Update: Upon re-reading, rewrote it a bit.
Yesterday, we were talking about modern heroes’ love of killing. I should note that Star Trek Into Darkness, unlike the first movie in that series, does pay some lip service to the idea of avoiding vengeance, but it does so in a ridiculous way: they solemnly conclude that it would be wrong to kill the villain, so instead they re-freeze him and use him as a paperweight.
Even when the heroes don’t explicitly kill the villains, there’s never any sense that society deserves to see a trial for these atrocities. After all, wouldn’t these criminal masterminds feel shame and humiliation if arrested and imprisoned? And wouldn’t justice be served by convicting them? Wouldn’t that trial tell the world what happened, and bring closure to their victims? Actually, according to these movies, the answer is just the opposite...
After the success of Dark Knight, we’ve had not one, not two, but three more movies that have slavishly copied its then-unique structure, in which the villain is imprisoned for the middle of the movie: Skyfall, The Avengers, and Star Trek Into Darkness. In each of the four, the villain strutted around the prison with a smug smirk, making it clear that this is exactly where he wanted to be, injecting his evil directly into the heart of civilization. The jailers who attempted to get them to cooperate were shown to be naïve fools.
(One thing I liked about Thor 2, by contrast, is that it dared to imply that its villain, even though he was the same one from The Avengers, might actually dislike prison the second time around.)
Of course, I realize that the idea of killing villains isn’t new –James Bond has never once brought a bad guy in for trial, and that’s fine– but what makes modern movies so unpalatable is their hypocrisy. In all four of those movies the villain was more appealing than the hero, and that that is new. These villains dominate every scene, even in prison, because the screenwriters are pretty much on their side. In fact, in each of the three copycats, the villain tipped the heroes off to the fact that their bosses were up to no good.
In each of these movies, our side is human but naïve, and their side is inhuman but lionized. That’s a very bleak dichotomy.
Of course, this isn’t just Hollywood’s problem. Why was
Seal Team Six ordered to assassinate bin Laden? Why didn’t they arrest
him? Why not put him on trial, like Eichmann, and humiliate him in
front of the world? Why not contrast his lawlessness with our law?
Perhaps it’s because we convinced ourselves he was a monster, not a
human, and you can’t humiliate a monster. The way we conceive of our
modern villains, both onscreen and off, they’re as incapable of shame as
an AK-47 would be. You can’t humiliate an AK-47, you can only smash
it ...Or perhaps the real answer is indicated by these movies: we were afraid that, if we got him in our docket, we would prefer his nihilistic vision to ours. Neither possibility is very pretty.
What is the way out of this? Can we rediscover our humanity? If that’s possible, will Hollywood show us the way or come trailing behind? Intentionally or not, they’ve done a pretty good job of showing us the problem, but can they now start to explore any solutions? Can they finally create new compelling heroes, now that the old franchises have soured so badly? I can only hope so.
Next time, we’ll bring a lot of these trends together for a more in depth analysis of one of the worst movies of 2013: The Hobbit 2...