Skip to comments.Character Assassination Hollywood Kills Off the Movie Hero
Posted on 10/15/2009 11:05:23 AM PDT by AreaMan
Hollywood Kills Off the Movie Hero
In Salvo 7, we asked our resident film critic Barbara Nicolosi about the essential elements of good storytelling, as well as the egregious manner in which contemporary filmmakers tell their stories. What we didnt get to discuss was the importance of character. Specifically, we failed to explore the concept of the hero and speculate on why the franchise hero has all but disappeared from Hollywood.
Can you start by identifying the qualities of a hero? What attributes must a hero possess?
Im going to defer to Aristotle here. In Poetics, he says that a hero should be slightly better than a real person. This is why we make movies or plays about princes. You are not a prince, but you will watch a play about a prince because he is living bigger than you can, and that adds to the drama. The same goes for a president or a governor or a police chiefanyone who is a little better than the masses in a few areas that make him fascinating.
Take Indiana Jones, for example. Hes a smart archaeologist. He knows more than you do. Hes amazing with a whip and a gun, and hes incredibly resourceful. Luke Skywalker is strong in the Force, and Yoda is much wiser than you. You can just go down the list of great film characters, and they will all be better than the average person and stand out in an area of skill or knowledge.
So thats it? A hero is just someone who is more skilled than we are?
No. Aristotle also says that heroes must be better than we are in terms of virtue as well. At the very least, they should have proprietypropriety in courage, in discretion, and in noble aspirations; they should be slightly more consistent and loftier than the audience. Of course, they shouldnt be hugely so, because then we couldnt connect with them.
This is the game that the screenwriter must play. If you ask the average person whether he is brave, he will almost invariably answer in the affirmative. But not every person can really be brave, right? If that were the case, we wouldnt even know what bravery is. So the reason why you should only make your heroes slightly better than the masses is because we all secretly believe that we are extraordinary people waiting to happen. We need to feel that heroism is within our reach. Thats what will draw us in.
Why is it important for us to have heroes?
Now we are moving into the major confusion afflicting contemporary storytellers. The other day I came out of a movie with a friendI cant say which movie because it hasnt been released yetand I told her that the lead character was just awful. I wouldnt want to be stuck on an elevator with this character for four minutes, I said, let alone two hours. And she replied, Yeah, but he was based on a real person.
This is the problem. Someone once told Flannery OConnor that he had lived his whole life in the South and had never met one of the people in her stories. Oh, good, said OConnor. Im not trying to write real people; Im trying to write good characters. Todays storytellers, however, are justifying bad-story fodder by claiming that it mirrors real life. But heres the thing: We already have real life. Personally, I have loads of it. I have mundane, banal, morose, and boring people all around me. I need better than that from stories. Thats the whole point of them. Weve got real life, and its not healing.
I think it was Benjamin Disraeli who said that we need extraordinary heroes in our stories and plays so that we can be good to the guy next door. A super individual shames us into good behavior in real life. Take Mother Teresa; she scooped dirty, indigent people out of the gutter, even though they smelled bad and had maggots on them. She shames me into not snapping at my husband when he does something stupid. The extraordinary example of the hero shames us into mere civility.
Whats the difference between a hero and a protagonist?
A good protagonist is simply one who is pushing the story events to happen; he doesnt have to be a hero. Actually, no one in the movie business these days wants to say that his film has a hero. When youre in pitch meetings, its considered quaintand not in a good wayto talk about heroes. What you connote with the term hero is that some people are better than other people, and thats not fair. Rather, its mean and judgmental. How dare you imply that? How dare you say that Patton was better than Goering? He wasnt better. The two men just found themselves in different situations.
Film execs will talk about the subject of the movie. Theyll talk about the one driving the action. Theyll talk about the object of the action. But theyll never mention the word hero. In one sense, this is good because its an acknowledgment that theres nothing heroic happening in their movies. One of the reasons why the audience has turned away from the cinema is that whats being sold as heroic isnt at all heroic most of the time.
What do you mean?
Traditionally, the choices that define the hero have high stakes and provoke a change in the external world. Luke Skywalker gets his act together, turns off his guiding computer, and trusts the Force. Personally, he makes a huge leap from cynicism and doubt to faith. He becomes a trusting person, destroying the Death Star in the process and setting the Empire back hugely. There is a change in the external world because the character conquers an inner darknessan inner demon.
Today, there is a tremendous cynicism about the capacity of the individual to impact the broader world, and the truth is that you probably cant make that big of a difference. But storytelling has always been the terrain where someone could. We need someone who can level a mountain so that we can step over an anthill; storytelling should be hyperbolic for that reason. Now, however, our heroes have a lack of pastoral concern for the broader world. Why should I care about making things better? It all stinks anyway. This is the movie Garden State; everyone is just surviving the way he needs to, whether thats through drugs or relationships or something else. Survival is the only goal. Indeed, the new goal of the hero is to develop the coping skills that will allow him to survive in whatever narcissistic way works. Theres just nothing there for the audience to care about. A narcissist just trying to cope is not compelling.
To what degree is Hollywood ignoring what the audience wants, and to what degree is it giving us exactly what we want?
People always ask me whether Hollywood mirrors society or determines it, and my answer is that it does both. Hollywood mirrors human society by holding a magnifying glass to it, for entertainment has to be bigger than real life. You take a slightly freakish behavior and then magnify it for entertainment purposes. But this makes our tolerance for quirkiness and dysfunction greater, and in this sense Hollywood is determining our tastes as well.
The question is, what does the audience really want? Well, children want heroes; thats clear. Kids love The Incredibles. Theyre not thrilled about Ratatouille. The latter film was an artistic achievement for Pixar, but it was nothing next to The Incredibles, or even Monsters, Inc. I asked my 9-year-old nephew what kinds of movies he loves, and he wants stories of good people clearly fighting evil. What he doesnt want is to watch The Dark Knight and see Batman struggling with whether he truly wants to help people. This is post-Christian crap!
Is the upcoming generation of filmmakers just as cynical?
What I have noticed in the Millennialsthe people who are coming of age in this new millenniumis a sadness about the possibility of heroism. This sadness comes from their lack of discipline. They know that heroes are needed, and they believe that they know what a hero isnamely, somebody who would do something without getting paid for itbut they have been so coddled themselves that they just dont view this sort of heroism as a viable option.
These kids have been told from the time that they were in pre-school that they are special, but theyre really not. I tell my students this all the time. You are not special as a generation. I can tell you all day long that you are excellent, but if you dont discover your own excellence in your own moral achievements, then it will fall on deaf ears. The ears of your mind and spirit wont buy it.
This affects their storytelling in the same way that cynicism affects the stories of the Boomers. So many of the scripts I am reading right now have scenes of characters looking sadly and impotently at a crisis.
How do we change this?
Im not sure. What Im trying to do with our young writers at Act One is push them back to classic storytelling principles. I dont care that you dont believe that a high-stakes choice for good is possible, I tell them. I just want you to write it. I dont want to get stuck in this existential debate about what should happen in a romantic comedy. I sit there at script meetings and hear writers saying that they dont know whether they should have the lead couple get married and have kids because a lot of times it doesnt work for people and maybe they wouldnt be good parents and perhaps they came from broken families and so on. Please! What exactly am I supposed to root for with this couple? Some motorcycle rides out in the country? Is that the goal here? You can see how this indecisive impotence just guts the heart out of a story.
Other than The Incredibles and a few other Pixar films, have there been any movies the last couple of years that contain decent heroes?
No. In fact, this years crop of so-called superhero moviesPush, Wolverine, Watchmen, and so onare the most cynical things you can imagine. There is nothing in them that offers lightness of heart, spirit, or hope. The theme of Watchmen was that no good deed goes unpunished, which is not what you expect in a comic-book movie. I just keep seeing worse and worse stuff.
The other night I went to see Public Enemies, which is the John Dillinger movie, and it was dreadful. You cant help contrasting it to Bonnie and Clyde, an amazing psychological study of how people dabbling in crime eventually become demonic. Its a work of genius where Public Enemies is not. The latter movie does not work because it wasnt willing to judge the actions of Dillinger, and it actually juxtaposes them with those of the FBI agent who pursues him. Both men are killers; there is no difference between them. The film is completely unsatisfying.
A hero has to move toward an understanding. This is what the audience is waiting for; this is what its expecting. When bad things happen to a character, he is supposed to learn from them and stagger away with a hard insight. Who wants to see a movie in which no one learns anythingthe hero just dies or doesnt die? My mother used to say all the time that life is hard and then you dont die. This sums up all current movie heroes. They do take their blows and stagger away, but they have learned nothing.
Help Bring Back the Superhero. MENTOR A SUPERHERO TODAY!
I was in High School in the 70s. I remember taking a humanities class, (yep, the hippies had infected the schools by then), and watching “Cool Hand Luke”. We went over the hero versus anti-hero thing. I think it was in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Hollywood first started rejecting heros for anti-heros.
They have it down to an art form now, (pun intended). But they’ve lost their audience.
Anyway, it's hard to think of a Gary Cooper or Robert Mitchum who is acting today. A man's man is not popular anymore, and heroes are rarely portrayed, and God has been kicked out of the schools ...
... and we find ourselves in our current mess. Our whole culture has been debased.
There’s a great documentary about the history of the spaghetti western called “The Spaghetti West” that explains how the “anti-hero” was conceived by the Communist film makers who took over Italian cinema in the 60s and created the entire genre of anti-government, revolutionary propaganda thru movies.
Very interesting article.
Some of the best Hollywood characters are in kids’ shows.
I can’t believe, though, that screenwriters live such sheltered lives that they never have an “all hands on deck” moment — a storm coming; the cows are out on the road at midnight; Dad and Mom are both sick and the kids have to do the chores; or even making the play of the game to clinch a win.
What kind of lives do such people live that they have absolutely nothing to write about?
I agree that sadly, the anti-hero seems to be the norm.
I think John Wayne summed it up very well in his last movie, “The Shootist”:
“I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to others, and I expect the same from them.”
John Wayne, George Patton, William F. Halsey, Chesty Puller, George Washington, and Robert E. Lee: My heroes.
What he doesnt want is to watch The Dark Knight and see Batman struggling with whether he truly wants to help people.
I didn't see Batman as conflicted at all.
Now, in the film adaptation of LOTR, Aragorn was portrayed as rather conflicted and unsure of himself, which I thought was completely wrong. In the book, he does not question his role at all -- although he does at least once kick himself for not always making the right decision.
The people in control of the main conduits of storytelling today are, like the people in control of pedagogy and the people in control of “journalism” and the people in control of the three branches of government scared to death of the individual. A person who reveres traits of the traditional hero cannot be controlled beyond a certain point. Such a person also necessarily accepts and takes responsibility for his actions and for the condition of his world. (Sorta' like the Founding Fathers.) The only driving "truth" accepted by H'wood today is that there are no real truths.
I suspect that most if not all of the screenwriters are like the characters seen in Robert Altman's The Player or like the people detailed in Joe Eszterhas' book Hollywood Animal.
I have no demographic data to back this up but I assume most are single or "living together" most likely childless or if they have children they are being raised by "the help" ...again maybe not accurate but my "hunch"
Thanks for posting this. Very insightful.
An excellent read.
Ugh...d-bag dialectic materialists are like a cancer.
Well, Hollywood has also stopped producing heroines. Can you think of an actress who has the presence of studio stars such as Betty Davis or Katherine Hepburn? Meryl Steep comes close, but no cigar.
There was a short time after 9/11 when the hero ideal returned and the nation saw the merit of the strong and manly type of man.
My tippiung point was when the Mission Impossible I movie made Jim Phelphs the bad guy. It all seemed pretty pointless after that.
I had forgotten about that...I hated that.
I attended the Kanaab Western Legends Round Up last year (2008) in Kanaab Utah. There were a number of my heroes attending, but my wife and I went mainly to met Clint Walker aka ‘Cheyenne Bodie’ and a hero of both of us and good Christian Gentleman. We also met Ty Harden aka Bronco Lane and Hugh O’Brian aka Wyatt Earp, both of who are strong Christian Gentlemen as well.
One thing they all had in common was how they despised what Hollywood has become. I had a hope a couple years ago when AMC did the movie ‘Broken Trail’ and it did super ratings as well as great reviews with the critics that maybe we would see a turn-around, but no AMC just came back with more tales of ‘broken’ heroes as in ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad’ neither of which I have the least interest in watching.
Bruce Willis in Die Hard--good vs evil, regular guy rising up against the bad guys
Bruce Willis and company again in Armegeddon. Various characters in Independence Day. In both of the above, good guys rise up and take on a problem in space. And as an added bonus, it is the U S of freaking A, that comes to save the day. It isn't the French, or some African nation, it is US technology and guts that win the day.
Con Air with Nicholas Cage. He is a little bit of an anti-hero--in jail with a bit of a violent streak. But in the end, his Army Ranger skills are rewarded, and all he is trying to do is get home to his wife and daughter. And he has to fight every type of sociopath along the way. The viewer knows the murderers/molestors are the bad guys
Thanks for the article. An interesting read.
Great hero. Even though there is no hope of success he refuses to back down.