Monday, November 15, 2010

Modern Themes: The Redemptive narrative in the 21st Millennium

From time to time, movie critics will look back at certain movie genres and extrapolate great movements in the volksgeist of the time demonstrated by that particular genre.

One example would be how the science fiction B movies of the 1950s and 1960s have sometimes been viewed as parables for fears of Nuclear War and/or "the other".

It is in this tradition that I would look at a recent trend to be found in movies as disparate as Inception (2010) and Despicable Me (2010).

First we should preface this with a certain belief that has overtaken much of modern society. The United States has engaged in a series of behaviors that many people oft referred to as "left-leaning" believe to range from immoral to illegal.

These things range from the rejection of populist causes such as the Kyoto Accords to the invasions and/or continued occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The U.S. is oft viewed in this light as somewhat of a rogue nation, a modern Rome throwing its weight around and forcing other nations to accept wrongs forced upon them because they do not have the might to resist.

As the last surviving "super power" and sometimes considered imperialist nation, the United States then must assume the role of villain and, as they are a super power, they must therefore be super villains.

Yet juxtaposed with this must be the vestiges of national pride and patriotism, they almost ingrained belief that "we", the citizens of the United States, are still somehow better than the mysterious "they"...those people not of the United States.

That includes the movers and shakers in Hollywood who are oft believed to be extremely far left-leaning.

Thus we have the recipe for their political views to inform the subtext of many movies.

At times it is overt, explicit, and preachy. One example would be the environmental aspect of Wall-E (2008), a movie so explicit about the damage people are inflicting on the environment it actually experienced a minor backlash. At times the message replaced the story.

Another less obnoxious example would be the more recent Avatar (2009) where the sought-after pointless rock is actually named "Unobtainium" and the references to Native American beliefs regarding the sanctity and mystical God-like powers and knowledge of the earth are the entire underpinning of the movie.

Other times, that message is more subtle. In Ice Age 2: The Meltdown (2006) the results of environmental devastation are shown without allusion to how they came to be...until the Noah's Ark reference. The message that environmental disaster is looming is there, though not nearly as explicit.

Many people do not see or notice these themes, and I would expressly state this; there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Movies, to get their message across, must first entertain. If the experience is not enjoyable, the message will not get passed.

But that does not invalidate the indisputable fact that while much of the audience neither looks for nor notices the message, the filmmakers themselves are very much trying to impart their message throughout their work.

Which brings us to the central point of this piece. There is a theme that is becoming more and more prevalent in movies today which attempts to resolve the inherent tension between believing in your own superiority while behaving as a super villain.

Let's start with an explicit example. In Despicable Me Gru (Steve Carrell) is not simply a super villain, he is the greatest super villain in the world. He takes great pride in his dastardly deeds and is unrepentant about it.

Compare that with the view of the United States as rogue nation. The invasion of Iraq is believed by some to have been an illegal act perpetrated through a web of deception, forgery, and other acts that reek of almost cartoonish super-villainy.

The invasion was very public, done with tremendous fanfare and pride in the accomplishments, an attitude that lingers on through expressions of approval recently released in the press in regard to the interrogation methods which are widely believed to also be illegal...the acts of a villainous nation proud of its villainy.

Gru finds, however, that when he attempts to further his nefarious plot through adopting three girls, his evil suddenly loses its point. Instead, he seeks to protect and defend the girls, even at risk of his life.

In the end, the super villain finds redemption and rejoins society as a bit of a hero, completely redeemed by noble self-sacrifice and by taking on the role of parent and protector.

Compare that to the platform that brought President Barack Obama whose campaign slogans included "Change We Can Believe In".

Indeed, that was the belief of many who voted for him, that he would withdraw US forces from the Middle East, enforce the cessation of Guantanamo Bay type prisons and interrogation techniques, bring the US fully in line with the provisions of the Kyoto Accords and so forth.

He would move the US from super powered villainous nation to heroic fount of purity and justice. In short, he would be a return to the uniquely American narrative of "Truth, Justice, and the American Way". the United States would exemplify the crystal pure motives of the Lone Ranger and once more be a beacon of greatness, a verifiable super hero of how the world should be.

Just as Gru found redemption, so would the United States. Or vice versa.

Of course, the narrative of villain finding redemption is hardly new. In Aladdin (1992), Aladdin (Scott Weinger) is a "street rat:, a thief who survives through theft. It is notable in two things, however; first, unlike more recent villains such as Gru, Megamind of Megamind, and other examples we will look at, he was forced into his villainous ways by circumstances, not choice.

Gru is proudly, stridently villainous, as is Megamind, who even has as his best friend the aptly named Minion (David Cross).

The common thread to both movies is they are villains who end up reformed and set about to make restitution for their formerly nefarious ways, giving up the ways of villainy.

Nor is the theme found only in "children's fare" such as these two animated features.

Let us briefly look at Inception (2010). Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCapricio) is a thief, and proud to be one. It is his expertise in illegal intrusion, theft of corporate secrets, and potential to do even more that brings the job to him that will ultimately be the focus of the movie.

Yet as we go deeper into his dream world, we learn he has committed a crime so heinous it cost him that he loved most and may yet cost him his very sanity. In the end he finds his redemption, once again through self-sacrifice, a sacrifice so enduring it turns someone who violates every sense of rightness or decency, who crosses every social boundary, into a sympathetic character.

If Cobb's invasion of other people's minds, that most sacred place that designates what separates one person from another, is not heinous enough, he also corrupts the formerly innocent Ariadne (Ellen Page), lies to people who trust him, withholds key information, and risks all their lives unnecessarily.

Yet by the end of the movie, this super villain is redeemed.

The thing that separates Cobb, Megamind, and Gru from redeemed super villains like Spiderman 2 (2004)'s Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), who finds redemption in death, is they are the centerpiece of the movie.

Each movie is about their journey from super villain to super hero. The same could particularly be said for the first Shrek (2001) with a slight but noticeable difference. Shrek (Mike Myers) is again proud of his villainous ways. Yet by the end, the redemptive love for Fiona (Cameron Diaz) makes him heroic, albeit with an edge and the twist that she turns to the APPEARANCE of villainy in being an Ogre.

Certainly Shrek fits other narratives, most obviously that of "the others" being acceptable despite their differences, but the thread of villain finding redemption he did not even know he sought is nevertheless there and, in fact, finds itself expressed in Shrek Forever After (2010).

The reason Shrek is willing to sign the deal with Rumplestiltskin (Walt Dohrn) is because he wants to his days of "being an Ogre", of proudly, loudly and often engaging in anti-social, villainous behavior and, in fact, we are treated to several scenes of him doing just that.

The tension between his past as a super villain and present as super hero even works its way into the movie in the "Do the roar" scene where he strives to keep his villainous side in check and, when it finally evidences itself, is rewarded with treatment as a hero.

These are noticeable and important changes. The traditional story arc has had the HERO find unsought for redemption. Take for example The Searchers (1956) where the iconic Western hero Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) does not seem to need redemption, yet by the end of the movie both his need for and redemption have been evidenced.

Edwards is everything a hero should be. He is strong, more capable than the average man, with knowledge of how to get things done. Yet his blinding hatred for "the other" leads him into wasting his life in a long, fruitless chase to rescue someone who neither wants nor needs rescuing and, along the way, costs him years of his life, family, and friends.

When he ultimately finds redemption, the cost has been high but the narrative is complete. The hero inadvertently became a villain and returned to his heroic ways only when redemption was accomplished.

So why the switch in narrative? More and more often we have movies where traditional heroes are eschewed in favor of stories of those who traditionally have been the villains but now are the hero of the story?

The examples are numerous and wide ranging. The Harry Potter franchise often blurs the line, making you wonder if characters such as Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) are good or evil...and, in fact, he sometimes hops back and forth across that line.

In the Twilight tales, much as in the Underworld series, we have traditional baddies in the form of Vampires and Werewolves taking the roles of heroes. Igor (2008) is an assistant trying to move up to head evil, only to turn into a hero.

Which brings us back to that same question; why the switch in narrative?

For many people, the years of the George W. Bush administrations were years in which the United States took on the role of super villain. We became the evil empire, the locus of all evil in the modern world.

Yet that is not who we wish to be. It does not fit the American myth, the narrative of being the fount of justice and righteousness in the world today. We need to believe that we can come back from the precipice, that we can move from nation of super villainy to nation of super hero.

But part of that process is believing it is possible So long as the Berlin Wall existed, it was not possible to view even a diminished, borderline impotent, obviously rotted and decayed Soviet Union as anything other than THE villain in the world. Only when the story of that symbol of evil being destroyed was accomplished could we view them as potential friends and cautious allies.

Thus a narrative needs to be created that it is possible for super villains to find redemption, face no repercussions for past actions (let us not forget Megamind avoids his last 88 life sentences once he becomes the protector of Metro City), and become the leaders in the world today.

It can be argued that certain elements responsible for bringing Hollywood entertainment to the screen see a need to create that narrative so the United States can take that same journey. The means to that is seen as being the election of Obama and the actions anticipated to come from that.

Thus the time is here to call for the changes that are desired. Much as the Gangster movies of the 1930s were sometimes seen as a call for social change, just as the screwball comedies of the same and succeeding time period were a challenge to wealth differentiations and elitism, the modern super villain as hero narrative is presenting a hope for where our country can go.

Great social movements, for good or ill, oft are predated by pop culture. It might be Upton Sinclair's The Jungle or the calls for prison reform of Dickens and Dostoevsky, or something else, but there are always references.

In past centuries print was the primary means of communicating calls for change. In the modern era there are other avenues. Protest songs were a hallmark of the 1960s. Movies engaging in social critiques have been a major mover almost since the first reel was rolled.

It remains to be seen how this one plays out, but the theme of the villain finding redemption and becoming a hero will be with us for the foreseeable future.

Other movies to take into account (and I stress this is a brief, very incomplete list) where the villain is a centerpiece to the movie and is a hero by the end of the movie or series;
Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow
X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Wolverine
Area 51
Iron Man, Tony Stark
Jonah Hex
Ninja Assassin
Fast and the Furious
the Bourne franchise

1 comment:

Riot Kitty said...

Very interesting stuff! I'm going to make sure my dad gets links to this and your last review.