Megacorp is the best antagonist money can pay for. Why settle for a ho-hum dark lord or boring authoritarian dictator when you can have your heroes opposed by a sinister corporation bent on profits at all cost? Purchase now and receive a free diatribe against the evils of capitalism while also making money using the very system the story condemns. Megacorp, the only villain you will ever need!
My Honest Thoughts on Megacorporations
Megacorporations are one of the most overused and lazy antagonists I have seen in science fiction. This is most likely because the writers felt that an evil empire would be too passe so they use a megacorporation in their place. The problem is that they treat the megacorporation no different than an evil empire in spite of the large number of fundamental differences between the two. Empires are a collection of nations. An empire is a complex political entity. A megacorporation is basically out just to make money and has little to no ability to inspire loyalty in its subjects like empires do.
Not only do these megacorporations usually fail on a realistic level, but often on a creative level as well. There is just no effort put into them. They might get a logo if you are lucky, but are otherwise just as faceless and monolithic as an evil empire. However, much like the evil empire, the potential is there for an interesting antagonist, but not if writers insist on treating them as ‘science fiction villain default’.
Why So Many Megacorporation Antagonists? (Or why writers love megacorps)
Megacorp equals evil. People take it as a given that a big company is evil because most of us have at least spent some time going in circles with customer service. A good chunk of the population works for wages and almost everyone has felt cheated by their workplace at one point or another. Everyone has had at least a few negative experiences with the endless web of corporate bureaucracies that make up the modern world.
This also has a little to do with humor writing. Always punch up they say when telling a joke. So it is for villains as well. Large corporations are still an acceptable target in a cultural climate where the number of acceptable targets grows thin. Keep it big and faceless and a writer lessens the chance of offending a demographic and their precious precious money.
What this all translates to is lessening the writer’s upfront cost in establishing the villain as they can be reasonably assured that the audience will assume BigBad Inc is evil and root against them. An evil empire would at least assume some international politics and internal command structure. Also in near future settings, an antagonist empire would seem out of place given how practically no modern states use that title due to all of its historical baggage. An aggregate of nation states all with different languages, government systems, and cultures banding together to menace the world is more of stretch than a Megacorp on the rise at least on the surface level. Megacorp just needs a snazzy name and away we go.
How Megacorporations Fall Flat
I can’t really speak for everyone (subjective nature of enjoying fiction and all), but I can say why these megacorps fall flat for me. The worst and most common way is that these corporations usually lack a human element. Perhaps that is the point, but I find this makes for a boring antagonist. As I have mentioned before, I like stories about humans. A corporation lacking of any human element might as well be a robot swarm.
The problem with a nebulous megacorp can be somewhat compared to writing concrete descriptive prose. The difference between a thoughtlessly created Megacorp and a fleshed out and dynamic antagonistic faction is the difference between ‘he pulled up in a pickup truck’ and ‘the beat-up jalopy of a pickup truck spluttered to halt and let out a huff of black smoke’. The second paints a clear picture of the vehicle while the first is less concrete.
A lot of stories solve this problem by having the Megacorp in the background often as a secondary antagonist of sorts. This version of Megacorp usually creates the problem or makes it worse. This can work depending on the justification. Both Weyland Yutani and the Umbrella corporation work well enough, but suffer more from sequelitis where their pursuits begin to look more insane after so many installments of the franchise. Often a megacorp’s quest for profits can grow so expensive that tends to draw me out of the story. Perhaps this is because of my own experiences working for big companies. They are usually too large and unwieldy to be proactive and tend to pursue short term profits over long term sustainability. They also tend to cut their losses sooner rather than later. Most companies would not tolerate the kinds of losses required to secure deadly bioweapons unless they were not the one taking the losses and could avoid a PR disaster with near 100% certainty.
This all makes even less sense when it comes to Megacorp’s PMC strategy. So real life PMCs are basically heavily armed security. They lack the numbers and firepower to match a real nation state’s military forces. Assuming a Megacorp actually has the funds to bankroll the over $690 billion to match the United State’s defense budget how are they going to use that to conquer the world and then make a profit? Yes corporations make money on wars. They make money by selling weapons. If Megacorp is fighting the war directly, who are they selling weapons to? Themselves? Modern wars are cripplingly expensive to fight which is why I laugh at any fictional CEO who thinks he can become the next Genghis Khan. Keep dreaming, buddy. A Megacorp would need a massive technological advantage to pull it off. In the rare instances when real corporations do defeat a nation state they usually did so because they had a number of advantages both politically and technologically. Even then they rarely ruled for long before screwing everything up.
The heart of the problem is having a Megacorp act as a nation state. The taxpayer is who ultimately funds the war machine in most modern nations. Why would Megacorp bother to sell weapons and make a profit if they could just collect taxes instead? At that point they might as well be an empire and not a corporation at all. Corporations need a host. None of this is ever touched upon in most fiction though. I get it. We just want our bad Megacorp, not a lecture on government organization in an increasingly connected global market.
The main place where this all breaks down is motive. Evil for evil’s sake will always cut into the bottom line. When real world companies do evil things, it is not because they want to commit evil, it is because it will increase profits.
Building Better Megacorps
Most big bad Megacorps just need a bit of detail and a figurehead to flesh them out. Not every story needs to justify why Megacorp is running everything, but it never hurts for the writer to work out how Megacorp took over the world even if it is just in their notes. The extra world building will bleed through and give the story a little more of a solid foundation. Also, having the members of Megacorp act like real humans goes a long way towards keeping immersion intact.
For those who want to go the extra mile, well I have a few historical corporations that could be useful as a case study.
Historical Example 1: A Corporation Powerful Enough to Take Over an Entire Country, The East India Company
The East India Company was a British corporation that invaded and conquered India. How did they accomplish this? Well India at the time was ruled by the Mughal princes who were too busy Game of Thronesing each other to notice the East India Company’s growing influence. The East India Company basically played princes against one another and over time gained control over nearly the entire country. What did this company do with a whole country to rule? They exploited the crap out of it and were notoriously corrupt. This, of course, led to a rebellion that forced the British crown to step in and clean up the East India Company’s mess.
Historical Example 2: A Corporation That Makes Electronic Arts Look Like a Teddy Bear, The Abir Congo Company
I’ve never seen a corporation portrayed in fiction that comes close to the real evil done by the Abir Congo Company. The Abir Congo Company was the company that oversaw the harvest of rubber vines in the then Belgian owned Congo. They did this by forcing the local villagers to harvest ever increasing amounts of rubber. As quotas increased, the rubber vines died and production soon plummeted. As production decreased, Abir became more brutal and resorted to things like cutting off the hands of villagers who didn’t meet their quotas. This, of course, only made production dip lower (on top of famine, mass murder, and diseases). So not only did Belgium manage to commit one of the worst colonial atrocities in history, but they also manage to ruin the very reason they were exploiting the country in the first place.
And these two examples are just scratching the surface. This isn’t even going into stuff like the United Fruit Company or the Coca Cola factories in South America that make the Hunger Games look like Disney Land. Speaking of Disney, I’m pretty sure if Weyland Yutani was real Disney would have already ruthlessly crushed them into Wall Street dust. I mean Disney does control the Alien now.