This is it. The end of the line. The strange entity with a book for a head (and what a load of crap that is! You've read all three Monster Manuals and there's no book headed dude in there, and you're going to give the DM an earful next time there's a pizza break) approaches you slowly and raises its hands in preparation for a spell. You have one chance--one saving throw. You gather your die in sweating hands and cast it across the table. It bounces off the DM's soda, and careens to a halt.
A one. Oh for the love of Bahamut.
The creature begins to chant an eldrich summoning spell. A spell that sounds suspiciously like... media analysis? This is the worst quest ever, you conclude grimly, as the spell begins to take hold...I'm bored of heroes but really into heroism right now.
That's kind of the quick, pithy summary of this article, I suppose. I'm bored of, to be more precise, the notion of the Exceptional Hero (nearly always straight, white, male) that a story's arc is built completely around and whose gaze we largely inhabit throughout the text.
I am not, on the other hand, bored of the idea of heroism. As I maybe have hinted obliquely and very subtly before, I'm not too into cynicism and grimdarkness these days, in part because I think it's sometimes used as a lazy way to achieve an illusion of philosophical depth. Protagonists that are genuinely good appeal to me quite a bit, actually, despite the prevailing attitude that such characters are without nuance, boring, or impossible to relate to (see: recent conversations about non-grimdark Superman).
There seems to be a contradiction there, though. Isn't the traditional square-jawed manly, monomythic hero tied intrinsically to the idea of genuine heroism in stories?
Well, no, I don't think so. And I think if you asked most people directly, they would also say that it isn't so. But I'm not sure most people could articulate an alternative--or at least, not quite the kind of alternative I'm looking for. It's not that people think heroism must come in the form of the square-jawed action hero, it's that they have trouble finding another kind of heroism.
One answer we have seen people put forth recently is the diversification of who can be in a lead heroic role. I'm all for that, of course--it's about time we got more women, people of color, and GSD folks as lead heroes!
But my issue isn't just with representation alone (although that's part of it). I think there's a deeper toxicity to the Monomyth--the idea of the Campbellian Hero's Journey that seems to so fully pervade our modern thinking--that's worth addressing. See, the Monomyth, which follows a familiar form involving a Chosen One rising to greatness through a series of trials and becoming a hero, ultimately suggests that heroism is:
- Extremely rare and frequently a product of destiny or a birthright
- Ultimately a symbol of not just righteousness but rightness--i.e. the authority to make decisions unilaterally
- A force of overwhelming gravity upon the plot--i.e. a hero warps the narrative around himself (infrequently herself), and the arcs of other characters are either nonexistent or risk truncation to further the hero's own arc. The pull of the hero's arc hauls everything within its event horizon.
Well, to see where this starts to go wrong, consider what virtues and themes are excluded by the very nature of the hero's journey, at least without a strong conscious effort on the part of a creator to pull the narrative in a different direction:
- Democratic consensus.
- The ability to defer to others.
- The need for multiple intelligences and viewpoints.
- The betterment of society through mass action.
- The ability of anyone to behave heroically.
The strange thing is, none of this is inevitable. In fact, in fantasy, the genre most would associate with the Monomyth, we've long had alternatives. The great progenitor of the genre in its modern form, The Lord of the Rings, is a story with a vast cast of characters whose actions compound across time and space to result in victory. And, of course, there is one other classic arrangement that, while still requiring some amount of gravitational warping around the heroes, is far more profoundly influenced by ideas of cooperation. I'm speaking, of course, of the classic four-player D&D group: Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, and Cleric. Four classes that complement and reinforce one another as a team, all with their own character motivations and arcs, all with their own themes to explore, all forced to work together to achieve a common goal. It's necessary, in fact, for this structure to be present for the gameplay to work. You can't have a single hero and three vague side characters in a game of D&D; it just doesn't work.
"But Sam," you object loudly, throwing your glass at my head (I roll an 18 and dodge, artfully, and the glass shatters against Lord Humongous's giant abs. "You disobey me, little puppy..." he growls), "Tolkien had three books to work with! And you can't just translate a D&D game to a movie screen! They tried! Have you seen that movie? It sucked!"
Oh ho ho ho not so fast my pretty! You see, I am not just a lonely wizard, bearing my trials alone! I have the power to summon a whole team to support my claims, and together we shall complete our quest to bring good storytelling back to these benighted lands!
For my Fighter, I call upon Pacific Rim!
For my Rogue, I call to my side Iron Man III!
And for my Cleric, I summon Cloud Atlas!
AND I'LL BE THE HEAD OH SHIT I FUCKED UP THE METAPHOR DAMMIT DAMMIT DAMMIT QUICK, PACIFIC RIM, ROLL FOR ATTACK!
Pacific Rim: Fighting As One
Consider Newton and Hermann, the two scientists who unlock the secrets of the Kaiju. A number of viewers (and I apologize for continually opening up the conversation on Pacific Rim with these refutations) questioned the point of these characters. I would argue that regardless of your individual enjoyment of them as characters or their segments as parts of the film is secondary to their purpose for the film's themes (and for the sake of wider worldbuilding, but that's another conversation entirely).
To put it another way, you may have gone in expecting nonstop kaiju-crushing action and were annoyed by the scientist segments. And that's ok, I guess, although I'd suggest that it's also reasonable to adapt your expectations as a film proceeds rather than just comparing it to the film that is in your head, but fine, alright, you didn't like them.
That doesn't mean they were unnecessary to the film on a deeper functional level or could be cut out.
See, one of the things their arc does very well, in some ways better than any of the other arcs, is show how victory depends upon a willingness to collaborate despite interpersonal strife or differences of opinion. Newt and Hermann have radically different ways of parsing information and getting results, both quite maniacal in their own ways, but when the chips are down and Newt asks Hermann for help, by god, Hermann steps up to the plate.
It may be worth recalling at this point that "the plate" in this metaphor is a kaiju brain that Newt intends to Drift with via a piece of equipment that literally incorporates a medieval fucking bellows to... I don't know, keep the parts cool maybe? Not a fan. A bellows.
And Hermann agrees to do it anyway.
What interests me about this arc from bitter disagreement to collaboration is that it echoes throughout the wider narrative. Chuck must defend the pilots of Gipsy Danger despite getting into a fist fight with one of them a short time before--and he willingly gives his life in the process. Raleigh learns to be less of a hot shot and trust his commanding officer's decisions (and not to touch Stacker Pentecost again). And, of course, all the characters must open themselves to their drift partners in order to pilot their Jaegers. One of Mako's major developmental arcs is her movement from suspicion for Raleigh to trust--not trust in him in the "I defer to you, Heroic White Dude Hero Man" sense, but trust in their bond, trust in her ability to stay stable in the Drift, trust in his ability to help her to be stable in the Drift, and trust in their collaborative potential.
Those bonds are what ultimately turns out to win the day. The willingness to look beyond difference allows them to destroy the Rift. And here, again, I think there's a great parallel between the overall construction and the story of Newt and Hermann: in the end, their information is not in opposition. Both of the scientists are right, and it is only through the synchronization of their knowledge, rather than their petty squabbling for attention from their benefactors, that the key to the Rift becomes apparent.
Hm, you know, now that I'm typing this up, I can't help but think some academical sorts would be well served by taking note of this part of the film...
This film could have been about Raleigh's heroic journey from the depths of despair back into the height of heroic victory, but it wasn't. It was about all these characters--characters that in another work would be side characters--worked together to achieve victory.
The lesson is quite straightforward, and for that reason, Pacific Rim is my Fighter--straight to the point, a blunt instrument that communicates simply and effectively that there is another way of doing things.
Iron Man III: The Rogue In The Gallery
For a giant blockbuster movie about a playboy billionaire superhero, to put forth a narrative based around coping with severe psychological trauma, the excesses of a military-industrial complex that benefits from the perpetuation of fear and conflict, moral compromise within research, and, ultimately, the simple human act of asking someone else for help and admitting that you can't do everything alone... well, that seems like a roguish act to me, for sure.
And that's what Iron Man III does. It's a film about all these ideas and more. It'd be worth talking about some of the political aspects of the film at some point, but I want to talk about that last idea in particular--Tony Stark's need to ask for help. In a way, this might be one of the most subversive parts of the film, although it's certainly less overtly politically subversive than the Mandarin's ultimate identity.
See, the thing about this movie is that it could easily have involved Tony Stark rising on his own from ruin and clawing his way singlehandedly to victory. It could have involved the removal of all his allies so that he alone would have to face the Mandarin and defeat his diabolical opponent.
That's not what happens, though. Instead, Tony Stark is constantly accompanied, after his fall, by people who he must ask for help and work with to achieve victory. It's only, you'll note, after the fall that this seems to happen--previously, he sets himself up as a target, and a solitary target at that, brashly declaring himself to be the Mandarin's opponent, even though the government (or, hey, I dunno, THE AVENGERS?) would probably be better equipped to deal with a massive terrorist organization.
After his fall, though, not only is he required to ask for help, he's required to beg assistance from a child. A loooot of people assumed this bit was going to suck, due to previous bad experiences with child sidekicks, but the writers of this film knew exactly what they were doing in including Harley. In needing Harley's help, Stark is forced to recognize that there is potential in the people around him for heroism, even where he would not expect to find it. It forces him to reassess his ability to rely on other people, and marks the first step towards recognizing that the obsessive building of alternate suits is, in fact, a way of fleeing further and further into himself. (Note that Harley is the first person who asks him if he should be getting psychological treatment for his PTSD, and Stark finally responds affirmatively, admitting that he has a problem.) He is able to achieve victory only through sacrificing countless suits, and only through relying on Harley, Rhodes, that awkward news team fanboy, and ultimately Pepper Potts.
Hell, look at one of the pivotal scenes in the movie, the plane rescue sequence. That whole scene revolves around the idea that Tony can't save all these people on his own, so he needs to literally bind them together via electrical impulses in order to effect a full rescue. What a perfect metaphor for the film's overarching message.
So, part of the message of the film, like Pacific Rim, is that anyone can be heroic, and the heroism of teamwork is more profound than the heroism of a solitary ubermensch--or the villainy of a man who uses and discards his associates, even literally using his team as human bombs.
Furthermore, it shares a diverse cast with Pacific Rim. It's significant to me that this film passes the Bechdel Test--remember the scene between Potts and Maya Hansen where they discuss the ethics of accepting moral compromise for the sake of research funding? I sure as hell didn't expect to see that kind of question being broached in a blockbuster like this, and I certainly would never have predicted that the conversation would play out not between the two leading men but between the two leading women. The severing of narrative focus from Stark's monomythical quest--the reduction of his narrative's gravity--allows that conversation to take place, and the film is stronger for it. It provides context for Hansen's actions later on that in a lesser film would be explained implicitly through the gravity of Stark's narrative, i.e. she would go good because of his presence rather than because she has been brought to a moment of moral crisis that is finally coming to a head.
This could easily have been a very different film. It could have been a film about the singular brilliance of Tony Stark and his ability to triumph even against a supremely powerful hidden opponent. It could have been, like the second film, another exercise in the claiming of a rich white boy birthright passed on from father to son. It could have been about Stark climbing, alone, from the pit to defeat his opponents and save his whatever. It could have been a film that, as the title suggested, was about Iron Man and Iron Man alone.
It was not those films.
It was, instead, a film about finding strength in others rather than burrowing into a monomaniacal savior complex. It was a film about the heroic potential that humans have within them, if that potential is not rebuffed or eroded (Killian and Hansen are a product of Stark's hubris, remember, and the Mandarin is the product of encouraged addiction).
It is the rogue of this team, a film that appeared to be something other than what it was, and, I think, became an unlikely hero in the battlefield that is media.
Cloud Atlas: The Healing Of Small Cuts In Time
But like the Cleric, the role of this movie, at least in the scheme I'm presenting here, is not to introduce religiosity per se into the discussion. The role of the cleric is to banish evil and, ultimately, to act as a healer.
I don't think you need to believe in reincarnation to feel moved by this film. Rather, you simply need to be open to its core message that the actions we make affect the world far beyond our individual lifespans. This is a view quite compatible with a secular mindset--in fact, quite conducive to a scientific understanding of the world as cause and effect obscured by the complexity of time and space and human action--and it depends upon the kind of ensemble casts that we've been talking about.
The intriguing thing about Cloud Atlas the film is that the stories all channel towards a conclusion at the same time (in contrast to the book, which has a stepped pyramid structure). This means that the tragic ending of one story is counterbalanced and, arguably, undercut by the triumph of another. These moves are wholly intentional, and the film is stronger for this undercutting, because it reinforces the central message of the film: through countless actions, great and small, humanity as a whole moves forward out of ignorance into light. It is the compounding actions of the various characters that ultimately allows the Precients in the future to find a way off of a dying Earth to a new home in the stars. From an abolitionist's conversion, to a tragic love affair, to a battle for the truth, to... alright, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is pretty silly but it still inspires, a synthetic human's attempt to spark a revolution, all the stories lead via coincidence and influence toward an ending in triumph.
And what is the opponent in this movie?
Well, in the previous two films, the enemies were certainly symbolic--the Kaiju of the vast challenges that humanity must unite to conquer, and the Mandarin of a covert military-industrial complex threatening to usurp power from the countless regular people that make up Tony Stark's team (as well as a dark product of Stark's own megalomania)--but they were still very much a material set of enemies.
By the end of Cloud Atlas, however, the recurring enemy gradually loses materiality and acquires a purely symbolic, conceptual nature. Hugo Weaving's various characters transform from quite threatening individuals capable of murder and hideous inhumanity gradually transform first into a sadistic nurse--quite deranged, of course, but ultimately somewhat comical in form--then, into a dignitary among countless dignitaries in an authoritarian regime (he is reduced from the role of central evil to functionary of evil), and finally, into a mythological representation of the central character's inner turmoil: Old Georgie. You can see this role as internal doubt here, in the film's climax:
Pretty sure that's the right clip.
The point is, evil over time degrades while good strengthens (and, interestingly in the case of Sonmi, also becomes an abstraction--a goddess figure). An article from Vulture that I consulted while writing this essay puts it quite well, I think:
He's a figure of evil, control, and enslavement who never displays any loyalty or learns anything over time, and eventually devolves until he's just an idea.Because Weaving's characters are unable to see beyond themselves, they degrade through time until they lose substance entirely and become a formless boogieman. This is a fascinating and powerful transformation, as it suggests that the monomythic hero is actually potentially quite weak. If our ability to form attachments to others--loyalties, as the Vulture article puts it--we fail to develop and ultimately devolve.
I'm reminded, actually, of another entity that goes on a similar journey away from knowledge and contact with other beings. I am speaking of Milton's Satan, who manipulates his followers, strikes off alone to Earth to spoil God's creation, and ultimately devolves from heroic titan to crawling serpent.
Cloud Atlas does not exactly promise a hopeful future, but it does assert that the countless small cuts in our history caused by humanity's inhumanity can be bandaged, can be healed, can be restored in time. A single messianic figure cannot, however, heal these cuts on her own. She is accompanied by other agents of change, some coming far before or after her own life, and humanity's ultimate salvation is due not to messiahs but to a collaboration between two lowly humans just trying to get by on a decaying world. It is through the action of all of us, not one of us, that these small cuts are healed.
And for that message of healing, Cloud Atlas will be my cleric.
The Wizard: Possibilities Given Form
...Except, there's more to the wizard than that. The wizard's role in battle is often a support role, warping the battlefield and allowing the different party members to better make use of their talents. It is a role with more to do with coordination than dramatic stardom, although a lot of players might, unfortunately, play them that way.
So, let me try to coordinate this a little bit and explain why I put this article together the way I did.
On their own, these films would be compelling arguments for particular kinds of ensemble casts. Pacific Rim shows that you can create a compelling story from a group of champions fighting side by side against a vast enemy. Iron Man III shows that a film hero can be assisted in countless ways by companions without seeming powerless or extraneous--and that those characters can deeply enrich the film's world. Cloud Atlas shows that you can construct an exceptionally complex film with a staggering number of characters and still have your message come through loud and clear so long as you construct the interweaving of narratives carefully enough.
Each film, on its own, would be an argument that you can make that specific kind of film.
Together, they show that there is a stunning range of storytelling possibility open to writers willing to construct an ensemble-driven story rather than a monomythic story. In fact, while you can certainly get quite a bit of variance within the monomyth, I would argue that these sorts of complex and distributed heroics have much more potential, especially since this structure is somewhat underexplored in recent blockbusters. It certainly seems to force writers out of the narrow and cliche beats of the more slavish adaptations of the monomyth, which is certainly a good thing in my estimation.
So, the films (plus my own attempts to set the battlefield in our favor through the magic of analysis and close reading) are stronger together than on their own. They make a more compelling argument united than they would separate.
Each one is a hero in its own right, a triumphant warrior of the silver screen. Their heroism is in no way diminished by the presence of other heroes. On the contrary, it is compounded, made stronger, and allowed to diversify, just as within the films the ensemble casts allow for far more room for the underrepresented to find a voice, and just as the heroism of individuals is made stronger by unity. As above, so below. The message is clear: heroism can be distributed far more widely, and the benefits to opening our narratives to such distribution are enormous.
I mean, at the very least, my team of epic level monsters pretty much wiped the floor with you just now, Mr Monomythic Strawman.
Serves you right for demanding to play a Chaotic Evil solo game. Maybe if you had invited some other players to our game instead of insisting that there was only room for you and me in the group, this would've gone differently.
Yeah, yeah I'm gonna be that way. Fine. Pick up your dice and go then, you big crybaby! You're just a figment of my imagination, anyway! AND NO ONE LIKES TIEFLINGS ANYWAY!
I'm never playing D&D with Hugo Weaving again.
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