreme weather in the past few years, our media has evolved in the ways it portrays characters who fight for climate justice.


Poison Ivy: Climate Villain of the 1960s

Poison Ivy is perhaps the most well known climate-related character in popular culture. She was conceived in 1966 and made her debut in Batman #181. Her origin story depicts her as a botanist and biochemist injected with mysterious toxins that cause her to go insane and develop many powers such as the ability to control plants and a poisonous touch.

Since her inception, Poison Ivy has been regarded as an antiheroine and an ecoterrorist. According to Merriam-Webster, ecoterrorism is defined as “sabotage intended to hinder activities that are considered damaging to the environment.” Poison Ivy is depicted time and time again using nefarious methods to force corporations and governments to take more sustainable actions.

The year of her introduction coincides with the rise of the hippie movement in America; and her continued popularity makes sense in relation to the fact that climate fears in our population have only grown since then.

But is it high time that she becomes a hero, rather than a villain? Her existence is also proof of a villainization of sustainability by popular media, which often depicts climate activists as annoying, self-righteous, and even against the common good.

2008: WALL-E Saves the World

In 2008, Pixar came out with WALL-E, the story of a lonely garbage-collecting robot who helps humans resettle the Earth after it has been abandoned for centuries. In this movie, WALL-E is portrayed as the hero of the story who enlightens the human race as to the extent of how much they have let the planet down.

This is an example of a character that stands for environmentalism and is regarded extremely highly, in contrast to Poison Ivy. WALL-E’s love for the earth is his greatest strength.


The 2010s: Aquaman

The 2018 DC Comics film Aquaman also brought up environmental themes; but this time, in doing so took a step back from the progress of WALL-E. The entire plot of the movie is based around the fact that Aquaman must stop his Atlantean half-brother Orm from declaring war with the human race due to their pollution of the sea.

Here, we again see environmentalism villainized, and those who pursue it as direct threats to the human race.

In some ways, it’s understandable: according to an article by Cara Buckley for the New York Times, “David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, one of the writers of ‘Aquaman,’ said using pollution as a motivator made Orm more relatable and less ‘mustache-twirly,’ and added, ‘It gave him some nuance.’”

But at what cost does this nuance come?


We Villainize What We Refuse to Accept

Throughout all of history, from minority rights to the new schools of thought in the enlightenment, we have villainized ideas that seem to conflict with our preferred way of life. Environmentalism seems to ethically necessitate changes in the status quo--and not all of us are comfortable with such changes. Thus it is easier to not see the truth in the cause, and push it from our minds under the guise of falsity.

This is not to say that screenwriters and media producers are pushing anti-climate messages of their own volition. Rather, their own subconscious fears of the true ramifications of human action toward the planet simply are reflected through the fiction that they create.

When media that tells such a story gains popularity, we as viewers subconsciously adopt those new ideas in our own heads and integrate them into our own subconscious frameworks; we associate environmentalist with villain. This leads borderline individuals--those who, before viewing, did not consider themselves environmentalists or anti-environmentalists, but rather someone very close to middle ground--to unknowingly absorb these thoughts.

It’s Time to Retire this Narrative

There are countless other examples of environmental villains that were not touched on, from Avengers: Age of Ultron to Godzilla: King of Monsters. What screenwriters are really seeking when they make the decision to outline a villain’s master plan is passion. And there are so many other ways to establish that passion without tarnishing the name of environmentalism. More complex stories and motivations are exactly what make for great, interesting villains anyway.

As the crisis of climate change becomes more and more accepted as a hard truth, more people will start to see the irony in these writing decisions. And until then, we can analyze how much our media truly does reflect the fears of our generation.


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