Monday, December 18, 2017

The Return of the White Hats

This has been on my mind for a while now, but The Last Jedi and a lot of people's visceral reaction against it, helped crystallize this line of thought.

The Last Jedi, in an attempt to be dark and serious, and “different”, hates heroism and actively punishes it. Poe Dameron, hotshot fighter pilot, is the only truly heroic character in the film. He's the only one who consistently, and without hesitation puts his life on the line for the cause and makes hard, decisive command decisions in stressful times aimed at protecting lives. He is constantly punished for this. By other characters, by plot twists, by supremely horrid writing.

He is a classic Capital-H Hero. He's not conflicted about doing the right thing. He's not dripping with parental angst. He's not considering turning into a villain. He's a true blue, dyed-in-the-wool Hero. Even with dumb, quippy dialogue, he's got a natural charisma that shines through the poor writing that makes you want to follow him into ADVENTURE.

And the movie shits on him. It does everything it can to not let him be a hero. To beat his heroic impulses out of him. To make him submissive to the plot because “its the dark middle chapter of the trilogy.” Because a Space Opera about space wizards with laser swords demands gritty realism about the horrors of war.

This is not unique to The Last Jedi. Superman in particular has suffered a lot from this in movies. Henry Cavill cuts a heroic figure and has the physique, smile, and natural earnestness to pull off Clark Kent. He spends the bulk of Man of Steel wanting to use his powers for the good of his adopted planet, but is repeatedly told no by his adopted father, the very man who should be nurturing him to use his abilities wisely. This carries through into Batman vs Superman, where Superman is more feared than Batman by the world at large, and the plot manipulates him into fighting Batman. Yet again, Cavill seems to want to play Superman at his full heroic glory, but the movie won't let him. I haven't seen Justice League, and don't plan to, so I can't comment on him there.

This goes back at least as far as Superman Returns, from 2006. There, Brandon Routh was cast as a next-generation Christopher Reeves. Tall, handsome, and with a comforting smile. The actor looks the part of Superman. But what do we have? A Superman who abandoned Earth for years. A Superman who abandoned Lois for years, leaving her to raise a son without him. The movie has flashes of Superman. He saves a jet in a genuinely thrilling sequence. He cleans up the local crooks with aplomb and rescues people left and right. Yet the movie bogs itself down in half-assed navel gazing and doubt while a deliciously evil Lex Luthor (played to perfection by Kevin Spacey before we realized he might actually be very evil in real life) executes his plot.

To get a good Superman movie, I'd argue that you have to go back to Superman and Superman II from the late 70s-early 80s. And even then, I recommend the Richard Donner Cut of Superman II over the theatrical. Superman III sucks and is boring, while Superman IV is a hilarious trainwreck. Those movies let Superman be Superman: Bright, heroic, hopeful, inspirational, and reassuring. The world is a better place simply by having Superman in it.

For some reason, the movers and shakers of entertainment have decided that audiences don't want straightforward heroes anymore. Antiheroes are pushed as the best option, since they're conflicted and dark, and that's realism, because real people are flawed and don't always do the right thing. Straightforward heroes, if they show up, have to be defeated by cynical villains who aren't dumb enough to play fair. Or they have to be treated as jokes. Buffoons to be laughed at for their outdated idealism.

Deconstruction is fine in measured doses, because you can learn a lot about stories and storytelling by taking the pieces apart. However, if you don't put the pieces back together, you're left with a mess. When you deconstruct everything, you have nothing left except a dull expanse of broken ideas and characters. There's nothing to take away from that kind of entertainment landscape but nihilism.

All your heroes are broken lunatics and there is no truth to storytelling. That's the lesson from deconstructionism for its own sake.

Batman needs to be moody and anti-social at all times. Green Lantern needs to be indecisive. Luke Skywalker needs to be a fallen hero who ran away from the galaxy's conflicts in out-of-character cowardice.

This is what major movies tell us, and is it any wonder why all of the major entertainment franchises are tottering on the brink of collapse? Audiences are drifting away because they no longer satisfy them.

A large part of the reason why Wonder Woman exceeded all expectations was because she was allowed to be Wonder Woman: Warrior princess, peacebringer, avenger of injustice, and Hero. Not only that, but Steve Trevor was equally as Heroic, which made their relationship all the more enjoyable.

The Marvel movies have also delivered on that kind of storytelling. Captain America is recognizably Heroic in his movies, though the MCU is getting long in the teeth now, and even with the acquisition of FOX, I don't know how audiences are going to react past Infinity War.

Audiences are sick of nothing but gray antiheroics. They're also sick of retreads of familiar, recent stories only with darker tones. People are starving for true Heroics in their stories again.

Wonder Woman's success was not a fluke, but a sign of what's coming. The unbridled love for My Hero Academia is a sign of what's coming. The interest in Pulp literature from the early 20th century is a sign of what's coming. The renewed interest in classic superhero comics that look nothing like the spiteful mess modern comics are is a sign of what's coming. The quietly whispered question “whatever happened to Westerns?” is a sign of what's coming.

Mark my words:

The White Hat Heroes are coming back. 

1 comment:

TWS said...

Now this is an insightful review. Excellent points and it makes sense.