Movie Heroes and their D&D Prime Stat

Time for a lit­tle hol­i­day fun.

A dis­cus­sion at work yes­ter­day tram­pled over how taste in action heroes has changed with­in the last two decades or so — basi­cal­ly, the adult lives of the peo­ple par­tic­i­pat­ing in the con­ver­sa­tion. And then Dun­geons & Drag­ons got involved some­how… and so here we are, wast­ing valu­able time and neu­rons to dis­en­tan­gle stat allo­ca­tion among cin­e­ma heroes.


Arnold Schwarzeneg­ger is Conan the Bar­bar­ian. Our love for the most unso­phis­ti­cat­ed hero flared in the 80s with Stal­lone, Lund­gren, Mr. T, and of course Arnold. What was once the undispitued king of stats in the D&D uni­verse has been long deposed among our cel­lu­loid deities. I can’t remem­ber the last time that a film depict­ed strength as a defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of a hero.

One com­pli­ca­tion? We’ve entan­gled strength as the oppo­site of intel­li­gence. In oth­er words, we craft the strongest heroes to be fee­ble-mind­ed. The real world is not a demo­c­ra­t­ic point-buy sys­tem, but in our wish for fair­ness, we seem unwill­ing to embrace a uni­verse that rolls dice to deter­mine indi­vid­ual genet­ic advan­tages and dis­ad­van­tages. Get­ting a lit­tle over­ly philo­soph­i­cal here, but out­side a hand­ful of nihilists, we can’t incor­po­rate the mean­ing­less­ness of our ran­dom­ized cre­ation, espe­cial­ly giv­en that the same arbi­trary fate deter­mined so much about who we are.


Avail­ing myelf of Ian McKel­lan (Gan­dalf) for the arche­type would express some chi­canery. Sub­sti­tute his per­for­mance as Mag­ne­to. Today, intel­li­gence finds rare expres­sion out­side of super­pow­ers or hack­ers. For the lat­ter, ref­er­ence Robert Red­ford (Mar­tin Bish­op) or Justin Long (Matthew Far­rell). Matt Damon (Will Hunt­ing) made an ear­ly career out of play­ing young genius. Regret­tably, most films resort to expo­si­tion: “That guy is smart.” Film­mak­ers have a dif­fi­cult time demon­strat­ing intel­li­gence, per­haps bespeak­ing a lack of their own.

Come to think of it, Mag­ne­to rep­re­sents a good exam­ple because of the hero­ic nar­ra­tive, dat­ing back to the hero’s jour­ney mon­o­myth. The pro­tag­o­nist responds to sit­u­a­tions and neu­tral­izes plots rather than insti­gate them, and so intel­li­gence lies in the heads of the ene­my. The val­u­a­tion of intel­li­gence itself may suf­fer cul­tur­al­ly as it weath­ers cas­ti­ga­tion and defeat along­side its nefar­i­ous pos­ses­sors. Well writ­ten and per­formed, Int-based vil­lainy pro­duces Alan Rick­man (Hans Gru­ber) and John Spacey (Keyser Soze). Done poor­ly, you get Jim Car­rey (The Rid­dler).


Patrick Stew­art (Picard, Pro­fes­sor X) seems to have this mas­tered. Notice a sim­i­lar­i­ty to the pic­ture above for intel­li­gence? To an greater extent, our film align­ment of roles push­es wis­dom onto gray-haired actors who we can no longer rea­son­ably expect to lead though action. Wise old men.

We reserve Wis­dom for char­ac­ters who serve as a guide to heroes, and not for heroes them­selves. That’s prob­a­bly because we need our heroes to be fal­li­ble. To fail. To make mis­takes, espe­cial­ly in judg­ment. All the way back to the Greek tragedy, we iden­ti­fy with heroes and gods that stand as avatars for our own fal­li­bil­i­ty. To embody a hero with great wis­dom would work against our embod­i­ment fan­ta­sy.

The oth­er place we find wis­dom is in char­ac­ters are those that “wis­er beyond their years.” This usu­al­ly involves a child actor with a fatal dis­ease: serene­ly peace­ful and coura­geous, of course.


Tobey Maguire (Peter Park­er), sports stars, and oth­er super­pow­ered char­ac­ters demon­strate dex­ter­i­ty. Does any­one else?

By all appear­ance, our val­u­a­tion of dex­ter­i­ty has declined. We once seemed more inter­est­ed in high-Dex­ter­i­ty heroes. West­erns fea­tured char­ac­ters such as Bil­ly the Kid with his super­nal speed and hand-eye coor­di­na­tion. Not only can we show off Shane’s gun­sling­ing speed, but his abil­i­ty to shoot the gun out of your hand! Sim­i­lar illus­tra­tions of rapi­er-wield­ing mus­ke­teers and samu­rai allowed us to mar­vel at the tal­ents of swords­men. Is it telling that all of these gen­res seem mori­bund? We either don’t val­ue, or we’ve just for­got­ten, how to depict dex­ter­i­ty.

As dis­gust­ed by the ref­er­ence I may be, I think I can cher­ry pick one anec­do­tal ref­er­ence that feels nonethe­less telling. The char­ac­ter most pop­u­lar with tween females is a klutz. So much for bal­le­ri­na fan­tasies.


Bruce Willis (John McClaine). Here we have it, the Abil­i­ty Score for the Mod­ern Age. Willis is the paragon  for my gen­er­a­tion, but sub­sti­tute Daniel Craig (James Bond) if you’re younger. Dash in Mel Gib­son get­ting tor­tured in every movie, before he went total­ly crazy. Tough guys. Tough girls, such as Uma Thur­man (The Bride), have got­ten in on the act.

Con­sti­tu­tion is the only sta­tis­tic that arrives with a nar­ra­tive. This hero is tough. He takes a beat­ing and he wins. This is the quin­tes­sence of an action film, right?

Con­sti­tu­tion also rep­re­sents the abil­i­ty we delu­sion­al­ly iden­ti­fy with. Most of aren’t body builders. We know there are smarter and more grace­ful peo­ple. Only douchebags rate their charis­ma high­ly. So what’s left? Con­sti­tu­tion. While we whine about snif­fles and paper cuts, we imag­ine that if we had to — if the chips were down, man! — we would man up and do!whatever!it!takes! to per­se­vere. Of course, we’re deceiv­ing our­selves.


George Clooney (Dan­ny Ocean) embod­ies the trick­ster arche­type just fine. Because Hol­ly­wood is built on charis­ma and mon­ey, there’s a wealth of choic­es for movie heroes. You may remem­ber Eddie Mur­phy (Axel Foley), Har­ri­son Ford (Han Solo), or John­ny Depp (Jack Spar­row). They all rep­re­sent rogu­ish heroes with a well-devel­oped sense of their own charm. More recent­ly, Robert Downey Jr (Tony Stark) is sup­posed to be a tech­no­log­i­cal genius, but it’s his barbed wit, his tal­ent for seduc­tion, and his air­planes equipped with strip­per poles that I most remem­ber.

Just about every hero that we idol­ize could be said to have a high­er-than-aver­age Charis­ma, if only because the man or woman behind the char­ac­ter is like­ly to share it with the audi­ence. Even idiots such as Tom Han­ks’ For­rest Gump have their charm. Much more unusu­al are the times when our pro­tag­o­nist isn’t charis­mat­ic. My thoughts turn to dark­er mate­r­i­al such as No Coun­try for Old Men or Far­go. There, we may have pro­tag­o­nists, but we don’t have heroes.

It’s been fun. Mer­ry Christ­mas, every­one!


  • And yet in the orig­i­nal sto­ries, Conan was not­ed for his intel­li­gence, wits and eru­di­tion. The man spoke dozens of lan­guages, he knew local his­to­ry and cus­toms, archae­ol­o­gy, palaeon­tol­ogy, pol­i­tics, strat­e­gy, as well as the usu­al bar­bar­ian stuff like swords­man­ship, wood­craft and sur­vival­ism. Even in his mas­sive­ly dilut­ed and altered form in Conan the Bar­bar­ian, Conan had knowl­edge of tac­tics, strat­e­gy, poet­ry and phi­los­o­phy, even if we don’t see much evi­dence of the lat­ter two save one or two scenes.

    It’s in Conan the Destroy­er that we see the Big Dumb Bar­bar­ian come to fruition. In that film, Conan can’t count to six. HE CAN’T COUNT TO SIX. 😯

  • David Eckelberry wrote:

    Damn, caught. You’re right of course, about both the orig­i­nal lit­er­ary source and the film. The evo­lu­tion of the film char­ac­ter fol­lows the tra­jec­to­ry I need­ed to use Conan as a Dumb Bar­bar­ian. It remains easy to under­stand (though not agree with) the tra­jec­to­ry of how Hol­ly­wood lit­er­al­ly dumb­ed him down.

  • In oth­er words, we craft the strongest heroes to be fee­ble-mind­ed”; this is actu­al not true. If you look at you see that heroes cov­er a very wide spec­trum.

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