‘It’s behind you!’ The warning we would typically shout at pantomime heroes to warn of nearby baddies has lately become a mantra for Hollywood execs seeking new ideas. While we’re looking forward to the next blockbuster, the filmmakers are looking back. Sequels have been done (and done and done), while prequels are yesterday’s news. We’ve had a dizzying amount of spin-offs, and remakes have been repeated to death, then come back from the dead because it turned out people quite liked the villain so we need him in the sequel. So instead the trend began for reimaginings – with the same old stories retold with new perspectives and postmodern sympathies. Maybe that means reframing how we think of our heroes and villains.
Maybe we’re right to flock to multiplexes to see uncertain heroes battling for the right path
In the old days, life seemed simpler. A cowboy would chase a bandit, or a space cadet might blast a Martian monster. Today though, there are all sorts of shades of grey (and I don’t mean the film). We’re all amateur psychologists now, so we appreciate that the bandit is a product of a troubled upbringing; the cowboy’s trigger-happy tendencies might result from a previous tragedy where he couldn’t save his pard’ner. And hey, Buck Rogers – before firing those lasers, think of the poor family that space monster will leave behind. It’s only a matter of time before we hear the backstory of the dastardly moustache-twiddling villain who frequently appeared in early cinema; right now I’m sure a Hollywood screenwriter is concocting a jolly good reason why he ended up tying women to train-tracks and swooshing a big cape.
IT’S ALL IN THE ORIGINS
Fans love an origin story. We enjoyed the main adventure of X-Men, so we’re treated to X-Men: Origins. We first knew Peter Pan, so now we can enjoy the origins of Peter and Hook in the recent Pan (or not enjoy, as was the case for most who watched it). It’s a trend that transcends cinema into literature and even the scriptures.>
At first, the Jesus narrative was of parables, miracles, death and resurrection. Only years later did the early Church switch its attention from Jerusalem adulthood to Bethlehem beginnings. Some early Christian fathers frowned upon origin stories (ironically including Origen, who decried birthday celebrations as ungodly), but many of us longed to know more. So only Matthew and Luke include nativities in their Gospels, while John began poetically, and Mark favoured a genealogy. Christmas came later than Easter.
Unlike the Church, the film industry’s trend of origin stories doesn’t feel like it’s coming from the fans, but from the bosses. In a nervous recession, it’s easier to sell a familiar story about tried and tested characters than it is to chance something new. Audiences will flock to the live-action The Jungle Book, just as they flocked to the live-action Cinderella. Over time, I’m expecting the entire Disney animation back catalogue to be brought to life by familiar actors, until we see a remade Lady and the Tramp featuring Owen Wilson and Sandra Bullock wearing dog outfits and sharing a bowl of spaghetti until they kiss...and then Hollywood will realise it’s probably time to stop.
GOOD VS EVIL: A PASSÉ CONCEPT?
However timeless, the familiar old stories can seem dated, and one of the reasons is the rather binary ‘good vs evil’ narrative. It seems that we have moved on. George Bush’s ‘You’re either with us or against us’ speech seemed at odds with our time. The glory days of feature film animation were amidst World Wars, when propaganda on both sides was simple: Allies versus fascists, right takes on wrong, world defenders against world destroyers. We’ve since had Vietnam, the Cold War and military action in Iraq, and technology has altered warfare and improved mass communication. We can click on a link and see that we – yes, the good guys – have sold arms to the wrong people, or put dictators into powerful positions. Over a century, we’ve gone from trenches and tanks to drones and suicide bombers, and Syria alone has at least three sides fighting each other.
None of us are born purely villainous and none of us are born purely heroic
So our cinematic fairy tales now reflect this complexity. It used to be Cowboys and Indians, marines fighting militia, good guys versus bad guys – and you could bet that the Americans were the good guys. Bad guys were often Arabic, or occasionally British; it suited our post-colonial penance. We’d conquered the globe and retreated again, so the world knew that a clipped English accent was the voice of devious colonisation. If you heard that accent, you’d lose your house.
Parts of the Bible perhaps read more like those classic movies: good versus evil, a blessed army fighting rogue nations. After all, what could be more binary than God against the devil? The first chapter of John’s Gospel is an epic description of the light taking over the darkness – there is no wishy-washy postmodern question of whether the darkness was just misunderstood.
Jesus is every hero combined, taking on Cruella de Vil, Sauron and Voldemort rolled into one. Biblical teaching reflects this straightforward good/evil stance: ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’, writes Paul in Romans 12:21. In the Bible, villainy is not something to warm to; there is no sympathy for the devil. A backstory explaining Satan’s troubled upbringing? Unthinkable.
IDENTIFYING WITH THE UNCERTAIN HEROES
Perhaps it’s only extreme villainy that’s irredeemable. The Bible is, understandably, black and white when it comes to Jesus against the devil in the wilderness – it is the devil we’re talking about here. But for the rest of us? There’s hope. So maybe we’re right to flock to multiplexes to see uncertain heroes battling for the right path, with untrustworthy allies, betrayals, double-crossings and challenges. We want to see sympathetic characters find within themselves the means to carry on, to grow as people, to look in the mirror and see somebody new, rather than a hero born unchangeably good, or a villain unalterably wicked.
The battle between good and evil within an individual, rather than outside of them, is what often interests us. In the past few decades, cinema has shown us an increasing number of anti-heroes – lead characters we love despite themselves. Less of the swashbuckling, green-tighted Robin Hood, more broken alcoholics like John McClane, or narcissists like Iron Man. These protagonists are less than ideal – but perhaps we relate more easily to them, since we’re fallen, broken and less than ideal too.
THE MORAL JOURNEY
There is still a place for classic tales of heroism – Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings are still the Holy Grails of the film industry. It’s because the classic tales of good against evil are still highly entertaining. The black-and-white morality of Dorothy versus the Wicked Witch in Victor Fleming’s classic 1939 The Wizard of Oz (actually the eighth screen version) is an epic tale of classic heroism and villainy, though within that the most interesting parts of the story include a cowardly character finding courage, the brainless using brains, and the apparently heartless discovering love.
Even when villains are on a moral journey, films still generally have a more polarised ‘ultimate evil’ somewhere on-screen. Those Star Wars prequels – which took three films to explain the origins of Darth Vader – couldn’t escape still having a Darth Vader character, so enter new nemesis Darth Maul (just like Darth Vader, only with a double lightsaber). Wicked too has characters just as nasty as the Wicked Witch in the original film, only now they’re turning the tale on its head, and showing that the characters that we used to love may not be so nice after all. It seems that in all of these stories, good and evil always remains – but it might not be represented by the people we expected.
It’s all very 21st century: we are no longer in a Victorian age, where authority figures were painted as benevolent, and rogueish types were commonly the outsider, the foreigner, or anyone else who tampered with societal norms. In the world around us today, politicians are deceitful, family friendly celebrities have a dark side, and the reputation of the clergy has been tarnished by bad apples. We can’t trust the traditionally trustworthy. While it may seem that the moral order has been turned on its head, perhaps only our perception of it has. Good is still good, wrong is still wrong – only now it’s not Johnny Strange-Accent who’s the bad guy: it’s Mr Jolly the family favourite, or the Rt Hon Des Honest MP, or the Reverend Darkside.
RECOGNISING THE WRESTLE FOR GOOD
So where does this leave the Christian filmgoer? How do we greet these portrayals in our cinemas? For me, these explorations of the human condition, of moral ambiguity, or the complexities of evil, are biblical and highly relevant, so I’d be happy to see the origins of Dick Dastardly or Freddy Krueger or Hans Gruber (we miss you, Alan Rickman). Yes, a purer good/evil tale may reflect biblical teaching on evil: the devil tempts Jesus as the Evil Queen tempts Snow White. But the day-to-day reality of biblical characters holds the same challenges that face us, and our filmic counterparts. We’re born broken, not evil. We face regular temptations, double-crossings and ethical battles, and even those of us who give our lives to Christ try to wrestle it back again from time to time. Our fine-tuning may veer between good and evil on a daily basis, but ultimately we’re all salvageable and redeemable.
As a writer myself, I like to see a character on a mission, as laid out by writer’s writer Christopher Vogler as a ‘Hero’s Journey’. Vogler describes how stories often begin with an ordinary world, before a call to adventure, which our hero may resist. A mentor may encourage them on, and then tasks, alliances and treacheries test our protagonist. Our hero faces a supreme ordeal, journeying into the darkest cave before emerging wiser and renewed. Finally the road home brings a reminder that our hero is changed. This structure is the basis of films from Star Wars to The Lord of the Rings, from thrillers and dramas to romcoms.
The Prequels that tell the Baddies’ Back Stories
In this prequel to JM Barrie’s 1904 stage play Peter Pan, it turns out that Captain Hook and Peter began as friends, together defeating the fearsome pirate Blackbeard. The film leaves us wondering how they will eventually wind up as mortal enemies.
A dark reimagining of Walt Disney’s 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty portrays the story from the perspective of the antagonist, Maleficent (played by Angelina Jolie). Before we reach the familiar tale of Maleficent causing the king’s young daughter to prick her finger on a spindle and die, we discover that as a young fairy, Maleficent had fallen in love with a peasant boy named Stefan. Stefan’s ambition to become king leads him to betray his young love, and he even seeks to kill her in order to gain his kingship. Stefan can’t quite bring himself to do this, so as second best he chops off her fairy wings. Voilà: an embittered Maleficent ready to find revenge…
Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz (2003)
Based on the 1995 Gregory Maguire novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, this musical is an alternative telling of the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz and L Frank Baum’s classic story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Told from the perspective of the witches of Oz before Dorothy’s arrival, we discover that the wicked witch Elphaba was driven to being this way. Evil crept up on a sympathetic ‘baddie’ – Elphaba, powerful but timid, is bullied by the ‘good’ witch Glinda into unleashing her powers.
Episodes I-III of Star Wars (1999-2005)
This series of three prequels showed us that Anakin Skywalker was a sweet-natured (if irritating) boy before he grew into Darth Vader. And that George Lucas should maybe have a hands-off role in future (see, Jar Jar Binks).
I think the reason we like to see this story told and retold on screen, is because it’s the story of our lives. We embark on life, and often refuse calls to adventure. Our early years include tentative steps into friendships and relationships, which may yield lifelong allies or hurtful betrayal. When we undertake major challenges, we draw on all that’s within us and hopefully emerge stronger. While this happens, we may veer towards what’s right or what’s wrong. None of us are born purely villainous, and none of us are born purely heroic.
Except one. Fully God and fully human, Jesus is that pure hero. He too has undergone that journey: enduring temptation in the wilderness, facing betrayal in Judas, and taking on the supreme ordeal, of death, literally journeying to the darkest cave, before emerging resurrected. So long live our happy ever afters. As Stephen Sondheim’s postmodern fairytale Into the Woods has it:
‘Witches can be right; Giants can be good.’
...Although I disagree with his next line:
‘You decide what’s right; You decide what’s good.’
I believe there is ultimate good and ultimate evil. The rest of us are just pinging around in the middle, all on life’s journey, hopefully fluttering like moths towards the light. On our cinema screens, then, we’ll continue to watch others, and learn to be magnificent, not maleficent. And whatever you do, don’t be Jar Jar Binks.
Paul Kerensa is a stand-up comedian and writer