When we talk about Fight Club, the first few things that come to mind are Brad Pitt's ripped torso, Edward Norton's bludgeoned face and a group of angry dudes. What doesn't make it in the list of visual recollection is an element that's constantly yet subtly present throughout the film – a Starbucks coffee cup in every scene.
In an interview with Empire Magazine, director David Fincher threw light on this mysterious decision by recollecting that when he had first moved to Los Angeles in 1984, there was a lack of good coffee in the city. It was only a few years later that the first Starbucks opened and an outlet could be found every few blocks. And Starbucks was in on it. Fincher said that, "[Starbucks] read the script, they knew what we were doing, and they were kind of ready to poke a little fun at themselves. We had a lot of fun using that — there are Starbucks cups everywhere, in every shot. I don't have anything personal against Starbucks. I think they're trying to do a good thing. They're just too successful."
Reading between the lines, Fincher had an underlying motive for placing a Starbucks coffee cup in every shot. Taking a more nuanced and microscopic approach, the film's narrative is thickly layered with overt rage against consumerism and the corporations that pedal them. It then makes sense to have the coffee cup act as an agent of this consumerism and a representative of these huge corporations seducing their way into our lives.
This weird narrative juxtaposition, where Fincher's characters talk about the ills of consumerism while somewhere in the background there lies a coffee cup by one of the biggest corporations, is one of the many ways in which Fincher seeps into the minds of the viewers.
Throughout the film, the main aim of Pitt's character, Tyler Durden, is to brainwash every person he meets against the ills of consumerism and its influence on society, and this reflects in the part where he tells the members of Fight Club, "We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires and rock stars. But we won't." Fincher neatly throws light not only on the ills of consumerism, but also on the niche demographic affected by it and his anarchic solution to it.
Using the cup of coffee as a metaphor where consumers are constantly reminded to acquire objects with the hope of attaining some form of satisfaction, Tyler delivers a truth bomb that not only fits perfectly within the context of the film but is still relevant when applied to life in general: "The things you own end up owning you."
If Fincher's words are to be taken at face value, there may have been a cup of Starbucks in every shot simply because he wanted to appreciate the company that gave him good coffee in LA. But it could also be the case that he sees them, like Tyler does, as a corporation that's everywhere, subtly instigating you to get that 'Instagrammable' cup of coffee. By failing to do so, you will never be happy or cool.
In hindsight, the answer to the question of subtext gets vaguer upon further viewing. The only person with the answer to that is Fincher himself. Now whether he's obliging us or telling us the truth, the reality is only known to him. A fact that is indisputable, though, is the cultural importance of the film, which is why even after 20 years since its release, we're all guilty of breaking the first rule of Fight Club.