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February 24, 2014

On the Designated Hero

Well, my intention was to upload a post on something positive for once -- one that I actually wrote weeks ago, in fact -- but I changed my mind.  Just as well, though; this is a topic that’s been on my mind for a while, and more so thanks to what I’ve seen recently.  The sooner I can get it out of my brain and on (virtual) paper, the better off I’ll be.  Plus it can serve as kind of a lead-in to the actual good stuff I WANT to talk about.

So.  You might have noticed that I put up a post on the new RoboCop movie.  If you didn’t, let me confirm the obvious and tell you it’s exactly as terrible you expected it to be...to the point where I felt like I had to add in a tag called "Insults to Intelligence".  (I get the feeling I'm going to be using that one a lot more in the future.)  In fact, I was debating whether it or 47 Ronin was the worst movie I’d seen in theaters recently, and RoboCop won the prize.  I may have fallen asleep during 47 Ronin, but the aggressive stupidity of RoboCop -- and the reckless conviction that puts that stupidity front and center -- edged out the competition.  Besides, at least with 47 it kind of had a point in existing, even if it DID botch the story every step of the way.

RoboCop (2014, and yet another example of a remake/reboot that tries to take the place of the original by copying the title) has many problems.  Many, many problems.  But the one that sticks out to me is with its title character.  Not just because he’s bland and marginalized in his own movie; no, it’s because he reminds me of problems that a LOT of other characters have had recently.  And it’s a problem that I’m starting to realize is the one thing that I hate above all others.

Can you guess what it is?  Without going to TV Tropes first?

Okay, let met step back for a minute.  Have a look at this picture.

If you have no idea who this is or why this matters, then I envy you.  But seeing as how misery loves company, I’ll go over this as briefly as I can (because I’m beating the zombified horse yet again).  Square-Enix’s golden girl Lightning Farron -- of Final Fantasy 13 fame -- is completely awful and malformed.  It’s to the point where even when she gets a game that cuts out every other cast member, she STILL doesn’t get any better as a character -- at least if reviews are to be believed, and why wouldn’t they be?  Even the positive reviews -- and there are a lot less than the usual Final Fantasy game -- poke holes in what should be a triumphant finale. 

In her 2010 game of origin, Lightning only cares about saving her little sister Serah, even though Lightning put her in danger in the first place.  Flash forward to 2012, and Lightning causes the end of time just because she wanted her sister by her side, and throws a shit fit when she doesn’t get her way.  Flash forward to 2014, and despite being a goddess who’s tasked with saving the souls she effectively doomed (turning her into a distorted and vastly-inferior version of Amaterasu), she can’t be arsed to care about the people quest vendors around her in dire need of a savior.  She is, as far as I know, only doing it because she made a deal with a god.  If she does his bidding, then she gets Serah back.

As a wise man once said...

In the context and canon of Final Fantasy, Lightning is just the worst.  I’m no expert on the franchise, but I was under the impression that it was about heroes coming together, going on adventures, and rising up to defeat great evils while learning about themselves and their world along the way.  Granted I pretty much described every third story ever, but that’s not exactly what I’d call a broken model.  I was under the impression that people liked seeing that, and that’s why creators have banked on that setup over and over and over again -- the same basic story, told in different ways thanks to the infinite number of possibilities available with storytelling.  Or if not that, then it was something I like seeing.

When did we reach a point where Final Fantasy became synonymous with self-serving ass hats?  Lightning puts her sister in mortal danger -- and in the opening hours, a miserable fate as an immortal crystal statue -- and over the course of some fifty hours racks up a body count comparable to mass genocide.  And that’s just in the first game; the second game has her using suddenly-gained divine powers to cross swords with some pretty boy over and over again instead of doing anything constructive with them, and by story’s end she helped out maybe once by doling out some exposition…and then she goes on to take a centuries-long nap until the third game when another god steps in to give her more power, so she can save her now-dead sister, who she put in mortal danger again because she got sad and lonely.  Or as sad and lonely as someone who might as well not have emotions can be. 

As I’ve said, all of that would be okay IF THE GAMES ACTUALLY DISCUSSED THIS.  If they had stopped for five minutes and showed Lightning as anything more than a stoic-yet-tortured badass soldier (and waifu material, many have argued), then it would have added so much more to the so-called Lightning Saga.  But they never called her out.  Never.  They just tried and failed to make her look better by proxy with some evil pope in the first game, some babbling pretty boy in the second, and -- if my guess is right -- some god-turned-strawman in the third.  All the problems in this saga are her fault, along with the countless other problems caused via apathy or collateral damage.  Yet nobody behind this saga cared enough to think beyond their pink-haired marketing tool.

It pisses me the hell off.  When I say Lightning is the worst character I’ve ever seen, I mean it.  That one bit, the whole “I’m the hero because that’s what it says in the script” thing is one element of it, but it’s a big element.  But the more I think about it, the more I realize that she’s not the only example.  This new RoboCop is proof of that; in spite of being revived for the sake of justice marketing and getting more money (and doesn’t that just take on a harrowing meta-context?), he and his movie are more concerned with personal satisfaction and getting revenge than using his new robo-body to devote himself to peace and justice.  The only saving grace is that he’s too boring for him to be as bad as Lightning; the movie compensates for it by making that the overriding theme, though, so I guess everybody’s happy.

Except us.  Or me, to avoid generalization.  But can you blame me?  Look at what we’re dealing with.

I suspect that, based on the posts around this blog, there’s a direct link between how selfish a “hero” is supposed to be and how much I hate them -- and by extension, the story they stomp through.  I’m getting sick of these characters who almost seem to go out of their way to avoid having any redeeming qualities, yet the story treats them like they’re in the right -- even if they have to crowbar in a scapegoat of a villain to do so.  I’m not going to think that Donte’s learned a lesson and gained something precious when he’s responsible for turning his city into a smoldering crater for the sake of “freedom”.  I’m not going to take Joel Grumpybuns’ plight seriously when he starts and ends as a callous, torturing gunman, no matter how much sad guitar music you play. 

I’m not going to buy into 47 Ronin’s talk of honor when its bland-as-hell lead acts like he’s in it more to be with his bland-as-hell love interest instead of avenging his lord, the man who took him in.  I’m not going to cheer for this rebooted Superman when he spends half his life wandering aimlessly and looking saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad, and wrecks shit on the grounds that “he’s helping”.  I’m not going to laugh at Peter Griffin’s antics when he nearly blows his wife’s head off or shoots his friend in the eye.  And I know I haven’t brought it up before, but I wanted to punt my TV across the room when Marcus Fenix starts screaming at a guy because he lost his friend and nobody understands his pain…and said guy, meanwhile, has lost the populace of his ENTIRE TOWN.  Empathy?  What is that, some kind of perfume?

The point I’m trying to make is that there’s been a lot of instances with the selfish hero -- the designated hero, and embodiments of the “fuck you, got mine” mentality espoused by Yahtzee -- recently, and in the grand scheme of things I don’t see how it’s doing much good.  It just smacks of bad storytelling to me.  Think about it: characters create opportunities as a result of their personalities, drives, and actions.  What they do in a story results in actions and reactions by others, either physically or just in terms of conversations.  That much is obvious.  That’s what can help get things moving, and moving towards that ending.

Now, I’m going to stop you right here, because I get the feeling that I know what some of you are thinking.  “Oh, so characters aren’t allowed to be selfish?  They’re not allowed to bad things?”  No, I’m NOT saying that.  Not at all.  In fact, in some instances I approve of it.  It’s how a character provides an answer to a dilemma or conflict -- a choice made that has an impact on the plot, their arc, and the character in general. 

If, for example, Batman broke his code and killed someone out of blind rage to avenge a fallen friend, then that would be him doing something selfish.  Less-than-savory.  Understandable, but not without consequence.  A struggle within and without.  If he killed someone, then that would mean Commissioner Gordon could get on him and call him out.  It could strain their relationship, and bring up new paths for the story to follow.  Can Jim Gordon keep on trusting Batman?  Can the bat go back to not killing after he realizes that it can be more effective than just catching The Joker over and over again?  There’s a good story in there somewhere, because it explores the possibilities.  It’s willing to put Batman in the hot seat and cutting deeper into the character.

But too many creators seem to refuse to give that aspect -- all the possibilities created by one selfish act -- the time it deserves, and it cripples the story.  Going back to Final Fantasy, in FF13 Hope actually calls Snow out for indirectly causing the death of Hope’s mom (even though she abandoned him to play soldier for one reason or another).  It’s the thrust of a plot running parallel to the main story -- and while nothing even remotely entertaining or useful comes from it, at least it’s something.  It’s a road that the player gets to go down, however bumpy the ride. 

Conversely, Lightning’s actions never get discussed in grave detail, if at all.  Serah’s out for most of the game, and when she comes back, it’s all hugs and smiles despite the millions likely left dead.  13-2 takes it up to a fever pitch by having every named character treat Lightning like some kind of angel, ignoring the fact that she’s off doing some Bleach LARPing while time itself is at risk.  What would have happened if Serah called Lightning out on being a terrible sister?  What would have happened if Hope got in contact with Lightning and found out she was just doing whatever while others suffered?  What if Lightning herself realized that despite her newfound godhood, it wasn’t enough to satisfy her, AND she figured out that her power was ultimately worthless -- or better yet, an aspect that made her no different from the gods that once used her as their gofer?

It seems to me like stories with a designated hero think the audience is a bunch of idiots.  People can usually tell when someone’s bullshitting them, and -- no matter your opinion on the human race -- they know when it’s time to stop getting suckered and start thinking about what’s going on around the,.  (Why do you think the whole Man of Steel/trillions of dollars in damages thing is still so well-known today?  Or why people joke about Nathan Drake slaughtering people and firing off casual quips so he can try and fail to get treasure?)  Lightning and RoboCop and Donte and all the rest -- plenty more than who I’ve named here, I can almost guarantee -- may have spectacle on their side, and a few fancy moves, and a villain so cartoonishly abstract that you’d get a fairer image by looking in a bowl of sauerkraut, but they AND their stories of origin completely fall apart the moment you think for a nanosecond about what’s going on. 

I will be fair, though.  I know that anti-heroes are popular for one reason or another, and that they work in a case where the bad guy is even worse.  But I’d like to think that there’s a difference between the designated hero and a (well-written) anti-hero.  First off, as I said with The Wolverine, being an anti-hero isn’t about an absence of morality, but a repurposing of them.  They have a code of honor, and lines that they aren’t willing to cross.  Will they go to extremes to get what they want?  Yes.  Are they of sound moral character, and act as knights in shining armor?  Not necessarily.  But when they’re in an ideal state, they’re a mix of both the expected heroic and villainous qualities.  And when that’s set, the other characters react to them accordingly.  Love, hate, trust, mistrust, acceptance, rejection, idolization, demonization…the list goes on.

But in order to get the most out of an anti-hero, it has to be earned.  They have to prove their case, or have it disproven -- challenged by themselves and others, and the world around them, and the creator at large.  That’s just one way to do it.  That’s a way that works.  What you DON’T do is pretend like the designated hero is squeaky-clean and without fault, just because there’s a super-ultra-mega asshole dancing in his underwear somewhere else.  What you DON’T do is aggrandize your hero, and make everyone else look like a bunch of moaning lepers.  What you DON’T do is use your character as a way to let the audience live vicariously, and free from consequences.

It’s true that you might get some short-term gains from making a wish-fulfilling story and character.  But in the long-term, those gains are going to be virtually nonexistent.  The new RoboCop gets his revenge as “awesomely” as possible, and earns a new robo-life his family.  And then what?  Neither he nor the movie has given an eighth of a shit about the crime in the world, and an eight of that revolves around the societal problems the movie uses as white noise.  Is that suddenly going to be something he remembers he’s supposed to do in the sequel?  Or is he just going to keep stamping out OmniCorp operations, because THE ESTABLISHMENT needs to be taken down a peg?  Is there a story in continued fantasies of rebellion?  How long can an audience keep latching on to completely-insubstantial spectacle, especially if the spectacle is worthless in the first place?  And it IS worthless, because spectacle without emotional investment might as well be like slamming pots and pans together.

This shouldn’t be that hard.  Say whatever you will about how “this is all a reflection of modern society” or “people are dumb, and that’s what they want nowadays” -- but that isn’t an excuse to make complete schlock.  It’s a creator’s responsibility to put out the very best work he/she can, and tell a good story -- and then, once that’s done, the fans can decide for themselves if they like what they see, because they’re not being fed a focus-tested or proselytizing reaction with a side of dog turds. 

It takes a steady hand and an open mind so a creator can pursue the possibilities that bring a work closer to its ideal form.  It’s about being fair to every element and aspect of the story, so that in turn can be fair -- and afterwards appreciable -- to an audience.  It is NOT about putting more effort into guns-blazing combat and flip-de-loops than making sure lead characters are actually worth being the lead characters -- especially if it’s at the risk of filling a story with caricatures and action figures. 

Tell a good story.  Treat the audience with respect, because you need them a lot more than they need you.

There.  It’s done.  That’s all I’m going to say about that for now…at least until some other ass hat decides to do the exact same thing a few months down the line.  But we’ll get there when we get there.

Screw all this negativity.  It’s time to mix things up a little -- and that’s exactly why, in the words of the great Chef Gordon Ramsay, I’m going to do something I’ve never, ever done before.  Well, sort of.


Oh, I’m looking forward to this… 


  1. Huh. You know, I never would have even thought AoT moved at a slow pace if you hadn't brought it up. Admittedly that's because I don't mind -- and sometimes prefer -- a slow pace, but given what happens in the show later on (even if what's available is just the first season), I'd say the "wait" is worth it. SO worth it. But I'll get to that.

    But back on topic. See, you've got the idea down perfectly -- so the question is why people who are actually running these creative asylums can't. It's really not that hard of a concept, after all; the creator just has to be willing to stop and say, "Wait. Is it just me, or is my character kind of an asshole?" Foresight and awareness, like you said, are important. So much can be done with a character besides just cool action moments -- and SHOULD be done, unless they want people to poke holes through their Marty Stus and waifus.

    "Take the killing Zod scene in 'Man of Steel' (your fav movie ever! XD)."

    That line gave me a stomach ulcer. But matters of gastrology aside, there were indeed many, many ways that that scene, everything around it, and everything leading up to it could have gone. My guess is that the only reason it played out the way it did wasn't for story reasons (so to speak), but because they had to end the fight -- and the crux of the movie -- somehow. They didn't have an endgame plan, so when it was actually time to beat Zod instead of just throwing more spectacle in our faces, they just had to whip something together or else Supes and Zod would be fighting to this day. Nothing comes from it in the story, and nothing comes from it for the audience. So that's just the only theory I can come up with.

    Well, that, or they had to keep the budget under control. Damn, when I think of all the good that money could have done for the world...

    In any case, I get what you're saying here. Like I said, you've got the idea down, so you're in the green. It's just utterly baffling that people have millions and millions of dollars on the line, yet they can't even get basic storytelling principles right. It shouldn't be this easy for them to fuck up, but here we are. And we'll be here again pretty soon, I bet. As these things tend to go.

    Oh well. I'm just glad I've got stuff like Kamen Rider and Attack on Titan to count on. Hard to get too depressed when you've got henshins and faux-medieval ninja Spider-Men.

    I couldn't think of a better way to describe them, but I'm surprised how eerily well that suits the better part of the cast.

  2. To defend the anti-hero / villain in hero's clothing for a moment, you can pull it off fairly easily in a few situations. Lemme 'splain.

    1. The hidden villain isn't the primary antagonist
    2. The hidden villain has a different agenda than the primary antagonist.
    3. The hidden agenda is hinted at through the story. (To avoid it feeling like a blatant boss swap)

    Bonus points if the hidden villain has a good point or morals that is very close to the hero's primary drive just twisted a little bit too far into the grey area.

  3. Ah, that was some excellent 'splainin. Crap, I think I just turned into Ricky Ricardo for a second.

    I have to admit, though -- I dig the third point the most. Probably because I've tried (with yet-untested levels of success) to work that into a story. Not sure if I'm applicable for bonus points on that front, though. Unless "good point" has come to include "tearing a hole in time and space."

    But hey, I'm sure it's a good point for someone out there.

    Babalu. SON OF A --