Tag Archives: heroics

Heroic Motivation

I’m gonna do something a little different this week. A few weeks ago I wrote a post as a sounding board for a Research Paper I had to write for a class. Now I figured “hey, why don’t I post that research paper?” So I am. It’s much longer than a usual post (nearly 5 times as long), but I feel like it’s one of the best things I’ve written. So here it is, in all it’s A-, MLA-ish glory:

Heroes. There’s no such thing.” So says Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin in Iron Man 3 as he threatens the titular hero and, to an extent, the villain is right. Lately, heroes, particularly in adventure narratives, have taken a turn for the unheroic. Where once there were heroes like Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins who, through and through, were good to the core, now heroes are of a murkier sort. Even Iron Man is not a clear cut hero. In the past, protagonists were motivated to do their heroics simply because it was good. They were the good guys; the prince saves the princess and slays the dragon because he’s good and the dragon is evil. But time went on and fiction began to explore princes who weren’t so clean cut, heroes who weren’t good for the sake of good. Yet these protagonists remained heroes; they would still ultimately rise up to do the right thing and save the day (even if saving the day had little effect on the outside world). So what is it that motivates these protagonists who aren’t strictly heroes to heroism? Perhaps it would do to examine reluctant heroes from books, movies, video games, and television as diverse as Pi Patel, Tony Stark, Nathan Drake, and Malcolm Reynolds in the hopes of finding some commonality between them. What drives characters who are ordinary teenagers, irresponsible playboys, selfish treasure hunters, or lawless rebels to acts of heroism?

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With Regards To Motivation

I have a research paper I should be writing. I also have a stack of books near me ranging from On Free Choice and The Will by Saint Augustine, Iron Man and Philosophy, Campbell’s The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Finding Serenity, The Existential Joss Whedon, my own annotated copy of Life of Pi, The Philosophy of Joss Whedon, and a few others too. These are what people in academia call ‘sources’. I think I know what I’ll be writing about, but I’m not quite sure yet.

So, once again, I’ll be writing an essay (that’s not a rant) to hone in on it.

One of the ‘texts’ (a fancy word for story, apparently) I’ll be looking at is Uncharted 2. Because I love said game and the class is called ‘Adventure Narratives’ so it must be done. I wanna explore the tension of Nathan Drake between the two women: Chloe Frazer and Elena Fisher. No, not the love triangle, but rather how they represent his inner conflict. Chloe, who’ll pursue her goal with a keen sense of self-preservation versus Elena, who’s sense of justice overrides everything else. They represent Nate’s struggle to choose between what’s smart and what’s right. It’s fascinating, really, a layer of depth you wouldn’t expect in a video game. Ultimately, Nate chooses to do what’s right, to follow his duty.

(Note: Elena and Chloe are far more interesting than just representing Nate’s duality. But that’ll be in an essay for Games 101)

So maybe I’ll write about the duality of man/the hero, how the hero must choose between right and wrong. Interesting, but let’s read further.

In Christopher Robichaud’s essay “Can Iron Man Atone For Tony Stark’s Wrongs” he explores the duality of Tony Stark and Iron Man. Tony Stark was the one who screwed up his life and put weapons in the hands of criminals. Iron Man is the one fighting to make things right. Iron Man is an atoner; he does the hero thing to try and redeem who he was as Tony Stark. There’s his motivation, and that’s why he does what he does.

Wait. So maybe instead of looking at the tension, let’s ask why an adventure hero does what they do.

In Life of Pi (which is a book I read for this class, and I must include one from the reading list), Pi tries his best to stay a moral man adrift in the lifeboat because he’s a religious man three times over. His motivation is to please God, to serve him even when things look bleak.

Swell. Now let’s look at Firefly, because this is my research paper and if I want to write about Firefly for class then I damn well will. K. Dale Koontz wrote the book Faith and Choice in the Works of Joss Whedon which is proving to be a fascinating read that I’d like to give a proper look at when I’m not hunting for sources. In it he explores Mal’s faith and morality, exploring why he does what he does. In becomes apparent that after Mal’s loss of faith at Serenity Valley, the man chooses to rely only on himself and his crew. Threaten them, you threaten him (see Ariel, 1.09). But why? Koontz believes that underneath his calloused shell, Mal has a wealth of love for his ship and crew. It’s love that makes Mal take action, it’s love that drives him. This is driven home at the end of Serenity, when Mal tells River what the first rule of flying is: “Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘Verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her a home.” (Whedon) Love is at the core of Mal.

But does this motivation of love apply to the others too? Pi’s religious reverence is certainly fueled by a love for God, so love is there too. That’s an easy one.

Nathan Drake chooses to do what’s right perhaps out of a love for Elena and her sense of justice. We see this echoed in Drake’s Deception when he apologizes for letting her down. His love for her means he wants to do what’s right by her. Hence his going after Lazarevic and being the hero, like what she would do.

It’s with Tony Stark that things get hairy. Or does it? In the film Iron Man, he saves the day at last when he stops caring solely about himself and is willing to love his fellow man.

So I guess it’s love, love of something more than oneself that motivates heroes to, well, be heroes.

Now let’s write this paper.

Btw, I have a new video. Check it out here.

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The Hero and the Antihero

The Avengers came out on BluRay (and DVD, but I’m a BluRay person) on Tuesday. Naturally, I have it. Now, stop your groaning: this isn’t another post just about how good that movie is. Well, okay, it kinda is, but not only. Trust me.

See, Iron Man and Captain America embody two distinct archetypes. Cap’s the hero, Iron Man’s the antihero. But neither Steve Rogers nor Tony Stark fall into the abyss of dull stereotypes.

Typically, these stereotypes are just the archetype in fancy clothes. Rather than getting an actual character we’re treated to the hero who believes that he must do good because it is good and good is what he does (because it’s good). The villain is an evil man who does evil because he enjoys the evility of evil. These aren’t characters. These are crappy plot devices dressed up as characters.

Compare Steve Rogers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s introduced in his movie as a genuinely good guy. He wants to become a soldier not to go on a Nazi killing-spree but rather because he doesn’t like bullies. He’s earnest, he’s good. In The Avengers he’s still that really nice guy. When he meets Bruce Banner he dismisses the monstrosity of the Hulk due to Banner’s intelligence. They want him, not the monster, and so Steve treats him as the scientist.

It’d be easy for Cap to become dull and uninteresting or, worse yet, corny. But he doesn’t because he’s got a character to him. He’s interesting, he has his ideals that go beyond good for the sake of good.

Tony Stark serves as his foil. The hero who’s not all that heroic isn’t exactly rare these days (a hero hero [like Cap] is hard to find instead). Tony wins us over due to his charm and, again, the fact that he has depth. When presented with the truth about his weapons he decides it’s time to fight back. He fights his own demons to keep up the hero thing.

He’s not glib and sarcastic just because it’s ‘cool’. Like Steve Rogers, he has a background to it all. Tony Stark is a man who bears the traits typical of the antihero, rather than being an antihero with a personality painted on.

So we have these two fully realized archetypes. Now what?

Now comes the fun part! What happens when the hero and the antihero collide? When idealism and cynicism meet, what do we have?

Tony and Steve butt heads in The Avengers. Whether it’s Tony messing with Bruce, Steve’s militaristic attitude to losing a soldier or anything in between, they seldom see quite eye to eye. It’s the interplay and clash between the two outlooks (and archetypes) that we find so interesting. A good deal of both characters’ arcs is spent on them reconciling their differences to work as a team (along with the rest of the Avengers). The payoff is, of course, getting to watch Captain America and Iron Man work together. And it means so much more because of the characters and the interplay of archetypes.

The thing about archetypes is they’re universal. Star Wars gives us Luke and Han. Luke’s the wide eyed idealist of a farm boy who yearns to save the world. Han’s the cynical smuggler who’s been across the galaxy a few times over. When presented with saving the princess Luke leaps to the call. Han opts to stay out of trouble until the prospect of payment emerges. Again: hero and antihero.

Luke and Han’s different views and personalities lend a humanizing aspect to the fantastic adventures. It’s not overt and not the focus, but it adds and help defines both characters. We have characters built on archetypes interacting and driving the story. Furthermore, over the trilogy both characters develop: Han gets his dose of heroism and Luke his darkness.

Sometimes both archetypes can be embodied in one character. Take Nathan Drake from Uncharted. Sure, he wisecracks, makes fun of everything, and happily insult his ex-partner-in-crime. But he’s also the guy who’ll risk his neck to save his friends and face a madman to save the world (berating himself the whole time). Within Drake we have an antihero with the core of a hero. It’s the internal tension between two archetypes that gives us a lot the character and heart in the stories.

Archetypes. Yay. Like most every trope/tool in literature/fiction, they can be used fantastically or wind up being sheer crap. Don’t think that sticking a hero, antihero, optimistic bruiser, angry stoic, atoner, and ace will elevate the piece. It’s about fleshing them out, making them interact, and, most importantly, making them interesting.

Normally, anyway.

 

Also: buy my book In Transit! There are characters who embody archetypes in it too! And they’re interesting too!

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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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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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