Character and the Audience: The Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow

Yaay, it’s another occasional series! I’m becoming very interested in how certain kinds of characters, particularly those that break the traditional norms of race, gender and sexuality, can change the appeal of a film to an audience. So, assuming I can find enough of them to write about, I shall…

(SPOILER WARNING for Captain America: The Winter Soldier…)

Today’s character type, the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow, takes its name from a twitter comment that, alas, I have long since lost. If you think it was you, let me know who you were talking about, and with which screenwriter, and I’ll be happy to credit you…

The Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow is always male, and he’s that guy who can kill a roomful of people without breaking a sweat – but who is massively emotionally vulnerable, has no social support system, and is incapable of interacting with civilized society. Frequently he’s physically or temporally displaced, and while perfectly adapted to his reality, struggles to map his skills and experiences onto ours.

One great example is Kyle Reese in The Terminator. Reese is perfectly adapted to the future, where killer robots roam and humanity scrabbles to survive and resist. But his skills transfer imperfectly to the 1980’s, and his emotional connection to human savior John Connor, and then John’s mother Sarah, whom he’s come to save, makes him immensely vulnerable and sympathetic.

A more recent, and hugely instructive, example is Bucky Barnes, aka The Winter Soldier, in the eponymous Captain America movie. The Winter Soldier is a human being erased right down to the skull, a bundle of reflexes and conditioning with no memory and no personality – until he encounters the one person with whom he has such a strong enough emotional connection that his true self starts bubbling up…

What interests me about the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow is the character’s immense appeal to the female audience. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has created a massive, and hugely engaged, female audience for Captain America movies that simply didn’t exist before. If you doubt me, search for the fan art and fan fiction… And for all the emphasis on Arnie and on a strong female lead, Kyle Reese was a huge part of The Terminator’s success.

So why are these characters so attractive to the female audience? Two things, I think…

Firstly, they provide female viewers with a double experience – a character they can simultaneously desire, and empathise with.

There’s little common ground between any viewer (male or female) and a traditional muscular action hero, a stuffed shirt quipping his way through gunfights and embracing a ‘girl’ as a prize at the end of the movie. Their skills attract us, but their emotionlessness shuts us out.

(See this excellent post by Alex Epstein for a related examination of why this means that women make better action leads than men… )

But the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow displays both the “male” physical capability, and the “female” emotional vulnerability, to evoke envy and empathy simultaneously. The audience can share the character’s experiences on all levels.

And secondly: the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow is, of necessity, a character locked into a complex, passionate and constantly evolving relationship. He has an opposite, a partner, a second self without whom he is incomplete.

Kyle Reese needs Sarah Connor’s help to survive as much as she needs his. Where she is weak, he is strong, and vice versa. He’s not a savior, he’s a partner.

And whatever your ‘shipping’ preferences for the Captain America movie universe, there’s no denying that Steve’s relationship with Bucky is the formative, deepest and most vital relationship of his entire life. Indeed, from Captain America: The First Avenger onwards, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have been reshaping the origin story, and Ed Brubaker’s original Winter Soldier storyline, to deepen this connection and increase the ways in which the characters’ lives, feelings and experience mirror one another. They are opposites, mirror images, unbreakably connected to one another, whether you view that connection as having a sexual component or not.

In other words, the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow is a creature of relationships. It’s a cliché to say female viewers embrace the relationships in a movie rather than just the ‘cool’ stuff, but it’s true –

And you know what? Male viewers love relationships too. They just don’t define their reactions in the same way. Any male viewer who says “Wasn’t it cool when Cap faced the Winter Soldier on the helicarrier?” is reacting to exactly the same character points as a female viewer talking about the tragic emotions of the ending. They’re just using different terminology.

So what’s my point here? My point is that Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrows bring in a female audience for movies that are traditionally male (and yes, that’s a generalization anyway, but…) without ever alienating the male audience.

So why isn’t there one in every action, adventure, spy or superhero movie? If you want to double the audience for your movie, you now know what to do…

Things I Learned From… The Wolverine

The Wolverine is a pretty fun movie. Okay, it’s straight out of the Big Book Of Japanese Tropes, right down to the ninjas and the chopsticks, but it’s certainly refreshing to see a superhero movie that takes place somewhere other than a thinly-disguised New York.

But there is something slightly weird about the cast of characters. There’s a huge amount of redundancy in their character functions – that is, in the ‘types’ of character they are. There’s a rich ambitious grandfather – and his rich ambitious son. The granddaughter has a former boyfriend – and a current boyfriend (who’s also rich and ambitious and thus occupies a similar character function as her father). On top of this, the granddaughter has a female live-in companion of the same age, with similar skills, concerns and wants to her.

Characters, characters everywhere, and many of them very similar! What’s going on?

The answer seems to be in the combination of genres involved in the movie. Most of the movie is a detective thriller – there’s an evil plot afoot and we need to know who’s behind it – and only in the third act does it shift into a superhero-action movie. And for a detective story, you need a wide cast of characters to provide suspects and red herrings.

The problem is, what do you do with them when you shift into an action movie and you need a few clearly defined characters…?

So maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here. If you’re combining genres, make sure that the character needs of both are compatible…