Give Us Our Uncomplicated Heroes, Hollywood!

35

Yesterday, I wrote about the spectacular implosion of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Director Guy Ritchie was given $175 million to make a blockbuster for Warner Bros., and he did his best, saturating the screen with jarring camerawork; skyscraper-sized elephants; and a smirking, cynical tone. It was as hip and as self-aware as a film could be, checking all the boxes that we moviegoers supposedly want in a 21st-century summertime flick.

But it bombed, making just $14.7 million and likely killing what Warner Bros. hoped would be a sequel-rich, blockbuster bovine that could be milked for years to come.

What happened? Game of Thrones, that’s what. At least that’s what Charlie Jane Anders of Wired says.

King Arthur’s been a staple in heroic literature for a long time now. Maybe too long, the folks at Warner Bros. seemed to say. The Arthur we’ve known  feels just so old-fashioned compared to the flawed, cynical, scheming protagonists from George R. R. Martin’s sweeping books (and HBO series). Thus, Ritchie and the folks from Warner Bros. gave the story a bit of Westerosian overhaul. It’s “not your father’s King Arthur,” one of the film’s producers allegedly said, and indeed it’s not: We see loved ones skewered by death-demons, innocents sacrificed to tentacle beasties and a father being tortured in front of his prepubescent son. This Arthur is no uncomplicated do-gooder, but rather a reluctant hero and conflicted cad before he transitions into kingly champion. Writes Anders:

In fact, Ritchie’s King Arthur made me wonder if we can even appreciate a fun, good-hearted version of the original heroic narrative anymore. Maybe these tropes have been subverted and deconstructed so often, particularly when it comes to epic fantasy, that no one wants to buy into the archetypes now. Maybe in this post-Game world, everything in this genre looks like a knockoff—even movies based on the hero’s journey that helped inspire it.  Or maybe the once and future king is just waiting for someone who can pull him out of the darkness and help him reclaim his throne.

Now, is it a coincidence that Warner Bros. was also the studio behind Superman’s angst in Man of Steel or giving Batman guns in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice? Maybe, maybe not. But I don’t think it’s just Arthur who suffers from cynicism, nor do I think that Game of Thrones is solely to blame. In spite of our legion of superhero movies, we live in a post-heroic world. Chivalry—the engine that powered Arthur’s legend for centuries—has run out of gas.

Or so Hollywood says.

Listen, I’m no hater of complex, conflicted protagonists. I like a little murk in my heroes, because I think that’s more representative of who we all are: sinners who don’t always do what we should or want to, no matter how hard we try. So when I see Tony Stark/Iron Man struggle with his own arrogance or Batman battle his past, it feels right. I’ve written books about it.

But not every hero requires a bleak backstory or needs to grapple with inner angst. Anders wonders whether you can have a “good-hearted” Arthur story anymore. I’m beginning to wonder if good-hearted movies of any sort are as rare as 300-foot elephants.

Looking back at the films I’ve reviewed this year, most share a common descriptor: bleak. [Caution: Spoilers ahead.] Life—a movie with a jaunty, affirming title—ended on a note that made the original Alien look like a My Little Pony episode. The Belko Experiment featured a bunch of coworkers forced to murder each other until only one remains—with the leaders of the “experiment” announcing those survivors will now be thrust into an ominous “phase two” sequel.

Now, I get it: These were horror movies, and horror movies don’t always have chipper, family friendly endings. But it doesn’t end there. Everyone dies in Free Fire. A free society dies in The Circle. For a while, I thought my editor was simply assigning me depressing movies as some sort of punishment. But maybe not. Maybe Hollywood’s screen tests indicate that bleak is big, and that everything should be nice and nihilistic. Even the comedies. Shirley MacClain’s latest flick wasn’t just called The Last Word for nothing.

“Who needs characters you can root for?” Movie executives seem to be saying. “Who wants happy endings? We need darkness! Pain! Angst! That’s what people want on a Friday night! Their tears will season their overpriced popcorn!”

There are exceptions, of course—movies where you can find heroes and hope and your protagonists don’t necessarily die tragically in the end. The Fate of the Furious, maybe. Beauty and the Beast. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Whoa! I just named three of the year’s four highest-grossing films! Who’da thunk?

Oh, and what’s the year’s fifth highest-grossing film? The LEGO Batman Movie, which conspicuously subverts Batman’s bleak, contemporary trappings and allows us to (gasp) have fun with him again.

“Black,” LEGO Batman says during the opening credits. “All important movies start with a black screen. And music. Edgy, scary music that would make a parent or studio executive nervous. And logos. Really long and dramatic logos.”

Again, I’m OK with a darker Batman. Christopher Nolan’s movies were quite powerful (though not, it must be noted, particularly family friendly). But just because Nolan’s movies were dark and good doesn’t mean that everything good has to be dark, or that everything dark is particularly good. Maybe King Arthur: Legend of the Sword didn’t really need to be the next Game of Thrones. Maybe it simply needed to be true to the old King Arthur.

Are heroes passé these days? Maybe. We live in a jaded day now. It’s hard to trust anyone, no matter what color of hat they’re wearing. Maybe films shouldn’t be fun when we’re faced with so many serious problems.

And yet when Hollywood does give us a fun hero or two, we seem to watch them. Go figure.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The same seems to have happened to Westerns. Traditional Westerns were basic good against evil. It would be one man or a small band of honest men against some real bad hombres. Most of the time, they were outnumbered. Yet they found a way to prevail. Great stories about morality, ethics, and decency in the midst of depravity.

Now, however, we have changed all that. Westerns are about aliens, alternate reality, and good guys who are fatally flawed. 
Alex Clark More than 1 year ago
I have to disagree with the reasoning why the King Author movie failed.  I suspect King Author failed for the same reason John Carter failed, for the same reason Jupiter Ascending failed, for the same reason I predict Valerian is probably going to fail.  They are all summer blockbusters with insane budgets that are NOT part of an established comic book franchise, or animated movies, or Disney live action remakes.

Seems like that nowadays the only movies that can really succeed are the movies with "brand name" recognition; the inevitable new sequels in the Marvel/Star Wars/DC/Godzilla/Fast and Furious/Transformers established universes, or animated fare by established studios Pixar, dreamworks, and Disney, or the remakes of all our old nostalgic franchises (although Turtles and power rangers unfortunately failed, I suspect because the studios may have over-estimated their popularity and audience, and aimed them "too Mature").  Occasionally something un-established gets to slip by the radar and become a smash hit, like "Kingsmen" from a few years ago (although...it was based on a comic!), but then of course they become "established" and spawn ongoing franchises and the share of the pie gets smaller.

At least we still get some original fresher feeling lower budget movies to fill in some of the gaps.  But as the years go by it seems like the bigger budget blockbuster category of movies is just filled with nothing but tentpole franchise sequels and "name brand" disney movies :(
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
I think you're right (though from what I've heard, Jupiter Ascending failed because it just wasn't any good. I've never watched it though, so I could be wrong). But it makes a lot of sense, movie tickets now are so expensive. And that's not even counting the cost of popcorn, etc. If you're going to spend that much money to see a movie, you're going to watch a movie you know you'll actually enjoy. Not take a risk on something you've never even heard of.
Alex Clark More than 1 year ago
True, Jupiter Ascending wasn't very good, but not a whole lot of people even bothered to take the chance to find out it's quality for themselves.  You compare that to something like BvS or pretty much all the Transformer movies.  General consensus is that those films are pretty bad too, and transformers is barely taken seriously by anyone, but they are still box office successes.  They were "bad" movies but everyone still saw them, whereas relatively few people gave Jupiter Ascending a chance at all.  
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
Very true. Most of the criticism for Jupiter Ascending probably came from those who saw it on dvd/bluray rather than at the theater.
And I'm amazed that Transformers movies are even still being made, much less making a profit. But they are o.o
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Two things;
1) One of the reasons 'bad' movies still get made is theme fetish.  Mine is Mecha.  If it has giant robots in it, whether they're sentient aliens or piloted machines, something in me wants to watch it, at least once.  That's part of the reason Pacific Rim was a commercial success, even if the US box office totals don't show it - it went over big in Pacific Asia.
2)  The other reason Pacific Rim was successful - and the new King Arthur wasn't - is something that Hollywood figured out and then forgot somewhere between the 1950s and today:
Real people want Real Heroes.
I say Real Heroes as distinct from superheroes, imposdibly perfect idols, or angsty, dark-hearted do-gooders as have been discussed hereabove.  Characters who model the pattern of real-life success stories; Dream, Struggle, Victory.  Heroes who are real people, with real dreams and emotions, and often real issues, slogging through the trenches of actual or plausible scenarios and growing in the process.
Those stories, when well-told, sell and sell big.  Not that they outsell anything else, or that other things don't *cough*grey*cough*twilight*cough* , but good stories of that kind strike a nerve with us common viewers, because in the back of our brains we have wiring to face and overcome challenges to get what we believe we need to survive or will make us happy and content.  And by and large, when we choose the right things and obtain them, we not only become gratified, we become better in the process.  Writers and producers are ill-advised to take a shallow, cynical view of the viewing public and the protagonists they want to see on the big screen, because most often what we want to see most is who we want to be.
SJamison More than 1 year ago
Perhaps some of you folks might enjoy "Tiger Mask W", an anime show that's kind of a throwback to less complicated character arcs.  It takes place on an alternate Earth that's like ours except that professional wrestling is real.  Our main hero Naoto has trained to avenge his mentor against an evil wrestling organization, Global Wrestling Monopoly.  (Meanwhile, his best friend has become an edgy anti-hero, but this is revealed in the end to be a terrible idea.)  Our hero is briefly tempted into fighting dirty, but soon learns that this will not actually get him what he wants.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Dear Plugged In,

 I love having a safe place to get advice and process movies. I really liked your series "don't watch but if you do" it has been very helpful. I was wondering what is your idea of a perfect movie? And what should television aspire to be, what are its responsibilities? What standards did you base your Adventures in Odyssey on?

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by First Comment Guy

This is a massive problem that Hollywood has with Superman. They saw how much people loved the way Batman was rebooted in a dark and gritty fashion, so they decided to do the same thing with Superman, resulting in Man of Steel.

The problem with a dark, moody Superman is that it's hard to connect with him and look up to him. Heroes should be someone we root for, not someone we pity. Basically, Superman is supposed to be DC's equivalent to Captain America, the lightness to Batman's darkness, and the new movies have so far failed to capitalize on this.

What we REALLY need is a live action Superman in the style of The Animated Series; that's the definite version of Superman.
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
My favorite portrayal of Superman is the HISHE Super Cafe version :)
That might seem like a joke, but I'm serious. They really make him likeable and funny.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Haha!  Why did I reply to your comment?

"Because I'm Batman!"

Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
Because I'm Batman! ;)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by First Comment Guy

I love Super Café! I hope they make a reference to it in the movies.
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
They kind of did in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 :D It might have just been a coincidence, but I know I was thinking of HISHE when I saw a certain scene xD

If DC ever made a movie with the HISHE Batman and Superman, I would pay good money to see it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by First Comment Guy

Hmmm. A live action Superman who's into Pokémon Go? That would be interesting.
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
I agree with you here. I am definitely tired of bleak stories. The ones that have no hope, the bad guy just keeps winning, our "hero" is a terrible person who never changes. They make me feel hopeless and miserable, and that's not why I sit down to watch a movie. 

But on the other hand, I don't want to go back to goody-two-shoes "heroes" who have no flaws or personality. And I definitely don't want to see damsels who only know how to scream in terror and then give the "hero" a kiss at the end. Uncomplicated doesn't mean good. It's actually bad writing.
bobed More than 1 year ago
If uncomplicated is bad writing, then I have no idea how The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie stayed on the air for decades. Or even a show like Gilmore Girls. People LIKE uncomplicated. They like a simple, familiar place to return "home" to.
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
People used to like The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie (for the record, I watched both as a child and hated them). I notice they've never gotten a reboot. Why? Because back then you could live in your sheltered little town and think that the world was divided into good and evil with no gray. It isn't. And we know that now, so those characters look flat and unrealistic. You know what else stayed on the air for a long time? Doctor Who. MASH. Shows that weren't afraid to show how dark, gray, and complicated our world and people could be. But who also showed good triumphing and giving us a sense of hope.
bobed More than 1 year ago
It's clear you and I have VERY different views on entertainment - for the record, I've no idea why anyone would "hate" decent, wholesome TV shows where the characters treat each other kindly and decently and deal with real-world problems. Dislike, perhaps, for some odd reason, but "hate"? You should reserve your hate for things that matter, not harmless entertainment. In any case, it's clear we have nothing to talk about.
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
That makes no sense. We only have nothing to talk about if we agree. You don't have to talk if you don't want to, but I enjoy discussion. It's a chance to see new viewpoints. Your's is interesting. You talked earlier about letting children watch Schindler's List (Rated R), but now argue against dark and gritty entertainment? I can't see how that works. If our children should see Schindler's List to remember the horrors that people are capable of inflicting on one another, why is it wrong for fictional stories to attempt to portray the same? Or show us a scary future that could be the result of what we're doing now?

As for why I hated the shows you, for some odd reason, like it's because I was forced by my parents to watch them and they bored me with their lack of complexity. They didn't encourage me to think. I hate being bored.
bobed More than 1 year ago
You're right - we DO have a lot to talk about! I've practically got an essay typed here, because your comparison so befuddles me.

Schindler's List is a real-life story that informs us of the horrors of war. Besides any artistic licence, it is almost a documentary. Movies like that are not "dark and gritty." They are not superhero entertainment turned violent for no real reason. They are a portrait of something horrible that happened in the 1930s and 40s that we must NEVER allow our children to forget, and frankly I'm annoyed and a bit disturbed that you would take my respect and honor for such horrible events and say that, because I am in effect a decent person who acknowledges the Holocaust and believes it should be taught  in schools, I therefore must be in love with nasty, purposefully-gruesome fiction. I am not and never will be.

I do not think there is any point to FICTIONAL STORIES - i.e. the extremely violent Dark Knight, or the explicit and morally cynical Watchmen - that are violent and dark for the sake of violence and darkness. I do not appreciate such things. They teach us nothing. They are silly fiction and, in my view, worth about as much as a tarnished penny. But that's another story. 

The point is that I think superheroes, and movie/TV heroes in general, used to be portrayed as decent, morally upright people. Now the trend is towards heroes who are immoral, who are violent, who sleep around and display hatred and impudence wherever they go. Look at the ridiculously explicit show Jessica Jones. Its crime-fighting "hero" is foul-mouthed, drunk and promiscuous - and that's one of the most popular shows on television! And Game of Thrones - all its "heroes" tend towards being half-naked, drunken, foul-mouthed and promiscuous murderers that make our dear friend Ms. Jones look like Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus. And these are the characters I am meant to be rooting for? And these horrible people are the norm, the commonplace, the passe. In today's film world, a hero who treats others with kindness and acts upright in all situations would stand out like a store thumb.

I want a return to decent heroes. I want to watch movies or shows not about horrible people, but about decent people, people who reflect ME and my family, people like Laura Ingalls and John Walton who do what's right. You're right that both of those shows are uncomplicated, but I do not necessarily believe that "uncomplicated" means "worthy of hate." I am sick, tired and fed up with "heroes" who are hateful, horrid people. Even a sarcastic hero like Indiana Jones would be a welcome point of light in today's slew of darkness. (And yes, I know those movies portrayed spiritual darkness and immorality galore, but they seem particularly tame in comparison to today's media.)

I actually find it both fascinating and strange that you would compare my appreciation and respect for movies that respectfully depict the Holocaust, to my disdain for the violent, immoral fiction that permeates our world today. And frankly I think that your nonsensical and illogical comparison is a symptom of the fact that we are NOT adequately teaching our children about the horrible things that went on during that world war. We NEED to show our kids the horrors that happened, in a completely negative light, so that they will not become ignorant and complacent, and so that those horrors will never be repeated. There is a MARKED difference between "dark and gritty" films and shows that are nasty and immoral just for the sake of it, and movies that portray real-life events that we must work hard to educate our children about, so that they can be avoided.
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
You know what I find annoying? The fact that after a while PluggedIn stops letting you reply to posts :P

First, WWII was something I was very interested in as a teenager. I read many books on the Holocaust, biographies of Adolf Hitler, an account of Pearl Harbor, and watched an entire documentary series complete with an hour long segment of how Japanese soldiers tortured their prisoners of war. So I don't like that you insinuate I'm ignorant of these events, but whatever. You don't know me so it's an easy mistake to make.

The comparison I was trying to make was this. What's the difference between Schindler's List, and a fictional story that tries to tell a similar story of suffering, persecution, and standing up for what's right? Both have the same message, both are dark and gritty (yes, that's how our world really is), but you only respect one because it "actually happened"? Whether it happened or not is irrelevant. The point of a story is it's message regardless of whether the people and story delivering that message were real. So it follows that if Schindler's List can't be told properly without it's level of violence, then another fictional story also needs it's level of violence to be told.

From what you've said though, it seems you don't believe violence and reality are ever necessary in a work of fiction. But there can be good reasons for them. One of those is that people want characters we can relate to. Characters who struggle with knowing what is right and what is wrong, and who sometimes don't make the right decision same as us. People now days want more realness in their stories and characters than there was in the past. All you have to do is look at the movies that make the most money today to see that.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Posted by the Other Anonymous


I don't think Little House on the Prairie is distinctly "uncomplicated."  While the show featured simplicity and day-to-day events, it balanced that with some dark stuff.  Lots of characters died, good people did bad things, and the town had to wrestle with hardness.  I remember an episode where a girl was repeatedly raped, impregnated, and eventually murdered.  None of it was graphic; it was all implied.  Still, that's heavy for a supposedly boring, stupid show for Hallmark audiences.

bobed More than 1 year ago
I agree one hundred percent. "Not foul or violent" does not mean "uncomplicated and boring." The Waltons, with a deft and balanced hand, dealt with illness, death, loss, poverty, social class and war. The OP may have their opinion that that show bored them to death, but personally I think the fact that they watched the show as a child is very telling. As a child, you are more likely NOT to relate to mature themes and find them boring. My daughter found the fantastic and artistically almost-perfect movie The Prince of Egypt "boring" when she was 7 or 8, but as a teenager it's become one of her favorite films. Children can't relate to complex adult themes. And no, I don't mean "explicit sex and violence" when I talk about adult themes. Sex and violence are more childish and immature than "adult." A show that can handle such themes with grace and implication is ten times more mature than an M-rated show or movie, I think.
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
I think I see what's going on here. I'm not being clear about what I mean, and for that I apologize. I sometimes have a hard time getting my thoughts organized. 
When I said I watched as a kid, I meant 12 years old. Not 6. More than old enough to relate to the adult themes. I remember an episode about an abused child, a Native American boy being forced to conform to white society, and a soldier coming back from war who committed suicide. I understood what was happening. What I didn't like was the unrealistic way the subject matter was presented or resolved, the cliched and flat characters who never changed, and the fact that a half hour show can't do justice to many of these themes (not just Little House on the Prairie, all TV shows tend to have this problem).
You know what I did like? The Little House on the Prairie books. Laura was a realistic and complicated character in the books because it was about a real person experiencing real things. She grew and changed, as did the people around her. When they make a TV show that can do her books justice, then I'll watch :)
bobed More than 1 year ago
"Dark and gritty" reboots have been overdone and stale since The Dark Knight. "Heroes" who act evilly and hatefully or must overcome terribly traumatic pasts, likewise. Give me an old-fashioned hero who always does the right thing and doesn't need to go through a million horrible moral quandaries! I am sick to death of dark gritty reboots, even their advertisements on TV. I think families across the continent agree with me. We want good heroes, a clean action film, a daring hero who rescues a damsal in distress. We want chastity and morality. Enough with the bleak Batmans and morose Marvels. I am in total agreement with this article.
Evan Weisensel More than 1 year ago
Honestly, I think you need a balance between simple, upstanding heroes and dark, complicated heroes plus a mix of the two archetypes lest either becomes boring and standard. (Speaking as someone who does some creative writing and comic making as a hobby.) Think of it kind of like food, Ice Cream's good, and so is a hearty Meat and Potatoes meal, but wouldn't like to eat either exclusively, it'll get boring and just isn't healthy, and sometimes you'll want to try other new and interesting foods (archetypes for heroes and villains that haven't been used that much yet.) to mix things up even more. You get the picture? So while yes, I do agree that we need more straightforward heroes in the midst of all the complex antiheroes, I also think we shouldn't completely do away with either archetype to avoid stagnation. (In fact, the gritty antihero namely came about due to everyone being tired of the upstanding, simple type.)
bobed More than 1 year ago
Perhaps everyone else got tired of the upstanding simple type, but I never did. I'm a meat and potatoes guy, as you say, and I never got used to the "everyone doubts themselves and has raunchy/disturbing/nasty secrets" era of heroes that we find ourselves in. Give me Christopher Reeve's Superman or John Walton or Andy Griffith. I am sick to death of watching movies about evil, immoral people and expecting to root for them as the heroes.
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
I definitely agree with your last point there (though I bet we have a different idea of what constitute "evil" and "immoral"). But seriously, I can't understand how characters like Hannibal Lecter, Jigsaw, or that guy from Halloween got fanbases! I can't stand those franchises because it seems like the bad guy always wins and we're supposed to be happy about it?
bobed More than 1 year ago
I definitely agree. Movies like Saw and Silence of the Lambs simply show how depraved the human heart is. Why would you be a fan of such a thing? Why would anyone expose their heart to such darkness?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Replying to you and inkfeather:
Because in a fallen world there will always be people attracted to abnormalcy and moral deviancy - and I suspect some writers and producers think that EVERYONE harbors a (supptessed/repressed) urge to rebel against the norm and 'express themselves', which is almost invariably gritty, angsty, and/or self-indulgent.  There are people -influential people - who are persuaded that traditional morality is a man-made construct, a fraud, a con job on the masses for the powerful to exploit them, and that breaking out of that is the only way to be truly free.  How else can we explain how movies such as Quills and Sweeny Todd ever got made? - movies where the honest do-gooders and would-bes are secondary or background characters, often mere plot movers, and the twisted & tortured or corrupt & privileged are the characters who get the most development.  I feel that such movies are sometimes not made in order to make money as much as to make a point - that there ARE people who will pay to watch such content.  Every now and again someone has the audacity to make an X-rated theatrical release - and they make money.  For all I can tell its really a cultural middle finger.  I particularly find Jigsaw a subtle smear job because he misuses the Bible in his deranged tortures.
I don't disagree with charitysplace below about exploring deviant chatacters and behavior - but when it is done in a graphic, lurid, profane way, I generally regard it as 'bread and circuses'.
charitysplace More than 1 year ago
The Hannibal Lecter stories carry deep theoretical and psychological themes; true, there are some fans who watch it just for the gore and thrill of seeing a "cannibal" behind bars, but the rich psychology, the exploration of mental illness, etc., are fascinating.
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
Well maybe I've only heard about it from the other fans then. Psychology is fascinating, and if it's a realistic look at what makes a person that way then maybe it's not as bad as I thought.
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
Balance and variety. I like that. And I agree it's very important. I actually can think of a few "simple, upstanding heroes" that I really like. But they're always paired with characters who are gray and complex (and the gray, complex one is the one I like more). Like you said, it's like having a balanced meal.
Julienne Dy More than 1 year ago
YEAH!  LEGO Batman for the win!