Monday, July 01, 2019

Heroes and anti-heroes

Some thoughts on heroes and villains and storytelling. This involves some literary and film criticism. And there are tons of spoilers about The Dark Knight, Logan, and the much older film Seven. It's a bit of a jumble if not a haphazard mess, and I don't have the time I'd like to have to better organize and finesse it, but I figured it's better raw than not at all.

  1. Many people are fascinated with crime stories, film noir, vigilantes, outlaws, and the like.

    Take the hard-boiled private investigator. I think the main attraction of the P.I. is that he has legal authority to investigate and arrest criminals, and he's fighting to solve crime, but he can operate outside the law. He can rough up people in a way the police can't, he can sneak into places the police need a warrant to search, he can fake the evidence for the greater good of getting rid of the bad guy, and so on. He's a just individual, but he isn't beholden to the judicial and legal system.

    Similar things could be said for the vigilante and the outlaw.

    In short, these are stories about a certain type of character - the anti-hero. Characters who are at heart good but who operate on the (legal and/or ethical) fringes of society. In D&D parlance, the police or sheriff would be lawful good characters, while the P.I. or outlaw would be chaotic good characters.

  2. A good story needs a good enemy. The antagonist mirrors the protagonist.

    a. In a classic Western, it's easy to distinguish the good guy from the bad guy. The good guy wears the white hat while the bad guy wears the black hat! On a more serious note, the good upholds the law, while the bad breaks the law. That's straightforward. Lawful good is mirrored by lawful evil.

    b. What, though, could mirror an anti-hero? What antagonist could mirror a protagonist who is chaotically good? The answer is chaotic good is best mirrored by chaotic evil. The Joker best mirrors Batman.

    Batman is good, but he's outside the law. The Joker is evil, and the Joker is a criminal and therefore by definition already outside the law, so what does the Joker bring to the table to differentiate himself from other criminals? The difference is other criminals break the law, but the Joker discards the law. The Joker doesn't believe in the existence of any law at all.

    c. Consider the anti-hero and the anti-villain's competing goals. Batman's goal is law and order, though his means to achieve that end are often legally and ethically murky to say the least. However, the Joker's means are illegal and unethical, just like criminals in general, but the Joker's goal is not to break the law, but to deny its very existence. In short, the Joker's goal is chaos.

    d. Moreover, consider the use of fear. The police use fear to keep people from breaking the law. A villain uses fear to cause people to break the law (e.g. break the law or I'll break your bones). Likewise, Batman uses fear to keep people from breaking the law, but the difference is Batman uses fear in the same way a villain uses fear (e.g. breaking bones).

    However the Joker uses fear in a different way. The Joker's goal in using fear is to make people believe that there is no law, no good or bad, no right or wrong, that there's nothing but chaos. That's why the Joker tries to push Batman to kill him, because the Joker knows if Batman kills the Joker, then it proves to everyone that Batman is no different from the Joker.

  3. The protagonist's character arc is integral to good storytelling.

    a. In a story involving the classic protagonist, the protagonist would be shown to have come from a good background, have good motivations, good people in his life, or the like. He was a nice kid. He was an upstanding citizen. That sort of thing.

    However, in the case of the anti-hero, the difference is the character is wounded. Deeply wounded. As such, the anti-hero lives life like a ghost. He has a tragic past he can never repair. He has no future to look forward to. And at present he lives like a haunted man. Consider Rick Deckard in Blade Runner who has strange dreams or memories and reluctantly hunts down replicants. Consider John Anderton in Minority Report who lost his son in a swimming pool. Consider Takeshi Kovacs in Altered Carbon who is forced to relive forever, sleeving into one body after another.

    b. The anti-hero can't break free from his past wounds. His wounds have never healed. Of course, in real life, it's possible a person's wounds can't ever be healed in this life. However, in the context of the anti-hero story, a common reason his wounds aren't healed is because he doesn't want his wounds to heal. He prefers living his lie to the truth because the lie is more comforting or comfortable. Or at least because he doesn't have to face reality which looks worse to him.

    Take the movie Logan starring Hugh Jackman as Wolverine aka Logan. Logan is an anti-hero. He's aging and dying. He works as a limo driver so he can be alone. He lives in seclusion on the Mexican border. He's deeply wounded because nearly everyone Logan has ever loved and tried to help has died (e.g. Jean Grey). All except for Professor Charles Xavier aka Professor X, but Professor X is suffering from the last throes of dementia. Logan is Professor X's caregiver, but soon Professor X will die too. And there have been no mutants born for decades. Logan, Professor X, and a handful of others are the last remaining mutants in the world. And the lie Logan tells himself, the wound he keeps licking, is that it's not worth loving anyone because in the end those he loves will die. In the end, all that's left is pain, suffering, and death.

    c. This is the foundation for the protagonist's character arc, but the rest of the anti-hero's character arc plays out from this foundation. After this setup, what's needed for the character arc is a catalyst or trigger. An event or person that triggers the anti-hero to make a decision. In the case of Logan, the trigger is the sudden arrival of a new mutant who desperately needs help because she's being hunted by mercenaries. She's a mutant girl who is exactly like Wolverine, but much younger. Logan is asked (pleaded) to escort this girl to safety across the Canadian border.

    d. It needs to be emphasized that the anti-hero is a scoundrel. Logan refuses to help escort this girl to safety at first, but changes his mind for money. Not helping someone in dire straits out of goodness, but for selfish reasons. However the real reason the anti-hero doesn't wish to help isn't because he's really a scoundrel, but because to help would mean he has to risk coming to terms with his wounds and the lie he has been telling himself. It risks truth entering his world, shining a spotlight on his wounds, and potentially forcing him to change.

    e. As the story develops, the anti-hero is forced into further choices. Finally a watershed moment arrives when the anti-hero must choose to remain once for all in his delusion or choose to break free. This may even come at the cost of his own life. Hence Logan sacrifices himself to save this girl and other young mutants because he realizes love is worth dying for. He realizes it's better to die for those whom he loves than to live alone for nothing. This brings his character arc to a close.

    f. By the way, oftentimes, the protagonist's character arc reflects the main theme of the entire work.

  4. Many people are fascinated by literature and film that explore the worst of human nature. The film Seven (1995) is an example of a movie that explores the worst of human nature.

    a. The story is straightforward enough. It's about two detectives hunting a serial killer.

    b. It takes place in an unnamed city. The city itself looks and feels like its own character. It doesn't matter what particular city this is. The city could be any major urban inner city like NYC or LA. It's always dark, it's always raining. It's a crowded city. It's a city where people don't greet one another, but quickly shuffle along, lest they are noticed - and no one wants to be noticed, but left alone. It's a crime-infested city including violent crimes like rapes and homicides. It's a city that could have been torn from the pages of Dante's Inferno or Purgatorio. Perhaps the city is meant to represent hell on earth or similar.

    c. The serial killer murders his victims based on one of the seven deadly sins: gluttony, greed, sloth, lust, pride, envy, and wrath. Each of his victims embodies each of these sins. The serial killer murders them in gruesome fashion, literally re-enacting scenes from Dante (among others). As the film itself notes, the serial killer is "preaching a sermon" through his murders. The serial killer believes he is righteous.

    d. It's interesting to compare and contrast the two detectives. The cops are played by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt. Freeman is a cop only a week away from retirement, while Pitt is a young cop. Freeman has seen too much crime in his time as a cop, too many horrors and evils, and he has become cynical, while Pitt is fresh blood, itching to take on a big case, looking to make a name for himself. In fact, Pitt himself fought hard to be reassigned to the same beat which Freeman can't wait to leave behind. This perplexes Freeman.

    Freeman is the reluctant protagonist in the story. He has seen too much evil in the world to care about what happens anymore. He doesn't care about solving cases. He believes all he can do is just pick up the pieces after a murder has happened, gather and collect and label and organize the evidence into nice tidy piles, and move on to the next case. He lives for nothing except retirement.

    Pitt is cocky and arrogant. He's impetuous and rushes into places where angels fear to tread. Not to mention Pitt is a social climber. He wants to solve the biggest case to make the biggest name for himself. And this is at a cost to his own wife. Pitt loves his wife, but Pitt's wife never loved the city. She didn't want to move to the city. She has difficulty adjusting. Especially when she finds out she's pregnant.

    e. Speaking of Pitt's wife, she doesn't tell her husband she's pregnant. Instead she confides in Freeman. She thinks he might have some wisdom to offer so she can thread the needle of living in this godforsaken city with a child. However, Freeman is not much help. Freeman is a haunted character. He was once in love, and had a partner he loved who became pregnant, but he didn't want to bring a child into an evil world, and so he pressured his partner to get an abortion, which broke up their relationship.

    f. As I mentioned, the serial killer believes he's virtuous, and he believes his victims deserve what he did to them. As such, both the serial killer and the main protagonist both accept the reality of evil in this world. Both see evil in this world. However, each has a completely different reaction to the evil around them. Freeman is resigned to the evil around him. He doesn't think he can do anything about evil. He counts the days to retirement.

    By contrast, the serial killer believes evil exists but isn't resigned. Instead, the serial killer takes decisive action against evil. He believes evil should be punished and he punishes evil. The serial killer, not Freeman the protagonist, is ironically the one who is driving forward the plot. In this respect, the serial killer is a twisted mirror image of the anti-hero. If what the serial killer was doing wasn't itself evil, but righteous like he believes, then the serial killer would be the real hero or anti-hero and doing what the protagonist doesn't wish to do. The best antagonists often share common cause with their protagonists.

    However, the serial killer isn't the hero of the story but the villain or anti-villain. Freeman as still the protagonist of the story. The serial killer kills people with the seven deadly sins in the following order: gluttony, greed, sloth, lust, and pride. That's five so far, but there are two deadly sins left: envy and wrath.

    At this point, we are in the finale of the story. The serial killer forces Pitt's character into a decision. Like the Joker and Batman, the serial killer forces Pitt to either kill him or let him live when the serial killer has murdered and beheaded Pitt's wife and brought her head to Pitt in a box. Pitt is grief-stricken and enraged. Pitt executes the serial killer in front of other police.

    This act reveals Pitt's true colors, for it shows Pitt's envy in moving to a city his wife didn't want to move to because Pitt wanted to advance his own career. And it shows Pitt's uncontrollable temper and wrath that executed the serial killer even though the serial killer was already headed to death row since the serial killer had signed a full confession. So the serial killer accomplished his "sermon" on the seven deadly sins by making Pitt a willing accomplice.

    g. As for Freeman, his character arc moved from reluctant detective who couldn't care about the evil around him to suggesting he may not retire, and instead saying he'll "be around", because he believes "this world is worth fighting for". Freeman has moved from apathy to action. No longer wishing to bow out of the fight, but wishing to continue the fight. As Edmund Burke once said: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing". Hence, while Seven is an exceedingly dark and grim film, it ends with a little light and hope.

  5. I suppose one reason why many people find these sorts of stories compelling is because we ourselves have shadowselves as I believe Jordan Peterson has put it. Biblically speaking, we are sinners.

    a. What I mean is this. Speaking for myself, I know what a morally despicable person I am: the seed of every sin lies within me. Also, I know how my life could easily devolve ever further, morally speaking, if a few variables are changed: there but for the grace of God go I. Hence the allure of such works is in a sense an attempt to understand my enemy, who is me, and to keep him at bay.

    b. On a related note, I've heard Jordan Peterson point out that a paradigmatic female fantasy involves a good woman taming a wild man.

    Specifically a woman taming a vampire, werewolf, pirate, billionaire, or surgeon. Not only are these types of men wild men, but they're also aggressive men. If not apex predators.

    Peterson points out a basic reason for this is because a woman doesn't want to be with a tame or domesticated man when there's "chaos" in the world - or at least "chaos" in her world. She can get emotional support from other women. Hence she wants a man who is strong enough to protect her when all hell breaks loose, but at the same time she wants a man who's on her side. A man whom she can control. In short, it's the classic tale of beauty and the beast.

    What all this presupposes is that men are beasts. I don't necessarily have a problem agreeing that men are beasts, but let's not forget women who wish to tame and control men are likewise beasts. This might even reflect Gen 3:16b. In any case, it reflects the Fall.

    In summary, my point throughout this post is simply that these stories and characters ultimately point us to the truth the Bible has long taught: we are all morally bent and twisted, sinners in desperate need of a savior, or rather the Savior. Secular literature which involves the most vile and reprehensible characters can't help but echo this truth.


  1. I have thought about this before: What D&D Alignment are Christians? Are we Lawful Good like the stereotypical Paladin? Or Chaotic Good, because we try to do good even when the law of the land forbids it?

    The answer I came to eventually is Lawful Good - but the law which we follow is that of our God (in effect, exactly like a true Paladin).

    --This act reveals Pitt's true colors, for it shows Pitt's envy in moving to a city his wife didn't want to move to because Pitt wanted to advance his own career.--

    IIRC envy was the killer's own sin, envy of Pitt's normal life. Which is why he let himself be caught and executed by Pitt.

    1. Thanks! That's interesting! I'd have to rewatch the film, but you might well be right.

    2. DuckDuckGo-ing for quotes from the film, a few collections cite John Doe as saying "It seems that envy is my sin."