Monthly Archives: July 2012

Sacrifice

There’s this trope in fiction called the Heroic Sacrifice. The idea is that a character gives himself up so another can live or succeed. When done right it can be an incredibly powerful writing tool.

Doesn’t have to be sacrificing your own life, though. At the end of The Dark Knight, Batman has just saved Commissioner Gordon’s son and the fallen Harvey Dent has tumbled to his death. There is blood on Dent’s hands; the man who came close to saving Gotham has come crashing down and his stellar reputation will follow. So Batman tells Gordon to pin every one of Dent’s crimes on him. Batman will take responsibility for what Dent did so that the late District Attorney’s work will not be undone. Gordon agrees reluctantly and Batman disappears into the night and we are left marveling at the self-sacrifice of the Dark Knight. Gotham has been saved, at the expense of Batman’s character.

Of course, the trope of sacrifice can be done wrong. In the terrible live-action adaption of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the interaction between two characters (Sokka and Princess Yue) is treated from the get-go as comic relief. It’s amusing to see them bumbling over themselves as their attraction grows. Then suddenly the plot necessitates a sacrifice and the only one who can do it is the Princess.

The relationship that we’ve only seen snippets of (and has thus far been used exclusively as comic relief) is suddenly thrust forward as drama. Before we get a chance to realize that it isn’t a joke, she’s dead and everyone forgets about her as the climax continues. It’s forgettable and fails to add any tension or poignancy. The general crappiness of the script, acting, and direction probably doesn’t help any.

(Do note: in the cartoon series the sacrifice had punch and weight and genuinely felt sad)

A far stronger example comes from the TV series Lost. Sawyer is never presented as a particularly ‘good’ character. As far as he’s concerned, he’s not someone worth liking and no one could possibly hate him more than he does.

The plot continues and Sawyer faces his demons and grows into a protector of the other castaways. As Season Four draws to a close a handful of the castaways are given the chance to get off the island. Sawyer is among them.

But the helicopter is too heavy; they need to lighten the load. So someone has to jump from the copter. Though Sawyer isn’t killed from his sacrifice, it serves as the climax to his arc. He’s gone from the selfish murderer when he arrived on the island to someone who would give up his spot for another. It’s a story of redemption and sacrifice.

Sometimes everything comes together to form a simply beautiful sequence. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek opens with the USS Kelvin being viciously attacked by an unknown enemy. George Kirk has only been captain for a few minutes and orders the evacuation of the entire crew; including his wife and about-to-be-born child. To buy time for the lifeboats he resorts to ramming his ship headlong into the enemy. Autopilot’s gone and only he is left to pilot it in.

The gravity of the moment is accentuated not only by Michael Giacchino’s beautiful score (see Up for further reference) but by the heartbreaking conversation he has with his wife. Within a few minutes we’re caught up in this valiant act that not only sets up the plot but gives his son a standing to aspire to. It’s a universal notion: the idea of giving up one’s own life for a loved one, one that draws us in and makes us feel.

The midnight release of The Dark Knight Rises was marred by the Aurora Shooting. Yet even in the most horrible circumstances, light can shine out. Three men, three unrelated individuals, had one instinct when the shooter opened fire: get their girlfriends out of harm’s way. Jon Blunk, Matt McQuinn, and Alex Teves all died to save the ones they loved. There was no fanfare, no triumphant score as they fell to the ground. Just sacrificial love. Though the press will follow the shooter until he receives his judgement and beyond, it’s these stories, the actions of Blunk, McQuinn, and Teves that should be remembered. Because of what they did three young women still have life. Because of them we’re reminded that though some of us may be absolute bastards, some of us are still good.

I’ve written of heroes on this blog before. I’ve said that one of the reasons heroes inspire us is because we hope that we can be like them. We read and watch our fiction about brave heroes who will die to save the day. Then we see before us real people who willingly gave their lives. All of a sudden the notion of the heroic sacrifice ceases to be a trope in fiction and it becomes real.

And heroes ARE real. And Jon Blunk, Matt McQuinn, and Alex Teves ARE heroes.

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Legend’s End

This weekend the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s epic Dark Knight Trilogy was released. His was a new Batman, one that took place within the confines of our world rather than some dark/campy alternate. Nolan sought to not only retell the Batman story, but to elevate it from just a story to a legend. In telling the story of how man became myth, Nolan took each aspect of Bruce Wayne’s journey and centered a movie around it: overcoming fear, resisting evil, and ultimately embodying the legend.

“To conquer fear, you must become fear,” Bruce Wayne is told by R’as al Ghul in Batman Begins. It was Wayne’s childhood fear of bats that led to his parents’ death, and it’s this fear that he uses to wage his war on crime. The atmosphere in Begins is drenched in fear, whether it be Gotham’s citizens’ fear of the mob bosses who run the city or the villain of the film: Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow, whose weapon is fear itself. Crane (and the League of Shadows) want to destroy Gotham by amplifying the population’s fears until they tear themselves apart. It is his mastery of fear that allows Batman to defeat Crane and R’as al Ghul. Wayne triumphs over his personal demons to become the Batman. Now what?

The Joker appears inexplicably in The Dark Knight. He has no name and no origin; he simply is the Joker, an agent of chaos. He is the antithesis of Batman: where the Dark Knight stands for order and justice, the Clown Prince of Crime is the embodiment of anarchy and lawlessness. Batman’s struggle against crime is paralleled by Harvey Dent. They are the supposed saviors of Gotham: one through law and legislation and the other through vigilantism. Both are forced to the breaking point by the Joker and both make a choice. Harvey Dent chooses objective chance and Wayne remains an idealist. Batman withstands his temptation and remains incorruptible, going so far as to take the fall for the crime of the ruined Harvey Dent as his own.The Dark Knight was Batman’s test of character; the answer to the question of whether he would die a hero or live long enough to become a villain is a simple no. After it all he is still a hero; the hero Gotham needs.

In Rises, the age of Batman ended with the legacy of Harvey Dent. The Dark Knight disappeared into the shadows, and Wayne retired from the public life. Enter Bane, a man who wants to undo the newfound order and destroy Gotham in not only city but spirit too. He intends to break Gotham and its icons: Batman, Harvey Dent, and the police. As Gotham begins to crumble it falls to Batman to rise from the ashes and rally people around him. His insignia becomes the symbol for the resistance and the unquenchable hope that one day the Batman will prevail and topple Bane and restore Gotham to its glory. But in order for this to happen, Wayne must once again conquer his fear and never give up if he is to finally become more than just a man in a suit, So the Dark Knight finally rises to a legend, a symbol of justice and hope that cannot be killed.

Gotham is the fantasy setting for this legend. It’s not Spider-Man’s Manhattan. In Dark Knight the city seems to be Chicago, in Rises it looks like New York. Where it is is unimportant as Gotham is no one city: it’s every city. It’s a myth that could happen anywhere, just as Batman could be anyone: a cop putting a jacket on a scared kid’s shoulders or the man who throws a detonator overboard. As the Dark Knight Trilogy comes to an end, no longer does it matter who is behind Batman’s cowl, what matters is who he is: the ultimate fearless paragon.

These are our legends, and this is how they end.

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Worlds Need Rules

I like writing. No, not just my weekly essay (which is certainly not a rant), but fiction. Sometimes I write stuff grounded firmly in this world, but I really enjoy building worlds of fantasy or science fiction. I’ve got a science fiction side project I like to fiddle with here and there and I run a fantasy RPG with some friends. For both of these I’ve made intricate worlds with some semblance of a history and culture. But just as important as the setting of a story is the exact nature of the world. Any ‘magical’ force, be it mystical or scientific, needs rules to go with it.
Mass Effect is set several centuries in the future, after humanity has made contact with not only the technology of an ancient race that came before but with the various alien species that populate the world today. How does this work? The titular mass effect fields that can increase or decrease the mass of a volume of space time. This technology allows usual science fiction tropes like shields, faster-than-light travel, and artificial gravity; or provides mundane justifications like how buildings can be so tall or preventing spaceships from being hit by space debris.
What makes this so wonderful isn’t just the encyclopedia’s worth of pseudo-science, it’s that everything within the universe adheres to this rules. Because of this we can’t have, say, a ship the size of the Normandy obliterating a planet. No matter how much you’d want to chalk it up to a mass effect field, the rules of the universe prevent it. The writers have their rules to limit the extent of their technology in the world. So long as they don’t supersede these rules, the universe works.
Harry Potter is about magic. Simple. You say a spell (or do it silently if you’re good enough) and magic happens. Feeling lazy? Accio remote!* Someone’s making you really mad? Avada Kadavra. Of course, that means you really do mean it and have created a very permanent solution to what was probably a very minor problem, you overreacting overreactor. But want to make yourself immortal, or make someone love you? No can do. That’s the rules of the universe.
Prior to writing the books, J.K. Rowling spent years detailing exactly how magic would work in her world. She had to set limits and rules on just how it worked. Something couldn’t come from nothing, for example. The world still has to function, magic or not.
*Yes, I know wizards don’t use remotes. Relax.
The ‘physics’ of bending are established fairly early in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Like how benders need the element to control it (except for firebenders who channel their own chi into fire). That’s the main rule and anything that the characters do follows that paradigm. Were Katara to suddenly conjure up a burst of water in a desert our suspension of disbelief would be broken. Not because she can control water, but because the show broke their own rules.
We like to get lost in other worlds. But we need these worlds to be believable. This doesn’t mean whatever phlebotinum or plot device you have must be ‘realistic’ or particularly grounded in reality, it means that if you say something is a certain way, than that is the way it must be. We, the audience, will willing suspend our disbelief so long as the fantastical element remains internally consistent. Call it Aristotle’s Law Of Identity or Magic A is magic A, it’s the foundation of a believable world.
And if we can’t believe it then we won’t be invested.

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Thrilling Heroics

Every boy has his favorite superhero. Doesn’t matter if they’ve never read a comic; pop cultural osmosis will take care of that. Growing up, my favorites were Batman and Iron Man. My brother was a Spider-Man fan. I’ve got a buddy who loved Green Lantern and another who liked Robin. But why is it that we love heroes (super or not)? Whether they’re named Tony Stark, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Buffy Summers, or Atticus Finch, we have our heroes. But why? Why do we love having heroes in fiction?

Barring the rare invincible abnormality like Superman (in which case you’d need emotional tension to… that’s another essay for another day), heroes have a risk of death. Sure, we’re sure (well, kinda sure if it’s written by Joss Whedon) they’ll survive, but there’s that potential. Towards the end of Mass Effect 3, Commander Shepard’s armor has been destroyed and half-melted, but still our hero presses on, blood dripping from his wounds, in a final desperate attempt to save the galaxy. This is Shepard: the living legend who defended the Citadel from Sovereign, halted a Collector invasion, and united the races of the galaxy for the first time in millennia of history. He’s been augmented with cybernetics and carries enough firepower to take on a small army. Yet even he bleeds. Great, a lot of heroes get the crap beaten our of them. So what?

It proves they’re human! We love the everyman, the hero we can relate to. When creating Uncharted, Naughty Dog chose to stray from the trend of super-soldiers and overconfident protagonists and give us a fairly ordinary man dressed in a simple shirt and jeans: Nathan Drake. He’s a wisecracking smartass who spends as much time stumbling and falling as he does fighting bad guys. Drake’s snarky and funny, amusing us as he fumbles (sorry, improvises) his way through his adventures. It doesn’t take much to see that his bravado and bluster is just him trying to build himself up: an a attempt to steel himself for the perils that await. But he feels fear, he feels desperation. When Drake sees his friends get hurt his courage falters and we see the man within, we see ourselves. We like him because we’re like him. Drake isn’t that much different from us: he’s who we hope we’d be if we were in his spot, albeit wittier.

Similarly, Peter Parker, more so than most other superheroes, is terribly ordinary. He’s a teenager in high school striving for good grades and trying to win the heart of his girl. And he’s got spider-like powers. Nonetheless, he’s every one of us back in high school. Marc Webb captured this so well in The Amazing Spider-Man by introducing us to Peter the boy first. We get to know him before his powers, with his powers, and then when he finally calls himself Spider-Man. We’re not following the story of Spider-Man the superhero, we’re following story of this kid named Peter Parker. Even when he’s ‘officially’ a superhero, he’s still not invulnerable. Multiple times Peter shows up after a night of crime fighting battered, bruised, and bloodied. He’s just a teenage boy trying to do what’s right.

That’s the crux of our heroes. We want to know they’re vulnerable, we like them human (or at least mostly), but we want to see them do what’s right. We want our heroes to get beaten up and choose to go on because we hope that were we in their spot we would have the strength to continue. As an audience, we’re normal, powerless in our situations. None of us would stand a chance against the Reapers, Zoran Lazerevic, or the Lizard. But then, neither would Shepard, Drake, or Spider-Man were it not for their circumstances. Maybe, and just maybe, that could be us.

Our heroes aren’t perfect and invincible. Underneath the Iron Man armor is a middle-aged man on the brink of death. Green Lantern is just a guy with a fancy ring. Captain America was an earnest runt given a once-in-a-lifetime chance. The only difference between us and our heroes are our positions.

“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of,” said Joss Whedon once. In these heroes, super or not, we find our strength. We see our weaknesses and fallings mirrored, but more than that we see them overcome it for the sake of good. The exhausted Sam carries Frodo up the side of Mount Doom. Atticus Finch risks his standing in the community to do what’s right. Luke Skywalker refuses to strike down Darth Vader.

No matter how hurt or broken our heroes are, they choose to do the right thing, to carry on and fight again.

And we hope that we can too.

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