Spoiler Alert: You’re rooting for the villain
All these years, we’ve had heroes. Think Christopher Reeve in Superman, or think Melanie Griffith as Tess McGill in Working Girl or any number of other ‘new classics’. The films of our youth and years past, restored our faith in human kind, and had heroes that were the type of people that we looked up to and wanted to be.
These heroes were everywhere. Slightly flawed enough that we believed in their inherent perfection, in their strong desire to what is good and right, and with a moral compass steadily pointing north. The idealism of Hollywood films made us believe that ‘happily ever after’ was actually a thing, and that we would ride off into the sunset and instantly know that happiness was there and would always be, and that perfection was just at the tip of our fingertips if we’re good enough.
But now we’ve grown up, and Hollywood with us, and discovered that life isn’t actually like that. Life isn’t crammed into 2-2.5 hours with sweeping music and witty dialogue. Sex never happens in front of a roaring fire, with fireworks exploding outside in a timely manner. The bad guy doesn’t always see the error of his ways and repent. And our own real life character arc isn’t an arc at all, but a waveform of ups and downs.
Oh, and we don’t have our own soundtrack. Bummer.
What this shift in our own discovery of ‘real life’ has brought to us, is the realism of films where the hero isn’t always 100% good. He or she is more than just flawed, they are philanderers, murderers, conmen, and worse. But the audience has been duped. We’re rooting for these people. In any film of the 80s, this person would be the bad guy, but here we are cheering for this person to do their worst.
A great example, that most will agree with, is House of Cards, where we simply cannot believe what is happening OMG, and yet find ourselves waiting anxiously to see what Francis Underwood will do or what he won’t do, to get what he wants. His wife is even worse. In fact, there’s not a typical ‘hero’ in the entire thing. Everyone has a secret, or a weakness or something that makes them slightly more than flawed. But why ‘more than’? Why not just flawed? Because they know it’s wrong, and they do it anyway. It’s premeditation. They are aware of their own selfishness, but being aware doesn’t mean that they care. It’s sociopathic to an unknown degree.
Recently, I’ve been aware of this type of new genre; the uber-flawed hero. Think back to The Departed, there’s not a flawless character in the entire thing. Arguably, some are trying to do right, but they do so much wrong trying to get there, that they’re nowhere near squeaky clean.
I listed The Departed because it breaks just about every norm for a ‘typical’ gangster movie, but if we look at even more recent examples, you’ll see what I mean. American Hustle was basically made up of villains as heroes, trying to escape from the clutches of the big, bad, lawman.
Wait a minute, I thought the lawman is supposed to be the good guy? I thought all that play-acting of ‘cops and robbers’ when we were kids was supposed to teach us about morality, and put us on the right side of the ‘good vs evil’ struggle. What is this now that we’re rooting for the typical bad guys and rooting against the typical good guys?
A heap of films and tv shows have been gliding toward us which is turning this ‘good vs evil’ perfectionism on its end. But why? What has changed in our society that this is what we as an audience are demanding?
If in doubt, blame the internet. Society has never been closer than we are right now and we’re feeding each other the news rather than waiting to be fed whatever the media chooses to show us. The truth comes out though sometimes it’s exaggerated and grotesquely near unrecognisable, but we have the ability to find these things out ourselves. We know about our politicians, we know about our leaders, we have the ability to find out about every injustice in the world. The time of blindly trusting those who make the laws we follow has come to an end.
Rather than traipse down the road of politics, let me just veer off into the overgrown verge of ‘awakening’. We, as audience members, having had the curtain whipped back sharply and revealed that our leaders are not the Great and Wonderful Oz, have realised that omigosh, no one is perfect, this guy is just like me! And there is where the attachment begins.
In realising that the ‘Hollywood ending’ isn’t real and, let’s face it, is never going to happen in real life, we are nursing this desire to relate to a hero who is imperfect. No longer are we wanting someone we can look up to, or to strive to achieve goodness and perfection. We know what we’re like, and we want someone like us.
Not that any of us are committing murder, blackmail or any other complicated schemes to get into the White House. But Frank Underwood’s ‘White House’ is my ‘Head of the Department’, so, go get ‘em, Frank, let me live vicariously and shamelessly through your amoral selfishness.
You can follow Lis on Twitter @missamerica_.