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!