Tuesday, May 06, 2008

On mythic heroes and modern heroes, gods and mortals

For once, a serious rather than sarcastic post, on the question of why the Iron Man and Batman Begins movies succeed, and Hulk and Thor will fail horribly.

And yes, the best thing I can get serious about is superhero movies. But this isn't really about superhero movies, it's about the changing nature of the Hero archetype in folk narrative, and its about gods and men. No, it really is. But I'm going to get there the long way.


The reviews are in and "Iron Man" is a resounding critical and popular success. The same was true of Batman Begins. I have a thought as to why these two movies worked, and it's this: both Iron Man and Batman exist on a human scale, albeit at the far end of that scale. Hulk and Thor are so superhuman, they are beyond interesting.

That means two things. First, we find their exploits to be credible, just bordering on incredible. Second, while their powers are impressive, their limits are well-defined. So Batman is a better martial artist than any real fighter who has ever lived -- but not so much better that you can't believe its possible. And when he takes on a dozen skilled fighters you believe that he can get hurt, and could even lose. You can believe that what he does might, barely, be possible; and you care because you believe that he is actually at risk.

Similarly, the tech in Iron Man's armor is beyond any reality today but (with a couple of exceptions, like where is the power source?) not beyond things we can imagine today. What is even more impressive is how little the concept has changed since it was created back in the 1960s (the main change has been the technobabble explanations of how it works: back then, it was all down to "transistors"). And like Batman, he has limits. Can he survive a confrontation with a main battle tank? Probably. A fighter jet? Maybe. A surface-to-air missile? Maybe not. A guy in a bigger, stronger Iron Man suit? This I gotta see...

Now think about Hulk, Thor, Superman, and similar heroes. Hulk is... there's no two ways about this... invulnerable. Indestructible. Nothing can harm him. You can't even restrain him for long because, as the comic books tell us, "the angrier Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets". So he can't be hurt, and there's no limit to his strength. Hmmm, I wonder who's going to win, Hulk or the other guy? The centerpiece of this summer's Hulk movie, apparently, is an extended fight between Hulk and an enemy from the comic books called the Abomination, who is just as strong and invulnerable as Hulk, only uglier. Two guys who can't be hurt going at it for twenty minutes? Wake me up when it's over. The audience for this movie is presumably people who enjoy seeing things blown up or knocked down. Adolescent males, in other words.

Thor, for those unfamiliar with this Marvel character, is an immortal Norse god come to Earth. He is, according to canon, about as strong as Hulk, plus he has an indestructible magic hammer that commands the lightning. How are they going to make us care what happens to him? You could drop a nuclear bomb on him and it might, at worst, singe his hair. In order to put Thor or Superman in any real peril, you basically have to temporarily strip their powers (e.g. with Kryptonite, in Superman's case, or by hiding his hammer for 60 minutes in the case of Thor -- no, really), and that gets pretty tedious after a while. It's also self-defeating: the best way to make these characters more interesting is to take away the powers that define them!

Of course, having a protagonist we can actually invest ourselves in doesn't guarantee success. You still have to get the tone right and have a good story with a meaningful character arc. Look at Batman and Robin and the other franchise-killing Batman sequels, for example. Character arc is the hardest part to get right in a sequel: when you look at the transformations of Wayne and Stark by the ends of their respective movies, you have to wonder what they can do next other than beat up more people and blow up more things and save the city again. (Incidentally, this is why none of the Star Wars movies after the first are very interesting. By the end of the first movie, all of the major characters have completed their Campbellian heroic journey.)

And this brings me back to my original point. Modern movie making offers us two kinds of hero. One is the Unchanging Hero, who is the same person at the end of his story that he was at the beginning. He is called to action, he responds, he succeeds, and he returns in glory (or, if the writer is feeling creative, in irony). John Wayne's heroes fit this mold, as does Indiana Jones, James Bond, and many others. You can trace the lineage of this story back as far as records exist. It's Achilles and Hector and Hercules and Beowulf and Gilgamesh. It's the story of gods and demigods and superhumans all the way back to the most ancient legends we know of.

The second kind of hero is the Unwilling Hero, popularized among screenwriters by Joseph Campbell's "The Hero's Journey". In Campbell's framework, the hero starts out as an ordinary person, then follows a well-defined arc involving a call, a refusal, a second call, a cast of mystical helpers, and so on. Think of just about any folk tale where the peasant slays the dragon after all the princes have failed. Or think of Luke Skywalker, the highly-publicised example that launched a thousand second-rate imitations. By most standards this tradition is also ancient, but it may be only half as old as the Unchanging Hero: say, 5000 years.

The Unchanging Hero is the product of a human psyche that was, in some fundamental way, timeless. The stories of Greek gods and demigods all take place in a timeless "now", there is no way that one can sequence them into a narrative. They are ahistorical. The stories of the Old Testament and the founding mythology of the Romans and the dynastic records of the Egyptians by contrast are chronological and purport to be historical and -- in an astonishing conceptual shift -- depict change over time. This is about as fundamental a shift as mankind has ever gone through.

And intriguingly, both of these ideas exist in modern storytelling. Hulk, Thor and Superman are like unchanging gods and demigods -- and I don't think it's a coincidence that they have godlike powers of strength and invulnerability. (Heck, Superman can even turn back time to bring the dead back to life!). So is Bond: you can watch pretty much the entire canon (with one important exception...) in any order, because the character does not change through the course of his adventures.

Iron Man and Batman on the other hand are like the human heroes of the founding of Rome or the Biblical conquest of Palestine. They do change over time and their narrative has a definite order to it. And again, it's no coincidence that their powers are recognizably human, not godlike.

Even more interestingly, we seem to be in an era of Hollywood movie-making at least where the Unchanging Hero is declining in favor of the Unwilling Hero. The most recent James Bond, for example, depicts the arc of a moral man becoming an efficient killer-for-duty. The Bourne Identity depicts the reverse arc.

So based on all of the above, here's my predictions for the blockbuster movies for the next few years:

Hulk, Thor, Superman Returns sequel (Superman Returns Returns?): Epic fails. May make a lot of money on opening weekend, but will leave a lot of disappointed fans.

Batman Begins sequel (Batman Begins Again?), Iron Man sequel: all depends on finding some new character arc for Wayne and Stark. If, like many other sequels, begins with an already-heroic character who does some heroic stuff then stops, it will disappoint.

Captain America: Potentially as good as Batman Begins, if they get the tone right.

Indiana Jones 4: This is the trickiest one. I don't know anything about the plot, but I predict that if it's just another episode in the Old Indiana Jones Chronicles with an Unchanging Hero, it will be the surprise flop of the summer. I think that the time for such heroes has passed by. But if it does something new with the character, it will be a surprise critical success rather than just a popcorn movie.


Personally, I prefer my movie heroes to be men, not gods.

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