Heroism Minus Antagonism

I have a lot of thoughts rolling around in my head that follow up somehow on my last post about the issues with the kind of heroism marketed toward adults versus what is sold to kids. For one, there are some serious questions about representation that I left largely unaddressed. It doesn't go without notice that the heroes I wrote about are all white men, and that the two ideas that got relegated to footnotes were both about properties that should, one would think, centralize women (Black Widow and My Little Pony). This question, and similar questions about heroism of color or queer heroism are necessary parts of the problem I was starting to think about the other day, and ideas I hope I can grapple with adequately as I develop my thoughts here. For the moment, I'm still working on it, but in the meantime there is another idea I've been chewing on that I do have a little better developed: What happens to a hero story when you don’t have an antagonist? And why -- again! -- are stories for kids showing more narrative sophistication than the ones which are, ostensibly, for adults?

I've been noticing hero stories -- not superhero stories exclusively, mind you, but stories of heroism -- that don't have antagonists for a couple of years, maybe. I'd never really had a reason to think of it before, I guess. There's all this narrative training that makes us take things for granted, and that heroes have enemies has always just been How It Is. Superman has Lex Luthor. Batman has Joker. Harry Potter has Voldemort. Luke has Vader. John McClain has Hans Gruber. And aside from the lengths the hero has to go to stop the enemy (imagine a flowchart: does the hero have to kill the bad guy? Yes --> Grown Ups. No --> Kids), that hero/enemy framework is the same in general whether we're talking about stories for kids or grown ups. Except that it isn't, exactly.

This occurred to me when I left the theater after watching How to Train Your Dragon 2, which is an awesome sequel to an awesome movie. It's hard to express how much I love HTTYD2, but even as I was watching it, something just felt off about Drago's role. For one, Drago is something of a dreadlock-twirling villain, and there is a lot of bad stuff going on in his design. It should make us all pretty uncomfortable that the only character of color (played by the only black actor in the cast, though thankfully not the only actor of color) in the HTTYD movies is exoticized, brutish, and unrepentantly evil. That's a serious nugget I'll be chewing on as I continue to work my thoughts out about heroism of color in kids' movies. Narratively, he screws things up, too, because his presence betrays Hiccup's emotional arc, which is to discover himself between the two extremes of his parents, and use that discovered identity to be not just the person he was who is capable of inspiring change, but to be the kind of leader he's becoming who creates change by sharing ideas rather than force. Drago's villainous immovability makes that impossible, and the movie is resolved in the end, sadly, with a show of force.

Drago's also a weird presence in HTTYD2 because there is no antagonist in HTTYD1. There is an inexplicably evil Alpha dragon that inspires fear even within its own colony and provides ten minutes of action at the climax, but that's a tacked on, short-lived external force -- not a proper enemy. In HTTYD, Hiccup is in conflict with a complex series of social forces -- his own lack of confidence, the disdain of his social network, the prevailing attitudes of his community, and the unfair expectations of his father, and the movie doesn't condescend to set any of these forces up as a villain. So, why, with Hiccup and co. aged up for the sequel, does that kind of condescension leak in? Why, as the franchise grows up, are the characters set against a far more simplistic force/counterforce narrative?

This came up again when we watched Inside Out, which is, among other things, a serious adventure story -- even a disaster film, as we watch the architecture of Riley's childhood identity literally crumbling around our heroes, Joy and Sadness -- and which, of course, has no bad guy to speak of. I watched with some dread at first expecting Bing Bong to make his about face as the villain, which thankfully never came. The force our heroes are working to overcome as they adventure is the creeping, empty, colorless wasteland of depression.

Or there's Frozen, which nominally positions the story's heroine as its villain (Elsa uses her immense power to hold her city hostage, to satisfy her anger -- "Let It Go" is a sweeping, villainous ballad that is more about deciding she doesn't care about other people at all than it is about deciding she doesn't care what they think). A more traditional villain gets tacked on along the way, but even the youngest viewers fail to really care about whatever threat he's supposed to represent.

And this is where I suspect things have gone wrong in heroic adult cinema, because Elsa is a complex anti-hero, hurting her loved ones, exercising her power over a populace helpless to resist, isolating herself from the world around her, and ultimately making the world around her better despite her non-heroic qualities. And she does it without crossing any unconscionable lines and without losing the viewer's sympathy. The heroes I see being sold to me as an adult are almost exclusively anti-heroes, if not exclusively so, but not particularly complex ones. In Man of Steel, Superman allows death and destruction not because he can't avoid it, but to protect himself, and he creates death, all non-heroic qualities being channeled by the film’s hero. Zack Snyder and others have suggested that Man of Steel shows us a Superman who hasn't learned to be Superman yet, but I can't help wondering what the hell lessons he's supposed to be learning when the major rules he breaks are 1) not saving people and 2) killing. Is it really -- REALLY -- necessary for a hero to need to actually commit a murder to learn that he doesn't want to do that in the long run? Or to allow people to die in order to learn that he should probably save them instead next time? What in the hell kind of heroic journey is that? It's a strange, strange world we live in that we can suggest without blinking that an adult actually needs to experience killing somebody to realize that, no, that's just not the right way to do stuff. Except that, of course, the conceit of Man of Steel is that it actually was the right thing for Superman to do in that moment. Just imagine for a moment that Elsa kills ANYBODY simply because she hasn't learned yet that this would be a bad thing to do, or because she somehow has no choice.

The highest grossing film of 2014 was American Sniper, and this I think is where I feel like an answer to the question, "Why?" begins to clarify itself because, like I said, this isn't about superheroes, though they do show up a lot. I think we have this well-developed myth in American culture that killing must be necessary -- not that it can be, but that it must be -- and particularly killing in a militarized sense, and I suspect that it is far more important for the culture to assert this myth during times of war*. So, a military movie like American Sniper which tells us that brown people must be killed for the greater good isn't that far removed from a Batman who wears military grade armor and drives a tank, or a Superman who must necessarily kill the war general who opposes him. Meanwhile, we sell a Captain America to our youth who disbands a military organization, questions his role as a soldier, and ultimately refuses to fight when his enemy would have him believe it was a fight to the death (which is not to excuse Marvel altogether, but at least gives them credit for making Captain America an actual hero). On the other hand, what happens when Marvel produces something more exclusively for adults? Let's look at the Daredevil Netflix series: In episode 2, Daredevil tortures his own prisoner by shoving a blade into the man's eye socket, a method which succeeds in getting him the information he wants  I'll just quickly note the militaristic undertones of having a hero successfully torture a prisoner for information. I'll also quickly mention how "Don't Torture People" is not a lesson a hero should be required to learn through experience. But it affirms the myth of required brutality. This myth of required brutality is necessarily simplistic -- there are people who need to die or be tortured for our problems to be solved. Saddam. Bin Laden. General Zod. Two-Face. The antagonist gives life to this myth within a narrative, which allows for that life to itself be ended.

So this is what the heroes in our adult films are facing: People.

And look again at what the heroes in these kids' films -- Hiccup, Elsa, Joy, Sadness -- are facing: Social forces.

You can kill people. You can not kill social forces. And imagine how different Batman would have to be if he were to use his wealth in these movies to fight problems instead of people. Imagine how much more sophisticated and satisfying, and grown the hell up.

* This is not, of course, a purely military myth. More, it's one that we use anytime we deign to enforce our superiority on however personal a scale, and I would be extremely remiss not to at least mention the role it plays in allowing the culture to justify killing not just brown people abroad, but also at home.