Tuesday, November 21, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?

Of course, if you’re going to invoke real pain, the trick is to avoid hypocrisy. I can only guess that writer-director Joss Whedon got a note from the studio that said, “The Avengers are just tools of the government the entire time. They should show some independence!” So he added in a very awkward subplot in which the Avengers work together to uncover their boss’s (Nick Fury) dirty secret: He wasn’t just using the stolen alien artifact to create clean energy; he was building weapons! Gasp! 

This tacked-on subplot not only goes nowhere, but it’s also totally out of character. The Avengers love weapons. They’re all defined by their weapons. Quick quiz—who’s who? Shield. Hammer. Armor. Bow. Guns. Fists. Any questions? For that matter, they’re also at war with a malevolent alien race. This is a movie that ends with Iron Man happily wiping out his enemies with a nuclear missile, and nobody bats an eye! Isn’t he the same guy who was just lecturing Fury about not building any more weapons?

If they wanted to add a quick antiweapons-proliferation subplot in the middle of an intensely pro-weapon movie, then they should have figured out a way to have that issue resonate in the second half of the movie, as well, instead of being instantly forgotten and totally contradicted.

Of course, this hypocrisy is specific to The Avengers, but there’s also the issue of the much bigger hypocrisy that hangs over almost every story about good and evil. Almost all heroic fiction is founded on the great hypocrisy.

See if you can spot the problem with this logic: “See that guy over there? He solves his problems by killing people! That makes him a problem! So let’s kill him! Yay!” Explain to me again who the bad guy is here? In the real world, thankfully, meeting violence with violence is most often seen as a tragic last resort, but in fiction, we aren’t satisfied until the villain has been turned into chopped liver. Watching people solve their problems through democratic action is boooring.

When we watch movies about would-be peacemakers, like the lovable, pacifistic small-town sheriff Jimmy Stewart plays in Destry Rides Again, we root for him, but we don’t really want to see him make peace with the town bully, because watching everybody put down their guns and go home would just be, you know, lame. We secretly long for the moment when he gets fed up and straps those guns on.

So how can you avoid the great hypocrisy and yet still have a satisfying ending? You can cheat. You can allow your heroes to make peace with the enemy army if you give that army a really evil, heretofore unrevealed boss. The most famous example of this is Star Wars. To redeem Vader, Lucas cleverly brought in the Emperor late in the game. Now they could team up against a greater enemy. Otherwise, the trilogy would have had to end on a hug and no fight.

I grew up on the Star Wars trilogy, and that pretty much ruined me for other sagas. That became my standard for greatness: Morally serious heroes should seek to redeem the villain, not kill him. Thus, I was inevitably disappointed with the endings of The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series, Lost, and any other saga that gave lip service to complex moral dilemmas but, in the end, came down to happy ending = kill the villain.

This is one reason why I was so impressed by the movie How to Train Your Dragon. As I watched it, I was thinking, Gee, they’ve been training all this time for a big dragon battle, but now they’ve got us rooting for our hero to make peace with the dragons instead. If that happens, it’ll be admirable, sure, but won’t that feel kinda unsatisfying?

But then, halfway through, we find out the dragons have a big, nasty boss, and I smiled. “They’re going to make peace with every dragon except that guy.” Is it a cheat? Sure. But it’s a good way to satisfy both higher moral sensibilities and the need to still see just a little ass kicking.

Rulebook Casefile: The Muddled Metaphor of Pacific Rim

The central conceit of Pacific Rim is that one pilot can’t control a giant robot without getting a nosebleed (heaven forbid!) so they have to have two pilots do a mind-meld in order to share the load. Okay, that’s somewhat interesting, but what’s the metaphor here? I guess you could say that that’s a metaphor for how real world co-pilots learn to work together…but that has nothing to do with the core concept of Monsters vs. Robots. The metaphor, to the extent that it exists, is muddled, inert, and extraneous. 
Besides, the filmmakers don’t really care about this plotline: the whole first half is about how hard it is to mind-meld, and sure enough, the first time our heroes try it, they fail catastrophically, almost blowing up the base in the process. Naturally, they get fired...but then in the next big attack all of the other pilots fail and the boss has no choice but to call on our infamously-bad-at-mind-melding heroes. What will our troubled heroes see in each other’s memories this time, and will they be able to deal with it??

Sorry, we never find out, because once the movie finally gets to indulge in robot vs. monster mayhem, mind-melding is never shown or mentioned again! Who cares? We’ve got monsters to punch! We just have to assume the whole problem was dealt with offscreen, I guess.

This exemplifies so many problems we’ve talked about before. Mind-melding is hard to do but it isn’t hard to want to do. (It might have been if each pilot was trying to hide memories from the other, but neither one is.) The whole concept is an abstraction or an abstraction. Worst of all, this premise is neither how life is nor how life feels. You know how, in real life, if you want to defeat monstrous people, you have to reach into the memories of the person next to you? No? You’ve never felt that way? Of course not.

So what should they have done? Just look at the poster. I do freelance copywriting work for a book publisher, and one shocking thing they’ve taught me is that, if the premise for the book you’re selling is confusing or too dumb, you just lie about what it is in order to sell it, creating a tagline for what the book should have been. The buyers will be disappointed, of course, but hey, at least they bought it.
Sure enough, if you look at the poster for Pacific Rim, you’ll see that the tagline promises a much better concept: “To fight monsters, we created monsters.” That’s a movie I’d like to see! Some smart copywriter realized that the movie didn’t work because it wasn’t ironic, so he or she created a premise for the poster that was ironic, that did relate the basic concept. Monsters vs. Robots...what could go wrong with that? Well, what’s the most ironic answer? The robots turn out to be worse than the monsters! Then we’d have a movie!

We’ll explore that possibility more next time…

Rulebook Casefile: Hypocritical Invocation of National Pain in Pacific Rim  

So what’s this movie about? The first answer might be “nothing”, but that couldn’t be more wrong: there are actually lots of twinges of real life national pain...but they’re all mentioned in passing in a hypocritical way:
  • There’s a brief mention that the monsters are drawn to Earth because of our environmental devastation: “Depleted oxygen? We terraformed it for them!”
  • Government assholes are building a futile wall to keep aliens out.
  • We briefly glimpse a religion whose members blame themselves for the attacks.
  • There’s lots of 9/11 imagery.
  • There’s lots of World War 2 imagery.
  • And the whole thing is very reminiscent of the Deepwater Horizon spill
But the answer to environmental devastation isn’t setting off nukes or killing monsters (even metaphorical ones). And surely the real world alternative to building that wall isn’t to build robots to beat up the “aliens”, is it?  The movie is just tossing in every idea it can get its hands out on without thinking any of it through. It doesn’t extract any meaning from any of these big ideas that it attempt to borrow.

You get the feeling that they came up with the idea, brainstormed a million different possible meanings for it, and then, instead of choosing one, they just used that brainstorm list as their script. This is equally true for both the plot and the theme: Sound and fury signifying nothing.

But wait, isn’t that the definition of the summer action movie? No, it isn’t. Action movies are supposed to feel like pure spectacle, but the good ones subtly use thematic resonance to make us care more, without forcing us to actively think about it on a conscious level. That’s the beauty of the form…when it’s done right.

Straying from the Party Line: Moral Hypocrisy in Stranger Things
You guys know I hate moral hypocrisy in stories. You should not, for instance, hold your heroes to a different standard than your villains. The one aspect of “Stranger Things” that I really didn’t like was the fact that Eleven kept casually killing people throughout the series. I didn’t like it for several reasons:    
  • The series didn’t seem to have the time or the inclination to deal with the weight or ramifications of these killings, either for Eleven or the for the victims. The two agents she seemingly kills in the pilot (in the kitchen of the diner) disappear off screen so quickly, you hardly notice them.
  • Instead, the killings are presented in a stereotypically “badass” way. I especially hated it when she cocks her chin to snap two guards’ necks in a flashback in a later episode.
  • Worst of all, the story doesn’t need all this killing. She could just as easily have incapacitated these people by putting nightmares in their heads that make them collapse in horror, or made them writhe in pain with nosebleeds, or simply knocked them out psychically. Those all could have looked just as badass.
This is a series that’s all about the pain caused by the disappearance of a 12 year-old boy, but isn’t the death of each of these random government employees (who may not completely realize they’re working for a bad guy) just as sad? These guys aren’t exactly wearing Nazi armbands.

Such killings also constitute a big plot hole. As we see, family members tend to demand the truth when people disappear, and presumably Dr. Brenner would have his hands full at this point dealing with aggrieved relatives. (And that’s not even counting all the people killed by the monster or disappeared into the Upside-Down!)

Like a lot of stories that were actually made in the 80s, this series tries to walk a tricky line: a horror story about kids that will hopefully be equally appealing to teens and grown-ups: A celebration of innocence and experience at the same time, juxtaposing and combining the sensibilities of Mike and Hopper. For the most part, the series succeeds wonderfully, but I think it would have been even better if she was just knocking all those people out (in a horrific and badass way, if you prefer).

The 40 Year Old Virgin




An Education


The Babadook


Blazing Saddles

YES. Very much so.  The pain is real. 

Blue Velvet


The Bourne Identity

YES.  Very much so.  For once a spy refuses to split the difference. There is no carping about “I feel bad about this mission, but the ends justify the means.” 


YES. The economic and emotional pain is very real.


YES. Very much so.



Donnie Brasco


Do the Right Thing


The Farewell

NO. Well, not really, because dictatorship is never mentioned.  

The Fighter



YES. Yes. 

The Fugitive

YES. Well, in the real world, it’s almost always poor minorities, not rich whites, who get railroaded, but it doesn’t feel hypocritical, rather, as Aristotle would say, making the fall from status larger makes the emotion feel more real.

Get Out

YES. Very much so.  

Groundhog Day

YES. This town isn’t idealized. 

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Yes, by fudging it, they make peace with all the dragons but one. Also, disability is treated honestly, which is almost never the case in movies.

In a Lonely Place


Iron Man

YES. Tony doesn’t come up with some clever guarantee that makes sure that his arms won’t go to bad guys. The thorniness remains.

Lady Bird


Raising Arizona

YES. Mr. Arizona isn’t turned into a monster in order to justify the kidnapping, for instance.  




YES. The movie avoids charges of hypocisy by being honest about the hypocisies of both King (in terms of his family life) and Johnson. 

The Shining




The Silence of the Lambs

YES. It respects the horror of those cases.

Star Wars

YES. The empire resembles America (and the good guys the Viet Cong) and gives us a pretty unpleasant picture of ourselves. 

Sunset Boulevard

YES. There’s no good way to get rich.  Joe is going to go home to be a copywriter in Dayton at the end. 


Jesse Baruffi said...

I generally agree with you about this philosophy, but I would disagree with you in regards to how it plays out in Lords of the Rings. The whole point is that you can't beat Sauron through force of arms. The more traditionally heroic warrior types are completely useless against him. Beating him requires sending the "weak" members of the team on a mission of suffering and sacrifice but not really much violence.

Frodo even tries to save Gollum, the Ring's greatest victim, and he almost succeeds! I suppose it's true enough that Sauron himself is beyond saving and has to die, but he's more a concept than a character anyway. I think much of what LOTR's many imitators never got right was that Tolkien, as he also did in the Hobbit, was not telling a pro-war story. It may be slightly less anti-war than its predecessor, but the difference between "stupid and pointless" and "occasionally unavoidable but ultimately never the answer" isn't, to me, that huge.

Matt Bird said...

Good points. Definitely not “ might makes right” books.