More Than One Kind Of Hero

For a summer blockbuster about giant mechs fighting rampaging monsters, Pacific Rim is an extraordinarily unconventional film. One of the areas in which this shows up most clearly is in the depiction of its characters.

Some very serious spoilers, obviously. Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

To begin with, Pacific Rim is a true dual-protagonist film, a rarity in Hollywood and near-unheard of in the realm of summer tentpoles.

Fittingly for a movie about people learning to share their hearts and minds in the Drift, Raleigh and Mako are absolutely equal as protagonists.

They each have an inciting incident; Raleigh’s in the pre-credits sequence, and Mako’s (in keeping with the film’s unconventional treatment of time) revealed in flashback around the middle of the film. They each have a personal antagonist; for Raleigh, jealous, insecure rival Chuck Hansen, and for Mako, Stacker Pentecost, whose desire to protect her makes him as much an antagonist to be overcome as a mentor to be heeded. They each carry an emotional burden they must cast aside; Mako must master her need for revenge, and Raleigh, his guilt for his brother’s death.

But even more interesting that their shared centrality is the question: what kind of heroes are they?

For everyone who has hailed Mako as a feminist hero, someone else has criticised her for being passive, for being weak. For not conforming to the Hollywood hero stereotype: a self-sufficient hero who is stubbornly individual, rejects rules and advice, does their own thing, and often, does something apparently unwise and yet is proved right as conventional wisdom turns out to be wrong.

But Raleigh Beckett isn’t that kind of hero either. Add writer Travis Beacham’s response on Twitter on this subject:  “I will concede that [Mako] doesn’t act like a decisive alpha male action hero. I don’t much like that guy.”  and it’s clear that this is a very deliberate decision.

Pacific Rim has rejected the individualist hero pattern, and is presenting us with a new type of hero – a hero for who personal surrender is the way to shared strength, and for whom the whole is far more important than the individual.

Consider the scene where Mako proves herself a worthy partner for Raleigh in combat, but Pentecost refuses to pair them up. Was I the only one expecting Raleigh to threaten to walk out of the program if Pentecost doesn’t relent? I doubt it. That’s what the individualist hero does; defies authority and imposes his own will on the world.

It’s not what Raleigh or Mako do here, though. Each passionately argues their case – and then accepts Pentecost’s decision. When Raleigh does privately challenge the notion of obedience, Mako sets him straight: “it’s not obedience, it’s respect.” And even as she closes the door in his face, you get a sense that he understands that.

He certainly should. This is not a world that rewards individualism. It’s the Beckett boys’ decision to disobey orders that leads to Yancy’s death, and later in Hong Kong, rushing to assist their colleagues in defiance of Pentecost’s strategy almost does for the Hansens. Even Newt’s solo attempt to Drift with the kaiju brain risks his life and obtains only snatches of useful intelligence. Only when Gottlieb joins him, sharing the neutral load –  because “That’s what the jaeger pilots do” –  can the Drift be entirely successful and the vital information obtained.

Going back to Raleigh: later, with his perfect Drift partner grounded, he does slip into the individualist hero paradigm and challenge Pentecost – only to be cut down as the senior officer asserts not so much his authority as his responsibility. He is the “fixed point” in the crumbling world of the Shatterdome, and Raleigh needs that stability as much as anyone. Pentecost has sacrificed endlessly for others; he’s asking Raleigh to make similar sacrifices. To surrender ego for the greater good. And that’s what Raleigh does.

It’s hard to imagine this complex emotional exchange happening in any movie with an individualist protagonist, isn’t it?

Mako, of course, knows a lot about sacrifice. She’s been waiting her whole life for her chance to pilot a jaeger. I read her obedience to Pentecost as both respect and confidence. She knows that her day will come, when the time is right.

When machismo does rear it’s ugly head, it’s subverted. With Chuck right in their face, trying to provoke a fight, they fail to defend their own egos: Mako responds only when Raleigh is insulted, and he’s finally provoked to violence by an insult to her. Personal ego has no place in their increasingly anti-individual world.

Even as the double event wipes out jaeger teams, Raleigh and Mako don’t muscle in to save the day. The John McClaines and Jack Bauers of this world would have marched down to the hangar and set off into the fray, without orders or in defiance of them. But rather than putting themselves forward as heroes, Raleigh and Mako wait until they’re sure they have something to offer the situation. As it turns out, that’s not even them – it’s Gipsy Danger herself, the one jaeger immune to the new weapon.

Even in the final assault on the Drift, it’s hard to pick out the kind of individual hero moment you would expect from a typical Hollywood narrative. The sealing of the breach is a group effort, and, with the possible exception of Raleigh sacrificing his oxygen supply, no single act achieves victory. Even the sacrifice of Chuck and Pentecost is – of necessity – a joint decision between two Drift partners.

For a Hollywood movie, this is a whole new world of characterization – and I love it. It’s long past time for new explorations of what it means to be a hero.

But I suppose we must proceed with caution. Although Pacific Rim isn’t the ‘flop’ headline writers would have you believe, it has underperformed in English-speaking territories. If I had to venture one explanation for that, I’d probably guess it’s the unconventional character choices being misread as weakness by an audience with a narrow sense of what’s “heroic”. It’s tough to be the first person to break the rules…

Hero Proximity Syndrome

We interrupt this blog to bring you an urgent public health message. Is a female character you care about suffering from… Hero Proximity Syndrome?

This relatively common but rarely discussed syndrome afflicts female characters, particularly Attractors (commonly known as ‘love interests’), in a variety of movies, but is endemic in action, adventure, crime and SF/ fantasy narratives.

It can be readily diagnosed, even by the amateur writer, by asking yourself one simple question: does your female attractor abruptly lose her ability to take care of herself in dangerous situations when the hero of the story is also in that scene?

Note that a female character who has no capacity to defend herself, think and plan for her own safety, and perform simple life tasks even when the hero isn’t around isn’t suffering from HPS, but from the far more dangerous Useless Female Syndrome. In this case, the prognosis is often terminal – not necessarily for the character, but certainly for the chances of your movie being liked by female audience members.

No, a diagnosis of Hero Proximity Syndrome should only be reached when the character shows some ability to defend herself and act logically when she’s on her own, only to become dependent and lacking in initiative the moment the hero arrives.

But what can be done to defeat this terrible affliction?  After all, no character can be entirely independent of the hero, or your movie risks developing the even more dangerous disorder, Weak Hero Syndrome. However, there are some simple actions you can take to manage the situation and alleviate the symptoms.

Firstly, you can have your female character take some logical, appropriate action which fails through no fault of her own. Faced with kidnappers, she threatens them with the family hunting rifle – which unknown to her, they’ve already found and unloaded. To find her child, she activates the location app on the child’s phone – but the kid lent it to his best buddy, who’s innocently going about his business with no idea he’s misleading the police chase. She still needs the hero’s help, but at least she’s doing her best.

Secondly, the hero and the attractor can have skills, backgrounds and contacts that both contribute to solving the problem the movie poses. There’s a nuclear bomb to find: she’s a cop, he’s a physicist. A fearsome predator terrorizes a village; he’s a skillful hunter, she’s a cryptozoologist. They both need each other in order to succeed.

Thirdly, have the female character participate in her own rescue. It’s fair enough that’s too scared to resist when five armed men storm into her house – but when the hero appears and draws their fire, have her kick the nearest intruder in the balls. There’s a difference between “needing some help” and “helpless”.

By following these simple rules, we can eliminate Hero Proximity Syndrome in our lifetimes. Thank you for listening.

Things I Learned From… The Cold Light Of Day

Just back from seeing The Cold Light Of Day, a thriller that seems to have sneaked into cinemas without much fanfare. It’s good enjoyable fun, very much in the Bourne mould but with a few nice reversals and a splendidly slippery operative played by Sigourney Weaver.

However, it does suffer slightly from that perennial curse of the action movie, the Surprisingly Proficient Hero. Henry Cavill’s business consultant protagonist shows an extraordinary capacity for jumping off roofs, shooting accurately while under fire, and performing evasive driving manoeuvres – to the point where an agent at the end of the movie actually comments on his skills. (Mind you, that same agent describes another patently duplicitous character as ”an honest man”, so I’m not trusting his judgement…)

I’m not really saying this as a criticism of The Cold Light Of Day – there are far worse offenders – but it did get me thinking about the two types of action movies, and how the first makes life difficult for the second.

The first type of action movie is the This Time It’s Personal movie. It involves a character with an appropriate skillset – cop, spy, assassin, military of some kind – being drawn into their normal kind of work, but with dramatically raised stakes, either because the danger is bigger than normal, or because it’s a personal threat to our protagonist’s happiness.

Die Hard is a classic This Time It’s Personal. John Maclane is a cop, perfectly capable of arresting hostage-asking robbers – but today, the stakes are raised. Not only is he the only cop inside the building (bigger danger) but his wife is a hostage (personal stakes).  Other examples: Taken, the Bournes, the Bonds, Haywire,  Seven, and most superhero movies that aren’t origin stories.

The advantage, obviously, is that it gives you a hero with skills, abilities and knowledge that you can use to amp up the action and the tension. You can throw more obstacles, more setbacks and more pain at your protagonist than any average person could take, because we know she’s trained to take it, and therefore we’ll accept that she can survive it and even win in the end.

The disadvantage is that it’s harder to create tension when your character is clearly well within their depth than when they’re way out of it. The personal stakes help, but you’re going to have to come up with plausible reasons why your hero struggles, suffers, and occasionally loses one round of the battle, in order to maintain the dramatic tension.

The second kind of action movie, the category The Cold Light Of Day fits into, might be called the Why Me story. An ordinary person finds themselves plunged into a situation way outside their normal lives, and has to learn fast, find allies, and use their intelligence and unrelated skills creatively in order to survive.

Why Me action movies include Three Days Of The Condor, The Thirty-Nine Steps, North By North-West, and superhero origin movies. (The Bourne Identity flirts with this model, but from the moment Bourne takes out the Swiss cops who find him sleeping rough in the park, we know this is a This Time It’s Personal. Even if he doesn’t.)

The dramatic advantage to this model is obvious – raised tension. This isn’t James Bond fighting Mossad or the FSB, it’s some ordinary businessman, housewife, or teenager. We feel their lives are really at risk in a way we wouldn’t if they were a ’professional’.

But the dramatic problem – the problem that presumably drove The Cold Light Of Day writers Scott Wiper and John Petro to stretch their protagonist’s skillset – is that the audience has been conditioned by This Time It’s Personal movies to expect an unrealistic level of heroism.  We expect the central character in an action movie – whoever he is – to leap off buildings, shoot more accurately than the well-trained bad guys, survive car chases, foot chases, and escape from custody. Why? Because those guys in This Time It’s Personal movies do.

If a writer portrays an ordinary person in a Why Me movie acting like an ordinary person would – even like a determined, resourceful ordinary person with considerable courage – they run the risk of appearing to create a ”weak” hero.  In other words, action movies have no room for ordinary protagonists any more.

I think that’s a pity. There must be a way to construct a workable Why Me movie with a more authentic, ’ordinary’ hero who succeeds through ingenuity and courage rather than through unlikely and unrealistic skills. Any thoughts?