Mar 3, 2009

Darkness cannot drive out darkness . . .

I have noticed over the years a trend, and below are some initial thoughts in response. The trend is that in film it seems that a majority of protagonists are becoming increasingly antiheroic. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an antihero as “a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities.” Contrarily, a hero is “a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability; an illustrious warrior; a man or woman admired for his or her achievements and noble qualities; or one that shows great courage.” The origin of the antihero is seemingly debatable in literature; however, there is no doubt that he or she has become the forefront as the hero of modern narratives. Or should I say post-modern narratives? Post-modernism has certainly influenced this development, as it is in part deemed to be a rejection of traditional values. Much of post-modernism’s disillusionment is said to be rooted in the nature of World War II and the recent Nuclear Age. Overall, antiheroes are marked by an increasingly complex morality, usually recognizable by their lack of self-identity and motivation. Wikipedia states that
It has been argued that the continuing popularity of the antihero in modern literature and popular culture may be based on the recognition that a person is fraught with human frailties, unlike the archetypes of the white-hatted cowboy and the noble warrior, and is therefore more accessible to readers and viewers . . . In the postmodern era, traditionally heroic qualities, akin to the classic ‘knight in shinning armor’ type, have given way to the ‘gritty truth’ of life, and authority in general is being questioned. The brooding vigilante or ‘noble criminal’ archetype . . . is slowly becoming part of the popular conception of heroic valor rather than being characteristics that are deemed un-heroic.

An approaching film, “The Watchmen”, based on the 1980’s Hugo-award winning graphic novel by Alan Moore (writer) and Dave Gibbons (illustrator), is probably the best example of this development. Another recent example could be the character of Bruce Wayne (a.k.a. Batman) in the two recent Christopher Nolan films. In general, antiheroes follow pulp fiction and film noir narratives, a response to the traditional comic book heroes of the early war years (e.g. Superman). But they have certainly extended into other arenas as well. An example of what seems to be the most morally detrimental expression of this is the game series “Grand Theft Auto.”

I wonder whether this extensive reach is healthy for our culture; especially the younger male generation who often consciously or subconsciously includes such heroes in their moral maturation. When I was growing up, at least, fictional heroes played a significant role in not only me and my friends play, but also our worldview. Most antiheroes, fortunately, seem to be contained within more mature films (whether the children’s’ parents let them seem such films is another matter entirely). Perhaps the younger generation only really becomes aware of the antihero when it comes to mid to late adolescence. There are likely more in-depth sociological studies on this topic.

Nonetheless, I sense an increasingly nihilistic worldview attached to antiheroes. In many cases a sense of hope in good has been removed—hope, namely, in something beyond or greater than society. The primary example of this for me is the presentation of spirituality. In films such as “Constantine” or “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” there seems to be an incredible lack of a strong realm of good to counter the clearly-presented realm of evil. The battle is usually between humanity and evil. Yet, as humanity is inherently flawed, it appears to be a battle between a greater evil and a lesser evil. Naturally, not all art forms demonstrate this trend, but it does seem to be on the rise.
Justice is still a societal value, but a festering lack of confidence and faith in the government has definitely led to a search for hope elsewhere. With that said, I think that while there is greater appeal in antiheroes, society is still looking for true heroism. I think Nolan’s recent Batman films walk brilliantly along this line. In my opinion “The Dark Knight” is the greatest antihero film ever created, for it challenges the balance of heroism and anitheroism (e.g. Bruce Wayne’s internal struggle in how far he must go, i.e. whether he must break his one rule, to defeat the Joker). On the other hand films such as “The Lord of the Rings” are refreshing in their triumphant hope in greater power (e.g. Gandalf, or in the book Tom Bombadil), honor (e.g. Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, etc.), and innocence (e.g. Bilbo, Frodo, and especially Samwise Gamgee). The hobbits are unlikely heroes, another popular hero form; yet, even Tolkien recognized the powerful influence of an antihero in the character of Smeagol. I believe antiheroes are necessary and critical for this era. Some antiheroes allow us to identify with their struggles and to even find hope that they have overcome. But there is definitely a balance needed: a line between struggling against the enemy within—but ultimately resisting and conquering it—and succumbing to that evil voice.

Thinking of the latter, there are numerous recent film antiheroes who resort to incredible violence in the name of justice (e.g. “The Punisher”). A quote by the character Aereon from the film “The Chronicles of Riddick” offers another example of a potential shift to unbalance in its narrative:
If we are to survive, a new balance must be found. In normal times, evil would be fought by good. But in times like these, well, it should be fought by another kind of evil.

Is this true? Individuals, human and flawed, can be inspiring models of heroism. But overall I believe they must not take that power and irresponsibly to freely define their own moral action. This, in part, is the battle against extreme post-modernism. For uncompromised hope and victory, there must be a power greater than the fallible antiheroes including even national authorities. The only steadfast answer is God, the lord of creation. Though I will not delve into discussing it further now, one should note how Jesus offers a stark contrast in heroism to the common world hero. In his crucifixion, Jesus was a lion in sheep’s clothing. He fought injustice with the sword of his Word, against human sin nature and against the prince of the world (i.e. Lucifer). Only in this is the world’s search for hope satisfied. It is hope in divine justice and judgment, in grace and provision. It is hope in Love.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness,” Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, “only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”


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