There’s a weird trend I’ve noticed happening in movies. It may have started with Batman Begins, but it might have been Harry Potter, or even Lord of the Rings. Slightly more recently, it can be seen in The Amazing Spider-Man, Man of Steel, and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek. But before I get into it, let’s have some storytime:
I had this friend who was mostly a good guy. He considered himself a feminist, but not in an obnoxious, “look at me” kind of way, just in that kind of way where he’d looked the word up in a dictionary and realized that it applied to him because he wasn’t a backwards monster. He joined a frat. I’ve never really understood the appeal of the whole Greek/hazing/getting-into-trouble-with-the-uptight-dean culture, but hey, that’s what he wanted. He assured me that it wasn’t one of “those” frats- it was basically a nerd frat, full of guys getting together to fix computers and play Dungeons and Dragons or something. I asked what the point of joining a frat was, and he explained that it basically meant that any time you wanted a job, or a leg-up in any field, if the guy in charge was a legacy, you were a shoe-in. “That’s not fair” I said. “There are lots of people who can’t join frats. How come we can’t have the same advantage?” “What do you mean?” “You’re telling me that if you’re in a frat, anyone who’s ever been in that frat is far more likely to do you a favour. And of course, you’re more likely to be in a frat if your father was in that frat, and his father before him, etc. etc. So there’s like this network of people all willing to give handouts to each other based on the fact that they and/or their families have ties to this one group. And this one group is comprised of white males.”
“That’s not true,” he said. “People of colour can join. And there are female fraternities.”
“But that hasn’t always been the case. And isn’t the whole point about being a legacy? If I’m applying for a job, even if I’m a member of a ‘female fraternity’ (isn’t that just a sorority?), the chances that the CEO of the company is a member of that same frat are slim to none. Can you honestly not see how that’s giving men an unfair advantage? How it excludes women? The very word means ‘brotherhood’. How can you say that you believe that women should have the same opportunities as men while being a part of something that ensures that you have an advantage thanks to your penis?”
“It’s the way it’s always been done.”
See, privilege is like that. You tend to only see it when it’s being given to someone else. As much as you may think of yourself as a good guy, an enlightened soul, you cannot be expected to perceive something that has always been present for every moment of your life. Asking a white male to notice their own privilege is like asking them what air smells like. We can really only perceive something when we have something to compare it do, something to differentiate it from. They’ve never known anything else. But you better believe that they’d appreciate the air when they begin to suffocate.
For years we’ve been hearing the backlash from angry white males against those who have just been trying to even the playing field. Affirmative action and feminism become the bad guys, because it’s a about sharing what one group has always been handed without earning. You may not notice the advantages you get to enjoy when it’s the only reality you’ve ever known, but you sure as hell notice when someone tries to take it away. And you know what? I don’t blame you. It’s cruel, to raise you to believe that the world is your oyster, that success in life will just be handed to you because of the way you were born, only to snatch that away and tell you that you have to share. If I’d lived a lifetime of privileged entitlement that I didn’t even know about, and suddenly things changed and I had to actually earn what I had, I’d probably be defensive and aggressively nostalgic, too.
Speaking of nostalgia, let’s take a brief moment to consider the 80’s. Capitalism was roaring, traditional masculinity was prized, and we all identified with the hard-working straight white male from a blue-collar background. Our hero was John McClane, an everyman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But he was smart and determined, and won the day through pluck and grit. And despite the messianic imagery, the same could be said for Officer Alex Murphy- an “American Jesus”, according to Paul Verhoeven, a hero who was not prophesied to be a saviour, but just kind of fell into it through circumstances outside his control and made the best of it from there. GI Joe were a group of people who were all very good at what they did, like Rambo, whose skills were developed via extensive training, or Indiana Jones, who studied in his field to become an expert in mystical artifacts. But then, in the early 90’s, a popular addition was made to the Indiana Jones franchise- we met his dad. It turned out that Henry Jones Sr. taught Indy everything he knew. Indy was just following in his father’s footsteps all along. When the Terminator came out in 1984, its heroes were a waitress thrust into a life-threatening situation due to circumstances outside of her control and rising to meet the challenge with courage, and a time-travelling soldier who’s just trying to utilize his training to do his job the best he can (and also to deliver some very important sperm). When the sequel came out in the 90’s, the hero became the child of that union, a messiah who had been given a mission by his own parents. Maybe this is Star Wars’ fault. Maybe that whole “no, I am your father” scene in Empire had just been sitting, germinating in the brains of movie-goers everywhere. But why did it take until the 90’s to start showing up everywhere?
There are different kinds of movie heroes, and the difference is in what makes them a hero, and how they get there. In the 80’s, we had our John McClanes, our Sarah Conners, our Ellen Ripleys, our John Rambos- people who rise to a challenge thanks to hard work and determination. And while, sure, they still existed in the 90’s, the late 90’s and early 2000’s turned its attention to the Chosen One. These are characters who have been pre-determined by fate or parentage or whatever to be the MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN THE WORLD.
In 2002, the final Star Trek: TNG movie came out. In Star Trek: Nemesis, Tom Hardy plays a young clone of Captain Picard named Shinzon, whose childhood was spent being abused by Romulans in a dilithium mine. The Big Question that the movie is clumsily trying to address is: are you who you are because you were born that way, or is it completely circumstantial? Is character destiny? If the moral, intellectual, enlightened Jean-Luc Picard had been raised in similar hardship to Shinzon, would he have turned out to be a genocidal maniac as well? I would argue that this movie was something of a turning point in pop culture from the hard-work-and-determination hero to the pre-destined-messiah hero (if anyone actually paid attention to it), but I feel like I must point out that Picard does specifically mention that he was the first member of his family to leave the solar system. We all know that his father wanted him to stay in France and tend the vineyard. Picard became the best captain in Starfleet entirely of his own volition. He even failed the Academy entrance exam on his first try, and later graduated as valedictorian. He worked hard and was good at his job, and that’s all there is to it.
1999’s The Matrix was a game-changer in movies. In it, Neo doesn’t actually have to do anything to earn the role of Messiah. He doesn’t even have to learn Kung Fu- it just gets uploaded to his brain. He’s prophesied to be The One, and that’s all the qualification he needs. Rather like Harry Potter, who, let’s face it, is not exactly the most diligent student. But who needs to be, when you’re a “natural” flyer, and can speak Parseltongue despite not even knowing what that is? Harry’s greatest accomplishment is just being born, and not getting killed by Voldemort as an infant. He can hardly be given credit for that. But we are told that his parents watch over him, and really, it often seems like they were the real heroes of his story before it even began. You could argue that Frodo, at least, is just a plain old hobbit, who rises to a challenge borne of nothing more than random circumstance, but it’s also fairly clear that he was chosen for this quest- only he can carry the ring, after all. Between Bilbo and Gandalf, Frodo has no shortage of father figures imposing a heroic destiny upon him. And don’t even get me started on the mess that is Star Wars.
I used to think that this was all some sort of Jesus thing, that for some reason, as global warming became more and more threatening, and we became more and more cynical that you can gain success in life by earning it fair and square, we needed to believe in some kind of Chosen One to save us. But all of the examples I’ve brought up are from speculative, or rather, escapist fiction. These protagonists are not the heroes we wish would save us, but the heroes we wish we were. That’s how protagonists work, after all.
At some point it stopped being about prophesies and messiahs, and became more literally about parents- specifically fathers. This doesn’t disprove the Jesus connection, obviously, but it does make me think that maybe we’re dealing with a more earthbound anxiety. Let’s look at Spider-Man.
Peter Parker was a totally normal kid who was in the wrong place at the wrong time- specifically, on a class field trip when a radioactive spider got loose. But that spider bite isn’t what made him Spider-Man. He was completely prepared to use his powers for personal gain until the death of his beloved Uncle Ben made him choose- yes, CHOOSE- to become Spider-Man. There was no prophecy. He had no parents in whose footsteps to follow. He was just a guy trying really hard to do the right thing. Until, of course, Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man came out and ruined it.
Now, I haven’t read every Spider-Man comic, so I can’t tell you for sure that at no point since the 60’s have we ever talked about Peter’s parents, but it’s safe to say they’ve never really factored into his story. Peter is already an orphan when we meet him. I have no idea what his parents were like, but for some reason, this movie decides to fill us in. It’s no longer enough that Peter just gets bitten by a random spider that could have bitten anyone. No, in this version, it was his father’s spider that he, uh, left for Peter to find, I guess? The spider was part of Parker Sr’s research, making Peter some kind of heir to the spider throne. That spider was never going to bite anyone else. That spider was meant for Peter. It was fate. It was destiny. It was his Spider-Legacy.
Maybe this wasn’t done on purpose. Maybe it’s because of the awesome Batman Begins- everyone else is just copying it. Personally, I think it’s a pretty neat trick to get the audience to actually *care* about Thomas and Martha Wayne before they’re killed off. Good call, Christopher Nolan, letting us actually get to know Batman's parents. Especially Thomas- it turns out that Batman’s dad was a really good guy. He taught young Bruce to look out for the little guy and pick himself up when he fell down. Then he died and left his son billions of dollars, a company with the world’s shadiest R&D department, and a mansion with a conveniently located cave right underneath. Thanks, dad. So naturally, when Man of Steel came out, it had to outdo Batman by including not one, but BOTH of Superman’s dads. Not only does Kal-El receive his mission to save the world directly from his father Jor-El, but for some reason the film goes out of its way to show us what a heroic, upstanding dude Jonathan Kent was by having him sacrifice himself to a tornado as it rips through the Kansas farmland. That’s weird, because Mr. Kent didn’t die in the comics. Superman not only gets to have the most tragic backstory ever by being the only survivor of a destroyed planet, but he also gets to be, like, the only superhero whose parents are still alive. For some reason, though, Snyder’s film decided that Clark’s dad had to die, leaving behind a legacy of generally being a good guy to follow.
The DC movies are notoriously terrible, but this same dynamic is present in the Marvel franchise. Let’s look at the latest installment, Captain America: Civil War. More emphasis than I expected was placed on Tony Stark missing his dead parents. We all know that Steve Rogers knew Tony’s dad back in World War 2, just as we know that Tony inherited everything he needed to become Iron Man from his father. There was even that weird holographic message that his dad left him to lead him on his eventual mission- wait, am I remembering that right? Did Tony’s dad really record this secret, encoded message to Tony that allowed him to become Iron Man and defeat the bad guys, saving his father’s company, now his, in the process? We really couldn’t have had him just decide to do that on his own? Regardless, while Tony basically inherited everything that makes him Iron Man from his father, Steve became Captain America due to his own choice to volunteer for a mission that was more important than his own life. To me, that is what makes Captain America a hero- he always makes the right choice, and he would do that with or without the serum- but Tony, once again, is a Legacy. It’s amazing to me how many people who had never read the comic series Civil War chose either “Team Steve” or “Team Tony” before the movie even came out. I noticed a trend amongst the people who chose Team Tony, and I don’t want to generalize, but let’s just say that this might be the same group that’s disappointed that there is no Entourage 2. I’m not saying that anyone likes Iron Man because his origin can be tied directly to his father’s influence- no, he was never that popular in the comics, people like him because he’s played by Robert Downey Jr.- but, wait, who the hell is Robert Downey Jr? Okay, that’s a stupid question, because even his twitter account identifies him only as “you know who I am.” But Mr. Jr. is a perfect example of someone who can seemingly get away with whatever he wants, because why? And who exactly was Robert Downey Sr.? Is it a coincidence that our greatest heroes are increasingly becoming white males who inherited their advantages instead of earning them?
The narrative of the straight white male who inherits his heroic mission from a father figure instead of choosing or earning it himself can also be seen in Thor, Daredevil, and countless others, even going outside the superhero genre and into other speculative, or escapist, fiction. The most insulting example of this has got to be J.J. Abram’s Star Trek. I mean, what the fuck. While Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban were perfect as Spock and McCoy, the rest of the cast was basically just fine. If anyone should fit into that first category, it should absolutely be Captain James Tiberius Kirk, and yet, Chris Pine is basically, for lack of a better word, acceptable. He seems to have been cast based on handsomeness, and while I certainly wouldn’t kick him out of bed for eating cookies (hell, I probably wouldn’t kick him out of bed for eating dead babies, but then I’m very lonely), I don’t feel like that’s good enough. No offence to Chris Pine- his eyes are very blue, I’ll give him that- it’s just that this depiction of Kirk really falls flat. It took me quite a while to figure out why that might be, and when I finally had an idea, I started writing this.
You see, James T. Kirk was one of a handful of survivors of a colony that suffered a terrible genocide (see the original Star Trek episode “The Conscience of the King”), which strongly implies he was an orphan (though he has- er, had- a brother). That’s pretty much the only information we are ever provided regarding Kirk’s family. He joined Starfleet, worked hard, did well at the academy, cheated at the Kobayashi Maru and got away with it, and eventually became the youngest Starfleet captain in history. It is never implied that he got there through anything other than hard work and ingenuity. Captain Kirk is very good at what he does. He thinks outside the box and regularly outwits, out-maneuvers, and out-Kirk-Fu’s his opponents. His parents’ influence on the direction his life takes never even comes up. The only original Star Trek character whose father we ever get to meet is Spock’s, and it’s clear that they don’t get along. Sarek does not approve of the choices his son has made, and the two disagree on most subjects. Like Captain Picard, Spock has made his own choices for his own life, despite his father’s wishes, not because of them. So why do the new movies feel the need to change all of that?
(Continued in Part 2)