Optimism vs. Cynicism: The Great Heroic Debate

Batman in The Dark Knight Rises

Let’s talk about utopias, giant robots and pop culture.

There’s been much talk surrounding the recent hit Pacific Rim, and how, in all its giant-alien-clobbering awesomeness it was very quick to be dismissed as a shallow creation by critics. Fair enough, I suppose, Pacific Rim isn’t exactly an award winning struggle with the Great Themes and overall the movie was pretty simple, especially in terms of its black and white morality (humans = good guys, giant poisonous aliens = not so much). It’s a lot of fun, plain old monster fighting fun, not exactly gritty, dark or deep. But here is the question: must it be, in order to be accredited any artistic merit?

Apart from, of course, the awesome characters, worldbuilding and immensely creative design of the whole thing, you could argue that one of the big appeals of Pacific Rim is that it’s an optimistic science fiction, where humans and their inventions and relationships actually end up saving the world instead of trashing it. Raleigh and Mako, the main Jaeger team, could be given the title of the heroes of the movie and could convincingly hold onto it, being heroes in the regular sense of wanting to save people, do good and being genuinely likeable characters along the way.

They aren’t twisted or cynical or even snarky, and they don’t have fathoms of shadowy depth and inner turmoil. Neither of them is Christopher Nolan’s Bruce Wayne in terms of dark, brooding complexity, but rather than making them immediately seem shallow and boring it made them part of the overall enjoyability of the movie. Perhaps, if nothing else, it’s because they stood out of the crowd.

Raleigh Becket in Pacific Rim

And he has this much of a puppy face even after his traumatic backstory!

The trend towards grittiness, in both character and story content, is a strong one. Though they’ve always been present, of course, dystopian sci-fis have become much more prominent than optimistic ones, to the point where, the aforementioned Pacific Rim excluded (and possibly things like Transformers, though that prided itself on being a hard-core gritty reimagining [with 100% more fan service] of the cartoons anyway), I can’t really remember the last time a sci-fi set in a happy world came out. Sure, you’ve got to get your story tension from somewhere, but you still have to note that our view of the future has dramatically shifted from crystal spires to smouldering rubble.

On one hand, the cynical and dark trend is really cool. The archetypes we’ve become used to of golden heroes saving the day are, on one level, also the archetypes we’ve become bored with. So, writers are having delicious fun playing with them and taking them apart, giving their audiences new and interesting twists and story types to pique their interests, often leaning towards more moral complexity and questioning of concepts like the destined hero and the standard villain, blurring the lines that many years of storytelling have made us rely on. Fundamentally, these deconstructive tales are often more interesting.

They also give us anti-heroes, and more freedom to explore faulted and tangled characters on both ‘sides’, if they even exist in that story. These characters challenge and lead to discussion of our token perceptions of good and evil and what those little big words actually mean. It leads to a much more engaging and, sometimes, relatable cast of characters at the story’s helm, and a more intriguing audience experience with the tried-and-true hero archetypes dissected into more flawed and real-feeling characters that, with no ‘good guys win’ rule in place, have their fates up in the air.

Man of Steel

Even Superman’s glowering these days

On the other hand, the dystopia is primarily interesting because it’s the deconstruction of a utopia. If there’s no optimism in pop culture at all, they may lose a bit of their pulling power. Deconstructing and subverting archetypes and clichés leads to new ones being created. It’s all about how well it’s done, of course, but the point remains that taking your story down a dark and edgy path to surprise your audience and seem fresh is a bit redundant since most people are doing it. Idealistic or cynical, there are still conventions in place that the audience can rely on, and this can remove a lot of the interest.

On character, let me be the first to say that I adore a good anti-hero. A ball of turmoil and complexities and snark is just wonderful to watch. But, the all-important but, when every main character is like that they lose a bit of their individuality, which is a shame since the anti-hero is supposed to stand out of the crowd. Can’t do that if there are no anti-anti-heroes around, can you?

We shouldn’t forget that those with conventional heroic attributes can also be engaging characters, and your lead does not have to be an asshole to be interesting. A variety of the two and the spectrum in between is what makes the characters individual and relatable. Tony Stark’s impersonal attitude and sharp wit are at their best paired/contrasted with Steve Rodgers’ humility and gallantry. Captain America is the exact archetype that modern writers seem set on avoiding, which is fair enough since on surface level he’s a cliché and a half (made for propaganda) with his idealism and saviour attitude, yet that’s exactly what makes him a welcome addition to the screen.

The Avengers was so phenomenally successful chiefly because of the audience’s attachment to the characters and the interplay of their differing personalities. How boring would it have been if Marvel had assembled a team (and movie franchise) around six smirking, sarcastic cynics?

The Avengers

For one thing, they’d never get anything done

On superhero franchises, Marvel’s effort makes a nice contrast to DC’s (The Dark Knight saga and the new Man of Steel), which have been sticking strongly to the gritty angle and a general air of cynicism and shadiness (and deliberately avoiding anything that would make them feel like comic book movies, but that’s another discussion). The Dark Knight and The Avengers were both great movies, though you’ll often see the dark and more morally complex Batman flicks getting more fond nods from film critics. On one level this is fair, on another, you have to ask if they’re simply afraid of giving artistic merit to a movie where the obvious goodies win. Those are just fluffy action movies with no character depth or development and nothing interesting about them, after all.

There’s this strange idea that for something to be ‘adult’ (like the aforementioned Transformers movies) it has to be at least a little bit horrible and rough around the edges. Because optimism in a story is seen as somehow immature? It’s a stigma that we need to stay away from as it’s damaging and discredits lots of quite good creations that people have put a lot of hard work into. Sure enough, a lot of great art is dark, but art is not required to be dark to be great.

You could argue up and down the scale of light and dark forever. Personally, I think that variety is the key—mix it up a little, have Batman Begins brooding and bleeding and being grimly introspective next to the world-saving heroics of Pacific Rim. Why shouldn’t we have likeable and decent people leading the adventures alongside the morally tangled anti-heroes?

If anything, optimistic films might just be the new hip thing, subverting the subversions and surprising the audience by putting back together the archetypes that gritty movies have been sulkily taking apart for the past few decades. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional happy ending, hey, it might even make a nice breather from all the hard-hitting drama out there in sci-fi and fantasy. If every fiction we create is condemning and depressing, well, the audience is just going to feel condemned and depressed, aren’t they? And though that’s the point and power of a lot of films, having it as the go-to does not bode well. What’s wrong with a little bit of hope now and then? And giant robots. Nothing wrong with a healthy dose of giant robots.

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8 Comments

Filed under Archetypes and Genre

8 responses to “Optimism vs. Cynicism: The Great Heroic Debate

  1. I still haven’t seen Pacific Rim, but I’m going to–as soon as a friend of mine gets out of boot camp. Because hope and giant robots sounds like a good combination to me.

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