The evil corporation is undoubtedly one of the biggest cliches in fiction, but it’s also the most relevant type of villainous organization right now. Plus they can be more fun for writers and the audience. Unlike the Mafia or corrupt politicians, even the more sinister actions of corporations can have a certain kind of legitimacy granted to them by society and by governments (for examples, see…well, just about any account of multinational corporations’ activities in the Third World), which makes them more of a challenge for one’s protagonists. Shinra Electric Power Company and Umbrella Pharmaceutical, Inc. are two mega-corporations that I think stand out, not just from the classic video game franchises of Final Fantasy and Resident Evil but from all genres and media, in the fields of violent oppression, casual environmental devastation, tyrannical behavior, and of course limitless greed. Which one, though, can claim the prestigious title of the Most Evil Mega-Corporation? Let’s naturally start at the beginning:
Who Had The More Ruthless Rise to Power?
Shinra had inauspicious origins as a small munitions manufacturer, but enriched itself by selling arms to both sides in a world war. From there, they discovered an energy resource called mako energy and became the global (and very likely the only) supplier of it. After that, Shinra’s history is vague, but by the time Final Fantasy VII begins Shinra has taken over most of the world, somehow (but likely in various rather unpleasant ways) muscling out preexisting governments. What is pretty certain is that when they constructed the mega-city of Midgar literally over some towns that were already there, they didn’t really have the previous inhabitants in mind, condemning them to lifetimes of sunless poverty in slums almost completely shut off from the “above-ground” where the privileged live more prosperous lives. Still, getting a fortune from playing both sides of a war is pretty routine even by real world standards, and raising some people up while sinking others further into poverty is what capitalism is all about, so let’s move on to Umbrella…
Well, for starters, Umbrella itself was just a front for its rich founders’ mad scientist shenanigans, starting with their discovery of a virus in Africa that had the potential to mutate a human body. Afraid that the architect who designed the mansion that would secretly house their experiments could be a liability, they efficiently killed two birds with one stone by leaving the architect to die from dehydration in an underground maze and injecting his wife and 12-year old daughter with a modified version of the virus, killing the former and mutating the latter into an immortal, psychotic killing machine who roamed the mansion’s underground areas, ripping off and then wearing the faces of anyone unlucky enough to stumble across her. They weren’t the only ones; Umbrella’s founders really got their kicks from either injecting unwilling people with various versions of the virus, for Science (!), or for trying to use the virus to create a master race. Compared to that, Shinra in its early years looks less magnificently, horrifically evil and more routinely, run-of-the-mill evil, like Comcast.
Who Has The Most Questionable Products?
In the Resident Evil universe, Umbrella makes everything from food to makeup, but what they end up becoming most famous for is producing not one, but multiple versions of a virus that usually turn people into zombie hordes, but sometimes into near-mindless, near-indestructible psychopaths. Umbrella’s founders and other affiliated scientists hoped to find the cure to death (largely for themselves, of course), but instead they ultimately caused a zombie outbreak that forced the US government to nuke an entire city. Now that’s a scenario I hope they use in final exams for students who want to become PR professionals. Of course, there’s no doubt that a company that makes viruses that at best turn people into zombies and at worst turn them into deformed, god-like Ed Geins who have to be taken down by an army is “bad.”
On the face of it, Shinra’s main product, processed Mako energy, seems more innocuous. Then you have to take into account what Mako energy really is: it’s the Lifestream of the planet. What’s the Lifestream? Well, it’s comprised of the souls of everything that’s ever lived, including humans. It’s a close call, but in my opinion having the essence of your dead grandfather power your toaster is creepier than zombies, even super-zombies, any day.
Who Gets To Throw Around The Most Power?
Like any respectable evil mega-corporation, Shinra and Umbrella have their own private armies. They both get their own cities too, which they didn’t establish but heavily developed. Unlike in the (awful) movies, Raccoon City was just a small town that grew into a city thanks to the presence of Umbrella HQ. As a result most of Raccoon City’s authorities are practically on the company payroll.
In Midgar, Shinra is apparently completely and openly responsible for everything from utilities to law enforcement, and in fact the only real responsibility the Mayor of Midgar has is keeping Shinra HQ’s document library in order. I have to give this one to Shinra. Eventually after Raccoon City is nuked, Umbrella is exposed and practically shut down by the US government (although it helped that all their major research centers ended up being destroyed). In Final Fantasy VII Shinra is a government in of itself, the stuff of many dystopian sci-fi novels. It takes a meteor nearly colliding with the planet, most of the board of executives getting killed, and a pissed-off Godzilla-like monster sent by Mother Earth herself blowing up Shinra HQ to take Shinra down, and even then, at least according to the movie sequel Advent Children, Shinra’s still more or less around and kicking.
Who Was The Most Evil (And Stupid) When It Came To Playing In God’s Domain?
We already delved into the uber-shady experiments Umbrella’s mad scientist division liked, but I only mentioned their experiments with producing superhumans who aren’t horribly deformed and addicted to human flesh. One attempt produced a man who ended up becoming something like the killer from Dressed To Kill and a woman who took over one of Umbrella’s core facilities and decided she wanted to take over the world – starting by grotesquely mutating her own body. Another just created a lot of dead bodies and the one man who would go on to betray Umbrella and leak the information that would bring it down. So, yes, trying to produce things that were less like zombies and more like Captain America ended up hurting Umbrella more than their occasional zombie outbreaks.
Even though it basically already conquered the world, Shinra’s leaders loved to try to expand into the business of supersoldiers. Actually it started well, until their scientists just happened to find a frozen body and, assuming that it was a member of a lost legendary race, just started injecting their soldiers with her cells. Unfortunately, said frozen body turns out to be a world-destroying Lovecraftian alien parasite that happens to still be alive and conscious. Needless to say, things didn’t turn out well for anybody. Still, Shinra otherwise did somewhat well with their own supersoldier program, and it wasn’t really their fault that their top scientist Hojo turned out to be completely insane and hiding the fact that Shinra’s best supersoldier Sephiroth would probably get around to preparing to help his cosmic horror mother destroy the world. With Umbrella, however, none of its best and brightest ever got the hint that the answer to “What should we do with the virus that horrifically mutates people into bloodthirsty monsters that are all but impossible to control?” shouldn’t be “Try to make different types of it!”
And Who Actually Did The Most Evil?
This will be the tie-breaker, as well it should be. Both Umbrella and Shinra have long lists of crimes: environmental destruction on a scale that would make even the most anti-”big government” politician demand that the EPA be given dictatorial powers; treating entire cities like their own fiefdoms; and taking the ‘Take this thing we just discovered and stick it in their veins!’ approach to human biological research. To be fair to Umbrella, if you look past the individual crimes of their founders and scientists they’re at best indirectly responsible for many of the atrocities that unfold. Like in the (awful) movies, the exposure of researchers to the virus that leads into the plot of the first game was a deliberate act of sabotage, in this case by one of Umbrella’s founders, who was assassinated under orders from one of his colleagues (he got better). Also the zombie outbreak in Raccoon City was purely accidental, and not because of someone wondering, “Let’s see what happens if…”
Later in the series, a lot of the bad things that go down is still driven by Umbrella’s research, but the culprits are always rogue agents and scientists. Shinra, on the other hand, apparently made being murderous bastards company policy. Even when one of their reactors exploding decimates an entire town, there’s no indication that they do anything like help rebuild the town or help its citizens. Another town gets torched just because it’s suspected that the inhabitants are harboring anti-Shinra terrorists. The biggest example of overkill, however, is that they literally crush an entire slum in Midgar, just to try to get rid of a terrorist group consisting of about six people. Now that’s being an evil mega-corporation.
Of course, you could make the counter-argument that Umbrella is the more frightening, sinister mega-corporation because it’s the most realistic. Not only does Umbrella exist in the “real world,” but the ongoing saga through most of the Resident Evil series of how Umbrella manages to duck responsibility for a major catastrophe that destroyed thousands of lives has been made a bit too realistic by things like certain recent events in the United States. Now Shinra isn’t quite as detached from reality as it may look. After all, it exists in a world where the lines between a for-profit corporation and government are seriously blurred and where almost all the only prosperous areas are tourist hotspots.
However, in terms of unadulterated evil, Umbrella’s realism hurts it a little bit. Yes, its founders and affiliates are guilty of some atrocious acts, but as a body Umbrella’s crimes are more due to negligence and short-sighted greed, not malice, much like real world mega-corporations. Shinra, on the other hand, comes across as what would happen if Microsoft and an old-school Fascist regime got together and had a baby. If you put out a successful MoveOn.org petition against Umbrella, they’d ignore you at worst or release a press release about it at best. Shinra would have you killed and burn down your house with our family and pets inside, just for kicks.
Plus, Shinra just has a pretty kickass theme.