You remember that movie where Keanu Reeves realizes he lives in a computer program?
It’s the perfect fantasy film. The movie begins with the hero getting chewed out by their boss after having had to stay up late surviving by selling pirate software. Think about how the authority is portrayed and how dislikeable they are. The typical angry boss. A power smug prick treating Neo like a child:
Then by the climax of the film Neo is neck stabbing the very same stereotype while Trinity is living out the murder fantasy:
I think the film was called Avatar.
Anyway, this movie perfectly reflects the common fantasy that almost every media aims to convey. The overcoming of objectively unreasonable people and hopeless situations.
The problem is how the ‘Heroes’ get there.
Everything but hard work
In many fictional stories our hero encounters a thing or event that transforms their life and sets them on the path to heroism. Luke gets the force after his caregivers croak, Neo pops a pill and is rebuilt into cyber god, Iron Man gets blown up and kidnapped (making him MORE intelligent and capable to build revolutionary robot suit). Harry Potter was born.
This narrative is important because it is presented everywhere. That a ‘thing’ happens or a power is given and your life of success and heroism is mapped out. ‘The Call’ of the Hero’s Journey.
Similarly, Superhero abilities are rarely earned, but are instead given. Peter Parker is bitten by a spider. Bruce wayne and Tony Stark were born billionaires. Xmen are born ‘Mutants’. Hulk/Captain America is injected with serum.
It isn’t just movies that convey this message, it’s also in video games, where an injection allows you shoot lighting. Where pressing start makes me Gelart of Rivia, where I’ve killed everyone that’s looked at me with a descending eye. It’s also in songs and stories in general where a person ‘Over comes’ something.
Now I’m not saying to stop the ‘Hero’s Journey’ type story, but that moderation is important. However, moderation isn’t what’s happening with half billion dollar films that are regularly churned out and all it’s satellite media.
People are most exploitable when they believe they have no dog in the race, and the message that a ‘thing’ will solve your problems is so regularly portrayed that it has weirdly become subversive. We might be consciously aware we are watching a movie and that lasers can’t be shot out of a man’s eyes, but I’m willing to bet that subsciously most of us think the hero deserves the power and adoration – because so might we.
A message that is never explicit – it’s never outright said that any of these characters did exactly nothing. That to spark their talents they essentially applied fuck all of the energy that real life requires.
One could argue that the protagonists of the hero’s journey work hard once they received the call. That superman fights super villains. That batman fights crime etc… But it’s too late by then. They have still effortlessly solved one of life’s biggiest problems – direction.
Dead parents seem universally advantageous
Imagine if a celestial being descended from the skies and told you exactly what you needed to achieve a fulfilling life earning the adoration of everyone?
‘Plumber’, it says. Then shoots off back into space/heavan/France, leaving you with a set plan guaranteed to succeed. Up to that point plumbling held none of your interest, but just as the magic man said, was exactly what you needed. You suddenly have gained the knowledge of how to fix domestic pipework. You’ll earn millions when the business grows. You’ll fix people’s shitter problems and they will love you. You’ll attract the exact wife/husband you want and basically live the fulfilling life that everyone dreams of.’ Don’t worry about any current financial hardships or relationships, those have been… taken care of.
Map this onto our famous Heros. Luke Skywalker, young and frustrated at the farming life, is given (GIVEN) the opportunity to become a space wizard and assert his will with his mind. All he needed was an experienced old man to provide unfaltered attention, training and to sacrifice their life for him. He also needed his aunt and uncle …taken care of. No need to think Luke, path of glory paved before you.
Bruce Wayne – parents killed, all the money and technology in the world. Bam, no choices there – off you go to beat up the less fortunate in a life long act of revenge.
Lets quick fire some more. Superman, entire planet destroyed (also parents killed) and moved onto another world with a much weaker population where he answers to no one and becomes a near effortless saviour.
Spiderman, Spider bite, uncle taken out of the picture – beats up the disadvantaged.
Xmen. You are a Mutant. People don’t like mutants. Fight people that don’t like Mutants.
Harry Potter. The laziest of all heroes – for whom the whole world exists to make his life amazing. His shit childhood was really just a front to make his life of magic all the more impactful with people happily giving their lives to make his life a little bit more comfortable. All he needed was for his parents to be murdered.
X Happens – life is decided. None of life’s real life crisis get in the way. No family to hold you back.
‘Sure the market is good for IT now, but in my heart I’d love to be a cobbler, should I go for the secure less desirable path, or for the more risky rewarding one? This is not an issue for people popular culture worship.
I’m calling back to my friend ‘Cultivation Theory’ – which posits that, when fed a message so often for so long, a part of person will internalize it. I had. The idea that the sucessful people in the world have their shit together by default, and your’e not truely worthy unless sucess/power/money whatever, comes easy.
Lets take the classic underdog story of The Karate kid. You’ve got this weak, poor kid who is trained in Karate by a geriatric to defend himself against a group of bullies. After much adversity and beatings, he faces off against the smug assholes in the final competition…
Lets take a step back. The asshole competition were highly funded, rigorously trained and conditioned to be more aggressive. They trained longer and harder and had more personal investment (to protect severe insecurity). In no universe is Daniel-san overcoming this.
Now that may be fine because the asshole competition were a bunch of assholes and it’s cathartic to see them lose, but what if you’re not a complete knobwaffle?
What if you aren’t a monumental shithead, but actually love karate, have a high sense of self, have pride in being fit and enjoy the positive relationships you make with your Karate club. Expensive as it may be, but your parents are willing to cut back on luxuries to give you the opportunity
To have all that undermined by Streetrat McWhimpy, all because the audience loves an underdog story.
Imagine that you are the ruler of your land. You had finally regrouped from a crippling (seemingly unjustified) invasion and solidified your armies and alliances to strike back at your aggressors. You’ve intelligently incited conflict among your enemies, dividing them between factions who struggle to work together. You’ve invested massive amounts of time to give yourself every advantage. You have Hundreds of thousands of battle hardened loyal troops and the resources to fuel them. And when the enemy is at it weakest, their soldiers, courage and alliances compromised, when victory is all but certain- You strike!
Only to have this hairy bastard pull ghosts literally out of his ass and decimate your entire army:
They even vanish like a fart in the wind.
You would be livid.
The fantasy in these stories and in many more narratives portrayed in song, games, or lessons’ preached in all media is that ‘good’ overcomes ‘evil’, regardless of the the effort, determination, resources, funds, training, motivations etc… of either side.
This isn’t a realistic message to portray as it dismisses the value of effort and replaces it with good intentions and luck.
Eminem gets discovered by Dr. Dre, and like the above he goes from 0 to 100 all because of a ‘moment’….
….as opposed to reality of him rapping for years, having a spectaularly failed first album, getting into relationships with connected people, developing skills and causing opportunities that required much more hard work than is let on.
Sucess in media is portrayed to draw out emotion, to convince the audience that they are getting something substantial out of it. We want the underdog to win so we need to pit them against the more powerful, sucessful anagonist. We want you to hate this antagonist so we need to make them an asshole.
We have no time for the hero to climb the ladder, make smart moves and investments, create relationships etc… It’s simply easier to say they are ‘Special’, kill their parents and give them what ever power an they need.
As opposed to the reality whereby the most well meaning, heartful person in the world is going fail miserably if they rely on good intentions as opposed focusing on strengths, accepting the situation and their limitations – addressing them one at at time.
Movies require Mandatory assholes
Neo’s boss probably got into his position by hard work, spotting opportunities and making the right connections. I would be annoyed too, if my business was put at risk because one of my employees couldn’t be arsed arriving on time. But we need to make him an asshole because we need you to like Keanu.
And that’s me point. We are quite happy to see the asshole lose regardless of how they got their position, how much of their time and comfort they sacrificed to get there. We are all too happy to see the pretty face succeed when they’ve done literally fuck all to obtain victory (again in the ‘real world’ Neo sits on a chair – he literally takes no action but can dream his way into success).
Ultimately I dislike this element of (most) movies as it reinforces the idea that hardwork is for arseholes and that ‘true’ success is somehow natural. That ‘The One’ is chosen and your destiny determines victory with little in the way of earning it. That somehow, if you have to work hard for your success then you are somehow ‘wrong’ for doing so.
The ‘Hero’s’ Narrative infuriates me because I completely bought into it when I was younger. Relating to the nerdy, down on their luck protagonists that were just like me! Someday something will happen that will make ME excel above others and be a success! The following 8 years won’t be terrible!
That is the fantasy I guess. But if cultivation theory is right, it’s a fantasy that’s been fed to us in popular media for so long that we somehow think we are being cheated if we have to work hard.