Besides comic book movies and television shows, there are no proper heroes and villains in television and movies these days. Perhaps I am a man who was born a few decades too late and who would have been better rushing the beaches of Normandy and stabbing a young Nazi soldier in the face with my bayonet.
These days, there are no real heroes. At best, we see anti-heroes, that is, people who do the right thing for the wrong reasons or the wrong thing for the right reasons. The villains have to be tragic villains, whose motivation are good natured but do evil things because of some tragic background. The viewer is supposed to sympathize with these evil-doers.
I wish I was exaggerating. But it is the truth. And sadly, this kind of thing sells. The most popular series on television right now is probably A Game of Thrones. Now, I haven’t watched it, but I’ve seen enough of the synopsis to understand that there are no heroes in the show, just assholes and bitches. The few good people are killed off or turn to the dark side. I’m hoping George R. R. Martin ends the whole series with those frost giant things just killing everyone and conquering the world. God knows they are probably the only good creatures in that whole world.
But it isn’t just A Game of Thrones, and I don’t mean to pick on it. Other shows like The Walking Dead feature people who are just plain ambiguous at best. Even the Governor was cast in a sympathetic light this past season. And while I understand that the world painted in that series is nihilistic, at the same time it would be nice to see some characters who have integrity and are able to survive even in those dark times.
The top shows that have recently ended were Dexter, a series about a serial murderer (but he only murders bad people) and Breaking Bad, where a former Chemistry teacher becomes a Crystal Meth kingpin. In both case, the protagonist is not a likeable person in real life. I never could get into Dexter because the characters annoyed me (seriously Deb could not go two minutes without saying “fuck”). And I knew where Breaking Bad was going after watching the first season. It was clear that Walter White wasn’t going to stop until he was at the top and then he would fall.
In movies it is no different. Save superhero flicks, we see nothing but tragic villains and anti-heroes set up to fight each other. There are exceptions to this though. Taken is an excellent example of a hero trying to rescue his daughter from blatantly evil men. No backstory is given to the villains and the hero, though brutal in his methods, is not a damaged basket-case who enjoys what he does. His most brutal acts are generally done out of righteous anger and necessity, not sadism.
But you might think that children’s flicks would feature a much simpler formula. Unfortunately, kids movies often focus on the protagonist being either an empowered female or a wimpy male who manages to come out on top in his own way. Where is Beowulf? Or King Arthur? Or Aragorn? And no, I am not talking about the modern interpretations of them being conflicted pussies, but confident strong men who can face evil head on with little to no fear.
Give me Saint George fighting a dragon. Give me a hero who fights for something more than himself. Give me back the maiden in distress. There’s nothing wrong with depicting a weak female character from time to time. It’s not misogynist, it’s reality.
Now you may be confused by that last statement. Aren’t conflicted characters “real” people? Shouldn’t the antihero be the norm as he is three-dimensional? And shouldn’t the villains have a good reason for being so evil?
The truth is, there are people who are incredibly layered and complex. But the vast majority of people on the planet are simple, one-dimensional characters. I’d argue that making characters less complex would actually be a more realistic depiction. I’ve heard critics complain about how bullies are often portrayed as straight up bullies with no backstory, but at the same time I’d argue that sometimes people are just jerks.
This does not mean I cannot enjoy any of these shows or movies. Storytelling is so much more than complex characters or antiheroes or villains. I am just complaining that I keep on seeing more and more of this trend in Hollywood where there are no heroes and sympathetic villains.
It just makes me wonder what our culture wants these days. Do we want a hero to save us or just a bunch of assholes to push us around? The past several decades have featured an unbelievably high-level of cynicism and societal depression. Maybe it’s time we started to look for heroes again. And maybe it’s time we stopped trying to understand evil or give it excuses.