03 July 2013

On the elevation of self-serving heroes

There's an ever-present danger in comparing the present to the past, especially in the world of entertainment.  Even if we assume for the sake of argument that, as consumers of pop culture, we're all a bunch of louts, no two louts' experiences will be the same.  I, for one, don't expect any more than a tiny fraction of my peers to have come of age watching the works of Hayao Miyazaki, and it seems as if those who grew up to Beavis and Butthead did okay.  (For those of you who expect these names and works to come linkified, c'mon -- how hard is it to copypasta into a search engine or wiki these days?)
That said, I find myself a little fascinated and somewhat more troubled by the emergence of self-serving protagonists in today's popular works -- namely, big-budget cinema.  Going through the top-grossing movies of the past four years and throwing out movies I've watched but had a protagonist so drowned out by the plot that I could scarcely remember the protagonist as a character (I'm looking at you, Inception), here's a sample of what we're watching these days, in no particular order:

Iron Man
Star Trek (as envisioned by J.J.Abrams)
The Dark Knight trilogy (Christopher Nolan)
Skyfall
Twilight Saga

To make my uneasiness a bit more clear, let's take these one at a time.  Tony Stark of Ironman has some good and endearing qualities but, by his own admission, is a self-absorbed playboy billionaire.  Abrams' Captain Kirk is an arrogant firebrand who doesn't get an arc so much as vindication that his chimpanzee-style problem resolution (if angry doesn't fix a problem, get angrier) is the way to go.  Take it away, Abigail Nussbaum:
The way that Khan sees himself, as a superior being who by rights shouldn't be bound by conventions and the laws of other people, is exactly the way that Abrams's Star Trek films want us to see Kirk, so if Khan and Kirk have the same motivation, why is one of them the bad guy and the other the hero?
Nolan's Batman ended The Dark Knight as someone who sacrificed his legacy to protect the town (mind you it's not like the guy actually spent time in jail for a crime he didn't commit -- something real people do all the time), but again as Nussbaum observed, a lot of the final movie's underlying themes are about how wrong this sacrifice is; this billionaire who's lost a loved one needs the people to wuv him.  While Bruce mourns his lover, the loss the movie mourns is the character assassination of a creation that's more image than substance even within the movie itself.  Really, we're making this movie about how an image was destroyed for the sake of good.  Hell, if that turns a broken city into a safe one, that's really cheap!  I'd do it a dozen times; you can always give that battle armor a fresh coat of paint and a new name, like "Flash Man".
Hey, this guy made a career of it.

As for losing a loved one, that is tragic, but I know people who've suffered comparable losses and found the strength to move on without piles of money or the love of a city.  Instead, they had to keep paying bills in relative obscurity.  Come to think of it, it's remarkable how little the actual city dwellers are involved in a war for their approval.
Next up, Skyfall.  It's a James Bond movie.  Bond is Bond -- a slick, sociopathic, high-living lady's man.  Even as a kid, I couldn't take these movies seriously if I tried.  Next.
 Twilight.  One for the ladies, I guess, if the work wasn't so misogynistic.

These examples aren't disturbing by themselves, even the odious Twilight.  My concern, and it could be a bit unfounded here, is that we're looking at a trend.  These days I'm genuinely surprised if a movie protagonist has the empathy and compassion of a normal, well-adjusted person.  But wait, aren't they supposed to be heroes?  Holy hell, when did my standards fall this low?

It's not all bleak, of course.  Harry Potter is a shining being of light compared to the above collection of emo self-serving douchebags.  Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games shows a refreshing combination of sympathy and grit, at least when the plot calls for it.  But when push comes to shove, her reaction to the notion that she must manipulate the audience to survive isn't met with disgust for the farce so much as discomfort due to inexperience.  And speaking of Jennifer Lawrence in manipulative roles, Silver Linings Playbook was elevated as some sort of thinking person's rom-com for tackling the issue of mental illness.  Which is all fine and good, but I found myself downright horrified that while every other character is called upon to own their mistakes and tackle their issues, Tiffany does downright horrible things to Pat and in the end it's shrugged off as "romantic".

I know these are cursed words but back in my day, a hero was altruistic to the point of predictable, even unquestioned.  It was taken for granted, then eventually derided as a shallow trope.  I daresay this was not because an altruistic hero was an inherently bad or overused idea, but because writers stopped trying to find ways to make it interesting.  Luke Skywalker was never really confronted with any moral complexity in the Star Wars trilogy until it became personal; right from the start he's a Rebel sympathizer, no one questions it and I daresay the movie doesn't suffer for it.  Han Solo has much more of an arc but even his conversion is rather unforced -- a couple guilt trips and some camaraderie was all it took, and why not?  Heck, in any 1990s video game, as soon as you pick up the controller you assume you're the good guy and everything you kill deserves to die.  Granted this sort of moral simplicity is downright dangerous when discussing real-world policy, but as a form of escapism is it that bad?  When did the idea of a selfless hero become so hard to grasp?  Actually I'm even OK with the moral complexity as long as we stop portraying altruism as foolish and incompatible with pragmatism (not when this guy existed for realz).  You don't need to create a Mary Sue to protect an altruist from a tragic fate; a lot of compassionate people do just fine in the harsh world we live in.  The heroes I see on the screen have wealth and superpowers yet are more self-absorbed than most of my friends, for fuck's sake!  I guess Gen X grew up sick of the goodie-two-shoes trope, but did they take the time to ask themselves why?  That altruism has to be explained lest it be considered unrealistic (and is often considered unrealistic anyway) strikes me as baffling and creepy.

I'm not sure if this is indicative of Hollywood's nature or ours.  Did we raise, or are we raising, a generation of sociopaths?  Does this explain America's rush to dismantle any sort of program that requires the electorate to have compassion for others?  Maybe not.  When I think hard about it, I remember laughing to Beavis and Butthead and decide I'm overreacting.  The Millenials are growing up to a dearth of altruistic heroes, but it doesn't seem to be doing any permanent damage if they're celebrating the death of DOMA in defiance of their elders.
No, not this one, the "Defense of Marriage Act", a.k.a. "We Hate Gays Act".
So much for socipathy.  That said, I can't help but wonder what it's like to grow up in an age when "heroes" are whiny, rich, self-absorbed, anti-intellectual douchebags.  If it means less bigotry I'm all for it, but I doubt there's any meaningful correlation.  And as long as there isn't, is there a reason why we can't have both?