Good vs. Evil. Light vs. Dark. Black vs. White. We are used to our art telling tales along these themes. Our heroes are separate from our villains – one siding with right, the other always wrong. But, we as a race have never been that clear in our actions. Our every act is fuelled by a motivation so distinctly individual that it’s correctness can only be gauged by the storyteller.
We cannot all be heroes, but we can all be good people. Yet, these shades of grey are not extended to those heroes we idolise. Our role models must be perfect in every way, thereby placing ordinary humans on a pedestal too steep to fall from. Humans are fallible, and now so are our fictional protagonists – and art is that much the better for it.
While we may be unable to forgive protagonists for some acts, others could be redeemable irrespective of how galling they may have been at first sight. In recent memory, the more popular characters from film and television have been the flawed, dangerous ones. There’s a greater fandom for Hannibal, Loki, Han Solo, Annalise Keating and Draco Malfoy than one would expect. But, aside from the regular ‘bad boy/ girl’ charisma these characters exude, it’s the inherent pathos that simmers beneath that makes them more compelling than their heroic counterparts.
You will come across that spectrum of grey in Netflix’s ‘3%’, a Brazilian dystopic series featuring a group of youngsters desperate to make it through a legion of tests that will gain them access to ‘paradise’. But these characters come across as unsympathetic due to a number of their actions – they are not black or white, yet we find ourselves rooting for their success, irrespective of the means by which they obtain it. The point of the entire exercise is to ask yourself what you would do given the same, or similar, circumstances.
The trouble with fictional heroes is that they tend to veer towards vanilla virtuousness. They transcend every possible human frailty to be morally good, because they are written as ‘perfect’ all day, every day. It’s an idyllic view of humanity, one which will never be within our reach – no matter how hard we attempt to scrub every ounce of emotion out of ourselves.
It is perhaps the reason why Marvel’s resurgence on the big screen has been so successful. They set up their franchise with the ultimate ‘bad boy’ – Tony Stark. Played by real-life troubled star Robert Downey Jr., the character and actor meshed together to produce a believable and relatable protagonist. Tony’s arc has continued over the course of six films (soon it will be seven), as a man struggling with his instinctive ambition and his duties as a hero. He makes mistakes, big ones that cost lives, and he is allowed to suffer remorse and look for salvation. People pit Tony against paragon of virtue Steve Rogers only because they appear to be polar opposites. Yet, Steve Rogers appeals to us most when the chinks in his armour are revealed.
In essence, the majority of the audience no longer search for perfect characters in the media (especially films); they search for versions of themselves.
As a huge Star Wars fan, Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa and Obi-Wan Kenobi (among others) have always been great characters to aspire to because of their righteousness. But many of us have been attracted to Rogue One because of the shifting sensibilities of all the characters. Not only do the leads tread a thin line between good and bad, but so does the cause that they all fight for. The Rebel Alliance, heretofore a background player propping up the original trilogy’s characters, comes to the fore as a not-always-kosher organisation replete with unlikable bosses dictating their minions’ actions.
The characters come alive through this constant tussle between right and wrong – most of which is played out through minute facial expressions and minimal exposition. They are, as the title of the film says, all Rogues; a criminal with a new-found mission (Jyn Erso), a killer fighting his moral compass (Cassian Andor), an Imperial defector with a good heart (Bodhi Rook), a trouble-making monk (Chirrut Îmwe), a soldier with no war (Baze Malbus) and a snarky droid with the best intentions (K-2SO). Who could argue with the realistic ambitions of idolising a group of good people who have ended up doing bad things?
Imperfections make characters appealing. Hence, I’ve never understood people’s hate for Superman’s actions in ‘Man of Steel’. Superman has historically been known for his blemish-free career – he doesn’t kill, he’s too good for that. Yet, in MoS, despite its contrived plotting, Superman is faced with an impossible task, kill Zod or attempt his capture, thereby risking more lives, and perhaps even the planet. We know how comic book stories go, imprisoned in one issue, out on a killing spree the next; who is to say cinematic Zod wouldn’t have done the same? The act, heinous as it was, did not make him anything less than Superman.
A similar concern has been raised about Barry Allen’s actions at the end of season 2 of television’s ‘The Flash’. Barry is the quintessential ‘good guy’ – he is kind, generous, morally unshakeable. He puts everyone else before himself and does so selflessly. Yet, at the end of season 2 (spoilers ahead) he loses the sole living member of his family, his father, to the season villain Zoom, who turns out to be the team’s new friend Jay Garrick. This double betrayal, coupled with the betrayal in season 1 by Barry’s mentor Harrison Wells tips him over the edge. Barry does the unthinkable – he goes back in time (speed powers rule) to the point where his entire life changed. He saves his mother’s life and creates the alternate reality Flashpoint.
Flashpoint is a significant moment in comics history, yet the circumstances of its creation, and its consequent repercussions have sullied many people’s view of Barry. But Barry’s actions felt true, not only to his own nature, but to ours. There is plenty we would do had we the ability to manipulate time. Dinosaur sightseeing aside, many would wish to change their own history. Barry can and does so – and while it detracts from his ‘golden boy’ persona, it gives him a much more human one. The majority of season 3 has seen Barry attempt to redeem himself for Flashpoint. Again, this was an egregious mistake, but humans make mistakes, why not meta-humans?
Our reliance on angelic heroes has been eroded over the past few years with grittier versions of our most fanciful tales. But, we still struggle to let go of that aura of goodness for some of our protagonists. As long as an action is within character, it can possibly be redeemable. Having said that, there are some acts that are unforgiveable. If a writer writes those into their character’s arc, they’re no longer writing them as heroes.
When our characters begin to resemble us, art feels ever more relevant and significant. The intent of all consumable media is to create a dialogue and understanding of us as humans. Art is but a reflection of humanity, and the better it is at making average humans strive for greatness, the easier it will be for humans to achieve said greatness. Here’s to imperfect heroes fighting the good fight – and winning.