The fiction of ordinary men

I don’t know what the movie “Jupiter Ascending” was about, but a review from Castalia House pointed out …

But the acting and the dialog is not what ultimately ruined this film. Structuring it around a female romantic lead did. Here’s why:

Stinger: Bees are genetically designed to recognize royalty.

Jupiter: Boy, are you going to be surprised when find out what I do for a living.

Stinger: It’s not what you do, it’s who you are.

This is an inherently anti-pulp premise that is being grafted onto an otherwise pitch perfect expression of classical space opera. Granted, Tarzan was Lord Greystoke. Arthur was the son of Uther. And Luke Skywalker turned out to be part of a space dynasty. “Who you are” does matter in these things. But what these characters do matters more. And these characters proving their worth and their mettle matters even more.

I don’t know why it is, but for some reason… the moment a male lead is swapped out with a female one, all of this stuff seems to go out the window. Men and women are not interchangeable. The stories that spring up around them are qualitatively different. There is a reason why Andre Norton and Leigh Brackett and C. L. Moore and Francis Stevens defaulted to male leads, after all. …

The story would have taken on an entirely different tone if it had been structured around the Channing Tatum character. A disgraced veteran having to take a lousy job as a mercenary…? The girl he’s hired to protect turns out to be much more important than anyone realizes. Adventure ensues. Chemistry happens. One thing leads to another, and the big lunk finds himself getting married to a genuine space princess after rescuing her from THE WRONG SORT OF GUY that would have been married to her for COUNTLESS MILLENNIA???!!

That’s real space opera.

Frankly, female leads just aren’t up for something that awesome.

… about which Russell Newquist adds:

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend over the last four decades or so (and perhaps longer). The iconic heroes of my childhood were all ordinary men. Luke Skywalker, John McClain, Rocky Balboa, Indiana Jones, etc. At least, in their original incarnations.

Consider Luke Skywalker from A New Hope (and, for a moment, pretend that none of the other films exist). He’s a nobody farmer on a backwards planet. His parents aren’t amazing to speak of, and certainly aren’t shown as royalty. He’s the son of a knight, nothing more. Even so, it proves to be a huge step up from his own life. Yet he goes on to rescue the girl, defeat the bad guy, and save the rebellion.

Next consider Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Again, pretend that the other films don’t exist. He’s an ordinary, everyday American. His parents? Not even mentioned. He earns his position himself, through hard work.

John McClain? A New York cop, an ordinary guy. Rocky Balboa? Another nobody. Every single hero Heinlein ever wrote? Still ordinary, self-made men.

Now, consider the transformations even some of these same characters have undergone over the decades.

Luke Skywalker? It turns out he’s the scion of the greatest royal family in the galaxy.

Indiana Jones? His big-name archaeologist dad set the stage.

But who are the big pop culture heroes of the new millennium?

  • Tony Stark, heir to a megafortune
  • Harry Potter, “chosen one,” son of great, heroic, famous wizards.
  • Thor – a literal god, and son of the Allfather.
  • The Starks of Winterfell, descended from kings.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer – another transformation from just a random girl to a “chosen one.”

The trend isn’t universal, but it trends distinctly in favor of aristocrats and away from self-made, ordinary men. This isn’t a healthy sign for our society. Indeed, it’s one more symptom of our devolution from democratic rule to aristocratic rule. Jeffro rightly picks up on this as being anti-pulp. Yet it’s more than that – it’s distinctly anti-American.

I leave with one last passing observation: note this particular moment and its distinct reactionary nature to this phenomenon. I cite this as one (of many) reasons that this franchise performed so well.

Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Die Hard — those I have seen, and more than once. (Yippie ki-yay, mother … uh, I hate snakes.) Han Solo, of course, is …

A comment on Newquist’s Facebook post adds:

If you reach back further, the troubling trend becomes even more obvious. Look at thrillers from the 60s and 70s, Alfred Hitchcock movies, westerns, WWII movies. Look at Marathon Man, Three Days of the Condor, Day if the Jackal, North by Northwest. Up until the 90s, it was almost a requirement that a true hero was ordinary, even anonymous. The less remarkable, the better. It is interesting that Die Hard was originally shopped out as a sequel to Commando. How completely forgettable that would’ve been! Instead, the entire hook of Die Hard was that the main character is just a solid NYC beat cop — the kind of dude you’d see drinking and smoking and joking at the local sports bar on Monday night. The hero’s ordinariness was the secret to the film’s excellence and success. …

Of course, what makes the hero of any story heroic is that he/she performs extraordinary deeds. But the sense in which we mean it here is the ordinariness of the protagonist’s background. Gary Cooper in “High Noon”, for another prime example.

To which Newquist replied:

The point is that in good ol’ fashioned American fiction, and the pulps, a hero can come from anywhere and doesn’t have to be born to the right family. This is a stark contrast to most European fairy tales (of the variety Disney has resurrected so well) and many other cultures, such as Greek heroes (who were mostly descended from the Gods themselves). …

And also in contrast to what American fiction is becoming in the contemporary era.

Which brought this response:

McClane is an Everyman. He embarks on the hero’s journey, an ordinary person whose extraordinary courage and character rises to the top because it has a reason to.

That brought up this point:

I don’t see anyone but a man with Tony Stark’s resources building that suit. It’s vastly different than the one he built in the cave. As to the “chosen one” trope, I think that’s been with us as well, especially when it comes to super-heroes. Every teenager struggling with being an outcast wants to be the “chosen one” because that justifies their “uniqueness.” With the extension of pre-adulthood well into the 20’s and even beyond, is it any wonder that the same archetypes continue to speak to us longer?

Which brought up this point:

Studio heads in the 40s and 50s knew that audiences instinctively responded more to Everyman characters, individuals who stand out (if at all) due to traits of character, rather than a “birthright”: their bravery, boldness, even mischief. The sort of aristocrat/ noble birth stories that we see now would’ve got nixed as poor writing back in the Golden Age, wouldn’t sell tickets.

And …

When you remove the ordinary man and substitute the aristocrat as the hero, you end up with a society that is conditioned to applaud the aristocrat and consider the ordinary as lesser than, deplorable even.

There’s a whole lot more here about the subject and whether conservatives read fiction anymore, including contributions from conservative and libertarian writers. I’ll stop quoting except for one more:

Contrast today’s man-bun-wearing, latte-sipping, “can I do this now”-spouting, bonobo/hyena-colony male with Heinlein’s Everyman:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

It’s certainly not surprising to find bad storytelling in the entertainment world. How many remakes (including Star Wars) have we seen in the past few years?

This is where I consider my action hero alter ego Super Steve, Man of Action!!! (Which came, believe it or don’t, a Wall Street Journal story about a company that would custom-make action dolls. I wish I could find the illustration.) Would you believe a journalist who sits at government meetings when someone runs in with bad-guy weapons only to be subdued by the journalist? (When’s that concealed-carry class?) To quote myself:

There have been two journalist/superheroes — Daily Sentinel publisher Brit Reid and Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent. This piece is about an action hero, not a superhero, but clearly the fiction world has been remiss in casting as an action hero someone who doesn’t fit the stereotype of journalists as, well, Oscar Madison. (Is that a reporter’s notebook or a pistol in his jacket? Good question. Too late, the bad guy discovers that Man of Action isn’t holding a Nikon D7000 camera; it’s a rocket launcher. Imagine a journalist who starts an interview and then ends it by shooting or otherwise permanently subduing the interviewee.)

I have got to figure out how to write that scene. Maybe something like: A bad guy is released from prison on a technicality. He tells the journalist interviewing him upon his release that, yes, he did kill the person for which he was charged with murder but let out.
ME: So what are you planning to do now?
BAD GUY: I’m going to go out and flaunt my wrongful release!
ME: Are you sure you should be making plans for your future?
ME: Because you don’t have a future. (Quizzical look on bad guy’s face erased by my gunshot to his gut.) So what’s it like to die?

Newquist counts among his Notables Larry Correia, a libertarian fiction writer and a soldier in the cultural cold civil war between conservatives and libertarians on the correct side and Social Justice Warriors on the wrong side. Read Correia‘s recent thoughts for why you should be a fan of his.

I believe I’ve written here before (and if I didn’t, I am now!) that one major failing of entertainment, be it TV, movies or fiction of the kind we’re discussing here, is the negative portrayals, or nonexistence, of fathers and husbands. I’m not suggesting going back to the days of Jim Anderson (“Father Knows Best”) or Steve Douglas (“My Three Sons”), but since “The Cosby Show” ended it’s difficult to find shows where the male lead is a husband and father who may have quirks but is not a buffoon. (And there’s one fewer with the cancellation of ABC-TV’s “Last Man Standing,” or so I’m told.) One reason I can’t stand Disney Channel is that all the shows I accidentally watch seem to have fathers with two-digit IQs, along with irritatingly verbally precocious children who should be told to shut their mouths.

Almost half of Americans are married. I’d estimate that fewer than a quarter of adults portrayed on TV are married. I understand why that is — because the producers of dramas want their male heroes to have potential multiple love interests. Certainly TV series like “Moonlighting” jumped the shark when, in this case, the sexual tension between Dave and Maddie ended with their jumping into bed, and “Mad About You” jumped the shark when baby made three. Even series with relatively normal parents — for instance, “My So-Called Life” — had something off about the parents. (She was too bossy and he was too namby-pamby in this case. It must have been a ’90s thing.)

Off the top of my head my favorite father portrayal might have been either Dan Conner of “Roseanne” (who, by the way, is dead, but that may not matter for the reboot), or Hank Hill of “King of the Hill.” Dan worked hard to provide for his family, though he really didn’t have a handle on how to handle his daughters, and Roseanne talked too much. (Like whenever she opened her mouth.) Hank was a propane salesman who had a son he didn’t understand, but he strove to do the right thing. (Hank was certainly more normal than his friends.)

Of course, we fathers would be much wittier if we had writers writing for us. Imagine that Super Steve walks into his house.
STEVE’S HOT BLONDE WIFE: “How was your day?”
ME: “Fine. I shot the guy I was interviewing. He had it coming. At least he won’t claim he was misquoted.”
WIFE: “(Insert child’s name here) has a (insert sport event here) tonight.”

Actually, come to think of it that last line isn’t fiction.


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