The glass prison designers of the fictional world are making bank this year. It seems that almost every action-packed superhero or quasi-superhero film features the same prominent set piece and it hasn’tt gone unnoticed: a recent meme circulated remarking on the inefficacy of the glass prison, showing the evolution of the structure on film. The image, created by Raven Montoya, stacked a number of villains captured in glass prisons on top of each other: Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs, Magneto from X2 (technically a plastic prison), Loki from Avengers, Raoul Silva from Skyfall, and lastly, the animated Stitch from Lilo and Stitch. The caption quipped, “Yes! Of course it’s a good idea to put the homicidal maniac in a glass prison. I’m sure he won’t get out.”
That the villain always escapes comes hand in hand with another trope of the glass prison—to quote the Joker in The Dark Knight, “It’s all part of the plan.” The villain intends to be caught in order to set his diabolical plan in motion. Charlie Jane Anders of io9 cites the Rube Goldbergian nature of the scheme as one reason for the evil mastermind to create this situation—to enhance his devious nature. She also notes a more important use of such a tactic: “You get to put the hero and the villain in the room together, without having them fight.”
All this would seem to be blockbuster screenwriting 101. You set up a mid-movie failure to create tension before the final success. And all the while, you have the beauty of the image of a hero and villain confrontation without any of the trappings of prison bars to get in the way. But what’s been missing in most discussions on the popularity of the glass prison is just how much it facilitates a presentation of our modern fears. It becomes a way to dissect and analyze the motive of the post 9/11 villain: terrorism.
Trapped Villains and Tied-Up Heroes
The three big baddies caged onscreen this past year—Loki, Raoul Silva, and John Harrison (from Star Trek Into Darkness)—would not be satisfied to simply kill their prey. Instead they thrive on a psychological advantage, which intends to creates chaos and terrorize the masses. Yet even this is a simplification because what makes these villains fascinating is their lack of clear motive-—almost every word they utter seems to be double-speak.
This highlights the difference between the glass prison interrogation and its classic counterpart, the Bond villain monologue. In this reversal, the Bond villain stands free as he describes his plan while Bond is tied up, and the plan, while not always simple, is most often goal-oriented. Here we discover exactly what the villain has been up to and why (and the answer is usually money, something our terrorist villains have little taste for, as particularly illustrated by the Joker’s decision to set a pyramid of it on fire in The Dark Knight).
Glass, then, serves to magnify the specimen in front of the hero, providing a scientific lab in which to get some answers. Our desire to understand why terrorists commit such gruesome acts is showcased in the 24-hour news cycle where family, hobbies, schooling, religion and so on are all dug up to shed light on not only a motive, but a trajectory for how someone gets to the point of committing such a deed.
The glass also allows the villain to have a clear vision of the situation before him. While the prisoners are most certainly evil and use their knowledge to manipulate the protagonists, they also provide the information necessary to light the bulb above the hero’s head. As it turns out in these films, the government or organization that the good guys are working for, also has blood, or potential blood, on its hands. The modern villain onscreen forces us to reckon with an even greater lingering fear we must examine in any “War on Terror,” that we—our country, our government, ourselves—are also in the wrong.
Raoul Silva confronts M, the head of the secret service MI6 and James Bond’s boss, while in his glass prison about how she misused him when he was an agent. The most monstrous image of Silva is one that M essentially created herself when she left him imprisoned on a mission. Silva removes a prosthesis to show his jaw and teeth have been melted away by a hydrogen cyanide caplet which failed to serve its suicidal purpose. Through imprisonment, Silva shows Bond that M and MI6 are not above sacrificing their agents for the mission itself.
Bad Good Guys
While torture is not usually depicted in the filmic glass prison, so as not to sully the hands of our heroes, it is alluded to, suggesting that the good guys are also unclean. When Thor mentions that no pain could get Loki to reveal the location of the tesseract, the power cube he has hidden, Nick Fury responds, “A lot of guys think that until the pain starts.” Loki challenges Black Widow as he notes, “You lie and kill in the service of liars and killers.” And moments later, Fury is revealed to be a liar as he has concealed the development of Weapons of Mass Destruction from the Avengers. Loki’s plan to escape imprisonment seems to involve the chaos created by Bruce Banner unleashing the Hulk, a development caused by Banner’s anger over his own government’s betrayal.
If there was any question as to the purpose of the glass prisoner, J.J. Abrams answers it with Star Trek Into Darkness, which is such a clear allegory of 9/11 and the war on terror that the true meaning is even obscure enough to require the term allegory. Right up to ordering the invasion of land that harbors the terrorist John Harrison as a pretense for starting a war with the Klingons, the film works at a step-by-step reenactment of 9/11 and the subsequent U.S. military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Harrison openly admits that his capture and his glass imprisonment were to alert Kirk of the real situation. He states, “I surrendered to you because, despite your attempts to convince me otherwise, you seem to have a conscience, Mr. Kirk. If you did not, then it would be impossible for me to convince you of the truth.” While Harrison will double-cross the Enterprise as soon a he gets a chance and will reveal his true identity [Spoiler Alert] that he is the legendary Khan, he is giving Kirk the key to reexamine his own allegiances.
While the heroes may get sloppy in their containment of villains, it’s rare that they aren’t aware that villain was caught too easily. Almost every member of the Avengers gets a chance to say, “I know Loki is manipulating us.” So why even talk to him? Because they know the truth, but cannot speak it: they are complicit in the violence that has taken place.
In this way. the glass prison is also a mirror that reflects the similarities between hero and villain and the very slim barrier that stops one from becoming the other. Our fears of terrorism do not simply come from international threats. Beyond the complicity of our own government, we also face the danger of domestic terror, particularly in the form of mass school shootings. If we fear that we may not be too dissimilar from the villains that lie on the other side of the world, it becomes even clearer with these villains are grown in our own backyards.
This brings us back to the original glass prisoner, who is also experiencing a pop culture resurgence: Hannibal Lecter. NBC renewed their TV series Hannibal for a second season despite having a course of Hannibal-like villain ready to serve this Fall in The Blacklist, where James Spader plays a criminal mastermind willing to help the FBI catch other terrorists. Fox’s The Following also displays a tete-a-tete between cop and serial killer in the Hannibal mode.
While these shows do not involve glass prisons, the open-air confrontations in interrogation rooms mirror the glass prison setup. Hannibal Lecter is not just a serial killer, but the proto-terrorist. In Silence of the Lambs, he both taunts and teaches Clarice, who must deal with the broken infrastructure of the police force she works for. While he does not commit mass acts of terrorism, he traffics in fear, using his keen intellect and experience as a psychologist to exploit Clarice’s weaknesses. Further, the new incarnation of Hannibal highlights the fine line between killer and his profiler, as Will Graham must act out the murders in order to figure out how they are committed. So perhaps we analyze the terrorist villain not just to learn how they became who they are, but to learn how we can avoid being led down the same path.
My colleague and partner Joshua Coonrod has been influential in developing these glass prison ideas with me, and he recently brought up an interesting additional twist on the narrative.
He noted that perhaps the popularity of anti-hero shows, such as Breaking Bad and Dexter, could be explained by the way the TV acts as a glass prison between character and viewer. With the screen to separate us, we can examine the hows and whys of such villains and how they became who they are. Breaking Bad, in particular, examines the criminal roads we can easily drive down ourselves once life gets out of our control.
Luckily for glass prison designers, it does not seem this motif will stop anytime soon. Later this year, Loki will be glass imprisoned again in Thor: The Dark World, so it seems we may still have some issues to work through within this scenario. The prisoner in the glass cage is so frightening not only because we do not understand him, but because he seems to know us better than we know ourselves. By staring through the clear screen at him, we, like the heroes of the films and TV shows, hope that they can help us work through these fears and excise our own hidden evils within.